By Olivia Woods
“Why did you do that?” Memnos demanded, although his tone was one of shock more than anything else. She had done the unthinkable. She had swallowed a nightmare.
“Because you are more important to humanity than I am. Mortals need you to protect their dreams. Besides, I really wanted to kiss you, so I figured this was as good an excuse as any.”
Memnos laughed despite himself, but his humor felt hollow even to him. Then he let out a snarl, grabbing Stella by both shoulders. She blinked at him, surprised by his sudden severe grasp, but did not protest. “Mortals be damned. Why would I care about them? Blast it all, Stella. Why would you do this? You are important. You are important to me.”
“I know. You’re important to me, too. Which is why I had to do this.” She smiled, but it barely reached her eyes, nor did the dimples in her cheeks appear, which told Memnos she was putting on a brave face for his sake. She winced, and Memnos tensed as her eyes flashed from blue to black. A shudder rippled through her as she winced again, and his clung to her more tightly, his fingers pressing into her shoulders until her skin turned white.
“Ouch, that hurt more than eating sriracha. I hope you know how important that is, coming from me. I hate spicy food.”
“I shall keep that in mind,” Memnos said quietly, panic beginning to course through his veins like poison. “Stella – I… you did not…”
“Mem, it’ll be all right. Scout’s honor,” Stella smiled at him again, placing one of her own hands over his.
But the moment refused to last. As the Nightmare took over, Stella began to dissolve, fading away like light from a dying star.
“Maybe I’ll see you in your dreams,” she said finally, and with one final small grin, she was gone.
Memnos gaped as her form sifted through his fingers like sand. He stared openmouthed at the spot where she had been, unable to believe the nightmare had taken her, unable to comprehend that she had sacrificed herself for him.
How long he sat there, knee-deep in dirt and despair, he did not know. He only knew that this was not how the dream would end. He stood slowly, deliberately, clenching his fists at his side. But before he could move, before he could even begin to formulate a plan, the world tilted under his feet. And then, for the first time in longer than he could remember, darkness covered his eyes.
Memnos blinked, taking in his surroundings. The Dreamscape had gone silent, the Imaginarium peaceful, as if it too were asleep. Memnos looked down and noticed with surprise that he was lying on a plane of sparkling silver sand, shining like starlight despite the darkness surrounding him. He eased himself into a sitting position and scooped a handful of sand into his palm, letting it slip between his fingers. It was cold and slid to the ground like millions of microscopic diamonds. It all felt familiar, somehow, although he could not piece together why.
Diamonds, or stars?
The memories pierced his mind like the blinding light of a supernova. The Imaginarium, the broken dreams, the nightmares, and Stella.
“Stella!” Memnos shot to his feet, panic lacing his veins like kinetic acid, painful and alive, fully wiring him. He threw himself into a spiral of motion, frenzied, straining to see her, to catch a glimpse of her. Her eyes, her hair, her smile, anything. The memories of the last few minutes flashed through his mind like hurried, blurry snapshots taken out of focus, the pain of being bitten, the nightmares, Stella’s kiss.
“Stella?” Memnos called, his voice pitched an octave higher as he spun around in circles, fruitlessly kicking up silver sand as his mind spluttered and stalled in panic.
“Stella!” he moaned again, and it was only when he felt a sharp pain in his throat that he noticed he was sobbing, arms slack by his sides, spluttering huge tears and gurgling with wet, ugly gasps like a toddler throwing a tantrum. He threw his hands up to cover his face, but he need not have bothered. No one was present to witness his cries shudder through him. He sank to the ground, his knees pressing into the soft sand, the weight of fathomless despair crushing him from within. He felt he could sink to the bottom of this world, or any world, and still not know so much pain as he did now.
“What’s with all the shouting? Do you want the Nightmares to find you?”
Memnos’s head snapped up, and before him, as if conjured from his shouts, was Stella. She rolled her eyes and offered him a hand to lift him to his feet. Instead, he sprang up and threw his arms around her, clutching her to him in a bone-shattering embrace.
“Mem, I can’t breath,” Stella gasped, and he loosened his hold but refused to release her. She was alive. She was back.
“I thought… I-I thought…” Memnos shuddered, taking in rasping breaths.
