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On to part 2, submitted for Children of the Night: The 2012 Halloween Horrorquest

A lot of things have changed in the last three years.

Toula Pappas died at the ripe old age of one hundred and one. She taught me everything she could before she passed on. I'm trying to write it all down, make a permanent record of the oral history of her family for which she was the final keeper. Her family was too caught up in modern life to bother with the stories and superstition that was her stock in trade. We're losing knowledge we once held onto with a desperate grasp, knowledge that was our only defense in ancient times, because we don't think we need it anymore. I think I've found a student to pass it on to.

Her grandson buried her in Greece. He didn't come back to the US.

I dated a few times, nothing that worked out. Sometimes I wonder if I'm looking for another Sarah and won't be happy until I've found one.

The moon is back. NASA's official explanation was that a dust cloud in near-Earth orbit obscured it until a passing asteroid dispersed it three years ago. I've told a handful of people the truth. I wonder if any of them remembered it when they woke up. That mine in Tanzania is both flooded and supposedly haunted now. I'm guessing there's a giant egg-shaped chunk of tanzanite at the bottom of it the world is never going to see, which is great, because we don't want to let the monster out of it again.

The ba spirits are back down to their normal, manageable levels.

I've got a new job, if you can believe it, as a software engineer. I do computer models for hydrogeology, environmental impact stuff for government regulatory compliance. It's about as exciting as it sounds.

Eight months ago, a twenty-five year old woman in a coma named Christine Taylor managed to spark enough brain function to start dreaming. I understand that's pretty rare. Her husband, Jack, happened to be a dreamwalker. I can't begin to tell you the astounding coincidence that is, because in the entire history of the human race, Toula Pappas was only aware of it happening twice before. Once in Roman times, and once in Old Testament times, nobody's exactly sure of the dates. It made something magical possible.

I brought them both to the Shared Dreaming, a place in the dreamworld that Toula showed me before she died. It's a location in the dreamworld with enough dreamwalkers in it all the time that it never fades away, there's always someone there to maintain it. Nobody's sure just how long it's been there, but no living person remembers its beginning. Now Christine is there all the time, a permanent anchor for the Shared Dreaming even if everyone else left.

Needless to say, Jack and Christine were overjoyed to be reunited, even if it was just in the dreaming. And now dream-Christine is pregnant with a child who will never have a physical body. If she stays in her coma for another month, the dream child will be born.

And it will change many things.

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I dream about coffee a lot. I think it's because one of the most important dreams I ever had had a lot of coffee in it. Or maybe it's because I drink too much coffee. Probably both.

In Indonesia, there's a cat-like animal called a civet that eats coffee berries. Coffee farmers collect the civet's excrement and make coffee from the beans. It's the most expensive coffee in the world. I think it tastes vile.

Tonight I'm practicing building things in my dreams. Tonight there's a herd (is that the right collective noun?) of civets bounding merrily through a field of coffee plants eating coffee berries. They are doing this because I made them and I want them to.

I am not going to make coffee from their excrement.

Tonight a tall black woman is walking through my coffee plantation. I did not create her. She's real, I immediately recognize her as a dreamwalker. I have seen her before, and she is not a nice person.

Suddenly I'm holding my San Angelo bar. I wasn't before. A San Angelo bar is a geology tool, a five-foot iron bar that weighs about 16 pounds and has a point on one end and a flat blade on the other. It's for breaking rocks and is far too heavy to be an effective weapon — in the real world.

She's holding a weighted net, like the ones used by the retiarius-style Roman gladiators, except no trident with it. In the dreamworld, weapons reflect the personality of the user, and regardless of shape, they're all equally dangerous — or rather equally safe, as the only thing they can do is wake you up.

"I'm getting better at finding you." She speaks English with a British received pronunciation accent, but even if she spoke her native African language I'd be able to understand her in the dreaming. "I'll haunt your dreams until you tell me how to find the Shared Dreaming. I'll make sure you never have a full night's sleep again. You know what that can do to a person."

