art by Shot Hot Design
How Amraphel, the Assistant to Dream, Became a Thief, Lost His Job, and Found His Way
by Scott Edelman
Scott Edelman has published more than 75 short stories in magazines such as Postscripts, The Twilight Zone, Absolute Magnitude, Science Fiction Review and Fantasy Book, and in anthologies such as The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction, Crossroads, MetaHorror, Once Upon a Galaxy, Moon Shots, Mars Probes, Forbidden Planets. What Will Come After, a collection of his zombie fiction, and What We Still Talk About, a collection of his science fiction stories, were both published this year. He has been a Stoker Award finalist five times, in the categories of both Short Story and Long Fiction. Additionally, Edelman currently works for the Syfy Channel as the Editor of Blastr. He was the founding editor of Science Fiction Age, which he edited during its entire eight-year run. He has been a four-time Hugo Award finalist for Best Editor.
Amraphel curled his already hunched body atop the chest of the first sleeper Dream had assigned him that night, her location plucked from the parchment he had been given long ago which remained blank until the dreamer was nearly ready. As the woman snored, her torso bucking irregularly, he rode spasmodically up and down in the darkness, cursing his luck.
He already resented the humans upon which he preyed, but he hated even more the members of that species who snored. They distracted him as he worked, and degraded what was meant to be a noble and uplifting process. Each unconscious snort, each jerk of the woman's head as she struggled to breathe, only served to deepen his pain, underlining the unfairness that humans, so roughly hewn, so clumsily conceived, could do what he could not, reminding him that while it was in their nature to easily tap into the divine, he could only--as a function of his centuries-long apprenticeship--borrow it, but never own it.
That which was sacred could only be owned by Dream.
As the woman gasped and twitched, Amraphel peered through her closed eyelids. He could see her gazing back up, but it was without focus, for she could not see him. It was as if he was a mist to her.
His insubstantiality in this situation stoked desires other than those he had for dream alone. He also hoped that a day would come when he could look into the open eyes of another and find that soul looking back, longed for a moment in which he would be seen.
Perhaps, he thought, his hope rising, it could be for even more than a mere moment. But he stifled that hope, not daring to dwell too much upon it. There was danger in wanting too much. If this was to be Amraphel's lot, so be it.
That was what he told himself, though whether the self he told was listening was another matter entirely.
The woman's eyes began to dance within her skull, their twitches signaling to Amraphel that harvest time was fast approaching. He inhaled the other signs, an altered aroma which included the scent of elephants, tempered by traces of cinnamon and stale tobacco, a mixture of smells which did more than warn him of the ripening of dream, but also advised him by its makeup that he was not the only lonely one here. She was not as lonely as one who had lived for centuries as a witness to life's greatest gift rather than as a participant, but she was lonely nonetheless. And the dream which was about to overtake her was her hidden longing's answer to itself.
Amraphel ducked his head closer to hers, this woman whose name he almost knew, and then moved his mouth even nearer, letting his breathing mirror hers. He pressed their lips together, sealing their souls, so that each exhalation of hers was an inhalation of his. Their lungs became a single organism, and as first their bodies and then their essences entwined, he found that he could taste her name.
Adrianna. She was called Adrianna.
Then the bedroom was gone, and they were together engulfed by her dream. Only she did not realize they were together, for instead of remaining borne upon her chest as in life and becoming visible to her as she attained her dream awareness, he sat silently upon her shoulders, and rode her weightlessly, simultaneously bound to her while far beyond her senses.
They were in an endless pasture. A horse approached from the distance. No, many horses. They were not yet visible, but Amraphel could hear the thunder of their hoofbeats. Then he could see them rise over the curve of the horizon, gathered in a vast herd. As they neared, the horses disappeared one by one, until the many had become a single creature. And then that final approaching horse was more than just a horse, had become transformed into a centaur. Amraphel had no sense of the moment when it stopped being one thing and became another. As it drew closer, it slowed its galloping momentarily so that its male half could reach down and pull Adrianna to its equine back. The two of them--no, the three of them--rode on that way through the rolling countryside for what seemed like days, the sun rising and setting, over and again, with a full moon between, Adrianna on the centaur's back, Amraphel on hers, accelerating faster and faster until the land before them was snapped flat like a sheet, and they all flew into the air, separating into three disparate beings once more, the sudden solitude heartbreaking, but whether to Adrianna only or himself as well, Amraphel could no longer tell--
--and Amraphel fell back across Adrianna's knees, choking, his mouth clogged with dream. The dreamer, now sleeper only once more, continued to doze. He coughed violently, and spat into his hands. The wet crystal he then rolled in his fingers was a common one, small and dull. Amraphel had harvested similar dreams countless times before, but even though there was nothing unique about this one, all dreams were miraculous, to be treasured.
