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Back at Sarah's apartment, I'm waiting by the kitchen table, drinking coffee. The smell of it is really strong for some reason. I know I'm waiting for someone but I can't remember who. I'm trying to do a crossword puzzle but the clues keep changing every time I look at them.
"Oh, I'm dreaming. That's right, I'm really in a hotel."
There's finally a knock at the door, and I get up to answer it. It's Grandma Pappas for the appointment she scheduled last night. "This is awfully convenient, isn't it?" I started. "Act during the day, talk at night, we don't waste any time."
"There are more advantages than you realize. You have a strong talent for this, but it's undeveloped. Sarah is still awake?" I nodded. "What have you learned?"
"We found two more of the circles, but the creature caught up with us. The iron filings worked but I guess it knows when a circle is destroyed. I think he might have killed me this time, but a swarm of spirits showed up in the nick of time, they followed me after I destroyed the other circle. He implied he had something to do with the spirits being trapped here, and they attacked him. That's how I got away."
Grandma Pappas waits until I finish talking, then pours herself a cup of coffee (Without asking, but is that important in a dream with imaginary coffee? What are the standards of politeness here?), walks over to the living room and sits down on the couch, crossing her legs under her long skirt. "Then it's clear, he drew the circles at the ley line intersections to trap the spirits here longer than they should be. They're in an odd position, you have to realize. They don't want to carry on like this but they're afraid to fade away. They drain the living to sustain themselves and put off the inevitable but they know that ultimately their existence is empty and hollow. Very few of them want to keep that up forever."
"This guy's just causing all kinds of problems."
"His ultimate goal is still unclear."
I enter the living room and sit down in the recliner across from the couch. "So tell me, how is it you two showed up just as this started happening anyway? Doesn't it take time for a psychiatrist to get transferred and moved?"
"This has been going on for months. It only came to your attention recently, now that the spirits have begun to accumulate in unusual numbers."
"Tell me, who are you, what's your name, and how do you know all this? And why do you look 70 years younger in the dream than you do in real life?"
"My mind is still active, even if my body has failed me. I was born Toula Panagakos in 1905 in Greece and moved to America when I was very young. My own grandmother taught me how to control my dreams, and passed on most of the knowledge I have to me. The rest I learned or figured out over time. I can't give you a summary of a century's life in one night, but I help people, as my grandmother and her grandmother and her grandmother did."
"So I assume you're teaching your granddaughter then?"
"I have no granddaughters, just many, many grandsons. Of them all, only Nicholas was willing to help me. He's such a fine boy but he doesn't have the talent." Now at least she's talking like a grandmother, even if she doesn't look like one. "Things have changed so much. People are less and less willing to believe in the supernatural, and then they wonder why they get sick or chronically depressed or any of a hundred other problems that science can diagnose and treat but can't cure, because they're looking at symptoms and not root causes. Nicholas understands this, partly despite and partly because of his medical training."
She pauses to sip her coffee, then changes the subject. "I need you to show me the location of the circle. Here, in the dream."
"How do I do that?"
"Open the door to the apartment, and want it to lead to the location."
I do, but it opens to the hallway.
"Perhaps I should phrase it differently. Expect it to lead where you want it to."
I close the door, and concentrate. I know, in the back of my mind, that on the other side of this door is the apartment hall. So I picture in my head opening the door to the street. I look out the window, and I see the normal view outside of Sarah's window, and try to imagine that the door isn't in the same place the window is in. Then I open the door.
"That's better." She's next to me now. I don't remember actually stepping through the door, but I'm outside now. It's bright daylight but the street is deserted. I can see clearly the glowing circle in the alley, but I'm afraid to go in and trap myself again.
That's when I notice that it still smells like coffee. I turn to see a Starbucks here that I'm sure wasn't really there today, and Toula's mug from Sarah's apartment is now a paper Starbucks cup. But while I'm reluctant to go into the alley, she strides right in. "I've memorized the circle as well as I could, so that should be more or less accurate, but it's very complex. What is it?"
"You can think of it like something across between a key and an electric circuit."
"I noticed that the only difference between this one and the last one was that two of the lines are pointed in different directions."
"They're aligned with the ley lines that intersect here. There's enough detail here that I can confirm our suspicions. It's connected to the spirits. They must be very angry with the creature if they know it's responsible."
"There wasn't much they could do about it. It was fighting off about two dozen of them when I ran off, and winning."
"But they could hurt it?"
