The timer went off, but no ears were alert to hear it. It buzzed for five minutes before seeming to give up and fell silent. That was when they entered.
A soft wind blew through the cracked window, causing the curtains to flutter and the dust on the windowsill to swirl. Accompanying the wind at one point was a dark, silk-like wave that seemed to dance through the apartment's interior as a feather would. It floated around the heads of the occupants, swirled across the computer screen, and then stopped dead still in the center of the living room. Slowly, it expanded. Growing taller and wider until it was the width of a human being and the height of a slightly abnormal one. It began to take shape, growing curves and long hair and sharp features that would have been the envy of any woman. The Nightmare clothes appeared last, a lavish dress of dark silk imprinted with swirling designs. She stood in Mara and Eric's apartment, watching the two human's sleep unworriedly through her transformation.
"Claudian," her voice was firm and deep, like the lowest note on a wind-chime, but it held a musical quality the echoed off the walls and danced out the window. "Claudian, come to me."
"Yes, my mistress!" a squeaky voice called, and another shadow fluttered in through the window. It quickly grew into a squat Nightmare with a short beard and quick, fleeting eyes that examined everything about them with much curiosity. "I am here, my mistress," he said.
"Claudian, where am I?" the female Nightmare questioned as she paced around the room.
"I believe," Claudian said quickly as he pulled a rolled piece of yellow paper from inside his dark doublet. "I believe that we are in the land of the humans. Fascinating creatures really; only one stomach, very entertaining, so weak yet able to produce such a civilized society—"
"Be quiet, Clouse," the Nightmare commanded, and he silenced himself immediately. She was in the kitchen, if it could be called that as it was only a small corner of the apartment with a stove, fingering the silverware with esteemed curiosity. "Are they humans?" she questioned, pointing to Eric and Mara. Clouse nodded and bowed.
"Yes, Mistress," he whispered.
"They look like weak creatures," she said as she traced Mara's jaw line with a pale finger, "so frail and exhausted. Tell me, what are they doing? Are they dead?"
"No, Mistress," Clouse said quickly. "They are not. They are sleeping. Humans shut down their bodies to rest and recover energy."
The Nightmare paused in examining Mara's hair and looked up. "Sleeping? What a strange trait," she whispered. She wandered to Eric's side, watching as his chest rose and fell with each breath. "A male and female I presume?" she asked.
"Yes, Mistress," Clouse answered.
"Fascinating," she breathed. "What is their intelligence level?"
"Not high, Mistress."
She was quiet as she laid a finger on Eric's eyelid. He stirred slightly and she drew back. Clouse quickly came to her side. "They will be easy to overtake then?" she questioned.
"Yes, Mistress," Clouse said, nodding. "Very easy indeed."
The Nightmare smiled. "Excellent. Come, we must find a way to gather my troops."
Clouse nodded excitedly. "Yes, yes, of course, Mistress Columbia!"
Eric awoke with a start as the pillow hit his face with a force that nearly knocked him out of his chair. "Mara, what's wrong with you?" he muttered groggily, rubbing his neck.
"What's wrong with me? You're the one who was supposed to watching the stupid storm!" she shouted, hitting him across the face with another pillow. Eric grabbed her wrist firmly and pulled the cushion away, throwing it across the room.
"What are you talking about?" he demanded.
Mara sighed and fell onto the couch, nursing her arm. "Just tell me: Did you dream last night?"
Eric paused, his brow furrowed in concentration. He vaguely remembered snippets of a pale woman and a short man's conversation. Something about how weak humans were…how easily overpowered. All at once, it dawned on him, and horror crossed his face. "Shit!" he exclaimed, slamming his hand against his forehead. "I fell asleep after the storm!"
"We both did," Mara sighed. "We brought two back."
He swirled his desk chair around and quickly pressed the computer's power button. It buzzed to life and in seconds he was typing away furiously, searching for evidence that the events had really happened. He found it quickly, a short page lodged in his secret file explaining everything they had just discussed. It was all true.
They were here.
