The Oneiroi were a dark and fading blur in my sight, winging their way up to a sleeping world. My brothers flew more often these days. It was easy for most to understand how an increase in population meant more work for Hades. Few understood the burdens that more Dreamers made on those that delivered the Dream.
To sleep, perchance to dream. That had not been true in ages. Mortals no longer seemed to know how to lie down when night fell. Instead, they slept irregularly, pushing the darkness back with incandescent light and the glow of electronic screens. Pushing away sleep, and with it, the Dream.
The Lethe was a silver ribbon threading between the black shores below my palace. The Underworld was quiet tonight. Even the whispering wail of Tartarus seemed to have fallen mute. I was leaning on the balcony railing, drinking in the rare taste of silence when I heard the snap of wings behind me, followed by the slight scuff of feet touching down.
“How goes the Dream, Brother?” I said, not bothering to look.
There was no need. There was but one Dream, and it has always been tended by one cast of a thousand Oneiroi, all bent to the same task. I spoke to one Brother, and in doing so, spoke to the Thousand. I am one of three Oneiroi given a name by our mother.
Names, like crowns, are lonely things.
Deep and Endless, my brother responded.
His lips never moved as he returned the formal exchange, his mind to mine. No waking ear has ever heard the Oneiroi speak. Their voices only carry in the Dream.
I pushed off the balcony edge and straightened, taking one last look at the peaceful scene below before turning around to face him. He still stood at attention—head bowed, arm held across his chest, parallel to the floor, wings folded snug about his shoulders—waiting for me to acknowledge and release him.
The Oneiroi were beautiful in all the ways I was not. My brother’s charcoal skin glimmered in the darkness, starlight shifting beneath its surface. His long silver hair hung down his back, plaited intricately away from the delicate planes of his face. While many of the Oneiroi wore black linen, this one wore leather and delicate chain mail, suited for the duties I had assigned him.
I made a subtle motion with my hand, and the scout eased his stance, raising his coal black eyes to mine. “Then tell me why you have left your post, for you would not do so without need.”
The Dreamer did not come alone. A Bane walks the Dream.
“Is it contained?” I asked, and my brother shook his head.
Not contained, but under eye. It knows how to move, Kyrios. It has walked the Dream before.
The concern on my brother’s face put me in motion. I strode past him into the great room. He followed me, wings flexing in the air behind him. Taking my sword down from the wall, I pulled the rapier from its sheath, giving the blade a summary check before buckling it about my waist.
I looked at my brother. “Show me.”
With a repeat of his formal salute, the Oneiroi shimmered in the air and vanished. Closing my eyes, I willed myself into the Dream after him, leaving the Underworld behind.
* * * * * * * * * *
It was a beautiful word for brutal work. I tried to explain it to a nymph once, many millennia ago, what it felt like to move from the physical world into the Dream. I likened it to being drawn by a hundred-thousand knives, carved down into pieces so small that your body could be passed through the eye of a needle. If that needle was held in the hand of a woman who sat under a tree, darning a tunic on a world the size of a grain of sand.
The shift gave me no pain, happening far too quickly for my senses to register. Before I could exhale the breath I drew in the Underworld, the gravity of the Dream hurled me back at myself, the particles of my being reforming, power filling the cracks. I rolled my shoulders and unsheathed my sword, stepping up alongside my brother. The Oneiroi raised his arm and pointed at a decrepit building of European design.
“There, Kyrios.” His lips moved once, as three voices spoke in unison: one pitched high, one thrumming low, and one a whispering hum between them. Inside the Dream, all the Oneiroi spoke in this same strange choir of tones, both mesmerizing and unsettling at once.
I held my hand in the air, framing the edges of the building with the L-shape of my thumb and forefinger, then rolled my wrist sharply forward. Instantly, my brother and I were hurled to the far end of the building, a thousand steps taken without moving. I pressed myself against the back wall, my brother following suit, and looked up.
The front of the building was a facade for an open-floored display of horrors. From the second story up, the structure had no exterior sides. The rooms inside formed a hive of squared spaces, filled with flickering lights. As those lights flashed, unseen things were given silhouettes, terrible forms that drew terrible screams from the Dreamers trapped inside the building.
“I can feel him,” I said to my brother. “He is stronger this time.”
My brother growled low. “He is learning. Every time he comes, he learns. This time, he has the Dreamer.”
“That is most unfortunate.” I looked back over my shoulder and gave my brother a cold smile. “For him.”
I closed my eyes and sensed for the pivot point of emotion emanating from the floors above. A subtle shift of focus, and I moved my consciousness into the mind of the Dreamer. Her eyes became my own as I looked through the tangled mass of blond hair veiling my face. I noted my bound hands, the restrained forms of three other dreaming women around me, the taste of fear leaching from the gag in my mouth onto my tongue.
Peace, my dear, I whispered to her frantic mind. Turn your head. Show me what holds you captive. Show me the heart that needs my blade.
She shuddered once, then I felt her head move, swiveling to the left. Between her fierce trembling and the flashing lights, it took a moment for the shape of the thing to come into focus. Its shadow preceded it along the wall: tall and man-shaped, twisted, snarling, tongue sliding over teeth as sharp as the dagger it held in its hand.
