"I assume all of you want to know why I have summoned you here"
"Well, my lord, it isn't everyday that you call all of us to the castle. Speaking for myself, your summons did not interrupt anything important, however"
"Just come out with it already! I was in the middle of something very important-"
"I guess that explains why your brother is inless than perfect condition."
"C'mon, c'mon! Some'a us have stuff ta do!"
"This ain't gonna be sumkinda announcement that ya got a new raven, is it?"
The Corinthian said nothing.
Dream of the Endless, once Daniel Hall, sat on an alabaster throne as his subjects bickered and fidgeted before him. The Corinthian stood behind his throne by his left shoulder, Matthew perched on his right. He had summoned the most active members of the Dreaming community to his palace in order to make an announcement of some importance. His cool, milky fingers clutched his predecessor's Eagle Gem in nervous habit before his blank, soulless eyes rose once more.
"I have called you here to announce that I will be conscripting more help." Dream stood up and smoothed his pearly cloak. His white hair stood up from his deathly pale scalp and hung loosely before his black eyes, the marble strands moving slowly as he stepped down from the dais. Matthew took flight and landed by the Corinthian.
"Does this mean ol' fang-eye and I get ta go back to Earth?"
"I'm afraid not, Matthew. I will be going with my eldest sister on this errand." Daniel turned towards Lucien. "I trust you will keep the castle in order during my absence."
"Of course my lord. I wish you good luck." Lucien bowed low and readjusted his spectacles. Dressed as he was in livery befitting his station of palace coordinator and head librarian, and taking into account his stature, the gesture looked more ridiculous than respectful. "And how many should I be expectingspaces must be preparedwill they be persons, places or things?" The orange-haired butler-cum-housekeeper-cum-librarian plucked a thin notepad from his top-pocket and a greasepencil from behind his ear.
"A person, I believe. But you have reminded me that I must find a replacement for Fiddler's GreenI thank you Lucien." The bespectacled man nodded and tucked the pad into his jacket's inside pocket. Dream moved like a wraith as he weaved across the throne room, his body seemingly perpetual in its search for a position. Always he seemed on the cusp of a step, a nod, a movement, yet his body refused to complete the actions necessary; it imparted upon him the effect of being on high alert at all times.
"Does this mean I get some new blood?" Mervyn Pumpkinhead piped from the back, holding a cigar in one leafy hand and blowing smoke from his sharply-carved nostrils. "'Could always use sum more help in the old nightmare factory."
"I fear, Mervyn, that this one is not for you." Dream did not turn to acknowledge Merv's obscene gesture, nor did he even blink when the pumpkinhead spun in boiling aggravation. He did, however, raise a finger to the side of his face and will the disgruntled builder's cigar into a pancreas. "I shall return presently, farewell."
After Dream disappeared, Mervyn threw the bloody organ on the polished marble floor and pulled another Cuban cigar from his overalls. "Waste of a bloody good smoke if ya ask methe man has no respect for a Cubanit's a crime," the builder-contractor-complainer lit his smoke and trundled off for parts unknown.
"So, fang-eye, ya wanna go find some fresh corpses?" Matthew ruffled his feathers and picked a few dream gnats from his plumage. The Corinthian, being the dark-side of mankind, grinned all teeth with all his teeth. "I think that sponge-brained president was just havin' another dream of mass warfareshould be a few thousand bodies left over"
"Come along then" The tall specter of nightmares pushed his dark glasses back over his grinning eyesockets and the two headed in the direction of the Killing Fields.
Lucien excused himself and ducked out of the throne room pushing his omnipresent barrow of books back to the castle library.
"I don't understand why we needed to come anywaywaste of time better spent planning your demise, brother." Spittle flew from Cain's lips as he bunched his hands into fists by his sides and stamped his feet like a petulant child.
The mass of gangrenous meat that had once been his rotund brother Abel gurgled in agreement.
Death didn't consider herself an impatient person, certainly not as impatience was considered by mankind, but she did consider herself bored as she sat on a park bench drinking a can of tea. Dream, the new Dream she corrected, was supposed to meet her in the park for her daily rounds. She felt a pang of regret at the memory of her previous brother's demise but then she remembered the look of peace, real peace, on his face. 'Sides, it wasn't like she had any proof that he really died, for all she knew he could have implanted himself in the Eagle Stone and was screwing with them allnah, wasn't his style. Destruction might've done something like that but not Morpheus. Straight-minded and buttoned-down, that's how Morpheus had been, to a fault she admitted, knowing full well how his inflexibility in the face of change had all but condemned him to his fate.
Death tossed her empty into the air behind her and was surprised when there was no clatter of aluminum. Tossing her unkempt hair as she turned, the pasty-white personification of Death going by the nickname of Telute was surprised to find Dream standing behind her with a can in his hands.
"Hello, Bro," she offered.
"Sister." Even if this wasn't Morpheus, he still acted so much like his predecessor that it was a little creepy. Even Death could be creeped out, it seemed. Her fellow ivory-complexioned sibling tossed the can unerringly into a trash barrel behind him and sat down with his hands on his knees. "I apologize for my tardiness."
