Science Fiction & Fantasy

IntheNightWood-Banner_Final_Lightspeed Oct 2018

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Fiction

The Dreamers of Alamoi

The madman whistled an unfamiliar tune as he walked past the tangle-choked fields along a road in little better shape; before the plague, it had been surfaced with polished brick. Bricks that the dreamers hadn’t pried up or been chewed into gravel by the weeds and weather.

The guide followed close behind, scheming again.

The madman paused to light his pipe and take a preposterously deep drag from the tight-packed bowl. He inclined the stem toward his guide, exhaled blue smoke.

The guide shook his head. “The last time left me stumbling for hours.”

The madman shrugged. “I had hoped for the amusement of a repeat performance. Ah well. How far now?”

The guide squinted. “Another dozen leagues before it’s too dangerous to continue.”

“Too dangerous for you, perhaps,” the madman said, unveiling his madness again.

When they first met in the traveler’s inn a hundred leagues distant, the madman had said to the guide, whose name was Tog: “They call me Garen the Undreaming—among other, less flattering things. Those men told me you know the way to Alamoi.”

Indeed, Tog had not seen Garen rest since they had set out from the inn for Alamoi, although Tog required sleep, so it was possible that Garen had only waited to bed down until after Tog. Suspicious of the claim, Tog had only pretended to sleep one evening. Through slitted eyes, he had watched the madman drink from a wineskin, wave his hands in some elaborate pantomime, and mutter to himself for hours.

The novelty of it wore thin and Tog had drifted off, but not before he decided that it made no difference whether the assertion was true or not. Garen was mad in either case. He was especially mad if the claim was true; immune to sleep he might be, but immune to the effects of deprivation he was not.

Mad as he was, what harm to lead the man toward the city, knock him on the head, and take from him the curious bag of belongings he carried on his back? No harm to Tog anyway, and that was all that really mattered to him.

“Do you often meet travelers on this road?” Garen asked.

Tog made out the shapes of figures in the dawn mist slouching towards them. He touched the polished antler-hilt of the bone knife at his belt, reassuring himself of its presence.

“Never.”

Garen shifted his pack from his shoulders, dropped it in the dirt, and begun rummaging through it. Objects clattered and thudded inside. Tog leaned in to glimpse the contents.

“Really?” Garen said to the air. “Yes, very well. I’ll find it.”

Many of the objects Garen carried with him were unrecognizable to Tog, made of bone, mountain glass, flint, and even the rare bit of copper or bronze, colored deeply as Garen’s own foreign skin.

Garen took the wooden handle of a bronze blade in his palm and Tog felt relieved that the madman had armed himself, but then Garen sat it aside and continued to dig. The approaching figures had resolved into the shapes of two men and a woman wearing the heavy fur cloaks of hillfolk when Garen clucked like a pleased hen and withdrew a fist-sized cloth bundle fastened closed with jute.

The pack contained treasures, as Tog had suspected, perhaps worth countless nights in the brothel tents. He would have it, if the hillfolk didn’t ruin everything.

“Not the kind of folk interested in trade,” Tog hissed. The hillfolk had spotted them and their pace picked up to a brisk jog. The men carried stone-tipped spears.

“Keep your mouth shut while I work,” Garen hissed, and then called out, “Well met, travelers.”

The hillfolk slowed, exchanging glances. Tog had known some who were honorable, but far more who were brigands and thieves; clever, and deadly with their spears. They rejected farming and civility, living as the old people did by the fruits of their arms. Many found it easier to survive as bandits than to hunt game on the flinty hillsides where they dwelled.

“We are not travelers,” the woman said. “I am Theam, and these are my brothers. Who are you, and what brings you to this plague-wracked place? Few travel this road now but the dreamers.”

Garen touched his right thumb to his forehead, a customary greeting. “I am Garen, and I travel to the Shining City. This is my guide.”

“Tog.” He half-bowed.

The woman laughed. “You can’t hope to escape the teeth of such a powerful dream. If we allowed you to travel another league, you too would be cutting stone blocks from the hill quarries and dragging them into place, again and again until you collapse, rest, and rise to cut and labor again.”

Tog began to speak out against their lie, but Garen silenced him with a glare. “You have seen the dreamers of Alamoi?” Garen sounded impressed.

“I have,” she said, nodding. “Their work teams wander into our hills to gather stone for those twin blasphemies.” She thrust a thumb over her shoulder.

