Remembered Kisses: Chapter 3: Supernatural Secrets

(The previous scene is here)

Chapter 3: Supernatural Secrets

A bottle of whiskey kept his dreams free from nightmares, and a pot of coffee helped fight the morning's hangover. Slowly. 

Sam was checking his sale list with bleary eyes when the little silver bell above the store’s bell rang. Two figures came in, shaking off the cold, and as the door clattered shut behind them, the taller one waved.  Marcus was wearing his usual blue jeans and grey jacket, and Kendra was wearing a green knit cap and a wool coat, buttoned tight against the wind. She looked around, her green eyes big with pleasure as they swept across the rows of books. 

“Morning, Sam,” Marcus said with a wave.  “How’s it going?”

“It’s all right, Marcus.  Surprised to see you so early.”

He shrugged.  “She felt like taking a walk, and I guess our feet took us here.  You don’t mind, do you?”

“Not at all.  Don’t get many customers in so early. You make it less lonely.”

“So this is your Professor, Marcus?”  The girl asked, flashing a bright smile.

“Well, one of them,” Marcus said.

She grinned.  “Well, I’m sure he’s the best.”  She stuck out her hand.  “Hi.  I’m Kendra.”

Sam smiled back and took her hand, squeezing it as they shook.  “Charmed,” he said, managing a smile. He gestured.  “Though I know who you are; you're in one of my classes, aren't you? This is my bookstore.  Doesn’t look like much, I know, but it’s mine.  I’m very fond of it.” 

“I love it,” she announced. ”Bookstores should be cramped and dusty.  It helps the locals feel at home.  And I am so glad you remember me.  I'm... not used to it.”  She turned and kissed Marcus on the cheek.  “If it's okay, Professor, I’m going to go explore and see what's here.  I’ll be back.” 

“All right, kitten. I’ll catch up.”

She wandered off, and Marcus turned back to Sam, a silly grin on his face.

“You’re right, Marcus,” Sam said as she disappeared between the stacks.  “She’s everything you said she was.  Congratulations. You’re a lucky man.”

“Don’t I know it,” Marcus said, and glanced at the Beastarium open on Sam’s desk.  “Any luck with the research?”

Sam shook his head.  “Nothing,” he replied.  “There’s nothing in here that’s anything like what we saw the other night.  And nothing about how the nightmares could start crossing over more easily.  I’m going to have to dig deeper, I think. Find more resources than I have here.”

“Well, if I can help, let me know.”

“Just be careful.  We have another patrol tonight.  No storms, but… we must always be watchful.”

Marcus nodded.  “Of course, professor.  I’ll be there. Try not to work too hard between now and then."  He winked.  "I'm tired of carrying your weight.

Kendra appeared out of the stacks, cradling a dusty old copy of The Hero and the Crown like it was made of gold, beaming with delight.  Her enthusiasm and excitement was contagious, and Sam found himself beaming back. He rang her up, and with a wave, she and Marcus were gone. 

“Cute kids,” Saul quipped.  

“How long have you been watching?” Sam said, turning, trying to hide his surprise.

“Long enough,” Saul said.  "So the two of you. Tweedle-bloody-dee and Tweedle-fookin-dum, just spend your nights fighting monsters?  Sounds... lame."

"It works.  We do what we have to do."

Saul shrugged.  “I found out what you wanted.”

“Oh?”

“I did.”  Saul stared at him for a moment, considering, a small smile on the corner of his lips.  “Can I have a cup of coffee, Sammy?”

Sam stared back, and then nodded, getting out one of the Styrofoam cups and filling it with his hours-old brew.  “Of course,” he said.  “Cream and sugar?” 

“Please.  Much like tea, coffee without cream and sugar is just… uncivilized.”

Sam snorted. “If you say so,” he said, adding the creamer and a packet of sugar before handing it over to Saul. 

Saul took it, stared into it, and took a swallow.  “Irish cream, Sam?” He snickered.  “Racist.” He took another swallow… and then spat it onto the desk.

“What the hell?”  Sam snapped, and then saw the coffee flow into the shape of a door, with liquid pouring out from its cracks.  “Is that liquid actually coming from somewhere, or is just the coffee?”  Sam asked. 

“It’s part of the image,” Saul replied, unvexed.  “There’s this door.  Here.  In New Tamsbridge.  It is a fixed entrance to the Otherworld.  Do you know of it?” 

Sam stared at it and nodded.  “I do,” he says.  “I know where it is.”

Saul pointed at the coffee-door.  “It’s shut.  But things are leaking out through it.  Energy,looking for a shape.  You are not getting fully-formed nightmares; just the lesser children.  Nightmares drawn from the fears of local dreamers.  But not the monsters who dwell in the dark places of the Otherworld.  Not yet.” 

