Any ship’s captain with more than a couple of months experience upon the Somnocean learned to recognize the subtle silver sparkle upon the waters that indicated a shoal of dreams had taken up residence somewhere nearby. This particular shoal was barely out of the Ceridwen docks so it was hardly surprising to see so many ships competing for this valuable ethereal haul.
Captain Magna the Great was the first to spot the Inn. She was a tall and sturdily built woman with darkly tanned skin and hair like stiff bristles of straw. She was heavily scarred, the only parts of her that were not were the parts replaced with dull bronze machinery, and even those parts were dented and scratched. Even as she stood still, doing nothing more than taking stock of the other ships in the area, her body ticked and clicked relentlessly. A blood red spyglass lens whirred idly as she warily moved her gaze from ship to ship; it wasn’t unheard of for dreamfishers to attack rivals if they thought the haul was going to be valuable enough.
Captain Magna just happened to be looking in the right direction when the Traveller’s Rest Casino snapped into this new reality. It appeared a good ten feet above the calm carmine ocean and hung there longer than ought to be possible as its shape adapted to its new environment. Captain Magna watched as the building transformed from a run-down looking casino to that of a small black ship as smoothly as if it was water being tipped from one container to another. For a second she half expected it to sail away through the sky, it wouldn’t have been the weirdest thing she had seen sailing the Somnocean, but once the transformation was complete gravity seemed to catch up with the Inn.
Magna was ready to call out for her crew to brace themselves as the Inn hit the water, but the impact was surprisingly shallow; the resulting wave only barely jostling the other ships. Even so it can’t have gone unnoticed, Magna mused. She’d never seen a transformation so smooth, and teleporting into the middle of a busy shoal… just how valuable could one shoal be?
“Captain Magna!” A distressed voice yelled from above. It belonged to Young Gail Brass, the ship’s rookie lookout. “There’s a-“
“I see it Brass.” Magna called back. Brass hurriedly climbed down from the Crow’s Nest, while the rest of the crew alerted by her cry ran to the prow of the ship, gathering around Captain Magna to get a look at the new arrival.
The Traveller’s Rest floated there, more still and stable than it had any right to be after falling out of thin air. Wind billowed gently in its dark purple sails, and above them flew a flag displaying the crescent moon logo of the Inn. Captain Magna’s eye zoomed in on the ship, slowly scanning along the deck. She observed what appeared to be a bar constructed around the central mast, with only a couple of bottles still remaining safely upon their shelves, and across the rest of the deck were scattered wooden sun loungers. A difficult to describe woman with skin like the relieved liltings of a harp sat amongst the upturned recliners.
Captain Magna’s crew looked at her expectantly. “Black sails captain.” Brass said, giving voice to the unspoken concern of the crew. “They’re probably pirates.”
“I can’t see any weaponry…” Captain Magna observed, not taking her gaze away from the ship. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t have any, she considered the transformation she’d just seen. Magic like that was potentially more dangerous than any cannons. After a long moment in thought she turned to face her crew and ordered them to battle positions. As the rest of the crew hurried into place Brass stayed staring out at the mysterious black ship.
“Captain?” Brass asked, concern evident in her voice.
Magna turned back to the Traveller’s Rest and she could have sworn it was bigger than it had been a moment before. Before she could dismiss this suspicion the Traveller’s Rest began to expand before her eyes. Slowly at first, the ship retained the same basic appearance but now bigger, more luxurious than it had been before. Though the eye was drawn to the ship, Magna couldn’t help but notice that the water around it was no longer the pale pink it had been before, now it was pure glittering silver. Though it could only mean one thing it still took Magna a minute to come to that conclusion, she’d never seen a shoal gather around a ship before. And still the Inn was growing in size, now as large as any of the other ships that surrounded it, now larger. At some point it had started shaking violently back and forth in the calm waters.
Brass was looking expectantly at Captain Magna. “Everyone brace yerselves.” She called out uncertainly. She had no idea what was about to happen but she doubted it would be anything good.