"No need, Morph was always late." Death clapped her hand to her mouth, realizing her faux pas.
"Mmm." Dream grunted noncommittally. His bottomless stare was fixed on a mother and child sitting on a bench across from them, the sleeping infant draped bonelessly over the woman's shoulder. He drew something in the air and the child awoke crying and screaming. Dream smiled bitterly. "We all must learn to accept nightmares little oneit hurts less if it happens early." The smile melted off his face as if he were reliving nightmares of his own before returning to his aloof shell.
"How's the job working out?" Death was waving at a gaggle of school girls. They would be seeing her in a year when, during their class trip to Okinawa, a fuselage in the plane would burst and all five of them would be obliterated. There would not be enough left to bury any of the passengers. It would remain the most fatal airline accident in Japanese history until twenty years later when-
Whoashe got a bit carried away. It sometimes happened when one of her other selves, those fragments of Death that ushered souls all over the Earth simultaneously, passed too near to her physical embodiment. The pale-skinned Goth girl stretched backward on the bench and listened to her back crackle. Dream, too, seemed off in his own world.
"Hey, Bro? Let's get started." She stood up, as much as a non-material representation of entropy could stand, and pulled her brother up as well. Her black tights and matching black tank-top pulled enticingly over her pale skin while her golden ankh caught the sunlight.
"I confess that I have been wanting to talk with you for a while sincethe wake." Dream stood awkwardly in his cream duster, arms at his sides with palms open, and followed his sister as she walked out of the park towards an area which looked as if it had been recently renovated. His gait was plodding and the ebony pools of shimmering darkness that composed his eyes glanced over everything as if seeing the world for the first time. As a child that was gestated in the Dreaming his sense of reality had always been more reflective of the Dream World than the solid world of his crib and mother. Now with the accumulated knowledge of Morpheus' gem and his newfound Endless perspective on reality and its transience, Daniel Hall viewed the world with a clinical eye.
"What did you want to talk about?" She helped up an old man dead of heart failure and ushered him to the clouds.
"I wanted to talk about our brother. I wanted to talk about Destruction." Dream smiled at a little girl whose head and body were more than a meter apart as she walked through the path of mist to her fate. The motorist fell off his Suzuki and vomited in his helmet. Her blood was still warm on the road.
"Man, it's good you talked to me and not Delirium. She would've wanted to go out on another search for him." A lawyer of thirty-six took her hand. A step mother of fifty-two fell into her embrace. "Anyway, shoot."
"I believe we met during the wake. According to my predecessor's memories it was Destruction although he didn't act anything like I was expecting. And he made most curious requests"
"What did he want?" This genuinely piqued Death's curiosity, Destruction? Asking for something?
"Bread and cheese and wine. I thought that we did not need to eat." He stooped in a garden and gave a nest of larks pleasant dreams of flowers and sun.
"Normally we don't, and we really don't have to, but I like good tea once in awhile. Desire's taken a liking for cigarettes and red wine, and you"
"I like mead and steak and kidney pie." He hadn't even known that himself until Death's prompting, yet as he thought the idea over, he did like mead and beerand kidney pie did sound good
"Rightwell, I guess it takes all kinds, huh?"
"Mmm." Dream of the Endless looked up at their destination. It was a traditional Japanese home built in the old style with a koi pond and dojo within the compound walls. "Is this the place?"
"Yup. The guy inside's a real nexus." Dream looked back at his sister with horror.
"Why didn't you alert me to this situation earlier? I must protect the Dreaming." Even though his voice and words were inflection-less, The Lord of Dreams was clearly pissed. A twinkle appeared deep in his eyes.
"Uhnot that kind of Nexus you dope! A Chaos nexus."
"Oh." Dream had the presence of mind to look abashed and just a hint of color crept into his porcelain cheeks. "I see." He pulled the hem of his obsidian duster close, his hands in his pockets.
They, being Endless, phased out of corporeal reality and continued into the house on another plane of existence, passing easily through wood and stone and metal. Death looked surprisingly happy with the situation, both her duty and her newest younger brother gained perspective since the wake it seemed. After walking through empty room after empty room covered in dust they came to a quaint tea room.
A haggard figure sat at the kotatsu, his back straight and his eyes slightly unfocused. Dream made the trite observation that if any of their appointments that day looked like they welcomed Death it was this man. Death laughed and informed her brother that she's paid him brief visits on more occasions than she cared to remember but each time he told her that he didn't want to die. Because of his position as a Chaos nexus (a nexus that lay in Destiny's territory) Death had been accommodating and passed him over every time. However, Destiny had informed her by way of his gallery that the Chaos nexus would have words with her that day.
"Who is this one?" Dream crossed his arms and, for a moment in the shadows, Death swore it was Morpheus himself, and for all she knew it could have been. The twinkle in his black eyes hadn't ebbed and still shone brilliantly as tin on scorched earth.
"He's the nexus. Dream, meet Ranma Saotome." Death sat down next to the oblivious mortal and lay her head in her hands, smiling up at her sibling.