"It seemed like every time they touched it, it burned."
"Then we may be able to use the spirits against it. You said they were attracted by the destruction of the circle. So is the creature. The answer may simply be to let them fight it out amongst themselves."
"That sounds really dangerous. I'm sure it wants to kill me."
"Nicholas and I will join you. Nicholas can help you against the creature, and I can guide the spirits. The best time will be late evening, just before people start going to bed. They'll be hungry but not distracted by feeding yet, and the streets will be quieter. Once they engage each other the danger will largely be over for us. You will bring weapons. Do you have a gun? Nicholas will bring his."
"No. I suppose I could bring a baseball bat or something. Speaking of which, how come I'm the only one who can't fight in these dreams?"
"Fights in dreams are not like fights in the real world. It's simply a reflection of your willingness and ability to resolve conflicts. My own is straightforward and blunt, that is why I use a fighting staff. Sarah's is indirect, she probably doesn't like to get her hands dirty, or get too personally involved, or suffers from risk aversion, so she manifests a gun to strike from a distance. That won't always work but it presents the illusion of greater safety. You cannot fight because you are confused and indecisive. When presented with a situation for which there is no obvious right answer, you fail to act at all."
That's disturbingly accurate.
"Don't be afraid to put yourself at risk. Don't be afraid to make mistakes. Take action, any action, when you are unsure and you will either succeed, or in understanding why you failed you will find the correct answer."
When I woke up, I realized where all that coffee was coming from in my dream. Sarah was chugging back cups to stay awake while I dreamed and the smell was permeating the hotel room.
"Toula and I have a plan."
"So you're on a first-name basis now?"
I didn't expect that. But after thinking about it I realized a couple of things. First, she's never seen the ancient, wheelchair-bound woman in real life, just the young woman in the dream. Second, the two of us share something that Sarah can't share with me. She's probably been stewing about that ever since Toula dragged her down the dream school's hallway. And her insistence on meeting me in private, without her, probably didn't help matters.
So what could I do but try to downplay it and explain what we were going to do?
"It sounds extremely dangerous and has a hundred places where it can fail, the most likely being that the creature will kill you before enough or even any spirits show up."
"I know. But we have to do something. Look at us, we're hiding in a hotel room trying not to sleep because nightmares will attack us. The most dangerous thing to do is nothing. Today our big mistake was going through the circles in order. We'll hit them randomly tomorrow and ambush the creature at the last one. Come to bed. We'll get through tonight together and contact the Pappases tomorrow."
After breakfast and a phone call to Nicholas' office, we killed time for the rest of the day in the hotel, after a quick trip out to get a baseball bat and locate, but not do anything to, the last two circles. I thought about getting aluminum but the wooden bat just felt better. Nicholas showed up that evening as the sun was starting to go down, in a very nice looking BMW to pick us up. He must be doing well for himself.
"I know, I know, it's flashy and not the best for sneaking around the city. I got it for the safety features and crash test rating." He explained, noting how I looked at the car. Toula was in the passenger seat, so Sarah and I got into the back. "You brought the bat, good. I've got a .38, but I've never actually used it against anything but paper targets before. I've got a coffee can half-full of iron filings on the floor back there. The plan is to hit the circles fast and get out before it can show up."
"We'll want to hit them randomly, it found us last time by noticing we were going around in order." I noted.
It started out all right. We hit the asylum first because that's where a lot of spirits hang out. I jumped out with the coffee can, destroyed the circle, caught the attention of the spirits, and got back into the car.
We hit the second one with pretty much the same results. To the few passers-by who were around, it must have looked like I jumped out of a car, threw a handful of coffee grounds at a convenience store, and sped back off in the car. What they didn't see was the spirits who were skulking behind them suddenly turn to follow the car.
It was the third circle, on the top level of a parking garage, where it all went to hell.
I jumped out of the car and was taken by surprise when the Shambler stepped out of the evening shadows, grabbed me by the arm, and literally threw me across two rows of parked cars. "You're either stupid or you think I am, I can't figure out which. Did you expect me to follow you around one step behind you all night? All I had to do was stake out one of the circles knowing you'd be here eventually."
I could barely move for the pain I was in. That's when Nicholas got out of the car with the engine still running and opened fire. Two shots must have hit the creature square in the chest but didn't seem to do anything but make it flinch. That inhuman, watercolor-red blood started to soak through its clothes. It turned its attention to him, and walked right through Nicholas's last four shots and punched him square in the jaw. I think his jaw was broken from the angle it wound up in, but Nicholas was mercifully knocked out by the blow, I could still see him breathing.
