Prologue - My Judgment Is

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"Do you know why you are here?"


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 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.

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