Dez Schwartz © 2020
All Rights Reserved
The Misguided Travelers
“Maybe it’s broken.” Ethan Roam, the sandman, shook the orb as though giving the device the magic-eight-ball treatment would bring it pulsing back to life.
“It had better not be. Technical support doesn’t exist for magical artifacts,” Mercury said.
Unsuccessful at reviving the device, Ethan set the orb down on the flattened surface of a nearby stalagmite. “I’m surprised to say it, but I really wish Chris was here. If anyone could fix this, it would probably be him.”
“The Sandman Orb doesn’t need to be fixed. You’re just a bad driver,” Mercury, the former vampire, Dacey, who was now transformed into a celestial entity, chided. Guarded, he turned a one-eighty to view what little he could make out about their dark cavernous surroundings. This wasn’t the first alien planet Ethan had transported them to. But without the Sandman Orb working to give them a proper idea of where they physically were, it was becoming the most foreboding.
“Well, it would help if I had the driver’s manual,” Ethan defended, referring to the Codex, which had been left behind in Grady Hunter’s study during the battle with the Hunters of Azoth, forcing them all to escape to the Dream World. “My driving doesn’t explain why the orb just stopped working all together.”
“Of course, it does. You took a wrong turn into an uncharted dimension. You’re off the grid, darling.”
“Sorry I didn’t pull over to ask for directions,” Ethan snipped.
Before he could add anything else to his sarcastic rebuttal, Mercury grabbed his arm in a protective manner and whispered, “Hide the orb. We’re not alone.”
Ethan scooped the archaic device up and stowed the orb away inside his jacket’s inner lining, thankful Grady had bestowed the hand-me-down to him. His boyfriend’s wardrobe had all sorts of custom pockets and restraints for portable weaponry, which Ethan found to be more and more a necessity.
A cluster of glowing eyes appeared in the darkness, followed by the sound of grunts. Ethan released a pulse of glowing blue dream energy from his palm to light up the space. The alien animal let out an annoyed squawk. Now that Ethan could get a good peek at the creature, he wished he hadn’t.
The alien matched the murky gray sediment of the walls around them and appeared just as bulky. Its long body reminded Ethan of a salamander, only several feet longer and the size of a large crocodile. Once its gaggle of eyes adjusted to the light, the creature used six legs to propel itself rapidly toward them.
“Ball play is over. Back to basics,” Mercury instructed. Mercury had no reason to worry for his own life, seeing as he currently held the title of Death. Instead, he’d be more interested in protecting Ethan’s.
Picking up on his meaning, Ethan opened a portal back to the Dream World. In the blink of an eye, he and Mercury left behind a confused, angry, and hungry alien life-form.
Luckily, Mercury noted, Ethan has mastered the art of landing on his feet and not on his face when traveling between worlds.
Mercury grinned his approval. “You’re improving.”
“Not nearly fast enough,” Ethan reminded him, producing the orb once again. At least now they knew for certain the device wasn’t broken since the orb glowed back to working order with the atmosphere of the Dream World to energize it. “And this thing is basically useless without the Codex.”
“There’s more than one way to navigate foreign waters. Might I refer you to the Age of Exploration?” Mercury patted him on the shoulder in encouragement.
“No need to ask if you had any luck. I see Vincent still isn’t with you.”
They turned to see Marcus von Rottal, the vampire, standing nearby, his hands casually resting in his pockets.
Mercury had reason to be wary of Marcus’s extreme interest. They were all in limbo until they could find Vincent Roam, Ethan’s father—the original Sandman. Unbeknownst to the others, Marcus was the reason for Vincent’s disappearance. He’d pushed Vincent into a portal out of unfounded jealousy. Mercury had guarded their secret in order to protect Marcus. However, the truth seemed destined to come out. Especially if they were successful in finding Vincent alive. Mercury imagined Marcus would want to put all his efforts into doing whatever he could to prevent that from happening.
