The nightmares came, as they always did. Memories of the worst moments imaginable: a single fragment of Susan's many borrowed nightmares. She dreamed in terrifying episodes of stolen horror and sound, ruptured echoes only half-remembered in their malformed splendor. It was not her fear, her unease - it was his, the Inquisitor’s. Daul's fear, and Daul's terror.
Daul had trained her to guard her mind against the predations of warp creatures as she slept, but protecting herself from demons of one sort only brought about demons of another. Daul's past echoed in her mind,her mental defenses useless against her stolen memories.
Aliens and eldritch monstrosities snickered and snapped at her heels, fighting her at every turn. The dreams had made sleep a battle as terrible as the one she fought while awake. It was not wading through the muck and mire of war trenches in some long gone battle, not the darkest of demons nor the charnel house of a an alien's monstrous appetites.
But it kept coming back to the house and the man.
The dream was always the same, the same place with the same victims. The house, the smells, Metzik. Susan hadn't ever been to Metzik, but she knew that the homely woodsman's house was larger than it strictly needed to be for Daul's family. Nor had she witnessed the Skur'nek birds that used to roost beneath the wide window boxes of flowers that Daul's mother arranged, but she knew it all the same. Its familiarity only served to make its deep homeliness more alien to her, aided and abetted by the creeping horror which she knew Daul felt every time he laid eyes on the building.
Other dreams passed as whispering and easily-forgotten bursts of terror, but not this one. She would sit for what felt like hours just staring at the door, too terrified to enter. Something terrible lived in that house now, something wrong and evil: a monster beyond contempt, and beyond hatred. Susan didn't know what it was or why it was there, only the creeping and unformed fear that a child had for what she knew lay in the shadows.
She knew what came next, but continued through the motions as she had every time before. Her body floated across the dreamscape like through some sort of fluid, not walking so much as gliding. As the high pitched howls of the women inside hit a crescendo, she willed her body to go faster, urging her phantom limbs forward to little effect. She could only hover forwards as first the mother, then the eldest daughter, then the middle daughter screamed in betrayed disbelief as the life was cut out of them.
It was only after the sound of the youngest daughter's squeals, high pitched and uncomprehending like the squeals of a piglet, squelched into silence with the crash of snapping jaws that her body responded as she knew it ought to. She bashed in the door with a kick she doubted her physical body could have managed, reflexively grabbing the wide woodsman's axe from where she knew it had been left next to the door.
The creature had to die.
The first time that she'd walked in, she'd been so furious she hadn't thought to bring a weapon. The beast had slaughtered her, waking her up from the dream terrified and sobbing. She hadn't made that mistake again. Every time the dream came, she fought the beast. Every time, the beast killed her. But she would be damned before she gave up and let herself give up because of a bad dream.
Susan inched her way forward with slow and careful steps, keeping to the shadows and taking care not to step on the creaky floor board as she crept up the back step. Susan took care not to look at the photos or paintings on the wall for fear of being crippled by an errant memory. Too much of Daul was wrapped up in this house.
Too much was bound to the last place he'd ever felt safe.
In the distance, she knew a little boy would be crying down skinny cheeks and doing his best to hide himself behind his own knobbly knees. It had taken her a few trips through the dream to realize who he was. The memory of Daul as a child was unrecognizable from what he'd become, especially after melting in her cradled arms as she tried in vain to cary the sobbing child to safety.
She hated the Inquisitor, but she couldn't bring herself to hate this little boy enough to let the monster have him.
But she couldn't put herself between him and it, not yet. Facing the creature head on hadn't worked. Running hadn't worked. A dozen plans so far had ended in bloody failure. It was time to use the creature's own ego against it. So Susan bit her lip and ignored every instinct in her body as she listened to the disgusting creature prowl forwards on its lanky legs, dragging its protruding belly along the ground behind it with loping jerks of its skeletally elongated fingers.
Unhindered by Susan's intervention, the creature stuck its head into the boy's room, cackling with barely restrained ecstasy. It slapped hands on the white paint of the walls, still dripping red from the slaughter below, defiling the symbols of worship on either side of the door with incalculable spite. “Daul.... are we playing games now, Daul? Daddy likes games.”
Susan's breath caught in her throat, rushing up with the taste of bile and regret. No, it wasn't time yet. She needed to be sure it wouldn't be able to strike back at her with those taloned fingers. The boy would have to endure a little longer. She knew he wasn't real, but somehow that didn't seem to matter to her as she endured a tiny, keening sob from where she knew the boy hid.