Garen nodded. “Perhaps you can solve a mystery for me, then. With the fields untended and all commerce departed, what do the dreamers consume for sustenance after these seven years of labor?” The question had bothered Tog as well, and many travelers had their theories, mostly gruesome.

“The dream sustains them,” Theam said. “They do not require food or drink.”

The madman forlornly shook his head. “What a pitiful existence! A life of constant labor and no pleasure. Myself, I prefer an inversion of that imbalance. Thank you for the knowledge, then.” He paused. “I see your brothers grow tired of talk and are ready to kill and rob us, but I must forestall that, I’m afraid.” Garen unfurled his closed fist and offered the bundle to the hill woman.

Theam’s eyes widened, and the men began to speak rapidly in their guttural tongue. After a moment of hesitation, she took it. One of the men said something angrily, and pointed his spear towards Garen. Theam slapped him open-palmed across the face, hard enough that the man’s nose dripped blood afterwards.

“I recognize the craftsmanship,” she told her brother in the dream tongue, then, turning to the madman: “How did this token enter your possession, flatlander?”

Garen laughed. “I found it tucked in the belt of a dead man leagues and leagues away from here. I honestly had no idea what it was, but a voice on the wind told me to give it to you. A token, you say?”

The hillfolk shifted uneasily. Not even hillfolk wished to be in the presence of a madman for any longer than necessary. Tog nearly smirked.

“Of passage,” she said. “We will honor it as we must, or the Rutk of the Raven Eye will punish us. But if you continue down this road, you will dream or die.”

“Sadly, I must.”

“A shame your possessions will be lost with you. Go, then, but know whatever it is they construct within . . . it nears completion. Better to flee this place as we do.”

Garen took up his pack and began to walk down the ruined road, once again whistling the foreign tune. Tog stepped to follow, and found the hillfolk’s spear-tips at his belly.

“One token. One passage,” Theam’s taller brother snarled.

Garen shrugged. He avoided Tog’s desperate gaze.

“You cannot leave me to these beasts! I led you faithfully as promised!” Tog shouted. He made to draw his knife, but the hill men’s icy stares chilled the anger in his blood.

Garen continued on his path making no sign of awareness even as the hillfolk’s spears plunged about their gory work, and Tog screamed curses for the day he had met Garen the Undreaming.

• • • •

Garen left stories in his wake like petals from a dying flower. These tales served as a trail which the needful could follow in order to hire or press him into service. Always they found Garen in one of a few locales: within brothels, where tawdry pleasures of the flesh could satisfy a short while; within a mead hall or winery, where strong drink could tamp down his madness for a while longer; or finally, within a temple or sanitarium, where sacred rites or ancient medicines might soothe his fractured mind a while longer still.

Meldri and Besthamun found Garen locked away in the deepest meditation pits of the Goddess Sebun’s holiest temple in the port city of Tauk.

A bribed eunuch led them through the labyrinth of dimly lit passageways. “The acolytes have subjected this one to eighteen endless days and nights of humming meditations. They believe the proper tones will align Garen’s soul shards and restore his ability to slumber.”

“For our sake, we hope they’re unsuccessful,” Meldri muttered. Besthamun frowned, but Meldri spoke the truth. If Garen were to be cured, he would not meet their needs.

The servant tittered, stopped at the entrance of a cell. He seemed held at bay by the hysterical laughter coming from within, rising above the steady tones of three acolytes.

“This wretched creature has no soul shards left to align,” whispered the eunuch. “But he made a generous enough offering to the Temple for a year of treatments.”

“I hear a little bird outside my cage,” the laughing voice cried from within. “Come in, little bird, and sing me a better song.”

The eunuch scurried away; Besthamun gave serious consideration to following, but they had traveled too far to turn back in this moment, and steeled herself to enter.

As they did, the humming ceased, the air suddenly dangerously empty, as if the silence might swallow them all. The small stone cell was lit by a single candle, nearly spent. The acolytes rose to their feet, saying nothing as they brushed past the scholars and into the catacombs.

A single disheveled shape remained within the cell, squeezed into the farthest corner as if trying to disappear into the flickering shadows. The figure might have been a man, or might have been a loose bundle of sticks and rags. He was made of elbows and knees, long-limbed, thin. Long, dull-black hair hung in tangles, hair from his scalp and face mingling into one tangled, rat-gnawed mess. Within the tangles burned sea-gray eyes that seemed to Besthamun to reflect more light than the candle gave off.

