On to part 2
They are predators, and like any predators they go after the sick, the weak, the ones who don't fight back. When they meet any resistance they flee to easier hunting grounds. This dreamscape used to be a prime location, until I got here. I'm no fighter but I don't have to be, they spook easily. It's just a matter of getting to it, before it gets to her.
I don't want her to see me here. It would raise a number of uncomfortable questions that I'm not ready to answer. I can feel the dream getting more solid and more real as I get closer to where she is, and break out in a run. Then I spot it, it looks human, or human-ish anyway, but I don't know what it really is. It's not a dreamwalker like me, it's something else. Maybe it was human once. I still am. Whatever it is I've seen them before and I know how to deal with them.
I just need a weapon. I find myself running past an outdoor cafe, with the tables and chairs still out. It's late October in the real world, but it's Summer here. The street is deserted, because she doesn't need anyone to be out here if she's not here to see them, but it has all the signs of a busy downtown area that's filled with everything a crowd needs — shops, outdoor vendor carts, parked cars — just not the crowd. I grab one of the cheap plastic chairs from the cafe and run at the thing, shouting and waving it around. That's usually enough to scare them off.
This time it doesn't work.
At least it completely forgets about her. She's close by, I know because the dream feels so solid here, but she's nowhere in sight. Probably inside one of the shops. It turns toward me and starts for me at a full sprint, catching me completely unprepared. I swing the chair but it's far too late, the swing goes wide and I connect with my arms instead of the weapon.
Fortunately for me it's enough to push it off balance. I need a better weapon, I need something to fight him with. I don't know how to fight him hand-to-hand, I tried that once before. It didn't work out so well.
So I turn and run, looking for some place that would have something I can use. Maybe a hardware store. But this is her dream and she doesn't care about hardware stores so there isn't one here. The dream gets thinner and less substantial the farther away from her I get. If I can get far enough away, I can slip out and escape.
But the thing tackles me from behind, and I hit the hard dream asphalt painfully. Its breath is putrid, probably because I expect it to be, as it claws for my throat. I try to shield myself with my arms but it's strong, stronger and more aggressive than I remember these things being. Is it just this one? Or has something changed? I start to get cold, my vision dims — it's taking what he came for from me instead of her. Its scarred, pale face is right next to mine, I can see its sharpened teeth, its wild, inhuman eyes, dry grey skin like parchment...
What is that noise? A siren? A fire alarm?
Sarah rolled over and switched the alarm clock from 'alarm' to 'radio'. A scratchy voice droned through the AM waves, "...and coming up on the 3 year anniversary of the sudden black-out of the moon, NASA is still unsure of the cause." "We know the moon is still there, because tidal action is continuing and such, but ground-based telescopes can't see anything but a pitch-black spot in the sky where it should be..."
"Good morning," she mumbled, still groggy. I tried not to let her see me shaking. "Do you have class today?"
"Yeah," I answered, giving her a good-morning kiss and rolling out of bed. "You go shower, I'll make breakfast."
A little while later she had her hair wrapped up in a towel and I had eggs and toast on the table. "It's been ten years since I last dated a college student," She joked. "Are you going to get drunk every night and flunk out too?"
"I think they call people in my age group 'non-traditional' students," I replied. "So I'll be skipping that tradition too. I need this. I lost my last job partially because I'm outdated, I haven't been keeping up with the latest changes in the field."
"How much could geology have changed? I mean a rock's still a rock, right?"
"I'm used to going at geology with a rock hammer and a brush. Today they use computers and simulation models and satellites. I'm just old-fashioned. I need to catch up or even with my experience I'll never beat out a recent college grad for one of the good jobs, with an oil company or a mine. I feel like I'm starting over from scratch."
"You'll do fine," she said, getting up from the table. "I need to finish getting ready for work. Lunch today?"
"How about that Chinese place? It's in walking distance from the campus and your office."
For the rest of the morning I was still a bit shaken up over my dreamwalk. Fortunately I'd kept the thing away from Sarah but I got hurt doing it. I couldn't concentrate in class. My computer locked up twice running the simulation model before I realized I'd been trying to divide by zero, and I knew all the twenty year olds were chuckling behind my back.
I was still struggling with these computers. The last time I saw one it was a vacuum-tube based monster the size of a car and it took punch-cards. I'm a lot older than I look. I spent the next hour in the library staring into a book and trying to gather up enough attention span to actually process what my eyes were scanning over, until it was time to meet Sarah for lunch.
Downtown is always crowded around lunch time, but I don't have any trouble finding Sarah, not with those earrings of hers she always wears. Not just anybody would notice them in a crowd of people, but ever since my little adventure thirty-eight years ago, things have been a bit odd.
It was just after I'd met up with her that I noticed something else that tends to stand out in a crowd, but this time I would have expected everyone else to notice. In fact, I would have expected everyone else to be running away screaming.
"Sarah, what do you see over there?" I asked her, pointing.
"I don't see anything. Just the crowd of people."
"That man over there, isn't there anything strange about him?"
"Nobody in particular stands out. What's wrong?"
Then I was the only one who could see him. Or at least see him for what he really is. That shock of furry hair on a misshapen head, the lidless eyes, the bulbous nose, the thin slice of a mouth that seemed to be entirely decorative and couldn't actually open. That shambling parody of the human form I'd last seen in Tanzania thirty-eight years ago and hoped to never see again so long as I lived. It was back. I thought I'd killed it!
And then it turned toward me. I had seen me pointing, it recognized me! But what could it do to me in this crowd? Surely it wouldn't try to harm me in front of all these people?
