The racks where I kept my wine were nearly covered in the mottled fungal roots and the ooze, and I would never drink them again, whether any of it seeped through the corks in the bottles or not. This thing not only seemed unclean in a physical sense, but in a spiritual way as well. Each of my footsteps made a squish or a squash, sounds that echoed through the damp, silent rooms. Being quiet or stealthy seemed impossible, but perhaps it knew I was coming anyway.
The cellar stretched long, as far as my house, so big it might as well have been called a basement, and a few steps remained before I would come face to face with the Dreamfeeder.
Giving it a name made it seem more real, of course, and also gave me something to focus my anger on, and besides, what else could it have been called? Fred Fungi? Moldo? It gave me dreams and wanted to feed; that was the main thing. The red light grew less harsh, maybe because my eyes were adjusting to it or because it dimmed them for me. I realized how difficult a hasty escape might be in these cramped conditions, and if the things on the walls and floors suddenly came alive….I didn’t want to think about that.
Just how long had this thing been growing here, where did it come from, and why? I only knew a small fraction of what it was about, and what was known did not enlighten. It was a puzzle that only I could solve, especially now. The knife now seemed like a pathetically inadequate weapon. A machine gun would have been better. Or a grenade. Or a flamethrower. Though I still didn’t know why I considered that the cellar-thing could be dangerous enough to cause a confrontation. I dared to call for Kat several times, and she didn’t answer. Finally, I reached the door. The small door between here and that cramped room was the only thing not covered in the multicolored roots and slime. The brass knob shone and cast back tiny reflections of myself and the room behind me, seeming to beckon, and now the decidedly meaty-rotting-vegetation stench was almost overpowering. I hacked and coughed several times, trying to get used to it, but having trouble because the stench was acrid, fetid, almost as bad as the gasses of decay.
The feeling of complete and utter wrongness was worse than it had ever been. I wanted to run now more than ever, perhaps because on some deep level I knew that what I would see on the other side of that door would change me and everything else forever.
Come on, I told myself. Be brave. Don’t wimp out now. You’ve always been tough. You’ve always had pride in your ability to deal with things, to face life and its adversity.
This was true in so many ways, but not in the ways that mattered. Not now. Being resilient and able to roll with fate’s punches didn’t prepare one for facing the uncanny.
Beneath the door, under the crack, the scarlet luminescence flickered and faded, flashed and softened. Watching it made me feel weak in the knees. I tried to imagine what could create such a weird light causing the gears of my imagination to clog and sputter. That had never happened before, even in the most difficult times of my life. Imagination was always a refuge, and it had never abandoned me.
“Kat, you’re not down here, are you?” I shouted. “Hello? Say something. I’m over here freaking out. If this is some kind of elaborate trick, I am so going to get you.” A soft, disturbed cackle rattled out of me, and quavered with a creeping chill that coursed through my spine.
Open the damn door, I scolded myself. Face up to it. Quit being such a coward!
I forced myself to finally take the knob, but didn’t open the door. Instead, I stood there for more than a minute, flinching slightly every time my heart pumped, because the normally subtle feeling had increased to the point where I felt it almost everywhere on my body.
A controlled palpation, spreading through my arteries and blood, so personal, eerily calm, completely normal and steady. Yet it was indescribably sickening. What bizarre entity could the Dreamfeeder be if it could mess around with my heart?
Yet two forces were at work on my decision. One my, conscience, was terrified at what could be happening to Kat in there and knew she must need help, and the other, an intruding but oddly appealing thought, told me that this would turn out to be something indescribably wonderful, and end to all fear.
It was like having to different personalities that didn’t like each other one bit.
It’s waiting in there with Kat, Molly . Stop wasting time! The muse urged. You have to do something. Something besides standing here. Come on.
Finally, I forced my clammy hands to turn the knob.
I flung the door open, and that was when all reason fled, my pretense of rationality trailing behind it, for what filled that room was more horrifying than anything I had ever seen and ever thought I could possibly see. A massive pulsing, quivering mass of something filled one corner of the room, suspended from the ceiling by numerous thick, dark tendrils. The crimson light radiated from within it, dimming and brightening, like a firefly, flickering rhythmically in tune with my pulse. For a moment I stared, taking it all in, squinting because the light seemed to be questing, trying to look into my eyes. Despite the glare which hid more than it revealed, the creature huddled in the corner was clear enough, but it was so against my expectations and so terrifying in its incomprehensibly bizarre appearance that I could not even squeeze out a scream. I clamped one hand over my mouth and a cracked squeal caught in my throat. I wanted to look away but was too morbidly fascinated at the completely alien aspects of the Dreamfeeder.
