Your bare feet slap against cold bricks as you run through the clammy darkness, nightdress streaming behind you, terror gripping your heart. You glance over your shoulder, eyes wildly scanning the deserted street, but there’s nothing there. Your chest burns, your breath comes in ragged gasps, your feet are bleeding, and your legs are soaked from splashing through puddles of street water. You don’t care about any of those things. Your singular purpose is to keep running. You cannot stop, for you are being pursued by death.
But this is the end of the story—or perhaps it’s still somewhere in the middle. In any event, it’s certainly not the beginning, and stories require beginnings. This particular story began earlier tonight, when you lay down on your humble cot and fixed your eyes on a stranger a few beds away, already sleeping, greasy black hair spilling over his pillow. You entered his dream and saw him planning to kill the Emperor.
But that wasn’t really the beginning either, was it? Not the true beginning, anyway. No, this story began many years ago, the moment your heart started beating in your mother’s womb. This is the story of your life—your strange, unnatural life that forces you to intrude upon the dreams of strangers in your pursuit of respite from the night.
You have not had a single dream of your own in your entire life, and yet, dreams are as essential to you as water. Without dreams, you cannot fall asleep. Without dreams, you lie awake all night, your storm-tossed vessel of a mind unable to find a harbor in which to repose.
Since you cannot produce your own dreams, and you cannot sleep without them, you seek refuge in the dream-worlds of those around you. You have always been able to enter the dreams of those sleeping in your immediate vicinity. It is as natural to you as breathing. It always has been. It wasn’t until you grew up that you learned just how unnatural it is to step into another person’s dream—and just how unnatural you are for being able to do it.
You do rather enjoy dreaming, for through dreams, you have explored lands more wondrous than words. But you tread carefully through dreams, because they are not simple visions of the night, banished by the sun like morning vapors. There is substance in dreams. You learned this as a child, the first time you saw your marmalade cat.
You were young when you first saw the cat. Your cat. You met him in a dream; he came running up to you and rubbed against your leg. You played with him all night, running you fingers through his thick, orange fur over and over. And then the next day, there he was, sitting on your fence in the waking-world, looking at you with his big, golden-green eyes. You couldn’t believe it, but it was him; he had the same funny little black freckle on his nose. Could the cat really have been conceived in the dream-world and birthed into the waking-world?
Of course, you weren’t really skeptical. How could you be, when night after night you were already doing the impossible: entering the dreams of other people. It wasn’t that far of a leap to think that dreams and reality were somehow intertwined. It wasn’t long before you started noticing the effects of your dreams all around you.
Your cat keeps coming back to you though. Maybe once a year, you’ll see an orange blotch of color out of the corner of your eye in the waking-world, and you’ll turn to see him looking at you with his brilliant eyes, head always cocked off to the left. You’ll go up to him, close enough to see the freckle on his nose, and the two of you will remain motionless for a moment, staring into each other’s eyes. You never touch him, too afraid to break the spell. And then he’ll blink once, meow, and pace off.
You think of him as your guardian. When you see him watching you, it somehow reassures you that you are on the right path. Your life has become a crazy, shattered, confusing thing—blurred kaleidoscope days revolving around spectacularly vivid nights. But when you see your cat, you get the feeling that you have some purpose through it all, some part to play.
When you moved out of your childhood home, life became difficult. Without the faithful assurance of your parents’ dreams to enter night after night, you had to start sleeping in close proximity to strangers, so that you could share their dreams. This stark fact of life has brought you to many places, one of them a hostel. You like the hostel, because it is always filled with people, and therefore, always filled with dreams.
And so, our story returns to earlier tonight, when you met in a dream, a man as strange as yourself. You hadn’t seen this man at the hostel before, so naturally you decided to enter his dream. You discovered that this man can make his own dream-worlds. He can spin dreams out of the fibers of his mind and wrap them around himself like a garment, enveloping himself in his own creations. Tonight, you saw him dreaming of the Emperor’s upcoming processional, to take place in just a few days’ time in the waking-world. He was using his dream to plan how he would assassinate the Emperor. He was practicing it over and over.
He saw you—he sensed you somehow—intruding on his dream, and he approached you. He must have seen in your eyes that you understood perfectly what he was planning to do, and you, in turn, saw in his eyes a murderous purpose. If he was planning to kill the Emperor, he certainly would not be bothered by killing you, a strange girl who had discovered his secret.
You had awoken in a panic, half-expecting him to already be standing over your cot, leering down at you. But he wasn’t. He was still sleeping in the same position, head turned away from you. You didn’t think to even put your shoes or coat on, and you only dared to glance back once as you were closing the hostel’s door behind yourself. He appeared to still be asleep, but he was moving around a bit. He must not be able to wake up from dreams as instantly as you can.
You don’t know how much of a head start you have. Five minutes? One minute? Less? It doesn’t matter. You don’t know where you’re going. That doesn’t matter either. You know that if he catches up to you, you will die, so the only thing that matters is that you keep running, as fast as you can.
You blindly sprint around a corner, and BAM! A thousand tiny stars erupt into your vision as you are knocked off your feet, laid flat out onto your back. More stars burst into existence as your head hits the cold, unyielding street, almost blinding you. You ran into something. No. You were hit by something. You were hit by someone. Your breathing gets faster, shallower, as panic wraps you in its embrace.
Oh no, oh no, oh no!
You try to push yourself up, but lifting your head causes pain to explode into your skull and shoot down your spine. An involuntary cry escapes your lips. You blink your eyes furiously as you lay on the ground, trying to clear your vision. The tiny points of light start to recede, you squint upward fuzzily, and there he is.
