I sat with Jenny on the curb outside the club. Polly was nervously kicking her soccer ball from side to side, bouncing it off of the top of her shoes with shocking precision. Every ten or twenty bounces, she’d miss, and it would heavily strike the pavement of the sidewalk, leaving large cracks. Alfred’s jaw was tensed, his forehead vein throbbing, his legs crossed. “Must you do that right now, darling?” he asked, through gritted teeth. He sat in a meditative pose, eyes closed, five candles surrounding him, the vials sitting between his crossed legs. I knew for a fact that he didn’t need any of these little accoutrements, but he’d made it clear that putting on a show made the magic easier.
“Sorry. It’s just… boring.” She let the ball strike the pavement again, and stood atop it, balancing herself, arms waving. Alfred took an extremely deep breath, and then blew it out through his nostrils, seeming to calm visibly as he did so. His eyes fluttered open slowly, and he nodded. “Alright. Let’s get in there.”
An extroverted lawyer loves the bar. An introverted lawyer loves the liquor store. I’d always been introverted. I drank alone, and yes, I know precisely how bad that sounds. But it beat this kind of environment. It was still early, the sun just set, dinner not yet served, on a Monday night. But the psychic pressure the place exerted on me was still palpable. It was like forcing my way in against a gale. Or maybe that was the loud music playing.
Bars cater to drunk people. Drunk people tend to be sensitive to light, and numbed to noise. That’s why they’re dimly lit, and play loud music. I’ve always suspected it’s also intended to make it so nobody has to try to carry on a coherent conversation. I peered owlishly through the darkness, and approached the bartender that Alfred had mentioned to me on the drive there. “You were here on Friday night, right?” I asked, smiling. He gave me a quick look, and grunted, brushing a few strands of well-manicured black hair out of his face. I’d read that was a sign of attraction. Somehow I thought it was just a coincidence with this guy. “See, my friend there left that night with someone, and we think that she might have been robbed by that person.” I took out my phone, and showed him a picture I’d grabbed at the Night Court, showing off Chaac. “You recognize this woman?”
He frowned, and looked closely at the picture, then shook his head. “Sorry, ma’am.” Then he went back to polishing the glassware. I sighed, and rejoined Alfred and the others.
“Well, he wasn’t very helpful. But it was always going to be a long-shot.” I examined the small vials as Alfred set them down on the table. Each one contained a different amount. Mine was full nearly to the top. I gave Alfred a dirty look. He shrugged his shoulders in a ‘What can I do?’ kind of way, and I lifted the vial into the air to the air. The fluid was a suspension of alcohol, containing the various purified chemicals he’d used. It was clear, and sparkled slightly. I held it in front of my eye as I looked around the room, and frowned. “Oh, that’s very weird.”
“That’s how you know that it’s the good stuff.” Alfred smiled. “Alright, ladies, bottoms up.” He unscrewed the stopper on the vial, and tossed it back. Jenny did the same, and coughed a couple of times before managing to gulp it down. I closed my eyes, and upended it. It wasn’t the worst cocktail I’d ever had, but it certainly came close. Pure ethanol tastes fucking awful.
I never know exactly how the Dreamwalk is going to hit me. Sometimes, it was slow, gradual, a gentle shifting from one state of mind. This usually happened in quiet, calm places. No such luck, here. The pounding bass beat of some meaningless song began to shift, taking on a new tenor and rhythm. I found my hips beginning to sway from side to side. I realized what the song was as I became more aware of my own chest. It was a heart beat. I turned my head towards the speakers. A great heart lay there. Not the bloody, awful, meat kind that you saw in a butcher’s window, but the kind of perfect symmetrical shape that humanity associated with love, and which resembled a really nice ass. It was pumping wildly, but that felt right. I turned my head.