This used to be far more rare. Fewer dreamers, the same shared stories, a deeper sense of security that gave itself to less bleed into the Dream. But now? Visual storytelling painted the waking mind with images for the subconscious to scrub clean, a nearly impossible task when combined with the mindless, binge consumption habits of billions of mortals.
I watched, sizing up the thing this poor Dreamer had dragged from her imagination into the Dream with her. It took a little forcing to hold her still, to let me look. Eventually, a whimper rose from her throat, and the beast whipped its head around at the sound, scenting the air, sensing an intruder. I could stay no longer.
Well done, my dear, I murmured. As I withdrew, I felt her slump to the floor.
I snapped my awareness back into my body and, nodding for my brother to follow me, slipped inside the back door. We headed up the stairs on foot instead of creating another disturbance in the Dream that might cause the creature to flee. The lingering trace of my connection to the Dreamer told me it had harmed her in some way after I left, which meant the Bane was already on alert. This would be messy. Messier than I liked with four Dreamers I needed to wake.
“You will go left, Brother,” I said as we neared the fourth floor landing. “I will draw the Bane to the right, tempt him with another Dreamer to add to his collection. Free the others.”
“It will be as you say, Kyrios.”
I placed a hand on his arm. “Leave the Dreamer for last. She is the Gate. I need it to stay open if I am to put this thing down.”
The Brother gave me a focused look. “You want me to keep the Dreamer bound?”
I nodded grimly. “Do what you must. This Bane has escaped one too many times on this Dreamer’s heels. It dies tonight.”
I peered around the corner and down the wavering corridor of light, watching the Bane cross the hall, back and forth and back again. When it loped out of sight a third time, my Brother slipped along the wall like a murky shadow, dagger in hand.
Remembering what I had seen through the Dreamer’s eyes, I fashioned a new piece of choice bait from the ether of the Dream. Slender, virginal, dressed in white like the women who sat bound in the other room. I waited until the Bane’s shadow slid up the wall before directing the illusion in the opposite direction of my Brother.
The creature roared at the sight of the flowing white hem disappearing around the corner and set off after his quarry. His claws scrambled on the hard marble floors, loud and obtrusive against the silence in which I pursued him. Splitting my focus, I kept the illusion moving ahead of the Bane, allowing my unwitting prey to play predator one last time. The liquid thud of its heart was muddy in my ears, loud enough for me to sense where he was, darkness or not.
I felt the delicate ripple of Dreamers waking. The Bane’s shape flickered as each Dreamer withdrew their power from him. As I hoped, the creature was too focused on its next victim to worry with those already captured. Only the Dreamer who summoned the Bane remained, frantic and straining against her bonds. My Brother was holding her the only way he knew how – by shifting himself to look like her captor, drenching her in fear.
I grimaced. Messy. I despise messy.
The Bane made a sudden grab for the illusory maiden I had conjured for him. It froze as its hands passed through the apparition once, then twice, before throwing its head back and howling with rage. It whirled around, eyes going wide when it saw me standing there, waiting to help it die. I allowed myself the malicious indulgence of a smile and plunged the blade cleanly through its heart.
“Wake her, Brother!” I called out, my smile widening as I felt the Dreamer wink out of the Dream, leaving the Bane skewered on the end of my sword.
The creature thrashed in place, straining to follow the Dreamer but unable to move, its essence pouring from it into a black pool that flowed toward my feet. I stepped neatly to the side, skirting the edge of the pool, refusing to let the filth of the thing touch my shoes. The Bane danced with me, its steps mirroring mine, staggering to the slowing tempo of its heart.
I recited, “And it is the Law of the Dream…”
The creature gurgled, a sticky cough bubbling up from its lungs.
“That all that dies at the hand of its King…”
The floor shook as the Bane fell to its knees.
“Remain here, forgotten, forever.”
The light of fury and the light of life dimmed in the creature’s eyes as it slid backward off the rapier’s tip and fell to the floor. The pool of ichor rippled at the impact of the Bane’s body, then receded toward it, slowly at first, then faster, as though the corpse were gathering every trace of itself up. Then, with a soft sigh, the creature became silvery mist, drifting up and away into the endless Dreaming sky.
I tugged a black scarf from my pocket and set about cleaning my blade. I had been careful not to hit a rib, but I still examined the edge for any trace of weakness to the metal that might warrant repair. All seemed well, so I sheathed the sword, intent on doing a more careful inspection later.
The stench of the thing was dissipating, but there would be no salvaging the scarf. I focused on the ichor-streaked silk in my hand and conjured a flame, letting it burn in my palm. My Brother’s presence glided up alongside me, and he patiently waited for me to speak.
“This is the third in as many days, Brother,” I said, watching the last of the burning silk turn to ash. “The Boundary is weakening. I want to know why.”
“As you command, Kyrios.”
With a sharp downward beat of wings, he was aloft and gone. I walked through the empty space where the Bane once lay and took the long way down the stairs, my mind unsettled. Never, in all of history, had my sword tasted so much blood, had the Dream been so unstable, so treacherous.
I stepped out onto the street and looked up at the boiling sky, feeling the winds of change blowing around me. I had always prided myself on being a benevolent king, one who brought visions, indulged fantasies, purged the pain of human existence in the safe space of the Dream. The ash on my palm left streaks as I dusted it off on my trousers, a reminder of this new reality. With a sigh, I bent my thoughts back to the Underworld.
A King contemplating the necessities of war.