"If you'd asked nicely in the first place, maybe I would have." I brace myself for her attack. She's better than me.

"Another sleepless night, then. I'll find you again, and again. You'll sleepwalk through your days, and soon you'll start to hallucinate. Maybe fall asleep at the wheel and crash your car. Maybe just go insane."

"Been there. I know my way back."

She takes a swing at me with her net, and I manage to deflect it with my bar. She shoulder-rams me instead and I fall back onto the ground. The civets scatter.

Before I get up, she opens her net and tosses it over me. I fumble with my bar, and it just goes through one of the holes in the net instead of catching it like I wanted it to. "You're sitting in quicksand," she tells me, and suddenly I am.

I panic, I'm sinking into the quicksand, and I'm fumbling with my San Angelo bar, but the net is caught on my foot and she's pulled it tight around my head. I can't get out because my arms and legs sink into the soft ground while the net floats on it and I have nothing to brace against and the sand is getting into my mouth and nose and I inhale a big, dusty, abrasive gulp of it.

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I went to work the next morning as normally as possible. One of these days I'm going to get acclimated to caffeine and it's going to stop working.

I drink too much coffee because it helps me get through a day after a nightmare. I never did figure out how to get through a day that is a nightmare.

I was putting together some computer models for an oil company, my biggest client, at the time, before they started a hydraulic fracturing project. That's big business these days, pumping fluids down into shale to crack it open and release the natural gas trapped inside. It's made huge reservoirs of gas accessible that was just too expensive to go after before, but there's a big kerfuffle over its impact on groundwater. That's where I come in, and that's where the walking nightmare came in.

I'd have turned and ran except that I'd seen it before. Twice before. A shambling parody of a human being, with facial features that didn't fit, a mouth that didn't work, hair like a fur hat — a monster spawned from the deepest pit of the uncanny valley. I've killed it, twice, and it was back again.

It was wearing a suit and chatting with its coworkers in the conference room I just walked into. They, of course, couldn't see that. They just saw a normal-looking man in a suit, but I have special eyes from a forty year old curse, and I could see the monster underneath the veneer painted over it.

I didn't run, but I did jerk up with a start, and almost dropped my laptop. The thing at the end of the table pretended it didn't recognize me.

I plugged my laptop into their projector and went through my presentation as well as I could. It wasn't a smooth as it could have been. As hard as I tried to ignore the creature, my gaze kept wandering over to it, and I'd lose my stride. By the end, they probably just figured I was another techie who wasn't good with public speaking.

I nailed the Q&A session, anyway. Not all of the news I gave them was good, but the risks were manageable. They invited me to dinner.

It was coming along.

The restaurant was nice, anyway. Dimly lit, live piano player, expensive American-style food. I wear a tanzanite ring on my right hand, it glows like a light to my altered vision, and I see anything in its glow like everyone else sees it, like a normal person. Tanzanite has some kind of connection to the entity that cursed me, it was trapped in tanzanite when I first found it back in 1970, and tanzanite seems to block its power. We were waiting for our table when I used the opportunity to put my hand, with the ring, on the Shambler's shoulder, and I saw its false face. It looked exactly like it did three years ago.

"By the way," I said, casually, to him, "I don't think I caught your name back at the office."

"John Smith," he grinned back at me, understanding exactly what I was doing. "My card." The front of his card was a normal business card for the oil company. Turns out he worked in human resources.

Of course he did.

On the reverse side of the card was a magic circle, and from the way it glowed I was likely the only one who would be able to see it. A check with my ring confirmed that, the back of the card was blank to normal vision. I made a mental note to copy the circle down later, so I could find out what it does.

I put his card in the deck with the other half-dozen I'd gotten that day. The rest of the meal was pleasant enough. When we left at the end of the evening, his coworkers wished me a good night. He had to wish me pleasant dreams.