Besthamun cleared her throat. “Esteemed one, we offer our most humble apologies for interrupting, but—”

Garen sighed. “I welcome it; I grew bored of their incessant noises six days ago, but couldn’t think of how I might say as such without insulting their cult of mysteries. One thing I know about cults; they do not take to being insulted.” Without warning or pause, he scrabbled across the room to the scholars and stood with the tip of his broad nose brushing against Meldri’s. He sniffed.

“I know that perfume. You’ve journeyed from the Salt Coast.” He squinted. “By your plain manner of dress, I make you for scholars of the Great University of Kamtun Jai.”

Meldri took a step back. Besthamun glared at him for daring to insult Garen thus, but continued her entreaty.

“—we have a task that requires your unique person to complete, and wish to employ your services.”

“I visited the University once. They threw me out, said I was not worthy of their knowledge.”

“The mad cannot grasp enlightenment,” Meldri said with a sniff.

Besthamun considered striking her brother, but worried what the act of violence would incite in the madman. “Apologies for my brother’s insult. He is jealous of the offer we make to you.”

Meldri sneered. “We studied a dozen summers before we were allowed within the Library of Dreams. What could this one hope to learn without proper study?”

“No insult taken,” Garen said, lips twitching with the faintest smile. “Go without rest for as many years as I and see how sound your own mind is.” He took a step back from Meldri and stretched his long limbs.

“And what must I do to gain access to your library? No doubt you believe it might contain hints regarding my affliction—or at least, you would like me to believe so. May I borrow your knife?”

Besthamun hesitated, but she retrieved the small knife of mountain glass from within the folds of her robes and offered it up. Garen began hacking away at his beard. “Go on,” he said.

“Have you, in your travels, heard of the city of Alamoi?” she asked.

He did not hesitate. “No.”

“It was a great city, ruled by a masonic order which mastered secrets of working stones that some say pre-dates the last Ice. Half of the great walls from the Placidine Sea to the Jaggared Mountains were built by Alamoi masons.”

Meldri continued when Besthamun paused, unwanted tears forming in her eyes. “Some call it the Shining City; the polished stone used in its construction reflects the light at sunrise and sunset brilliantly. It was a beacon of civilization, once.”

“What happened? Plague?” Garen continued to hack away at his hair. His angular face slowly emerged from the chaos. Besthamun was surprised to find herself admiring its shape as the blade revealed it, as if carving his chin from a block of softstone.

Meldri nodded. “A dream plague fell upon the city, and it did not pass. Even now, the residents of the city labor under the dream. Reports of travelers say that new constructions rise above the city.”

“And what do they work to assemble?”

Besthamun frowned. “We don’t know. It is impossible to approach close enough without falling to the dream. Nothing good. That much is certain.”

Garen finished trimming his beard and returned the knife, which Besthamun gratefully stashed away.

“You wish me to approach the city and document what I see; to learn the nature of their project. I’ve performed such tasks before. For one such as me, it is simple. As boring as the acolytes’ humming.” Already, it seemed his attention was wandering.

Meldri laughed. “Oh, no; not only that. We want you to destroy the edifice.” He turned away, spoke over his shoulder in a great show of disrespect. “Sister, this man is a waste of time. He could never accomplish our task; it is plain to see.”

Garen’s gaze snapped into focus, and Besthamun shifted uncomfortably under the madness of it. The madman grinned broadly, and Besthamun decided then that no, he was not so handsome, not with a face that could ever wear that terrible expression.

• • • •

The gates of the city were open wide. Instead of streets and structures, he beheld a great goat, dead from thirst, mouth hanging open and thick tongue lolling in the sand—this, a flashback from his childhood. It faded quickly with another pull on his pipe.

Of course the gates were open. What use would it serve to close the gates when any attackers would fall under the dreaming far before reaching the unmanned wall? A cool breeze blew down from the mountains, carrying a sadness that Garen could not shake. A bone-weary loneliness took hold of him as he passed through the gate and into the broad, well-paved avenues of Alamoi. The streets were as empty as the sentry posts, the windows of surrounding buildings still shuttered against the night the plague fell.

“Begone, spirits,” Garen whispered. The lonely melancholy passed as the words left his lips.