“You thought wrong,” Stella said with a half smile. “You’re an awfully ugly crier, Mem.”
Memnos chuckled, wiping his face with the back of his sleeve. His face was still wet. “I am just thankful you are unharmed.” He held her out in front of him at arm’s length, assessing for damage. “You are unharmed, yes? How do you feel?”
“Like a nightmare,” she said immediately, eyes widening as she groaned at her own joke.
“Must you employ wordplay even during such a serious moment?”
Stella glared at him. “It’s almost as if you don’t know me at all. Honestly. I’m fine. Your concern is touching though. Really, I –…” Stella suddenly faltered, eyes swiveling in their sockets as if she were suddenly engrossed in a tennis match only she could see.
“You what? Stella? St-Stella?”
Memnos watched with growing alarm as her eyes turned glassy, then rolled back up into her head. She pitched forward, folding into Memnos as she crumpled toward the ground. Memnos landed hard on his knees with Stella in his arms as he sank to hold her weight.
“Stella? No, no, no, please, no. Stella? St-…”
It was too late. Memnos felt the pit of horror and helplessness open up in his stomach as Stella’s face paled, her hair lost its sheen, and her face became wan and waxy. In an instant, her skin began to flake away like autumn leaves swirling free form their branches in a harsh wind, and within seconds, Memnos was alone, sitting with a polished human skull in his lap, gleaming like a tiny moon in the darkness.
Staring at the skull, he let out a piercing, terrified scream that only comes from those who have truly tasted absolute fear, and know it.
It was ultimately his scream, shattering the silence, that jolted Memnos into a sitting position. As he squinted around he noticed that the horizon was pale lavender, tinted with soft rose as if a sunrise were just blossoming there. With a lurch he looked around. He was sitting in a bed of golden grass. There was no sand, and blessedly, no skull.
“It was nothing more than a dream,” he sighed to himself, exhaling slowly to uncoil the tension in his shoulders, the pit of despair still weighty and hard in his stomach. “Although that was more of a nightmare than anything I have ever witnessed.”
His throat felt raw and sore when he inhaled, as if he were dragging each breath across a cheese grater, and touching a hand to his face, he noted that tear tracks now traced their paths down his cheeks.
So, he had dreamed. The god of sleep himself had succumbed to his own elixir of illusion. As he had told Stella previously, deities were supposed to reside above and beyond the Imaginarium’s reach, and when they had tottered on the edge of the Stream of Consciousness, Stella’s sacrifice should have been powerful enough to disable the Nightmares, taking her along with them. So why had a dream pierced his mind? And how?
Memnos shuddered at the memory of it. It was no wonder humans loathed nightmares. To have your worst fears played out in front of you, ensuring your participation while still leaving you powerless to intervene, nothing could be more torturous. With a sigh, he rose slowly to his feet. At least the nightmare had led him to the realization that he knew where Stella was, or rather, where she would be by now. With a sneer, Memnos reached into his trouser pocket for a coin he knew would be there, a coin he hand not used in generations.
He took it out and cradled it in his palm, examining its every curve, edge, and indentation,
before balancing it on his thumb and flicking it into the hair. It spun, end over end, rabbit, serpent, rabbit, serpent, before landing back in his palm. He closed his fingers over it without examining the winning side, and sneered at the horizon.
“Ready to play a game, sister?”
“Where is she?” Memnos growled, clenching and unclenching his fists as his gaze ricocheted around the room with the speed of a pinball in a particularly fevered game.
Irkala perched regally atop a burnished silver throne while sipping something – presumably coffee, possibly blood – out of a bronze goblet. She had taken to drinking ram’s blood when the Greeks thought the dead needed it to sustain their shadowy souls. They did not, since shades were lost to the world of humanity and could neither eat nor drink. Not one to let an offering go to waste, Irkala chose to drink the blood herself. Ever since she had scoffed at legends of Dracula, the blood drinking scourge of the late 1700s, as nothing more than a lackluster imposter.
“Where is whom, Brother?” She asked, eyebrows shooting skyward in mock-surprise at his unplanned intrusion. “This is the most you have visited me in our entire lives. You are beginning to spoil me with company that actually replies to me.”
“You know about whom I speak,” Memnos spat, stomping right up the steps to her pedestal. He towered over her, glaring hard. “Stop this charade of mock surprise. Where is Stella?”