As the Inn continued to swell up to impossible size some of the ships around it started to move away as hurriedly as they could under whatever means of propulsion they had to hand. The nearest ship, a brig with a golden star upon its flag, fired a volley of cannonballs at the Inn. They crashed through the side of the enormous ship with little resistance but within a moment the damage was gone as though it had been healed over.
The glittering silver of the dream shoal slowly began to fade, whilst the rocking of the Inn got more and more violent, until finally it shattered like glass. Exactly like glass in fact. The Inn fell away in pieces which dissipated in the air, revealing the emptiness underneath. As chunks of illusion sloughed away eventually all that was left at its heart was a small burnt out husk of a building, no more than two storeys high when upright, though at the moment it was lying on its back. Water, or whatever this ocean was made up of, gushed through the rotted planks of the shack and slowly the structure that had passed for the Inn began to sink beneath the ocean of dreams.
No more than five minutes after its arrival the Traveller’s Rest was gone, the only traces of its existence a handful of figures bobbing in the waters where it had so briefly been.
Some time earlier.
The proprietor of the Traveller’s Rest Casino stood squared off against the near-impenetrable doors of his vault. He was the very picture of focus. His eyes closed, his body rigid, his hands clenched tightly, his brow thick with sweat. The only movement was the rhythmic rise and fall of his chest as he slowly breathed in and out. Breathing in and out slowly, he tried to marshal his thoughts, turn them away from the fate that Saint had surely met, from the mocking voice of his own past, from the horror that had befallen his inn, from the names that he called himself and the one he didn’t. He breathed in and out so slowly thinking only of what he must do now.
Eventually, after who knows how long doing nothing more than that, he could feel the Inn around him, he could feel his breath rippling through it as though he and it were one thing. He opened his eyes and they shone. He raised his hands before him and slowly, with a considerable amount of effort he pulled them apart his actions mirrored in the heavy vault doors before him.
His focus faltered and failed as he saw what lay beyond those doors. Saint lay… mangled… in a pool of her own blood and… She was… in pieces. Her limbs… He forced himself to look away. This was everything that he’d feared but no amount of preparation could have prepared him to see her like that. He felt as though he’d been stabbed in the guts, as though someone had knocked all the breath from his lungs.
“Owen…” Saint rasped, somehow still impossibly alive.
In the second it took her to say that name it was like his entire body had turned to ice. He couldn’t speak; he could hardly even manage to form a coherent thought. He looked down at her, saw the anguish in her upturned eyes and forced his gaze away again. It was too much. He just couldn’t.
“You look different.” Saint struggled to force out the words. And he did look different; it wasn’t just the loss of his suit jacket or the slicking back of his wild hair. He looked older, his face more drawn. Whatever essence it had been that had shone through his eyes earlier had long gone leaving them paler and emptier than ever.
“I’m dying Owen.” Saint’s voice was barely louder than a whisper. “Hold me, Owen…” she sobbed. “I don’t wanna die alone.”
He’d been trying to maintain his composure, trying to stop himself from being the same weak person who had let this happen in the first place. That resolve crumbled in the face of Saint’s plea for comfort. Within moments he was by her side, holding what was left of her in his arms. Her heartbeat was so soft. Tears streamed from his eyes. “I’m sorry.” He whispered. “I’m so sorry. I should have…”
“It’s okay.” Saint shushed him into silence. Her breathing grew shallower. She looked him in the eyes, that mischievous fire already extinguished, and forced out: “…nothing you could have done…” And then she was dead.
And she was dead wrong.
And he knew it.
Elsewhere in the inn.
Maria was following placidly behind a nightmare wearing Owen’s skin. She knew that he couldn’t be real, couldn’t really be the same man she’d known and trusted all her life, or at least she hoped and prayed that he couldn’t. But what she thought didn’t seem to matter in the least; she was like a puppet on his strings. She watched as her body followed the twisted facsimile of the innkeeper through the dark ransacked corridors, she tried not to watch as he carved open the guests as they slept. She especially tried not to think about how her body helped him do so.