As he’d approached Alamoi, he’d gawped in awe at the pair of towers that dominated the cityscape, rising story after story higher than the next tallest building. Scaffolding clung to them like scabs, and the tiny figures of workers scurried here and there upon the surfaces.

At first, he thought it only another hallucination that the two towers seemed to bend towards one another at their peak, but the vision did not waver. Realization arrived late: these were not two towers, but instead the opposing sides of an arch. Closer now, he could make out the ropes and pulleys lifting an enormous keystone into the heavens. It inched upwards as he watched.

The dreaming construct would soon be complete. What would happen then was a great mystery, but not one Garen was eager to solve.

He hurried down alleyways and squeezed between abandoned buildings, looking overhead to orient himself. In this harried state, he nearly missed the shadows that gathered to follow his steps.

The mind of Garen was a nigh-constantly distracted one, but with many nights of training he had honed his observational senses, his deepest, truest mind alert to danger and discrepancy without intentional thought. A prickling of the skin on his nape drew him back to the moment, and with careful side-glances, he made out the shapes that followed him. They were small and narrow-limbed, soft-footed, naked save for those who wore tangles of rags about their waists.

Children. The dreaming must have overlooked those too small to be of use in its endeavor. In the absence of parental discipline, they had turned feral.

Sensing that they had lost the surprise, the urchins rushed in; they wielded flint knives, crude axes, hammers, and other discarded, broken tools.

These survivors had not been nourished by the dream, Garen saw now. A vision of truth flooded Garen’s mind as he broke out into a sprint.

First, they had scavenged, but stores quickly ran thin. The half-starved children had learned to hunt the small animals first—cats and other abandoned pets. Soon they exhausted these reserves, too. The remaining animals too cunning, the dreaming workers proved easier prey.

What Garen had made for rags were bundles of human scalps and tanned hide; trophies of successful hunts. The taste of dreamer flesh had twisted them past salvation or reason, Garen a morsel of curiosity they risked their lives to taste.

The vision spurred him swiftly forward, but more attackers whooped with wordless battle cries; soon Garen was cut off by another cohort. Too harried to find his blade in his pack, he leapt towards the nearest wall and began to climb, driving his fingers into the narrowest chinks between the stones. He cursed the Alamoi masons who fit the blocks together so well, and his nails cracked and bled. The children lapped at the splotches he left behind, shoving one another to get at his juices.

These drippings and his vertical flight stymied them briefly; they milled about below. A boy nearly twelve winters by the look of him—taller than the rest, with more muscle and eyes like burning coals—made frantic gestures and grunted at the others. He cuffed a smaller girl behind the ear, and chastened, she began to climb, a snarl upon her chapped lips.

Garen gained the clay-tiled roof just as the girl grabbed his ankle. A swift kick sent the child sprawling down onto the others in a heap. Their shouts of dismay warmed him against the chill breeze.

Garen pulled at a tile, and it came up easily enough, offering good heft. He pelted the children, cackling with each satisfying thwack of clay against urchin flesh. The pack suffered only a little of this before fleeing back down the alleys.

“You die anyway,” the oldest boy grunted over his shoulder before following the others. “They finish soon.”

• • • •

“No, no, no!” Meldri snapped. “If you combine the essences in that order, you’ll ignite the fats of your own flesh and burn like a candle.”

Besthamun’s pale fingers scooped up the vials and returned them to the case. “Again, from the beginning.”

“I don’t understand why you can’t concoct the mixture ahead of time,” Garen said with a sigh. They had been at this for threes days, and the complex steps of the mixture’s alchemy had eluded him.

“The final compound is unstable. A stray pebble in your sandal could cause it to ignite as you carry it,” Besthamun said softly.

Garen took her hand into his. “I burn already, in spirit. What does it matter to me if my flesh does as well?”

She tugged her fingers free and turned away so he could not see her stinging tears. It was nearly certain that she sent him to his own demise with this task. While she had enjoyed his company in her bed these past nights, she could not convince herself that their time together would be anything other than a brief respite before his inevitable doom.

Garen began again, pantomiming the steps to properly combine the elements and essences of the kit. This recipe had come from the deepest recesses of the Dream Library; its mere existence had been the subject of whispers among their fellow scholars, and the scrolls containing it had nearly combusted in the sunlight—a trap laid by the mad thing who had dreamed the notes and then scribed them faithfully. The recipe itself contained many false steps and dangerous combinations. Such dream knowledge, even when functional, was always counter-intuitive and dangerous to use, holding its own logic.