“Desist with that coy confusion of yours. I know she is here, and I am here to play the game.” Memnos pulled out the coin from his pocket and held it right under his sister’s nose in pinched fingers. Its bronze rim glinted in the faint light.
Irkala almost allowed herself to smile over the rim of her goblet. Not blinking as she stared at her brother, she placed the goblet down on the tripod aside her throne and rose to match his gaze head-on.
“Oh, Brother. Have you not learned by now? There is no game. Only life, and the absence of it.” Irkala inclined her head over her shoulder, and Memnos whipped around on the spot. Before him stood Stella, but not the Stella from his dream or the Stella from the last time he had seen her. Her form quavered as if she were made of thick fog, and her hair billowed around her as if caught up in a light breeze. Her eyes were closed, and her head drooped down onto her chest. She could have been sleeping, and Memnos tried to convince himself that she was. But she was not breathing.
The coin dropped out of Memnos’s hand and clattered to the floor, serpent side up.
“No,” Memnos breathed, eyes widening to the size of platters. He rushed toward her, stopping short when he came up to her and saw that her skin was as pale as chalk. “No, it is not – you tell me it is not true!” He craned his neck back toward his sister. He felt himself choking, and each breath that he dragged into his lungs was painful, like inhaling broken glass.
Irkala met his gaze unflinchingly, the gaze of a lioness staring down a quavering antelope. Her eyes were full of fathomless knowledge, and if she pitied him, she dared not show it. Sometimes Memnos forgot they were twins and believed Irkala to be his elder. She had always possessed ageless wisdom. Then her eyes shone onyx and the flicker of admiration he had felt for her was snuffed out like a candle’s flame in a gust of wind. She also possessed endless cunning and guile.
“She died in her sleep,” Irkala said, the touch of a gentle smile on her lips. “The irony is fitting, do you not agree?”
“No,” Memnos spat, teeth clenched. He breathed in sharply through his nose, bringing with it a fresh stab of pain. The pit in his stomach had begun gnawing at him anew, the edges of despair threatening to widen into a chasm and swallow him whole. “I refuse to believe it. There must be another way.”
“There is no other way, Brother. There is no way to skirt death. Not for anyone.”
“The gods do,” Memnos muttered, bitterness and sorrow giving his voice a biting edge.
“Yes.” Irkala laughed without mirth before her voice turned harsh and brittle. “And we suffer for it.”
“There must be another – Wait!” Memnos reached down and scooped the coin back into his hand, weighing it. The cold bronze yielded no support. “If she…” He sighed. “I-if… If she truly did… die… while asleep, then by right of the old laws she belongs to the realm of the Eternal Dreamers, not the dead.”
Irkala raised a wary brow. “You wish to make this gamble, knowing the cost?”
Memnos swallowed, but his gaze did not waver. “Yes.”
“My, my. How very brave. Or how very foolish. You know what happens should you fail. She will –”
“I know the risks, Irkala. You have no need to remind me.”
“This mortal must mean a great deal to you, for you to take this risk. What has changed?”
Memnos answered with a glower, clenching the coin in his fist. The hard edge bit into his hand, a small victorious pain he barely registered.
“I know your thoughts, and your plans. You cannot keep her, and you know that. No more than I could keep Euphone. You are no more than a dream to her, Brother. You are the only ghost here.”
“That is irrelevant. I –”
“Death, on the other hand, is eternal. You know that as well as I.” Irkala moved past Memnos to Stella, sweeping by and brushing her hair back from her face. Stella did not stir or even seem to register that she was the subject of debate. “Even so, it is an eternity you and I can never reach. You know what it means that you wish to gamble your own eternity for her brief life.”
“That is not it at all,” Memnos snapped. “I am fulfilling my responsibility. I promised that I would ensure her safe return to the world, and I failed her.”
“So noble, and so full of deceit. Do you desire her?”
Memnos faltered, taking an involuntary step back. “I…”
“Come now, Brother. You came all this way to save her. At least admit your emotions to yourself, if not to me.”
“Do not confuse duty with desire, Sister. Be reasonable. I am simply trying to give Stella another chance at the life she forfeited for my sake. She did not deserve this. She – she needs to return home.”
