The hoofbeats thump into me. As the horse races over the green, undulating pasture, I sink forward and grab the knight in front of me. My fingers slide over his glimmering armor, struggling for purchase.
I can’t see his face. I never can. But that’s not the point. His touch is the most reassuring thing in the world.
And if only this were the world and not a dream.
Even as I open my eyes and cast a wary glance to my side, I realize that there’s no depth to the swaying grass. It’s punctuated here and there by the golden, fluttering heads of wheat, and while one or two look real, the rest just blur off into the distance. But one thing remains – my knight. So I sink harder against him, wrapping my arms even further around his middle.
He lets out a soft grunt. “Almost there.”
He’s been promising that my entire life. Because this dream has repeated every single day since my sixteenth birthday. I might be young, but that doesn’t matter. My past withers compared to the intensity of these dreams.
“Almost where?” I mutter. I can’t count the number of times I’ve asked that. I’ve never received a satisfying reply.
He just leans further over the horse’s reins, grunts, and pushes the beast into a sprint.
I’m forced to clutch him even tighter.
He smiles. Don’t ask me how I know that, but I can tell. It’s as if the move spreads warmth all the way down his chest and into my fingers.
I ground my cheek against his back and close my eyes. That’s a mistake. I can feel myself in bed. I almost rouse, but at the last moment, I clutch hold of that dream with all my might. Because it’s the only damn thing that’s ever mattered in my life. A life of boredom and loss. Just as I can feel the pillow underneath me, I grab him with all my remaining strength. “Almost where?” I demand again.
“Just over this rise,” he promises. “But first, the fight will come.”
His voice becomes grave. This isn’t the first time I’ve reached this part of the dream, though it’s rare.
I have to squeeze my eyes closed to remember the fight. Creatures – who can’t possibly exist in the real world – will soon pull themselves out of the cracks of this field.
And I’ll be asked to fight them.
We power up the side of the rise, but we never reach the top. I hear this fell creature scream from right behind me. The cry is so sharp, I’m certain it’s going to drive a hole right through my skull. I whip my head over my shoulder, and my long hair fans in front of my face.
That’s when I see one of those monsters. They’re tall. They look like they’re stretched-out shadows. But shadows with the sharpest of gazes. The closest one opens its mouth and cries. It almost wakes me up. I’m aware of my rumpled sheets as they stick to my sweaty skin. I can even feel the slight breeze making it in through the window behind my bed. Is that a siren outside? It doesn’t matter. We’re almost there. We have to get to the rise. I’ve never done that before. Come on, I repeat in my mind.
Those creatures throw themselves, not at the knight, but at me. One even clutches my leg and tries to pull me off.
“You’ve gotta learn to fight it,” the knight rumbles in a deep voice.
He reaches around and, somehow, while still holding onto his horse’s reins, pulls a long sword out of its sheath. Magic rushes along the tip. It’s so vibrant that it plays along my face and sends light reflecting up into my eyes.
With a cry, he cuts the creature down. It’s dust long before it reaches the ground.
But they’re not done yet. Another one launches at me from the side.
He can’t swing the sword around quickly enough.
This one grabs my other leg. It sinks its claws in hard. It’s so sharp, I scream. It’s bloodcurdling as if I know my life is about to end. But just before it can, my knight reaches around. He locks his gauntlet on my hand and stops me from falling. As his armored fingers snap around mine, I swear I feel something jolt from his skin into me. “You have to wake up, Dawn.”
“I don’t want to. I never want to leave this dream again.”
“Not from the dream. You have to wake up from life. That’s the lie. Remember what you are. Grab hold of what’s inside you.”
Another creature launches itself at my legs. I can feel it dragging me down. As its claws sink into my thigh, I should scream, but instead, all I can do is pay attention to how the knight holds me. I swear I can feel pure potential pushing into me.
“Wake up?” My lips tremble.
“Wake up before it’s too late. There’s only so much I can do for you until you rise on your own.”
Another creature launches itself at me from the other side. Now there are two. While the knight valiantly tries to fight them off, he can’t, and I feel myself being pulled to the left. I’ve never fallen into one of those creature’s waiting arms. I’ve always managed to wake myself up beforehand. I wonder if I can do that now. All awareness of the bed has completely disappeared. All that’s left is this dream and the horror of the pain tearing through me. The pain and yet the promise.
Just before I can be wrenched free from his grip, I feel a spark igniting in the center of my palm. I don’t know where it comes from. I’m still aware of the fact that I’m dreaming, so part of me knows that this is nothing but the contents of my own unconscious mind, and yet this feels like it comes from beyond. It plows into me from some infinite source I’ve never had the capacity to reach toward before. But now as it ignites deep inside me, it can never be thrust back.
We’re close to the rise. It’s just there.
But I’ll never reach it if I’m pulled off the horse. So I scream. And for the first time in my life – and for the first time in these dreams – I frigging fight back.
I open my palm, and a charge of magic blasts out of it. As it spins through the air, I can see symbols dancing around within it. They are these brightly glowing runes. Each one of them seems to be possessed of its own infinite burst of power, and as they coalesce and slam into that monster, it doesn’t have a chance. It’s cut down just as easily as when the knight strikes one with his sword.
“That’s it, you did it. You’re finally ready. Now wake up. We’re almost at the rise.”
He’s already cut down the monster that grabbed my leg from the other side. So there’s nothing to stop me from pressing forward. I lock my arms around his middle and bury my face against the smooth, shiny armor of his backplate. “I don’t want to. I don’t ever want to wake up again. I’ve never come this far.”
“Not from this dream,” he says again, his voice rumbling. “You have to wake up from reality. Before it’s too late. You have to wake up, Dawn.”
We reach the rise. And that’s when dawn – my namesake, and not me – blasts over the top of the hill. It’s brilliant. These deep gold and purple rays shine forth as if a star is being born.
He stops on the rise, and down below, I see a castle.
My heart’s pounding so hard, I swear I’m going to wake myself up. I’ve never… I’ve never gotten this far before. I’ve tried with all my heart, but it never mattered.
If there’s one thing I want to see more than the sunrise and the castle below, it’s his face.
Still holding onto his middle, I pull my head back.
He reaches around and grips my hand. He slides off the horse. He pulls me with him.
I’m in his arms. I tilt my head back. It’s hard to distinguish his features. The dawn suddenly becomes even brighter. As its light plays over my face, reflecting up and over my cheeks and dancing along my eyelashes, I see a long, strong jawline. I see two pale blue eyes. As he smiles, and I see his lips, it ignites even more power within me.
He presses forward, and the next thing I know, he locks his lips against mine.
I feel like eternity opens up within me. Sensations I’ve never even guessed were possible rush through me. They start in my stomach. They shiver down to my pelvis, then race up to my lips. I open my mouth further. He locks a hand against my back and pulls me close.
But that’s when I hear the dreaded alarm. Its blare can cut through anything. It’s far more effective than this knight’s sword, and God knows it has more power than the magic racing through my veins.
I open my eyes one last time. I desperately stare at his face just as the dream resolves into nothingness. And I see him.
For the first time in my life, I finally see my knight in shining armor.