Polly stood all in armor. Leather and hide, stapled to her body, covering most of her. It was rough stuff, and dark. But I could see her face through the gaps. Her features were soft and sweet, pale and kind, her red hair hanging messily across her face. Alfred stood nearby her, a crown upon his head, proud mail around his shoulders, a great sword hanging from his hip. The fucker always looked like that when I was dreamwalking. I’d never mentioned it to him, because I was mostly sure that it was him fucking with my perceptions. And Jenny…
Jenny stood in the center of the room, with a young man I didn’t recognize. The two of them had their arms in the air, dancing and shaking their heads in time with the pulsing beat. The two of them looked completely normal, smiling, twining their arms together, dancing slowly. I stared at them, and felt the little pit of jealousy in my stomach. They were happy, satisfied with their lives. They had each other, and a future full of promise and excitement. They knew what they were doing. Everything was going to be alright for them. Why couldn’t I have that?
Then she walked in.
I had never seen Hun-Came. I had no idea what she looks like. But the figure who entered the room was a dark goddess. Eyes flared like black suns, coronas of darkness emerging from them. Her ears were peaked like a bat’s, rising high into the air. Blood drooled from her lips, down across her chin. The beat of the music had changed, becoming fearsome, pounding against my skull like an assault. The speakers had changed. From soft, lovey-dovey hearts, they had become torn and bleeding organs, true hearts. Blood was dripping down to the floor in thick pools around them. Each beat of the music accompanied a beat of the hearts, and they pounded so loud it made my skull ache. The goddess carried a short obsidian knife at her side, and approached the two young lovers.
“What do you see, Atina?” Alfred asked. His voice was washed out, distant, as I watched the scene. My fists were clenched. I watched as the two turned towards the woman, smiling, inviting, innocently interested. She spoke with them, and flecks of blood splattered their skin.
“I see someone talking to Jenny and Tony. Someone powerful. I think it’s Hun-Came, but I can’t be sure. Pretty bat-like, though.” I took a deep breath. I could only gather impressions, not what had actually happened. It was someone strong, full of necromantic energy. Someone bat-like. She leaned in, and planted a kiss first on Jenny’s lips, then on Tony’s. Their eyes glazed, and their skin turned pale as their stances changed. They stood slouched, half-conscious. “She did something to them. Made them docile.” Then the three of them walked out of the bar, and I followed after, taking a quick pace.
It was pitch black outside. The waxing crescent moon hung in the sky, and it was covered in great dark lines that made the sliver of white look like a mouthful of grinning teeth. Two stars shone where the dark side of the moon should have been, creating a ghastly smile. Blood drizzled down the teeth of the moon, falling in a great arc, landing in the distance, and roaring through the river basin. The Susquehanna roared with all the fury of the spring thaw as it pounded at its banks, water replaced with cruor and ichor and gore. It threatened to overflow, to flood the entire valley. But I kept on walking, following the three. Hun-Came- The figure at the head, I couldn’t afford to get focused on the idea that it had to be Hun-Came- spoke in a low voice, laughing softly, as they walked across the sidewalks.
“What’s happening now, Atina?” asked Alfred.
“Shh,” I whispered. “They can hear us.” I pointed towards one of the trees. Dozens of owls stood in the tree. Tiny screech owls, barn owls, even a single great horned owl, its feathers tufted up. I’d always loved owls with their strange, wise eyes. These didn’t have strange, wise eyes. They had the eyes of humans, staring greedily down at the group. There was a sudden rumble of thunder, and I started, as lightning arched through the sky. “Was there a storm on the night this happened? Or is there a storm happening now?”
“No,” Alfred whispered. “Who can hear us?”
“Shit. I think this is a metaphor.” I turned my head, and froze as a great beast rose from the bloody river. Scales like gold, and a serpentine body, with a tiger-like head. My heart began to pound as it opened a single great yellow eye, and leaned in close, staring at me. I stopped dead as the creature’s massive head hung in the air next to me.
“Law-bringer,” the creature rumbled, and then withdrew as though stung, the earth rumbling. This all was not so surprising. It happened every time I did a dreamwalk in this damn city. Every time I did, I saw this damn dragon thing, and it said the same thing. I didn’t tell Alfred about these visions, either, because I knew exactly what he would say. That it was a manifestation of my own obsession with dragons, that I was letting my own desires overwrite the truth of what was really there, that-
“Atina,” whispered Jenny. I looked up. We stood before the hotel. It looked much the same in the dream as it did in reality, a spiritually barren place, without home or hearth or animating force. The woman stepped up to a door, and disappeared through it, before opening it from within. The two young students walked through, and I stared through the window, the door remaining resolutely locked. Within, the two young students sat obediently. I watched as she sank her teeth into Jenny’s throat, and the girl let out a sigh. Her body went pale, snow white, as she was drained. Then, a single drop of blood was dropped into her mouth.