“That sounds like a good thing.”

“I think so," Saul agreed.  "All the mages in New Tamsbridge could not stop one of the Greater Children.  They are strong and fast and terrifying and wield incredible power.  But things are going to get worse, Sammy my lad. Much worse. The energy builds on this side.  Less and less of it is going back when you stop them.  Most of it is staying here.”

“And the Prince of Winter?”

Saul gave him a long, careful look, then turned back to the shop.  “You still owe me a book, Sammy,” he said.  “I need to collect my payment before I give ye all my goods.”

Sam nodded.  “I’m aware,” he said.  “What do you need?”

“I want Galileo's Stregheria,” Saul said.  “The First Canto.”

Sam swallowed.  The Stregheria was a manual of power, written in the Renaissance, and one of the key books in Sam’s personal studies.  It was very rare.  He could find another, but… “Deal,” he said at last. “The information is important.” He glanced at the open book on the table.  “I’ll give you the Beastarium, too, if it will get me everything.”

Saul shook his head.  “Sorry, Sam.  Two different types of answer, two different types of payment.  And I never renegotiate.  It only causes hurt feelings.  Back in a nonce.” The man slipped back between the stacks, coming back after a moment with his payment, sucking some blistered fingers. 

 “Sam,” he said.  “That was a nasty security spell.  Warn me next time.”

“You didn’t give me a chance to…”

“Shhh, it’ll be okay.”  Saul glanced at the book again and nodded.  “Half paid,” he said.  “Well enough. One last bit for you, Sam.  Though you won’t like it.”

“I haven’t liked any of it so far,” Sam said, his expression sour.  “Why should it start now?” 

Saul shrugged.  “Well... it’s prophecy.”

“Prophecy. Damn it.”  Sam sighed.  “Out with it.”

Saul nodded again, and he tilted his head back. His eye glazed over with a strange golden light, and Sam could almost see another eye gleaming out of the empty socket.  When he spoke, his voice had a strange sound, as if it were coming from far away. 


“Winter comes, but first the fall:
 And then the spirits hear the call.
Of master unmade, made again:
Of masters forged by mortal sin.
Fear not the reaper, nor his scythe,
For only death can end this strife.  
Fear most of all true love’s call: 
Fear its power, Fear it all.  
Heed the warnings given thrice- 
Heed the hunter of the night.  
Face first the master, not winter’s ryme: 
The dead king rises er’ winter’s time.”

Saul let out a deep breath and sagged heavily down into the same chair the matron had sat in the day before.

Sam watched him.  “Well, that’s a whole pile of unhelpful enigma.  And terrible poetry. Did it have to rhyme?”

“Yeag, it had to fookin' rhyme. It's bloody prophecy! If you wanted something better,” Saul replied, his features cross. “You should have paid my full price.  I can’t give you more than you pay for.  Can’t.” 

Sam’s fists tightened, but he knew he was stuck.  For many creatures, the rules are the rules, and things of value had to be traded for.  Of course. Makes sense.  “You’re not human, are you?”

Saul smiled, just the ghost of a grin, and lifted a finger to his lips.  “Shh,” he said.  “Don’t tell anyone.”

Sam couldn’t fight his own grin.  Damn it.  If there’s anything worse than a prophet, it’s a likable one. “So you’re bound do to this.”

“We are what we are.”Saul shrugged, that ghost of a grin still lurking on the corner of his lips.

“What are you?”

“I told you.  A prophet.  All I find is true, all I speak is doubly so.”

Sam blinked.  He knew better than to ask how something could be twice as true, but the concept still made his head hurt.  He tried to regain is composure.  “So.  We’re done?”

Saul shrugged.  “Are we?  I’ll be around.  I live in this town, or… well, the other side of it.  Let me know if there’s anything else you need.  If you’ve got my pay, I’ll meet your needs.  It’s what I do.”

He turned and looked around him.  “Well.  Now that you’ve figured me out, there’s not so much to hide, is there?”  He rolled his shoulders, and his ears grew into long points. He winked, and his eye brightened to something else, something deeper, like a bright star seen from far away.  He smiled at Sam with a grin that shone more than it should have and then he was gone.

Sam sighed and looked up at the ceiling.  “Nightmare prince stirring in the dark,” he murmured.  “And my best source is a prophet.  It’s going to be a long week.”


***


Sam’s classroom looked like it belonged in another century.  Tiny desks that would make an ergonomist cringe were crammed into a room barely fit for half their number. Dusty bookshelves were stuffed with ancient textbooks and collectors’ edition classics. On an old wooden desk, a plaster skull gazed at the classroom through empty eye sockets. The desk itself was a cluttered mess, topped with piles of papers and flash drives (Sam was still a little uncertain how to use these), a half-eaten tomato sandwich and a few scattered notebooks. The crowning glory of the room was the green reversible chalkboard that Sam was currently writing on with neon-blue chalk.