He tucked his prize into a pouch at his waist, clambered down from the woman's legs, and scurried along as quickly as he could to complete his next assignment for the Lord of Dream.
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Astride a stool at his favorite tavern, Amraphel stared into his mug at the final few gulps that remained of his second wheat beer. He was alone with his thoughts, which, in fact, was what was chief among those thoughts, for on this day the solitude to which he had grown accustomed nagged at him. His aloneness felt like loneliness.
He was always a bit somber after a dream, something which he'd come to expect, and a given dream's specific content had little to do with his resulting mood. Whether depressing or exhilarating, surreal or mundane, the dreams he was able to taste but momentarily always left him feeling despondent in exactly the same way.
For as long as each dream lasted, he was not alone, he was in touch with something greater, and then, after, once the effervescent moments were made concrete and in his hands, he was only Amraphel again, only the Dream Thief's assistant. He often blamed the intensity of his centuries-long work for the fact that he was left with no time to find a mate, or even to locate a less consuming occupation which would free him up to search for same. But once enough wheat beer resided inside his gut, he was able to admit that it was much more than that.
This solitary life was his destiny. And he knew better than to struggle against fate. He had seen what happened to those who did. Lately, however, the existential restraint he needed to exercise could only be called upon with ever increasing effort.
Perhaps another drink would deliver the numbness he needed to forget about both his need and the reasons for it. He raised a finger toward the barkeep, even though his purse was nearly empty. The Dream Thief had paid him well that evening, yes, but only a little of the remuneration had been in coin. He had, as usual, earned his fee mostly before his delivery had even occurred, for the fleeting taste of the dreams themselves made up the greater part of his salary. That arrangement was well worth it, though, for without his vicarious travel through dreams, how else would his loneliness ever be lifted?
Amraphel could hear laughter rising from the alleyway which faced the tavern's front doors. He knew it to presage the entrance of his friends, which caused him to smirk and admit that, no, he was not totally alone in this world. But that sort of fellowship alleviated only a certain kind of itch, and his comrades could not take care of the one which tormented him most.
And then Bartholomew and Theophilus swept into the room, exploding with the suddenness of circus acrobats, sweeping away Amraphel's troubled thoughts with them. They rushed up to him, one on either side; Bartholomew, the bonded assistant to Luck, punching a shoulder; Theophilus, the apprentice to Love, clapping him on the back.
"How went the night's work?" asked Bartholomew. "Was your harvest fruitful?"
"Why do you bother to keep asking him that?" added Theophilus. "One look at our friend's sorry face will provide your answer. When has it ever been different?"
"It is what it is," answered Amraphel, unable to prevent himself from smiling, for aside from in dream, it was only during these brief moments when their paths crossed, he resting after his nighttime labors as his friends prepared for theirs of the day, or at the finish of their duties before his work began, that he felt less alone. He blew foam from atop his freshened mug and drank. "And, oh, the things I have seen."
"Yes," said Theophilus. "Things. Tell us more of them."
"We never tire of your tales," said Bartholomew. "The only dreams we'll ever know are the ones that fall from your lips. We must have more."
"I'm feeling melancholy tonight," said Amraphel. "I'm in no mood to share. Besides, it seems like I've been doing most of the talking lately. Why don't you two instead tell me what your days hold in store?"