Methinks the sleep god dost protest too much.
“I protest nothing,” Memnos glowered. He was now standing with his shoulders hunched and fists clenched, entire body concave as if to shy away from his sister’s questions through sheer dexterity. The coin was at his feet again, the rabbit rearing its head this time. Then he stiffened, snapping to a heighted perceptive awareness and scanning their surroundings with his silvery gaze. “Did you hear something?” he asked.
“Only the sound of your denial.”
“There is no such thing,” Memnos argued, “Although Stella would quibble about the famed Egyptian River, no doubt.”
Irkala quirked a brow at him.
Memnos sighed as he examined his sister’s expression, uncoiling slowly like a cat unfurling from its spot in the sun. His sister’s gaze was sympathetic now, her eyes as dark and fathomless as the bottom of a well. Yet there was also an anticipation in them, and he knew in an instant what she wanted. She wished him to admit that they were identical inside and out, that he would go to the same lengths for a mortal that she would. He felt the gnawing in the pit of his stomach, took another breath that stung like a wound. Perhaps he would, but she need not know that.
“Desires,” Memnos scoffed, glaring at Irkala. Something snapped in him as he bit through the word. “We have caused so much harm in the name of desire, as if that excuses what we have done. Corruption, kidnapping, damnation. You made a woman step on an adder on her wedding day because you desired her. I confined a man to a prison of eternal slumber, and to what purpose? So I could gaze upon his sleeping form, so he would be mine. But was he mine? No. And he never would be. Coveting mortals is a treacherous game, one I swore I would never play again. They are too fragile. And we are too old, too full of sorrow. Our hearts were not made for the pain of love.
“To love is pain,” Irkala said gently, her eyes suddenly full of the long-endured sorrow and wisdom that revealed her immortality. “We are bound to desire the things time can touch, but time cannot touch us. Such is the curse of eternal life.”
“Desire, love, pain. It all amounts to the same thing,” Memnos said bitterly, his gaze falling on Stella once more. He had not dared to look at her, barely dared to think her name. It felt like a knife twisting in his abdomen to see her like this. She was so pale, too pale, too inhumanely pale. Her skin was waxen and thin as paper. He could practically see the veins webbing through her, and his eyes jumped to the place where her pulse should have throbbed in her neck. It was still. Without thinking, he reached for her in that instant, forgetting that she was no longer tangible to him. His hand passed right through her.
“I failed,” he whispered, as his knees buckled under him. He barely registered his hard landing on the stone floor as he dropped his head into his hands. This was even worse than his dream.
“Brother?” Irkala asked.
“I failed. I failed her. I failed myself. I broke the one promise I made to myself after Endymion. I swore I would step away from all this. But…” Lifting his head, he looked at Stella again even despite himself. He could almost hear her now, her quips. If she knew what he had said, knew what he was trying to do for her, she would be berating him quite ferociously. He did not have to hide his heart from her, even though he had tried. She would not ask him to sacrifice himself for her, even though she had already paid the ultimate price for him.
“No, this is not desire. This is nothing remotely close to desire. To say I desire Stella would be a cruelty to us both. I love her. She is my Euphone.”
After a moment, Irkala smiled. “Finally,” she said, her word carried on the breath of a relieved sigh. Memnos’s head jerked up at that, his eyebrows breaching his hairline.
“Finally?” he asked, suddenly self-conscious and indignant.
“I did not think you had it in you, not anymore. I feared you were lost to all emotion for good. But when I saw you two together, I knew she had pried you out of your shell.”
“Believe me, it was not intentional,” Memnos replied ruefully.
“Welcome back to the darkness and pain of love. It is worth it, in the long run.”
“Was it? Even your sacrifice?”
Irkala shrugged gracefully, her shoulders rising and falling like a wave. “In my mind, nothing has been more worth it. Exile is the least they could do to me. Preventing my desire of eternal happiness, now that I find unforgivable.”
“The laws did not allow it then. Nor do they allow it now.”
“I would have given all of my eternity to her.” Irkala said fiercely, eyes suddenly ablaze. “Every last stolen moment of it. It was not my intention to keep it for myself, and I would cast if off even now, after so long, to have even another moment with her. Cherish her,” she added, casting her fathomless eyes on Stella. “Cherish her as I could not cherish Euphone. She certainly loves you.”
