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...And Invitations

...And Invitations

He isn’t ready for this. Not really.

Niko was dreaming. The first couple of times, he hadn’t been sure until he’d woken up. But after having this shitty dream over and over again he could tell even before this shit-eating voice erased any doubt.

A grand adventure, and yet he still can’t move past his mistakes.

He usually just tried to not engage with it, and he would eventually wake up. Niko didn’t even know what it was. Clearly it had to have been some weird, fractured part of his subconscious trying to tell him something, though what that something was he had no clue. Mostly it didn’t have anything helpful to say, it kinda just seemed to be judging him.

He even allowed her body to fall into the hands of the enemy. But it all ended happily, it seems, despite that. The evil was defeated, even if not by his hand. Yet I wonder, does it hurt his pride that he was not able to get his revenge? That he let her killer’s life be taken by another?

Don’t say anything, Niko, don’t say anything. It’s not like it ever responds to you anyway.

Is that the weight that rests on his shoulders?

“What the hell do you know anyway, huh?” That was it, Niko couldn’t take it anymore. He was already feeling like shit, he didn’t need some self-righteous… entity to rub it in. “You keep asking me what I think, but you’re spewing some pretty leading questions, so clearly you have an opinion.”

It is not my place.

“Excuse me?” Niko was taken aback. This was the first time that the voice had even remotely acknowledged him in any way.

Your life is your own to live. I am merely trying to… understand it.

“Well, you’re comin’ off as real impartial there, buddy.”

That was… sarcasm?

“No shit, asshat.”

Are you angry?

“Listen, now that I’ve finally got your attention, what the fuck… are you? Cuz if this is all just some dream metaphor bullshit, it’s getting weird.”

It is not my role to answer that question.

“Okay, this is getting really weird now. If it’s not yours, then whose is it?”

Open your eyes, Nikolai Borozov. Your fate cannot be altered.

In the end, it wasn’t any dream bullshit that woke him up, but rather a loose spring in his mattress. Niko rolled over a couple of times in a half-asleep delirium. Eventually it really began to dig into his back and he sat up, rubbing his eyes.

According to the obnoxiously analogue alarm clock next to the bed, it was still the middle of the night. He supposed it looked a little darker outside, but it was kind of hard to tell when there was no sun. This was ridiculous. He should just forget the dream and go back to sleep. He needed the rest anyway, cuz tomorrow was going to be long.

In the end, they hadn’t set out to look for Muirne and Gil that day. By the time they were ready it was getting late and Tommy didn’t like the idea of anyone going out at night until they were more acclimated to Discord’s particular brand of strange. Cindy had been frustrated, but ultimately, Niko had agreed with him. Which meant that they would begin their search in earnest the next morning. Which in turn meant that Niko needed to rest, to be prepared.

He wasn’t sure if he was the biggest fan of Discord. It reminded him a lot of the city back home, but just… way worse. It was dirty, crowded, and crumbling. Some people, people like Cowell and Tommy, might have found that endearing. But Niko couldn’t get comfortable. Even if he himself didn’t have any enemies here, it reminded him all too well of a city that did. A place where any corner might have someone on the other side ready to put a bullet in his skull. Now he didn’t have Lila to cover his back from the guy was actually behind him the whole time.

So he needed to be sharp tomorrow, just in case. Having bizarre psychoanalysis dreams certainly wasn’t helping. He was just about ready to turn over and hope that the rest of the night would offer him, if not more pleasant dreams, then at least different ones.

But before he could even shut his eyes, the lamp on the side table suddenly lit up. It was one of those little battery-powered electric ones. The other rooms had real lamps; Cowell had apologized, claiming that the one in Niko’s room had broken just the night before and Flora hadn’t gotten time to get a new one. So Niko had gotten stuck with the shitty camping lamp.

And now it had just turned itself on. Niko heaved the deepest of sighs, and propped himself up on his elbow. “Piece of shit…” he muttered, and hit the button to turn it off.

It flickered a little, but stayed stubbornly on.

“What the hell?” Niko asked no one in particular, pressing the button again. Again, no luck.

He shivered, but not out of any sort of situational weirdness. The air around him had suddenly grown very cold. Yet before he had the time to think much of it, he could have sworn that he felt someone moving past the bed. He didn’t know what it was, maybe the brushing of something on his leg, or the subtle swish of the blanket.

The lamp flickered again. Niko grabbed it by the handle with one hand and one of his guns with the other. He swung the lantern over in the direction of the intruder. Yet, even as the light grew brighter, he discovered that there was no one in the room.

At least no one he could see. As he moved the lamp closer to himself, the light dimmed again.

“What kind of supernatural bullshit…?” he shook his head. His fucking dream. It must be. The… entity, the one who spoke to him, it had told him to wake up. Niko was definitely awake now, he knew the difference, but despite that, there was now something here. Some sort of invisible presence in the room with him. Maybe it would tell him what the hell was going on.

He moved the light back towards where it seemed the thing—a ghost maybe—was, but the light didn’t glow as strongly this time. It seemed it had moved.

“Do you… want me to follow you?” he asked, and received a brief glow from the lamp in response.

Great. He really didn’t want to go out into unfamiliar territory at night. But he got the distinct impression that this ghost wasn’t going to leave him alone until he followed it.

