The story so far:
This little town has lost its peaceful charm. Louis was eaten by a shadow demon. Now reality has shattered. She is in a void next to a hazy dome. Shadows are closing in, but someone has just tossed her a lifeline.
I slid over the curve of the dome in jerky fits of movement, like someone was pulling me up by hand. When the arc was flat enough for me to get my feet under me, I did. Whoever was on the other end seemed content to be my anchor after that, and let me do all of the hard work of climbing the rest of the way.
When I finally found him, he wasn’t what I expected. He lay lifeless, face down against the dome. He’d managed to tie the rope around himself before he passed out. I rushed to his side and turned him over, letting the diffused light of the dome illuminate his face. Then dropped his head against the hard floor as I recoiled, feeling betrayed.
It was him. The statue. The man at my window.
He groaned miserably, and dragged a hand up to cradle his head. A trickle of blood wound its way across his forehead.
“Why did you save me?” I yelled at him as I scooted back to a safer distance.
He craned his neck to look up at me across the floor. “Sorry?” he croaked. He tried to push himself up to sit, but it took several feeble attempts. “Did you want to be eaten?”
“You tried to kill me.”
He just blinked at me. The silence stretched too long, and I started to feel even more angry. “In my dream. You were a statue, and told me I could never leave.”
His eyebrows rose slightly. “I couldn’t have tried to do anything. I was frozen.” He wiped at his forehead and frowned at the blood on his hand. “Then you woke me up,” he explained with infuriating patience. “If you hadn’t, I would still be there.” He leaned back on his hands and stared at me. A yellow rubber duckie peered out of the front of his shirt. I couldn’t not stare at it. “So who are you, that you can cross the aether like it’s nothing?”
“Pissed off,” I said, the words clipped short. “Why were you at my window? That smile you gave me … that was terrifying.”
He shrugged. “I never saw a window. I’d get a feeling that you were close, and then I tried to close the gap.” He thought it over for a moment. “I’ve been trapped out here for days, running for my life from those creatures down there. The only time I smiled was whenI finally thought I’d gotten a good signal on you.”
“Why? What does that mean?” I pressed him. Finally someone had answers, but getting them out of him was like playing twenty questions.
With an isn’t it obvious look on his face, he gestured at the void. “Because you were safe inside, and it’s kind of awful out here? If you hadn’t noticed.”
“Then … what about the bloody blanket?”
He sighed, rolled his eyes at me, and pulled up the bottom of his shirt a bit. Underneath, he looked like one, long bruise that had been stabbed a few times for good measure. “Did I bleed on you? I’m sorry. Can you forgive me?”
“What about the duck?”
He frowned at me and covered it with one of his hands. “Is that really the most important thing right now? Look, we need to get back in your haven.” He patted the top of the dome for emphasis. “Do you know how you got out?”
I still didn’t trust him. “No. I was in my living room, then everything just … shattered. Then I was here.”
“You were dreaming of your living room,” he corrected me.
“No! I was …” and then I thought about it. Had all of that insanity been a dream at the end, after I thought someone called my name? Maybe I was still sleeping on the couch by Grandpa. Finally, I had a little bit of hope that the real world wasn’t completely bizarre. If that one part was a dream, even if it was a hyper-realistic dream, then maybe some of the other parts were, too. “Okay, so if we can get inside, then I can wake up?”
“Now it’s that pause I don’t trust.”
“Look,” he said, finally beginning to look impatient. “I don’t really care if you trust me. I don’t exactly trust you. As soon as you came out here, your dream should have imploded. It’s Arcanology 101 – a dream can’t exist without a dreamer.”
He waved my question aside. “The important thing is that you’ve left yours at least twice. Once to save me, and now. But here we are, sitting on top of it.” He knocked on the floor twice. “Solid as can be. So, we can sit here and not trust each other, and ask who are you until the creatures finish climbing the haven, or we can save our asses right now and talk specifics later.”
I looked down and saw a fuzzy bird’s eye view of Acorn spread out below us. I didn’t notice when its focus had left my living room. On the horizon of the dome shadows swarmed over each other, making an inhuman ladder in their effort to reach us. “I like the sound of later. How do we get back in?”
He held out his hand. “Take it,” he urged me when I refused to move. “If I can feel you, then I can find your tether.” He talked over my obvious question and said, “The cord that ties your dreaming self to your real body. We can follow it back to the break in your haven, and get in there.”
Reluctantly, I held out my hand as I tried to absorb what he’d said. His palm was still a little wet. I glanced up at his forehead and remembered why.
“It gets weirder and weirder,” he snickered after a minute. “You don’t seem to have a tether.”
I snatched my hand back and rubbed it until I couldn’t feel the echo of his touch anymore. “Great. So, now what?”
He shrugged. “We figure it out. We find the hole.” When I scowled at him, he shrugged again and pointed down. “It’ll be wherever there’s a bunch of aether creatures looking really excited. They usually have to phase in over time if they want to infect a dream. If yours has a hole in it, they’ll be crowding the break like it’s a shuttle to Mars.”