"Mmm." Daniel Morpheus threw back his coat and sat down in his luminescent white robes across from Telute. "Not what I was expecting. What makes this one special?"
"Well," Death began, "he's survived being thrown into a pit of starving cats, being cursed by one of Destiny's mistakes, killed a lower-level demi-god, and was engaged to twenty women by his father." Death grinned again and waved her transparent hand in front of the Japanese man's eyes. His eyes didn't leave the view outside the egawa.
"An impressive resume"
"That isn't the half of it, he married one of the girls three years ago and endures daily beatings, poisonings and the occasional martial artist looking for revenge." Akane Tendo wasn't the girl she had been rooting for, actually it wasn't even a real fiancée she was hoping would win his heart, Telute had been cheering for the Tendo girl's rather ordinary friend Sayuri. She didn't really like Akane. Death took some solace that Akane wouldn't make it to her thirtieth birthday; she didn't usually use her job to see the future, but in this case she just had to make sure karma was maintained. Sure enough, Akane Tendo would be diagnosed with HIV contracted from her then lover, Ryoga, who had gotten it from a coke whore in Shibuya. Things just had a way of working out; after over ten billion years on the job, Death was only sure of the truth in the old adage: 'what goes around, comes around'.
"I see. What will he die of?" Dream leaned forward and examined the man's dreams, they were happy, idyllic dreams of bachelor life or a quiet, ordinary marriage to Yuka or Sayuri. "A broken heart."
"For lack of a better term, yes. Ranma has wasted away these past few months, eating little, sleeping much; he'll simply will himself to die." Telute neglected to mention to her brother the nature of Destiny's curse. She remembered that day with startling clarity, the day that her eldest brother swore and jumped up and down in frustration with their newest family member Delirium. The image of blind and mysterious Destiny swinging The Book by its wrist bracelet while trying to hit Delirium brought an involuntary giggle to her lips.
"A sad way to pass over." Dream pulled back from Ranma's mind and returned his hands to his lap. "Why would a mortal consider his life so horrible that oblivion would be preferable?"
"Because Death would be the only freedom from the responsibilities of his life." Telute turned away from her brother, wiping a tear from her eye. There was just too much they had in common, Ranma and Morpheus, yet would the mortal's end be the same? She looked down at the soft hand that had ferried countless souls to the worlds beyond and carried two of her siblings to Oblivion's kiss. She found that some small part of her, possibly the part that became human for a day a year, was afraid of herself.
"Sister?" Dream noticed his sister's preoccupied stare and deigned to intervene. "Are you alright?"
"Sure, Dream, fine."
"Why did you say that death is the only answer for his troubles? Aren't there always alternatives? Could he not change himself?" He knew from his limited time as a mortal that one could always change, humanity itself was constant reinventing its reality to suit their current conception of reality.
"No. That would've been too hard for him to do, he was all that he was, to change would've been to turn his back on himself"
"I'm sorry, who are you talking about? Ranma Saotome is still alive is he not?" Telute shook her head to clear it and ran a hand through her unruly hair.
"Yes, I'm sorry, I was thinking of someone else."
"This one belongs to me." A dark voice, harsh like the grating of tin foil in a meat grinder and warm like compost, sounded from behind the seated man. A squat vision of pale fat and limp breast appeared, Despair had arrived to protect her own.
"Hello, sister." Despair grunted through her underbite and ignored her elder sister's greeting, deciding instead to score the surface of her right wrist with her sigil. Red blood welled up from her bracelets of fortune and dripped across her gray skin.
"This one belongs to me. He has belonged to me since he was six years upon this earth. I have been his constant companion, his lover in the dark recesses of his soul. I will claim him." The hooked end of her ring pierced the ridge of subcutaneous fat underneath her eyelid and pulled the rolled skin down in a dripping curtain of gore. She paid no attention to the veil of burgundy fluid cascading from under her eye, nor the rats in her lap which squealed and nipped at each other in contest for her bloody treat.
"This one belongs to all of us." Death smiled down at her obese sister before looking at their brother. "He has been touched by each of us at one point or another during his life, as has every mortal in our keeping. You cannot claim this mortal more than I claim him, or that the eldest can claim him; he simply exists until he dies."
"So you do plan on killing him?" Despair was slashing at her belly and breasts, digging deep red trenches in her saggy flesh. There seemed no end to her self-mutilation, it appeared to be the nature of such a transient being to test the limits of their mutability. "I will have him at the last."
"I will take him if he wishes it, otherwise he will go with our brother."
"This is no contest like before, I'll not allow him to take this prize for himselfhe's too new." Despair was whole again and the rats were gone.
"That's a poor excuse and you know it, sister, he is perfectly capable of taking the mortal if he likes." Telute looked back at her new brother and saw Dream silently listening to their argument and gazing at Ranma.
"I believe I will try, he is an atypical mortal." Dream spoke in flighty, lofty tones that seemed to soar above the clouds and dive deep beneath the seas. It was a voice that spoke of eternity and a voice that held the tremors of inexperience. His fingers were clutching the gemstone hung around his neck.