It resembled, more in its pulsing function than its overall appearance, a huge hideous beating heart, only not a human heart; not even remotely, for it was round, bloated, saclike, streaked with luminous colored fluids and thin black web-like veins, larger than a baby elephant, and from nearly everywhere over its pale reddish skin sprouted countless long tentacular appendages, which climbed the walls like crawling ivy, encompassed the entire floor, and twined like constricting snakes around the torso of Kat Baxley, who lay deathly still on the floor, the ooze of nightmares pooled around her like a shallow puddle of blood.
Anyone who might ever have the chance to read this probably will pass me off as a crazed fool telling a gruesome tale to get attention, or simply to rave the fantasies of an overactive imagination. I don’t blame you. I so poignantly wished that too, that this wasn’t real. I wanted, of all things, to lie down on the floor and sleep. Then maybe this would turn out to be a dream within a dream, an intricate trick of the mind. Everything here was surreal, way too real. The red light did not reveal everything, but what it did show was too much, way too much.
Whether you believe or not, I tell you that the only thing that kept me from descending into either madness or slumber at this unimaginably shocking sight was poor Kat, who was still alive. Adrenaline heightens the senses, clears the mind, and though that didn’t seem very merciful at the time, it allowed me to see the steady rise and fall of Kat’s chest, which seemed somewhat shallow, perhaps because the tight-looking embrace of the Dreamfeeder’s tendrils was cutting off some of her air. The red light seemed able to illuminate and confuse at the same time, allowing me to see in full detail the dimensions of the room, the massive bulging entity and its many tendrils, and then my heart hammered faster than I thought possible when I saw her left hand. It had been eaten away by the ooze, which was now quivering across her forearm. Kat’s hand was completely skeletal, clean of flesh, and if I didn’t do something soon the voracious thing would surely dissolve the rest of her.
Oh dear God, what kind of screwed up madhouse of a universe could produce something like this? This… thing, feeding on my best friend like she’s nothing more than meat. And why…why is it in my cellar? My cellar? Why? Oh god. Why? Does she feel pain, or is she too deeply asleep? If she wakes up what will life be like for her? Will she still be Kat, or someone else? Monsters aren’t supposed to be real. Save it for the fiction. Is this fiction? Is life itself just a twisted piece of fiction where the characters are toys to whoever’s writing the story?
I realized I was rambling out loud this time. My voice sounded strange and distant, as if it was floating up from the bottom of an abyss. Darkness crept up and pulled back in my periphery, like a churning sea. Maybe this was the pivotal point, maybe I was balanced on the edge, teetering on the edge between madness and sanity, and if I didn’t get it together there would be no going back. In a fit of rage and despair, I screamed at the thing. Whether it could understand or not; it didn’t matter.
“Why are you doing this to her?”
Maybe thirty seconds passed before a thought popped into my head, but this time, it wasn’t the endlessly chatty voice of the Muse speaking. In fact, I was sure it was the Dreamfeeder, because the thought was strong, commanding, and almost deafening even though it wasn’t even a real audible sound. The bizarre and forceful energy it emanated was not something I could easily prepare for. Its sudden entry into my mind shook me to my core, stirred up sediments of long forgotten places I never remembered going to and yet somehow knew of and subliminally understood.
She is dreaming. The monstrosity told me.
For a moment I stood in paralytic silence, unable to understand what it meant, struggling to process the fact that something so alien, so faceless and grotesque, could be capable of communication, of a coherent voice. Somehow this was the worst thing about it. Its undoubtedly strange mind was intelligent.
That could not be denied.
“What are you?” I responded in a quavering whisper.
There was no answer. Maybe it didn’t even know. Or perhaps what it truly was could not even be fully fathomed. Nevertheless, I asked another question.
“How…did you get here?”
Through the veil. It said cryptically.
“What veil?” I prodded, just now realizing that the knife was clenched in my fist. A poor excuse for a weapon, seemingly inadequate against such an incomprehensible entity, but it was better than nothing.
I can show you. The Dreamfeeder suggested, and I closed my eyes against that maddening red light. My stomach churned with nausea.
