Burning Daylight – Chapter One
Dreams are doorways if you have the right key.
That’s why I’ve wasted a perfectly good Sunday night perched on the edge of Scott Kinley’s desk. It’s awkward, uncomfortable and I’m sure I look like a gargoyle in the pitch dark of the two o’clock hour, but every chair in his bedroom is covered in dirty teenage boy laundry. I’ll stick with my perch, thanks.
I kick my legs out and arch my spine, stretching my arms over my head with fingers laced together. Cramped and aching muscles voice their protest. Something cracks in my neck when I roll my head back. Meanwhile, Scott Kinley snores contentedly in his sleep in the bed across the room. I shoot him a glare that’s best described as withering.
Spears of pale moonlight slip through the slatted blinds covering the window above his bed. They stab the length of his body, highlighting a strong jawline and tousled blond hair, not to mention a chest and set of abs that frankly, I just find obnoxious on a sixteen year old. It’s L.A. in early September – code for unbearably hot – and he’s sleeping with the bare minimum of sheets, a loose span of cotton that’s only covering him up to his waist. I’d enjoy the cheap thrill more if it didn’t make me feel like such a pervert.
After all, I’m a total stranger who broke into his house and has spent the last four hours going through his things and watching him sleep. It’s kinda hard to feel good about that. In my defense, I’m only here to save his life from a creepy magical serial killer. Course, I have strong doubts that would hold up in a court of law should he wake up and have me arrested for breaking and entering. But I still feel it’s worth mentioning.
A yawn and a glance at his alarm clock confirm that it’s 2:07 am and I have no life. I lean back on the desk and rifle through his homework some more as I go back to invading his privacy. My only defense here is I’m really bored.
His handwriting’s slightly more legible than your average garden-variety chicken scratch, but I’m still not one hundred percent his name’s Scott Kinley. The Scott part is clear, but the ‘I’ in what I think is Kinley could be a really jacked up ‘o’ I guess. Whatever. It’s a pre-calculus assignment, and the last yearbook on his bookshelf is from his sophomore year, so I’m guessing he’s a junior like me. Or like I would be, if I still bothered going to school. Hmm. Eleventh grade and already in precalc? Someone’s a smarty-pants. Interesting.
A row of trophies and a couple of team photos declare him a water polo jock, and not too shabby of one according to this MVP title. Explains the abs. I roll my eyes around the rest of the room. Small TV so old it has a VCR player built into it. An even older Sega Genesis console is hooked up to it, so either Scott’s big on nostalgia or his family’s not big on luxuries. There’s a couple of movie posters tacked to the wall, but the puddle of light leaking across the floor doesn’t reach far enough for me to make out any details. Then a freestanding bookcase, a good five shelves high, filled with actual books. Above it is a college pennant with a bear on it – I think that’s Cal Berkeley, right? Possible destination, I’m guessing….
God. And he was in bed by ten. Smart, good-looking, athletic and ambitious. Did his parents just win the baby lottery, or if I go down the hall will I find the altar they used to bargain with the Devil?
Not that it matters. I stretch my legs out again and dip my toes into the pool of moonbeams, watching them spill across my feet when I wiggle. It’s only been six months since my last boyfriend went all dark side on me and turned into a spell-wielding sociopath. I’m kind of not dating right now.
So it’s only natural my visions would lead me to the most eligible teen bachelor in Los Angeles – I cast another quick look around the desk for the requisite ‘me and my girlfriend’ photo – nope, most eligible teen bachelor in Los Angeles. Ugh. It’s like announcing your diet and inheriting a pastry shop the next day. I feel a sudden urge to grab one of his dirty shirts off the floor just to make sure his one human flaw is real and not an illusion.
Wow. I can’t believe I just thought that. Apparently sleep deprivation makes me weird. Besides, there’s no way that smell could be imaginary.
I throw another withering glare in Scott’s direction. It’s his fault I’m a weird, sleep-deprived pervert in his stinky bedroom. My baleful stare bakes the air above his bed. It bends and twists like a summer heat wave on asphalt. Wait. That’s not right.