"Why don't we play a game Daddy likes? Do you want to play the game Daddy and Mommy just played? I promise we'll only do it once," it cackled to itself as it tore the clothes in Daul's closet to shreds. Susan swooned as she made the mistake of staring at a ruined sweater and was briefly overpowered with a warm memory of the woman who'd knitted it. The smiling apple cheeked woman whose entrails now decorated the downstairs landing hit her in the heart like a sledgehammer, mingling with her own dull memories of having a mother.
"Or do you want to play a game of hide and seek? Oh, what a naughty child you are for hiding from daddy,” The creature continued its pretense of searching, apparently oblivious to Susan, "Remember... Daddy loves you, doesn't he?" More laughter followed.
Oh yeah. It needed to die.
Susan crept behind the creature as it began its final speech, making her way to the door's narrow opening. She slowly took one step, then another, not daring to even breathe for fear that the noise might alert the beast to her presence. The creature was strong, but dull witted and easily distracted despite its agile ferocity. She'd nearly escaped it once by doubling back to the cottage five miles into the dense forrest of Metzik until the boy had whimpered loudly in fear.
First one step, then two: she crept closer and closer as the beast continued its cruel game of cat and mouse, “Here's some new rules to the game. Daddy finds you, and we play a game he likes. Daddy doesn't find you and you get to leave?”
A small voice hiccuped in fear just behind the creature, the softand heartbreaking whimper of a horrified child. “Only a few more seconds,” Susan reminded herself silently, “You only need to keep him busy for a few more seconds.”
Seconds passed as the creature stood in the center of the room, raving incoherently till it grew bored of its own speeches. Susan ducked behind the door frame, clutching the axe to her breast as the creature turned to face her, only missing her by moments. She held her breath and listened as it came closer to her.
Drag-thump, drag-thump, drag-thump: inch by inch, moment by moment till the creature's flaring nostrils just poked past the door, spraying a thin mist of caustic smoke as the creature hissed in snorting laughter in its moment of victory. Its triumph turned to disbelief as Susan spun on her heel, driving the axe's cold iron blade between the creature's nostrils, splitting the creature's head with a gratifying splatter of thick blood upon the floor.
It howled piteously and hissed a sibilant plea: “Mercy.”
But there would be none, not for this thing. Bellowing furious staccato screams of fury, she beat the creature till her body refused to continue, covering herself with the creature's entrails with each collision of the blade. She swung till the axe fell from her tired fingers, cold iron blade still sizzling with unnatural flashes of breaking ether.
She collapsed to the floor, sobbing with exhaustion and pent-up emotions, staring at the blood coating her fingers and willing her petrified hands to relax. It was over. She'd won. Fear and adrenaline twisted into glorious hysteria as she rocked on her knees whooping in victory, “First rule of Babylon 5, do not mess with Susan-fragging-Ivanova!”
Brushing the bigger bits of monster from her chest, Susan called out to the huddled boy behind the bed, “It's safe...you're safe.”
She stood up and took a tentative step in the boy's direction, wobbling uneasily on tired legs. It was only a dream, and she could control a dream. She told herself to forget how her legs would operate in normal life: just will them to work and they should work. She rambled semi-coherently to herself, “Come on Ivanova, you just killed the monster. Walking between here and the bed should be child's play.”
She did, and they didn't. Her imagination, suffering from the unfortunate fate of the pragmatist, was apparently hopelessly bound to reality. Her feet stayed fixed in place as she called out again, “Come on Daul. It's over, you're safe.”
A sad little boy with a tear-stained face stood up from behind the bed,a stuffed animal clutched to his chest. With a sad little sigh and a shake of his head, the child stared at her with eyes, piercing and sad like those of the Daul she knew. “Miss Ivanova. It's never over.”
And with that simple pronouncement, the world shifted. Tentacles erupted from the blood and gore around her. Malodorous hunks of sinew, tooth, and bone formed manacles, binding her arms and legs before she could reach for the axe. Horrified, Susan yelled, “Daul! Daul, what are you doing?”
The child scrunched his eyes and tore the stuffed creature in half. He screamed in agony, “It. Is. Never. Over.”
Tiny hands dropped the ripped animal and reached out for her, pleading, begging, but never reaching. The child's body fell apart at the seams, breaking into bits and pieces of charnel. Hot, sticky blood seeped from the pile of meat, covering the room in a thick wave of red, an ocean of blood full of floating bodies.
A sea of bodies drifted in endless stacks around her. Pretty, ugly, rich, poor, human, alien: all were equal in death. They all stared at her with glassy-eyed expressions of betrayal, demanding that she explain why she hadn't saved them. Bodies piled out for eternity centered around the ruined pile of a broken little boy, laid beneath the crucified remains of an old man.