"I'll not let you have another, brother." Despair looked up at him silently, warning him a final time before she disappeared in a haze of must and smoke. Smoke and mirrors
"I don't think she's forgiven us for the Emperor."
"It would seem not." There was something in Dream's voice at that moment when the words came from his mouth that made Death swear that he was Morpheus for the briefest of instants, a faint non-plussed tone that carried neither antagonism nor defense. It was simply a statement of fact. Telute shook her head and cleared her head. Morph was dead, she had taken his hand, had watched his barge drift off the ends of Forever and become one with the cosmos, with reality, with the stuff of myth and the higher powers. He was a star, he would sit as he had sat in life. She snapped her fingers and the two of them were made solid once more, once more subject to the 'laws' of nature, gravity and physics. Also they became subject to the scrutiny of their subject.
Ranma sat in his dogi and looked out over the koi pond. Akane was fucking with Ryoga while he was away. He had confronted her with the knowledge several days ago and she had left in a huff. As the silence of the house permeated his mind he began to wonder if his whole life was worth the time and effort. He could have made room for a nice hermit crab if he'd just kicked the bucket as a toddler, or during the Neko-ken training, or during the fight with Saffron, or countless times after that
He was tired of being him. Tired of the rules and regulations of honor he'd bound himself to so many years agoyet to abandon them was to abandon himself. He was Ranma Saotome, he never lost, never backed down from a fight, and never compromised his honor!
Still, marrying Akane had been a horrible idea from the start, their failed wedding the first indication that he was on the slow road to self-destruction. Even as they married in the end and kept house, he was still bound by the strictures of honor - the Tendo/Saotome union needed an heir. Akane was barren it seemed. Even if he divorced her years ago using the excuse of her sterility he would have been roped into fulfilling the next oldest promise Genma had arranged. If, if no one stepped forward with a claim he would have been forced into marriage with Xian Pu or Ukyo or Kodachiit was endless.
No, he would die. He would die slowly and in full control for Ranma Saotome never lost control, and he would face Death and her embrace with dignity and relief.
He quickly realized he was not alone and that one of his guests was the young (looking) woman he'd wanted so desperately to meet.
"Hello, Ranma, long-time-no-see." Death poured them all cups of tea. "I haven't seen you in a month, Akane must have stopped cooking, hmm?"
"Amam Iam I really dead?" Ranma seemed to have tears welling in his eyes. Dream watched the exchange with clinical detachment but watched also with attention.
"Nope. Not yet at least." Telute placed her hand over his and smiled reassuringly. "But I am prepared to take you where you want to go."
The pony-tailed man smiled and tears rolled down his cheeks. "Thank you."
"You don't need to thank me, it was all up to you in the end anyway, when you went and allyou just have to say the words and take my hand." Ranma smiled and covered her hand in his. He was seeing Death as one would look at a long-thought lost lover, as a perky young pale woman with raven black hair, squiggles under her eyes and a gothic clothing sense.
"However," Dream interrupted lest his journey be in vain, "I have a proposition for you, Ranma Saotome." The twinkle returned as he faced the Japanese man, appearing to Ranma as an albino Asian with black pits for eyes.
"Just hear him out, Ranma, he's my brother." The pony-tailed man closed his mouth to bite back a protest and grit his teeth.
"I've waited twenty-something years, I suppose I can wait a little longer"
Dream nodded his thanks to Telute and turned back to his quarry. "Greetings, Ranma Saotome. Before you accept the hand of Death, please bear this in mind: it takes more than one lifetime for the karmic wheel to turn. If you die, you will be reborn to a life just a little less horrible than the one you left. It would take you three more lifetimes to reap the rewards for your suffrage."
Ranma looked down at his cup. If what the pale man said was true, did he really want to live through three more hells?
"I realize that you believe my sister's touch to be the end of your troubles; however, there is another way"
"What way is this?" Ranma thought there was something sly about the white-haired visitor. But then again, Death had ended up nothing like his preconceived notions. "Go on"
"You can cross with me into the Dreaming. It is my realm. You will not die but you also will not live as you live on this plane, the Dreaming is a place of change but you will not be harmed. You are special, you would be given a place to live and a charter for your duties in the Dreaming as well." Dream sat stock still and rigid as he made his pitch, half-remembering Morpheus' conscription of Cain and Abel. His thin fingers caressed the emerald which dangled from his neck absently.
"Listen, Ranma, I'm not trying to push you or pressure you into anything but hear me out." Death closed her fingers around his hand and held on, he was still warm to the touch. "If you die, and I have no problem taking you over, you'll be reborn into a life only slightly better than this; true you will have no memories of this life, but in the end you'll realize that your misery occurred beforeI know these things." Ranma closed his mouth and bit back his questions. "Now, I know you think death is the only option left because you'll get roped into another marriage if you divorce Akane. You think that if you die all the engagements will be resolved and everyone will live happily ever afterwell, get that idea out of your head right now! It seemed to me when I first realized your little plan that simply escaping this reality would accomplish the same goals, so I gave my brother a call."