I struggled to get up when I saw a flash behind the Shambler. It must have seen it too because it turned around to see Sarah, baseball bat under her arm and coffee can in hand, scattering handfuls of iron filings all over the place. I was confused for a moment, then realized that she couldn't see the circle. She was randomly throwing the filings around hoping to hit it.
"Sarah! You got it already! Get out of here!" I shouted, or tried to with bruised ribs.
Instead, she turned toward the Shambler, who was walking threateningly toward her. Rather than run, she took one last handful of the iron filings from the coffee can and threw it at him.
It didn't do anything. I suppose it was worth a try though.
"You stupid girl. Why are you even helping him?"
I guess it thought I was too hurt to move because it stopped paying attention to me. I jumped on its back and tried to strangle it, but it was able to grab my arm and throw me off of it again, and I landed on the hard concrete against a parked car behind Sarah.
"Stay away from him!" She screamed, raising the baseball bat to swing it at him.
Almost casually, he reached out and grabbed her face in his hand, giving it a quick twist. I heard something snap and she slumped to the ground. Just like that, she was dead.
I tried to scream out her name but my breath was gone. I got up anyway. It turned back to me. "You have no idea what you're doing. You think you know what's going on but you can't possibly have any idea."
Then I heard tires squealing. Nicholas had left the engine running when he got out, and even though he was still unconscious on the ground, suddenly the car lurched forward down the aisle of cars. The Shambler was taken completely off-guard, and the right side of the bumper hit him in the leg. I saw it in slow-motion: he went down under the impact, and was completely run over by both right tires. Then the car, which was drifting to the left the whole time, clipped the corner of one of the parked cars, spun around completely, and slammed into the concrete wall at the end of the aisle. I was afraid for a moment that it would crash through and tumble off the parking garage, but the barrier just cracked and held.
The Shambler was broken and bleeding in a dozen places, and looked like its leg was broken, but it still got up. It glanced at the car, realized it was totaled and no longer a threat, and headed for me again. "What exactly did you hope to accomplish here?"
Almost in answer to the question, a handful of the spirits showed up, walking up the ramp. Then another dozen appeared, having climbed up the side of the parking structure and hauled themselves over the side. Then more, and more, coming from all directions, surrounding us completely. The accumulated spirits following us from the last two circles must have seen the flash when Sarah destroyed this one, and were joined by a third group that would have been in this area.
"So this is it, is it? This is how it ends? Very well. I have faith enough to accept this." I had no idea what in the hell it was talking about, but it didn't fight back this time as the hoards of spirits advanced on it. They grey, vaguely human-shaped masses pushed and shoved and reached out for the Shambler, burning its flesh with every touch of their hands. It didn't cry out, although the pain must have been extraordinary. Then a weird thing happened. The spirits no longer seemed to be distinct entities as they tried, and succeeded, to literally push through each other to get at it.
And as they did, they stopped appearing as human shapes, turning into a greyish mass with indications of heads and limbs spaced randomly through it, which then spiraled around the Shambler for a moment, before shooting skyward in a bizarre column decorated with faces, until it vanished into the night sky. The Shambler's broken body was left lifeless and still on the concrete.
Moments later, the night started to get brighter. I looked up and saw the full moon — which had been missing for three years now with no explanation — slowly fade into view in the sky, as though a black cloud was dispersing from its surface. In a moment, it was back, shining proudly in the night as if it owned the sky. I'd forgotten how bright a full moon in a cloudless sky was.
But I had to tear my attention away from it. I walked stiffly over to the car, every step painful and breath coming in shallow gasps. Inside, I saw Toula, somehow sitting in the drivers' seat, her head resting against the deployed airbag. How this hundred and three year old, wheelchair-bound woman climbed over the center console I have no idea.
But what I wanted was in the back seat. I reached in and pulled Sarah's cell phone out of her purse to call 911. I was numb with shock as I told the dispatcher in gasping breaths that we were attacked in the parking garage and needed a couple of ambulances.
"My precious, precious son, I am well pleased with you."
I turned to see a rather nondescript-looking man standing near the body of the Shambler, with a large purple egg in one hand that, to my vision, glowed like it was on fire. Tanzanite. He reached down to touch the lifeless monster gently on the cheek, and then turned his attention to me.