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That night, I dream of Sarah. I've dreamed of her occasionally since she died three years ago fighting the Shambler with me, and they were never pleasant. It's not really her, of course, just my memories of her, dredged up again from a stressful day. Knowing that doesn't help.

I'm in our old apartment. There's a knock at the door. When I answer it, she's standing in the doorway with her head at an impossible, crooked angle, just like it was when the Shambler broke her neck in the parking garage.

"Why did you bring me with?" She asks me again. "Why did you ask me to come along? Don't you know I couldn't say no? How could I have said no to that?"

I embrace her. It doesn't help. I get no comfort from her touch, and she just keeps asking me those questions. "Why did you bring me along to die?"

And just like every night before, I have no answer for her.

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Despite that, it was a good night's sleep, which I needed after the nightmare the night before. If I'm going to continue sleeping well, I'd have to find a way to stop my tormentor. Maybe I'd need help.

I mentioned earlier that I thought I'd found a student to pass on my knowledge to. I had an appointment to meet him that day. I met Jack Taylor in the hospital, sitting next to Christine, medical instruments beeping away and monitoring her vital signs as she lost another day to her coma.

"I want her to wake up." He told me as soon as I walked in. "I'm just kind of torn about it, you know? If she wakes up now, she's with me again, but we'll lose our child in the Shared Dreaming. Every day she's in the coma is a diminishing possibility she'll ever wake up. I don't know what to wish for."

"It doesn't matter." I tell him. "Wishes don't make things happen, and this is out of your hands. Don't feel guilty for things you can't affect. It's not your responsibility and you'll drive yourself crazy if you let yourself think it is."

"I know that, rationally. Just not in here," he gestured to his heart. "I want to see her again."

"The Shared Dreaming is open to all dreamwalkers, she's still there. I brought this for you." I handed him a stack of papers I printed out from my home computer. "It's a rough draft of a book I'm writing on dreamwalking. You've got the talent, you just need to learn how to use it intentionally. You've probably done it dozens of times without realizing it. Ever had a dream where you met someone you're convinced you know, only to realize it's someone you've never met after you wake up?"

"Yeah, now and then. I figured everyone has dreams like that, kind of like how everyone has flying dreams or dreams where your teeth fall out."

"Only dreamwalkers, or people visited by dreamwalkers. You do know those people, but only in the dream world. You'll remember more about it with practice, dreams are hard to remember after you wake up."

"Can you take me to Christine tonight? Like you did the night you brought us to the Shared Dreaming?"

"I can't promise that. I've been having problems lately. I'm being haunted by a woman who wants in to the Shared Dreaming too, only she's not the type I think I want there. It wouldn't be a good idea for you to meet her. Read my draft, it'll explain a few things, and give me feedback on it. I need to know if I explained it right."

"It would be a big time saver if I could read it in my dreams."

"Can't do that. Grandma Pappas had to teach me everything orally in the dreams. Nobody can read in dreams, I've heard about people who just see a jumbled mess of letters on the page, others just see blank pages. For me, the text on the page changes every time I look back at it. Believe me, I wish I could write a library for the Shared Dreaming, but it just wouldn't work. The parts of your brain that interpret text just don't work while you're asleep."

Just then, I saw a flash of black cloth out of the corner of my eye, passing by the doorway. I excused myself and walked out into the hall. Sure enough, the Grim Reaper himself was making his way down the hospital corridor. This was the intensive care ward after all.

The lovely things I can see these days.

"Excuse me." I walked up to the nurse's station, and pointed down the hall where the Reaper was walking. "I thought I heard something down the hall that way. I'm not sure what it was, but it didn't sound good."

I followed the nurse down the hall, and once the Reaper walked into one of the rooms, I indicated it as the one I said I heard the noise from.

Just then, the heart monitor flatlined. A frail, elderly patient was in the hospital bed, tubes and wires hanging off of him like vines. He was clearly marked "Do not resuscitate."