Hundreds of owls gathered around the hotel, their wings ruffling, their strange human eyes piercing as they watched the proceedings with voyeuristic eagerness. Their wings rose and fell, slowly beating the air as the rain began to pour down around us. It was ice cold, and soaked me through to the bone, leaving me shivering as I watched the three.
Jenny lunged, her teeth about to find Tony’s throat, when the dark figure stopped her, a single finger pressing against the girl’s lips. Jenny slumped to the floor like a marionette with her strings cut. And then, the dark figure leaned over Tony, and began to drink, throat bobbing and rising.
I turned my head to the side. A woman stood beside me, naked save for an elaborate headdress and a single shell earring dangling from one ear. Her body was covered in scales in places, scintillating in the lightning that tore open the sky. She raised a hand into the air, and brought it down on the glass, just as the dark figure looked up from Tony.
A bolt of lightning seared out of the sky, through the scaled woman and into the dark figure. The two of them hurtled together, grappling and tearing and fighting and—
I was running through the darkness. The forest was thick and cloying, rain pounding down, tropical heat smothering my skin. I chanced a peek back over my shoulder. Flames and smoke rose into the night. Occasionally one of my fellows ran past in the darkness, leaving me behind as they sprinted, lashed forward by the primal terror of the foreign monsters that had descended upon us, who were consuming us. They ran with all the gut terror of the hunted deer. And when they disappeared from view, I heard snaps from the jungle, and cut-off screams, and knew that one more friend was gone. I kept running.
Tears stung my eyes, running down my cheeks and into the hollow of my throat. I had been on the verge of being allowed to marry. I had my entire life ahead of me. My sobs came out in ragged, choking gasps for air. I didn’t have time to cry. If they caught me, they would kill me too. All I could do was run, and run, and run. My feet ached, blood and sweat mixing together freely as I kept running. I kept going, until-
Without preamble, she stood before me. Tall, imperious, magnificent. She met my eyes, and smiled. I stopped, my legs going limp beneath me, dumping me on my ass. She met my eyes, and spoke softly. I didn’t know the language, but somehow, I understood. “Why do you cry, child?”
“Because everyone I love is dying,” I said, my hair hanging around my cheeks, plastered to my skin by my sweat. The rain began to fall, as I sobbed into my hands.
“Those you love will come and go. It is the nature of things. Tonight is hard, but there will be many more nights like it. When were you born, child?”
“I… What?” I frowned up at the woman. “On the seventh Kimi.” I’d hated that birthdate. I’d always been teased about it, nobody had wanted to befriend a girl born on Kimi. It was a time of ill omens and suffering.
“Ah, auspicious. A child born into adversity. But given the strength to survive that adversity.” She smiled, and knelt down in front of me, resting her hand on my head. “Do you want the power to make sure that this never happens again?”
I stared over my shoulder, listened as the screams filled the air, and covered my tear-stained face with my palms. “Yes.”
There was a soft chuckle. Then her teeth sank into my throat, and everything went black.
“JESUS!” I bolted upright, sitting up out of my bed. I breathed hard, staring at my palms. They were scratched and bloody. Polly jumped to her feet from beside my bed, looking around wildly.
“Is she awake?” called Alfred from downstairs. I heard him pound up the stairs, and into the room. “God damn, Atina! You’re alright!” He threw his arms around my shoulders, hugging me hard. I blinked blearily. It was still dark outside. I peered at the clock. It said it was 8 PM. My whole body was shaking. The memories of the dreamwalk and the strange vision were still furiously strong, searing lines through my brain. I took deep, steadying breaths, trying to pull myself back together.
“Jesus. What did you guys get from that room?”
Alfred frowned. “Well… There was a sense of betrayal that I got, but I couldn’t identify it more precisely than that. Jenny barely got anything at all, it was like she couldn’t remember what had happened in there.”
