Ealasaid opened a small bag that dangled from a cord on her wrist. I hadn't noticed it before but somewhat abstractly realized that it was a mixture of silver and white material like her dress and, therefore, blended in rather ingenuously. I watched, bleary-eyed, as she extracted a handful of deep burgundy flower petals from within its depths. She glided around our small living room, sprinkling petals in each of the four corners, her voice rising and falling in a singing chant.
I looked at Nik and raised a quizzical eyebrow. He looked back and gave a slight shrug. We both looked at Goodfellow who offered up a shrug of his own. "Ancient secrets, I guess."
Grains of salt followed the fragrant flower petals and her voice lowered to a whispery dirge. When she was finished, Ealasaid turned to us and smiled. "There now. Almost ready." She pulled a small vial from her bag. After wetting the little finger of her right hand with the liquid inside, she reached toward my forehead.
I shuffled backward a few steps.
Ealasaid smiled softly. "'Tis okay, young one. It is nothing more than harmless lavender oil. A conduit to slumber—amongst other things."
I could feel my cheeks flush slightly. But it was an irrefutable fact that strangers, even ones as beautiful as Ealasaid, made me a little nervous at the best of times. Falling back when one was reaching toward me was an instilled action.
She stepped forward and made an 'X' on my forehead, the pungent aroma of lavender filling my overly sensitive nose. I fought the ridiculously strong urge to sneeze all over her.
She must have sensed something because she laughed, her jade eyes twinkling. She tapped my cheek gently before turning to Niko, and unlike me, he stood completely still while she drew an 'X' on his forehead with the oil.
Stepping back, she motioned at Nik and Robin with her hands. "If you two gentlemen will push this furniture aside, we can proceed."
The pair quickly did as she asked, clearing as much space as they could in the center of the floor. When they were done, she nodded approvingly. "Perfect. Now, Cal, I want you to lie here on the floor—on your back with your head pointed toward me."
I hesitated, glanced at my brother then lay down exactly as she instructed, wiggling around to try and get comfortable on the old, scuffed hardwood floor. Sadly, it was a wasted effort. Certainly the hardwood floor was no well-used bed.
From my prone position, I watched Ealasaid step up to Niko and place her palms on each side of his face. She stared into his eyes and intoned softly, "Proeliator defensor vado. Evinco phasmatis hostilis." Being an apt student of Latin, Niko nodded gravely. Me—being quite inept at the ancient language—could only guess what she said.
"Now, Niko, you must bring me your weapon of choice to take with you."
I watched as my brother presented her with his Katana and saw him tense slightly when she ran her fingers up and down the blade before placing a dab of lavender oil on the hilt. When Ealasaid finished, she kissed the sword, bowed deeply to Nik, and placed it carefully, almost reverently, back into his hands. "Strike deep and true."
"I intend to."
"Now lay here, near your brother. Keep your weapon tightly held."
I watched silently as Niko settled next to me.
"I need you both to join hands."
I felt Niko's warm, calloused hand envelope mine, much like it used to when I was a four-year-old crossing the street. Despite the surprising good memories the action invoked, I couldn't hold back some snark. "Awww, does this mean we're dating, Cyrano? Just don't try and get fresh. I'm not that kinda boy." In lieu of a tap to the back of my head that he often employed to keep me in line, Nik's hand tightened around mine until my fingers went numb and I yelped. The grip eased immediately once his big-brother message was delivered.
Ealasaid let out a slightly exasperated sigh. "Boys, behave!" she admonished with an overtone of merriment in her voice. Her long, gauzy skirt swished as she knelt at our heads. "Close your eyes." She placed a hand on each of our foreheads, touching the lavender oil. "Ut reperio justicia in somnus. Victoria super somnium nex. Vado. Vado. Vado."