Names, places, wars, conflicts, betrayals, mistakes, victories, joys, sorrows: all were soaked in the blood of a billion victims crying for justice. A billion names screamed in pain and fear, and Susan scrunched her eyes shut so she didn't have to see the child's detached lips still howling, “It never ends! Why will it never end? Throne, let it finish! Please save me.”
Susan struggled with her manacles, whispering incoherent platitudes. “I'm sorry, I'm so sorry. I tried to save you, I tried. I just can't.”
"A man has to save himself,” whispered an earthy voice in her ear as a firm hand grasped her around the waist, “You can't force a man to be another man, though I'll be damned if you women don't try.”
Before Susan could so much as blurt out a “Who are you?” the strong arm had yanked her backwards through a hole in space, jerking her from the endless charnel piles and into a rather homey-looking kitchen. Dizziness overtook her, forcing her into one of the chairs next to the hearth.
An old man in coveralls walked out from the tear in space, zipping it shut and shoving the glowing ball of energy into a thick sack-cloth bag. Deft fingers tied the shimmering string into an impossible knot, trapping the nightmare inside. With a final grunt of satisfaction the man pitched the parcel into the fireplace, burning it to cinders before shooting Susan a disgusted look. “Dreams were never meant to be borrowed.”
"I didn't mean to,” Susan whispered, trying not to drip blood on the white linen tablecloth, “It wasn't really...”
"It never is,” The old man stretched out his hands, lacing the fingers together with a fleshy popping of joints, “But meaning to do right and doing right aren't the same, and they aren't always obvious. What were you thinking in there?”
"I was going to save him,” Susan coughed, spitting up someone else's blood on the clean floor. The red liquid sizzled and spat on hard-wood surface, scarring it black. “I wanted to save him.”
"Doesn't seem to me that he's given you much of a reason to want to save him,” The man patted his breast pocket, grumbling in a language she vaguely recognized as the language of the northern continent. “Odd choice, really.”
"It was the right thing to do,” Susan shrugged. She could no more have left a child to suffer than cut off her own foot. “So I did it.”
"The right thing to do,” The old man chortled, though if it were in approval or incredulity she couldn't say. He barked out a quick laugh. “Yes, you'll do nicely.”
Before Susan could ask exactly what he expected her to “do nicely” the man fished a long wooden something out of his pocket and waved vaguely behind Susan, “I swear, a pipe always hides when I need it,” he announced to the tiny kitchen. He sniffed the air twice, before wrinkling his nose and asking, “You mind washing up in the basin? I'm not one for bad manners, and it's terribly rude to imply a lady isn't at her best, but I believe that shade of ichor doesn't suit your complexion.”
Before she could rationalize the futility of washing up to look nicer in a dream, Susan realized that she'd already started walking to the basin, wiping the mess from her face and hair with an embroidered white dish towel. And crazy though it was, doing so helped her feel cleaner. More than simple physical grime, she felt the guilt, the stress and the worry of the past week washing away as she scrubbed.
She scraped away the last of the mess and looked down at the basin,expecting to see foul water and a dirty rag, only to discover a spotless basin of clear water and a cloth just as white and clean as she'd started with. The old man ruffled her hair playfully, “Child, you're in a dream. Belief guides reality. You can achieve anything you believe in your own dreams.”
"I couldn't beat it,” Susan growled. There was no need to elaborate what “it” was; the glow of the nightmare still pulsed in the old man's pocket. “How does belief figure into that?”
"Think,” the man said, tapping his forehead with his middle and index finger, “Why is it that none of you think before you act.”
"I did think. I thought of every way that creature could be killed. I tried every absurd, outrageous and exaggerated plan to kill it. None of them worked,” Susan blinked as an absurdly simple thought occurred to her, “But it didn't matter, did it?”
"No,” the old man shook his head sympathetically, comfortingly patting her on the shoulder, “It wasn't your demon to face. Wasn't your past to overcome.”
"But the nightmares will come back?” Susan sighed, “I know it will.”
"If you finish your training, without a doubt,” sighed the old man. He grinned fondly and whispered into her ear, “But not for a while. Not 'till you have demons enough of your own for this one to seem like a blessing.”
And then, as fast as the dream came, it disappeared into an incoherent mess of darkness and shadows. The nightmare of bodies and the simple, homely kitchen shimmered into fleeting dreams without consequence or comprehension, devoid of importance. They spirited her along for hours of confused dreaming until her servant, deeming her tardy for her morning ablution, startled her into action with the weight of a silver tea tray and an Inquisitorial summons.
Hilder, it always came back to Hilder.