I rubbed my face, and groaned. “Something attacked Hun-Came while she was trying to convert Tony. I’m sure of it. It was some kind of strange woman with scales. I’m not sure what she was, but-” I shuddered, and sank down into the bed. “Jesus. Okay. Owls. That’s the Strix. I think that they were watching. Polly, get a pen and paper and take this down, would you?” Polly gave me a look, but did as I asked. “Owls. Watching owls. The moon was weeping blood, and Hun-Came- I think it must have been Hun-Came. She was powerful. Really powerful. And I saw a river of blood. There was a thunderstorm, and a scaled woman attacked Hun-Came, and then-” I rubbed my forehead. The dream was already fading, unlike the dreamwalk visions. Had it just been my brain throwing together random ideas, random imagery? I wasn’t sure. “God. How long was I out?”
“Nearly twenty-four hours,” said Polly.
“… I’m sorry, what?”
“Yes, you seemed to have something of a fit when you reached the hotel,” Alfred said, clearly embarrassed. “I managed to get you back in the car, but you wouldn’t wake up. Your body seemed to be recovering from something. I-”
“Oh god, I’m going to be late.” I was up and out of the bed in a second, rushing into the bathroom, slamming the door shut behind me. I hadn’t shaved. I hadn’t showered. I tried to do both at once, and scratched my skin up something fierce.
“Late for what, Atina?” asked Polly from outside. “Do you need me to come along and do the bodyguard thing?”
“No! I mean, no, no, don’t worry about it! It’ll be fine, I just- Shit!”
I stumbled out of the bathroom, semi-groomed and half-naked, and grabbed clothes from the closet as Alfred pointedly covered his eyes. Polly’s jaw dropped. “Wait, do you have a date? Oh, that’s awesome! Who are you going to see?”
“No one! He’s normal.”
“Wow, okay, racist,” Polly said, crossing her arms.
“Not like that, I mean he is not a spirit, or a monster, or a demon, or anything crazy. And I kind of want to keep him away from that part of my life until I’m sure that… You know…” I coughed into my hand. “That he can handle it…?”
“I see,” Alfred said tartly. “You’re ashamed of us. It’s because I spend all my time doing theater with a bunch of fairies, isn’t it?” I groaned softly.
“No, it’s because you got me whacked to the gills on Datura and made me lose a day and now I’m going to be late!” I checked the clock. 8:30. Great, I’d only be an… hour late. “Shit! Jizz-balls-cock-sucking-date-raping SHIT!” Polly was scribbling notes down furiously. “Alright, I’ll be back! Just- Shit. Just try not to cause any calamities while I’m gone!”
The upside of a bike over running was that I was not panting and gasping for air when I reached the small apartment complex. I chained my bike outside, and climbed three flights of stairs, wishing all along that I’d thought to ask for Roy’s phone number so I could let him know when I’d be late. I braced myself for the sight of disappointment and anger on his face while I knocked on the simple door.
The door opened. Roy stood there, and he looked good. Discarding the shapeless, riotously colored uniform for a pair of slacks, a couple of good shoes, and a button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up. He still looked young, and short compared to me, and a little bit silly with his stubble, but here, he actually looked just a bit handsome. He gave me a weak smile. “Miss LeRoux, please, c’mon in, make yourself at home.”
I stepped in. “I’m sorry I was late, Roy. There’s a good explanation for it.” I struggled to find one that didn’t involve admitting I’d been doped to the gills on psychedelics, but to my great relief, Roy saved me by raising his hands.
“It’s alright, Miss LeRoux. I know you’ve got crazy work hours. It was for the best, anyway, the ribs needed another hour or so!” He smiled, and as I made my way into the small studio apartment’s living room, the smell hit me.
I know I’m going to invite jokes by saying this. I got teased a lot for my weight as a kid, and even grown up and in good shape, I still feel uncomfortable with my body. But food is damn important. Good, regular meals are one of the things most necessary to a happy human being. All of the supernatural weirdos I’d met were the same. They all needed to eat.
