Aaron Mathias pulled off his jacket and hung it on a hook behind the door in the laboratory, then sat down on the narrow but comfortable bed in the center of the coolly-lit sleep chamber. Lying on a table next to the bed was an injector gun and several cylinders of liquid.
Ken Yakana paged him on the intercom system from the adjoining observation room through the double-paned glass. “Be careful in there—I want you coming out of this alive, bro. No way am I gonna let Natalie blame it on me if you get killed. I’ve sparred with her before, and she can outrun me, even in high heels.”
Aaron laughed. “Smart guy. Alright, I’ll give it a shot, then…literally.” He picked up the injector and inserted the first vial. Pressing the injector needle to a vein in his left arm, he took a deep breath and pulled the trigger, then swapped in the next two cylinders in the series and repeated the process.
The blackness of sleep claimed Aaron quickly, and he awoke next to the door inside his dream pod. Open Me, said the familiar hand-printed sign.
The crudely-handpainted wooden sign nailed to the red-barked tree pointing further down the path ahead of Aaron and into the violet twilight read ‘TULGEY WOOD’. He snorted derisively; the resident of this area did love to keep up appearances, but Aaron knew now who he really was, and he intended to use that as leverage to get a favor. No, not a favor—a squaring of a debt, he thought. As Aaron stepped into the shadowy entrance to the thickest part of the woods framed by the pair of scarlet trees, a multitude of colorful fuzzy creatures scampered out of his way and into the lush green grass.
Scarcely a hundred feet into the woods, Aaron stopped in his tracks, surveying the surroundings. There was no visible sign of the creature he’d come here to visit, but he knew it was close by from the tracks he’d spotted in the smudged golden dirt of the pathway. “I call thee forthwith, Pangur Bán!” Aaron shouted into the darkness of the woods. “Reveal thyself, Pangur Bán!” he commanded a second time. “Get thy fluffy ass out here posthaste before I lure a jabberwock hatchling here to do it for me, Pangur Bán!” he intoned decisively.
A trail of luminescent blue and gray pawprints padded across a purple-boughed branch nearby, then dribbled deliberately down the red bark of the tree and into the path before Aaron. The pawprints stopped several feet in front of him; some three feet above them a toothy grin, not quite feline nor human, materialized in mid-air. A pair of wide, expressive greenish-yellow eyes followed, and then a frame of long white fur mottled with tabby-like splashes of silver filled in around the facial features. A massive cat the size of a healthy panther stood in the pathway, settled on its haunches, bottlebrush tail twitching as it licked a paw. “Do you mind, dreamseer, taking care so as not to shout my name quite so loudly? Someone might hear you, and that would be most inconvenient for me. How did you even come by that information, anyhow?”
“The funny thing about poking around in someone’s head, Cheshire,” Aaron said flatly, “is that sometimes they can poke back.”
“Well, that’s rather rude,” Pangur Bán responded, laying down on the path and rolling on his back, but rotating his neck fully 180 degrees so as to maintain a level stare on Aaron. “After all, dreamseer, you did agree to let me in for a peek. ‘Twas the price for my help when last we met, if you’ll recall.”
“Oh, I did agree to that, Cheshire,” Aaron conceded, his jaw set aggressively as he spoke through half-gritted teeth. “But you took liberties. Several times over the last few months I found the door in my pod had been left open. Once or twice, things even got in and waited for me until I went to sleep. That’s quite a bit more than peeking, I’d say. You took more than you bargained for, cat—which means you owe me.”
“I owe you, you say?” Pangur Bán sprang upright to his feet, his head never reorienting with his body, but his grin grower wider and more menacingly feral as he bared his front claws. “And just how do you plan to collect on that debt, mortal?”
“Simple,” Aaron responded, his hand dropping to the gladius strapped to his belt. “You do a favor for me, right now—and then stay out of my head for good—and I won’t tell my other friends in your world that you overstepped your bounds. Right now, back in my world, there’s a package—sealed, addressed, and stamped—containing bits of your fur and a piece of a momerath kill that you left in my bedroom. Anything happens to me in here, and it gets shipped right to one of Sorni’s emissaries.”
