“Well, I see why you had us walk here, Fletcher. You have a fine cottage.”
I nodded my head and lead him up the hillside. “Thank you, sir.”
He slapped his hand on my back. “No need to be so formal, call me Wright.”
I chuckled. “Yes, sir… Wright.”
“You’ll work on it.” He hiked up the last hill and traced the petals of a deep purple tulip. “Does your wife grow these?”
I bowed my head. “She does, but Anika isn’t my wife.”
The master’s eyes widened, his eyebrows quirked. “I apologize for assuming, just that with the letters-”
“No, sir. The fault is mine. I haven’t yet worked up the courage to ask for her hand.”
He let out a hearty laugh. “Oh, well you better fix that soon, my boy. Wouldn’t want to miss the opportunity.”
I shook my head, hiding a grin. “No, sir I wouldn’t.”
He rounded the cottage and waited at the front door. I met him and fished my key from my pocket.
“It’s strange. She’s usually in her gardens this time of day.”
The master hummed. “Are you sure she knows you’re here. You told her you’d be here before midday?”
I scratched the back of my head. “Actually, sir, she hasn’t responded to my letters for almost a fortnight.”
“A lover’s spat, perhaps?”
I twisted the key and the lock clicked open. “I don’t have the faintest idea what I may have said to upset her. If I hadn’t been way so long…”
Wright took the first step the cottage. “No use to fret about what’s already done.I’m sure she’ll be overcome with joy when she sees you.”
I stepped in behind him, glancing around my home. Pots and pans crusted in the wash basin. Dust blanketed the furnishings, and cobwebs hung in the rafters. I gathered a sampling on my fingertips.
“Anika?” I wrung my hands as I wandered in and out of the main room.
“Everything okay there, Fletcher?”
“I don’t know, sir.”
The master ran his fingers through his tangled locks. “Gone out to the village shops, perhaps?”
I sighed. “We can look for her after I show you to the guest bedroom.”
“It’s kind of you to invite me to your home, sure saves me on taking to the local inn.”
“Of course, sir. Up this way.” I climbed up the ladder and ducked behind the rafters into the loft.
“These limbs aren’t what they used to be, Fletch, spare me a moment.”
I extended my arm to help him up the last rungs. “My apologies, sir. I didn’t want you to sleep in the main room.”
“I’m at home on most cots by now, my boy. No need to go out of your way.” He grinned. “I admit it’ll be nice to have a real bed for a few nights.”
I nodded and showed him to the corner loft space, pulling back the curtain. He set his pack beside the bed and ducked out. “That’s settled.” He stretched his arms and rolled his shoulders. “How about we go and look for your hideaway?”
I nodded and stepped toward my room. “Give me a moment to unload my things, and we’ll be off.”
“I can wait for you in the main room if you’d like.”
“No, it shouldn’t be but a second.” I pushed the curtain aside, dropping my pack by the opening.
I lifted my head, and the blood drained from my face as I raced to the bed. “Anika!”
Her body rested still, uncovered and ghostly pale. I touched her cheek and retracted my fingers at the chill. I shivered at the sight of her stiff form, dropping to my knees at the side of the bed.
Master Wright peeked at her from the just inside the room.
“She can’t be.” I touched her neck, tracing her veins. “No, her pulse is weaker, but it’s present.” I brush wisps of her blonde curls from her face, grasping her clammy hand.
The master knelt at her left side. “May I?”
I squeezed her hand, lifting myself up to sit beside her. I nodded and watched as the master pressed his palm to her forehead and rested his hand over her heart.
“Fletcher, she mentioned nightmares in her letters, didn’t she? Have they ever been serious?”
I shook my head, ridding myself of the panicked haze. “Y-yes, sir. She’s struggled through some hellish nightmares, but they stopped for a time.”
“Is the mention in the letter the first you’ve heard of them since they’d stopped?”
I gazed down at her, watching her chest rise and fall with weak breaths. “Yes, sir.” I froze. “Is it my fault then? Since I’ve been away…”
He shook his head. “No use in blaming yourself, just have to focus on helping her through this.” Wright covered her, bowing his head. “Never thought I’d see one so young.”
My head popped up. “Sir?”
“She’s a Wakeless Soul, Fletcher.” He lifted her free hand, placing his fingers to her wrist. “By the looks of it, she’s been trapped for some time.”
“I don’t understand. Will Anika be alright, sir?”
The master sighed and my heart sunk, flipping with my stomach. I trembled and kissed her nightmare infected lips.
“There’s still a chance for her, but it’s slim. I’m sorry I didn’t have better news.”
I looked up at him as tears prickled my eyes. “What must we do to help her? I’ll do anything to get her out of this.”
“That’s the spirit!” His quick smile faded. “I’m afraid I cannot help you but to monitor your conditions.” He nodded between us.
“Sir, if I may ask, how do you of this?”
“I lost my wife to the Nightmare Hellscape. She was a Wakeless as well.”
“I’m not sure I understand these terms, this condition.” I ran my thumb over the pulse point in her wrist.
“Essentially it’s where a person is plagued by such terrible nightmares, they’re unable to escape them. Your Anika has fallen victim to this I’m afraid.”
“What if this is a sickness, something that’s made her weak…” My words fell flat with a final look into the master’s eyes. “What do I do?”
You must go into her nightmares and bring her back to the Waking World.”