Being unable to dream had made Garen unfamiliar with its peculiar non-logic. Even so, Besthamun did not doubt that Garen would master the formula. Every night, after their pleasures, he threw aside her furs and stepped naked out into the cold night air to practice.

She doubted any knowledge could escape Garen’s grasp for long; despite the fits of madness he suffered when not presented with a task or goal, his mind was one of the sharpest she had ever encountered. It hungered to understand. In these days, Garen was still more ignorant than wise in the ways of the world (a skillful lover, admittedly), but if he survived into his twilight years, his mind might solve some of the deepest philosophical questions, such as the nature of the Dreamers that visited the plagues upon humankind—from whence did their slumbering nightmares emit? Questions no ordinary scholar could contemplate for long without turning mad, but Garen was already lost. It would only be a matter of degrees for him.

Meldri leaned in and whispered as Garen mimed taking the flame to the tincture of aumsblood. “He nearly has it.”

She nodded, and held a finger to her lips.

With a flourish of his right hand, Garen completed the final step. Sweat dripped from the tip of his broad nose, and his blouse was soaked through.

“How was that?” he asked.

“Satisfactory,” Meldri said with a sniff, but he could not hide his excitement, his eyes sparkling in the light of the alchemist’s flame. Their plan might yet work!

“I say we celebrate,” Garen said, and he took Meldri into his arms and kissed him deeply, breaking only to nibble upon Besthamun’s neck.

“I suppose you have earned a brief respite from your training,” Meldri murmured.

• • • •

Garen sweat under the high mountain sun, relentless in its drumming beat on his copper skin. He threw aside his cape of furs and used his elevated vantage point to survey the territory he must cross to reach the base of the archway.

Mangled, magpie-pecked corpses of those that had fallen from the scaffolding littered the ground below; the living paid these dead no attention. Beyond the field of corpses, a maze of ladders and platforms coiled around the stone foundations like paper snakes. These teemed with the dreaming workers now, but after a moment of watching, Garen could see that the tide of humanity had reversed; the dreamers now climbed downward. A crowd of hundreds milled just below the keystone, which was swinging into place atop the arch.

Now Garen drew his blade from his pack and clenched it between his teeth. His mouth tasted as metallic as blood as he climbed down to the street once more. He kept a careful eye on the shadows for the urchins, but saw none; a strange energy in the air grew taut, and even the feral children must have been able to sense it. Perhaps they had fled the city ahead of what came next.

A dozen empty-eyed, slack-mouthed workers shuffled past the entrance to Garen’s alley. He flinched back, but they paid him no mind. He stepped out and followed, keeping a small distance from the rear of the pack. He did his best to match their gait and unseeing stares.

Once the pack merged with the larger crowd, they began to sway in place, as if leaning to and fro to a tune only they could hear. A dim memory of a song with a matching beat played itself in Garen’s mind, and he nearly shrieked to silence it. He didn’t wish to recall whatever that was now, a memory of a time when he too had been exposed to a dream, and returned from it lacking some deep, fundamental piece of himself, the only survivor in an entire village of dreaming dead.

He shook away the audial phantasm and pushed his way through the crowd, hundreds of half-naked bodies now, shoulder to shoulder, pressing ever inward to seek the shade of the supports. The heat from their bodies drew more sweat upon Garen’s brow. His heart raced, somehow certain that they were watching him with their mindless gazes, but had determined him harmless.

It was only when he took out the vials given to him by Meldri and Besthamun that they reacted at all. In one mighty voice, they screamed long and shrill, nearly tearing the tissue of Garen’s ears. All of the dreamers, at once. Garen took up his blade and turned to put his back against stone, but the dreamers did not turn to face him. Instead, their sightless gaze was directed skyward, where the keystone had been fitted into place.

The tenseness in the air snapped. A chill gale blew inward to the arch, followed after a moment by a hot breeze, damp, fetid, like the exhalation of some great beast. Garen nearly retched at the indescribable stench.

Bodies rained onto the paving stones from the scaffolding, first one, then another, then dozens, falling and cracking into the stone-lined streets. Flocks of magpies and crows swooped forward to dine on the fresh meats, fluttering, glossy-black wings blanketing the gore from Garen’s eyes like a feathered eclipse. Garen tore his gaze away and went to work. He hurriedly formed compounds and solutions by rote. Now his only thoughts were of Besthamun and Meldri.