As long as Mercury had known him, Marcus had put his own interests above everyone else’s. Nothing could stop him or deter him once he set his mind on something. Mercury would have to play his hand very close to keep Marcus from interfering or suspecting he mistrusted his intentions. And as unrealistic as his desire was, a part of him also hoped the others never would know the truth. Regardless of everything which had transpired to drive them apart in the last century, and as much as he’d shed the coil of his past life as Dacey, Mercury still felt protective over him. Or at least responsible for him.
“Marcus, darling! I’m so glad you’re here,” he lied. “Would you be a doll and fetch Grady and perhaps even the portly fellow? What’s his name again?”
“Arthur,” Ethan helped.
Mercury snapped his fingers in confirmation. “Yes! I have an ever-growing list of questions needing answers from those bookish occultist blokes.”
“Hunter wandered into the dream forest,” Marcus informed them. He often referred to Grady by his surname to slight him. “I was quite hoping he’d lose himself in there, but I suppose I’ll go fetch him out if I must. Must I?”
Marcus pursed his lips in response before making his way into the fluorescent-hued woods surrounding them.
Knowing full well Ethan would question the need to interrogate the other men, Mercury went ahead and answered. “Who has read the Mechanics of Sleep Travel more times than anyone else, and even better, who helped write the damned thing?”
Grady Hunter knelt on the vibrant grass. Upon closer inspection, every blade filled with stars and planets, each appearing to be home to its own galaxy. He surveyed the vast expanse of surreal nature around him, every inch of this strange world similarly cosmic. He imagined if one had to try to explain what infinity looked like, then the landscape of the Dream World would be the perfect demonstration.
Parched, and feeling much the helpless human, he’d stopped for the stream that ran through the woods. Drinking the water would be either pointless or dangerous, but he hoped he could at least find some relief by wetting his throat. He gave the water a light test with his fingertips which produced an oily swirl, creating a similar rainbow effect. He sniffed his hand for signs of toxicity, but the substance didn’t smell of anything at all really. Perhaps, he wondered, it’s because nothing here is technically real.
“This is not the time for existential analysis, Alexander,” he chided himself, utilizing his birth name, a habit he’d slipped into when lost in serious thought. Deciding the water’s property to be nothing more than the substance of induced dreams, and, therefore, non-toxic, he scooped up the liquid in his hands and splashed it on his face to refresh himself and clear his mind.
Much to his dismay, his efforts weren’t successful since a wearisome voice greeted him the first thing afterward. “If one cannot be existential in the Dream World then Romanticism was a waste of everyone’s time. What a dreary protestant thought. You really must be losing hope.”
The only one pretentious enough to say such a thing had to be Marcus. Grady frowned in annoyance. Wiping the water off on his slacks, he stood to address the Austrian vampire.
“As much as it pains me to say this, I’m glad we have a moment to speak alone.” Grady walked up the shore to confront him.
“That makes one of us. I’m only here as an errand. Dacey—erm, Mercury is seeking your council.”
“Well, that makes bringing the topic up even easier. He’s who I wish to speak with you about.”
“Spare me the speech, Hunter. I already know what you’re going to say. In order to move forward as a team, you want me to know what you two shared was fleeting and meant nothing. You never loved him and vice versa. Am I correct? Fabulous. Now, let’s go, and I have no problem with walking in silence.” He turned to leave.
“While those things are very true, they aren’t what I wanted to address exactly.”
Marcus faced him again and waited for him to continue, though it appeared to pain him to do so.
“Your jealousy does shine like a beacon, but I have been wondering…why? You’ve known him longer than any of us. You’ve shared so much more with him. You know how he can be. So, why would you, with all your supernatural power, ever feel threatened by anyone? Let alone a mortal. He, obviously, still loves you as much as a vampire–or Death—can, I suppose. No one can take that away, or else they would have by now.”