Sam finished drawing his diagram on the board.  “And that’s it.  Magic isn’t hocus-pocus evocation like in books or movies.  It’s not the spontaneous generation of energy, or even the bending of primal forces to the will of a cunning and sinister wizard.  Spells are very literally calling forth the forces of other places, other realities.  Most typically, the Otherworld…” He tapped the top third of the diagram... “Or, more rarely, the Underworld.”  He tapped the lower third.  “As you see, while the Underworld is part of the Otherworld, there are major differences.  Each reality overlaps ours in different places, and can be easier to call on in those specific locales.” 

“The Otherworld?”  One of the students asked.  He was wearing a striped purple shirt, a black silk vest, and a cravat.  His long brown hair was pulled back in a pony tail.  Sam thought his name was Jeffrey.

Sam nodded.  “You’ve heard the term before, or at least you should have, in your Intro to Myth class.  It was used in Celtic legend to describe the place where the gods live, and it's as efficient a term as anything else.  The Otherworld is where the stories come from… or where they go to live, depending on your side of theory.”

“Go to live?”

“Yes.  There’s a prevailing theory in the current magical community about the source of the Otherworld…”  Sam grinned, flipped his chalkboard, and began quickly sketching again.  “It has to do with pooled psychic expression.  Working from the premise of every mind having at least minor psychic abilities, we approach the idea of religion.  With every mind having at least a little power, shared beliefs, while they may initially have no reality, slowly gain reality as the pooled thought of thousands, millions of followers gathers over generations.”  He stopped and turned, tapping his diagram with the piece of chalk as he addressed the class.  “The pooled psychic energy starts to become real, and begins exhibiting the very traits and abilities ascribed to them by their believers… and when you add in belief in a full pantheon functioning within a world with different yet consistent rules, you get the formation of something greater.  The Otherworld.”  He started scribbling on the board again, the chalk rasping against the slate board.  “This is the basic formula we work with.  Belief, expressed in numbers of believers (allowing for the standard deviation of psychic ability) divided by barrier - competing beliefs in the same culture - compounded by regional mana degradation, and multiplied by culture growth over time.”  He tapped the board on more time and grinned, presenting the finished equations. “It’s just a framework, really.  We’re attempting to understand how it grows and changes.”

“So you’re saying the Otherworld is entirely man made?”  Jeffrey asked.

Sam dithered. “Not exactly.  We’re not sure.  A lot of what we do at this point is theory: but what we do know is that there is an Otherworld, that we tap into it, and that we bring it here.”

A girl with short black hair raised her hand.  She was near the right wall, and was tapping notes into a laptop. “But isn’t that dangerous?  Crossing realities, bringing one into another?”

"That's an excellent question.  What's your name, Miss?"

"Robin Brewer."

“Well, Miss Brewer, it is dangerous.  Very much so.  It brings fires where there are none, raises hills where there’s flat land, and can do an immense amount of destruction to our world.  If used at the wrong time, in the wrong place, it can bring forth a raging battle of mythic heroes fighting back and forth along our streets.  Absolutely dreadful.”

“Sounds like personal experience, Professor.”

Sam laughed.  “The Collegium’s legal staff has advised me to not discuss the Westbury White Horse.  Or Omaha.”  He shuddered.  “But those are all extreme examples.  Mostly, you cause a little ripple between the worlds as you summon something here and it snaps back.  Tiny tears in reality, suitable for making someone’s feet unsteady or doing something a little more destructive.”

“More destructive?”

“That’s as far as we go here, I’m afraid,” Sam said.  “This is not a combat magic class, simply magical theory.  Any other questions?”

Misha Walker, a Russian student with brown-blonde hair and white skulls on her black bandanna, raised her hand. “Professor, we’ve heard other instructors mention nightmares.  What are they?  In the occult sense.”

“That’s another excellent question.”  Sam met her eyes for just a moment, offering a brief smile.  “In a word, monsters.  More precisely, they are the harmful denizens of the Otherworld.  The things from the dark side of myth, the very nightmares people have had for generations… because the Otherworld is powered by dreams, too. Among other things.”

“Dreams, professor?”  Jeffrey snickered, taking a sip from his cappuccino.  Sam could smell the caramel all the way at the front of the classroom. “Isn’t that a little...  story book?”