“Oh look Maria.” ‘Owen’ said as they entered yet another guest room. This one was in better shape than some of them they’d been in. There was no overturned furniture, no dried blood or other signs of a struggle. All that could be said against it was that it was very dusty and it kind of looked like it was a child’s bedroom. There were posters of a vaguely familiar looking boy band pinned to the wall. There was a toy chest with a princess doll. At the far end of the room there was a canopy bed with the curtains pulled closed. For a moment it all looked very familiar and then Maria realized that of course it looked familiar this was a guest room she must have come and cleaned in here at some point or something.
Owen walked across the dark room, and she followed uneasily behind him. “I was of course hoping to leave you till last.” He said with what almost sounded like a hint of sadness. “But since we’re here already we might as well get it over with.” As he reached out and grabbed the curtain Maria was gripped by a sudden fear, as though what was behind that curtain was even more terrifying than the bloodstained nightmare that stood before her.
“Please don’t.” Maria pleaded.
Without releasing his grip on the curtain ‘Owen’ turned to face her, his face contorted into the biggest grin he’d wore all night. “Do you remember?”
“No.” Maria snapped. “Please, no, please don’t do it.”
‘Owen’ just chuckled. “Sorry Maria. I’m afraid it’s time to wake up and smell the coffee.” In one swift moment he drew the curtain back, but she already knew what was lying beyond.
Once upon a time there was a little girl called Maria. She had a family who loved her and she had friends who loved her too.
One day Maria went for a hike through the woods with her friends, for she lived in a small village with not much to do. She was distracted maybe daydreaming, maybe watching the scampering of some adorable woodland creature while her friends hurried onwards and soon she found herself on her own. She tried to follow their path and catch up to them but pretty soon she was completely lost. By the time she thought to call out to her friends they were well out of earshot.
Maria wandered through the woods hoping to find some landmark she could remember or some helpful woodsman to lead her back home just like how it happened in the storybooks. As the sun set and rain began to fall she had found neither, she was more lost than ever and her hopes of rescue had faded considerably.
The rain continued getting heavier and heavier and soon there was the flash of lightning and the distant crash of thunder. When Maria stumbled upon an old burned out shack, she was grateful for the shelter despite the fact that she’d heard stories about an old shack deep in the woods that was once home to an evil old wizard. “There’s no evil old wizard.” She said with rather more certainty than she felt.
“Well, not anymore.” A voice from deeper within the shack replied.
Maria to her credit took this opportunity to scream and flee the shack. She only stopped when she tripped over a tree root and landed in the mud, and upon climbing to her feet she realized she wasn’t being pursued. Cautiously, ready to turn and resume her flight at any moment, she made her way back to the shack. Stood in the doorway was a man in a black suit with pale skin and wild hair. He looked ancient, and that’s not just because as a child anyone over a certain age looks ancient.
“Hello again.” He said.
“Hi.” Maria replied while half hiding behind a tree. “Are you an evil old wizard?”
“No. Well maybe. I’m not the person you’re referring to but I could see how all three of those could be applied to me.” He said thoughtfully.
“Oh.” Maria said. “If you’re an evil wizard don’t you want to…” she hesitated unsure exactly what it was that evil wizards are supposed to do to you if they catch you, “turn me into a toad?”
“Why would I want to do that?” The man asked. Maria just shrugged. “You’re sopping wet, why don’t you come in? I’ll fix up a fire and you can warm up and rest a while.”
“My mom says I shouldn’t talk to strangers.”
“Well my name’s Oneiros.” The man said. “What’s your name?”
“My name is Maria Appolonia Schutjer.” Maria said proudly, only slightly stumbling over her surname.
“Nice to meet you Maria Appolonia Schutjer.” Oneiros replied with a smile.
“Nice to meet you Ohni-, Oni-, Ohhnee-“ Maria paused thoughtfully then continued with a grin of her own. “Nice to meet you Mister O.”
