Insomnia Strikes: Of the Arbour teaser

He could see shapes in the ceiling.

Shadows writhed in a sensual dance as the dying embers of his candle spat and faded. What little light remained cast an eerie glow across the worn stone walls of his room, and the edges where the mortar had crumbled and flaked away had shadows like spider legs stretched across the surface. The door on the other side of the room was invisible, swallowed by blackness; for a moment he considered taking the time to relight the candle, then decided that wasting the flint would be ridiculous. Master Korrin wasn’t about to give him more because he thought the shadows on his ceiling would give him nightmares.

He rolled his shoulders and winced as bolts of pain shot down his spine and spread through his muscles. Nightmares weren’t for the waking world—usually, he reminded himself with a small shudder. One required sleep to have nightmares.

Flexing his fingers to ease the cramping that began during dinner and lingered long after, he let out a long sigh through his nose and squinted at the shadows. It was all too easy to imagine spiders and snakes and demons from myth crawling through the cracks in his walls and skittering across his naked flesh. As the light danced, he concentrated on pulling the shadows together, on banishing the tendrils that might be hairy legs or flicking tails. Hair, instead. A jawline—square, like his, or maybe rounder—a nose and eyes.

A scowl clouded his brow as another pulse of pain worked its way through him. There was no use. He had no face to base his imagination on; there was no point trying to decipher those particular ghosts. When he blinked, the shadows twisted once more and gone were the wisps he had imagined, the faces of the mother and father he never knew.

The pain moved down his back and through his legs, lingering in the tiny cuts along his feet from the rocks in the cave. Crunching his toes did nothing to ease the pain, nor did thrashing about in a blanket that was too coarse in a room that was too hot. It was time to resign himself to his fate.

He pushed back the blanket and swung his legs over the edge of his cot. The floor was mercifully cool on his tender soles; he relished it for a moment, then ducked and grabbed his shirt off the floor. Once adequately dressed, he padded to the door past the blackness, rubbing his face to wake up his eyes.

The hallway was empty, but several torches were lit, and light flickered in strange patterns from the pewter brackets along the walls. Scratching at the stubble along his chin, he shuffled down the wide corridor, listening to the silence ring around him. The Arbour was quiet at night, but in a way that was so loud it hurt. The structure itself was silent—stone didn’t ease and settle at night the way wood did—but it was alive with the snuffles and grunts of the hundreds of souls living inside its walls. The young man who lived in the room next to Sage’s was a chronic snorer; he would have minded that it was so loud if it kept him awake. Since he was never asleep to begin with, he praised the boy for apparently being in robust health. Across the hall, one of the small girls, one in year six or seven, had night terrors so horrific she would wake the whole corridor at least once a fortnight.

The night officer had either abandoned his post or moved on to the other corridors on the third storey; this hallway was empty as he wandered down the stone floor, pausing every so often to listen. He met no resistance when he reached the last door next to the stairs; it was slightly ajar and eased open when he pushed on it.

He poked his head inside and was met with smothering blackness. “Briar?”

No reply, and no soft sighs of sleep.

Satisfied, he stepped back from the room and leaned on the wall next to the landing to think. She often took solace at the Eternal Flame at the peak of the Arbour’s pillar, but usually only with the help of another sleepless student or willing night guard. He doubted that was where she had gone tonight—he had heard boots walk past his room on patrol several times as the night dragged on. The gardens seemed like the second best bet.

Relief flooded him as he started down the stairs, feeling along the wall for guidance when the gap between the torches plunged him into darkness. He wanted to know what was on her mind, but not so much that he was willing to confront… whatever it was.

He shivered at the thought of visiting the Flame. Most people found it fascinating, but it was his most hated spot in the Arbour.

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