3 — A Dream
[⚠️ graphic violence, death. This is Chapter 3 in a series; you can start from the beginning.]
Everyone who does this gets the dream, of course.
No two of these dreams are the same. They all mean the same thing, that much is obvious, though the bit no one is quite sure about is the how. But one always gets the dream when it’s time. Once, it went like this:
You are sitting at an infinite poker table.
Beings of all shapes sit at it. They’re all holding — not just cards. Game pieces of every kind: one is advancing pawns over a landscape made of putty, precariously balancing them atop one another; another nervously spies with their proboscis seven sticks placed parallel to the table’s edge; the third hand of a giant is full of dice, but the other two are hiding something.
Someone has dealt you a hand of cards. (You don’t remember when; the cards are already on the table in front of you.)
Two people, precisely identical, laugh to your left. They look at you. Everyone is eyeing you, actually; everyone around you is trying not to stare, or flaring their nostrils at you, or just gazing in your direction unblinking and unmoving, or even pointedly, pointedly ignoring you.
It dawns on you that at this infinite game table you don’t know the rules of… whatever this game is.
A person on your right makes a show of stacking a deck and then giving it to you. The twins laugh, the exact same way, at the exact same time, creating a deeply unsettling stereophonic effect.
You sigh, then decide you’ll have to improvise; as usual, as you’re used to by now.
You reach. (Your hands are stained with blood. That’s the only literal thing about this dream: you just passed out after killing the man who suborned you. It was too dark to see; if you could’ve, you would’ve found remarkable that the dream-hands are stained exactly the same as your real ones.) You take the cards — their front is foul, and you don’t look at them, purposefully —
You slam! one face down the table. “Ganté!,” you yell as you do.
There is silence. Everyone is visibly annoyed, retreats behind their activities. One looks at a piece of parchment, back at you, back at the parchment. The twins are silent and grave now.
A proboscis pushes forward two checker pieces and an exquisite small statue made of what looks like crystal. (It’s diamond; you don’t have any way to know.)
The twins fold.
The giant grumbles, and throws a couple of dice from his hand. They skitter and join your card, happy chittering noises.
The person who gave you the deck you didn’t touch — hook-nosed, clad in smoke and dust — looks at you, then grunts something that sounds dangerously close to a growl, and saunters away.
You definitely made an enemy that night.
This is not the same dream, of course.
She knows it because this isn’t the same table, though it’s exactly like it and just as infinite. And this isn’t the same… real. This is barely the memory of that dream and she, heavily, can’t help but know it.
“I’d have won, you know?,” she says to the man on the other side of the infinite table.
“Oh, yeah?,” he spouts. He looks weirdly like some combination of a hippie and a businessman, the beard long and unkempt over the perfectly black two-piece suit.
“Yep. No one pushed a challenge with the mitra. I would’ve skipped a few, then anointed the top card forward.”
“The deck was stacked, though.”
“Yup. It doesn’t matter, in the end.” She sits at the table, contemplates the memory of the stacked deck. She’ll never know how it was stacked, what things were in store for her. “This whole game is rigged anyway.”
“Tell me about it! Ha!” His laugh is from the belly, almost heartening. He extends a hand. “They call me Giòn.”
“Good for them.” She looks at his extended hand with weariness, makes no motion otherwise. “How did you get in my head?”
“Oh! Well, you know, they’ve sedated you. And minds,” he looks so excited as he mimes small movements with his hands, “are just so easy to lock-pick.”
She looks at his smug, smug face and responds to it with the face of a person who doesn’t care for any of this at all.
“Anyway, yeah. I’m here with a message.”
They’re no longer at the table. She doesn’t know this scene. It’s… it’s dark. It looks like a cave of some sort. Water on the rock floor.
The cave is hungry. It’s full of low smoke. She recognizes how it looks… clad in smoke and dust.
She greets the hook-shaped cave with a sad, hollow “Hey!” She realizes this attitude is unwise, but at this point, she thinks, she’s probably going to die three different ways at the same time, so she’s kinda stopped caring.
“You have a debt to him,” says the man. “He just wanted to help you.”
She has to be very still at this point because she knows how fight/flight/fawn/freeze works, and she knows that the particular choice her system has made would push her from “very unwise” to “absolutely, certainly dead” and no, she has to admit, some part of her absolutely wants to keep going, survive.
(A different part of hers wants to yell at him that she didn’t consent, that she will never abide by a contract that she didn’t even consummate, and that she’s sick and tired of fucking magical assfucks who are just abusive pieces of — )
She chooses words very carefully. Very, very carefully. She reconsiders them a few times. Then, instead, she puts her hand on a nearby stalagmite and — she recognizes the sensation — it’s not rock; it’s the feeling an airliner’s seat’s textured plastic surface has — a specific one, from that time she went to Rome for a trip…
Whoever built this dream, they built it out of things I remember and recognize.
It was, underneath it all, her dream.
She pulls. The stalagmite — a perfect shape for a bat — comes loose, pried in her hand. She willed it so, the way dreams can be willed.
He lunges. She just bats him back.
“I’m tired!” pow! “of men!” pow!, to the chest. “Lunging!” pow! “At me!” pow!, to the head.
He staggers back, waves a hand. It’s a maze of mirrors now, full of reflections; she can’t possibly know which one is him. He smiles, readies a —
She emerges from the mirror behind him.
He’s on the ground. Stammers. “h-how — ”
“Fools’ minds are just so easy to lock-pick.”
She says, in the tone of Command, “what do you want with me?”
“T-the,” he tries to resist, slowly succumbing, his lips forming words before thought can begin stopping them, “outer dukes, want, a slice, of, the pie…”
“Why me?,” she Yells.
“Y-y-y-you’re the sacrifice, failed sacrifice, hold power over them…”
“The, the thirteen!” He spits blood on the ground. “No f-failed sacrifice. Is the rule… broken, now.”
Her eyes narrow. She raises the bat.
She remembers waking up that one night after the dream. His body was still warm. She had to exert herself to will her body to do what was needed for even the most basic movement; then for rising on her feet; then for clean-up (hers); then for a scream, muted only by a pillow, though that came easier; then for clean-up (his body’s.)
It’s not like she had more knowledge of anything at that point. It’s just that what the asshole fed her in the last year or so had finally clicked.
And with it she had realized, too, what just happened in the dream.
She then raided all his books. Much quackery, but the meaning is buried below the words, within the symbols. Now, she understands.
One of those books is about controlling, and resisting control of, the mind.
In the now, she wakes; it’s several hours after the train, in comparably better circumstances. The sun is high, and the men holding her while she’s tied have noticed her stirring and have stopped supporting her and she staggers forward. The threatening assface from the train is here. His aura is, too. Knife dude is not.
They’re walking toward a nondescript building in the periphery, one of a thousand old sixties condos, decrepit and not any better for it. People are on the street, but they just don’t look. (Won’t. Can’t.)
They ring up at the intercom. (No answer.) They push the call button again in a weird staccato pattern. The door opens.
She steels herself, again.