Remembered Kisses: Chapter 4: The Door to Nightmare
The campus park was pretty at night, especially in Autumn. The John Adams Memorial Park's few acres of trees and gardens provided a welcome break from the dingy cityscape of New Tamsbridge. There were maple trees, and willows, and a variety of shrubs and flowers living both in small patches of garden and along the path. Some of the flowers bloomed at night, some bloomed by day, although little enough bloomed in New England’s brisk Autumn. Sam meandered down one of the flagstone lanes, taking his time, enjoying the night air and the calming, timeless presence of the trees.
For the moment, he let the day’s worries recede to the back of his mind, and let his feet find their way through the paths. He kept his senses open and alert, watching for any nightmares that might come through and try to eat him… but he couldn't feel disturbances nearby. Not yet. Professor Ling is minding the river, of course. It’s close to home for her. The Dean will keep his eye on campus proper. He’s so tied into the mana wells of the local Otherworld there that he could sense nearly anything that crossed realities. No one has a night off any more. Sam took a deep, calming breath, stopping to smile at a maple, admiring the riot of colors that crowned its branches. It was the Collegium's job to protect this city; lately, with so many nightmares crossing over, it was absolutely important to keep their eyes open. But it was grueling, and they were all growing weary. Sam worried that the others’ hearts weren’t in it. The Dean and Ling always seem more concerned with their research than anything else. They don't understand.
Sam’s territory stretched from the old cathedral to the park, and continued through to campus, where it overlapped with the dean's. Overlap was important; it prevented gaps. “It’s not like we do it alone. We have students, and we aid each other when needed. But the others are doing everything they can,” he thought aloud. He wasn’t sure who he was talking to or trying to convince. Maybe myself.
He stopped for a moment, placing a hand on another crimson-clad maple, allowing his senses to flow along its root system and a
little beyond, to the other side. This one was old enough to have its own presence in the Otherworld. It happened when any being grew ancient; they spawned echoes in the Dream-world. It happens the other way, too. The longer a creature of the Otherworld remained- and some could remain for years or even decades without ever visiting “Home,” the more of this reality it took upon itself, so that even their flesh and bone could be partly ‘real’ as most mortals understood it. It’s a humbling thought. Or maybe a terrifying one — I’m not sure which. I wonder if that’s what’s happened to Saul. Maybe that’s why he fits in so well.
Tonight Sam patrolled alone. Marcus was with Kendra at some party near the dorms. Just as well. The moon was bright tonight, and while some of New Tamsbridge’s monsters favored pitch darkness, there were others that were empowered by its silvery gleam. Like the werewolf pack down near the East Docks, Sam thought. One of the only places in the city where the Dead Court doesn’t reach. The pack's alpha doesn’t tolerate any of the deaders entering her turf. Hell if I know what she sees in that place, but… there. Sam paused, listening to the wind. Distant, but the howls are there. The wolves claiming their territory. As if we didn't know. We can't even have a mage down there; but they defend it well enough. The sound touched some primordial part, deep inside of Sam, a place of primal, unreasoning fear. A place where he was prey, and the night full of predators. Sam shoved it down. The werewolves were... different. Not nightmares, but... other things. Stranger things. Part of both this world and the Otherworld. Things from an older time, that favored the light of the moon rather than the darkness of the shadows.
And they were not the only forgotten things that lingered in Luna's glow.
Sam's feet took him to the Founders’ Garden, the spiritual center of the park. As he drew near, he felt a nudge against his senses. There was something there. One of those things from both worlds. He stopped, wary, but there was no sickly sweet smell. No sense of wrongness. Just a familiar melancholy and the sweet soothing scent of cool running water. He took a breath of relief. He remembered this one.
She was huddled by the fountain, her arms folded over her knees as she sat in the dead grass and watched the sky. Sam stopped at the edge of the garden, watching her, reluctant to intrude. The statue at the middle of the fountain, three women carrying pitchers of water, was lit with silver light from the moon, the same light that cast the woman's bare skin in pale luminescence.
“They sing,” she said at last. “A lament for their lost mother.”
“Their lost mother?” Sam asked, stepping into the circle of the garden’s grass, feeling the expected hum of power as he crossed. This place was a nexus. One of the keystones of the city, where many of the ley lines of New England crisscrossed — one of the two in the city, the other being the old lighthouse by the arsenal.
“Their lost mother,” the woman repeated, pushing her long blue-white hair out of her silver eyes. “The children of the earth lost her long ago, and they can never find her again. She is far from this place.”
