In retrospect, Beth thought, maybe we shouldn’t have come this way.
Beth and JD were, in a word, surrounded. The moment the two of them had arrived, creatures had begun pouring out of the tall, dark shapes that Beth presumed were buildings. They had started running, but the long street, lit only by starlight, contained a seemingly endless supply of monster-disgorging buildings. In less than a hundred yards, they were surrounded.
” ‘Oh don’t worry, JD’ ” JD threw her words back at her, ” ‘I’m sure it’s not really that bad there. After all, it’s just a dream, right?’ I tried to warn you, but you just wouldn’t listen. ‘I want to try it, just once. Come on, it’ll be fun.’ Is this fun? Are you having fun now?”
“Look,” Beth unleashed a bolt of plasma from her hand. The flash briefly illuminated the scene, and she immediately wished it had not. The monsters were horrid, and there were dozens of them surrounding the pair. “Look, I know your power works on nightmares, you told me. But it’s still a dream, right?”
“Wrong,” JD’s voice was breathless as he ducked under the wetly glistening claws of another of the creatures, “Dreams are what you have when visual or mental conduits to these Realms open into your sleeping mind. We are now in the place where nightmares come from. Every night terror you or any other living being on any world or any Realm has ever had, came from here. And here, they are real.”
Beth paused to blast two more of the creatures to ash with her powers. “Why are they coming after us like this?”
JD’s knife tore into one of the monsters, and it howled. Beth hoped never to hear a sound like that again.
“Because of me. Because I was afraid something like this would happen, and so it did. And because,” JD bumped into her as he jumped out of the way of another monster’s talons, “and because the Lords of this place still haven’t quite forgiven me.”
“Because you wouldn’t let them use you to destroy the world?”
“A world, ours. Earth. But yeah,” JD said. “Because of that.” He hissed in pain as one of the claws caught his left arm and cut him through the leather jacket. “Bastard! This is my favorite jacket!”
Another creature burst into flames on Beth’s side of things, and she could see in the momentary light that more were pouring out of the shadowy buildings on either side. “For every one we cut down, ten more arrive!”
“Well, yeah,” JD swore as he cut at the monster that had injured him. “What did you expect? We’re in the place where nightmares come from. We can’t win.”
“So, what then?” Beth glanced wildly over her shoulder at him for a moment, “We just give up and die?”
“We cheat,” even in the very faint starlight she could hear his evil grin. “Get ready to run.”
“When?” Beth blasted another monster as it reached for her.
“You’ll know,” JD said. “Now cover me for a moment. I have to concentrate.”
“Uh!” Beth started blasting as fast as she could, trying to give the man room to do whatever it was he was planning on doing.
Later, Beth would reflect that JD was right, there was no missing what happened. One moment there was nothing but darkness and monsters and the flashes of her plasma bolts. The next moment there was something else there; a light.
An intense, golden-white light so bright it blinded her momentarily even though she wasn’t looking directly at it when it appeared. It floated several feet above the ground, an oval of intense, eye-searing illumination roughly eight feet from top to bottom. It quickly dimmed until it was merely eye-wateringly painful to look at, rather than actually retina damaging. In the center was a figure, she thought. Roughly man-shaped, it seemed, although the light was so bright it was impossible to get a good look at the thing. All she could get were fleeting impressions; a vaguely human-shaped being, with something floating behind it like wings made from the same stuff as the Aurora Borealis, a thing that might have been a flaming sword in one hand, the face indistinct and possibly hidden in a hood or cowl. The light and the figure both seemed to move like liquid, although the light never became less intense after that first dimming.
With the light and the being there came a feeling. When trying to describe it later, Beth would say that it felt like beauty and joy and purity and it was so incredibly alien and cold that she shuddered with dread even as her heart yearned to approach and kneel at the being’s feet. But even as she would tell people this, she knew it was doing an injustice to the feeling coming off that thing. Mere human words could never hope to accurately portray it.
