The last time Tamara Oliver had wandered into the Tulgey Wood, it had been a stiflingly hot and oppressive place, filled with the sounds of unnatural beasts prowling the underbrush. Now, it was cool and dark, and dimly lit with the brightness of a swollen full moon peeking through the blue-leaved treetops overhead. Before she had felt only anger and what she had thought was righteousness but now realized in retrospect to be self-loathing, a side effect of the psyche-fracturing virus that the Patron of the Thorn had injected into ASI’s dream matrix. This time she felt confident, self-assured, aware of her inner self-righteousness—and determined never to let it get the best of her again.
But why am I here? she thought. This is more than a dream. It’s exactly like the woods in Ken’s matrix. Tamara didn’t dream often, and rarely remembered them when she did have them. Usually they were about high school, or being stuck in airports—boring stuff by most standards.
“Ah, good, you’re here,” said a smarmy voice from somewhere above Tamara. “You’re the last one to arrive, you know. The meeting is due to begin shortly. You’ll need to get there quickly.”
Tamara’s head snapped upward as she searched for the source of the voice—a long-haired panther-sized cat with white and silver tufts of fur and wide green-yellow eyes. “Who the fuck are you?” she asked.
The cat chuckled. “You humans are so crude nowadays. No manners anymore. I much preferred people in the Victorian era, you know. So prim—eager to bow and curtsy as they ought.”
Tamara pulled a pistol from her side, only half-wondering how it had gotten there, and cocked the hammer as she aimed at the cat. “What do you want with me? What’s this ‘meeting’ about?”
“Keeping our worlds from crashing together—if you can see your way to helping out with that, that is.” From the woods behind Tamara, a low-thundering series of footsteps accompanied by a bestial snuffle sounded, and a bandersnatch stepped out.
It licked her cheek rather adorably.
“There’s no saddle, but you’ll make do, I presume,” the cat continued in a laboriously blase tone, its body fading into the darkness before its eyes and mouth did. “Follow the path out of the woods and toward the door.”
“What door?” Tamara’s eyes narrowed; she’d read the internal communiques at both ASI and the NSA detailing what had happened in the Triangle.
“Oh, the one that everything else is running away from, I’d expect.”
The bandersnatch bounded over chessboard patches of grass sod toward the glowing nimbus on the horizon; trickles of momeraths scampered past them, some squelching under the beast’s paws. At one point, Tamara glimpsed a herd—a herd, really?!—of rabbits on the horizon and yanked the bandersnatch’s mane to keep it from trampling the terrified creatures.
It wasn’t until the rabbits had passed, and the dust left in their wake had settled, that she realized what they were running from. The landscape ahead was markedly different from the fantastical surroundings Tamara had ridden through to get here. It looked like a modular continent floating in empty ash-colored sky: pieces of twisted reality ripped asunder and thrown together haphazardly. Here, a desert littered with doll parts; there, a replica of St. Peter’s Square in blood-red marble dotted with statues of horribly-mutilated people; elsewhere, a swampy forest where dark shapes stalked the barren moss-draped trees. New areas were being constantly added to the horrid landscape, stretching out impossibly far toward the horizon—toward a massive glowing iron door.
The bandersnatch leapt from island to island across the network of sinister places, finally stopping on an island of grassy earth that seemed markedly out of place. Atop the island, Tamara could see a few dozen people standing, staring out into the gray toward the great door. She recognized a few people she’d worked with previously in some capacity or another at ASI: Lourdes Lopez, the dreamseer who’d gotten stuck in the dream matrix with her, and Karen Sugimoto, another psychic Tamara had shown around the ASI Washington headquarters. Many of those present whom she didn’t know personally she still recognized from reading their internal dossiers.
One in particular stood out, though. “I thought you were retired,” she snapped as she dismounted the bandersnatch next to a bearded, dark-haired man in jeans and a ‘King In The North’ t-shirt.
“So did I,” Aaron Mathias responded, kicking a rock with the toe of his Chuck Taylors absentmindedly. “Turns out you can resign from ASI and quit being a hunter, but being a dreamseer isn’t exactly a position with an exit interview.”
“I take it you’re the one who sent the cat. Did you call all these people here? Hell, for that matter, why the hell can I even see this?”