“It is a love I do not deserve,” Memnos murmured.
“None of us do. But then again, we know not how to give love. Humans give it freely. And any pain they feel as a result is easily worn away with time, like most everything they experience. We must live with the pain of remembering. It makes us timid.”
“Stella has faced more pain than she ever would if I had not dragged her into this.” Memnos put his head in his hands again, fighting tears. He had already cried through the nightmare of losing Stella once. Now his nightmare had come true.
Suddenly, Memnos felt a hand on his shoulder. Irkala stood over him now, her expression gentle. This was the first time they had shared anything, interacted in kindness, since they were young, much, much too long ago. Since before Euphone, before Irkala’s exile to her stony realm of the dead.
“I am sorry,” she said quietly. “I know the pain you feel.”
Memnos exhaled slowly, but reached up to place his hand over his sister’s, a silent thanks for her moment of kindness.
“You still have the option of the wager, if you wish it.”
“I do,” Memnos nodded, setting back his shoulders and lifting his head. “It is the very least I could do for her.”
“Half your life is not the worst thing to lose, really,” Irkala said gently.
“It is more than I should have. I have lived far, far too long.”
“Yes, well, we all have, to be sure.” Irkala stepped away, her skirts whispering around her. “Shall I be the serpent, or the hare?”
“The serpent is your specialty.”
“It always was. Do you remember the battle of Troy?”
Memnos rose slowly to his feet. “If this is your attempt at sibling banter, could you perhaps not choose a memory of death and destruction to distract me?”
“They are my favorite,” Irkala said with a smug smirk, and despite himself, Memnos’s lips twitched. Perhaps he should visit his sister more often, with whatever of his long life he would have left when this wager was over.
“Very well, I will not visit you. No need to be so insistent.”
“What?” Irkala raised an arched brow.
Memnos’s brow furrowed in turn. “Did you not just say… never mind.” Memnos pressed the fingertips of his index and middle fingers to his left temple. “I must be disoriented.”
Irkala nodded warily, and Memnos passed the coin to her with slightly shaking fingers.
“What?” Irkala replied, her gaze turning skeptical. “Why are you saying ‘what’?”
“I… are you not saying my name?”
Memnos looked at his feet, puzzled.
“Are you quite all right? Do you need to lie down? Would you like some sheep blood?”
“Spare me, please.”
“Very well. It would release some of that tension you carry in your neck, however.”
“Your chiropractic remedies shall wait until this is over.”
“Very well.” Irkala raised the coin to eye level in one hand, and the other hand she placed in front of Stella, merely inches away from the young woman’s forehead. The goddess closed her eyes, and her skin pulsed with a faint violet light. Like most gods, her aura usually only shone when she was engaging in a practice involving her duties. In this other affectation, she and her brother differed. Irkala’s aura was purple, while Memnos’s was silver.
“I…” Irkala faltered, and her eyes fluttered open in an expression of slight perplexity, which, for Irkala, meant that she was very alarmed indeed. “I cannot sense her soul.”
“What?” Memons’s voice jumped an octave. “Tell me you jest.”
“I do not jest. I do not sense it.”
“Well then, where is it?”
“I am attempting to decipher that now, if you would kindly refrain from shouting.”
“I have said nothing. Do not crowd her, Brother. Brother. Me-Memnos!”
Memnos had crowded closer to Stella, nearly upsetting Irkala’s stance of concentration to stare at the young mortal woman. He watched her intently, his eyes burning.
“Are you able to sense it now?”
“Of course not. You are occupying my space.”
“I believe that is what I was doing a moment ago, before you interrupted me.”
“Well try with more success. And do stop calling me that! It is distasteful.”
“Calling you what? I have not spoken!”
Memnos froze. Irkala was right. She had not called him. His sister never called him by anything other than Brother, and in a pinch, Memnos. He knew of only one mortal who had ever used a moniker for him.
“St-…” Memnos’s voice cracked as it dove into a conspiratorial whisper. “Did you hear that?”
“Hear what?” Irkala asked, her aura pulsing faintly as she glared at her brother. “If your intention was to make me lose my concentration, well then bravo, you have succeeded.”