"What type?" Mara asked quietly.
"One's a Type B," he answered, and she groaned. "And the other…it doesn't say."
"What do you mean it doesn't say?" Mara questioned, jumping out of her seat and walking to his side.
"Look." He pointed to a line of text on the screen. "'The type of Nightmare for the first escapee is Undetermined." He turned away and looked at his partner. "What do you think that means?"
Mara shrugged. "We've met all the Types, well except A, but that's impossible. Right?" Eric only frowned.
"Right?" Mara repeated, almost desperately. He shook his head.
"I'm not so sure," he mumbled. "I mean, if we've never seen a Type A then we can't be sure what they look like."
"I bet it was just a really smart Type B," Mara insisted.
"Mara, Type B's don't talk like this one did. She was calm and collected and asked questions. They never ask questions."
"But…we don't know how to handle a smart one," Mara breathed.
"Well, we'll just have to learn," Eric answered. Mara sighed and stepped into the
bathroom, coming out with a toothbrush in hand and furiously scrubbing at her teeth.
"I got to go to work so we'll have to handle this later," she said in a voice that resembled more of a gurgle. "Are you working today?"
He shook his head. "Jim and I traded shifts. I'll stay here and research our little…friends." Mara nodded and went back into the bathroom to spit.
"Just don't do anything stupid, alright?" she called through the open door.
"Like what? Go chase after them? I'm not that dumb, Mara," Eric answered.
Mara smiled as she stepped back into the main room, adjusting a clean pair of jeans she had just slid into. She grabbed her Barnes & Nobles nametag from the desk and pinned it to her shirt. "You could have fooled me," she said as she stepped out the door.
Eric rolled his eyes and turned back to the computer. He had no idea how to find information about the new Nightmare, it was about impossible. There were few people in the world with he and Mara's ability and those who did have it usually didn't know until one of the creatures they had called on killed them. And naturally by then it was too late.
With a sigh he placed his fingers on the keypad and set to work.
Mara groaned inwardly, clutching her hands into fists. This was just what she needed, her perfect little boss making her look like a fool in public. She could do that just fine by herself.
"Sorry, Tina," Mara said, purposely averting her eyes from the tall girl who stood glaring down at her angrily. "Things got a little hectic at my apartment this morning."
"What, you and your boyfriend have a fight?" Tina asked, her voice holding a slight mocking tone. Mara whirled on her, jabbing a finger at her chest threateningly.
"He is not my boyfriend," she spat.
Tina rolled her eyes. "Yeah, sure. Whatever. Look, I need you to run the register today. Sarah's out sick and no one else wants to do it."
"Well, I don't want to do it either," Mara said with a shrug.
"To bad. You were late, so you get to be punished. Now get moving." With that she turned on her heel and marched away, escaping to her small office in the back of the store. Mara glared at her retreating figure as she took her stance behind the register, leaning on her elbow to await a costumer.
Cashier was Mara's least favorite job. For one, it was boring; mostly involving waiting around while indecisive costumers tried to decide whether to pay cash or charge, and for another, it involved math; which had never been Mara's strongest subject. With a sigh she pulled a magazine from the rack beside her and idly began flipping through its pages.
A cluster of giggling teenage girls wandered into the bookstore, hanging on each other as they chortled and joked, oblivious to the annoyed stares the other costumers cast at them. Mara looked up briefly and sighed. This was just what she needed.
She grabbed a pale, sickly looking boy by the elbow and pushed him behind the register. "Cover for me, John," she said.
"But Tina told you to do it!" he whined.
"Well Tina's not here," Mara called over her shoulder as she followed the retreating girl's to the Magazine section. They were bent over a copy of Seventeen, drooling over half-naked photos of male models and famous movie stars. Mara opened her mouth to tell them to quiet down, but what they said next silenced her.
"Did you hear what happened at the Harbor?" one of them said.
"You mean about the people who jumped in the Savannah River? Yeah, that was weird."
"I bet they stole something," one girl insisted without looking up from her magazine. "A witness said they saw them walking out of a bank or something earlier that day."