• • • •

“What harm does it do to let the dreamers build?” Garen asked. The three of them lay in a sweaty tangle of spent limbs in Besthamun’s bed.

“The dream plagues are the dreams of Them—those titans and gods from before language and song, the horrors banished outside by the first fires and spears. In their eternal slumber, their dreams twist the wakened and reshape those that they touch. Their dreams cause great horror and tragedy, but mostly they pass quickly,” Meldri said.

“Mmm.” Garen nodded, tap-tapping his chin against Besthamun’s shoulder.

“The dream in Alamoi has never passed,” Besthamun said. “Our mentor, the Great Blind Scholar Trikilin, studies ashamani—dreams of purpose. There are half-written records of other purposeful dreams in the Library. Each was an awesome calamity, greater still than any war or famine. There are stories of the banished demons building exits from their prisons. If they were to return, the world would drown in blood and fire.”

“I’m merely surprised you would be so eager to destroy your home,” Garen said.

Besthamun sat upright. “How do you know this?”

Garen shrugged. “Try as you might, you can’t hide the accented lilt in your speech.”

“We thought you knew nothing of the Shining City,” Meldri asked, tone hurt.

Garen chuckled, hand on Besthamun to draw her back to the bed. “I study dream plagues in my own way; of course I know as much as I can about your city. But I had thought it useless in my quest.”

“We were pressed into Trikilin’s service as children by our father, a master architect,” Meldri said in a far-off tone. “We left before the plague took hold. Sometimes, I dream that I am walking the streets near our home again. Of the way the stones felt warm beneath our feet even after the sun had set.”

“I miss the smells of mountain grubs and rock sparrow eggs frying in the stalls along the marketplace,” Besthamun whispered.

“In my dream, the people become monsters. They tear down Alamoi, brick by brick, devouring each stone with blackened maws.” Meldri began to sob.

“We will see it destroyed by our own hands and our people freed from the dream’s service.” Besthamun said, taking her brother’s hand. She stared at Garen, who shrugged.

“I will do my best.”

Later, after Meldri drifted off, Garen said: “You don’t expect me to survive.”

Besthamun rolled to face away. “I suppose not. The detonating compound will only give you moments to find shelter, even if you live long enough to formulate it. But . . . you are clever.”

He laughed.

“Perhaps the most clever man I have ever met.”

“Maybe so. But if you really cared about me as anything other than a tool for your plans, you wouldn’t send me to my death.”

“I’m not forcing you to go.”

He sighed. “I would give anything, even my life, to dream again. Aside from the fits of madness, one does not feel . . . real? After so long without dreams. This talk of saving the land from the calamitous dreaming of old gods; none of that matters to me.”

“You will still attempt the task?”

“Of course. Perhaps I will surprise you with my survival. And if not, I hope that in death, even I can dream.”

“I hope so, too.”

• • • •

A thunderclap brought Garen back to the present. A swarm of pink-hued abominations spilled from the space below the arch, a swarm buzzing louder than the screaming birds, and their shapes writhing, unnatural. Beyond them, through the arch in a space that had never known light, something immense lurked, a presence with no recognizable shape. Garen knew it to be the Dreaming One, the thing banished. It approached, heralded by its servants. Its path was not yet fully paved; the invisible door still swinging open. Garen still had time.

He took the last triggering essence of the explosive compound in his fist, blade in the other, and screamed his defiance to the heavens.

The winged servants dove at him. The dreamers raised their fists and howled. Attackers struck from all directions.

Despite his madness, Garen had the luxury of time. He had studied many subjects, but first among them was the martial forms. In this he was a practiced scholar. Now his mastery was apparent, though no sane mind could witness it. In each movement, he accomplished precisely what was needed for his knife to sunder limb from torso, head from neck. He spun into the writhing horde of dreamers and laid waste to any who dared come within his considerable reach.

Still an endless number pressed him, their blunt teeth and splintered nails rending his skin, his spilled blood a gory rain that speckled the air. Despite his mastery of the knife, he could not resist such great numbers for very long. Each swing took him further from the nearly completed chemical mixture. He carved a path to escape—a gap in the crowd that could close at any moment—and then he flung the final element back at the mixture-filled vial that lay at the foot of the arch.

It shattered against the beaker, and the mixture inside flared white.