Marcus gave a small laugh riddled with annoyance. “You do love to flatter yourself. I’ve never considered you a real threat, Hunter. Love is not the problem between him and me. The problem is loyalty. Rather, a lack thereof.”
“May I persuade you to elaborate? For the benefit of my complete understanding moving forward.”
“Tell me. Is there anything you wouldn’t do for the young dream traveler?”
“No. I love and trust Ethan with every fiber of my being,” Grady answered in earnest.
“So, you would follow him blindly, no matter the situation?”
“Perhaps not blindly. But I would die for him if necessary.”
Marcus sneered. “Poetic. But it does frame my point. You’re completely, unquestionably loyal to him. Dacey never granted me such loyalty. He may love me more than anyone else, but he’s incapable of sticking by my side when things take a turn for the worse. A flighty, fickle little bat. Dacey and I loved each other, but we never trusted each other. I used to think him a coward, but these sandmen have proven what he is. A traitor. An opportunist. And now I have no idea what to expect in those terms from this Mercury fellow he claims to have become.”
“Sandmen? Yes, of course. You knew Vincent too.” Grady wondered what Vincent must have done to make him feel such a way.
“Dacey talked about him?”
Cautious, Grady opted for the simple truth. “He mentioned him once, fleetingly.”
“He knew him fleetingly as well. Didn’t stop him from choosing a sandman over me then either. I understand he knew Ethan for a very short amount of time and then was willing to toss himself into oblivion for him. I beg the question, why? He’s had a history of engaging in self-destructive behavior for men he’s only just met.”
“Have you ever considered his lack of faith had more to do with the leadership in your relationship than you specifically?” Grady proposed. “What I’m saying is, perhaps you should shift the power and see if he still remains…flighty.”
“We’ve tried switching dominance before. I didn’t like it.” Marcus turned to leave again.
“Did you even give him a chance?” Grady pressed him. “I mean, really? Did you follow him without question like you expect for me to do right now, or did you try to take the reins back at every turn as you’re also doing in this very moment?”
Marcus held his tongue.
“Maybe this time around, you let him lead, and see if you get any further. What have you got left to lose?” Grady suggested with care.
Marcus offered him a genuine smile for the first time. “I’m beginning to determine you unbearably sensible.”
His smile disappeared. “This doesn’t make us friends.”
“I’m relieved we’ve cleared that up.” Grady offered his own smile.
Marcus seem to mull the matter over for a second and then gave a curt nod to indicate the subject settled. Thankful they’d opted for a silent journey, Grady followed at a respectful and comfortable stride length behind him.
Mercury’s slow pacing may have given away his nervous concern, but he kept his tone even. “You must tell us everything you know about dream travel. Specifically, any methods which may be useful when used in conjunction with the Sandman Orb.” Grady, Marcus, Benny, Karen Roam, and Dr. Arthur Ellis sat, weary at this point, in the comfort of Kit’s den. The kitsune had been more than hospitable in opening her home and any resources she had to make them more comfortable. She opted for her humanoid form since it made them—aside from Benny the werehuahua, who seemed to enjoy meeting another shapeshifter—the most comfortable. Kit raised an eyebrow at Mercury’s demand as she finished handing out a few snacks most of the group seemed reluctant to attempt eating.
“Shouldn’t you be asking Marcus this question?” Grady glanced at Marcus with suspicion. “None of us had ever encountered or even heard of the orb until he arrived.”
“So much for gentleman’s truces,” Marcus scoffed, but his tone implied partial jest. Grady smiled at him in return.
Mercury narrowed his eyes at their suspicious behavior.
Marcus rested a heated gaze on Mercury, surely to show his disapproval of the dangerous territory he opened with his line of questioning.
Mercury clarified, “What I mean is in all of the research and experiments with dream travel Vincent engaged in and wrote about, there must be something that would help us! Vincent traveled without the Codex and orb, did he not?”