When I next opened my eyes, it was dark. I lay still for a moment, assessed my surroundings. Sensing no threat, I sat and looked around. Slowly, the environment lightened to a foggy gray. Seconds later, Niko materialized in my field of vision. I watched as he blinked and then slowly rose to his feet. He held his Katana tightly in his right hand, and there was a glowing white aura surrounding him.
I rose to my feet and eyed him from head to toe. "Um…why…why are you glowing?"
"You tell me—we're in your head—or dream—after all…"
"Oh. Right. Uh…never mind then." There was no way I could admit to him that the aural glow was probably a symbol of a little brother's hero worship of his protective older brother. "So what do we do now?"
"I don't know." Niko's gaze roamed around the grayish fog. "I assume the dream weaver would simply find us if we wait here, but I'd rather be a little more proactive."
"Let's walk around."
Niko picked a direction at random and confidently strode away, leaving me trailing slightly behind. I couldn't shake the vague sense of uneasiness that had settled determinedly on my shoulders. Our steps rang tinny and hollow in the swirling miasma.
After several minutes, a massive, reinforced iron door with large, heavy-duty locks appeared before us. It was covered with ropy vines thick with thorns and intertwined with knotted sprigs of wormwood. Hard, muffled thuds emanated from behind the iron aperture, and the door vibrated with each impact. I stopped in my tracks and swallowed a gasp.
Nik looked at me with a frown. "Cal?"
I licked my lips. "Yeah?"
"What's behind that door?"
I stared at the door, mute, for several long seconds. Finally finding my voice, I answered, "I'll give you one guess and it's not Disneyland."
"Tumulus." It wasn't a question.
"Got it in one." A shiver tripped its way down my spine. I ran a trembling hand through my dark hair; my eyes remained locked on the door.
"Come on. Let's go." Niko wrapped a hand around my upper arm and pulled gently.
My feet didn't want to work, and I stumbled.
"Cal, it's okay. I'm here, remember?"
I finally found my footing, and we hurried in a different direction.
As we walked away, the gray nothingness lightened and began to fade away, leaving only telltale wisps behind. We found ourselves walking along a nondescript hallway with dark wooden doors on both the right and left. Some were fully open or ajar, others tightly closed.
The air around us was suddenly filled with the tantalizing aroma of grilling meat and pungent corresponding condiments. Niko and I approached the first open door and stopped, peering inside. A shiny silver food cart was inside, its grill full of hamburgers and hotdogs. My stomach growled. Next to the food cart sat a battered trashcan, overflowing with all manner of fruits and vegetables, tofu, beans. Pretty much all the stuff Nik made me eat.
I felt the weight of Niko's gaze settle on me. Turning, I shrugged and grinned. "Hey, you already know how I feel about that stuff you call food."
My brother ruefully shook his head. "Why am I not surprised you dream about food?"
A giggling from further down the hallway grabbed our attention, and we moved toward it. We'd only taken about a half a dozen steps when suddenly Robin Goodfellow—a very naked Robin Goodfellow—streaked past us, his curly hair bouncing and swaying in the resultant breeze. Behind him came a bevy of equally naked beauties—some human, some not. A few were trailing colorful silken scarves from their fingertips. All were giggling and batting their eyelashes—if they had them. Naked Robin swerved left into an open room, the scampering females followed. After the last one crossed the threshold, the door slammed shut behind them.
Again I could feel the weight of Niko's gaze. I couldn't help it; I blushed. "It's not what you think," I mumbled. "They're part of this recurring nightmare I sometimes have."
Nik held up a hand. "Never mind. I just better not be anywhere near that naked puck in your head."
Before I could reply in any way, the lights in the hallway flickered, and a dark mass coalesced a few feet away from us. The mass condensed and elongated, took on the vague shape of a man. It was the dream weaver.
"Nik." I swallowed hard, flashes of previous nightmares scrolling through my mind.
Niko's sword was already poised to strike.
"You think you can protect him?" the dream weaver bellowed then laughed.
A boom of thunder had less impact on my eardrums and I covered my ears.
"You are nothing. He is mine to destroy!"