“But still they linger.”
“They do. Some things refuse to die, magus.” She slowly turned towards him, her eyes glowing, her strangely alien features haunting and beautiful. “It has been long since you’ve come here in the shine of the moon. I have missed you.”
“Not so long,” Sam said. “Only a month or two. May I sit?”
She inclined her head. “Five months, magus. And you are always welcome in my circle.”
Sam smiled and settled down to sit cross legged on the marble beside her. “How are you?”
“I am well enough,” she said, and her gaze slipped back to the fountain. “Cold. It grows cold here, and I don’t like it.”
“Well, it is winter.”
“And its prince comes soon,” she intoned.
“The Prince of Winter. That name's being thrown around a lot lately,” Sam said. “It sounds creepier and creepier the more I learn . Something about it feels wrong.”
“You are correct to feel that way,” she said. “He brings the winter that will freeze the soul, Sam. The bitter wind that kills dreams. He is one of the greater nightmares. He is the nightmare that all things must end, that nothing endures… the nightmare that kills the heart one frost at a time.”
“Can I defeat him?”
She laughed, but there was no warmth in it. No mirth touched her eyes. She had none of the exuberance he had seen in her.
“No, Sam. You cannot. If a greater nightmare comes into this world, he will defeat you and any that stand before him. They are not of this place, and their power is beyond your ken. ”
“Well... what does he want? What is he after?” Sam ran a hand through his hair. "Maybe there's a clue there that can help."
She shook her head. “He wants what he is. Winter. He wants the end everlasting and the frost that never thaws.”
“You’re free with information tonight.”
“This concerns me. It concerns us both. This is not a game. What happened with the girl from the bar, Sam? What have you done about what was done to her?”
He tilted his head. "What do you mean what was done to her? She's fine.”
“Have you not looked?” She asked. “Sam. You were given the Sight for a reason. All magi are. Use it. The girl is one of his keys to this world, as is the Spider-Queen in her bitterness.”
“Magi used to be wise,” she said, and sighed. “They understood all manner of kennings. I speak of the weaver who was cast from the Overworld into the Otherworld. The bitter, poisoned heart of one badly wronged. She was not always a Nightmare, but she has become one. Her children move on many feet. She will arrive here before he does. The Herald will open the door, and she will prepare the way for her prince.”
Sam looked back at the fountain. “Grim tidings,” he said. “An enemy I cannot defeat. A bitter queen. A girl in danger that I can’t see but should be able to. All couched in the same bloody riddles I’ve heard all week. Anything else I should be aware of?”
She laughed, and this time some mirth broke through. “Yes. So many things. But the most important of them you learned already.” She reached out and took his hand, squeezing it gently. “I do not mean to scare you, Sam. I speak only what is.”
“There are several women speaking riddles to me lately,” Sam said. “In addition to a prophet. I feel so lucky..”
“You chose your road, Sam,” she said. “And none could sway you from it.”
“I made my bed? How comforting,” he said. He sighed. "I have my reasons."
“They must be weighty reasons. They drive you to walk alone, to face every enemy yourself. You come to me, but you will leave, and you walk in shadow... alone once again.”
Sam said nothing.
“You want to make up for your partner. Because he was murdered by the same fiend that murdered your father. You feel responsible."
Sam looked away. He watched the fountain, the water pouring from vase, to chalice, to cupped hands, and then spilling out into the base.
“You are a fool, Sam. You are not responsible. Stop punishing yourself for a monster's crimes.”
He squeezed her hand and let it go without looking back at her. “What do I owe you?”
“The same as always, Sam. Remember the naiads. Remember my sisters that were, and are. And keep our waters safe.”
“Wherever I can.” Sam turned back to face her and knelt, taking her small hands into his and giving them a soft, chaste kiss. "Thank you," he said, forcing warmth into his voice.
”My time is done tonight,” she said, and she began to fade. “Take care, Samuel.”
“Thank you,” he said again, and, sparing a look back up to the moon, decided where to walk next.
It took him a while to get there, traveling quietly and carefully, but eventually Sam made it to the old garrison. He stopped and glanced around, immersing himself in the ancient, eldritch feeling of the British Army's old grounds, and then he slipped within to the garrison armory where he had rescued Eileen from goblins a few months back. It was shadowed, but not in complete darkness; the decrepit buildings of the garrison were cast in a wash of light from the lighthouse that lurked above. The ancient, silent sentinel was the focal point of the local ley lines, and there were hairline cracks between the worlds along their intersections.