I’d experienced many different kinds of cuisine. The scent of a rich Indian curry. The snap and crackle of Turkish kebabs. The warm oil-soaked scent of Middle Eastern. The intriguing spices of Chinese. The elegant simplicity of Japanese. The meats and beans of Mexican. And countless others. But the smell wafting through the house now was one that made my stomach growl, and my heart shudder with fear. It was the smell of Texas barbecue.
A platter of ribs lay smothered in a molasses sauce, cooking on tinfoil. They’d turned black and sticky, the fat and oil running along the surface in thick rivulets. A large loaf pan sat next to them, golden corn-bread shining in it. A heaping bowl of homemade applesauce sat next to it. I stared down for a moment, my jaw dropped. “This… Isn’t the healthiest food, you know,” I said, even as I stepped forward to take some.
“Yeah, well, I thought of doing fish or something, but I figured that might feel a li’l too familiar to both of us, y’know?” Roy rubbed the back of his head. “I could make somethin’ else, if you want-”
“No,” I said firmly. “This is exactly what I needed.” I smiled, and took a seat at the small dining table set up in the middle of the apartment. It was sparse, and small, but clean, and warm. I took a big bite of apple sauce, and closed my eyes. Cinnamon, molasses, and apples mixed together in my mouth, the taste warm and sweet. I took a deep breath, and felt something wet trickling down my cheeks. I took another bite, and the tears began to roll my cheeks in big, fat blobs, embarrassing the hell out of me while I sniffled through my nose.
“What’s the matter, Miss LeRoux?” Roy asked, his voice very soft and gentle. “Does it taste bad? Cause-”
“It’s been years since I came home and there was a meal waiting for me.” I brushed at my eyes. “It’s those things that you don’t really appreciate, you know? Coming home after a long day, and there’s a meal waiting for you, and someone who cares enough to make sure that you’re not going to starve yourself to death-” I sniffled, and brushed the tears out of my eyes. “Do you ever look at your life and just feel… terrified? Like you’re clinging to the edge of a cliff, and there’s a long drop below you, onto hard rocks?” I took another bite, and then stood. “I’m sorry, I’m a mess, I should go-”
Roy’s hand took hold of my wrist. Gently. Not pulling me back, or desperate. His fingers were warm and smooth against my skin, his eyes full of concern. “Please, don’t.” And so, I sat back down. “Miss LeRoux, what’s this problem? Is it-” He lowered his voice, looking around. “Is it criminals? Is someone threatening you?”
I smiled, weakly. “Kind of.”
“I could help, Miss LeRoux. I could, really-”
“No,” I said firmly. “I appreciate it. But you can’t help. Not that way. But this…” I cut off a slice of corn bread, and dipped it into the sticky molasses coating the barbecued ribs. “This helps. It’s just… There’s a lot riding on this case.”
“You help folks, Miss LeRoux.”
“It’s just a jo-”
“No, it ain’t.” He frowned, and sat up firmly. “I remember the first time you talked to me. Walked in like an angel with a sailor’s mouth, and started complaining about your clients. Talking about how ungrateful they could be, how stupid they could be, how they never took your advice, just going on and on about them, and I wondered why you’d help people who were so damn troublesome. Why you’d work late into the night and bust your butt to help people who didn’t understand what you were doing for them. Who didn’t help you. Till I asked you. Remember that?”
I smiled, and sniffed, runny snot dripping down my lip. I wiped my face with a paper napkin. “You asked, ‘If they’re such a pain in the butt, why don’t you let them fix their own damn problems?'” I smiled. “In those exact words.”
“And you said ‘Because then they’d be alone.’ You were the one person in the world who they could trust to help ’em. You wanted to be there for the people who had nothin’.” He frowned, and crossed his arms. “I saw that, and I thought to myself, ‘there’s a woman who’s going to drive herself mad trying to help everyone else, giving everything she’s got till she ain’t got nothin’ left.’ And I couldn’t think of somethin’ that made me sadder than the idea of you bein’ punished by the world for trying to make things right. It doesn’t seem fair.”
I sighed softly. “That’s the world, Roy. There’s no justice. The world’s not fai-”
“Don’t ever say that, Miss LeRoux. Not you. Please.” He gave me a desperate look. “You’re fightin’ every day to keep a bit of justice in the world, aintcha? To protect the people nobody else has. If you really stop believing that the world should be just, then what chance do us normal folks have?”