“Now we’re not strangers come inside and rest for a while.” Mister O said. “Tomorrow when you’re good and warm and rested I’ll help you get back home.”
Behind the curtain lay an old woman. She looked ancient and not just in the way that to a child anyone over a certain age looks ancient. Her skin was so thin it was almost transparent. Her hair was an ash white tangled mess so long that it covered the bed and trailed onto the floorboards beneath.
“Look what he’s done to you Maria.” ‘Owen’ said plainly. She didn’t respond in shock or horror, she responded with the quiet acceptance of someone receiving confirmation of something they’d long since suspected, even though she’d never been conscious of that suspicion until this very moment.
A long moment of silence. Maria regarded her sleeping self with a sense of detachment, while ‘Owen’ carefully watched her face for some flicker of emotion. Eventually she said: “He didn’t do this to me, time did.”
“He stole your life.” ‘Owen’ spat.
“I’ve lived a life.” Maria replied stonily.
“He stole you from your family.”
Maria hesitated. It was hard to refute that. “He raised me; he built me this room to make me happy.”
“He built you this room to placate you!” ‘Owen’ snarled. “He doesn’t care about you!” He was furious, his eyes burning with rage, his fists clenched tightly, his mouth set into a repulsed scowl. “You’re nothing to him but fuel!”
“He cares.” Maria said uncertainly, backing as far away from ‘Owen’ as she could with the limited control she had of her own body.
“Ffffine.” ‘Owen’ snapped dismissively. “I hoped you would see him for the monster that he is before the end but really it doesn’t matter.” He raised the bloodied knife above Maria’s sleeping self, gripping it tightly with both hands. For the slightest instant Maria thought of pleading with the nightmare, begging for its mercy, but she knew it was pointless and she didn’t want to give it the satisfaction. Instead she threw every last ounce of strength she had into one movement, not expecting to get anywhere but not willing to not try, and somehow she lurched forwards and tackled into him.
‘Owen’ stumbled and lost his grip on the knife which careened off into some dusty corner of the room. He peeled Maria away as if she were made of damp tissue and threw her across the room, sending her crashing into her old desk, which cracked and snapped beneath her but she barely felt a thing.
Slumped there in the wreckage of her desk and a landslide of her old drawings, she watched helplessly as ‘Owen’ placed a pillow from her bed over her physical self’s face and then pressed down. She couldn’t move. Not a muscle. Her ears rang like she was underwater, everything seemed so far away. A distant booming voice she couldn’t even begin to parse. Her lungs burned. She was going to die and there was nothing she could do about it, she couldn’t even scream.
She was sure she was hallucinating from lack of oxygen when the knife floated towards ‘Owen’ and slit his throat open. He fell back, his grip upon the pillow gone and Maria gasped for beautiful precious air. ‘Owen’ writhed on the floor for a moment, screaming in pain until the pain turned into laughter. His hand shot out and grabbed nothing and then pulled it. Nothing hit the ground and slowly colour bled back into the empty shape.
“Yaelja!” Maria half yelled, half coughed.
“Fucking insect!” ‘Owen’ cursed. Yaelja grabbed for his neck, digging her thorns into his wound with as much force as she could. ‘Owen’ coughed and choked and with a great effort of will he reached up and grabbed Yaelja’s wrists and squeezed. She screamed a loud bitter taste, holding onto his neck for as long as she could before she couldn’t take it any longer.
‘Owen’ climbed to his feet, fixed Maria with a big toothy grin and kicked Yaelja in the stomach (or the area where a human would have a stomach anyway). “Sorry about the delay. Just let me take care of this…” kick “Annoying…” kick. “Weed…” another flash of the grin “And I’ll get right back to you.” He walked around to Yaelja’s head and casually placed one foot atop it. “Say goodbye to your little friend, Maria.” He raised his foot and then he vanished, dissipated into the air like dust.
