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The First Step

Jain tossed and turned in fitful slumber. He could hear whispers at the edge of consciousness. Too low and muffled to understand, too loud to ignore. He groaned as he sat up, trying to shake the sleep from his mind. Usually sleep rested heavily on him like a weighted blanket. Like most in Ayyon, he found it difficult to clear the mental fog. But for some reason he felt lighter today.

Jain stood up and looked around the small curtained alcove where he usually slept. To another’s eyes, had they been able to open them, the small space might have appeared dirty and unkempt. A rough brick floor covered in crumpled papers and worn blankets strewn about in a semi-circular shape. But to Jain the alcove fit like a well worn glove. The blankets kept him warm against the winter chill and the brick was unlikely to crumble into the river like the wooden closet he had chosen to rest in years before. A mistake he would not repeat. The papers served as both a comfortable makeshift pillow and a medium to collect his thoughts whenever he experienced the short bursts of wakefulness necessary to write.

He pulled back the curtain and stepped into a corridor filled with 100s of similar alcoves. He could hear snores and mumbled words from behind a few curtains. From others he heard the groans of suffered nightmares. He shuddered and drew a small blessing in the air to ward himself from nightmare fuel.

And then again, he heard them. The whispers. As if a thousand voices were in a quiet discussion right behind his ears. Turning his head left and right he tried to find the source of the sound. The drone of the whispers seemed to be calling him forward, down the corridor.

Jain walked out of the building and into the open air of the slums of Ayyon. He was up on a second story balcony of a dilapidated building shrouded by a sour mist. His balcony was connected to other buildings, similarly dilapidated, by a tangled web of wooden bridges. Looking down he could see the massive wandering river that ran through the slums. The whole neighborhood carried a feeling of fragility. It was if, at any moment, a building could break free from the wooden web and be carried out to sea with the dark water.

Jain crinkled his nose as a foul stench floated up to him from the polluted river below. Turning away, he looked instead towards the Tower of Agreement. The tower at the center of Ayyon was impossibly tall. Covered in giant painted eyes and festooned with streamers of smoke it seemed to lean over you like a giant mechanical bird. One looking for a worm to eat.

The whispers seemed to be emanating from the tower. He could feel the voices like small feathers brushing the skin of his neck and shoulders. Jain shivered and began to cross the wooden bridge away from his home and towards the center of Ayyon.

Jain carefully picked his way through the slums. Avoiding rotted planks and sidestepping the stumbling sleepwalkers on the bridge roads. He passed a few sleepy food stalls. Some bodies were asleep at the counters, mid meal. Occasionally he passed a young vigilant racing through the crowd. Their pace and energy marked them in the quiet drifting mists of the slums. They were as out-of-place as a flare in the night sky.

Jain passed one of the living temples maintained by high ranking sleepers. The gates to the holy space were guarded by those who had completed at least 3 of The Steps. Usually the guards ignored those passing by, but today the guard looked at Jain and… smiled. It unsettled Jain deeply, almost as much as the whispers that pulled him forward.

Finally, walking around one of the massive clear domes that housed one of the oldest oak trees in the city, Jain came to the base of the Tower of Agreement. A large opening framed in red led up into darkness. The whispers called him forward up the steps.

As Jain worked his ways up the steps the darkness closed in on him. Suffocating. Each step got heavier and heavier. He felt the pull of sleep like a weight. But the whispers only got louder, urging him onward. He could hear them now.

wake… wake up….come…wake…up….

Like whips against his back and legs. The whispers pushed him forward.

After what seemed like an eternity, Jain saw a small light ahead of him, which grew into an opening. The opening turned into a terrace looking down onto the city of Ayyon. Briefly Jain wondered if he had reached the top of the Tower of Agreement, but a quick look upward disabused him of that flight of fancy. The terrace he was on was barely a 10th of the way up.

Looking around the large terrace Jain spotted a figure sitting on the edge and looking out at the city. The man wore a white mask and his arms were covered in open eyes. Not eye tattoos, but real staring-back-at-you red eyes. Although the man’s back was turned, the eyes over his arms and back followed Jain as he walked towards the figure. Recognition settled in.

“First. You called me here.” Jain said aloud.

The First stood and his masked face turned from facing the city below to facing in Jain’s direction. The eyes over the First’s body started to roll in different directions. No longer focused on Jain as they had been before.

“I call all Walkers here. That you heard me means you are ready to wake up.” A gruff voice said from behind the white mask.

“I don’t understand” Jain said in confusion. Aren’t I already awake?

Jain could almost feel the smile on the First’s face behind the white mask.

“You’ve taken your first Step into the dream Walker.” The First said. He reached a hand up to Jain’s face and pressed his thumb firmly against the center of Jain’s forehead. “Now… WAKE UP.”

Jain gasped as his body lurched upward. Blinking his eyes in confusion he tried to make sense of the scene around him. He was sitting in his familiar alcove, nestled between his latest crumpled writings and his blankets. Everything around him seemed to indicate he had been sleeping comfortably until moments before. But the sweat on Jain’s brow and the sore spot on his forehead said something very different.

“It had seemed so real,” he said to himself as he realized what had happened. He hadn’t walked Ayyon, he had Dreamed everything. The newly awakened Dream Walker laid back down on his bed of crumpled paper to consider the implications. What has changed? The sleepiness and mental fog he normally had to fight was still there, but it was lighter and more welcoming. A strange thought entered his mind. Maybe I can control it? He closed his eyes and was surprised how easily he could re-enter the Dream. This felt completely different from the heavy sleeps he had suffered before. A slow smile spread across Jain’s face.

It was time to Walk his Dreams.

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