During times of stress a lot of different things can go through your mind. Tactical insights and strategic plans can blossom as the brain scrambles to imagine solutions to the problem it’s faced with. Those are the helpful sort of thoughts to have. Especially when you’re stuck in a narrow tunnel with two gangsters who would be delighted to see you shot full of holes and you know there’s someone waiting around the next corner ready to do exactly that.
Then there are the not so helpful sort of thoughts.
“Seriously? Again?” I complained silently. It wasn’t that we were being ambushed in a dusty tunnel that should have been safe. It wasn’t that we were stuck with prisoners who wanted to kill us. It wasn’t even that our attacker had gotten the drop on us. It was that this wasn’t the first time all of those things were true.
It was one of the perils of being a dreamlord. Even when Way and I tried to go on vacation and lay low all kinds of trouble would still manage to find us. In situations like this, where we were actively looking for trouble, the sky was the limit for what could go wrong.
I nudged Way and held up my hand to stop Stone and his bodyguard. We were in a narrow, empty corridor. That didn’t give us a lot of options. If we retreated we’d be in the Chimera Club as it burned to the ground. Having already been in one collapsing building within the last several hours, I wasn’t all that interested in repeating the experience. Moving forward was pretty certain to provoke a hail of gunfire though and that wasn’t too appealing either.
I reached into my satchel and found a pair of “billiard balls”. One looked like a cue ball and the other the eight ball. In place of solid core like a real pool ball though, these were filled with a pair of chemicals. As long as the balls were intact, the chemicals were perfectly harmless.
I hurled the cue ball at the turn in the corridor beyond which our ambushers were waiting. The ball shattered into a hundred pieces and the chemicals within had a violent little party with each other. Smoke filled the corridor instantly, exploding out from the point of impact to obscure all visibility.
Way was off like a shot, with the bodyguard following her. The smoke was dense, designed so that it would puff up over the stage and then quickly sink back down to reveal the outcome of our illusion. For a stage performance that was wonderful. In this case it sucked since it meant the smoke was only going to buy us a few seconds to act.
I was considering when to throw the eight ball when I felt something odd. It took me a second to recognize that someone on my homeworld was trying to prod me awake. I groaned. This was about the worst possible moment for me to try to split my attention. On the other hand people didn’t wake me at home unless something really important was going on.
I tried to resist waking at home. Way needed me here. The poking grew more insistent. Worse, I felt myself getting somewhat woozy on Earth-Glass. Something was wrong with the smoke. It wasn’t dissipating as fast as it should have been.
My head started to spin as I wracked my brain for some understanding of what was happening. Then I heard metal clink on the stone floor nearby and got a lung full of gas that left my lips and tongue tingling and numb.
Knockout gas. They’d taken advantage of the smoke to vent a canister of knockout gas so that Way and the bodyguard had walked right into it. Then they’d tossed a canister down the corridor to take care of any stragglers.
I really hate bad guys who come prepared. And who react quickly.
I pulled a scarf out to breath through and tugged on Stone’s sleeve. We had to fall back, even if it meant falling back to a burning building.
I felt something yank on my leg, and managed in my addled state to figure out that it was someone on my homeworld doing it. Sighing, I put my body on Earth Glass on auto-pilot and checked out, mentally, to see what the problem was on my homeworld.
The trip home passed in a blink and I found myself looking down my bed at my sister. This time rather than hiding in my wardrobe, she was sitting at the foot of my bed, yanking on my toes.
“WAKE UP!” she demanded.
“Peri, what is it? What’s wrong?” I asked. She hadn’t woken me like this before, so no matter how desperate I was to get back to Earth Glass, I wasn’t going to be mad at her. Or so I told myself.
“The monster under my bed ATE the puppy girl!” Peri shouted at me.
“What?” I asked, to buy myself time. The ‘puppy girl’ was Belle, but there wasn’t an actual monster under Peri’s bed, and even if there was Belle should have been more than capable of handling it. I searched outwards with my awareness and didn’t find any sign of her though.
“The puppy girl went under my bed and I called to her and she’s not coming out so the monster ate her up!” Peri said. She wasn’t scared by that though, she was angry. The adorable little furrows on her brow said I could either fix what was wrong, or join the monster under her bed as a subject of her terrible wrath.
I buried my face in my hands. I didn’t have the time for this. Not right this second. On the other hand ignoring it could prove to be a horrible mistake too.
“Ok, let’s take a look at what’s going on.” I told Peri and got out of bed.
Peri followed me into her room, her serious expression never wavering.
Glancing around revealed little more than the contents of any other four year olds room. More toys that normal since Peri’s birthday had been just last week, but those had mostly joined the mountain of stuffed animals or the piles of kids books that had cluttered her room since before she was born. Buried underneath the largest portion of the stuffed animal menagerie sat Peri’s little bed.
“Don’t go under there. The monster will eat you too.” Peri said, grabbing hold of my sweatpants.
“Don’t worry. If the monster tries to eat me, I’ll eat him right back.” I told her with a serious look in my eyes. It helped that I was being quite literal. When you can shape reality there’s less need to destroy the monsters you find. Not when you can “repurpose” them for later use.
I went to bend down and felt the concrete floor underneath me. I’d succumbed to the gas on Earth-Glass. I closed my eyes on my homeworld and felt my body on Earth-Glass dwindling into unconsciousness. With a snarl I forced my eyes open on Earth-Glass and saw that Eddie Stone was down for the count as well. Ahead of us, another knockout gas grenade lay on the ground. They’d thrown one beyond us to make sure we couldn’t escape the effect. Reality groaned and creaked at the notion that I was somehow ignoring the effects of the gas, so rather than push it too far I let myself sink down into the proper embrace of unconsciousness, right after I made sure that my scarf was in place over my mouth so that I’d receive less of a dose than I might otherwise have to contend with.
