Did anyone even like him?
Not once in all eternity had M’Adoc ever spoken so harshly about anyone. "This isn’t like you."
She heard him take a deep breath as he tensed the hand on her shoulder. "A rabid dog cannot be saved, Astrid. It is best for everyone, including the dog, for it to be put down."
"Shadedom would be preferable to living? Are you insane?"
"In Zarek’s case, it would be."
She was aghast. "If that were true, Acheron would be merciful to him and wouldn’t have asked me to judge him."
"Acheron doesn’t kill him because it would be too much like killing himself."
She thought about that for a minute. "What do you mean? I see nothing similar in them at all."
She had the impression M’Adoc was probing her mind with his. "They have a lot in common, Acheron and Zarek. Things that most people can’t see or understand. I think Acheron feels that if Zarek can’t be saved, then neither can he."
"Saved from what?"
"Himself. Both men have a tendency to choose their own pain. They just don’t choose it wisely."
Astrid felt something odd on hearing those words. A tiny stabbing ache in her stomach. Something she hadn’t felt in a long time. She actually hurt for both men.
Most of all, she hurt for Zarek.
"How do they choose their own pain?"
M’Adoc refused to elaborate. But then, he did that a lot. Dealing with the gods of sleep was only one step less frustrating than dealing with an oracle.
"M’Adoc, show me why Zarek has been abandoned by everyone."
"I don’t think you want-"
"Show me," she insisted. She had to know, and deep down she suspected it didn’t have as much to do with her job as she wanted to think. Her need to know felt more personal than professional.
His voice was totally emotionless. "It’s against the rules."
"Whatever the repercussion, I will bear it. Now show me. Please."
M’Adoc had her sit on the bed.
Astrid lay back and allowed the Dream-Hunter to seduce her to sleep. There were several serums they could use to make someone drowsy or they could use mist from Wink, who was a minor sleep god.
The Oneroi as well as other gods of sleep had long used Wink and his mist to control humans.
No matter what method they chose, the effects of it were almost immediate to whomever they tended.
Astrid wasn’t sure which method M’Adoc used on her, but no sooner had she closed her eyes than she found herself floating to the realm of Morpheus.
Here she had her eyesight even while she was judging. It was why she’d always loved to dream during her assignments.
M’Adoc appeared beside her. His masculine beauty was even more striking in this realm. "Are you sure about this?"
M’Adoc led her through a series of doors in the hall of Phantosis. Here a kallitechnis, or dream master, could move through anyone’s dreams. They could go into the past, the future, or journey to realms beyond human understanding.
M’Adoc reached a door and paused. "He dreams of his past."
"I want to see it."
He hesitated as if debating with himself. Finally, he opened the door.
Astrid led the way in. She and M’Adoc stood back from the scene, far away from any who could see or sense them.
Not that they really needed to, but she wanted to make certain she didn’t interfere with Zarek’s dream.
People who were dreaming could only see the Oneroi or Skoti in their dreams when the sleep gods allowed them to. She wasn’t sure if she, as a nymph, was invisible to Zarek or not.
She looked about in the dream.
What struck her most was how vivid everything was. Most people dreamed in sketchy details. But this, this was crystal clear and as real as the world she had left behind.
She saw three little boys gathered in an ancient Roman atrium.
Ranging in age from what appeared to be four to eight, they held sticks in their hands and were laughing and shouting. "Taste it, taste it, taste it."
A fourth boy around the age of twelve ran past her. His black hair and blue eyes were striking, and he bore a remarkable resemblance to the man she had seen through Sasha’s eyes.
"Is that Zarek?"
M’Adoc shook his head. "That is his half-brother, Marius."
Marius ran to the others.
"He won’t do it, Marius," another boy said before he struck whatever was on the ground with his stick.
Marius took the stick from his brother’s hand and poked at the lump on the ground. "What’s the matter, slave? You too good to eat scraps?"
Astrid gasped as she realized it was another child on the ground. One who was dressed in rags that they were trying to force to eat rotten cabbage. The boy was curled into a fetal position, covering his head to the point that he barely looked human.
The ones with sticks kept poking and hitting him. Kicking him when he didn’t respond to their blows or insults.
"Who are all these boys?" she asked.
"Zarek’s half-brothers." M’Adoc pointed them out. "Marius, you know. Marcus is the one dressed in blue with brown eyes. He is nine, I believe. Lucius is the baby, who just turned five and is dressed in red. The eight-year-old is Aesculus."
"Where is Zarek?"
"He’s the one on the ground with his head covered."
She flinched, even though she had suspected as much. To be honest, she couldn’t take her gaze off him. He still hadn’t moved. No matter how hard they struck him, no matter what they said. He lay there like an unmovable rock.
"Why do they torture him?"
M’Adoc’s eyes were sad, letting her know that he was siphoning some of Zarek’s emotions as he watched the boys. "Because they can. Their father was Gaius Magnus. He ruled everyone, including his family, with a harsh fist. He was so evil that he killed their mother one night because she dared smile at another man."
Astrid was horrified by the news.
"Magnus used his slaves to help train his sons for cruelty. Zarek had the misfortune of being one of their whipping boys and, unlike the others, he wasn’t lucky enough to die."
She could barely understand what M’Adoc was telling her. She had seen plenty of cruelty in her time, but never anything like this.
It was unimaginable that they would be allowed to treat him this way, especially since he was family.
"You said they are Zarek’s half-brothers. How is it he is a slave when they are not? Was he related through their dead mother?"
"No. Their father brutally sired Zarek on one of their uncle’s Greek slaves. When Zarek was born, his mother bribed one of the servants to take Zarek out and expose him so that he would die. The servant took pity on the infant, and instead of killing him, she made sure the baby went to his father."