I was completely unprepared for what it did do. "Hey! Long time no see!" He shouted to me over the crowd, jovially, working his way through the bodies. Nobody paid his grotesque form any mind whatsoever. "It's been years! How've you been?"
I was speechless when it came over and gripped my hand tightly in a friendly shake. This monstrous thing that nobody seemed to notice, that had tried to kill me almost four decades ago, what on Earth was going on?
Sarah saw my shock and confusion. Apparently she didn't see anything any more wrong than anyone else did. "What's going on? Who is this?"
"Sarah this man is dangerous. Stay back." I warned her.
"Is that any way to greet an old friend? Aren't you going to introduce me to the little lady? We have so much to catch up on!" Those last few words were tinged with menace behind the friendly tone. "Use your ring. Look at me with it and see what everyone else sees."
I did. For the past two years I'd kept a tanzanite ring with me for just this purpose, and when I lifted it to his face I saw what everyone else saw, just a normal face, just another person like anyone else. No wonder nobody reacted.
"You have no idea what a mess you've made of things." He continued. "My master has been trying to fix the problems you caused for the last thirty-eight years. He underestimated your kind before, he was distracted, not paying enough attention. Things are different now. I'm smarter than you remember. Stay out of my way and I won't have to hurt you." Then he glanced at Sarah. "Or anyone else."
"You stay away from her!" I moved towards him but he was fast, he caught me with a quick punch to the stomach, and then moved away before the crowd could tell what was going on. I doubled over, but only got a few glances from the people around us.
"Mind your own business." He warned as he left. "This would be a very bad time for you to go poking your nose into affairs you don't understand. Again."
Sarah was helping me stand back up straight as he walked away into the crowd. "Who was that? What's this about thirty-eight years ago? You must've been a baby. Is he crazy? What was that about your ring?"
"It's a long story." I told her. "Let's talk about it inside." I hobbled over to the restaurant, feeling sick from the punch to my gut, and we took a table far back in the corner.
"Sarah, how old do you think I am?" I asked her.
"I always thought you were almost forty."
Ouch. I thought I looked just over thirty. "I'm almost seventy years old. I was born in 1940, a little before the US got involved in World War II. I've got vague memories of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan when I was five. I first met that guy thirty-eight years ago when I was on a job in Tanzania for Tiffany & Co."
"I see, he's not crazy, you are."
"Just hear me out, and if you want me to leave when I'm finished, I'll pack up my things and clear out of your apartment today." The waitress came over and took our orders. I just had a Coke. I didn't think I could keep anything down at the moment. "In 1970 I was contracted by Tiffany to take a look at their tanzanite mine in eastern Africa. Tanzania, that's where the name of the gemstone comes from. They were having accidents and the workers were too scared to work. I investigated, trying to find out what was going on, and that thing attacked me. It looks like a man but it isn't, Sarah. It's some kind of shambling creature. Back then he didn't look so human, he was slow and dumb and I was able to fight him off. It turns out he was guarding something in the bottom of the mine, and I let it out. I still don't know what it was, but things have gotten really weird ever since then.
"It looked like a baby at the time, but it talked to me, he said he was called 'he who devours the moon' but he had some growing up to do. Three years ago the moon vanishes from the sky. Tell me that's just a coincidence. Anyway he said I made a powerful enemy by letting him go, and he gave me some 'gifts' to protect myself with. I started seeing things, Sarah, things nobody else could see, and it did drive me crazy, for a while. I've been in asylum. From 1971 through 2005, trying to learn how to deal with these things.
"That's why I have to go back to college now. I missed over thirty years of progress, and I have a lot of catching up to do. I'm living off of savings right now, I had some stock in the right companies at the time, I've got enough to live on for a while."
Sarah stopped me there. "Look, this isn't the first time I've dealt with something like this. A dated a guy once who said he could talk to invisible dragons. He never took his medication. He was violent and abusive and I had a very hard time getting rid of him."
"Sarah I would never hurt you. Please believe me. But that guy back there, he's dangerous. He's a lot smarter than he was before. He's angry with me, and I don't want you to get involved."
"What was that about your ring?"
"It's tanzanite. Tanzanite has some connection with these things, I don't understand it. It glows like a candle to me, that's why I can always find you so easily in crowds, it's your earrings. They're what attracted me to you in the first place. In the tanzanite's glow, I see what normal people see, it's how I finally learned to tell what's real from what isn't. When I pointed him out in the crowd he looked like a monster to me, but you couldn't see it. When I lifted my ring to look at him, he looked like a normal person, like how you see him."
Sarah looked skeptical, and I couldn't blame her. "Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary proof."
"I know. But if I'm not telling the truth, then who was he, and why did he claim to know me from almost forty years ago? Why did he tell me to use my ring? How did I pick him out of the crowd so easily?"
"So he's crazy too, or he's in on it. That doesn't prove anything."
Sarah's food came. My stomach was feeling a little bit better by then, and she gave me her egg roll. She ate in silence for a little while.
"Okay we'll do this. Take off one of your earrings. Okay, now put your hands behind you back, put your earring in one of them, and I'll tell you what hand it's in. I'll be able to see it glowing between your fingers, that should prove to you at least that something weird really is happening."
"All right, three times. And you have to get it right all three times." She did as I asked, and put her hands out in front of her. I could see the glow of the tanzanite in her left fist like she was holding onto a lit flashlight, and tapped it. She looked surprised, and opened her hand to show me I was right. Then she did it again, left hand again, I guess she thought I'd have gone for the opposite hand if I were faking it. Then she did it the third time.