"You both know that I have no idea what Luck would have me do until He whispers it in my ear Himself to start me on my way," said Bartholomew as he waved for his usual hot buttered rum. "And then once I'm set off in the desired direction, the day takes me where it wishes. So I yet know nothing of today. But yesterday, for example, I snatched good fortune from an athlete who'd never faltered in his games, and gave it to an actor who hadn't yet been allowed to tread the boards in a leading role. I gathered up bad fortune from a waiter who constantly dropped his plates, a widow who lost daily at the lottery, and a sorry fisherman whose family was starving, rolled those blessings together, and gave them to a general who had never lost a battle, and who seemed destined to become king."
"And what became of their dreams?" asked Amraphel.
"Speak to me not of Dream," said Bartholomew. "That is your territory, my friend. This is Luck of which I speak, pure Luck."
"I misspoke. Call it their futures, then."
"The paths they walked were as you might imagine, my friend," said Bartholomew. "But do you think any of them credited me? The athlete dropped a shotput on his foot, shattering three toes, the actor was given his greatest role, the waiter was left the biggest tip of his life, the widow purchased a winning ticket and saved her home, the fisherman's family gorged on what might as well have been a whale, and the general, well, the general died, and now dwells with Death... but none of them acknowledged me. Instead, they all took credit for my doings as if they were in total control of their lives."
"It is ever thus," said Theophilus. "We three are members of an army of the invisible."
"I would like someday to be visible," said Amraphel wistfully.
"If we were, if we truly ever were," said Bartholomew, "we would be unable to function. We would be nothing more than... human."
"Still--" began Amraphel.
"Push it from your mind, friend," said Theophilus, interrupting him. "Over the course of the past week, I made as one many hearts which without me would have remained asunder. I wove together an agoraphobe and a traveling salesman, made sure an undertaker crossed paths with a street mime, caused a blacksmith to fall for a poet. Now they all seem destined for eternal love. Do you think I could have accomplished any of this had I been visible? If they'd seen me, none of it would have come to pass. And I have more reason to complain than you, friend, for as I think on my work, I realize that I am even less than invisible, for each ascribed their encounters to Luck rather than Love. I wear a disguise more masking than either of yours. Maybe I should ask to take over your job, eh, Bartholomew, so that the lovers won't be liars? Perhaps I will speak to your Master."
"And perhaps you should stick to your own sugared way, and stop thinking of my more complex mission," said Bartholomew. "Keep your mind to pulling at heartstrings."
"Your arguments ring true," said Amraphel. "Still, I would like to be seen."
"Enough of this pining, Amraphel," said Theophilus. "We've recounted our doings. Now let us again know more of yours. Tell us of your dreams."
"I could," said Amraphel. "But what good would that do? For they are not my dreams. And hearing me speak of them will not make them yours. All you would have is words. For all the tales I've shared over the many years, you still have not experienced Dream. Nor, in truth, have I."
"What do you mean?" said Theophilus. "Do not belittle what you have told us. Your stories have always regaled."
"But don't you see? That's all they've been. Stories. Too many words spilled by a tongue loosened by too much beer. I could give you every word I own and still you would never know what dreams are really like. Nor can even I know the fullness of them, for I am just a witness and gatherer. And since I am being overly honest with you, I will tell you that I have tried. I have reached for dreams of my own, practiced the postures of humans, aped their stances, stretched myself out and closed my eyes as the humans do. But nothing has come of it."
Theophilus and Bartholomew looked at each other in shame, and then back to their friend.
"I have done the same," said Bartholomew.
"As have I," said Theophilus.
"And all I have ever seen is the darkness," said Bartholomew. "Which is why I value your stories so."
"I appreciate that," said Amraphel. "But what is the point? For we are all just fooling ourselves. For dreams can only really be known by two--the dreamer and the Dream Thief himself."
They fell to a sullen silence then, hunched over their mugs, not daring to look into each other's eyes out of fear of what might be seen. When Amraphel next spoke, it was halting and slow.
"Unless... " he began, and then fell back into silence again.
"Unless what, friend?" shouted Bartholomew, his voice magnified by drink and sudden hope.
"Unless?" added Theophilus, his voice also exceedingly loud. "Unless? Go on. Do not tease us."
"Hush," said Amraphel, dipping his head more closely to theirs. "This is not a thing which should be overheard."
Amraphel pulled his friends to a dark corner of the tavern, and cleared the adjacent tables with a scowl.
"So what have you dreamt up for us?" asked Bartholomew, once they were safely ensconced.