"Don't try to speak." He told me. "I know you're hurt. You've played your part in all of this. He-Who-Devours-The-Moon, as he called himself to you, is back in his prison and all is right with the world again. He never understood what it meant to have a Chosen One. I on the other hand pick someone who is already predisposed to the necessary actions in a crisis, otherwise you start second-guessing yourself.
"Oh, you're not convinced," he continued, without me needing to vocalize anything. "No, I assure you, despite everything that happened, this is the best of all possible outcomes. Don't presume to judge my actions, you started all of this yourself when you released him from his prison all those years ago.
"You want me to explain? Nonsense. This conflict spans millennia, before your written history, played out by entities and forces for which you have no point of reference. You're trying to rationalize my part in this in terms of human understanding, and human behavior. You only see a tiny fraction of a sliver of what happened.
"The simple truth? That's a contradiction in terms. You're asking an analogue question and expecting a discrete answer. Toula Pappas tried to give you some understanding, but she doesn't understand it herself, not really. What she gave you was a model that works well enough for her purposes, but it's far from being accurate in any real sense.
"An educated man sees the inconsistencies and inaccuracies in superstition and rejects it, then turns and dismisses the inaccuracies of his own science with such excuses as chaos theory and the uncertainty principle. You're like blind deaf-mutes trying to describe a multi-dimensional elephant to each other.
"I've already arranged for the tanzanite mine to be abandoned, permanently this time. This egg is going back where it belongs, to sit out the remainder of your history."
Then the headlights from the approaching ambulances obscured his figure, and he was gone.
Sarah's funeral was that weekend. It was the first time I'd seen most of her family. The official story was that the Shambler, who had no wallet, ID, or keys on its person to identify it, was killed after assaulting the three of us when Toula ran him over, after somehow surviving five shots from Nicholas' revolver (he missed once).
Nobody knew how to explain the iron filings scattered all over, so they just didn't.
It was several days before I saw Toula again in the dreams, I didn't want to bother her in the hospital, so I waited for her to come to me. Nicholas Pappas would be out for several weeks with his broken jaw, but it would heal. He'll just have a tough time getting through airport security with that metal plate holding his face together.
When I do see her, she looks to be maybe seventy years old. Somewhere on the wrong side of in between the young woman and the ancient invalid. She pulls me into her dream, rather than hopping into mine, and it's a dreary and dismal place. A small house, crowded with all the accumulated knickknacks and tchotchkes you might have expected an old woman to have collected over the years, with very dim lighting and a layer of dust over everything. Some of the furniture doesn't look like it had been used in decades, and the second bedroom looks like it hasn't had anyone in it in a long time either, there isn't even a sheet on the mattress. Outside, the sun struggles to get in through curtained windows.
"I've never felt so old before that night." She explains from her rocking chair. "Just a helpless old woman sitting in the car watching things happen around me. They told me I broke two bones just getting into the drivers' seat, never mind what the crash did to me."
"Sarah's family knows you're a hero, Toula." I tell her. "As far as anyone knows you killed the Shambler and that's close enough to true for me too."
I don't know if she even hears me. She goes on without acknowledging my comment. "I don't want my grandmother's and her grandmother's and her grandmother's legacy to die with me. I've buried two husbands, three children, and a grandchild already. A person isn't supposed to live that long. I don't know how much time I have left. Your talent is stronger than mine, the strongest I've ever seen. To think that you've done all of this already without any training. I want to teach you what my family has been passing down for seven generations, none of my own children or grandchildren can. I've written some of it down, much of it I will have to show you."
"I'm flattered, really, but now that Sarah is gone I don't have any place to stay, I have to find work to pay rent and finish my schooling. My savings are starting to run out."
Not once while she is speaking does she look directly at me. Her eyes have a sad, distracted, far-away look in them while she talks. I can only start to imagine all the things that are going through her mind. "You'll stay with us. You'll finish your schooling by day, and by night you will train with me. Remember that you and I have more usable time in a day than anyone else."
She's right on that account. I wonder how much time she has, and how much time I have? I'm in my sixties but haven't aged in almost forty years. How long lived am I now? Will I die in my eighties or nineties like anyone else, looking like a young man? Or will I begin to age again now that the entity that cursed me with these abilities is imprisoned? Or am I immortal?
And that's when I realize that Sarah was only the first in a very, very long line of people who I will love and outlive. I look at Toula's sad eyes one more time, and start to understand how she feels.
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