Memnos, however, was not listening to what he did or did not make Irkala do. He knelt again, directly in front of Stella, silver eyes honed on her like tracking beams. “Stella?” he asked tentatively. He felt a small spark of hope warm his chest, flickering to life to compete with the pit of despair. His eyes scanned Stella’s face. Her eyes were closed, but as he drew closer to her, he noticed something he had not seen before. Her eyes were moving beneath her closed lids.
For the first time in centuries Memnos let out an undignified whoop of pure joy. “She is not dead yet!”
“Pardon?” Irkala gaped, staring wide-eyed at her brother. This time, the coin dropped out of her hand, clattering to the floor with the din of a tiny brass bell. The rabbit bounded into view.
“She must have hidden away in the recesses of her mind when the Nightmares consumed her. Oh, you clever, devious… Stella, can you hear me? Stella, oh, please, please hear me. Please respond. Stella!”
Stella, for her part, was beginning to detest dancing. Honestly, how many other mortals like herself could dream of living it up in bars and clubs? Didn’t they have anything better to do? Or better to dream about? The last she remembered, she had been sitting near the Stream of Consciousness with Memnos, and now she was here, in this gods-awful club, overcrowded with pulsing, swaying bodies slobbering all over themselves and spilling drinks on each other, the pounding of the music clashing with the blinding strobe of multicolored lights. To top it off, the whole room smelled like stale popcorn, smoke, and feet.
Where was Memnos?
“Mem?” she called, weaving with difficulty through the crowd. No gleam of silver hair anywhere in sight. It did not seem fair that he would leave her alone in this place. Not after what happened last time.
“Mem, I swear. You better not be hiding in the bathroom, or found an exit without me,” she muttered to herself as she neatly dogged an enthusiastic elbow but simultaneously tripped over someone else’s untied shoelace. Righting herself was easier, however she realized belatedly she had used the posterior of a particularly… “bootylicious” woman to do so. Murmuring an apology, Stella continued her push toward the bar, but for all the good it did her she might just as easily have been cutting down vines in a tropical jungle. “And if I find the door without you, so help me gods I will go through it alone!” She snorted indignantly, rolling her eyes at her own failed joke. Of course she would not find the exit alone, let alone first. They worked better as team, that much was clear. She was going to have to find a corner to lie low in until she either spotted the door, or Memnos came back.
Even if this were only a dream, her sense of claustrophobia still reared around so many dancing forms. She was practically adrift in a sea of limbs.
She had almost made it to a vacant barstool when she heard distinct non-dancer rustling behind her. Then a low rumble of a voice with a lilting British accent said, “Nobody puts Stella in a corner.”
“Was that a reference?” she aside automatically, whirling around. There before her was Memnos, clad in a silver shirt and black trousers. He was smirking, a dangerous sign for any wary dreamer, and stepping towards her deliberately. It could have been a trick of the multicolored light, but something was different about him. Perhaps the music had finally warped his sensibilities and he had lost his marbles completely.
“Mem! Oh thank stars. I was looking for you; where have you been? We need to get out of here. I’m going to start hyperventilating into my shirt if we don’t. It’s so crowded. Let’s just find the owner of the dream and get out, all right?”
Memnos chuckled, extending his hand toward Stella’s. Before she could register that she had even moved from the bar, Memnos had pulled her toward him. “Why Stella. Don’t you want to stay? Surely a little dancing might be fun.”
“Don’t call me Shirley,” Stella quipped, but she was only partially paying attention, while the rest of her watched absently as Memnos led her onto the dance floor. The people around them seemed to part from their path like opening curtains, and Stella wondered where he’d been a moment ago, when she’d needed him. The rest of her, however, was more occupied by Memnos’s proximity. The sleep god had looped an arm around her waist and pulled her into the start of a waltz.
“I know you want to show off your dancing skills that you learned from whichever queen it was, but we have more important things to do. Besides, I thought you said you hated to dance.”
“I said nothing of the sort. I simply implied that I detested modern dancing. The waltz, on the other hand, ah, she is a classic.”
“A classic, huh?” Stella asked, glancing around. “Tell that to everyone else in the room. They seem to have missed the memo.”
“I don’t care about anyone else in the room,” Memnos replied, his gaze level as he looked at Stella. “I just care about you.”