"Now that I have thought it, I fear to say it," said Amraphel.
"I do not think you need to speak," said Bartholomew. "I can tell by the look in your eyes what you are proposing. But perhaps this will loosen your tongue and spur you to action. If you can bring me a dream when next we meet, I will deliver to you a sliver of Luck."
"And I," said Theophilus, "I promise to bring you a serving of Love. Then Bartholomew and I will finally experience this thing called dreams. We will no longer need to depend on your words only. What do you say?"
Amraphel hesitated before answering, but only momentarily. The centuries had taken their toll on him, and it was the weight of them which caused him to speak as he never would have before.
"I say," said Amraphel, "that I could do with a taste of Love and Luck. When next we meet again, it will be in Dream!"
As Amraphel crept through the night toward the asylum, he found himself amazed by many things. He was amazed by his lightened mood, for none of his recent despair seemed to be present. He was amazed by his boldness, in speaking aloud to his friends what had for years been only thought. But most of all he was amazed that after centuries of working for the Dream Thief, during which time he'd never considered himself a thief, simply a facilitator, a necessary intermediary in an eternal transaction, he now found himself teetering on the verge of truly understanding what it meant to steal.
He paused before the barred windows which had popped into his mind when he decided to put himself on this path. He hesitated one last time, mulling over whether this irreversible step was one he really wanted to take. It was. He should have done this decades ago. He pressed forward and passed between the iron bars like mist. The madman inside did not notice his arrival. No one ever did.
Amraphel crawled along a moss-covered wall until he perched in an upper corner where walls met ceiling. He considered the man who paced below in a perfect figure eight through the darkness, once, then again, and yet again. The man would do this for hours, but the wait would be worth it. There would be no boring dream like those of the past few nights for Bartholomew and Theophilus. No, his friends deserved something special. They wanted a dream, and he intended to give them the dream of a lifetime.
The man's steps eventually slowed, and his perfect path grew ragged. He ignored his straw mat, instead dropping to the floor in the exact center of the room. He fell to his stomach, arms bent under his head, and was asleep instantly.
Amraphel dropped lightly down beside the man and positioned himself next to his head, pressing one ear to the stone floor. He watched for the fluttering of eyelids to begin, a dance wilder than he'd ever witnessed with another. He placed his thumbs over the quivering orbs, his palms wrapped around the man's head to cover his ears. Stretching out until their foreheads touched, he matched the rhythm of the man's breathing. What he was about to do filled Amraphel with a sense of giddy freedom, but once he pressed their lips together--
--Amraphel was falling through a void, deafened by alternating bouts of laughter and tears, and filled with nothing but madness.
Amraphel hid in the shadows down the alleyway from the tavern, and watched as his friends arrived. He could see as they paused momentarily in the doorway, their heads swiveling as they tried to pick him out of the crowd, and then failing, entered anyway. It was the first time since their fellowship began that Amraphel had broken their shift-change ritual.
He'd never lingered in the darkness like this before, but would rather be already inside, drinking, waiting. He normally enjoyed the illusion of conviviality, which would wash over him before his friends arrived, too much to stay away. But now he was hidden in a dark alcove, pinned there by the weight of what he had stuffed deep into the purse at his waist.
As he hesitated, fingering the crystal through the cloth, he knew that he was fooling himself, that he had no choice but to move forward. It was far too late for anything but what they had planned during their previous drunken meeting. What other choice did he have? He thought momentarily of returning to his Master with the stolen dream and prostrating himself, but he could not imagine himself saying, "Forgive my inexcusable error, Sir, but I forgot to turn this one over to you!" So he began to shudder, and that thought fled, for he knew that he would never be believed. There was nothing to do but swallow his fears and go through with it. Swallowing a mug or three of ale would help with that.
He rushed forward before he could come to his senses and pushed his way into the bar, exhaling the nighttime mist he'd brought with him, and inhaling smoke, sweat, and the smell of things he quickly pushed out of his mind.
He spotted his friends, who appeared nervous and jittery, acting in a way he'd never seen before. But as they spotted him, that faded. They leapt up, shouting his name. Amraphel raced over to quiet them both.