Not that it would have been possible. I watched the skeletal form of the Grim Reaper reach back with his scythe and take a practiced swipe through the patient's body. A glowing, blue-white sphere fell out of the body, which the Reaper picked up and tucked into his robe. Following that, a ghostly form sat up from the bed, itself frail and insubstantial, and wandered out of the room. Grandma Pappas explained to me, the sphere was what the Egyptians called the ka, or soul, of the dead man, which the Reaper harvested and was taking to wherever he took them.

The ghost was the ba, or spirit, which from the looks of it wasn't going to last very long before it dissipated. It might have been stronger years ago, but spirits are created by living, and he apparently hadn't been living very much for a while. Particularly strong ones, ones that can sustain themselves on dreams, are responsible for ghost stories. Like the one I lived through three years ago.

The nurse called a doctor from the room phone, who would arrive shortly to record the time of death. Meanwhile I followed the Reaper back out the door.

"Hey, you." I called to him. He ignored me. I expected that. I can see these things, but that doesn't help me interact with them. I have to make it clear to them that I can see them, they're accustomed to ignoring humanity. That's where my glove comes in.

Three years ago the Shambler managed to trap a horde of ghosts in the city with a series of magic circles. I know enough about these circles now to modify them, although I wouldn't be able to make a new one from scratch. I embroidered a slightly altered version of those circles on the back of a pair of white gloves, and when I wear them, I can touch insubstantial beings.

I'd seen the Reaper before, but I'd never talked to him. I put a gloved hand on his shoulder, and felt the bones underneath the black robe. That got his attention, and he turned his hollow-eyed skull to face me.

"Where are you going with that, anyway?" I asked.

THE HARVEST.

"What happens there?"

ASK THE THRESHER.

He seemed to consider the conversation over at that point and vanished. Just as well. It was getting late, and I had a phone call to make.

Back home, I pulled out the Shambler's business card. 4:30PM, he should still be in the office. I turned the card over again and studied the magic circle while the phone rang. It was different from anything Grandma Pappas showed me.

"John Smith," the voice on the other end of the phone answered.

"What do you want this time?" I demanded.

"The same thing I always want. To serve my father, and keep his enemy imprisoned."

"You killed Sarah. Leave me out of it this time. I'm through with you things."

"You're forty years too late for that. You're the one who ignored the warnings and let him out. You were touched by his power. You're a part of it all now, whether you want to be or not. But we're not unreasonable. You handled yourself admirably last time, my father is prepared to offer you cooperation rather than manipulation. You will understand what is happening this time, eyes wide open. We have a common enemy."

"You can't be talking about the woman attacking my dreams."

"She is working for my father's enemy, but she doesn't realize it. She, too, has been touched by his power. Her purpose is not yet clear, but she doubtless wants to find his prison and release him."

"Why would she want to get into the Shared Dreaming?"

"From there, she could find the Dream Child's mother. She probably wants to kill her and prevent the birth of the Dream Child."

"Wait, what happens if you kill someone in a dream who can't wake up?"

"Irrelevant. What I mean is she has the power to find the Dream Child's mother in the physical world if she can find her dream self. She plans to kill her in the physical world. The birth of the Dream Child would greatly complicate things for my father's enemy."

"Isn't he imprisoned?"

"He had forty years to take precautions against that. He would have set up the means for his escape in anticipation of being re-imprisoned, and your attacker is part of that plan."

"What's the circle on the back of your card?"

"Think of it as a doorbell. If anything happens to me, activate the circle. My father will answer."

That is not a pleasant thought.

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I like to write my notes in longhand, it helps me organize my thoughts better than I can on a computer. A text editor can cut and paste what you've written and rearrange it however you want with ease, but they have their limitations. You can't draw an arrow from this paragraph to that one, you can't doodle in the margins, and you can't mark important words and concepts with a big star.

I mean, you can do all those things, but it's a pain on the computer and a natural application of pencil and paper.