"I was looking for a worthyindividual to invite to the Dreaming and you are exactly what I am looking for. What say you, mortal Ranma Saotome?" Dream smiled, as if he knew what Ranma's answer would be, and crossed his arms over his chest. Death waited with bated breath for Ranma's decision as well.
The world was turning upside-down for Ranma as he contemplated the offer. It sounded fine, maybe more than fine, and just a little too generous. He saw that signing on with Dream had the same effect as taking Death's hand but the outcomes were completely different. On one hand he was condemned to live through another life with Akane until he could die and make this decision againassuming that Dream offered it again. On the other hand, he could simply continue to live as the person he was although freed from the shackles of behavior and modes of honor he lived with as a mortal
In the end his decision was no decision at all.
"You're a persuasive person, I guess I'll go and see what your 'Dreaming' is all about." Dream smiled at the end and took Ranma's hand. A compact was made and the deal completed.
"Good going, Ranma, I always knew you were too cute to die." Telute blew him a kiss as the room faded from view, replaced by a land of mist and shadow. Ranma blushed at the attention and waved back. Soon, Death was gone, disappeared into the misty realms, and he was left standing with Dream before the Gates of Bone and Ivory. Behind them stretched an endless waste of sand, devoid of sun and devoid of vegetation, it was the wasteland described and expounded by the likes of Eliot, somehow the Japanese man knew that, even as he remembered reading no Eliot in his lifetime. 'I will show you fear in a handful of dust.'
"Will I ever see her again, Death I mean?" Ranma found himself dressed in the red Chinese shirt and black slacks of his youth, his age regressed back to perhaps eighteen, and his pony-tail returned to his old pigtail. The Dreaming was apparently reflective of how one viewed themselves.
"I suppose you will, Ranma, we are family; you are more likely to see her than some others." Dream was swathed in a shimmering cloak of colors that shifted and melted into one another as he walked, it hurt Ranma's eyes to stare too intently at it so he focused on the landscape beyond the gates of the Dreaming. "You will live in the centre of the Dreaming in the castle."
"So, uh, what will my duties be?" Ranma Saotome always needed a duty, a credo, a cause.
"You shall be the 'Peak'." Dream answered. He walked past Cain's house first with its mine-field and barbed-wire fence. Someone was screaming inside but neither entity took notice, Ranma too nervous of the situation, Dream too used to Cain's antics. It sounded as though Abel wouldn't be able to answer summons for the next fortnight
"What exactly does that mean, master?" Ranma clapped his hands over his mouth, eye wide in shock and horror. Ranma swore fealty to no man or creature, he didn't back down nor accept authority. So then, why had he called Dream, or the Sandman, 'master'?
"You are feeling the first effects of becoming part of the Dreaming, Ranma, it's nothing to be so concerned about. As I am the fabric from which the Dreaming springs, all its inhabitants call me 'master' as I am simultaneously their employer and in most cases, their creator."
"In answer to your question, Peak, you are that which everyone aspires, the summit, the top, their overriding heart's desire." It would be best if Ranma accustomed himself to the title 'Peak' as more inhabitants would remember him by his job than his mortal name. "From what my sister told me of you, and due to the nature of your dreams, it seems you have had much practice in this field."
"Well," Ranma stammered, "I guess so but I haven't done it on purpose before"
"No matter, by the nature of your contract, you shall perform your duties." Dream stopped at the immense gate into the castle. The guardians sat watch over the threshold and each in turn eyed the newcomer. "Gryphon, Wyvern, Hippogriff, this is Peak. He shall be living and working in the castle from now on."
"An honor to meet you lord." Gryphon, the most personable of Dream's sentries, bowed his shaggy head and clicked his beak twice. "We three shall mark you for eternity as an honored denizen of the castle."
"ThanksI think." Ranma scratched the back of his head. There was so much ceremony in the Dreaming! "And you don't need to call me lord if ya don't want to."
"Yes, lord." Gryphon moved aside and the other two sentries bowed low as Daniel and his guest entered.
The first thing Ranma, or rather Peak, noticed was the transient nature of the castle. As the heart of the Dreaming, the castle was forever shifting according to Dream's whim. At one moment the floor would be ivory, then next pearl, a moment later obsidian and so on. The basic structure of the manor did not change much, rather it was all the superficial stylings, and columns and tapestries that warped from one time period to the next and into some architecture he had never seen.
"You will grow accustomed to the nature of the castle in time, Ranma." An impossibly tall and thin man stepped out behind them from what Ranma could've sworn was a solid wall just a moment before. Looking at him it was clear he was an officious person with a long tailed coat and striped trousers. Small glasses on a string leading to his top pocket hung precariously from his bony nose and his bushy eyebrows shone dark red in the gloom.
"Lucien, I will leave the rest of the tour to you. I shall see you later, Peak. Ah, I almost forgot, Lucien, Abel will indisposed." Daniel gave them both a curt nod and drifted off further down the darkened corridor. Even the lord's bright white clothes faded after little more than a few paces and soon he was gone towards his chambers.
"Sowhat's his name?"
"What's his name? The pale guy, the Lord of the Dreaming?"
"I am surprised you did not know before accepting his offer." Lucien brushed off the front of his jacket.