"Behave yourselves," he whispered, pushing them back onto their stools. "Do you want the world to know what we're doing? Do you realize what would happen if news of this transaction were to get back to our Lords?"
"You are right," said Theophilus, looking chastened. "What we are about to do we must make sure is done in secret."
"I'm sorry, friend," said Bartholomew, his cheeks flushed. "The excitement just got the best of me. You are a true friend to take this risk for us."
"A truer friend might be one who would not," said Amraphel. "But we are past debating that. Let's just get this done."
Amraphel slid into the most secluded of the corner booths and waited for his friends to follow.
"Here is Love," said Theophilus as soon as he was seated, reaching out with an object wrapped in red velvet. Amraphel swiftly pulled back his own hands as if burned.
"Not out in the open!" he spat through gritted teeth. "Hand it to me under the table!"
"Caution is a virtue, but you are far too cautious, friend," said Theophilus, even as he did what he was told. Amraphel could feel the weight of the item in his right hand as it was transferred, but though he rubbed his fingers against the cloth, he could not make out its form.
"And here is Luck," said Bartholomew, slipping a small, narrow vial no longer than the width of a palm into Amraphel's left hand. It felt warm to him, equaling the temperature of his own skin. "We have both done as we have promised. Now where is our dream?"
Amraphel removed the crystal from his pouch and presented it under the table only to have two sets of hands grab at him.
"There's only one dream here," said Bartholomew, as it flew from Amraphel's fingers and his two friends wrestled with it.
"What good is this to us?" said Theophilus.
"Don't worry, friends," said Amraphel. "That's more than enough dream to go around. You've yet to learn how powerful they really are."
"What are we to do with it?" asked Bartholomew.
Amraphel set his elbows on the table and leaned forward as close as he could.
"Each of you must place your palm against the other's with the dream firmly between, and the dream will take care of itself."
His friends looked at him dubiously, and before he could warn them that they needed to make sure that the dreamtime took place in a secure and unobserved location, lest they make a show of themselves, they followed his instructions. The crystal melted away, and within heartbeats, their eyes rolled back into their heads, after which their heads fell forward as if they had both suddenly dropped into a deep sleep. Or perhaps, considering their location, they might, with luck, appear as if they were nothing more than drunk.
Amraphel left them there, and went off to make a different sort of dream come true.
Outside the tavern, Amraphel crouched in the dark alcove where he had earlier waited, and gingerly laid both Luck and Love on the cobblestones.
He first unfolded the red velvet, revealing a fist-sized arrowhead formed of clear glass, heavier than it should be for what the object turned out to be. He lifted it to an eye and held it toward a distant streetlamp. The light seemed to bend, so that the lamp's flickering caught his eye only when held askew, rather than when held directly between the source and his eye.
So this was Love? There seemed to be nothing special about it.
Amraphel next picked up the vial, filled to the top with a blue liquid. He pulled free the stopper and sniffed at the contents. From the aroma, the vial might as well be empty. Luck held no scent.
His friends' gifts baffled him. What was he meant to do with them? He assumed that the liquid inside the tube should be drunk, but by whom? Amraphel only, or a candidate for the role of his beloved as well? Should it be taken in pure form, directly, or mixed with a more innocuous drink, or baked into a food? And as for the clear arrowhead, what of that? Was he meant to impale himself? Slice another? Spin it on the night of a full moon until it pointed toward his future partner?
Amraphel was lost. He cursed himself for failing to have made Bartholomew and Theophilus explain their tools before he'd allowed them to rush ahead to experience Dream, but it never occurred to him that their offerings would be so confusing.
He gathered his gifts and returned to the tavern to demand an explanation from his friends. They were still unconscious where he had left them, of course. It was only hope which had caused him to expect anything else. He considered trying to wake them, but that was a foolish idea. He knew that such a thing was impossible. Theophilus and Bartholomew would remain in that spot, in that condition, until the dream had run its course and set them free. A dream could not be rushed. Amraphel would have to wait for it to end in its own time before learning anything.
He'd forgotten how boring it was to merely watch someone dream, rather than to participate in it. It had been centuries since he'd been locked out and stuck on the other side. Additionally, he'd grown used to only seeing dreamers at harvest time, and this unusual tableaux caused an unwelcome itch.
