“The Ether is a frightening place. But that really dumbs down the horror of it. In all reality, it is worse than frightening. It is unfathomable for most of us; a complete enigma. It is a chaotic, swirling mess of thoughts, feelings and confusion, dotted by tiny jewels in the distance. For most Lucid, traveling to those distant jewels, those far-flung realms of other Dreamers, is difficult at best. It is like swimming blindly through the ocean with the undercurrent pulling you down.”
Gabriel stood tall, his spear in hand and his helmet on the rampart beside him, as he spoke to his protege. Gabriel was an imposing figure in the Dreamlands. He had been here, cut off from the real world, for an unknowable number of decades. His body had died generations ago, and now all that was left of Gabriel was his impression of himself in his realm. Here he was a soldier, a paladin with a sacred duty. His realm was a wall that stretched seemingly infinitely, protecting the realms of Lucid who shared his beliefs.
Glover, the young woman to whom Gabriel was speaking, stood a full foot shorter than her mentor. She dreamed herself a suit of Roman-like armor that matched Gabriel, and she wore the basic implements of war donned by Roman legionnaires, the drusus and pugio, to compliment her spear. She looked on in awe as Gabriel continued.
“That is why I have built this realm.” Gabriel shifted his gaze from the horizon to Glover. “This place, in all of its expansiveness, is one of a handful of safe zones, on the border between the cluster of realms behind us and the vast unknown in front. We protect those behind us from what we cannot imagine on the other side of this wall.”
Gabriel leaned on his spear and adjusted his hauberk. He had been wearing it for so long that it was like his skin at this point. But every now and again he had to move it slightly, just to remember that he had flesh beneath. “There are, of course, other clusters of realms throughout the Dreamlands, dotting the empty Ether with hubs of activity. Each cluster is different, but most clusters are made up of realms that have certain similarities. It is almost as if our Dreamland cosmos organizes itself because of, or maybe in spite of, our best efforts to do it ourselves. We only have so much control as individuals.”
Glover chimed in, “What are we protecting them from?” She seemed embarrassed by her question. Her grey skin blushed slightly, showing a shred of the lifeblood that had once flowed through her veins. Glover had also given up her corporeal form, though far more recently. The event so haunted her that her reflection of herself was as a corpse; greying skin, pulled tight over her thin frame.
“We don’t know. That is the truth of it. Every now and again, one of the guardians will tell of a creature breaching their barriers, but the descriptions are never the same, and they are always confusing. Perhaps it is the Ether itself that fights us, trying to keep itself from being too structured by our dreams. Perhaps there are monsters that also dream. Or maybe they are simply monstrous Lucid, unleshing their nightmares upon the rest of us.” Gabriel was looking back at the Ether beyond his wall, where it created a false horizon at the edge of his realm.
Neither of the guardians was prepared for what happened next.
Simultaneously, they each shivered, struck by a chill that was not from the wind, but from an encroaching discomfort. Gabriel jumped to attention, focusing his gaze on the emptiness beyond his wall. He donned his helm, muttered a prayer to Mars, and assumed a defensive stance.
Upon finishing his prayer, Glover watched in awe as dozens, then hundreds of duplicates of Gabriel appeared on the wall, each also assuming a defensive position. Over the course of seconds, there were countless legionnaires ready to defend the cluster that was Gabriel’s charge.
Glover was astounded. But she regained her wits, and without thinking turned her attention toward the other side of the wall. It was an instinct, to look back at the realms she was duty-bound to nurture and protect. Donning her helm and readying her spear, she glanced at the opposite horizon, and the thousands of jewel-like realms within the Ether in that direction.
It was at that moment that she saw them. Dozens of Lucid flooding toward her, panicked and hurried. They were trailed by tendrils of Ether-stuff, flowing grey smoke flecked by points of glowing light. It was almost as if the fleeing Lucid were dragging the strange material into the wall-realm with them.
Glover watched as one, then two, then several of the Lucid were ensnared by the tendrils of smoky-grey Ether-stuff. “GABRIEL,” she screamed! She watched in horror as each of the Lucid was engulfed.
Gabriel whirled around, as did his doppelgangers. “By Saturn,” he whispered, “what in all the realms is that?” Gabriel’s more sophisticated understanding of the Dreamlands offered him a better view of what was happening. This was not the Ether attacking. This was something different. The Ether was infected, changed by something. It was less empty and more granular. The flecks of glowing light within the tendrils were not normal.
The Lucid were streaming in by the hundreds now, and most were swallowed by the engulfing haze before they could make it to the safety of the wall. Gabriel and Glover watched as the first few who were engulfed began to emerge.
The first Gabriel knew as Mortimer, a friend from a realm with which he was familiar. The smoky haze lifted from off of his body, revealing a changed man. He no longer appeared as the wizened, elderly Victorian gentleman. His face was the same, but his attire and demeanor were changed, and shifting. His garb shifted from Victorian, to modern, to feudal Japanese, to something that Gabriel had never seen before. Even as Mortimer fell to the ground, unmoving, his appearance was changing. Then, within seconds, he evaporated.
It was mere moment later that Gabriel saw Glover raise her spear and brace herself. She was struck immediately by the light-flecked haze. He watched her struggle to throw it off by force of will, and he watched her lose that struggle. She was quickly engulfed.
But he couldn’t turn away.
All he could do is mourn, briefly.
He never saw the haze as it hit him. He only felt a cold embrace, a flood of thoughts and emotions that he couldn’t comprehend, then an unwelcome release…