I must've fallen asleep writing notes, because I must be dreaming now. There's no other explanation for my notes changing every time I look down at them. I briefly wonder if the constantly-changing text could give me some inspiration, and if I'd be able to remember it when I woke up.

I'm distracted by another thought, though. Jack wants to see his wife, it's a reasonable request. If he's asleep I can pull him into my dream, and from here I can bring him to the Shared Dreaming. I haven't been there in a while, and it's always a pleasant place to visit.

"I've never seen this place before." Jack suddenly says when he appears. "Am I dreaming?"

"What did I teach you?" I prompt him.

"Right. Look for something out of place or impossible. Um..." he scans the room we're in for clues. "There aren't any outlets on the walls. That lamp doesn't have a power cord but it's on."

"Nicely done." I look at the walls and discover he's right. I have to wonder if the outlets were never there, or if they vanished from my dream apartment when he made the suggestion to me, but there's no way to tell, I didn't notice them before and now it's too late. Reality is malleable in dreams.

"So, you're going to take me to the Shared Dreaming? I can see my wife?"

"First I want you to try to get there yourself. You've got the talent, you just need practice."

"Wonderful," a familiarly-accented voice answers. "If you won't take me to the Shared Dreaming, then maybe he will."

"Who is that?" Jack asks, indicating the tall black woman who's suddenly in my apartment with us.

"She's dangerous, keep back. She must've hitched a ride when I brought you here. My fault, I'll deal with it." I turn my full attention to her. "I know what you want now, and there's no way in Hell I'm letting you get there."

"A Dream Child is too powerful to allow to be born. Don't you know what happened with the first one?"

"Yes, and I know why he did what he did. This one's going to have two loving parents. He's not going to be the pawn of a would-be tyrant."

"That's too big a risk to take."

"You don't get to decide that," I answer her.

"You can't gamble with the whole of the dreaming!"

"You have no right to stop it!"

"Now who's that?" Jack points across the room. There are four of us in my apartment now, and it's starting to get crowded.

Adrenaline is running high, and my stress levels are through the roof. It's not surprising that Sarah showed up, all things considered.

"Who are you to say who has the right to do what?" Sarah demands of me from a bent and crooked neck. "Who are you to tell people what they should do? That's how you got me killed!"

"No, Sarah, that's not how it happened," I start to protest.

"No, don't interrupt," the black woman interrupts. "I think we should hear this."

Sarah turns to her and explains, as well as a manifestation of my guilt could anyway, leaving out things I would consider obvious or not worth mentioning even though no one else here has the context to make sense of it. "He asked me to come along, even though he knew it was dangerous. Because he knew it was dangerous! How could I say no to that? How could I be so heartless to abandon my boyfriend when he needed me? I had no choice. I came along and it attacked us and I died. It broke my neck and I never even knew what was happening. I didn't have his special powers, I couldn't even see. He dragged me along and got me killed. It's all his fault."

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"No!"

I woke up at my desk. I was right, I fell asleep taking notes for my books. My visitors would have fallen out of my dream when I woke up and it lost its substance. They'd be awake now, too.

I changed out of my clothes, brushed my teeth, settled into bed, and cried myself back to sleep. If I had another dream, I didn't remember it.

I woke up at 6AM anyway, as I'd trained myself to do over the years. You don't need an alarm if you've set your circadian rhythm properly.

I didn't feel like coffee, so I spent the day running on auto-pilot, shuffling through my work like a zombie. Nightmares aren't an excuse to be late with an environmental impact report. I'd have to go back through it and look for mistakes after I'd had a good night's sleep, though. One benefit of freelance work, I can work from home.

I barely noticed when five o'clock rolled around. It's easy to become a workaholic when you don't have someone else's schedule to keep to and the line between home and work gets blurred. The two biggest problems freelancers have are keeping the discipline to start working in the morning and remembering to stop working in the afternoon. I forgot to eat lunch and I was starving, but the last thing I felt like doing was cooking, so I drove out, partially to get fast food and partially to clear my head.

