Remembered Kisses: Chapter 5: Winter Dreams
Sam checked the address and went inside the warehouse. He walked down a short, bland hallway with cobwebs in the corners. Glancing at the numbers on doors, Sam hurried down the corridor to a short flight of stairs. He went up, walked past a few more doors, found the one he was looking for, and knocked on it.
There was no answer. Sam knocked again, and waited.
He was just about to knock a third time when the door opened. Marcus was standing there in a dark blue bathrobe, bleary-eyed and tired looking... but one look at Sam and his eyes widened. He stepped out of the way and gestured.
Sam walked in and glanced around. "So this is it?" He asked. “Not bad.”
Marcus shrugged. “Best I can do off my stipend,” he said. “And it’s better than the dorms. Professor, you look like Hell. What happened?”
Sam's eyes traced the walls of the small studio apartment. “A re-purposed warehouse,” Sam said. “Very… appropriate. Very Burbank Avenue. I like it.”
“Well, that is where we are. West Burbank, at least. I couldn’t afford the Columns, or anything else east of here. Sam. You're injured.”
“You don’t want to live in that kind of place, anyway,” Sam said. “They’re so manufactured. Soulless.”
“Yeah, but they have a pool. And air conditioning, Sam. It’s fantastic. You should try it.”
“What do you need air conditioning for, anyway?" Sam turned back to Marcus, and gestured, indicating Marcus's dark almond skin and dark curly hair. Aren’t you from…”
“Baltimore, Professor. I’m from Baltimore. You racist bastard.” Marcus threw a piece of chalk at him.
Sam caught it and stuffed it in his pocket. He glanced around again. A half-finished painting of the City of Brass rested on an easel, and the walls were studded with original pieces from other local artists. There were some textbooks spread out on a small cherrywood coffee table that sat between a threadbare couch and a late-model flatscreen tv, and a small shelf near the sparse kitchenette held a row of small clay containers. Above the otherwise bare mantle, there was a photograph of an older man and woman in what was clearly a hand-carved frame made from the same wood as the coffee table.
“I see you have your priorities in the right place,” Sam said with a wry grin, nodding towards the flatscreen.
“Yeah,“ Marcus said. “She’s a beauty, isn’t she?”
“I guess so,” Sam said. “I never cared much for tv.”
“You’re such a hipster, Sam,” Marcus said, laughing. “Or a luddite, Something. I still can’t believe that you only just bought a cellphone." He pushed some magazines off of a worn recliner. "Sam. Please. Will you sit down and tell me what happened?”
Sam let out a deep breath, and wheezed as he sat down. "Patrol. No new monsters, but I ran into one of the local dons."
Marcus's eyes widened. "He beat you up? I thought we had a treaty?"
"We do. In his defense, I shot him."
"Twice. He didn't even flinch. And then he hit me."
Marcus shook his head. "He's an elder vampire, isn't he?"
"He's... pretty old. It shows. Knocked me into a wall. I think he broke something."
"Damn it," Marcus said. and stood up, walking into the pantry. "That's why you came here, then?"
"Yeah. I was hoping you had some of the salve left."
"I don't," Marcus said. "Ran out after the last goblin attack. But I've got an oral version I worked up. I did it with some fire-fern, actually. It might help. Would you like some?"
"Right." Marcus came back out, holding a small jar of something the same sickly green as day-old pea soup. He twisted off the top and handed it to Sam with a clay spoon. "Three spoons," he said. "No more."
Sam nodded and took his medicine. It tasted awful, like cough syrup mixed with fresh hops and thickened with wasabi into a paste. Sam's face twisted, but he took all three spoons.
Marcus smiled. "Good. I know it tastes awful, but it works pretty quickly. Would you like some coffee? It's the instant crap, but it might help.”
“Please,” Sam said.
Marcus walked six feet to his kitchenette and started heating some water. “I appreciate you coming by,” he told Sam. “It means a lot that you can rely on me.”
“Well, you're a good kid,” Sam said. “And I wasn't too far. And it’s nice to see where you live.” He watched for a minute as the water went to boil and Marcus poured it off into cups, stirring in some of the freeze-dried coffee flakes.
“Well, you’ve had an invitation for a while.” Marcus brought over the cup of coffee, and Sam took it gratefully. It was terrible, but Sam appreciated the gesture. Anything to chase the taste out of his mouth. He took a sip.
“So what’s the story, Sam? Is it always this crazy in town?”