"It's not in your hands," I smiled. "It's on the bench behind you, you sneaky little girl." She may as well have been trying to hide a desk lamp behind her. She stood up and showed me that I was right again. At least she was smiling too now.
"Okay so something's up." She put her earring back on and finished her meal. "Maybe you're crazy and maybe he's crazy too, but at least I know it's either all three of us or none of us."
I find myself in a dark forest this time, and I have to admit I'm spooked. Weird things have been going on all day and her state of mind is being reflected in her dreams. Now that she knows most of what's going on, should I tell her the rest? Should I find her, here, and let her know what's happening?
Probably not. The more she knows the more danger she'd be in. The Shambler might start to think of her as a threat. It's already nervous about me, if it thinks there are two of us to worry about, it might start to get panicky. I'd better keep her as far away from all of this as possible.
And I also want to keep these other things as far away from her as possible. I don't know what they are and I don't know if they have any connection to the rest of what's going on, but I may as well call them ghosts. They're the first things I saw when I released that thing from his prison and he cursed me with these gifts. They were utterly terrifying until I realized I couldn't interact with them in the real world. Then they started coming for me in dreams and they were terrifying all over again. I don't know what they want but they left me feeling cold and tired until I learned how to fight them.
Back then it was easy, just scare them off and they go to seek easier targets. There were plenty of others in the asylum to choose from. But last night, that one was more aggressive and I don't know why. And then I immediately run into an old enemy I haven't seen for almost forty years. It makes me wonder.
I know I'm headed in the right direction because the forest is seeming more solid, more real, more detailed. Little things I never notice are missing until I see them again begin to show up, acorns on the ground, broken twigs on the trees, ruts worn into the path. I know it should be chilly but it isn't, I never feel cold in dreams — unless I'm attacked.
Finally I see her off in the distance. She's facing the wrong way, and very slowly approaching a deer, as if to get close enough to pet it. It's looking at her nervously, trying to decide whether or not to run. It probably won't, after all it's her dream, and if she wants to pet a deer, why not?
But with all her attention focused on not startling the timid creature, she doesn't see me, and she doesn't see the thing creeping up on her from behind. Damn. Usually I can take care of these things without her even knowing about it. I know she'd been plagued by nightmares for years before I'd met her, and if I could give her a few restful nights of sleep it's the least I can do. But after last night I don't know what to expect anymore.
The deer suddenly perks up and runs off. She's not consciously aware that anything is wrong, but her subconscious knows everything that's happening, and the dream reflects that. No time for subtlety. Most people don't remember their dreams, at least not for long after they wake up, unless they write them down or something. The memories fade more quickly than memories of real events, for whatever reason. I decide to risk being seen to protect her.
The thing makes its move toward her, and I sprint ahead of it to intercept. We both make noise with sudden movements, and Sarah turns around to see both of us headed towards her. I suppose I can't blame her, her first reaction is to scream. Well, gasp loudly anyway.
It doesn't seem to realize that I'm something real rather than something from her dream and ignores me, so I give it something it can't ignore and drive my shoulder into its abdomen, taking it to the ground. I've taken it completely by surprise, and it can only react in shock and confusion as I pin it to the ground. It doesn't last long though, I've obviously scared it, and it roughly throws me off and runs away. When it gets to the edge of the dream, it, I don't know, will just sort of go away, but from here at the center, near Sarah, where everything is most real, I won't see that.
She considers me for a moment, and then simply asks "What are you doing here?" What she really means of course is "You don't belong here." but she probably doesn't realize that's what she means.
Before I can answer, more things that don't belong here show up. I don't recognize the one I chased off among them, but I might not anyway. There are about a dozen of them, I've never seen so many at once, not even at the asylum. Something is definitely going on and I wish I knew what. I wonder if I can even survive this. If one can make me feel cold and drained, what can a dozen do? Can they kill me? In a dream? That's not even my own?
I get between Sarah and the creatures and say the only thing you can say in situations like this. "Sarah. Run." I try to put on a brave face, but these things are sitting dead-square in my uncanny valley, looking just off-human enough to spook me.
A tense silence follows. They know they can take me as a group, but the first one to attack is going to run the highest risk of getting hurt. Everyone wants to be the second one. All I can do is try to bluff them as long as I can.
Suddenly a shot shatters the silence. I jump, one of the creatures spins, hit just off-center in the chest, and goes down. The rest hardly have time to react before two more shots ring out, one more gets hit, this time in the shoulder, and they turn and run, including the first one who was hit, who doesn't even bother to get up on two legs, running off like a dog.
I turn around slowly, and see Sarah still standing there, holding an old-fashioned revolver, like you'd see in a Clint Eastwood Western. "Sarah? You know how to shoot?"
"Not in real life." She replies, as if she talks to dreams all the time. Hell, maybe she does. Weirder things have happened over the last couple of days. "I haven't had to do this in a long time though. I thought my nightmares were finished. I guess that friend of yours shook me up today more than I realized."
"You know you're dreaming?" Her gun, now that it wasn't needed anymore, was simply and without explanation now absent.
"Well I do now. I mean the zombie things are kind of a giveaway, you know?"
"Sarah, I need you to listen to me very carefully. I'm really here."
She smiled that little smile of hers when she knows something, it's the smile I fell in love with, but I never told her that. "No you're not. Oh, I'm waking up. Too bad..."
There's a sensation of falling when I'm in someone else's dream and they wake up. It's decidedly unpleasant and I try to avoid it when I can, as the world around me becomes unreal and unable to support my being in it, reminding me that I'm an intruder.
Sarah sat up in bed, yawned, and started to get up, probably for a glass of water or something. I glanced at the clock on the nightstand, it was almost 3 in the morning.