“Sombellatrol exposure,” Aaron explained. “Dr. Cunningham mentioned that it might have some side effects in people with extranormal cognitive talents, but we never saw any in the trials I participated in at ASI. Your reaction to the Usturanol was the first major incident Ken ever documented. Anyway, yeah—you can project into this world now, like us, although it’s…not as safe for you.”
Tamar frowned, resting her hand on her hip. “What’s your angle, Mathias? And how I do I get out of here?”
“Oh, you’ll wake up eventually. We all do. Well, we have so far anyway. Now, if that door opens, that may not be the case.” Aaron turned to face the door, squinting into the distance. “I can’t even keep the one the Fae implanted in my mind closed anymore. Not since the shit that went down in North Carolina a few weeks ago. And I end up standing near this thing every time I go to sleep now. All the dreamseers do. We’ve been discussing it for a few weeks…but it’s gotten worse. Other people are seeing it, too. Normal people—Eva Jimenez and a couple other hunters who worked with her in New Orleans have called me to ask about it. That’s what all these new islands of reality out here are: Nightmares, Tamara. The nightmares of all of humanity, and this door is using them like building blocks to construct a bridge through the Dreamlands.”
“So this thing is now projecting fully into the collective consciousness?” Tamara shuddered at the implications of that.
“Yep. What’s worse is, this reality can’t withstand the weight of it all. Eventually, it’s going to collapse into ours. And that’s not all. Sometimes, it—” The booming sound of a knock from the other side of the door stopped Aaron mid-sentence. The door shook on its hinges. Darkness and blood seeped out from beneath it; a flash of fire ringed the outline of the door in its frame for a split second before it settled back into position. As it did so, more islands popped into existence around them, bridging the gap in the gray between the nightmare realms and the door; the shadow and blood coalesced into tangible forms in the grey and leapt toward the islands, seeking cover on their surfaces like lurking beasts . “—does that.”
“Fuck me,” Tamara exclaimed. “Have you figured out a way to stop it?”
“Nope,” Aaron responded, “but we can sure as hell guard it. And we can kill anything that gets out. But we need your help, and the help of people like you—or folks like Miles Jaggens. Get Ken to dispense the rest of his Sombellatrol supply to them. If they all dose up, we can bring them here…and give humanity something new to believe in.”
“You’re talking about macroneural projection,” Tamara said, realizing what Aaron had in mind. “Every telepath we can find beaming a signal back into humanity to counteract the effect the door has on their collective psyche.”
“Exactly,” he said. “Adrian Skaar’s decision to go public, and Harry McCoy’s release of the Secret Frequency’s archives on E-GaDS, has informed people—they’ve revealed to the entire world a real idea of what we’re fighting against for the very first time. It’s also opened everyone’s minds to perceiving new layers of reality. The Patrons will exploit that. So we’ve gotta push back.”
“Alright,” Tamara said. “I’m in. But what sort of vision do you need me to project?”
“This.” Aaron glanced over her shoulder at Lourdes and Karen, and nodded, then closed his eyes and bowed his head, breathing in deeply. The air around them shimmered, and their forms contorted, their shapes drastically altering within the span of mere seconds.
All around Tamara, the gathered dreamseers began to change forms, their dream avatars forming a vanguard before the door—some animals or armored knights, others mythical beasts or clockwork war machines that nearly defied description. Where Karen had stood, there was now a golden heron as tall as a horse. Lourdes’ body coiled as it morphed, becoming a rainbow serpent with feathered wings. Aaron, too, changed.
His avatar had no eyes. A gaping hole peered from its humanoid face, its head haloed in gossamer webs of spidersilk and wreathed in barbed chains. A serene mouth smiled peacefully beneath the maw, contrasting in a beautifully terrifying fashion with the violent pose the winged figure struck. Shining metal plates lined its body, and it held a short blade of silver in both of its slender hands, each maybe eighteen inches long.
It turned to Tamara and spoke in a hollow tenor; Aaron’s voice echoed faintly behind it. “Gather the telepaths, Tamara, and bring them here, every night. Get them to tell the world our story. Give them all a dream to help beat back the nightmares.”
Then the winged figure raised its blades, and the dreamseers took flight, diving toward the islands to begin their hunt.