“I suppose,” Arthur said. “I’d never heard anything about these artifacts before, but he did travel subconscious worlds. In layman’s terms, the realms of spirits, like this one. I know nothing of his ability to transport himself to other places in the physical multiverse.”
“Well, Sandman could,” Mercury enlightened them. “The orb should be a guidance system, but one which can be modified and with the ability to retrace one’s steps. Part of its purpose is to house the only knowledge of Phantom’s location from when he was excommunicated. Only a sandman would ever be able to glean that knowledge. With the help of the Codex, of course. Which is what we need and is now in the hands of the Order. It’s the key to understanding that guidance system.”
“Essentially, the Codex is a user’s manual. And I’m kind of lost without it,” Ethan said, facing the group.
Standing by Mercury’s side, Ethan made a rather striking leader. His sandman nature had ebbed glowing stardust through his veins since the moment they’d arrived in the Dream World. He was in his element, and he wore the fact well.
It didn’t go unnoticed by Mercury that both Marcus’s and Grady’s jaws exhibited just the slightest clinch at the sight of their allegiance.
“I see your problem but I’m afraid we don’t have an answer,” Arthur spoke up. “As far as I know, Vincent had no knowledge of this orb or any Codex. I don’t see how it would help in finding him if he never used them.”
It would have been so simple to inform them Marcus and the orb were the catalysts for sending Vincent to wherever he now resided, but Mercury held his tongue. He wasn’t ready to play that hand.
“Perhaps it wouldn’t. Suppose he’s lost in some dreamscape. I mean, if he were on a physical plane, then you’d think he would’ve been able to pop himself back onto Earth whenever he liked. Am I not correct?” Marcus reasoned. It was such a devilish trick of words, Mercury had to commend him.
“He might be right,” Kit spoke up. “The idea is not unheard of for a celestial to get trapped in a spirit realm. Nothing would have willingly kept him from his family.”
“Kit has to be right,” Karen agreed.
Grady turned to Mercury. “You’re Death. Are you not free to travel those planes?”
“I can only usher the journey of the dead and monitor those in imminent peril. I’m not without oversight,” Mercury answered. “It wouldn’t do to have Death traipsing through other’s dominions. Something about the title is suspect. I blame the scythe.”
“Well, at least then we can assume Vincent is neither dead nor in peril,” Arthur said.
“Can you complain to higher management? Perhaps they can grant you temporary passage,” Grady suggested. “Who oversees you?”
“In a sense, existence itself,” he answered. “Darkness gave Death its shackles and I wouldn’t even dare to implore her to free me of them. I’m not exactly on her list of favorites; she blames me most for this entire mess, let’s not forget. Not to mention, the idea is a moot point since she disappeared to the ends of the cosmos an eternity ago.”
Grady huffed in annoyance. “There must be someone who can help us. Someone who can access every spirit realm.”
“If my fath—the Sandman created the orb to guide himself back from exiling Phantom then why would he even need a Codex? He wouldn’t have had time to write it if he’d been banished to Earth so soon afterward like you said,” Ethan considered. “So, who wrote the Codex, and why? Is there something you’re not telling us?”
There are many things, but this is not one of them. “There is someone else. And while they have always acted as though they were on Sandman’s side, I have to wonder.”
“Well, who then?” Grady demanded a clear answer.
“Nightmare,” Kit offered. She bit her bottom lip.
“Yes,” Mercury concurred. “Nightmare helped Darkness and Dawn banish us. He’d been tasked with hiding the orb and, presumably, creating the Codex. There’s no telling how much time he spent with the orb before doing so. He’s the only non-sandman with the potential to understand the orb and powers similar enough to Sandman’s.”
“And where is he now?” Grady prodded.
“He’s right here,” Kit answered. “In the Dream World. But…Nightmare isolated himself long ago, only dealing with those he takes under his command,” Kit explained. “I was born and raised under his control, and my appointment was to watch over Vincent whenever he came to the Dream World. Tasked to keep track of him. Until, I couldn’t. When he disappeared, I was relieved of my duties, a great dishonor. Vincent had been assumed existence-less since Charon—Death at the time—couldn’t trace him.”