“No,” Sam said. “I mean, New Tamsbridge has always been a little rough,” he continued. “Sometimes worse than others. But in different ways. I’ve never seen this many things slipping out through the cracks between the realms.”
“I thought so,” Marcus said. “The rest of the staff doesn’t seem to have any idea, either. Otherwise you’d be better organized.”
“Group organization is never something magi are good at,” Sam said with a laugh, taking another swallow of the coffee. Good gods, this stuff is wretched. “Only when there’s something we really, badly need to get done. The last time magi really organized in this town was to end Cornelius Blackthorne’s reign of terror.”
“Cornelius Blackthorne?” Marcus asked. “Audrey’s…?”
“Yes. The very same. He came here in the twenties and set up shop. I’m not sure if he came here because New Tamsbridge is so… foul, magically speaking, or if the magic here is twisted because of him. It was before my time. Anyway. He quickly started turning the city into his own personal necropolis. All seven mages from the Circle of Alba arrived, joined forces with the last wizard, and together they brought all their power against him.”
“And they won?”
“More or less. I mean, yes. He was slain, and his power broken, but they were all killed in the conflict. And due to his legacy, New Tamsbridge now has the Dead Court.”
“So, he made all of them?”
“No, not hardly. Many of the things here are older than he was. At least in theory. But he drew many of them in. The Lorenzo family, I believe, rose to power through his actions. Many of the weeping dead woke as a result of his slaughters. That sort of thing. Even after his death, this place became a beacon for restless spirits.” Sam sighed. “Ripples. That’s what we call it. Everything has ripples.”
Marcus settled down on the couch. “Right. So he’s buried here then?”
“He is. There was an old family crypt here, in the catacombs under Capitol Hill. It’s where he made his final stand, and where they sealed him in after he was killed.”
“Was that wise?”
“Probably not. But it was all the sole survivor could manage," Sam explained. Distantly, he could tell that the vile potion was working. He hurt less, and energy was coming back. Better living through alchemy. Gotta love it. "You have to understand how much that victory cost. The survivors would have had nothing left. And the college decided that it was more prudent to leave well enough alone. We do not want to accidentally wake anything up by treading in such places.”
“I suppose that makes sense,” Marcus replied. “I tell you what, Sam. I had no idea it was going to be this dangerous when I took that scholarship. But nightmares, and werewolves down by the docks. And the whole truce thing with the Dead Court...”
“Would knowing the dangers have changed things?” Sam asked. He studied his assistant closely, watching his expression.
“No. Yes. I don’t know. I mean, if I had never come here, I would never have met Kendra. And that’s been a huge part of my life already. But I never really wanted a life of adventure. I just wanted to work on my art. I mean, magic, and all, and I like it, but the fighting…”
“I understand,” Sam said. “But you have a knack for fire, and…”
“If you say ‘with great power comes great responsibility,’ professor, I’m going to slug you. No, I know what we’re doing needs to be done. And I’m glad to be able to help. And it’s more exciting then spending all night carving some wood, but…” he shook his head. “I guess what I’m saying is that it’s just not what I had in mind for a college career.”
Sam laughed. “No, you’re right. I see what you mean. It’s not really what I expected, either. When I left the force I thought my days of trying to save everyone were done. Funny how life turns.”
“Maybe I’m selfish,” Marcus said. “If I could give up all this hero stuff and go off somewhere just to live in peace with Kendra, I would.”
“I don’t think that’s selfish,” Sam responded. “That seems pretty normal. Would you use the solitude to become a famous artist?”
“Not at all,” Marcus said, smiling, and looking shy. “Most of what I make… it’s for me, Sam. Not because I want anyone else to see it, but because I want to see it. Because I want to make it. I don’t need anyone to see it but me and Kendra.”
“Well, what you make is both beautiful and useful, and sorely needed. But I can understand where you’re coming from.” Sam glanced at the kitten clock on the wall. It was pink, and the tail swung back and forth as the second hand ticked. He looked back at Marcus with a questioning look.
Marcus glanced up at it, too. “I liked cats a lot when I was a kid, Professor,” he said with a small grin. “Don’t judge me.”
“Oh, I’m not judging,” Sam said. “It just makes me think of Audrey. I should probably head home soon. It would be nice to be able to tuck her in.”
Marcus smiled a little. “You really are like her dad, Sam,” he said. “It’s cute.”