"Hey, man, I only knew he was Death's cousin." Ranma raised his hands in warding. He hadn't known a lot of things during his lifetime but that hadn't stopped him from making life-altering decisions before, why start now?
"Then you have made the acquaintance of the lady Death. Well, Ranma, our lord is Dream of the Endless." The previously living man shrugged his shoulders; it was answer enough.
"So you're Lucien, huh? What do you do in the castle?" Ranma had his hands in his pockets. He still hadn't gotten over what he'd done so he could be forgiven for his less than standard manners at the time. Lucien for his part smiled softly and knew that he would like the newly appointed Peak.
"I am the castle coordinator and head librarian. I run things around the castle and make sure we have enough dreamers to do the chores. I am also in charge of the dream crew." A harsh and thoroughly annoying laugh echoed up the hall behind him and Lucien winced.
"Haw, haw, whatta crock!" Merv came clopping down the halls with an old wheel-barrow filled with books. His dirty shirt and wore overalls looked as if they were hung on sticks and when he knelt down to tie his sole-less workboots Ranma discovered that they were indeed, bundles of wood tied with dream stuff and enchanted by the lord Dream himself. "You don't run the dream crew, I do, and don't you forget it, book boy." A half-smoked stogie burned in the thick lines of his mouth and smoke was coming out of the animated pumpkin's eyes as he dusted off his hands.
"Technically I am-"
"Techkickally nuthin'! I run the dream crew, not you, not even mister high-an'-mighty Dream hisself! Me! Merv Pumpkinhead!" He pulled the cigar out with a gloved hand and blew the smoke in Lucien's direction. "Nice ta meet ya, new blood."
Ranma eyed the extended hand warily, not only did it look dirty but there appeared to be maggots crawling between the fingers.
"Ups, sorry 'bout that, just came from one a' those loony dreams where yur drownin' in creepy-crawlies." Merv dusted his hand off on the leg of his pants and the dream maggots vanished in a puff of mystical energy. When he offered his hand again, Ranma gladly shook it vigorously. He liked Merv right off the bat. "I asked th'Boss 'bout getting' sum more help 'round here and he just says "no" like the Dreaming runs itself!"
"Uh" Ranma smiled sympathetically down at his new friend.
"I tell ya, this job ain't half it's cracked up ta be! First ya think, 'oh yeah, I don't have ta die' but then ya start ta realize how much of a dick the boss can be! I mean, don't get me wrong, the new guy is ten times betta than the old boss, but you'd think he'd start off his rulership with a little extra help down my way! Dreams don't just make themselves regardless of what the high-an'-mighty Dreams thinks! They-"
"They' are what, Mervyn?" Daniel appeared behind the pumpkinhead, arms crossed over his chest, a disapproving twist to his lips.
"Hah!?" Merv looked behind him and saw the empty pits of Dream's eyes boring down on him. "Umwhat I was just 'splaining ta the new guy is that I make the dreams, yup, every last one a proud Merv created whopper." The pumpkin was sweating. The dark cracks of his eyes kept sneaking glances behind him trying to gauge how pissed off the boss was, you just never knew where you stood with the guy! "Yupah ha heh heheach gotta stamp of approval from me, yeahwellIguessIgottagoseeyalaternewguy! Ahhhhhhhh!!!!!!" The curiously animated worker threw his hands in the air and ran past Ranma screaming all the way.
Dream watched him go. There was no hint on anger on his face but he still followed the thing as it ran down the darkened hallway with his eyes. "I would suggest you try not to associate with him much but I realize that would be impossible; however"
"'try to keep clear of him'right?" Ranma smiled up at the pasty ruler and watched him nod slowly. Dream then drifted along the carpets into the darkness.
"Well then, Ranma, why don't I show you the library." Lucien took a light candle from the wall and led the newcomer into the cavernous chambers of the Dream library. Ranma stood still for a moment as the full scope of the cases of books came to his mind, there were infinite volumes labeled and stacked on the shelves, enough that it seemed the rows went on forever. Looking up, the pigtailed man noticed that the bookshelves stretched up as far as they went across.
"Yes, that is generally the first reaction people have when they first visit the library." Lucien was standing primly behind him with his hands clasped at the small of his spine. "Don't listen to Merv, my contribution to the castle is the same as his, it is my duty to keep all these books in order."
"What kind of books are they?"
"Any kind you can imagine, really, they are the books that were never written, only dreamed. You can imagine the kinds of books that lie on these shelves, I have a seven-volume series where the Englishman Tolkien envisioned the Lord of the Rings as a raunchy romance. Rubbish all of it, really, but good for a lark." He gestured almost straight up to a shelf Ranma could barely see. "Up there I have many volumes of martial arts lore set down by you while you slept. Alas, now that you dwell here with us, the fifteenth volume will remain unfinished."
"Why can't I just finish the last volume with my own hand?" Ranma was interested in where his dream-self had left off.
"Oh, oh my, I don't think so." Lucien brought a hand to his mouth. His eyes were wide as if in fear of slighting the lord of the castle by presuming to alter any book in the Dreaming.
