12.5 Moments Out of Time, Part I

by Matt P.

When he was younger he thought that if he ever got used to looking at corpses, then he would have to leave or he would risk losing something important in his psyche permanently. That went away by the end of his first two deployments.

Not even one percent of them were caused by him. The U.S. sent soldiers on peacekeeping missions and humanitarian missions, to bring water to the thirsty and medicine to the sick. But as his career continued and he moved into more elite and focused units—Ranger tab, Ranger regiment, Green Berets—the corpses became more and more his. His choices, his shot, his fault.

And the terrifying thing was how good he was at it. He had always known he was a good shot, but with years of training he became amazing. He spent days where his movement was measured in inches and scratching his nose was too much to risk, just to line up perfect shots. He saw the world, just like the recruiters promised, but only in the most horrible and violent ways. He was lauded, promoted, and given medals, all for the same thing.

All to the same end: The glassy eyes of the dead staring at him. The cold weight of responsibility mingling with the fierce, volcanic joy of survival. Now he walked through row after row of them, and he didn’t even know if they were all his fault. All he knew is that he lived, they didn’t, and he walked along among them not knowing even how to begin to atone.

“Why should you atone?” A voice, indistinct in the empty room. “It’s all you’re good at.”

“That isn’t true,” Walter answered, his voice soft. It hardly carried in the vastness of the vast charnel house. His breath barely stirred his own clothing, barely felt like it was enough to fill his own lungs; how could they hear him? Maybe he would join them soon, one more pale and bloodless face locked in silent prayer to the unseen roof above and the uncaring skies beyond.

“Oh no…” the voice came again. “That would be to good for you. All you’ve ever done is kill, and for what? To walk alone with us? How does it feel to be only good at something so terrible?”

He had no answer. He opened his mouth to try to reply but nothing came out, only the choking sound as he tried to breathe and scream at the same time. It came out like a sob, which didn’t seem inappropriate. He fell to his knees, clutching his fists tight until his palms bore deep half-moon imprints from his nails and he felt like he could stand again.

When he looked up every single corpse was standing and staring at him, surrounding him in a suffocating circle of decaying flesh, and reaching out their terrible hands in accusation.

**** ****

The empty house stood before him, looming. With the lights out and the windows dark it looked like the face of a corpse. He stepped forward to open it and walked in to the main room. There was no pile of shoes in front of the door, or off to the side; none to be seen anywhere. There were no school bags or books, the kitchen was empty, and the television silent and mournful in its’ corner.

There was a note on the kitchen table, where they had all eaten a hundred times before. It was crumpled, left on top of a newspaper. The letterhead was from the Department of the Army, and the first line began ‘Dear Mrs. Richards’. The paper was turned to an article that read ‘Local Soldier Slain’, and featured a picture of him in his green beret after his last promotion. The letter had tears on it, and the newspaper looked like it had been salvaged after being crumpled up.

Waves of sorrow lanced at Walter, sending him staggering to the table. He reached out to brace himself, his eyes on the letter. He had failed, somewhere—failed to come back to his family, failed to keep his promises to them that he would be there. Failed as a husband, and failed as a father. He reached out to touch the letter gently, tracing a fingertip across the tear tracks on it.

Something burrowed at the back of his brain as he looked at it, like thousands of letters that had been sent for soldiers before him. And then it hit him:

Yeah…but not for decades.

Casualty notifications didn’t go out by letter, and they hadn’t for a long time. Without extremely odd circumstances they would have sent at least an officer in uniform, preferably with a chaplain. As he thought it, he began to see all of the things wrong with the scene. The house wasn’t the one he had lied in with Rhiannon or the kids before she left—it was their house in Border. And most importantly I didn’t die, he thought.

Most do not notice the little details.” A resonant voice behind him filled the room, the edges of his vision flickering as the world to accommodate the new visitor. Walter turned, and found a man standing behind him. At least he thought it was a man; the dark suit on the figure was masculine in cut, and what he thought he saw of the face looked like it had a strong chin and a goatee. But the face was shadowed and blurred, and Walter couldn’t be sure he saw anything.

“My nightmare, my knowledge,” Walter said with a shrug. He breathed a sigh of relief as the pressure of sorrow left him, fleeing his realizations. I’m dreaming, he thought to himself. I’m in Nightmare, and that guy is…

Yes,” the figure said helpfully. “One of the Seven. My brothers and sisters torment your friends, but I carved this place out for you. You are not an infrequent visitor to this land when you sleep, are you?

“No.” Walter answered honestly. He pulled out one of the chairs at the kitchen table and sat down on it, considering the faceless being in front of him.

That last one I especially enjoy,” the being commented almost conversationally as it went to take a seat. “It is very…visceral. And yet you go out in the world and continue to do things that will add more bodies to that room. Why?

“I tried to leave it behind,” Walter answered with a sigh, again honestly. “I tried to pick a profession where if I needed it I would have it, but that maybe I could do more helping than hurting.”

The being nodded slowly to that. “You don’t seem to have done a very good job,” it commented.

“No. I’d say I picked the wrong town, but even that isn’t true. The shoot-out in Kansas City is one reason why I’m here, and as far as I know Kansas City isn’t a hell-gate or nether-portal or whatever the fuck Border is,” Walter swore with vehemence.