Stella’s breath hitched as Memnos spun her into a turn. Was it just her imagination, or was the room spinning? And how had Mem’s eyes become so… silver, all of a sudden? She wondered vaguely if he polished them, then giggled with the thought.
Memnos yanked her out of the spin and sunk her into a dip so low that her hair brushed the floor. She laughed harder, mind hazy with the heat and the disorientation of the club’s lights. The music had faded to a soft pulsing in time with the 1-2-3-4 beat of a waltz, as if the club were catering its whims to them. She wondered vaguely if she had accidently hijacked the dreamer’s dream again. Wouldn’t he or she be surprised when he or she started dreaming of waltzing.
“You’re quite smooth,” Stella said, her voice dripping out of her like honey from a pot.
“Am I? I hadn’t noticed.”
With another twirl and a dip, Stella’s hair swept the floor again, and she was whipped through the arc of the dip so quickly she heard the air whistle past her ears. Memnos leveled his eyes at her yet again as he held her on the brink of a 170% angle. She was almost entirely parallel with the floor, part of her thought. Gods, but his eyes were silver.
“Geez, Mem,” Stella breathed, her breath whistling in her throat. “Not so fast next time, okay?”
“Why not?” Memnos’s eyes glinted like coins in the light. He was close to her. Too close to her, just like he had been on the riverbank. He had been holding her then, clutching her to him urgently, his eyes searching her face. She had been in pain. So much pain. Now she felt so much better, light like a balloon full of helium, heady with the gently rhythm of the music, the slow blinking of the lights. Why not, indeed.
“Because… I… I don’t remember.”
“Well, that’s settled then,” he said softly, with something akin to a gentle smile. He blinked slowly, as if he could hold her there forever. He was, in fact, holding most of her weight with the arm looped around her. He was so close, bent over her like the curve of a semi-circle, and she was caged between him and the floor. She remembered how close it was behind her.
“It’s settled, right…” Stella repeated, and then blinked as if a light had been switched on in her brain. Her entire body went rigid, as if a bucket of ice had tipped over in her chest, scattering ice cubes throughout her body.
“Say can’t,” she challenged.
Memnos’s brow quirked in the way she had begun to find rather cute. “Speaking of non sequiturs. Why ever do you ask that?”
“Please. Just say ‘can’t’.”
Memnos rolled his eyes, but he kept one hand firmly looped around her, his other hand clasping hers. He sighed. “Can’t. There. Are you happy now?”
“No,” Stella spat, the tremor of panic that had clutched her moments before now coursing through her in the adrenaline of fight or flight mode. She squirmed, pushing against the form above her to free herself. But the grip on her hand and around her waist was immovable.
“You’re not Memnos,” she spat, glaring at the non-Memnos still above her. “Mem would have said, ‘are you satisfied,’ and he never speaks in contractions. And your eyes are too silver,” she added with triumph.
The Memnos who was not the real Memnos glared down at her. In an instant, his eyes shifted from silver to fiery gold like a precious metal undergoing an alchemical reaction. Stella gasped in pain as the non-Memnos squeezed her wrist, expression murderous. His face began to shift, becoming less substantial as his appearance dissolved like metal in acid, bubbling and frothy. It was, Stella imagined, what soda did to teeth. In an instant a Nightmare was looming over her, its long muzzle and pointed ears wrinkled, loose lips curled back in a feral snarl. It snapped at her and she scrabbled back, landing hard on her butt in the middle of the dance floor, the wind leaving her lungs in a lurching gasp of surprise. She momentarily hoped her clothes would not smell like popcorn and feet.
The Nightmare loomed closer, but Stella scrabbled to her feet, and produced, from midair, a whip. It had become her weapon of choice in these certain situations, and never did she feel more like an archeologist/professor/treasure hunter than when wielding it. She threw the coil forward experimentally, snapping at the air with a crackle of leather like a pop of electricity. The Nightmare paused in its tracks, eyed her warily, and then turned around, retreating through the throng of again dancing dream people like smoke.
“And the real Memnos would never drop me, either!” Stella shot after him, nodding in approval of her own bravery. The whip disappeared from her hand, back to the invisible ether of the dream world.
But that begged the question. Where was the real Memnos?