The mention of a senior fae made the cat’s fur bristle anxiously. Aaron hadn’t thought it possible for the cat’s eyes to grow any wider than they already were, but that threat definitely got a response. Pangur Bán closed his eyes, narrowed his smile, and bowed his head in the closest approximation of contrition he could possibly muster, then hopped back up the trunk of the tree and onto his branch perch, leaving crimson pawprints in his wake this time. “Alright, dreamseer,” the cat said with a grin. “You’ve caught me red-handed. Just what is it you need me to do in order to clear up this little misunderstanding?” He crossed his front paws beneath his chin and waited.
Karen Sugimoto sobbed helplessly in a sweltering nightmare of orange twilight. A garden of dead, half-rotten trees and thorny white rose bushes surrounded the stone bier on which she lay. A fetid, musky smell lingered in the garden; it reminded her of a pet lizard her first-grade teacher had kept in their classroom. Hot stone pressed into her back, and sweat pooled on the smooth surface of her exposed belly and chest. Pain rippled through her forehead a mere inch above her eyebrows, a searing slash that ached. Her hands and feet were bound to her sides, anchored to the stone bier by heavy chains.
A creature loomed over Karen—a full six feet tall, a chimeric horror with the torso and head of a strikingly beautiful but pale woman with long red hair, black hollow eyes, and a mouth brimming with needlelike fangs. A smooth, legless lower body covered in brilliant gold and black scales stretched out some seven feet behind it.
It slithered closer, running a taloned finger across the gaping wound torn into Karen’s forehead. The young woman gasped in pain, sobbing as the talon dug into the torn flesh of her head, her pain intensifying with every stroke. “Hush now, child. It will all be over soon. I must bleed you slowly, you see, before I extract your third eye. Otherwise all of your precious psyche will be lost, and it simply won’t do to waste a single dram of it.” A forked tongue snaked past the fangs of the creature, and it bent to lap blood from Karen’s head wound. The young woman felt the serpentine tongue run through the triangular-oriented trio of skull-deep oval lacerations carved into her head—and then another voice broke her horrific reverie.
“Nice snack you got there. Sure you wouldn’t prefer a four-course meal?” Karen craned her neck to see the speaker—a young dark-haired man, seemingly in his late 20s with a light growth of beard. He was wearing Chuck Taylors, black denim jeans, and a teal t-shirt with a Celtic design on it that read MacLeod’s Antiquities & Exotic Weapons.
Karen felt the tongue pull away from her forehead. The snake-woman hissed. “Another Seerblooded? You are quite foolish to wander into my demesne alone.” The monstrosity coiled into a striking position.
“Catch me if you can, bitch,” the young man retorted, sprinting away into the woods. The snake-woman slithered off behind him in pursuit, and Karen was alone again. Her breath heaved in momentary relief, but she shuddered to think of what the thing would do to the young man if it caught him.
Long minutes later, Karen heard the other voice again. “Uh, miss? We’ve gotta get you outta here.” She felt a blanket being gently tossed over her, and opened her eyes. The young man had returned, and was trying to pick the locks on her chains.
“Wh-who are you?” Karen asked the man. “How did you get back here so quickly? I thought for sure it was going to kill you!”
“Huh?” He asked bewilderedly. “Oh! Right. You saw the other me. Yeah, that was my decoy. I have, uh…an acquaintance who’s very good at doing impressions, and he owed me a favor,” the man said with a lopsided grin as he raked a scrub pick in the metal cuff, whispering a soft “Aww, yiss” as the lock released, then moving to free her other arm and legs. “I’m Aaron, by the way. You must be Karen.”
“How do you know my name?” Karen asked as she stood from the bier and drew the blanket around herself.
“Some friends of mine have been looking for you for a long time,” Aaron explained, digging into a pocket of his jeans and producing a small drawstring satchel. “You have bad dreams, right? Dreams that sometimes come true? And they’ve been getting worse lately, I’ll bet.”
Karen nodded. “That woman, that…thing. It said it wanted to drain my mind. Why?”