Frustrated by his inability to use his tools, and tired of watching his friends, Amraphel decided that he would begin his work early, rather than relaxing as he normally would during his downtime. He left his friends behind, certain that all would be well with them. He had personally slept off many a drunk at the tavern, so what could go wrong?
Since it was morning, and the time for Amraphel to return to his harvest was still distant, he was without the first of his usual assignments from the Dream Thief. He consulted the parchment on which the names of his next appointed dreamers always appeared, but as of that moment, the sheet which he had been given so long ago was still blank. As he was on his own, he was driven not by duty, but by a sense of guilt. That emotion was unfamiliar to him, but he had welcomed it into his life when he had stolen one of his master's expected dreams. He decided that he would make up for that loss with many unanticipated ones. He felt a future punishment hanging over him, and hoped that perhaps this would in some way balance his debt.
That it was no longer night did not bother him, though he had not worked his way through the light since prior to the beginning of his job. There would be daydreamers everywhere, he knew that, though they were normally not his concern, belonging to the sphere of others in the Dream Thief's employ. Still, he was sure that if he entered enough bedrooms he would eventually find some night worker who slept during the day, or an exhausted mother who struggled with sleep while her children snatched momentary naps. He was preparing to begin that random search when he felt a tugging at his waist.
He gazed down to see the pouch in which he'd stored it hovering in the air, its neck still tied to his belt, while Love's token bobbed before him like a balloon, giving him a gentle yet insistent yank forward. He could have fought its prodding, because its tug was not strong, but what would be the point of that? He knew better than to reject what Love insisted, and so he let himself be led forward through the winding city streets.
With each house he neared, he wondered, will this be the one? Is this where my beloved resides? But then he would be directed further on, and disappointment would overwhelm hope.
He was eventually stopped at a gate which entered upon an overgrown garden. The arrowhead tugged him to the front door of a modest house, and Amraphel felt passing strange to find himself before that method of entry. He never began that way, always feeling that what he did should be done surreptitiously, whether he was invisible or not. So he usually climbed in a side window, or down a chimney, or through a coal chute. But then he let that preference pass. He flicked a wrist and the door before him opened.
He started to make his way to where he suspected he would find the bedroom, but the arrowhead disagreed. Its directions became more urgent, pulling him to a back parlor. There a woman sat, asleep in a comfy chair so large it dwarfed her, an open book overturned on one knee.
Amraphel approached slowly, without the usual boldness which accompanied the performance of his duties. He attempted to read the book's title from its spine, but the embossing was so faded as to be indecipherable. He climbed one arm of the chair, hunching so that his head was level with hers. He pressed his face close, and could see that her eyes were already flickering. There was no need to wait, as she was ripe for him, lost in Dream. And soon he would be, too.
He wondered what sort of dream it would be that they were destined to share. He pondered not just the dream of that instant, but the dreams of all the instants to come. For was that not what Love promised? Would they be taken out to the stars, to swim together among distant suns? Or deep beneath the oceans, to cavort with whales? Or would they find themselves made of snow, adrift in a frozen world?
He could wait no longer. He leaned forward to press his lips on hers, and then--
--and then, he was still there, right there, leaning into her, crouching on the arm of the comfy chair, lost in a dream, yes, that familiar feeling was still with him, and yet, he was baffled, more by this than by any insanity he had ever experienced. How could it be, how could her dream reveal only what was, and none of what could or should be? It was all exactly as it would have been had the woman been awake, except--
Her eyes were open.
And she was looking straight at him.
So startled was Amraphel that he remained motionless as she reached out, snaked the vial of Luck from his pouch, and drank its contents. He did nothing until she returned it to him, and even then, all he did was shout.
"My luck!" he cried.
"Luck is never a single person's alone," said the woman. "It belongs to no one."
"But how is it that you can see me?" he asked.
"A better question to ask," she said, "might be how it is that all the others you have visited cannot."
She favored him with a knowing smile, but before they could speak further, Amraphel felt cold fingers tighten on his arm. Immediately upon that sensation, he found himself flung from both the woman's lap and out of Dream. He had been hurled back into reality by what he knew could only be The Dream Thief.