There was the door, just as Saul had said. Sam stared at it. A door in the brick wall that hadn’t been there before. A door of oak, chased and banded in iron, with a keyhole latch of elegantly worked steel. Where did that come from? Was it here the whole time, just shrouded from my sight? What has changed, there or here or me or nothing? He crept closer to it. He could feel the energy seeping out from underneath it, rolling out like New Tamsbridge’s own fog. It had a haunting feeling to it, a cursed aura that warped reality. Wherever this door connects to in the Otherworld, it isn't a nice place. Could it connect to a nightmare realm? That would make sense. He lifted his hand, touched the latch on the door. It was cold to the touch. Sam swallowed hard, wrapped his hand around it. Tugged. It didn’t budge. Locked, like Saul said. Well, there’s something. But what about the other side?
Sam turned away, and looked around him. This spot, right here, was where he had found Eileen, surrounded by Goblins. Here he had fought them, with the help of Audrey and her zombie. He shook his head. Months ago. Nothing had been the same since. “I wonder,” he murmured. “If it was only the first wave of something bigger.”
He knelt by the door, running his hand through the dirt of the long-abandoned armory. In his mind, he could hear the echo of boots two hundred and fifty years gone. He could see a flash of red and white, and could feel his heart swell with the beat of the drums and trill of the fifes. “This place has a long memory,” he murmured. “We’ve known it was close to the Otherworld. Well, maybe. But how deep does it go?”
The skin at the back of his neck went cold, and he stood up. “Who’s there?” He asked, pushing back his tweed coat and putting a hand on the grip of his small .38. There was no response. The chill passed through him again. His skin ran with goosebumps, and now he became slowly aware of a great will setting its attention upon him, like the watchful gaze of some primordial predator. He started to sweat. Another goblin? A greater nightmare? What?
Sam turned again. The shadows had deepened. The glow of the lighthouse fell away; it was so distant, so weak. He fought back a snarl, and against his better judgment he opened his senses to the world beyond. The shadows before him shifted into otherworldly trees, looming like star-capped towers, and the sounds of the city were lost to the sounds of a haunted forest, eldritch and terrifying. Both the armory and the wood seemed to exist at the same time, one overlaying the other; thick-packed snow blanketed the cobblestones. And Sam was not alone.
A humanoid figure stood in the arsenal with Sam, its arms crossed. The skin on Sam’s arms was rippling with goosebumps as the thing stood there, unmoving, watching through eyes that burned into Sam like twin coals. Darkness stretched behind it like the long tail of a serpent, face hidden by shadow as if by the hood of a cobra. There was a smell of long-dried blood, slow, dusty rot, and rich, heavy fabrics; under that lingered the scent of rusted iron and heavy grease.
Sam didn't hesitate. The gun came out, both hands on the grip, and he squeezed the trigger. The muzzle flash was lightning in the dark, and the thunder-crack of the shot echoed through the buildings and shook snow off of tree branches.
The bullet hit center mass.
So did the second.
The figure didn't flinch.
Sam lifted the gun, higher, aimed at the head, and then the figure was there, right on top of him, sweeping the gun away with effortless grace, slamming an open hand into Sam's chest that sent him crashing into the wall. Sam's world went red with pain as the back of his head slammed into the brick, and his senses were snapped back into his own reality.
Then the thing straightened, and stood there. Looming. Watching.
“Who are you?” Sam coughed, spitting blood. That hurt. That hurt a lot.
“No one that fears you and your little gun, Magus," said the figure, its rich, deep voice betraying a hint of the Mediterranean, accentuated with a millennia of cultural procurement. It stepped forward. It was a man, dressed in the type of severe, old-fashioned black suit that cost more than Sam's mortgage. Now with two holes in the coat. His black hair was slicked back, and dark eyes with red flecks gleamed from within deep-set sockets. The man was handsome, like a Renaissance statue come to life. “Not no one for you to fear, either. Not tonight. Not if you can act civilized.”
Sam had never seen the man before, but he knew who it was. “Quintus Lorenzo,” he said, slowly forcing himself to stand. Everything hurt. “I’m surprised to see you.” He injected his voice it with all the bravado he could muster, here, alone. “What does the voice of the Lorenzo famiglia want with me?”
The man smiled, but Sam found no comfort in it. He felt like a mouse staring at an approaching snake.