Sam looked away. “She needed someone to look after her. Her parents wanted to, but I think she frightened them. Her gifts, well…” He shook his head. "Anyway. I need to be going."
"Be careful, old man. Try not to shoot any more vampires."
"Jerk," Sam said.
"Ass," Marcus replied.
Sam laughed, rubbed his still-tender ribs, and headed home.
That night Sam dreamed he was in the founder's garden again. He was walking alone, but this time he felt the absence of a companion acutely. Marcus's lack was a gaping wound. Sam missed Sofia, too; the dull ache of her missing was almost crippling in this dream world.
The fountain was covered in a light frost, and though the moon shone brightly, there seemed to be no one else here... but Sam could have sworn he saw a gleam in one of the statue’s eyes. He reached out and touched the stone, where the ley lines met, and he felt a flicker of icy power.
He was no longer alone.
A chill wind blew, and a handsome man stood before him — more than handsome. He was as devastatingly beautiful as a Greek statue, but his cold eyes were as bleak as a clear winter morning.
“I see,” he said. “The magus. I have been waiting for you, Samuél.” He tossed pale moonlit curls out of his face, and flashed a cold, dispassionate smile. “Are you enjoying the night?”
Sam stared. He felt a hard lump in his throat. He knew who this was. Those eyes... there could be no doubt. He stood before the Prince of Winter. “How are you here?” He gasped, and his very breath felt cooler. Frost was creeping up the toes of his shoes. At the corner of his mind, he could hear the skittering of many legs.
“You brought me here, Samuél,” the man said. “Every step of the way. Every incantation you, and those like you uttered - every bit of reality you altered, you put stones in my road here.” The man took a step toward him. “Every time you touched the Otherworld, you brought me closer. My herald started the wheels in motion, but you, Sam, you have sped them, again and again. And here I am.” The frost had covered Sam’s boots and begun to creep up his legs. “You should be proud.”
Sam tried to back away, but his feet were frozen to the grass of the courtyard. His arms felt like they were made of jelly; they had no more strength in them than broken willow fronds.
“Come now, Sam,” the man said, taking a final step to where he was almost touching the frozen mage. “You can’t be leaving so soon; You've friends to see, first.”
Almost on command, Marcus appeared out of nowhere, charging into the garden, wand alight with flame. Audrey stepped out of the darkness from the other flank, her hands glowing with green light. Her lips moved in an eldritch call: the ground shook and skeletal hands burst free from below, grasping and clawing.
The prince laughed, gestured, and a chill wind answered. When it passed, both Marcus and Audrey were trapped in glittering ice. “Pitiful creatures. Which should I take first? If you choose for me, I might make it quick." He shrugged. "Or I might not. Everything ends, Samuél, but this time you get a choice about who lives or who dies. Fire or ice. Daughter or Son? Tell me.” His cold eyes never changed, and his gaze never wavered. It bored into Sam, peeling back the walls of his mind like the layers of an onion. “Which will you choose?”
Sam gritted his teeth and shook his head.
The man laughed again. “Lies, really. You never really had a choice.” His hand closed into a fist and they both exploded in a rain of gore and ice. “Their names were penned on Death’s scroll the moment you met them.” His eyes flicked past Sam. “Take him.”
The skittering grew louder, and suddenly Sam was covered in spiders. There were dozens of them — hundreds of them. There were spiders in his ears, spiders in his mouth, swarming him. Thousands of jagged legs skittered across his skin, tiny jaws ripped into his flesh in thousands of tiny cuts. His vision was torn away as they climbed in and out of his eye sockets, and all he could smell was his own blood mixed with their putrid stench. He tried to scream, but he choked on the spiders in his throat, and then their mass was taking him to the ground, and they were dragging him across the crackling ice into the frozen dark.
Sam woke screaming, covered in a cold sweat, but he was home in his bed above the Dusty Covers. Just a nightmare? I'm so cold. He walked to his bathroom and splashed some cold water on his face and tried to think clearly. “It could be a nightmare,” he muttered. “But so is the Prince of Winter. It could be a dream and still be real." He shook his head and looked at his reflection. "They say wizards could control their own dreams. That would be nice.” He tried to think of any clues that might be in the dream. He tried not to look in the corners for webs. He set the radiator two settings higher than strictly necessary. But nothing could stop him from shivering with the memory of the prince’s power, even in a mere dream; and the skittering of many legs haunted his thoughts for the rest of the night.