"What have you done?" said his Master. The Dream Thief stood over him like an endless pillar of smoke, his presence seeming to extend far beyond the ceiling of the home.
"I'm sorry, Lord," said Amraphel. "I beg you, forgive me. I meant you no harm!"
Amraphel fumbled for both the arrowhead and the vial and held them forward with shaking hands. He was surprised to see that in waking life, the vial was still full, for had the woman not drunk its contents down? She had done it in Dream, yes, but it was a sort of dream he had never before experienced, and so he had expected... he was not sure what he expected. All he knew was that he had been seen. For at least those few moments, he had been visible.
At this realization, Amraphel turned to the woman, bemused to see her with eyes still closed, her spirit still embraced by sleep, and, he supposed, still in Dream. As he contemplated her and wondered if she was still dreaming of him, right then Amraphel felt The Dream Thief rip his friends' tokens from his hands. The Dream Thief, now condensed to a form which, though still towering over Amraphel, fit within the room, crushed them in his hands. All that fell from between his fingers was, rather than shards of glass or droplets of liquid, a white powder which gathered on the carpet like the mound at the bottom of an hourglass.
"Your friends have proven as foolish as you," he said. "None of you is to be trusted."
"I can fix what I did," said Amraphel, pressing his forehead to the floor.
"This is beyond fixing," said The Dream Thief. "It has become more than just a matter of what you did. It is what you allowed to be done."
Amraphel could feel The Dream Thief's hands about his head, and he trembled. He fell into a blackness in which there was no Dream Thief, and nearly no Amraphel, and when the world returned, they were no longer in the home to which Amraphel had been led by the arrowhead, but in The Dream Thief's lair. It was a nightmarish cavern lit by a million sputtering candles, its ceiling unseen through the smoke which gathered above. This was a place Amraphel had first seen on the night he was made into an apprentice, and no more than a handful of times since. As much as he and his friends lusted after Dream, he was glad of that, for he did not enjoy his visits there, as they held out no promise, only fear.
Suddenly, the friends of which he'd been thinking materialized before him, and Amraphel's heart raced, for they were not alone. Love appeared with Theophilus in his grasp, followed by Luck, holding Bartholomew. Amraphel's eyes hurt to perceive them both, Love so golden as to be blinding, and Luck a shimmer of sparks, so he focused on his friends. They still appeared woozy from Dream, but they had awakened enough for terror to fill their features.
"What did you do to bring us to this?" Amraphel asked hysterically.
"It's what these idiots didn't do," said Love, pushing Theophilus so that he tumbled back beside Amraphel.
"They sat dazed in that bar all day when they should have been working," said Luck, tossing Bartholomew over to join them. "Do you realize how many things went wrong which should have gone right? How many successes should have been transmuted into failures?"
"I meant none of this!" said Amraphel. Unable to stand the countenances of any of the Lords, he spoke his words to his friends.
"Do you think we care about your meaning?" said Love. "Intent matters not to us. Only what you've done. There is a blacksmith out there who will forever be alone because a passing maiden did not catch his eye at the proper moment. And an undertaker who will never have children to take over his business, because on a fine, bright morning, as he walked through a park in the rising sun on his way to his place of work, a baker's assistant delivering rolls did not pause to hand him one because she was moved by his sadness. So much loneliness have you sown."
"And discord, too," said Luck. "Nothing has gone truly as planned, due to your fool's interference. A nail that should have loosened remained fixed, a ladder which should have toppled remained upright, and a spirit which should have been uplifted by a chance encounter remained crestfallen. Lives have been altered, and not according to my plans."
"This all occurred at your assistant's instigation," said Love. "We demand that he be punished."
"This is a dream, master, is it not?" said Amraphel. Angering one Lord was frightening enough, but three? How was that even possible? "Please tell me that I am but in a dream, that I still may wake."
"This is no dream," said The Dream Thief. "If only it were. You have caused quite a dilemma, Amraphel. What am I to do with you?"
"Please forgive me, master," said The Dream Thief's assistant, who feared that he was about to no longer be so, and knew that to be the least of his many possible punishments. "It wasn't my fault totally, it wasn't. I had just become drunk on dream. The me you've known for so long would never do something like this. It will never happen again, you know that. Can't we continue on as we have for centuries?"