"Nice shot." I said.
"Thanks." She mumbled, still not awake, until she realized what I meant. "What?"
"I told you I was really there. I saw it, I saw everything. We shared that dream, Sarah."
"Shit. Shit shit shit shit shit. This is too much weirdness for one day."
"How do you think I feel?" It slipped out before I realized how selfish it sounded, but you can't un-say things like that, so I went with it. "I'm at the epicenter of this whole thing, and I don't know what's going on, I don't understand what's happening, but I'm pretty sure it's my fault for what I did back in Tanzania. Bad things are happening, they're getting worse, and I don't know what I'm supposed to be doing about it."
Sarah considered me for a minute. "It would be the easiest thing in the world for me to just kick you out of my apartment right now and just not deal with all of this."
"You have every right in the world to do that. This isn't your problem."
Then her features visibly softened. "I used to see those zombie things in my nightmares all the time. Ever since I was nine years old. They used to scare me, but eventually I learned how to start lucid dreaming when I saw them. Once I found out they scare easily they didn't shake me up so much anymore, take a few shots at them and they run away. Actually, I think this is the first time I've had to shoot more than once. And come to think of it, that was an awful lot of them this time. But I haven't seen them in a long time."
"Ever since I started sleeping here."
"I've been driving them off for you, Sarah. I've been keeping them away from you by walking into your dreams. But they've been getting stronger and more aggressive lately, and I've never seen so many at once before either. Last night one of them hurt me. Tonight there were so many of them, I don't know but I'm afraid they could've killed me."
"Oh you silly little man." She finally smiled. "You didn't have to do that, I've been having these dreams for years, I know how to take care of them."
"Yeah I see that... apparently better than I do. I never thought of just pulling out a gun like that." I paused for a moment, then continued. "Things are getting more dangerous. I don't know if I'm putting you in more danger or if this would be happening whether or not I'm here. All I know is that I'm scared and I don't want to face this alone. In some ways this is a lot like what happened years ago and in other ways it's completely different. I don't know what's going to happen, I don't know what's at risk, and I don't know what I'm supposed to be doing about it."
There was a long pause. "I think I'd be more worried if you tried to tell me you did know what to do next." She finally said. "All right, let's face this together. Just promise me this isn't going to get any weirder."
"I wish I could."
The next morning, she went to work and I went to therapy. Actually it's more of a monthly check-up to make sure I'm not going psychotic again. Actually it's a stupid dance the doctors and I were forced to do because they knew I'm telling them what they want to hear but they can't demonstrate that I wasn't fit to re-enter normal society. They still think I'm crazy and lying and they're only half right.
That is to say, I'm only half-crazy and half-lying.
When I walked into the office, my usual doctor wasn't there. "Where's Dr. Martin?"
"I'm Dr. Pappas. I've been following your case, but since I lived in Philadelphia I haven't been able to meet you in person until today. A position opened up here and I requested a transfer specifically to meet you."
"Ah, you think I'm a special kind of insane?"
"No, I think you're completely sane, just very confused and scared. Have a seat. Tell me, do you still have nightmares?"
"Yeah, in fact lately I've been having other people's nightmares too." It just sort of slipped out. His reaction was unreadable. "Do you want to take me back to the asylum like Dr. Martin did?"
"We don't call them that anymore." I knew that of course, I just got into the habit because it annoyed Martin. "Let me be frank. Your symptoms are vaguely reminiscent of very real phenomena I've observed in other people. And they're tied to the disappearance of the moon a few years ago, which is something that you apparently predicted ahead of time?"
"Dr. Martin tells me it's one of those weird coincidences that reinforce delusions. It's a classic case of confirmation bias. People who believe they're Napoleon have weirder coincidences backing them up. People say crazy things all the time, chances are good that sooner or later one of them will be right."
"Did you know the tanzanite mine you investigated has been permanently closed?"
"I followed up on it, yeah, the locals think it's haunted again. Tiffany & Co. doesn't think it's worth trying to re-open it this time, they already made their money."
Instead of answering, Dr. Pappas reached over to click his intercom. "Ms. Brooks, would you bring my grandmother in please?" Then turned his attention back to me. "I'm going to run a couple of experiments. It would be in your best interests to cooperate. I think we can help you."
The receptionist backed into the room with a wheelchair, leaving it next to the doctor's desk. In the wheelchair was the oldest woman I've ever seen. She was dried out and withered, and eerily still, almost looking dead. Except for her eyes, her eyes were still bright and full of fire. There was life somewhere inside this woman, but the body it belonged to simply wouldn't support it the way it should anymore.
"Typically I'd try to spend a few weeks building up trust between us, but we don't have time for that. Things are happening that my grandmother and I don't understand fully. I suspect that you have the other side of the story." He reached into his desk and pulled out a metronome. "I'm going to put you under hypnosis now. My grandmother will take it from there. Just watch the baton, listen to the clicking, and try to relax."
Before I know it, I'm asleep. I'm dreaming and I know it. It's been a while since I've spent any real time in a dream of my own, at least one that I can remember.
I'm kind of disappointed in this one, for locations it's pretty mundane, I'm still in the doctor's office. The doctor is gone, and the metronome is gone, and some of the details are wrong, but it's definitely the place I fell asleep.
Next to the desk is Mrs. Pappas in her wheelchair, except instead of the old lady who barely looked alive, it's a young woman, 30 at the most. Most things about her are recognizable, just much, much younger. Her hair is very long, down to her waist, and jet black rather than silver-white. Her complexion is smooth and darkened to a Mediterranean olive, similar to her grandson's. But those eyes are exactly the same, as if they'd been transplanted into the face of a much younger woman.