“So… there’s a bunch of shadows down there right now, sneaking into my dream?” I shook my head as I framed a different question. “How do they get from there to the real world? Another hole?”
He seemed shocked, and took his time considering an answer to that. “You saw one in the real world?,” he finally asked.
“Yeah. It ate my friend.”
“A mystery for later,” he decided for both of us. “First we get inside, then we wake you up.”
I sighed and stared at my hands. Beneath them, the town began to move, and then we were hovering over Grandpa’s barn. “I’m not a big fan of running toward the shadows. Just so you know.”
He lifted a corner of his shirt and smirked. “Me either.”
From up here, it wasn’t too hard to find them. A crowd of shadows were pressed against the edge of my … of my haven, and tore at each other as they fought each other for a closer position. The statue guy had been right about that, at least.
“Hey,” I called up to where he was still sitting. He didn’t look like he could make it far, so we agreed that he should wait until we found the break in the haven wall. “What’s your name?”
“Dean,” he shouted back.
“Well, there’s a whole gob of them down here. I think this is it.”
I climbed back to the top and saw him sitting very still, his eyes closed. His hands were in front of him and looked like they were holding something very delicate, but I didn’t see anything there. He pinched the fingers of one hand together and pulled something away. He swayed where he sat, then steadied himself. In his hand I saw a gleaming strand of thread.
“What is that?”
He grinned up at me, the dark circles around his eyes more pronounced. “It’s a part of my tether,” he said softly, sounding like he was in a lot of pain. His eyes fluttered closed and his breathing sounded more labored.
“That’s what connects us to our bodies?” I marvelled at it. “It’s beautiful.” I reached out to see what it felt like. When my fingers barely made contact, I saw a little girl materialize out of thin air. She twirled over the dome’s surface, giggling sweetly.
Dean yanked it away from me, scowling furiously. “You don’t just go poking your fingers into other people’s souls without asking first.” He muttered something under his breath, then held out his hand. “Help me up so we can get out of here.”
“What’s it for?” I asked as he found his feet, careful to keep the shard of his tether well away from me.
“Bait.” When they found the hole, it was being guarded by a full-scale riot of shadows. “If I pass out, don’t leave me out here. Okay?”
I gave him a worried look. “What kind of a monster do you think I am?”
He glanced at my claws, but didn’t say anything about them. “Ready?” He grabbed my wrist, and I nearly jerked it away from him.
“I don’t like touching,” I admitted; a sort of apology.
“Cringe later. Survive now,” he advised, and began to skid down the side of the dome toward the hole. I didn’t know which laws of physics existed in a place like this, but gravity was working fine. We picked up speed as we went, until it felt like we were in freefall. Dean threw the shard of his tether like a javelin.
With one mind, the shadows turned their heads to track it as it fell. I dragged my claws against the wall of my haven to guide our descent, and then we were dropping through the hole in the wall.
We tumbled onto the floor of the loft. Dean dragged himself to the wall and pressed his hand against it. In my mother’s mural, the sunrise seemed to be vibrating where it peeked over the mountain. “Come here,” he groaned, sounding strained. “We need to seal this hole or we’re about to have a lot of company.”
He gripped my arm as soon as he could reach me, and I shuddered at the touch. His hands felt like ice on my skin, and it only took me a moment to understand why he sounded so much more worn out than he had before. I felt like all of my energy was being dragged out of me at once.
When the shimmering sunrise calmed down again, we both collapsed on the floor. “I think, when we wake up, we’re both going to need a long nap,” he confided.
“Are you joking right now?” I asked him, annoyed. “We’re almost there. How do we wake up?”
He frowned, then seemed to remember. “We need to get you back to your body. Just … sit in it. It will take you back.”
I dared a grin. “That’s it? Really? No magic or twelve step plan?”
He nodded. “That’s it. Go on without me though. I can find my way from here.”
“What if the shadows that already got through come for you?”
He grinned. “I’m good at hiding. Lasted all those days without you, didn’t I?”
I made my way to the ladder, then looked back at him. “You’re really okay?”
With a dismissive wave, he nodded. “This is just a dream body. It only hurts because I think it should. I’ll be fine when I wake up, and so will you.”
I sighed, feeling relieved. “Thank you, Dean. I hope you get home safe.” He waved me away, so I slid down the ladder and started back toward the house. It’d been a day of demons and death, emotions and other worlds. I muttered to myself as I crossed the yard, wondering what tomorrow had up its sleeve.
When I got back to the living room, there was no blood on the floor. No shadows on the curtains. Just Grandpa, asleep in his chair, and me sprawled on the couch beside him. Dean was right again.
Figuring I’d never get the chance again, I looked at myself. My nose had a really odd shape, I decided, and I wasn’t super impressed with my ears either. I touched my face, and my finger went through me. A thin circle of light circled where I’d touched me. It didn’t hurt. So I sat down on me and tried to get into the same position as my body. After a while I felt a snap, and the world went dark.
Dean was right again, I thought as I woke up. I was exhausted after my little nap.
— End of Act 1 —