Stella spun into action with a jolt as if she had been electrocuted, and began scanning the crowd, panic rising like a tide of nausea in her.
“Mem! Mem!” Stella called, looking about frantically for a flash of silver hair.
“Stella?” came the return call, driving through the room like a light snow. Stella whipped around, scanning to the left and right, but Memnos wasn’t there.
“Mem?” She called again, shoving past even more dancers – seriously, where had they all come from? – as she made her way toward the stage, hoping for a better view from the elevated platform. When she reached it, the dim light in the building did not aid in her reconnaissance mission.
“Stella, can you hear me? Oh, please, please hear me. Please respond.”
“I can hear you, Mem!” Stella replied, directing her words to the rafters. His voice filtered through the room by way of the speakers set up around the stage, giving the impression that he was talking to her and almost standing right in front of her.
“Oh, Stella, please give me a sign that you can understand. Please, if you can hear me, open your eyes.”
“My eyes are open, you blighter!” Stella called savagely. “Where are you?”
“She cannot hear you,” murmured a female voice, just as rich and deep as a fathomless ocean or freshly-dug grave. Irkala.
“She can, I am certain of it. Stella, please. Wake up. Please wake up, Stella.”
“I am awake! I-… oh damn.” Stella groaned. Of course she was dreaming. That was what dreamscape selves did. Instead of looking for the dreamer, she had been the dreamer. Talk about irony. She had been looking for herself. But now that she knew that, she needed only a way to jolt herself out of the dream. She could create her own door. Well, if she knew anything about dreams, she knew that there were certain reactions the body possessed naturally that could lift a dreamer out of sleep. Bodily functions like relieving oneself were one, but since she was having a prolonged out-of-body experience, she didn’t see how the sound of running water was going to help. External stimulants were next, although if she were in the Underworld with Irkala and Mem, there would be little they could do for her there by the way of loud noises or bright lights. Third was physical sensory, the notion of falling off of something or getting injured. That was sure to always jolt someone awake, although admittedly not the kindest approach for one’s heart. Oh well.
Stella peered over the edge of the stage. It wasn’t too high, but it would have to do.
Without giving herself time to think about it, Stella took a running leap and pitched herself off the edge of the stage. She could feel the shimmer of the portal open up around her even with her eyes closed.
With a gasp, a blink, and a yelp, Stella’s eyes flashed open as she felt forward into Memnos’s open arms.
“Stella!” he exclaimed, shock and unbridled joy alight on his face like a lighthouse decorated for Christmas.
“I knew you would never drop me,” Stella said dizzily, leaning her head on Memnos’s shoulder.
“She was simple dreaming the entire time,” Irkala said with admiration. “How did she manage that? Further, how did she know she could? And to what end?”
“Because,” Stella said, pushing herself to her feet. She still felt woozy – even an imagine fall off a stage would still knock the wind out of you – especially since she had pitched herself from one sub-dimension of consciousness into another. “Mem told me that the Underworld is the only safe place for humans, live humans, that is, to dream in the entire Imaginarium because there is minimal interference. The dead don’t dream. I brought the Nightmare here knowing they’d have no more prey, and that would hopefully prevent them from getting out.”
“That was very wise indeed, and extraordinarily brave,” Memnos said, a slow smile matching the slow drawl of respect and awe in his voice.
“Thank you for noticing, although I should take issue with the fact that you seem surprised,” Stella grumbled. “Oh, and by the way, say ‘can’t’.”
Memnos ruffled. “I will not. You know I detest contractions. They are the epitome of lackadaisical language. The only reason I would utter that word would be to describe sanctimonious verbiage, and even that is a rare occurrence.”
“That’s my Mem,” Stella grinned, leaning back against Memnos’s shoulder.
* Olivia Woods is convinced that ink swirls in her veins. A lover of words and the written language by design, she graduated from Smith College in 2014 with an English major, ancient studies minor, and book studies concentration, and immediately launched herself into the publishing field. She’s a current graduate student in the Publishing, Literature, and Writing (WLP) master’s program at Emerson College, and she writes fantasy stories and adaptations of Greek mythology. She’s currently working on two novels in her limited free time, and she loves owls, funky socks, Shakespeare, and puns. You can reach her on Twitter, @WoodsWords27, or on Tumblr under the username scribblingwoman. *