"I don't think so." My brother's voice was ice cold.
"Perhaps you should think again."
A knife suddenly appeared in my hand.
"Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Killhim. Killhimkillhimkillhim," the assassin chanted hypnotically.
I took an involuntary step toward Niko. Appalled, I gasped. Nausea swirled in my belly and my throat closed. I fought to push words past my lips. "N-N-N-No!" I dropped the knife.
It reappeared in my hand.
"Then kill yourself."
Suddenly, it was my mother, Sophia, standing there before me.
Of its own volition, my hand turned the blade of the knife toward my belly.
"Cal!" Nik wrapped his free hand around my wrist.
His touch broke the compulsion and I again dropped the knife.
Niko lunged forward, wielding his blade. The fluid form of our mother slithered aside.
All the doors along the hallway snapped open and slammed shut repeatedly. Everything blurred for a moment. When it cleared, we were in the same hallway but the walls were solid. No doors, only an open window directly behind me. Without warning, an invisible force pushed against me, forcing me back a few steps. Another strong push came. It was hard enough to knock me off balance and through the window.
My fingers gripped the rough stone windowsill with every bit of strength I possessed. I dangled in the middle of a black abyss.
My fingers were going numb. Above me I heard the ongoing sounds of battle. I heard Sophia again, taunting Niko. Then my Auphe father hissing and spitting, doing plenty of taunting of his own. My grip on the stone slipped.
On the other side of the window, there suddenly came a preternatural screech of epic proportions. My ears rang with its intensity but I still heard Niko's yell of "Vos es profugus!" Another scream sounded then died away.
For some odd reason, I knew exactly what he said. You are banished.
I would have been ecstatic at my brother's apparent success, but fingers went completely numb, my grip loosened despite my desperate scrabbling, leaving my fingertips scraped raw.
* * *
"CAL! CAL, WAKE THE HELL UP! Dammit, don't you do this to me!"
I felt someone—no, not someone, Nik—shaking me. I moaned.
My eyelids fluttered as I fought to open them. Finally, I succeeded in getting them to half mast. "Wha'?" My brother was kneeling next to me.
Niko pulled me up into a quick hug. I squirmed, and he let me go.
Feeling a warm tickle on my upper lip, I reached to brush it away. My fingers encountered a warm, tacky fluid. My nose was bleeding. I squinted at Nik and then looked around the room, taking in Robin and Ealasaid who hovered nearby. They all looked worried. "Wha' happened?"
"Don't you remember?"
I winced. "Oh yeah. The dream…the dream weaver…the window. I fell."
"And almost died."
"Just in the dream."
"No. When I came back, you weren't breathing. We couldn't get you to respond." Niko's voice cracked.
"Oh . . . sorry." I yawned hard enough to crack my jaw and make my eyes water. "Hey, Nik?"
"Can I go to sleep now? Like real sleep—in my bed?" The days of sleep deprivation had caught up with me—hard.
"Yeah, Cal, you can go to sleep. But only for an hour and then I'm waking you up for PT."
I looked at him, horrified.
He laughed and tapped the bag of my head.
Realizing he was joking—a rare occurrence for my brother—I rubbed at my eyes. "Jerk."
"Go to bed, Cal. You get a free day—sleep as long as you need to."
I slowly rose to my feet, wobbling only slightly. "Hey, Nik?"
"Yes, Cal?" It was said on a sigh.
"Call Jersey while I'm sleeping. Tell him I'm claiming my double chocolate cupcakes tomorrow."
"You going to dream about those too?"
"Maybe," I grunted, "Probably. It's sure as hell better than having nightmares about him in his birthday suit." I pointed at Goodfellow and shuffled out of the room.
My bed was calling my name.
Proeliator defensor vado = Warrior, Defender Go.
Evinco phasmatis hostilis = Defeat ghost enemy.
Ut reperio justicia in somnus = To find justice in sleep
Victoria super somnium nex = Victory over dream death
Vado = Go