Astrid looked back at the boy on the ground. "His father didn’t want him, either." It was a statement of fact.
There was no doubt that no one in this place wanted the child.
"No. To him Zarek was tainted. Weaker. Zarek might have his blood in him, but he also bore the blood of a worthless slave. So Gaius turned Zarek over to his slaves, who took their hatred for his father out on him. Every time one of the slaves or servants was angry at Zarek’s father or brothers, the boy suffered for it. He grew up as everyone’s scapegoat."
She watched as Marius grabbed Zarek by the hair and pulled him up. Her breath caught in her throat as she saw the condition of his beautiful face. No older than ten himself, he was scarred so badly that he barely looked human.
"What’s the matter, slave? Not hungry?"
Zarek didn’t answer. He pulled at Marius’s hand, trying to get away. But he didn’t utter a single word of protest. It was as if he either knew better or was so accustomed to the abuse that he didn’t bother.
"Let him go!"
She turned to see another boy close to Zarek’s age. Like Zarek, he had black hair and blue eyes, and bore a strong resemblance to his brothers.
The newcomer rushed Marius and forced him to release Zarek. He twisted the older boy’s hand behind his back.
"That is Valerius," M’Adoc supplied for her. "Another of Zarek’s brothers."
"What is the matter with you, Marius?" Valerius demanded. "You shouldn’t prey on those weaker. Look at him. He can barely stand."
Marius twisted free, then backhanded Valerius, knocking him to the ground. "You’re worthless, Valerius. I can’t believe you bear grandfather’s name. You do nothing but dishonor him."
Marius sneered as if repulsed by the boy’s presence. "You’re weak. Cowardly. The world belongs only to those who are strong enough to take it. Yet you would pity those too weak to fight. I can’t believe we came from the same womb."
The other boys attacked Valerius while Marius returned to Zarek.
"You’re right, slave," he said, grabbing Zarek by his hair. "You’re not worth cabbage. Dung is all you deserve for your food."
Marius threw him toward…
Astrid pulled out of the dream, unable to bear what she knew was going to happen.
Used to feeling nothing for other people, she was now overwhelmed by her emotions. She actually shook in fury and pain for him.
How could this have been allowed to happen?
How could Zarek have stood living the life he had been given?
In that moment, she hated her sisters for their part in his childhood.
But then, not even the Fates could control everything. She knew that. Still, it didn’t ease the ache in her heart for a boy who should have been coddled.
A boy who had grown into an angry, bitter man.
Was it any wonder he was so harsh? How could anyone expect him to be otherwise when all he’d ever been shown was contempt?
"I warned you," M’Adoc said as he rejoined her. "That is why even the Skoti refuse to visit his dreams. All things considered, that is one of his milder memories."
"I don’t understand how he survived," she whispered, trying to make sense of it. "Why didn’t he kill himself?"
M’Adoc eyed her carefully. "Only Zarek can answer that."
He handed her a small vial.
Astrid stared at the dark red liquid that bore a strong resemblance to blood. Idios. It was a rare serum that was made by the Oneroi that could enable them or someone else, for a very short period of time, to become one with a dreamer.
It could be used in dreams to guide and direct, to allow one sleeper to experience another person’s life so that he could better understand it.
Only three of the Oneroi possessed it. M’Adoc, M’Ordant, and D’Alerian. They most often used it with humans to dispense understanding and compassion.
One sip and she could become Zarek in his dreams. She would have total understanding of him.
She would be him.
And she would feel all of his emotions…
It was a huge step to take. Deep down she knew that if she took it, she would never be the same.
Then again, she might find there was nothing more to Zarek than rage and hatred. He might very well be the animal the others accused him of being.
One sip and she would know the truth…
Astrid removed the stopper and drank from the vial.
She didn’t know what Zarek was dreaming about now, she only hoped he’d moved forward out of the dream she had just witnessed.
Zarek was now at the age of fourteen.
At first, Astrid thought her own blindness had returned until she realized that she was "seeing" through Zarek’s eyes. Or eye, rather. The entire left side of her face hurt every time she tried to blink. A scar had fused the lid to his cheek, making the muscles in his face ache.
His right eye, while somewhat operable, had a strange haze over it similar to a cataract and it took her several minutes before his memories became hers and she understood what had happened.
He’d been beaten so badly two years before by a soldier in the marketplace that the lining of the cornea of his right eye had been severely damaged. His left eye had been blinded several years before that by another beating at the hands of his brother Valerius.
Zarek wasn’t capable of seeing much more than shadows and blurs.
Not that he cared. At least this way, he didn’t have to see his own reflection.
Nor was he bothered anymore by people’s scornful looks.
Zarek shuffled across an old, crowded street in the marketplace. His right leg was stiff, barely able to bend from all the times it had been broken and not set.
Because of that, it was somewhat shorter than his left leg. His was a jarring gait that caused him to not move as swiftly as most people. His right arm was much the same way. He had little or no movement in it and his right hand was virtually useless.
In his good left hand, he clutched three quadrans. Coins that were worthless to most Romans, but they were precious to him.
Valerius had been angry at Marius and had slung Marius’s purse out the window. Marius had forced another slave to pick the coins up, but three quadrans had gone uncollected. The only reason he had known about them was because they had hit him in the back.
Zarek should have surrendered the coins, but had he tried, Marius would have beaten him for it. The eldest of his brothers couldn’t stand the sight of him and Zarek had learned long ago to stay as far from Marius as he could.
As for Valerius…
Zarek hated him most of all. Unlike the others, Valerius tried to help him but every time Valerius had attempted to do so, they had been caught and Zarek’s punishment had escalated.