I almost nodded off at the wheel. It was obvious I couldn't go on like this.

I munched on my mushroom and swiss burger half-heartedly for a while before deciding what I needed to do. I pulled out the Shambler's business card and activated the magic circle on the back.

The single-use circle brightened, and the card crumbled to ashes in my hand. Nothing else happened, so I drove home.

In DC comics, there's a cosmic-level evil villain called Darkseid. He's more powerful than Superman and spends a lot of his time trying to take over the Universe because he's pretty much the physical incarnation of the concept of tyranny. It's kind of a running gag in the comic that this unimaginably dangerous entity will occasionally show up at someone's home sitting on their couch.

I finally understand how that must feel.

I recognized him from three years ago, after I'd killed his "son" for the second time, which it turns out was his plan the whole time. He was sitting on my couch, drinking my coffee, and playing with a box of toothpicks.

I didn't have a chance to say anything before he spilled the toothpicks out on my coffee table. "We take turns picking up toothpicks. You can pick up one or two at a time. Whoever has to take the last toothpick loses."

"I know this game, there's a trick to it. Whoever goes second wins, because you can work it out so you pick up the fifth from the last toothpick, and that forces the other player to pick up either four and three, so you just pick up two, or pick up just four, so you pick up three and two. Either way, player one loses because there's only one left."

"It's not a trick," he explained, "it's simple mathematics. It's a solved game. Only a fool would instigate a game like this if the second player always wins. The only games worth playing are ones in which the outcome is in doubt, ones where the pieces may not necessarily follow orders and you're not even certain who's side they are on. Ones in which you must layer contingency plans upon each other in a vain attempt to account for the complexity of free will. An imperfect analogy, but one which you have the context to understand."

"I summoned you so I could ask why you don't just do this yourself and leave me out of it. That's your answer, then?"

"You think you summoned me, but it's closer to the truth that what you did was more along the lines of provoking an immune response. What you see here on your couch is not what I am, what I am would not fit in this universe and that is why I am forced to act here largely by proxy. This is merely what is small and simple enough for you to comprehend and interact with. To think you summoned me is as absurd as a bacterium encountering one of your white blood cells and thinking it summoned you."

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"Take two?" Jack asks.

"Take two." I confirm. "She got lucky last night, she just happened to find us at the wrong time. If we move fast, we should be able to leave her behind. You know what to do, just like we practiced."

For some reason, Jack is dreaming about grocery shopping when I hopped in. I hope that not all his dreams are this banal. He leaves his cart behind and we head for the automatic sliding doors to leave.

It's bright inside, dark outside. We only see our reflections in the door glass. We approach, and the doors slide open.

The Shared Dreaming is a beautiful place, with gently sloping hills, short green grass, and a cool, shallow brook running through it. It's a warm, Spring day. It doesn't always look like this, but it usually does. With all the dreamwalkers running around and nobody actually owning it, it gets formed by consensus, a completely wordless agreement by the dreamers on a level below conscious thought.

Christine is lovely, as always, up and about, walking on her own two feet here at least, in contrast to her endless, medically-assisted sleep in the real world. And she is very pregnant, she has less than a month left. Jack runs to her and they embrace. I lag behind, giving them time.

A monkey runs by, and suddenly I wonder if one of the dreamwalkers intentionally patterned the Shared Dreaming after Seurat's Sunday Afternoon.

I'm about to approach the lovers when the sky suddenly darkens, and the wind picks up, like a sudden storm is coming. I turn in the direction of the wind, and I see exactly who I expect to see. "You followed us?"

The tall black woman pulls out her retiarius net again. She looks entirely out of place here, like a nightmare intruding on a dream, which is exactly what she is. "It wasn't hard. I thought perhaps if you wouldn't bring me here willingly, I might be able to sneak along. Where is the Dream Child's mother?"