"Wouldn't someone know if they were stealing something from a bank?" Mara spoke without thinking and quickly clapped a hand to her mouth. The girls turned to her with annoyed expressions.
"Were you eavesdropping on us?" one demanded.
"If you have to ask I don't really think it matters," Mara said, rolling her eyes as she turned to walk back to the counter. She heard them snickering about her and she would have liked nothing better than to turn around and slap them but at the moment she had better things to do. She pushed John away from the cash register and logged onto the employee computer. She spent the next hour searching the internet for Savannah news sites, looking for information on the event that the girls had talked about. It didn't take her long.
She scrolled through an article, skimming occasional parts but not stopping completely until she found what she was looking for at the bottom of the page: a blurry snapshot of a tall, lean woman and a squat man.
"But Mistress, it is so strong," Clouse whispered, clutching his head in a useless attempt to contain the pain that engulfed it.
"Be patient, Clouse," Colombia answered. "You will get to him soon."
"How soon?" Clouse pleaded.
"Quiet, Clouse," the Nightmare hissed. "I am thinking." The two sat outside Eric's apartment, watching his window from a bakery across the street. They had seen Mara leave the building and it had taken all Colombia had not to attack her then. From the moment Nightmares were created they were inflicted with an unruly passion to kill the human that had dreamed them into this strange world, but Colombia couldn't risk to lose these humans. She needed them.
"Mistress, what are we doing here?" Clouse whispered.
"Clouse, do you honestly expect us to take this world on our own?" Colombia said.
"Of course not," Clouse answered. "But how are we to get your troops here?"
Colombia turned to him, her perfect face now an angry mixture of frustration and impatience. Clouse cowered away from her. "Forgive me Mistress, I should not have asked."
"How did we get here, Clouse?" she demanded. "How were we brought into this world?"
"By means of…them?" he answered uncertainly, pointing to the apartment's window. Colombia smiled, her unnaturally white teeth gleaming in the sunlight.
"Mara, slow down, I can't understand you. What did you say about the Harbor?"
Eric had his cell phone an arms length away from his ear, keeping Mara's frantic voice from damaging his hearing.
"They were there!" Mara nearly shouted. "At the Harbor!"
Eric frowned. "Why were they at the Harbor?"
"Don't ask me," Mara said, sounding almost agitated. "I just know they were there."
Eric didn't answer. He popped the top of a can of soda, sipping it slowly. "You're sure?"
"Eric, I saw a picture of them. Why is it so hard for you to believe?"
"Because they shouldn't be that far from us," he said as he fell onto the couch. "You now how they work: they want us dead."
"Maybe they're too stupid to figure out where we are," she suggested. He could hear the chatter of voices and the hum of car engines in the background as she spoke.
"Mara, where are you?"
It took her nearly a full minute to reply. "The Harbor," she said a bit sheepishly.
He sighed, rubbing his temple in a small attempt to control his anger. "Why are you down there alone?"
"Because you're on the other side of town," she hissed. "Why am I not allowed to go where I want? I'm a big girl, Eric. I can take care of myself."
Eric sat up, his back rigid and his voice threatening. "Mara, they could hurt you. I don't think you get that. They're not a Type C; one may not even be a B. They can outthink you, as hard as that is to believe."
"Oh God you're acting like I'm 12 or something," she shot back. "I'm not stupid. Just let me do my job." Before Eric could reply the connection was lost. He sighed and leaned back against the couch, shaking his head.
"She's not going to listen to me," he whispered to himself. "Don't know why I bother."
"Perhaps a bond between the two of you has you worried for her safety?"
Eric jumped when he heard the soft voice, twisting himself around to stare at the Nightmare in his doorway. His gaze searched the apartment for his gun, only to find it resting on the kitchen table on other side of the room. The Nightmare followed his eyes and frowned.
"A weapon? I did not think you were capable of such…extremities." She snapped her fingers and the gun flew to her outstretched palm where she raised to eyelevel, examining it curiously. "A strange device. How does it work?"