“Existence-less? What does that mean?” Ethan asked.
Kit took a steadying breath before explaining. “It’s when the cosmos absorbs you and refuses to relinquish control. Imagine being sucked into a black hole and frozen there, never to die but never to really live again either. You’re just stuck infinitely in a speck of space, in an endless loop of nothingness.”
Everyone grew silent as they each imagined such a terrible fate.
Kit continued, “I didn’t know what had really happened to Vincent. But I did know Ethan existed, and one day, like all somnium viators, he would follow in his father’s footsteps and arrive in the Dream World. I imagined I would win my rank back from Nightmare with such a wonderful surprise. But then…”
“Yes, dear heart? Go on,” Mercury encouraged once she’d trailed off. He had already read where her confession was headed, and he planned his own strategic moves in a hurry based on the information, but he knew the others would need things spelled out for them.
“I began to question his motives,” she continued. “Nightmare never had dominion over Sandman when Sandman ruled the Dream World. And I started to suspect the only reason he wanted to keep watch over the somnium viators coming through was, in fact, to ensure the true Sandman never returned to reclaim his throne. There’s a chance he wants to keep the power he’s grown accustomed to and may view sandmen as a threat.”
“Or he could have been in cahoots with Phantom all along,” Mercury offered his alternative theory. “Celestial fuckery!”
“But you don’t know that for a fact, right?” Ethan pointed out. Something in his tone indicated he’d been making his own strategic plans while Kit addressed them.
“Well, no. But now the hand has been played on the table, it’s rather hard to imagine anything else,” Mercury admitted.
“Imagine it anyway,” Ethan countered. “We have no other options at this point, and we’ve already wasted enough time. Worst comes to worst, all us going there will let him know is that I’m not Sandman. I can’t keep popping in and out of realms aimlessly while my friends and family sit here and starve. We have to go to Nightmare and see if he’ll help me learn to use the orb without needing the Codex.”
Benny, who had been eating Kit’s snacks without much of a problem or care, froze midbite at the idea of facing such an imposing figure. “I’m fine staying, actually,” he muttered in a half whisper.
“Rather for the better,” Mercury approved. “You all should stay behind.”
Grady stood. “Well, I’m not. Sitting here with my hands tied while Ethan’s out there facing devil-only-knows-what is not what I signed up for. I’m supposed to be by his side protecting him.”
“And what if we do find Vincent? We need Arthur to bridge the gap,” Ethan reminded them. “Technically, he has no idea who any of the rest of us are.”
Marcus challenged Mercury with another glare.
Mercury chortled, “Nightmare would rip the life from you all and send you into eternal hellscapes before you even had a chance to say boo at him. We’ll have to face Vincent without Arthur and hope for the best. It’ll do Ethan no good to babysit mortals, trust me. You’re most helpful here.”
Grady crossed his arms. “Doing what exactly?”
Mercury strained to think of an acceptable answer.
“That’s what I thought.” Grady clapped his hands together. “The rest can stay behind but I have only one mission in life now so I’m going. End of discussion.”
Marcus stood. “If he’s going then so am I.”
“Great!” Mercury declared, sarcastic. “Would anyone else care to commit suicide? I’ll spend half the night ushering souls to the Spirit World while Ethan becomes Nightmare’s new plaything. Splendid plan, everyone. I’m so glad I consulted you all.”
“If there’s any bit of Dacey left in you, then I have a hard time believing you’re not at least a little enthralled at the idea of a possible orgy of the dead featuring the lot of us whatever your brand of Hell is. Now stop whining Mercury, and let the fox lead the hunt.” Marcus turned to Kit. “Where is this isolated king of yours? I haven’t made a deadly house call to royalty in quite some time, and I find myself rather looking forward it.”