"Why not? I can finish the book in my spare timegive me something to do."
"Wellit just isn't done. Never in all my years has anyone even thought of finishing their unfinished books"
"But there isn't any law against it, is there?"
"No, I don't suppose there ischanges abound in the Dreaming now; I suppose we must change ourselves or perish." The butlerish man fished in his vest pocket for a moment before drawing out a gold pocket watch.
"What is it?"
"I appears that we are late for a dinner date. Come along Ranma, I shall introduce you to the more savory members of the Dreaming community." With that, Lucien flipped his coat tails and started in his knees-bent fashion down the corridor.
Without light to make sense of his surroundings, Ranma was unaware of the length or breadth of the castle they traveled, only that the stone changed to rug, then wood, then tatami mat, and finally to dirt in the course of their journey. Even though they had not left the castle grounds, he was not surprised when they arrived at a ramshackle house in the middle of nowhere. It appeared he was growing used to the abrupt changes in perception that constituted the Dreaming.
The house sat impossibly on a small hillock, a mass of twisting wood and windows hanging too askew from its centre of gravity to stand if Newtonian laws held; since they had no weight in the Dreaming, however, the structure simply sat in a marsh of reeds and mud. Quaint, but not his type of place. Still, the aromas of baking bread and roasted meat hung heavy in the air.
"The castle lies at the heart of the Dreaming, as such you may reach the farthest edges of the realm by merely walking its halls." It sounded nuts but it also made a great deal of sensenot good sense, Ranma admitted, but what did sense have to do with this place? "This is the House of Abel, keeper of secrets."
"So where's his brother, Cain?" Ranma laughed a bit at his own little joke.
"Cain's house is right there," Lucien stated, primly pointing towards the barb-wired fence beyond Abel's garden. "I would advise you not to enter unless he gives you a mine map." The tall man looked wistfully into nothing for a moment with a hand on his chin. "Strange that he's only given Mervyn a map"
"UhI was just joking. You know, Cain and Abel, the first murder?" Ranma was beginning to sweat, there were things in the Dreaming that shocked even him, and in the course of his life he thought he'd seen it all.
It wasn't any old Joe who talked to Death on a regular basis. Why, during the first year in the Tendo household he saw her nearly every night!
"I am aware of the tale, Ranma, and I repeat that you should not enter Cain's house without permission or caution." He rang the doorbell with a spidery-long finger and the two 'men' waited patiently for the portly figure of Abel to usher them inside. After a moment the crooked red door swung open and Abel greeted themsans head.
"Talk about dressing casual," Ranma remarked under his breath. Lucien looked disapprovingly down at his new charge and coughed politely into a gloved fist.
"Abel? Abel? Where is your head?" To Ranma, Lucien's reaction was the most utterly surreal moment of his limited time in the Dreaming. The fat man was missing his fucking head! Never mind the fact that his headless corpse managed to answer the door and gurgle in what Ranma could only assume to be a polite tone.
"Cuh-cuh-come in, Loo-Loo-Lucien. Whe-whe-we've a-all been waiting fuh-fuh-for yuh-yuh-you." Peak, or rather Ranma, was pretty sure the voice coming from the inside parlor didn't soundwhole. He turned back to his guide only to find him halfway down the hall following the decapitated body.
"Hey, hey! What do you think you're doing, Lucien? You aren't actually going inside with thatthat thing, are you?"
"Of course I am, Ranma, how else would we be served dinner? Come in and close the door behind you." Reluctantly, the new member of the Dreaming's family headed inside the dank and musty smelling house.
The hall was darkened and Ranma fumbled his way down, bumping his legs into tables and chairs, his head on an empty wrought-iron chandelier, and trying not to think about the moving slimy thing he'd touched on the wall. The hallway was not long so it took only a few moments for him to reach the softly lit dining room. Ranma scrubbed his hand absently on his pants and looked around at the odd assortment of people sitting around the table.
The first one he noticed was the tall man with dull white hair, almost blonde, wearing dark purple sunglasses and a white T-shirt. The fact that he smiled up at the newcomer to the party with perfectly white teeth only put Ranma more on edgethe man was practically screaming dangerous. Something shiny flashed behind his glasses.
The next was a squat-looking raven with a long beard and a puffy tuft of hair atop its head. It looked up at him with bright, intelligent eyes and took another nibble off the moldy rat on a plate before its beak. Ranma had the feeling that the bird was hiding something, either that or it was brighter than it let on
He would have to watch it.
The last was a fat man who was quite obviously recently decapitated. The jagged-looking bloody gash running clear across his jugular spoke as much although he was smiling and trying to eat. The seemingly dead man had a full head of black hair and a full beard, jovial eyes, and a gentle grin. He also had atrocious table manners, holding his knife and fork in fists and ripping into a huge chunk of meat with his teeth. Occasionally he would pull with his fork so hard that his head would separate, dangling helplessly from the slab of meat.
Lucien coughed lightly to get the groups attention and stepped up next to his charge. "Yes, well, this is Ranma, he is the 'Peak'. Lord Dream returned with him earlier." Ranma's eyebrow rose as the raven broke out into crows (if you'll pardon the pun) of laughter.