So he quickly dressed, grabbed his guns, and carefully pushed open the bedroom door. Knowing Cowell, he’d probably engineered it to creak like the dickens. But surprisingly, it slid open silently, and he trooped down the staircase and through the darkened pub, following where the glow of the lantern was strongest.

Normally, or so Cowell had said, the streets would have been crowded even this late at night. But apparently there was some big party at the top of the hill, something about the “true ruler of Discord” coming back or something. Niko hadn’t paid too much attention. What it meant was that the streets now were oddly silent, save for a few drunks or homeless people.

On the one hand, it was a good thing, because Niko would see any attack coming from a mile away. On the other it was bad because there weren’t enough bystanders to prevent such an attack in the first place. With his free hand, Niko ran his finger along Memory’s smooth trigger.

Maybe he was too paranoid, as he waited there on the threshold of the pub for a solid minute, for the streets remained still. The lantern flashed a little impatiently, and Niko exhaled, before following it down the road.

He immediately didn’t like the direction it was leading him in. The light was consistently brightest downhill, towards the shittier part of town. The farther he went, the more crumbled and dilapidated the buildings got, to a near-unnatural degree.

Of course, Niko had had the thought ages ago that whatever was guiding the lantern might not have his best interests at heart. If it hadn’t been for his stupid dream he wouldn’t have come out here at all. But Niko was sick of the feeling that someone was yanking his chain. He wanted to get to the bottom of it and move on. He had other things he needed to deal with.

So if someone wanted to jump him, they were welcome to goddamn try. Niko had no idea who that could even be in Discord, but you never knew in his line of work. It was time to nip this dumb mystical hooey in the bud once and for all.

He almost stumbled over the wildly uneven cobblestone streets as he neared the bottom of the hill. It wasn’t his fault. The texture of the stone kept changing what felt like every couple of steps. Stupid amalgamation of dead realities.

But that didn’t matter. When he next looked up, he felt the eerie breeze that blew at the edge of the city, and an odd sort of vibration that he hadn’t noticed earlier played at the edge of his hearing. Before him was the drop into nothing, into the Other, that ate at the edges of the city.

Only one thing defied that line: that big rock that Cowell had pointed out yesterday. Outlook rock, or something like that? It jutted defiantly out into the nothingness, its top worn a little smooth from the breeze. That seemed to be right where the lantern was leading him.

Cowell had suggested they stay away from it, but since when had Cowell ever actually given good advice? And it was a really big rock. Even if he slipped, he shouldn’t get knocked over the edge, just as long as he stayed in the center.

So, it was with a sinking feeling in his gut that he inched his way onto the top of that large rock. His attire wasn’t made for climbing, but he did what he had to do. And there he was, at the edge of reality, looking off into that endless green and purple.

“So what now?” he turned to the lantern in his hand, feeling like an idiot. The only thing it did in response was the most infuriating thing it could have: it shut off.

Niko sighed. “Great,” he said. “That’s just great. I’m standing on top of this fuckin’ rock in the middle of the night and—”

But the words died in his throat mid-sentence. For as he took one last derisive glance out into the emptiness of the Other, he realized that it was not empty at all. There was something there. A hazy sort of… shape, floating just past the edge of the rock, past the edge of the fragile bubble of reality.

Now Niko recalled the other thing that Cowell had told them about Outlook Rock: it was great for meeting with things from outside. Niko had been confused at the time, but now he thought he might have understood what he meant.

He took a few steps closer, trying to make out just what the shape was. It was vaguely human, or well, humanoid at the very least, and a light shade of blue, but that was all he got.

“Nikolai Borozov,” it addressed him suddenly.

Normally, Niko wouldn’t have been so skittish, but there was something about that voice, something… something that he would have recognized anywhere.

“It… it can’t be,” he muttered, clenching his hands into fists to keep them from shaking. He could barely get the name out, but he had to ask: “Lila?”

It took a few, heart-wrenching seconds for the shape to answer. “It is not my place to say.”

It was her, he was sure of it, but why wouldn’t she talk to him? Tell him just what was going on. Just… what she was. A ghost, a memory, what?

“That’s what that asshole in my dream said too,” he blustered instead. “What’s with you people?”

“It is not my place to say,” was the only response.

“Oh yeah? Well then why lead me out here? What can you say?”

“I have come to you with a message.” Her voice was cold, distant. She had always been distant, but never cold. Not to him. “You have come here on a mission, but now allow me to add another. You want to know about your dreams? Meet with the Lord of Discord. You can only know yourself when you know him. Your fates are intertwined.”

“This is stupid,” Niko shook his head. “Why send me off to meet with some schmuck? Why can’t you just tell me yourself?”

This was hurting him. A fire was burning its way through his chest. She was right there, so close he could almost touch her. Yet there was something different, something wrong about her that he couldn’t put his finger on.

“It is not my place to say.”

“Of course it’s not!” he yelled, his frustration seeping out of every pore. “But who… who are you?”

“Find the Lord of Discord,” she simply repeated, the shape of her flickering and slowly fading. “Then we shall perhaps meet again.”

“Wait,” he reached out a hand, hating the desperation in his voice. “Don’t go, not now. Not when…”

But the shape finally faded from sight entirely, and Niko was alone in the cold, dark night.

He couldn’t help feeling like somehow, he had lost her all over again.

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