“It feeds on thoughts,” Aaron explained. “Dreams, nightmares, any kind of psychic energy. It’s been feeding on people like you and me for a really long time. So, my friends and I decided to do something about it.” Aaron opened the satchel and pulled out two tiny glass bottles stoppered with cork and filled with glowing blue liquid, handing one to Karen. Hanging from the necks of both bottles was a tag labeled ‘Drink Me’ in a florid calligraphy script. Below it, in block lettering, was a phone number. “Stare at this number for a few seconds. You need to memorize it. Your memory retention ought to be pretty good right now, but call it as soon as you wake up and ask for Ken. He’ll explain the rest. He’s a good friend, and he can help you like he helped me.” Aaron uncorked one of the bottles, tapped it against hers, and said, “Bottoms up. Oh, and don’t go back to sleep until you’ve talked to him. We need to make sure those things don’t find you in your dreams again—because that trick I just pulled isn’t gonna work more than once.”
Karen hesitated. This was all too weird. She focused on the script, committing the ten digits to memory as best she could, then looked up at the man. “Thank you,” she said. “This has been the weirdest dream ever.”
“You’re telling me,” he said with a grin. “C’mon, drink up. Let’s get you out of here.” Karen tipped back the bottle, swallowed the sweet contents; her field of vision exploded into flashes of blue light. Aaron followed suit, draining the contents of his own bottle.
The dreamscape around them melted away like wet paint in a torrential rainstorm.
Aaron awoke atop sweat-soaked sheets and glanced at the clock. 3:21 am. I was under for nearly four hours that time. He reached for the intercom switch to page Ken, who grinned at him through the booth window. Ken answered almost immediately. “How we doin’, bro?”
“Karen Sugimoto is safe, and probably awake now. Expect her to call your staff shortly. Oh, and your oneiric carrier interruption drug works perfectly. It woke her up right away. Didn’t have to find her dream-pod to send her back, which saved me a lot of time and trouble.”
“Oh, awesome! Told you it’d work!”
“I’m sure as shit glad you were right—otherwise I’d probably be a psychic juice-box for that thing right about now.” Aaron crossed his arms at the wrists and leaned forward on the bed, his expression growing serious. “So, about my fee,” he added emphatically. “Do you want to cut me a check, or do you still have my direct deposit info on file? Because I’m officially done here.”
“Payroll’s already transferred the money to your account, bro. Sure you don’t wanna do a few more runs for me? Sharpe just greenlit my project, and he’s relocating me to D.C. to kickstart a new regional branch there. We could really use—”
Aaron cut him off decisively. “Ken. I told you, dude, it’s over for me now that this is done. And it wasn’t really about the money this time…although I won’t deny that it helps. At least I can finally pay off my credit card.”
“I understand, yo. Thanks for helping us out with this one. So hey, bro, what about that other thing we discussed awhile back? You finally doing it now that you’re out for good?”
Aaron reached into the pocket of his jeans, withdrawing and flipping open a black hinged box that he held up to the observation window; a diamond set in a white-gold band sparkled in the low light of the dream lab. There are some things dreamseers can’t afford without doing dangerous contract work, he thought sardonically. For everything else, there’s MasterCard. “Yep. Gina leaves for San Francisco in the morning, and then the awards show is tomorrow night. Both Natalie’s team and mine are up for nominations this year, so I’m doing it at the after-party.” He snapped the lid of the ring box shut again and replaced it. “It’s time for me to move on, Ken. All this has been…well, not fun exactly, but definitely worth the trouble. But I’m out. No more dreamseeing, no more hunting. Not even as a freelancer.”
Ken smiled. “I figured you’d say that. Can’t blame you, bro. I wish you all the luck in the world tomorrow.” A landline phone rang tinnily in the background of the intercom signal. “Oh, hey, that’s probably Miss Sugimoto now. I gotta run, dude. Hit me up after you drop the bomb and lemme know how it goes, okay? I want an invite if she says yes!”
“Sure thing, man. Take care, Ken—and say hi to Karen for me.”
“You got it, bro. Later.” The comm went dead.
Aaron stood and stretched his back, grabbing his jacket off the hook and hoisting his duffel bag over his shoulder. He needed to get out of ASI headquarters and catch a flight back to Vancouver post-haste. He had a big day coming up tomorrow. It was finally time to make some really good dreams come true.