All sound, all vision extinguished. For the briefest of moments, Garen thought he had fallen asleep at last, and his every weary muscle relaxed.

Then chaos, terrible heat, and so much screaming. Above it all, the roar of stone fracturing, toppling, collapsing, the archway coming down, heavy block by block, repeatedly thudding into the earth and rippling the courtyard like an unending earthquake.

Garen felt his body thrown clear of the collapsing arch. His ankle fractured when he landed, his ribs badly bruised at the very least, but he still clung to his dagger. The bodies of the dreamers had sheltered him from the worst of the explosion. Now his ears sounded with ringing temple bells, his skin numb and unfeeling. He was certain that he was dying, but the ringing began to fade and the numbness gave way to agony.

The winged harbingers screamed in horror at the collapsing arch. Their movements shifted; another plan seemed to form quickly, as if they shared a common mind or purpose. Iridescent wings beat rhythms of despair as they swooped low, snatching up the scattered dreamers of Alamoi. Garen watched, dumbfounded with fright, as the servants tore at the scalps of their victims, peeling back flesh and bone until a pink slithery mass of brain was exposed. These organs they plucked like imperfect rosebuds and stored in the featureless grey canisters each carried in slings upon their abdomens.

One servant drove for Garen as he scrabbled away, unable to stand and too terrified to turn his gaze from the slaughter. He swept out with the bronze blade, but the servant had suddenly never occupied the space he thought it had, and his weapon did not draw its ichor.

One of the servant’s claws pried the blade from Garen’s hand. The others snatched him up and lifted him spread-eagled into the air, and still other limbs poked and prodded his skin. Garen let out a long sigh and went limp. His fate was sealed; why should he fight it? The horror of what he was witnessing dulled, and all he experienced felt somehow familiar.

How long the examination continued, Garen wasn’t certain, but suddenly the servant cast Garen roughly aside. He landed on a pile of stones, the breath knocked from his battered lungs. Their writhing harvest complete, they flew away into the blue sky, disappearing into pinpoints and leaving behind shimmering pools of blood and skull-rent corpses on the ruined courtyard floor. The archway was no more, as was the tunnel of space it had heralded. The Dreamer remained locked away. To what purpose they turned now, Garen would never know.

After some time, Garen made it to his feet despite his ruined ankle. He was no longer tempted to look back on the carnage. Not all of the dreamers had been harvested. Some were stirring here and there, and he did not look forward to the explanations they would demand from him when their senses fully returned. He made as much haste as possible, limping to the road he had followed into the city, and following it back into the valley. He crawled, scampered, and hopped for six days without rest, pausing only to scavenge a tree limb as a makeshift crutch. On his sixth day of flight, Garen collapsed at the doorstep of a traveler’s inn in a dreamless coma. It was the closest thing approaching sleep he had experienced in more years than he could remember.

• • • •

When he recovered, he spent some months tracking the flying, brain-stealing horrors. He felt somewhat responsible for their escape into the world, but he found no trace of them. With such wings, they could have traveled the Thawed Lands and into the Ice Wastes beyond.

Garen did eventually collect his reward from the University, but that was not a journey without peril. The tale of it is another story for another time. Suffice to say that the Library of Dreams did not contain the answers that he sought; only more questions, ones that led him further into madness and despair.

For many more years, the events in Alamoi troubled Garen; in particular, his encounter with the winged servants of the Dreamer. When their plans to free the Dreamer had failed, they had turned to harvest, but for what purpose? What did it mean for who he was, what he was, that the creatures had not collected the pinky innards from his skull?

He could only conclude that whatever the servants had required, it was merely represented in the flesh of the organ, and not the flesh itself, which certain practitioners of medical traditions had assured him he possessed—his head was not hollow. No, something beyond the pink meats had been their true goal. Whatever it was, Garen the Undreaming did not possess it.

Jeremiah Tolbert

Jeremiah Tolbert has published fiction in Lightspeed, Fantasy Magazine, Interzone, Asimov’s, Analog, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and Shimmer, as well as in the anthologies The Way of the Wizard, Seeds of Change, Federations, Polyphony 4, and Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy. He’s also been featured several times on the Escape Pod and PodCastle podcasts, and his story “The West Topeka Triangle” was nominated for the Shirley Jackson Award. In addition to being a writer, he is a web designer, photographer, and graphic artist. He lives in Kansas, with his wife and son.