"That's great! Hey, if he's the 'Peak', I'll be the 'Beak', secret agent raven!" Matthew almost threw up his dinner as hard cramps wracked his body. He couldn't tell you why he found the stupid joke so funny, he just had, and when ravens laugh, they laugh.
No one else seemed to find the joke funny, or even very 'punny'.
Destiny walked in his garden as one walks roads he has trodden regularly for the past twenty years despite the fact that the eldest Endless only walked paths once in all eternity. Due to the malleable and fractious nature of the garden, no gravel road or dirt walk was the sameever. The only place where things were static was in the castle. One could not have a domicile constantly changing, it would make going to sleep or to the bathroom an absolute nightmare. And nightmares were Dream's problemand none of the Endless ever had to go to the bathroom anyway.
Maybe Destruction, but he was an isolated incident.
In more ways than one.
The oldest of the Endless plodded carefully, the chain connecting the Book to his wrist jostling with every step. It was not needed for him to constantly be reading the grimoire, in truth he only read it once in a great while and then only when events included him. The last time he hadn't followed the Book's prompting in dealing with the family, Delirium decided to play in a pond off the path of the garden. The mess created was a hodge-podge of chaos and fate and destiny entwined. A place existing in all realities at all times in one form or another, a location where destiny was irrevocably changed. Destiny blamed himself.
He could not count the number of times a mortal's destiny had been laid out to the very end before they encountered the Chaos nexus, then they simply vanished from the grimoire entirely. It was only Destiny's keen and natural sense of things which allowed him to partially keep track of the truants. It had been how he had known that one who had touched the nexus would speak to Death that day.
Mistakes of the past could be forgotten for the moment, however, because at that moment Destiny slipped off the smooth marble steps of a Greek temple and tumbled down in a heap. He had suddenly had a vision of the nexus so clear it had pierced his routine and concentration.
And the vision was very grave indeed.
The world was always pink in her realm. Then again it was always a puke-stain yellow. The realm had always been a mauve, then polka-dots. There was no concept of permanence to Delirium's domain and there never had been, after all, wouldn't that have destroyed the very concept of Delirium?
The youngest of the Endless sat on her knees, then leaned upside-down on her back, then was a flock of cinnamon anteaters with bat wings before settling on a slim girl with mismatched eyes. All the changing certainly pissed off her dog.
Barnabas, the shaggy mutt who would have been Delirium's companion if she took him everywhere she went, sighed and sat on nothing as gravity in the realm disappeared. He was an old dog, and had been Destruction's before the Prodigal left on a journey, but that didn't mean he couldn't learn new tricks - the least of which was how to talk to a puddle of sparrows with Technicolor boils. He was trying to coax her back into humanoid form for ease of conversation but it was hard trying to get thirteen-thousand birds with mismatched eyes, each melting together mind you, to pay attention.
"Do you think you could pull yourself together for just a minute?"
"WhY? PuLlInG wOuLd Be LiKe PuShInG, oNlY iT wOuLdN'tI cAn CoUnT tO a MiNuTe, YoU kNoW." Delirium melted into a reflective puddle of Endless and reformed herself in a Greco-Roman toga colored iridescent pink. "ThEy TaStE lIkE a SnAkE sInGs"
"That's just great, I can lick my own ass but you don't hear me offering up that info." The husky-looking mutt shook his head in frustration. "Anyway, there was a question I've been meaning to ask since we met."
"OkAy, I lIkE qUeStIoNs. QuEsTiOnS aRe LiKe RiDdLeSrIdDlEs ArE lIkE gRiDdLeS aNd GrIdDlEs MaKe Me CrY." The anthropomorphic representation of lunacy twirled a lock of mismatched hair between two fingers and it became spaghetti with meat sauce. Barnabas didn't even want to ask why griddles made his master cry, there were certain things you never wanted to know about Del
"Oh, I gUeSs We'Re GoInG tO tAlK nOw?"
"I wanted to ask you when you became Delirium. I heard you were once Delight, how'd that whole mess go down?" Destruction had mentioned the transformation of his youngest sister but never went into any specifics, the dog had sensed (rightfully so) that Destruction had something to do with the change.
"OoHpReTty, PrEtTy FlOwErS gO pOp LiKe PoPsIcLeS iN tHe DaRk." Del was sitting cross-legged in the middle of a pond full of green spiders and condors with huge breasts. A bunch of daffodils had mysteriously sprouted between her legs.
"PoP, pOp, PoP gO tHe TeDdY bEaRs AnD tHe BaNjO-eAtInG fIr TrEeS, gReEnS lOvE tHe TaStE oF hOuRs On WhItE bReAd."
To the dog it sounded an awful lot like his ward was avoiding the subject, but then again, she could also just be acting normally. It was hard to tell what was zipping through her insanity-addled mind at any given time. She could just be faking lunacy to dodge the question but she could also be answering it in her own way. It was just no complicated.
Barnabas decided to take a nap before the dancing gummy bears turned back into dinosaurs.
-To be continued---