Maria and Yaelja lay there for a minute slowly recuperating and thanking whatever entity each of them gave thanks to for the sudden end to the threat. Gradually the distant booming voice she’d been hearing on the edge of her consciousness became clearer:
“Well, how about that! After the break, we’ll see what the contestants have in store for them in Round Two of…….. Last Thing Standing!”
And then everything began to shake.
Saint burst through the door to the security control room desperately out of breath. With barely a break in her stride, though quite a few muttered curses beneath her breath, she grabbed one of the seats, hauled it back to the door and jammed it beneath the doorhandle. Only after testing her makeshift barricade did she allow herself a moment to rest.
“Holy fucking shit.” She swore bitterly when her breath returned. “Fucking zombies… Fucking great.” She sat down in the other chair and pulled off her high heels. They really hadn’t been the best choice, but she’d rather been hoping to go one solid day without having to fight zombies.
She’d been running for the vault with Owen. He’d outpaced her somehow, well obviously the heels hadn’t helped, got inside and then the doors had slammed shut behind him. After that everything was a blur of panic only coming into sharp focus when she saw them. Their flesh was already rotting away, their expressions vacant, their clothes torn and bloodstained. A couple of days she’d have taken them out no problem but for some reason she’d chosen not to carry a weapon today. Maybe she’d been trying to fool herself into thinking she could have something resembling a normal life.
There was a thump from the door; for a moment Saint’s heart was in her mouth, but her barrier was more than capable of holding off the shambling hordes. She looked around the security room; at the far end there was a fenced off area filled with weapons. Probably most of it would be non-lethal given this was a security office in a casino and not a military armoury, but anything would be better than the nothing she currently had. It would have been perfect if not for the fact that she didn’t have the code. The rest of the room was mostly filled with banks of monitors displaying footage from the rest of the casino and empty paper coffee cups.
Saint was about to get up and make an earnest attempt at brute forcing the code on the armoury gate when something caught her eye on one of the monitors. It was the vault and… no… how did they get in there? Owen was facing down a whole crowd of zombies, slowly backing himself into a corner. He had nowhere to run and nothing to defend himself with. “No.” she whispered. Even if she already had a weapon, even if there were no obstacles between her and the vault and she ran flat out not stopping for breath even once, even then she’d never get there in time. All she could do was watch, and she did watch.
Saint watched as they got close enough to him to lunge. He fought the first one off but she could tell he’d been bitten. He was as good as dead now even if he could fight off the rest of them. He couldn’t. In a moment he was overwhelmed and then she had to look away.
“Fuck.” She cursed uselessly. It didn’t even begin to cover the pain, the frustration, the despair she was feeling.
On another monitor she spotted Maria and Yaelja surrounded by zombies on the casino floor. She watched as Wesley Cockburn made his last stand in the ladies toilets. Kriok was overwhelmed as she fled for the exit. Saint even spotted that weird paint guy unconcernedly splattering his attackers with more aesthetically appealing colours. One by one she watched everyone die.
When she’d arrived at the Traveller’s Rest she’d claimed she was a scout for a group of survivors and that had been true, once. It was nobody’s fault, an unanticipated weak point in their safehouse’s defences. She’d been lucky to get out of there alive. Nobody else had been that lucky. She had absolutely no idea how long ago that was now. One day was pretty much like another, killing zombies, scavenging supplies, desperately trying to stay sane in an empty world. Some nights she’d considered using her own crossbow. It would be so much easier than trying to struggle on in the futile hope she’d meet some other survivors.
She couldn’t do it again. It was just too much to ask. She started to weep, barely noticing as the thudding at the door silenced. After a minute everything began to shake.
“Oh what the fuck now.” She snapped indignantly.
Oneiros made his way to his office in silence. The lights flickered as he passed beneath them. Bloodstains and deep scratches adorned every wall. There was the occasional corpse along his path but none of them even came close to affecting him as strongly as Saint’s had. He was untouchable. He was everything he hadn’t been for a long time.