We sat in silence for a long few minutes, as he grew gradually more furtive and restless, squirming in his chair. Finally, he opened his mouth, and I bent forward, grabbing his collar, and gave him a kiss on the lips.
It wasn’t one of the better kisses in romantic history. I hadn’t kissed a lot of boys. It was clumsy, uncertain, a bit fumbling, and I nearly lit my sleeve on fire on one of the candles. But as we broke apart, Roy smiled. “You could give a guy some awfully strange notions doing something like that, Miss LeRoux.”
“Atina. You can call me Atina.” I smiled softly, and leaned back in my chair, the warm cinnamon taste of his lips still on my tongue. “Thank you, Roy. I really needed a chance to just… vent, I suppose. I appreciate the help, but I don’t need someone shot. Now if you could tell me where I could find a coin collector who’ll buy a grab bag quick…”
“You collect coins?” His eyes brightened. “What do you have?”
“Well… I don’t know, really-” I frowned at Roy. “You collect coins?”
“Well, I don’t have the money to actually collect ’em or anything, but I love antiques and all kindsa valuable stuff. I love watchin’ that show.” He grinned. “Sometimes we get weird coins in the register, and I let this lady down in Egg Harbor know when we find somethin’ valuable, so she trades for ’em. Uh.” He blushed. “Don’t tell Mister Williger, will ya? I don’t think it’s strictly legal.”
“Is she reliable?”
“Heck yeah. She’s pretty rich, one of those girls from a wealthy family, kinda snooty, but she always pays me good prices. I got her contact information if you wanna see her, she comes by occasionally-”
“Roy, if you can get me her info and get me in touch with her, I won’t just keep quiet about it, I will represent you in the court if Mister Williger ever finds out.” I smiled at him. “This… Thank you, Roy.” He gave me a goofy grin in return, and quickly stood up to go check his computer. While he did, I sat with the ribs, nibbling the meat off the slender, well-cooked bones.
All of the previous times that I’d had one of the dreamwalks, the nightmares that had accompanied it had left me shaking, terrified, for weeks. I had dreams, vivid ones, full of strange shocking imagery, and childhood fears. They left me weak and shakey. Sometimes I’d barely been able to focus, and it got worst in moments like this, when I was waiting, when my thoughts went quiet, when there wasn’t anything I had to do immediately. I braced myself… and nothing happened.
I sat there, nibbling on the ribs while Roy gathered together his contact information, no terror or pain in my chest. No fear and anxiety. There was just the warmth of a nice meal with a guy that I was growing increasingly fond of, which he had made specially for me. I felt the warmth flowing up through my chest. Not embarrassment, not shame, not humiliation. Nothing so awful. I felt, for all the world, like things were improving. That the world was on the mend. Maybe things weren’t so bad as I’d thought.
He sat down with me, and smiled, handing me over the sheet with the contact information. “I’ll give her an e-mail, let her know you’re planning on visiting her and such. Uh, I hope it helps out.”
“I’m sure it will.” I smiled softly. “I can’t stay tonight-”
“Oh, that’s okay-”
“But I want to see you again. The very moment this trial is finished, I want to spend some time with you. Take a little time off. I might be a little short on money, but… Just something to show you how glad I am. Is that okay?”
“It would be my genuine honor.” He smiled, and stood up, walking me to the door. “Do you want me to walk you back to your house, Miss LeRoux?”
“Not tonight.” I smiled, and leaned closer, planting a gentle kiss on his cheek, bent forward. “But as soon as I can kick everyone out. And remember, you call me Atina.”
He was beaming as he held the door for me, and so was I. The bitter cold air nipped at my skin, but it couldn’t do anything to freeze the warm little spot in the pit of my stomach, and the way my heart was pounding with excitement. I biked the entire way home without thinking once about the dreamwalk, or monsters, or my own death. My happy mood broke only when I saw the Studebaker parked in front of the house, and my heart crawled right up into my throat. Fang Fen stood outside of the car, leaning back on the hood, starring up at the stars. She turned her head towards me as I approached.
“We need to talk.”