No. Border is unique in the world. Some would say your coming was predestined, out of your hands; but there was always an element of choice. If you had not come there would have been others. They would have been lesser, but they still would have come.” The figure said, crossing it’s legs. “For what it is worth…I am glad that you came. Your road will be very hard, but that doesn’t mean it is not worthy.

Why would you be glad I came? Morgan said you all feed on terror, and want to take over the world—it’s what Oberon promised you. Wouldn’t it be better if Border had a crappier watchman?” Walter looked at the being, trying to discern a face or at least a sense of an expression. Something.

We are a Septarchy, a rule of Seven. The majority will rules, and so it is that we took Oberon’s offer. But I can and will tell you that it was a vote of 6-1, and that we did take certain precautions for when he inevitably betrays us,” the figure definitely sounded like it said the last part with grim satisfaction. “And yes, I was the one contrary voice. What is it you mortals call it for your courts? I wrote a dissenting opinion.”

Walter nodded at that, hoping that his bewilderment at the whole conversation didn’t show on his face. “So…why are we having this conversation, instead of me seeing flying sucker worms flay my private parts or something horrible?”

The being paused, considering. “That is a unique image, but has never been one of your recurring nightmares,” it opined. “But it has possibilities for others. We are having this discussion because I am the voice of reason, and I remember something that my brothers and sisters have forgotten.” At Walter’s raised eyebrow and encouraging look, the being motioned. “What is this?”

The air shimmered and the room changed, becoming a different memory from Walter’s past like pulling up a specific scene on a video. It showed him in a base, he had forgotten where—but where wasn’t important. What was important was that Walter was running by with three other enlisted soldiers, naked as the day he was born except for his belt and his combat boots. They had called it a belt and boots run, and it had briefly been a common punishment for a barracks “infraction” or for losing a bet.

“That appears to be me shaking what my Mama gave me, and trying to do so before the Lieutenant got back from his meeting,” Walter explained without shame. “I was about 19 and dumber than a post, although I thought I had all the answers and would also never die.” As he explained it the room shimmered again, and returned to his house in Border.

“You were, I believe, deployed. Two days later, you would be shot at. This was not in a safe place or time, and yet you still participated in what I believe you all call…shenanigans?” The Lord of Nightmare cocked its head as it spoke, and Walter had the impression of raised eyebrows. “Why?

“Because you can only be scared for so long before you have to feel something else. Study after study has shown that soldiers will still do stupid and even risky things at war, because even terror can get boring,” Walter answered. He considered it for a moment, before shaking his head. “That’s the point, isn’t it?”

Indeed,” the being agreed. “The human mind is a remarkable thing, and your ability to cope to the sheer unending terror of your own mortality is truly breathtaking. The human mind will grow dull to terror and we will find it less a harvest than they believe. You will grow used to it, and you will find some way to drive us back, and it will be counter-productive and exhausting. And they forget our purpose.

“Well,” Walter drawled, “As long as we aren’t being inconvenient. What do you mean, your purpose?”

All spiritual realms exist for a reason. They serve a purpose, although many of them have forgotten that. And many of them have been corrupted, and fallen away. The purpose of our realm is to frighten, and so we feed on terror—but also to allow your kind to confront their terrors and overcome them.” The creature shrugged. “Your own stories are filled with men and women who face their terror and overcome it; sometimes, they do so here. Nightmare exists to siphon off the terror of others, and give them a place to face them. I alone remember that now, and that is why I want you to succeed.

“So what exactly are you offering?” Walter asked, moving to stand up and start pacing around the room. “Some kind of alliance?”

You propose to kill Oberon, using Faerie trickery. I approve,” it said, in a tone that did in fact indicate approval. “But killing him will prove difficult. Whoever takes his burdens on will likely die, and the Fomori will be allowed to take some of Faerie. Instead, I am offering you a trade—for a part of Winter and Summer itself, we will take him once he is cut off from his magic and power. None of you will take his burdens, and the realm of Faerie will be protected if lessened. I will give you a word of power. Speak it at the moment of his weakness and I will know you have accepted my deal.

“So instead of giving you a part of our world, I’m supposed to throw Faerie under the bus? Let you eat all their terror instead?” Walter asked.

For many men that would be enough, to simply let someone else be tormented. But no—you will increase no one’s torment. Physical space in the spiritual realms is also power, and may be converted to such. It will allow me to exercise a measure more control with my brethren, and while that will also allow my brethren to exercise more power amongst our peers…I am afraid there are no easy choices in life,” the being paused for a moment to look at him as squarely as he could without a face, “Although I’m sure you know that by now.

Walter sighed at that, shaking his head. “Don’t I ever.” He looked around the empty, sorrow filled house that never was, and then looked back to the being. “I can’t make this decision on my own.”

You may be uniquely qualified to make this decision—but I will let you confer with the Queens. As a token of my good will, I will show you the way to the next stage of your escape. You will find it easier then going through your own nightmares, since you will know whose they are. But you will also see other things, and I wish you luck.” The being stood, carefully putting the chair back to the table for some reason. “Shall we?

Walter stood, and left his chair out—it was his nightmare house, after all, he could do what he wanted. He motioned for the being to do whatever it was going to take, and the world dissolved around him once more.