"I do not believe that, Amraphel. While this may not have been entirely your fault, I can tell that you have been touched, and no longer have it in you to behave on my behalf. If I were to let you return to your labors, this would be but the first of many mishaps you would cause."
"But, master, I beg of you--"
"Enough!" said The Dream Thief. A plume of smoke thrust out threateningly at Amraphel "I must confer with my fellow Lords to decide what is to be done with you. With all of you."
Theophilus and Bartholomew quailed at those final words, and crawled over to hug their friend in their misery. They shivered, huddling together in search of both warmth and hope as the Lords whispered among themselves.
"You've ruined me!" wailed Amraphel.
"This is about more than just you," said Theophilus. "You're not the only one facing punishment."
"I hope I'm not sent back to work for Failure," said Bartholomew. "That would be too depressing. I don't think that I could bear it."
"This is all your fault," said Theophilus. "You and your stupid dreams."
"How could you have suggested such a thing?" said Bartholomew. "You may have destroyed us all."
Amraphel was too dispirited to defend himself. He let their wrath wash over him, knowing that it was nothing compared to what was to come. Before the three friends could wallow in their misery any further, the Lords turned to them, their countenances unreadable.
"Theophilus," said the Lord of Love. "We have determined that this was not your fault, that you were led astray by another. You will be watched, but you will be forgiven."
"And Bartholomew," said the Lord of Luck, "You, too, were seduced by the unfamiliar force of dream long before you were made ready to receive it. You also may return to continue to work for me."
The two Lords nodded at their brother The Dream Thief, and then, with one last look over at Amraphel, they and their apprentices were gone. As his friends vanished, so did the last of Amraphel's hope. He feared that he would be forced to carry not only his own punishment, but theirs as well. In a moment, The Dream Thief began to speak, but to Amraphel, that space felt like an eternity.
"And as for you, Amraphel," said The Dream Thief. "We have decided that from this day forward, you are no longer to be my assistant."
"But master," said Amraphel, beginning to weep. "I have served you for centuries."
"Yes, you have," said the Lord. "But ultimately you failed me. You proved yourself to be untrustworthy. Your work is too precious to me to risk that you would fail again. For then it would be my fault, not yours."
"But I know no other life," said Amraphel. "I barely remember what I was before. What will become of me?"
The Dream Thief smiled.
Amraphel had never seen the Dream Thief smile before. He did not like it.
Amraphel's day had been a long one, but it had been fruitful as well, which more than made up for his weariness.
He had caused a strut which supported a podium to loosen so that a King in the midst of a seemingly endless speech tumbled to the ground to great laughter, after which he had been pelted with rotten cabbages and clumps of mud; made the wind rip a map from a fisherman's hands, and then blew that fisherman far out to sea until he drifted to a deserted island upon which he would develop a new method for raising tortoises for food, one which no one else would ever learn; sent a passenger pigeon bearing an important message astray so that a business proposition was never proffered, an insult was inflicted, a company failed, and its workers rioted; and created a curtain of sleet which dropped upon the crops, sending those who would have eaten it across the border into the next country. Those were but a few of the many other random acts of randomness he had inflicted upon the world that day.
He'd had to do it all himself, too, for he'd been allowed no helpers yet to aid him in his task, which meant he had to be everywhere. Along the way, he'd seen his old friends Bartholomew and Theophilus, and even caught a glimpse of his old master the Dream Thief as well. He ran into them nearly every day, but these encounters were not like old times, nor could they ever be again. He was no longer friend nor servant, and there were times he missed what he had lost, missed the boisterous tavern, and even, he was amazed to find, the smoking cavern, but for the most part, he felt blessed.
Actually, more than blessed.
Exhausted, Amraphel, now the newest Lord, the Lord of Chaos, fell into his bed, crawled beneath the covers, and began to dream--to dream!--as all Lords are privileged to do. Inhabiting a country where Luck and Love and Dream entwined, he dreamt of the woman who had once dreamt of him, and together they navigated an identical dreamworld, no longer separate, no longer invisible, no longer alone.
This story was first published on Friday, August 12th, 2011
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