I can show you if you dream. If you dream….you will know…where to go. You will see whatever you want to see….you will understand HOW. I will show you how, if you merely dream, you will see, dream with me--
Suddenly hysterical again, I screamed, “Shut up!” The dark and awful rhythm of its words bored through my mind, and I couldn’t listen to that disturbingly poetic mantra much longer because that would mean a far greater need to sleep, a greater perception and interconnectedness to the immense power of this unearthly monstrosity. I had to stay awake, and sane. It was becoming increasingly hard because a part of me, perhaps my subconscious, wanted to dream, to see, to understand how, whatever that meant. My eyes were grainy and tired, and my mouth stretched wide as a long, involuntary yawn rose from my chest. The pulse didn’t cease; the alien heartbeat proceeded, unwavering, warm.
My fingers loosened on the handle of the knife, and it seemed to weigh more than twice as much as it had when I had first picked it up. A tremendous burden, a useless cause. My taut muscles began to relax, even as my eyes continued to scan the horrific sight before me. Suddenly my Muse spoke up frantically, its nonexistent hands seizing and shaking me in competition with the Dreamfeeder for my attention.
Stay awake, awake, awake. You don’t want to dream. You don’t want to be dissolved to bones, to know the secrets this thing knows. Stay awake. Do it for Kat. Save her, Molly. Save her, or you’ll never have the chance to finish that novel, or play with Solo on a cool autumn day, or go to the mall and not buy nice things with one of the few people who understand you more than anyone else. Stay awake. Don’t listen to it. Don’t listen, for God’s sake. Don’t listen.
The Dreamfeeder intercepted, its thoughts argumentative, intruding, passionate, and demanding. But at the same time it whispered another underlying voice like a soft, subtle lullaby, its words too low to be heard but still sickly soothing.
Molly Harland, please, I came to help, to help you. You listen to fear. Fearful thoughts. I feel. I feel them. They lie, they lie.
Please listen. Listen...dream…dream with me.
I felt as though my mind was swimming in a lazily churning creek of blood. I saw the Dreamfeeder, its hideous form, the heart. The beating heart that on some dark, simple level inspired a child-like need for approval, a need to be taken in by something that was vastly authoritive, powerful, something that cared deeply in some strange unnamable way. An understanding heart that would give nothing but rest, a calm silken blissful void of rest.
It isn’t a heart, Molly. Not anything as simple as that. Don’t listen to it. It’s sick and horrible and it wants to kill you! Snap out of it!
Then I also saw Kat, gasping shallowly in her forced dreaming, the tendrils encircling her, the wetly glistening ooze slowly and surely eating her up. This shook me out of my semi-trance, out of that darkling crimson haze. The thing’s thoughts were silent now, as though it at least had the decency to know it was crossing more than too many lines. Besides, I had a knife, and the soft flesh of the Dreamfeeder’s pulsing mass (if that really was the sole main part of it and not one of many) was unprotected, reassuringly vulnerable.
Do you really think you could kill it?
As I was contemplating this, a few of the tendrils on the floor suddenly rose up, and waved back and forth like winding cobras. I jumped back, afraid they would seize my ankles, try to knock me down. The Dreamfeeder, most likely, could read thoughts, had heard me considering how much damage the knife would do to it. As rhythmic as any charmed serpent, the tendrils, each as thick as my arms, slowly snaked toward me, still weaving left and right. I raised the knife and slashed the air in front of them, and made threatening gestures, as though these eyeless things could see. Or could they?
I told them to stay back, or I’d cut them. I felt something from the Dreamfeeder that might have been amused exasperation, as though a human being with a knife was no more of a threat than a tiny bothersome fly is to a cow. The feeling of inadequacy, of being in way over my head, was so strong that it inspired a sudden despair, a shift of perspective so profound that I could barely take it. Yet I waved the knife, lunged forward a foot, to cut the foul-smelling air.
Finally, as though humoring me, they stopped advancing, halted only a few feet from me and settled back down to the floor, but my attention was swiftly pulled away from them and onto movement in my periphery.
Kat’s eyes were open, wide and glassy, brimming with fear and perhaps even pain. They were fixed on me, as beseeching as Solo’s had been when we had left for the mall the previous day. Her fleshless hand curled into a fist with a dry clicking sound. Her mouth opened wide and the agonized moan that escaped her banished all hope that she didn’t feel where the gelatinous oozing substance was and what it was doing. I was hoping she was in a detached, altered state of consciousness, as Solo had been, but no, she was as aware as always and perhaps even more so.