I shake my head, peering through the fog that shrouds my tired mind. Somewhere in my snooping I failed to notice Scott’s happy snores had turned into frantic whimpers. He’s writhing on his bed; sweat beads all over his restless body, glistening like fragile pearls in the faint light. The room is abruptly a sauna. Heat climbs the walls and steam mists the glass of the picture frames.
“Shit,” I whisper, and I’m in motion, leaping off the desk into a crouch. I dip my hand into my hoodie and whip out my knife, steel slicing moonbeams to ribbons as the blade springs free. A low keening shreds the silence, hoarse spectral shouts as faces flicker through the knife, reflected in the steel. I cross the room in three steps. Scott cries out. His fingers scratch at the air like crooked claws.
Somewhere a door opens, and something steps through. Between the space of one second and the next, a heavy silhouette takes shape on this side of the dream.
I slam into the figure with all my weight, blade aimed for the midsection where I’m hoping vital organs will be. The knife sinks in too easily. The sandman-born beastie is still in that transitive state where its dream wrought form has yet to shift all the way down the spectrum to vulnerable flesh. Then my knife catches and scrapes against bone. The nightmare screams as it sinks its roots into our reality and feels pain for the first time.
It’s tougher to pull the blade free, but I’m stronger than any normal sixteen year old girl has a right to be. More specifically, as long as I’m wielding that knife I’m as strong as all the monsters it’s killed combined. And I’ve racked up a decent body count. Blood and bile sprays in slow motion, a cresting wave of black tar. A few drops land on my arm. There’s a hissing sound and I feel like I’m on fire. I grit my teeth and swing again. It dodges and I miss. We both regroup, and I get my first good look at it.
Damn. Mr. Perfect Teen USA has one hell of a fucked up subconscious. I’m just saying.
The nightmare swallows what dim light comes near it, refusing to be illuminated. It’s thick, ridged with protrusions of bone and slick scales that shimmer with their own black radiance. A trunk-like torso gives way to stocky legs. At certain angles they seem to merge into a single column similar to a snake. It has four arms, except for when it has six – and then two and then twelve and then they’re not arms at all, but tentacles. The head is a gaping chasm of teeth and forked tongue surrounded by a lion’s mane of mottled skin. It’s dizzying and hard to look at. Confusing and chaotic. The only constant is its ugliness.
I charge at it, because I’m just that dumb. Hey, only the good die young.
It dips to the side, cobra-quick, and its tail snaps out like the crack of a whip. I take the hit square in my ribs and I’m lifted off my feet, flying back across the room. My breath flees from my lungs, my head slams back into a wall. I bite my tongue and taste copper.
“Rude,” I gasp.
Scrambling up to snatch my knife from where I dropped it mid-flight, I steal strength from its macabre magic. Even still, regaining my feet takes effort and time I don’t have to spare. The nightmare’s turned its attention back to Scott. He’s finally awake and sitting up his bed. Pale, frightened, and totally out of his league. Considering we were dealing with his worst nightmare in every literal sense of the word, I cut him some slack. I’m a good person.
I roll forward and rake my cursed blade along the creature’s side on my way. It rears and screams again. Dimly I hear footsteps and distant shouting.
“What the hell is that thing?” Scott asks, eyes locked on the beastie like a man entranced. Oh good, he can talk. I was starting to wonder. I duck around the nightmare and stick myself in between it and him.
“Don’t ask me. It’s your childhood trauma,” I say, hefting my knife and gauging distance. “Now shut up, don’t die, and for god’s sake put on some pants.”
I lunge and bury my knife in the thing’s throat. I’m liking my odds less and less when it still finds the strength to knock my grip loose and drop me on my ass. More blood drips down on me, igniting nerve endings everywhere it touches my skin. Let’s recap. I have spunk, pizzazz, seven spells and a cursed knife on my side. It has burning blood, a build like a freight train, and claws and fangs that seem to multiply every time I look at it. It leans forward and roars its hostility right in my face.
Also, it has halitosis.