Opening my eyes on my homeworld again, I glanced under Peri’s bed. There was nothing there. Or more precisely there was “Nothing” there. A small rift in reality floated under her bed leading to a place that bore only a passing resemblance to reality.
“Oh no.” I sighed.
“Do you see her? Do you see the puppy girl?” Peri asked.
“I need to look closer. I think I see where she went. Stay close to me ok?” I told her.
Normally the right thing to do is to send children as far away from dangerous situations as possible. In this case however I wasn’t about to let my sister out of my sight. Rifts to the Dreamlit World, the border between the cosmos of the real and the realm of the unreal, were not something to that should be able to exist in my world, but thanks to my presence the normal rules weren’t fully in play.
Dreamlords have a disruptive effect on reality when they stay in a place for a while. It was something we could mitigate or even eliminate by keeping our powers in check, like Way and I were doing on Earth-Glass. The other alternative, on worlds that weren’t as fragile as Earth-Glass, was that we simply dealt with the disruptions that our presence caused. Unless someone else dealt with them first, that is.
“I don’t think the monster ate Belle.” I told Peri. “In fact I think Belle is paying him a visit right now to sort things out.”
The rift under Peri’s bed wasn’t like the reality fractures Way and I were looking for on Earth Glass. A reality fracture is a failure of the world to reconcile something with the essential rules that defined the world. In the case of Earth Glass, it had a whole lot of “essential rules” that made its reality very solid and dependable. They also made it brittle. My homeworld on the other hand was more fluid. In one sense it wasn’t as “real” as Earth Glass, super science, meta-human powers and faerie magic routinely ignored the “laws” of physics and somehow everything held together ok. The rift was a step beyond that, a graver violation of reality itself, but there wasn’t the danger that it would spread wildly on its own or shatter the world.
I reached out to touch the rift and felt a resistance in the way. As I’d expected the resistance had the feel of Belle’s magic to it. On this side of the rift, I could push through it with effort, but there’d be very little that could push through it going the other direction. She’d sealed the rift after she went in to make sure nothing from the Unreal could escape into reality.
I felt out further and could sense that there was a whole sub-realm that had spawned around the rift on the Dreamlit side of barrier. Basically a tiny dream realm to serve as a secondary border against the Unreal. Within that realm would be the “monster-under-the-bed” that Peri was so angry at. I almost felt bad for the poor thing. I’d faced Belle before she was my friend. I wouldn’t wish that on anybody I didn’t truly hate.
“Belle’s just fine sis. She’s…locked the door on the monster so he can’t get out while she has a little talk with him.” I explained.
“When’s she going to be done?” Peri asked.
“I don’t know. They might have a lot to talk about.” I told her. By which I meant, Belle might take her time “educating” the monster on why picking on little girls was a bad idea.
I felt rough hands lifting me up and realized that I was being carried somewhere on Earth-Glass. If I was willing to argue with reality there, I decided I might be able to justify waking back up in response to the rough handling.
“I’ll tell you what, if Belle’s not back by tonight, I’ll go get her ok? Until then, maybe you can go play downstairs or at Melissa’s place?” I asked Peri. Melissa was her best friend from across the street. A quick check with my awareness showed that there weren’t any rifts or other supernatural surprises over there to worry about.
“But…the puppy girl!” Peri complained as she followed me back into my room.
“Belle’s way scarier than any other monster. You don’t have to worry about her.” I told my sister as I slid back into bed. I felt my Earth Glass body fall onto some hard and cold surface. I had to get back there. “Just be careful and stay out of your room.”
Peri pouted and folded her arms but didn’t put up anymore of a fight. That really should have clued me in to what she was thinking, but I was a little too distracted to notice the signs.
Casting myself fully back to Earth-Glass was difficult. I wasn’t willing to accept a prolonged period of unconsciousness but Earth-Glass wasn’t happy with the idea that I could shrug off knockout gas faster than a big lug like Stone’s bodyguard. I called on my dream magic and tried to reason with it.
I’d gotten a much smaller dose thanks to moving away from the initial gas grenades. Gas grenades weren’t exactly a precise delivery mechanism though so once I’d fallen I’d almost certainly inhaled far more than was needed to knock me out. I’d had the scarf to help mitigate that I reminded the world. But to get me out of the corridor whoever had carried me would have taken that away, so I would have breathed in plenty of gas without it.
Being jostled around could wake me though, I thought. Of course if there was a good chance of that then we’d all be awake, in which case our captors would either dose us again or just shoot us.
In the end I settled for diminishing the effects of the gas but spending several minutes fast asleep anyways. When I finally clawed my way back to consciousness, I found that the four of us had been loaded into a van. We were tied up and two men who were wearing gas masks and holding rifles were watching over us.
“Where are you taking us?” I asked, my voice slurred with the remnants of the unnatural sleep that I’d been dragged into.
“<One of them is awake.>” one of the hooded men said in German.
“<She must be resistant to the gas.>” the other replied.
“<She will not be able to resist the interrogation though.>” the first said.
“<Yes. It will be almost a shame to kill them once we have the list back. They were quite resourceful.> the second one said.
There were only two of them, but I was tied up and they had three hostages to use against me. I’d been in worse situations but I’d had my dream magic to fall back on then. This time I had only stage tricks and sleight of hand and it didn’t seem like they’d be up to the job of getting us all out of here in one piece.