The red light strobed, weirdly distorting her features, such a tortured, bloody tint. Another cry caught in my throat, came out as only a thick, strangled choking noise. I could feel my gorge rising, and clamped both hands over my mouth, trying to fight the urge to vomit.
Those thick tendrils that had curled around her torso also encircled her other arm. They held her greedily, and seemed to grow tighter. Even smaller appendages, some as thick as garden hoses, and others thin as pencils, squirmed on the floor like a nest of earthworms, all over the room. They were shadowed by the larger ones, and seemed to have no other purpose than to frighten and confuse. Kat’s gaze was so intense, so riveting and begging for help a few moments longer, and then her eyes slid away from me and fell shut. All the tension went out of her body, and the rise and fall of her chest became steady once more. At that moment, something old and vital snapped in me, tore free and fell away into a ghastly murk out of which it could never be retrieved.
“Please!” I begged the Dreamfeeder. “Just let her go. She doesn’t deserve this. Hell if she does. Let her go. Please! Oh God. Why? Just stop doing this. Please.”
I suppose reasoning with the monster works just as well in horror movies as in real life. The ooze on her arm continued to move slowly and hungrily. Then the Dreamfeeder spoke again, a swirling cloud of information delivered in an instant, in brilliant thrall with my thoughts.
She does not feel this world, she dreams. She sees the truths, the veil. She does not feel pain, she feels only peace. Peaceful dreams. She chose to stay, to come and rest. Why, why won’t you do the same?
My mind switched into overdrive like a machine that had been running too long on the verge of collapse. The wild decision was made almost without the rational mind’s consent. Without even giving it the courtesy of a mental warning, I lunged into the room, leapt over the larger tendrils even as they reached for me, dashed to the Dreamfeeder, and plunged the knife into it, as deep as it would go. A thick white pungent fluid spurted out of the wound, splashed across my sweater, my face. The howling began, and it was so deafening that I couldn’t distinguish my own wailing from the ghastly inhuman sounds that echoed throughout the cellar. I felt something, probably one of the thicker tendrils, seize my leg, and another wrapped tightly around my waist before I could attempt to avoid it. Fighting it with all the strength left, struggling to stay upright, I yanked the knife out of the Dreamfeeder and thrust it in again. To remain erect I had to use my other hand to hold onto a root-like thing on the revoltingly wet wall. The red light blinded me almost completely, and this time it didn’t blink rhythmically, it stayed on like some hellish lamp. It seemed fully able to blot out reality as any human knew it, to take our light and smother it until only a tiny spark was left, and then keep it dimly burning until there was nothing left to burn. But I fought it, using every bit of my effort to stay awake.
There was suddenly a storm of terrifying mental images in my head along with the unspeakably angry words of the dying Dreamfeeder, which I tuned out to the best of my ability. Another place, maybe beyond that unknown veil, was shown to me, and reality was yet again torn away for a vision far more real than the one in the mall had been. The Dreamfeeder, how I still don’t completely understand, showed me some kind of landscape over which a moonless, starless, black sky loomed like a featureless face. It perhaps was not a sky at all, because the blackness was so perfect it brought to mind speculations of what the universe might have looked like before the Big Bang, before an explosion of light, energy and color formed worlds and made everything infinitely possible.
But nothing good seemed possible in this strange, dark place with nothing but dangerous things and a stark, lonely grayness in it, a place most people wouldn’t even have the capacity to have nightmares about because it was something beyond human experience, beyond what we were ever meant to see; a place where beasts roamed, beasts that were so strange and terrible they couldn’t be fully understood. Though I saw them, I still to this day could not describe their appearances, but one thing stood out in that brief, breathless flash of eternity; they were in league with the Dreamfeeder, just as hungry, and as though I had really passed through into another world, they saw and wanted me.
A churning foaming inky black sea licked a pale shore; immense, jagged gray mountains reached to the bleak void and sparkled with something glittery, the only beautiful thing about this place. The moment I saw it in all its darkness, in all its eldritch foreignness, I could feel myself slipping, about to plummet over the edge of something far worse than mere insanity.
You’ll come, you’ll come with me. You won’t dream, ever, you won’t dream, Molly Harland, you won’t have peace…you’ll be ours forever. Ours forever.