You're supposed to top off a description like that with how beautiful she is, but actually she looks rather ordinary, with a face that's a bit too wide, a nose that's a little too big, and a chin that doesn't blend gracefully into her jawline. Her hair and her eyes are her most striking features.
"So, are you here, or is this just my dream?"
"I suspect you know how to tell the difference by now." She answers. Okay she has three striking features. She must have the most beautiful voice I've ever heard, clear as a bell, with a strong Grecian accent. She doesn't get up out of the wheelchair.
I get up off the couch though, one of those leather deals you expect to see in a psychiatrist's office, with one end turned up so you can lie down on it comfortably. "You're right. I know you're real, I can see how you don't belong here. You're not part of..." I gesture around my dreamscape, "...this."
"Do you know what a ghost is?"
"If you're talking about those things I've been seeing since my accident in Tanzania, no. I don't have any idea what they are. All I know is that they're dangerous and there's been more of them around lately."
"The ancient Egyptians knew that we have two kinds of spirits in our bodies, that they called the ba and the ka. The ka is what modern Western religions call the soul. The ba is the spirit. The ka is eternal and unchanging, and enters the body at the beginning of your life. Life is created by the ka, the ba is created by living. It's all of your accumulated memories and knowledge and experience and personality, everything that makes you a unique individual as you grow and learn. When you die, the ka leaves the body to join the afterlife. But the ba does not belong there.
"The ba stays on Earth for a while, until, without life and without a body, it slowly vanishes. For most people, the ba is not strong enough to interact with the living, but for those with exceptionally strong personalities and an unwillingness to let go of Earthly life, it can stay for a long time, and even manifest itself as visible to the living. Some learn that they can draw life out of the living by entering their dreams, and doing so they can prolong the time before they vanish, but ultimately they all eventually do vanish. Some of the most powerful can remain for decades, but most can't survive more than a year, as they find it takes more and more effort to hold on to their existence.
"But something has been happening recently. These spirits are staying much longer than they should be. They're accumulating in numbers I've never seen before, and it's all tied to this city. If this continues they can become a serious danger to the living. I believe you have something to do with it."
She still hasn't gotten up out of the wheelchair. "I can see them when I'm awake, wandering around, waiting for night so they can invade dreams. They usually go after the weak and timid people who don't fight back but they've been getting more aggressive."
"More spirits competing for a limited amount of resources. They will grow bolder or starve," she confirmed. "My grandson —" the word was disconcerting coming from a woman who looked so young "— and I help people who have or claim to have supernatural experiences. Often these experiences are delusions, and he can help them with modern medicine. But sometimes I can confirm them as valid, and different measures are needed. Tell me, your ring, why did you bring it here with you?"
I look down and see that I'm wearing my tanzanite ring in my dream, as usual. Not my watch, not my glasses, not the pen I keep in my shirt pocket, just the ring. She's a sharp one to notice that, but I get the feeling she's done this before. "Tanzanite has some kind of connection to my curse. I see it glow like a candle and anything in its glow looks to me like what normal people see. It's how I can tell the difference between what I can see and what everyone else does. It's important to me."
"I fear that we are caught in the middle of a battle between two powerful entities, the one who you freed from his imprisonment in Tanzania and the one who imprisoned him. One or possibly both of them are using you as a pawn in their fight, and the entire city has been put into danger because of it."
"Is there anything I can do about it?"
"The ba are probably an essential part of the conflict. I believe we can interrupt this before it gets too large to stop if we find out what is keeping them here unnaturally, and stop it."
"And if we can't?"
"This city will likely be collateral damage in their conflict."
That evening, I decided to go for a walk.
When The Sixth Sense came out in 1999, I was still in the asylum. They specifically forbid me to see it. I finally saw it on video last year and it hit kind of close to home, except none of the dead people I ever saw were looking for help. Somebody told me it's kind of fun to watch through a second time and see all the little hints you missed the first time, but I couldn't bring myself to do it.
When you're awake they can't hurt you, but if you don't know that they can still scare the piss out of you, then hurt you later. Usually, I intentionally tried to ignore them during the day, let them fade into the background and pass unnoticed, like the advertisements that are plastered all over the city. It was just easier to act normal around people if I pretended I didn't see them. But this time I wasn't trying to interact with anyone normal, I was looking for clues, so I looked up and paid attention.
They were everywhere.
They were following people, lurking behind them, waiting for them to go home and go to sleep. Some of them were even fighting over people, for what reason I didn't know, apparently some were more attractive targets than others. I'd never seen them this way before, they were actively stalking people, peering over their shoulders as they went about their daily business. Biding their time until their targets made themselves vulnerable. As I walked down the street two or three of them started following me, but I shooed them off. They seemed more than anything else to be surprised that I could see them, and went on to find other targets.
My first idea was to head for a cemetery. Cliché, I know, but I didn't have anything else go to on. If you were up against a vampire would you have any better ideas than to try crucifixes and garlic? In retrospect I suppose it was obvious it would be a dead end, no pun intended. They were after the living, so there wouldn't be any point in hanging out among the graves, even if, as I suspected, that's where they were coming from.
But failure got me thinking in other directions. If Grandma Pappas was right about how they were created, by experiences and memories, they might be more attracted to places where these things were formed. Where to try next? Probably the places where people spend their formative years, or experience strong emotions, maybe the sort of places that are famous for being haunted. Heck, the asylum was chock full of the things even before this mess started, which is why I hadn't been anywhere near the place since.
So I called a taxi.