And then there came a sound. It was as if 16,000 French Horns, amplified to jet engine levels, went off at the same time. And although to Beth it was just noise, horrible, deafening noise, she sensed that there was meaning to it, as if that sound was somehow speech. She did not, and could not, know what it meant, but she nearly wet herself in terror. Somehow, this one being of glowing light was infinitely more frightening than all the hordes of monsters that surrounded her and JD.
The monsters must have felt the same way, for en masse, they turned to flee.
The glowing thing proved that it was a sword in it’s hand. It began to slaughter the monsters.
“Run,” JD said so quietly she wasn’t sure she heard him. But they both ran.
Behind them, the screams of dying monsters were drowned out by another of those awe and dread inspiring trumpet blasts. JD grabbed her hand as they ran, and yanked her around the first corner they came to. “Hang on,” he panted, “I’ll get us out of here.”
“Please,” Beth said, “Please.” She wasn’t even sure what she was begging for. As terrified as she was, a part of her still wanted to go back and kneel before that glowing being and wait for the sword to fall. A part of her felt she deserved it.
And then suddenly, they were out of the dark nightmare world. It was cold, snow on the ground and a weak winter sun hiding behind some thin grey clouds overhead. The buildings surrounding them were brick, and the cars that drove past were inhabited by people. Beth leaned against the wall behind her and shook for a while.
JD stayed standing, although bent over with his hands on his knees, panting. “Fuck,” he declared, and Beth could find no fault with his assessment. After a time, he stood and inspected his arm. “Gonna need stitches,” he said.”C’mon, let’s find out where we are and how much it’s gonna cost you to get us home.”
But Beth wasn’t ready to lose her spot on the wall just yet. “What was that thing?” she asked.
JD chewed on his lower lip for a moment as he considered how to respond to that. Finally he shrugged and said, “An angel.”
“An angel? Then why did you make us run?”
JD laughed darkly at the question. “Did you FEEL it?” he asked. “People have this image of angels these days. Guardian angels, looking out for you and preventing you from stubbing your toe or whatever. Have you ever stubbed your toe? Then you should have a fairly good idea that that is not really what angels are all about.” He found a spot a few feet from Beth and leaned against the wall also. “That thing was not a happy, hippie angel full of peace and goodwill and all that. That was an agent of Pure Holiness. That was the thing that threw it’s own brothers into Hell for ever because they sinned once. That is the thing that kicked Adam and Eve out of Eden and barred the door with a flaming sword because they sinned once. That is the thing that will one day mount itself upon a pale horse and kill every living thing in the Universe because it is told to. It is utterly and completely devoted to Good, and if you’ve ever sinned once, it is not your friend. If you’ve ever had an impure thought, or stolen a stick of gum when you were a kid. If you’ve ever taken a pen home from the office, or looked at the ass of your neighbor. If you’ve ever told a white lie, or said ‘God damnit’ even once, you are a sinner and that THING will be more than happy to cleanse you. That THING and it’s kin are why the word ‘awful’ has come to mean ‘bad’ rather than ‘full of awe.’ It has no compassion, it has no humanity, it has no sympathy. It went after the monsters first because they were more evil than we are, but make no mistake. When it was done with them, it would have come after us if we had stuck around.”
“Then why in God’s name did you bring it there?” Beth was oblivious to the irony of her question.
“Because,” JD stood up from the wall and offered her a hand, “That’s now my powers work. I am tied to Nightmare. I can’t summon up happy fluffy unicorns, I can only summon up the types of unicorns that use their horns to do horrible things to virgins and then eat their flesh. I had to summon something that the monsters were afraid of. And every evil thing in the Realms is afraid of those angels. Even you felt it, and you had no idea what it was.”
Beth stared at him in horror for a moment. “I… you told me before about the nightmare thing, but I never really got it. I never really understood. That’s… horrible.”
JD shrugged as he began to walk up the street, “Welcome to my life.”