The Spinner of Dreams looks down at you, still holding the vicious wooden plank he hit you with as you ran around the corner. His features are sharp, angular, almost beautiful—high cheekbones and pronounced brow framed by long, black hair. His features would be beautiful, if they weren’t so cruel. Heartless, brutal malice emanates from him, making his delicate features hideous, like shattered stained-glass.
“You know I can’t let you live. You know that, don’t you? You understand?” His voice is high and soft, like a hangman’s noose made of silk.
“I just want you to understand,” he continued. “I would very much like to get to know you, for you and I are rare creatures. But you are endangering my work. And I cannot let anything endanger my work. You understand, don’t you?”
You say nothing, but the firecracker pain in your skull and spine is slowly receding. You think you might be able to move. The Spinner of Dreams lifts his beam and brings it plunging down toward your head. You roll to the side and, somehow, get your feet underneath you. The dark street swoops and careens around you as the pain comes roaring back. You grit your teeth and squint to hold it at bay.
You know you can’t run now. You throw yourself at him, and the two of you thud to the ground, your bodies turning a puddle of street water into a splattering wave. Limbs are flailing, torsos twisting, hair snagging. You catch his sharp jaw with a fist. You’ve never fought anyone in your life. You have no idea what you’re doing. You throw your fist again, harder, and you feel a wet, sickly crunch as his nose collapses.
He shrieks in pain and throws you to the side. As you’re struggling to get up, he kicks you, hard, and you feel one of your ribs break. The snap is crisp and sharp, as if the bone were no more than a slender piece of driftwood. As you’re gasping, crumpled on the ground, his boot strikes you again, right in the same spot. You scream, clutching your side. Agony is all you know. You see his boots coming toward you again, and you roll, over and over, desperately trying to put space between the two of you. Pain bursts through your upper body as your ribs grind together in ways they’re not meant to.
You let your momentum carry you until you bump into rough brick—some sort of pedestal at the edge of the street—and he’s right there, hauling you up by the back of your nightdress. You feel one of his hands gripping the back of your head, and he rams your face down into the edge of the pedestal. You feel another bone snap and break, just below your right eye this time.
You blindly reach behind you, flailing, grabbing, desperately clutching at anything you can reach. Your fingers close on several tresses of his long hair. You twist them in your hand, intertwining his locks through your fingers, and pull as fiercely as you can. His head jolts to the side, and you feel more than a few strands of his hair come out in your grasp. He releases his hold on you for a moment, and you stagger backward, reeling, doubled over from pain that seems to be coming from every part of your body. You see that boot flying toward you again, but you can’t react in time. You feel another rib snap.
It’s too much. It’s just too much.
You collapse onto the ground. Your body seems to have lost its ability to move. Above you, bleak and deserted buildings seem to be looking down, indifferently observing your death. Everything hurts. It’s too much. Dimly, you see the Spinner of Dreams crouching down, picking something up off the street. His plank, you realize. This is almost over.
Something is filling your mouth, making it hard to breathe. Blood. You weakly roll your head to the side and try to spit it out, but it just dribbles down your cheek.
And then you see an orange blotch of color.
There he is, perched on the same pedestal that has your blood all over it, head cocked to the left like it always is, peering down at you with big, brilliant, golden-green eyes.
Your marmalade cat.
The whole world seems to stop. You stare as he jumps lightly off the pedestal and paces toward you. His fur is a meadow of gold grass. He stands over you, his dazzling eyes as serene as the ocean on a calm summer day. He opens his mouth and licks his nose where his little black freckle is, and then he lowers his head and licks your cheek.
Your entire being is electrified by the feeling of that little sandpaper tongue. It is the first time the two of you have ever touched in the waking-world.
Then he meows once, turns his eyes upward, and the world comes suddenly back into sharp, agonizing focus. You follow your cat’s gaze and see the Spinner of Dreams standing over you once again. He has his wooden beam in hand. Blood runs down his face from his broken nose, making his cruel features even more ugly. You turn your head to look back at your cat, just to make sure he’s still there. Just to make sure he’s real.
He’s still there, sitting beside you, looking calmly up at the murderer standing above you. Would-be murderer. He’s standing right at your feet, which are ripped to shreds from running through half the city in the middle of the night with no shoes on. You lift your leg, soaking, cold, shaking, and with every bit of strength you have left, you sweep it toward him, bringing your heel crashing into the side of his knee. You feel something in his knee shift, and you kick again, as hard as you can, aiming directly at the front of his knee. There is a pop that you feel more than you hear, and his leg starts bending curiously. His lips part, and then stretch wide, as a surprised shriek morphs into a long, agonized howl. He lurches forward and topples.
You need to go now.
You push yourself shakily to your feet and stumble off down the street, leaving the Spinner of Dreams behind you, crying and clutching his knee.
You make your way slowly through the avenues of the still-sleeping city. The skies leisurely lighten.
A hospital. You need to find a hospital.
You need to tell someone that the Emperor is in danger.
You’re so tired.
Suddenly, light hits your face. You’ve come around a corner and found yourself at one of the highest points of the city, facing east. You can see everything, latticework streets laid out below you, smoke rising from chimneys, glistening streams and rolling hills in the distance. The sun is rising, beautiful, pure, warm. Leaning wearily against the side of a building, you squint blearily into the light. A gentle breeze touches your face, refreshing you. It’s so beautiful.
You look down, blinking. Your marmalade cat is pacing back and forth at your feet, rubbing against your leg. He is as brilliant a shade of orange as the rising sun. You reach down slowly, gingerly, painfully to pet him. You feel tears welling up behind your eyes. Joyous tears. You blink them back but they come anyway, spilling down your face as you run your fingers back and forth through his thick fur. Your cat looks up at you with his big, tranquil eyes that are deeper than the sea. Your guardian. Your partner. Your friend.
You hope he never leaves.