It was starting to get dark by the time we got there. Ever since the moon went out, nights have been extremely dark, but you don't notice in the city for all the lights that never let it get dimmer than dusk.
I probably wouldn't have noticed anything unusual if it was still bright out. Something was glowing alongside the back of the building, but not like an electric light. It certainly wasn't something anyone with normal vision would have been able to see, because that circle of light looked just like the glow of tanzanite.
Walking around to the back of the building, I saw the source of the light. It was a decorated circle carved into the bricks of the building, something like a pentagram, except there was no star in the pattern. If you connect points along a circle with lines one way, you get a star. If you do it another way, you get a wreath. This one was a nine-pointed wreath with a few smaller circles with other symbols inside of them cut into various places following some kind of pattern I couldn't figure out. And the whole thing was glowing like a bonfire, to my vision at least.
Checking my pockets, I found that I had my pen on me, but no paper. So I copied the pattern onto the back of my left hand as closely as I could with the intention of making a better copy later.
When I got up to turn around, I felt a hand clamp around my mouth, preventing me from crying out, and was shoved roughly up against the bricks of the building. My head literally bounced off the brickwork, and I found out what people meant when they say they saw stars after a head injury.
When my assailant finally spoke, it was in a harsh, and very angry whisper. "I figured you'd show up here sooner or later. After all it only made sense, didn't it? This would be the most likely place to find one of these and it's a familiar location to you. I told you to stay out of this. On the street the other day, there were too many witnesses." Oh no, it was the Shambler.
"But look around you. The hospital is locked down for the night. There's nobody around now. Do you remember, forty years ago? How clearly? Do you remember stabbing me over and over again with that knife? Do you remember driving a pickaxe through my arm? Do you remember how I had to tear my own mouth open so I could try to tell you to stop, because you didn't know what you were doing? Do you remember cracking my skull with that rock? I remember. Just like it was yesterday."
A security guard came around the building later and brought me inside. If you're going to be beaten within inches of your life, there are worse places than just outside a hospital. Of course they assumed that one of the patients had gotten out and assaulted me, but they couldn't figure out who it could have been. They were quick to point out though that since I was trespassing it was no fault of the hospital's, and certainly I had no legal standing from which to sue. But out of their infinite kindness and generosity they would dress my wounds and numb the pain with morphine, and give me a ride back into the city if I wanted. I had no idea if they were feeding me a line to get rid of me or not, I just wanted to go home.
I'll spare the reader the "What happened to you?" conversation and just mention that I agreed to finally learn how to use a cell phone so Sarah could get a hold of me if I'm gone longer than I said I'd be.
I fully intend to conveniently forget agreeing to that due to my concussion.
A concussion is a weird thing. I've been living here for long enough that walking straight to Sarah's apartment should be as mindless an activity as breathing, but I stared down the hallway of identical doors for two or three minutes, trying to remember which one was right, before I realized I was on the wrong floor. It's frightening when your own brain won't cooperate with you.
"He could have killed you."
"He could have, yeah. Grabbed me from behind, there was nothing I could do. He's always been stronger than me, but now he's smart, too. He's got all the advantages."
"Then you can't fight him."
"Not in the real world, no. I hope I can deal with this without have to face him again, but if I do, I'll have to do it on my terms. With any luck I'll be able to do it in the dreams where I might have an advantage."
"And I can't talk you out of it, can I?"
"Not after what Grandma Pappas told me. Innocent people are in danger and it's probably my fault. There's got to be something I can do about it. I'm in danger either way. The spirits are going to keep coming after us, and they're going to continue showing up in larger numbers."
"What do we do? Not sleep?"
"I don't think that's an option. We stand our ground and fight them off. Don't forget, we can face them together. That's more than anyone else can do. I found something while I was out tonight, a symbol scratched into the outside wall of the asylum. It glowed, I'm certain in a way only I could see, because it was just like the effect I get from tanzanite. Our next step is to find out what it means."
"What did it look like?"
"I sketched it on... crap." The copy on my hand was smudged in the fight, most of the details were missing. "I need some paper so I can copy this before it gets smudged any worse. Thanks. The Shambler implied there were more of these. My guess is he's here to draw these in strategic locations across the city, for whatever purpose. If I can find the others, maybe I can erase them or something."
"If I were him, and I found out someone was locating and erasing my glowy circles, I'd hide out at one of them and kill you when you showed up."
"Do you have any better ideas?"
"Mrs. Pappas sounds like she knows about this stuff. I think you should call Dr. Pappas tomorrow and try to get another meeting with her, trade notes, that sort of thing. Did you tell her about the Shambler?"
"It didn't come up, no."
"I'm exhausted, and I think you are too. Any ideas on getting an undisturbed rest tonight?"
"Sorry, I left my ghost repellant in my other pants. But I suppose it wouldn't hurt to try some of the classic superstitions. Spread around some salt, keep something made of cold iron nearby, that sort of thing."
"Might as well keep a nightlight on and hide under the covers if we're going to go that route."
"I can't even tell if you're being sarcastic."
When you're dreaming, or at least when I'm dreaming, there's this fuzzy period of not really being aware of anything at all that gradually fades into awareness, so there's no real definable starting point. There's no event that I can point to and say "The dream started here." There's just a gradual fade in to a realization that I've been doing something for a little while, and later, usually, a sudden realization that it's a dream.
So when I find myself, say for example, wandering the deserted hallways of a public school I know I've never seen before, it doesn't strike me as unusual right away because I've been doing this for some unspecified amount of time before I'm conscious of it.