“Well, yes.  Absolutely.  That’s part of the point.  The Otherworld is the world of story books, and the psychic radiation generated by the collected dreaming of mankind is perhaps the most potent and steady source of the Otherworld’s energy.  If we return to the concept of pooled psychic expression, then we can understand how, when the mind is the least focused, the dreaming brain can give off the most power.  While not nearly as focused as the thought given to myth, and usually functional as mere building blocks, there are some nightmares that are ridiculously common.  Some things, like falling, don’t resolve themselves well into free-roaming constructs.  Others, like giant pairs of scissors… more so.”

“And goblins?”  Jeffrey asked, his smile smug and sly.

“Real.  Or real enough.  What we have here is a serpent and the egg debate.  Whether the nightmares were always there, or are constructs created years ago by the fears and stories of ancient cultures… they are real now.”  Sam smiled.  “And I have the scars to prove it.  Anything else?”

“Professor,” Misha asked.  “If they’re from the Otherworld, how do they get here?”

Sam sighed.  “That’s a tricky question, Miss Walker.  It’s… well, the easiest way to answer that is that there are tears between the worlds.  Weak spots.  Those are some of the places where it is easiest to draw power, but it works both ways.  Sometimes things slip through.”

“So you’re saying that it’s a two way door.  The easier it is to draw power, the easier it is for things to get through.”

“Yes.  And every time a magus draws power to cast a spell, if you will, the veil between worlds in that place grows thinner.  And, of course, the more power they pull, the thinner it gets.”

“So it’s the mages’ fault.”

“Partially, inevitably, yes.  To an extent- and not always- we are responsible for monsters making their way into the world.”  He took a deep breath.  “Any other questions?”

The class was silent.  Sam glanced at the clock.  He should have let them out fifteen minutes ago.  “No? Then we’re out of time.  See you next week.”

Students filed out, some dropping late assignments on his desk. 
Although most of them hurried out of the room, Kendra stayed behind, waiting near the front with a small grin on her face.

"I knew you were in one of my classes," he said.

Her smile grew.  "You were right. Arcane theory is fascinating.  You really get into it."

"Well, at least one of those things is true."  He shuffled through papers, trying to find his class list.  "Here we are.  Kendra James.  First year, Major in Sociology, minor in... Ritual Thaumaturgy." He looked up.  "A much more welcoming term than witchcraft, I think."  He smiled.  "A little outside my study, but still... fascinating."

She nodded, still smiling, then looked away.

"How can I help you, Kendra?" Sam asked gently.

“Did you mean what you said?”  Kendra asked.  “Is it really our fault?”

Our fault?”  Sam looked at her and smiled gently.  “Have you been casting spells on your own already?”

“Only one or two,” she said quietly, her dark green eyes looking away from his.  “Just for practice.  I want to…”

“You want to fly before you can walk,” he said, gently.  “It’s very dangerous, Kendra.”

“But witchcraft is different than magecraft, isn’t it?  Isn’t it safer?”

“Well, the emphasis on ritual and tools does help.  Each filter helps control the amount of power generated and, consequently, the risk of damage.  Think of the rituals and ritual tools as tapping into little tributaries of the massive river of Otherworld power.  They’re trickles, not the whole thing, traveling well-worn routes instead of covering new ground.  The movement of water through them has less effect than if it’s going over dry, untraveled ground.”

She nodded.  “That makes sense.  So it’s not really witchcraft’s fault.”  She laughed.  “It’s more your fault.”  She slugged him on the shoulder.  “Sam, how could you?”

He tried to smile, but it ran away from the corners of his face.  “I wish it were a laughing matter.  The truth is, the whole thing with the goblins a few months ago… it caused some damage, especially down by the arsenal.  I’m responsible for that.”

“But Marcus says if you hadn’t helped that girl, she would have been killed.”

“Maybe,” Sam admitted.  “Maybe.  But one girl’s life against everything that’s happened..." He shook his head. "And everything that might follow,” he added quietly.

She looked at him with gentle, understanding eyes and put a hand on his arm.  “You did what you thought was right, and I don’t think anyone faults you for it.  Marcus says you’re always trying to do what’s right, and I believe him.”  She offered him a reassuring smile.  “I don’t know you, Professor, but I think you have a good heart.  I think that’s just as important as being wise.”

“You’re an idealist,” Sam said, his eyes lingering on her hand for a moment.  Her touch was sending goosebumps up his arm, and the strangest sensation ate at the corners of his mind.  Some truth just out of sight.

“Maybe,” she said, her eyes searching his face.  She moved her hand, cheeks colouring.  “But I mean it.”

“Thanks,” he replied, and looked away.  “Lets go find Marcus and get some lunch.  My treat."

She smiled.  "Sure. And along the way, I'll explain to you that I'm stealing my boyfriend from you for the night.”

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