“With you?” The man shook his head, and stepped closer, his body all leonine grace without an ounce of wasted movement. “Nothing, Professor Lawrence.” He gestured to the door with a nod. “With that? I don’t know. It is a curious thing.”
"Business hours are over. If you want a consult, come see me at the college. I'll be in my office at ten tomorrow."
Quintus watched him with an unblinking stare. "Humor me," he said at last.
Sam took a deep breath and fought the urge to run. He turned to look at the door himself, trying to ignore the pain in his chest. And his head. “It is a curious thing,” he admitted. “And it is new to my eyes.”
“To mine, as well. And my eyes are a little older than yours.”
“How new, do you think?”
“A month. Perhaps two. Perhaps since late spring. No newer.”
Quintus gave Sam a cold, empty stare. Sam's skin crawled again. “I am sure. What do you make of it, Magus?”
Sam bit his lower lip. “Well,” he said. “I’m not entirely certain. I know it’s a door to the Otherworld. I don’t know how it got here. I don’t know how to open it. I just know that that…” he pointed at thick fog, darker than it should be, slowly seeping out from underneath the door, “isn’t good. That’s not fog. That’s…” Sam searched for the right words, “part of the essence of the Otherworld.”
“The Otherworld,” the vampire said.
Now that he was this close, Sam could see the differences between Quintus and a human. Aside from his pale skin, and the garnet glints in his dark eyes, Quintus's face made it obvious. It was a perfect counterfeit, except that it lacked any of the movement of living flesh. There was no evidence of a heartbeat ticking in the cheek. No slight movements of the eyes. Not even any nose wiggling. Why would there be? A vampire is an animated corpse. There is no movement in it that Quintus does not actively choose. No wasted energy.
“The place you mages draw your power from. But not the place of the dead.”
“No,” Sam said. “Not the place of the dead. Not exactly. The Underworld is part of the Otherworld, but also not. It's tricky.” He shrugged. "It's like different parts of the same town. Like here and the docks. You can get to one from the other, but they're not the same place. Does that make sense?"
“It does. After a fashion.” The man frowned. “So the attacks. They will get worse.”
Sam stared, startled. “You know about the attacks?”
“Of course I do, Professor. It is not just the living that have been attacked. It concerns my father’s house and the Dead Court as a whole.” His gaze swept back to Sam, and they locked eyes. For a moment, Sam felt the impossible weight of the vampire’s power settle on him, laden with all the menace of a coiled serpent. “I followed you here. I hoped you would have some idea.” Quintus's gaze swept back to the door. Sam let out a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding. “I see you do not. Regrettable, and disappointing. Some members of my court hold you in high regard.”
Again, Sam was startled. “They do?”
“They do. My father, for one. He always appreciates learned men, and booksellers more so. There is also a girl I think you know, from your youth abroad. She colours her hair pink as a flamingo, even among Us. Odd choices.”
Sam froze, and the blood inside him turned cold. “Sofia. You have Sofia. And she’s here? In New Tamsbridge?”
The vampire’s gaze slipped back to him. “You did not know? Strange. She speaks so highly of you. She came to us seeking strength and power two years past. She passed our tests, and so she became one of us.” He watched Sam’s eyes again, and this time the ghost of a smile appeared at the corner of his lips. “Does that trouble you?”
Sam said nothing. He looked away.
“I see. I wonder... what troubles you most? That she is one of us, or that she did not tell you? Still. I am no longer surprised. Of all the webs we weave, love is the most poisonous.”
“Does everything eldritch speak in bloody metaphors? And what would you know of love?” Sam snarled. “Do your kind even feel it?”
“Do not doubt, Professor. We feel it.” A pause. “You are no good to me, at the moment. Find out more about this door, Professor, and what lies beyond it. I will help as I can. This city is my home, too.”
“I appreciate your concern,” Sam said, dryly. “I’ll keep my eyes… I’m talking to myself.” He looked over his shoulder. There was no one there. “Yup. Talking to myself. Lovely.” He looked back at the door, walked closer to it, reached out and touched it with the tips of his fingers. It was cold. Prince of Winter, he thought. Lovely. He sighed. Naiads and Vampires. It’s been a night. He looked up at the moon, pulled his tweed closed again. He fought back a wince. His head hurt, and his chest was on fire. He staggered out of the armory.
The door remained, cast in the gleam of the lighthouse, thick grey fog slowly seeping out from underneath.