By the time he reached his office there was a loud voice booming through the Traveller’s Rest announcing the resumption of the battle. Good, he thought. He’d be glad to see the back of this place.
His office was a mess of light and colour; it was trying to be so many different things all at once the only thing it actually resembled was a headache. He had to align himself with the fabric of the Inn once again, but it seemed so much simpler this time, even despite the aesthetic nightmare around him. Cleansing the inn was easy, as easy as reaching out and wiping it clean one stain at a time.
The nightmares vanished one by one; his monstrous duplicate, the zombies, the false visions of death and numerous other horrors. Within moments the inn was while not good as new, due to the drastically decreased number of guests, definitely better than it had been. If only he’d gotten here sooner, he thought but what he really meant was if only he was not so painfully limited. He’d never hated this inn more than he did at that moment.
And then everything began to shake.
Oneiros absently rested a sympathetic hand upon the wall. The inn was rearranging itself to suit its new environment again, and while this usually happened without any noticeable effect upon the interior, he supposed this must be a particularly challenging shape and the current dearth of dreamers was probably a factor. His attention was elsewhere, somewhere beyond the walls of the inn he could feel a presence; a motherlode of dreams just ripe for the taking. He grinned and ran for the deck.
Yaelja found herself on the deck of the ship once the first lot of shaking had finished. She was just thankful to be in one piece after the fight with whatever that thing was, and of course after overcoming her own exciting and horrifying nightmare scenario previous to that. She walked over to the bar, she reckoned she’d earned a little early drink after whatever the hell all that was, and took a seat as Mister O emerged from belowdecks.
She greeted him with the taste of strawberry syrup. He did not reciprocate the greeting. He swept straight past her to the prow of the ship. Almost as soon as he got there everything started shaking again, even more violently than before. She clung to the bar, ducking beneath a bottle of something expensive that hadn’t been dislodged in the first shipquake. By the time she thought maybe it would be a better idea to head belowdecks it was far too dangerous to let go. She looked over at Mister O who was standing unsupported; he didn’t even seem to notice the shaking. She considered informing him of the danger but no forget it he didn’t seem to be in a conversational mood he’d notice sooner or later.
Things got worse and worse, until, suddenly she found herself waking up in one of the cabins belowdecks feeling slow and sluggish like she’d been asleep for weeks. Pale pink water was leaking up through the floor, no wait that was the wall, huh. Well whatever was going on she needed to get out of here.
By the time she got to the door the water was up to her knees. She was forced to vault through the doorway to get into an upturned hallway she’d need to climb to hope to traverse. Rather than attempt that she vaulted into the cabin opposite (actually they weren’t actually cabins were they she thought) to find an old lady struggling to her feet.
“Yaelja.” Maria croaked, her voice not having been used for a long time.
Yaelja replied with the smell of baking bread.
“You too.” Maria said happily. “What’s going on?”
The scent of the ocean.
The water was up to their waists at this point. “Yeah I kind of figured.” Maria said. “Let’s get out of here?” Yaelja nodded and waded over to Maria, putting her arm around her. She started towards the far wall, “Any chance of a more conventional exit?”
An image of a towering cliff.
“Oh right okay.” Maria nodded. The water was up to their chests by the time they reached the far wall. Yaelja reached out with her free hand and easily prised a couple of planks loose. The pink water started flowing in faster but it was a way out.
The sensation of a seatbelt Yaelja instructed. Maria nodded and then they were half climbing, half swimming through the hole in the wall into the ocean of dreams that lay on the other side.
After a minute they reached the surface. Saint was already there, amongst a couple of other former employees/guests from the inn who had managed to survive the nightmare.
“I’m so glad to see you two.” Saint said with a relieved smile. It faded a little, “Don’t suppose you saw Owen on your way out?”
Yaelja hadn’t really had a moment to think about what had happened what with everything that was still actually happening up until that point, but she clearly remembered that for a second before she’d woken up, just for a splitsecond she could have sworn that Mister O had flew away.
She shook her head. No nope definitely not.