A swipe of its many tentacle-arms knocks me back and to the side again. I land on the floor, staring up at the bookshelf. It’s tricky reading the titles from my upside-down vantage point, but I hazily make out the collected works of one H.P. Lovecraft. That explains a lot.
“You know, there are worse things in the world than being a cliché,” I complain, glowering over my shoulder at Scott. He has the decency to look ashamed, over where he’s huddled on the other side of the desk. Course, I’m sure he has no idea what he’s ashamed of, but my tone conveys the point rather well, I think. “Seriously. The dumb jock thing. Just give it a try.”
The mano a mano thing isn’t working out too well for me so I switch tactics. I toss a quick ‘Hail Mary’ skyward, kick off my shoes and chant the most powerful – and dangerous – of my seven spells. It’s a nasty little sucker I bartered for in the second sphere, the Circle of Fire. I rattle off short, harsh syllables that climb reluctantly from the base of my throat, guttural utterances that were never meant to be made by a human voice. I dip my fingers in moonlight and etch glowing hieroglyphics in the air – they hang there for a moment, sharply luminescent in the seconds before they fade to black.
Staccato snaps and pops ring out. The alarm clock short circuits. Streetlights flicker and die. Every electronic in a fifty meter radius develops a sudden terminal illness and the air feels flooded. Thick and heavy with static as thousands of wayward electrical impulses conduct themselves through the atmosphere to me. I dig my toes into the heavy carpet and feel the hair on my head stand on end. Then I’m running, my nervous system supercharged with too much speed and power to contain long. I duck past the nightmare’s swinging arms – it might as well be lumbering at tortoise speed – and plant a single palm flat on its back.
My touch hits it like a thunderbolt, lightning barreling down the synapses in my arm and ripping into it with hurricane fury. It squeals and goes airborne, crashing into the desk and reducing it to kindling. Scott falls back, mouth open, and smoke wisps up from the creature’s motionless body.
For a second, I dare to hope it’s dead. It would be really awesome for me if it were. That was my most powerful offensive spell and using it comes with a one in ten chance of killing the spellcaster. So, you know. I’d really like to not have to use it again, please.
The nightmare heaves itself to its feet-tail, sending spears of desk turned firewood flying about the room. Some of the shrapnel heads my way and I cover my eyes. Splinters gouge at my palms. I peek past my fingers, and in a blur of motion the creature crosses the room and throws itself through the window. It rips through the blinds and shards of glass fountain into the hot summer night. The darkness outside swallows it whole.
“I hate you,” I casually inform the universe.
I pick past debris and make for the window. Or what’s left of it anyways. The house is on a hill, high enough elevation that glass from the window is still showering to the ground below. Chiming, delicate drops of crystal rain. City lights gleam from one horizon to the next. A pitch-black shadow makes its way across distant rooftops, dark even against the darkness, like a spreading oil stain spilling towards the downtown metropolis. Lovely.
“What the hell is going on?” Scott finally finds his voice again, but I have no time to soothe his shattered nerves or offer an introductory course on Things That Go Bump in the Night 101. I run my hands through my frizzy, static-damaged hair.
“That was disgusting, you need therapy, and the pants thing was not a suggestion,” I inform him, bending to retrieve my knife. Scott flushes and grabs the sheet off the bed. He doesn’t even try and peek at my ass. A piece of the Scott Kinley puzzle clicks into place, and I feel a tiny bit better.
“Hey, quick question. Are you gay?”
His jaw drops, but he recovers fairly quickly. “What –how did you – I mean, why?”
I shrug. “No reason. Just won a bet with myself is all.”
Hey, it’s the little things in life. I turn back to the window and track the nightmare’s course. Picking a rooftop a few buildings ahead of it, I prick my thumb and whisper a spell from the seventh sphere, the Celestial Circle. I sketch bloody sigils in the moonbeams cascading through the open window. They turn pale and faint and I grab their remnants like door handles. The silver light parts, a gauzy curtain opening on a window to a distant rooftop far below.
I cast a sigh at the bewildered boy behind me and step through. It’s probably for the best. Like I said, I’m kinda not dating right now anyways.
The curtain falls shut behind me and I resume my hunt.