Seventh in our Heroes series, by our own Robert Rhodes. Art is courtesy of Barbara Brashier.
“You’re late, milady,” Aramis says even as she parts the silver curtain. He snaps shut his pocket watch and tucks it into his checkered vest, his white-tipped ginger tail swishing.
She shrugs and sits on the closest bench in the Armory. “My geology midterm’s tomorrow,” she says, unlacing her sneakers. (Did I forget to take them off? she wonders.) “It’s going to be hard. And besides,” she adds as her armor — helm and breastplate, bracers and greaves — floats from the rack and hovers beside her, “there was a wreck on the interstate this afternoon — a van and a semi. Some people were airlifted. Some died. I think it’s going to be rough tonight. I didn’t really want to sleep.”
Aramis steps beside her, near enough that she smells the fish and pipe tobacco on his breath. His paw touches her elbow, prompting her to stand. “All the more reason to do so,” he murmurs. “I know, milady, you did not ask to become a Dream Knight, any more than I asked to become a Squire. But we play the parts the Noosphere gives us, yes?” In moments, after his claws scrape and whisper on her armor’s metal and leather fastenings, she is arrayed. She dons the helm, and when she turns, Aramis’s head is bowed, and her jeweled sword is resting on the palms of his extended paws, before the milk-white lace of his cuffs.
She nods in return and, as she accepts it, Aramis and the walls of the Armory dissolve into amber mist. A gust of night air whips it away, and she is standing in the Aerie beside her chestnut pegasus. He whickers, and she strokes his mane before climbing carefully onto the dragonhide saddle and anchoring her boots in the stirrups. (Why can’t I do this on a normal horse?)
She shakes the reins. “Let’s go, Sheffield. We’re late.”
He charges toward the mouth of the Aerie and for an instant plunges, filling her stomach with feathers of ice. Then his mighty wings rise and fall, rise and fall, and they climb.
She releases her breath, draws it in slowly as she beholds the Noosphere, layered like a crazy quilt of prismatic neon gas over the darkened world. Each building becomes like crystal to her sight, each sleeper like a slowly pulsating hologram, its luminescence drifting upward into the ever-shifting Noosphere. The dormitories below her resemble stacked glass trays spangled with fireflies.
She hears the whispered sounds of her peers’ dreams, watches the misted energy take shape to embody them, one after another. Some make her cock an eyebrow; others make her blush. None alarm her, though, and soon the campus is behind her, and she is flying above the city.
Pools of the Noosphere grow darker and more turbulent in places. As she flies over them, she reaches into her bottomless pouch and sows them with seeds of peace. On one family’s apartment, a pack of imps and darklings cavorts, their cloven feet hammering the roof above three twitching children. She guides Sheffield lower and shouts, and they scatter into the shadows, leaving a stench of rancid milk that dissipates under the stallion’s wings.
As the stallion climbs again, he turns his head and snorts, and she sees it — a place where the Noosphere flashes and roils like a lightning-wracked sea. She loosens her grip on the reins. “Go! Go!” she tells the stallion — and draws her sword.
She spots them as Sheffield dives. Two Terrors have dismounted from their night mares. The larger is a Dread Knight, a black-armored ogre with a flapping cloak like the wings of a monstrous bat. The other is a Guilt Rider, a hag in moth-shredded robes. They’ve cornered a boy in his front yard, transforming the lawn into a sheet of cracking ice, the driveway to hellish lava. She can hear their poisonous words:
It’s your fault your mother’s in the hospital, Jacob, the hag rasps. If you’d been ready for baseball practice on time, your van wouldn’t have been in the accident.
Tendrils of the Noosphere above them intertwine, taking the forms of a helicopter and a woman’s body on a stretcher. And when she dies, the ogre growls, who will take care of you and Cassie? Its wide clawed foot steps forward and the cracks in the ice spread, oozing pus and pushing the boy closer to the lava. No one!
“Enough!” Tasha yells as Sheffield bursts through the helicopter. She leaps from the saddle, interposing the pegasus between her back and the night mares.
Ooh, a Dream Knight! The hag cackles, and drool runs down its leprous chin. I haven’t sucked the marrow from one of those in centuries!
“That’s because you suck!” Tasha spins, batting away the hag’s staff with her sword and grasping its bony shoulder. She utters quickly,
The past is a stone, beyond alteration
And yet no tomb, but a ready foundation
The hag shrieks, exploding into burnt moths, and Tasha leaps back as the ogre’s axe smashes into the ice with a spray of shards and pus. You’ll fail your midterm, it roars, and spend your life waiting tables! Tasha swallows but lunges and nicks its bulging arm. She chants,
Dark futures are shadows that may never be
I banish you now to the depths of the sea
The ogre’s defiant roar ends in a distant gargle, and she turns to see the night mares fade as they gallop away. She sheathes her sword and waves at the boy.
‘So, Jacob. Jake?” He hesitantly nods. “What’s your favorite place to get ice cream? Think about it.” He frowns and the ice and lava blur, reforming into an air-conditioned room with marble-topped tables and a refrigerated case of cakes.
“Have some,” Tasha tells him. “And get some rest. Don’t worry about your mom. I’m sure she’ll be fine.”
The boy slides his hand over one of the polished tables. “Are you an angel?”
Tasha laughs and cuffs him on the shoulder. “I’m a sophomore. And I promise I’m not all that cool. But I’ll keep an eye on things, OK? Good night, Jake.”
She takes a rabbit-shaped cake from the case (because dream calories don’t count) and vaults onto her pegasus without dropping it. She grins as she soars above the dreamscape, an abundance of mint chocolate chip in hand—
I did set my alarm, didn’t I?
Author’s note: Mature readers fond of dream-centered urban fantasy should, of course, check out the various Sandman graphic novels by the brilliant Neil Gaiman. (Volume 1 is entitled Preludes & Nocturnes.)
That was fun, Rob!