Eric rose carefully to his feet and began circling the couch in slow, measured footsteps. Colombia raised his hand gun at his forehead as if she had used one her entire life.
"Don't be stupid," she warned. "I knew I could figure this out."
Eric raised his hands over his head. "I never doubted you," he lied. She raised an eyebrow and turned to look over her shoulder, speaking whispered words to someone behind her. Clouse scooted around her and made a lunge for Eric. He was caught by the ear by Colombia's quick hand and she pulled him back, forcing him to his knees and whispering to him threateningly.
"I will tell you when you have permission to approach him," she spat.
"Forgive me, Mistress," Clouse panted from his place on the ground. "But I smell him."
"Than hold your nose!" she threw him back against the wall where he crumpled into a heap on the floor, whimpering.
"Not to kind to the hired help, are you?" Eric said, raising a curious eyebrow.
"He's worthless to me," Colombia said. "Why could you not have brought one of my generals into this world? They would have been of a higher value than this rat." She kicked Clouse in the side and he doubled into a ball, groaning inwardly.
"General? What are you then?" Eric asked, taking a small step closer while her eyes were averted. Colombia turned on him sharply, raising his gun once again.
"A Ruler, if you must know. I am in control of all of the Other Half, as you so put it," she answered.
"I never said I called it that," he replied.
"Of course you didn't, and you didn't say how to work this device either." She held up his handgun. "But I discovered how."
"Do you read minds?"
She laughed. It was a high, gloating sound that made Eric shudder. "Mind reading is a power even more advanced than my own. I simply saw your past in my minds eye."
"Sounds a hell of a lot like mind reading to me," Eric muttered. She did not hear him and instead turned to the small refrigerator by the couch, opening it with the toe of her glossy black sandal and bending down to examine its contents.
"What a strange world this is," she whispered as she raised a soda can to eyelevel. "What is this?"
"A Coke," Eric replied, stepping closer. "A type of drink."
She flicked the aluminum with her finger. "How do you get to its contents?"
"You flip the little ring on the top," Eric said. "Let me see it and I'll show you."
She frowned but tossed him the can, adjusting the gun's aim to his chest. "Don't try anything, boy. I'm not afraid to shoot you." Eric didn't say anything. He shook the can furiously and angled the top slightly to face the Nightmare and slowly he flipped it open.
A stream of brown liquid hit Colombia straight in the face. She gasped and dropped the gun, clawing at her burning eyes and falling against the wall. Eric dashed past her, kicking at Clouse as the Nightmare reached out for his ankle and raced into the hallway.
"Up, you fool!" Colombia's voice echoed from the room. "Get up and follow him!"
Eric raced down the stairs, shoving past the other tenants and into the blazing afternoon sun. He reached into his pocket as he ran, pulling out his phone and quickly dialing Mara's number. She answered but it seemed almost reluctantly.
"Mara, they're at the apartment," he panted, dodging an old woman with a shopping bag and vanishing inside an alleyway. "They came after you hung up."
Mara cursed, all anger gone from her voice. "Are you serious? I thought they were at the Harbor!"
"Well obviously they left," he answered, almost sarcastically.
"So what happened? Are you okay?"
It was always strange to him when Mara started offering concern and sometimes it was hard to not think she was kidding. "I'm fine, nothing happened, except she learned how to use a gun."
"A gun? How?" She seemed almost in disbelief.
"Apparently she saw it in my past," he answered, shaking his head. "I'm not really sure. But look, the thing is that you're the one who dreamed her. I got her fat assistant, but she's the real deal. You've got to find me, Mara. Fast."
"I'm on Drayton Street, near the cemetery. Want me to get a cab?"
"No, I'll get one. The farther from the apartment we are the better. You just wait there."
"Are they following you?"
Eric craned his neck to take a quick look over his shoulder, but saw no one. "No, I think I'm good. I'll call you if anything happens."
"Alright. Don't die on me. I can't pay that rent on my own."
He smiled and flipped the phone shut, holding out his hand to a passing cab.