Odd things tip me off that this isn't reality. This time it was lack of fire alarms — not a single one in the entire building. I notice things like that because I used to fight a weird compulsion to pull them every single weekday from age 14 to 18, and one of my regrets is never actually doing so. I wonder how things would turn out differently.
And now here I am, in a consequence-free environment, and there's no fire alarm to pull. What a gyp.
So the second thing I notice is that this isn't my dream. First off, if it were, the surroundings wouldn't seem foreign and unfamiliar to me, even if they actually were. Secondly, reality is "soft", meaning that whoever's dream this is, is not in the immediate area. The only problem is, I didn't go dream hopping yet tonight. At least not on purpose. This used to happen to me at the asylum before I learned to control it, but accidentally dream hopping at this point would be about as unlikely, and embarrassing, as wetting myself.
I need to get out of here so I can go join Sarah's dreams and we can help each other deal with the nightmares, assuming that this isn't Sarah's dream. And since I don't know whether or not it is, the first thing to do is go find the dreamer, which is a simple matter of following whatever route leads to more solid dreamscape.
I didn't know what to expect, but I certainly didn't expect to run into Dr. Pappas, walking down the hallway and methodically peering into every door on the way.
"There you are." He says upon sighting me, as though it were natural and expected to have run into my wandering dream-self wherever it is we are. "Grandmother has been looking all over for you." A quick survey of the surroundings reveals that this must not be his dream, because it's still not quite solid here.
"You're dreamwalking too?" I ask.
"Not exactly, grandmother brought me here, just like she brought you here."
"I didn't even know that was possible."
At that moment, Grandma Pappas (young version) opens a set of double doors that I suppose lead to a stairwell, dragging a protesting Sarah roughly by the arm, and demands of me "What is she doing here?"
"Look lady, I don't even know what I'm doing here."
"Grandmother, let go of that poor woman. Whatever happened I think the only thing we can say for certain is that it wasn't her fault."
Sarah looks back and forth at Dr. and Grandma Pappas, who both appear to be approximately the same age and, somewhat predictably, asks...
Nah, actually it's too predictable so I just cut her off with a preemptive "I'll explain later." I also note that reality is getting more solid as she approaches with Sarah in tow, meaning it's either her dream or Sarah's, and dialogue thus far is pointing away from Sarah.
"She shouldn't be here." Grandma Pappas insists as she finally lets go of Sarah's arm. "She's a walking nightmare beacon and she's going to bring them here before we can discuss everything. Nicholas and I spent the evening tracing the ley lines around the city. They've been tampered with. They must be what's keeping the spirits in."
"One of those ley lines wouldn't run past the asylum, would it?" I ask.
"Just to check, I'm the only one here who doesn't know what a ley line is, right?" Sarah interjects. I open my mouth but this time she cuts me off with a "You'll explain later, right. I'm keeping track of these by the way."
"Yes. It's one corner of a lopsided pentagon that's centered on downtown." Dr. Pappas answered. "Why?"
"You've both read my case file, I assume." They nod in agreement. "The creature I fought in Tanzania is back, only this time it's disguised as a human being and it's a lot smarter. It caught me snooping around when I found some kind of glowing circle there, and wasn't happy about it."
"What did you find out?" Grandma Pappas demanded, sharply. She wasn't in the mood for wasting time, apparently.
"Besides what a concussion feels like? I have a copy of most of the circle's pattern back at Sarah's apartment, that I traced onto my hand before I was... hey would you look at that, it's not smudged in the dream."
"It's likely inaccurate, it's a product of your memory, but I can try to decipher it." She replies, taking my hand and talking quickly. "No, only the basics are clear. It's a casting circle for certain, meant to contain rather than project, but I can't tell any more from this. I'd expect to find one of these at every corner of the downtown pentagon. You can destroy them with iron filings, but they're likely alarmed or guarded, or both. Regardless, there would be no time for the sprits to fade before they can be redrawn. We have to destroy the creature before we can end this."
"That's pretty much the exact opposite of what I wanted to hear," I tell her.
"Direct confrontation may not be necessary. But we need more information first. But for now, we're out of time. Your friend has lead the spirits here, I can feel them enter my dream." Dang, she's a lot better at this than I am. I wouldn't be aware of anything until I can see them. "You're an artist, aren't you, girl? I can see it in your aura. You may as well be a jelly doughnut. Nicholas, keep those doors to the stairwell closed as long as you can, we're surrounded."
Dr. Pappas looks around for something to hold the doors, then takes off his belt and ties it around the handles before leaning against it with all his weight. "I don't know how long this will hold." So I take off my belt and toss it to him for reinforcement. Was I even wearing a belt before? Who knows.
Grandma Pappas then turns to us. "There is going to be a fight. I can't fight and try to wake up at the same time. Can you two defend yourselves?"
By way of answering, Sarah waves around her gun (where did that come from all of a sudden?) like someone who has no idea how to handle firearms properly in the real world. It's okay though, she's not going to shoot someone accidentally in a dream. "There's more to you than I thought," she admits to Sarah. "And you?"
"I mostly just make a lot of noise and wave something heavy at them. Up until a couple of days ago that worked pretty well."
"Then help Nicholas hold the door. They're in the building now," She announces, clutching a quarterstaff that I don't remember her having before just now.
Immediately following, there is a slam against the stairwell double doors, and a grunt as Dr. Pappas tries to hold them closed. Simultaneously, as I rush to help him, a group of half a dozen spirits turns a corner at the end of the hallways and races toward us like starving wolves.