"Jack, get Christine away from here, as far away as you can get without slipping out of the dreaming. I don't know what might happen to Christine if she does. We cannot under any circumstances allow her to get to Christine, your son's life is at stake." I'm holding my San Angelo bar now, and I wonder how long I can hold her off. I don't know what she has to do in order to find Christine's body from the dreamworld, and I don't want to find out.

"You told me you're no match for her."

"Neither are you, at least I stand a chance. Now go!"

There are other dreamwalkers here, but they don't know what's going on. They're not involved. There are fights here from time to time, no one pays them much attention. You can't permanently hurt someone here. I don't have time to explain how serious this is.

I lash out with the pointed tip of my bar, and she dodges deftly to the side. I spin it around and try to bash her with the spade end, but she swings her net around and it wraps around the end of my bar. It would have just slid off the pointed end, but it gets caught on the spade end. That's when I notice the ground starting to shift and move underneath us, making it difficult to maintain my balance. I have to give her credit, she can manipulate the environment in someone else's dream better than anyone else I've ever seen.

We struggle briefly, trying to overpower each other and tear away the weapon from each other's hands, but it's not going to happen. She releases the other end of her net and I sprawl backwards, just barely staying on my feet, but I still have my weapon. The ground stops shifting and I notice we're now high in the air on the edge of a mountain. Then I look to the side and see that this isn't a mountain, it's a volcano.

She swings her net again, low, and catches my feet in it. I land hard on the ground, and she pulls the net up, taking my feet up with it, intending to roll me over the edge of the caldera, when I suddenly notice the collapsed East side, and I realize I know this volcano.

"You're Tanzanian, aren't you?" I ask her. She's shocked by the sudden non-sequitur. "This is Mt. Meru, I've seen it before. This is starting to make sense."

"What does that matter?"

"I think I can offer you something, if you leave the Shared Dreaming. If you wake me up now, you'll have a free line to Christine, and I will do anything to keep that from happening. I have something else you might want, though."

"That is unlikely."

"I know you're helping He Who Devours the Moon. I've met him before, myself. He's currently trapped in a chunk of tanzanite at the bottom of a mine near Arusha. I can help you get him out."

She stops to consider that for a moment. "You would do that, just to keep me from getting to the Dream Child's mother tonight? Even though you know I will eventually find a way to get back?"

"I'll save her tonight. I'll worry about tomorrow, tomorrow. But for you, this could be your only chance to get this."

She stopped to consider my offer for a moment. I was still as helpless as a turtle on my back with my legs in the air, tangled in her net. I wasn't going anywhere.

"All right. We have a deal. Show me how."

When the Shambler gave me his card, I took the precaution of copying down the magic circle pattern before I used it. I know so tantalizingly little about magic circles, any opportunity to study one is welcome. I have it memorized. You can't read text in a dream, but a magic circle isn't text, as Toula showed me.

"Promise me you'll leave the shared dreaming as soon as I teach you."

"I swear it."

Ever since I had to copy down a magic circle on my hand once for lack of paper, I'd started carrying a notebook with me. It was habitual enough that the notebook followed me into the dreaming. I carefully traced out the familiar shapes of a magic circle for her. Surely, if it could summon the Shambler's boss, or at least what I could comprehend of it, if I make the right modifications it could summon something else? It's complicated, but she's a smart one, and she memorizes it quickly. I discretely fail to mention that I'm not 100% sure it will work.

As she promised, she bows out of the Shared Dreaming immediately afterward. Only afterward did I realize that I shouldn't have worried too much, doubtless she wants to wake up and write it down before she forgets it, and getting into another fight with me would only hamper her memory.

As soon as she's gone, and I stop paying attention to it, the volcano vanishes. I don't fall to the ground, or sink with it, I'm just back at ground level as if I always had been. Jack runs up to me. "What did you do? Why did she leave?"

"I made a trade with her. I gave her something else she wants in exchange for leaving."

"Something dangerous?"

"Incredibly. But I had to make a choice, and I saw I could keep Christine and your son safe for one more night. I'll deal with the fallout later."

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On to part 2

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