Sarah opens fire, emptying her revolver into the group, and four of them fall to the ground writing in pain. Grandma Pappas then jumps in front of her and with a surprisingly graceful flourish, she slams her quarterstaff against the skull of the fifth one, followed by a kick to the sixth one's solar plexus. It barely has time to bend over in pain when she swings the staff around and slams it into the back of its neck.
None of them are "dead" of course, because they're already dead, but they're out of commission for now. Cripes, can everyone fight here except for me?
Half a dozen more are trying to pound their way through the stairwell doors, but between the belts around the handles and the two of us holding it, they don't seem likely to get in any time soon. "I can send you back now. I will contact you again tomorrow night, and without her!"
"Not an option, I'm not leaving her to face the nightmares alone."
"Then she can sleep afterwards. Now wake up."
When we woke up, it was already 5AM. "Not enough time to be worth going back to sleep. I'll make some coffee." I offered.
"She's not a very pleasant woman, is she? What's this about being a grandmother? And what's a ley line?"
"You should see her in person. She must be a hundred years old in real life. She's confined to a wheelchair and looks like she has one foot in the grave already. You don't see this often, except in crazy people actually, when they look different in a dream than they do in the mirror. Then again she's amazingly skilled with dreams, she can do a lot of things I can't do. So I don't know what to think about that.
"Ley lines are bands of magic energy that run in straight lines across the Earth. Some people believe they're like ghost highways, other people believe that places where ley lines intersect are areas of supernatural significance. Stonehenge is supposed to be some kind of roundabout for a bunch of them."
"And how do you know about that?"
"You'd be surprised how much superstition and mythology is involved in geology. It's kind of what got me into this mess in the first place."
When we got into the kitchen, I started the coffee and Sarah cracked some eggs. We were both starving. Suddenly she stopped and asked me "Did she call me a jelly doughnut?"
"Don't ask me. Apparently you attract ghosts."
"That would explain why I've had nightmares almost daily since I was nine. It makes more sense than the 'traumatic experience I blocked out' idea I've been running with."
"While you're at work today—" I started.
"I'm calling in sick."
"You're not coming with me."
"The hell I'm not. This affects me to. After yesterday you need a lookout, you're still torn up from the fight."
"It was more of a beat-down."
"And I didn't mention this before because it's not like you need more pressure or anything, but I've been talking to the guys at work. They're walking around like the living dead, most of them are blaming it on nightmares over the last few days."
"Most of them?"
"Gary's been drinking himself to sleep so he doesn't dream."
"Does that work?"
"He doesn't have nightmares but he doesn't sleep well either. So it's kind of a wash."
At that, we sat down to eat in silence for a while.
"I think we need to find the other four circles next." I finally said.
"It didn't sound like the Pappases knew where they were."
"But they know where the ley lines are, and if they're at the corners they should be easy enough to find. But they also said they might be alarmed or something, so we'll have to get in and out quickly. We should probably destroy one too, just to see if that iron filings idea works."
One phone call to Dr. Pappas' office, a defaced street map, and a quick stop off at American Science and Surplus (for the iron filings) later, we were looking for the circles in Sarah's car. We brought a camera just in case, but I had my doubts that would work so I brought along some actual paper to copy the drawings.
The first circle went pretty much without incident. Since it glows I didn't have any trouble finding it. We did, however, confirm that Sarah can't see them, so the camera was going to be useless.
After double-checking my copy, I tossed the iron filings on the circle, and with a near-blinding flash (to me anyway) that looked like it should have sounded like a small explosion (but was silent), it vanished.
Which was kind of a problem, because it attracted the attention of every single spirit in the immediate area. They all turned away from the people they were following and turned towards me, and I made the mistake of making eye contact with some of them. Now certain that I could see them, they started to approach me. I quickly scrambled back into the car.
But since there was no sign of the Shambler, we proceeded on to the next intersection. I noted with some concern that the spirits were following the car, but didn't mention it to Sarah. We were going a lot faster than them.
It was at the second (third counting last night) circle that we ran into trouble.
It was in an alley between two office buildings. As before, I told Sarah to wait in the car, and honk if she saw trouble. Then I got out to compare it with my paper copy. They were nearly identical except that two of the lines were pointed in different directions, so I figured I would just copy that part to save time.
Then Sarah started honking the horn.
Unfortunately, before I could get out of the alley, the Shambler showed up to block my exit. It still threw me how something that looks like that could just walk around in broad daylight without attracting attention, but other people don't see what I do.
"That was stupid." He started. I realized that at that point of course, you always realize it after you get caught. "You really thought you could just follow the circles around in order and not expect me to catch up with you? I almost gave you too much credit, I almost didn't check this one for you next."
I had no idea what to do next. He was bigger than me, and stronger, and I don't know how to fight. He beat me last night as a warning, I was afraid he'd kill me this time.
But that's when the spirits caught up with me. They poured in from both sides of the alley, cutting off both escape routes. At once, they turned their attention to the Shambler instead, and it was obvious that he could see them too. They were pissed. "Oh, so you know this is my fault, do you? Come on, then, see if you can do something about it."
I didn't wait around to see what would happen, I just got out of there and ran for Sarah's car.
"What's going on? Why did he let you go?" She was nearly in hysterics.
I turned back to look in the alley, and saw him fighting them off. I'm sorry to say he was doing a great job of it. I didn't understand how he could touch them — I can see them but not touch them — but if it weren't for their overwhelming numbers they wouldn't have stood a chance. As it was, their touch seemed to burn him, but it wasn't quite enough. To anyone else he must have looked like he was just flailing his arms around like a crazy person. "Drive. Just drive. We've got to get out of here."
"I don't know. Will it be safe to go back to your apartment? Maybe we should get a hotel room somewhere."
On to part 2