Francesca hasn’t fallen. There’s nowhere to fall. She’s in a place between the pull of gravity and the listless drift of space. She’s between light and dark, perfectly able to see there’s nothing to see.
Except the Stalker. She’s alone with it, in emptiness. Nothing separates them. It is enormous, grotesque, all razor beaks and scaled eyes and claw-tipped tentacles spilling like overripe guts from a giant cat’s corpse. This nightmare consumes whole civilisations, she’s heard. And yet to Francesca it’s small and intimate, like a killer she has known all her life.
She knows she has to run before it sees her.
She looks at her feet. Now she’s standing on a path leading away from the Stalker.
Alison Trent can’t return to the dreamscape, not since she killed Bob. The Yau Phyter, whom she’d understandably mistaken for a parasitic demon, was her tether between reality and humanity’s shared psychic bolthole, until Alison kicked them to death in her panic.
She can’t join the celebration. All around her, sleepers are emerging from the grip of horror, of a long-clenched throat suddenly released and channelling breath once more. The Stalker is gone. For years, all of humanity has been hunkered in solitary confinement, locked down through an extinction emergency, their numbers and hope eroding like a hurricane-chewed coast. The Yau have endured this crisis a millionfold times over.
For nearly everyone, the nightmare has ended. Not for Alison. A chilling certainty haunts her.
“Francesca isn’t dead. We have to save her.”
The Stalker is following Francesca. Its nature is to hunt and consume. Its relentlessness is a quality she understands, even respects, having remade herself as a predator.
Respect is one thing, but she isn’t reckless. She needs a place to hide, and her sanctuary appears in the shape of a forest. It is a shadowed, ancient place. Older than animal tracks. Older than birdsong.
She plunges into the gloom between the gnarled trunks of ageless giants, into dense and labyrinthine underbrush. Damp moss sinks underfoot, springing back as she passes, leaving no tracks. She navigates by instinct, ducking through gaps in the thicket, forging paths meant only for herself. Some distance behind, its howl is part ferocious threat, part confusion.
The Stalker doesn’t understand this place, but Francesca has begun to.
Alison’s ready to scream at her translators. She can only see the human half of the Gale/Jasper hybrid, who looks like a cartoon mad scientist with owlish eyes, wild beard and scorch marks. Between slow blinks, Caspian Gale summarises what they are saying about her in the dreamscape. “You’re mad.”
“I’m sad we lost Francesca Kincaid. We all are. Everyone left alive owes her a debt. But it took everything we had to slice the universe open and dump the Stalker into the irrational space outside. It would be suicidal insanity to reopen it just to fish for her corpse.”
“She’s still alive,” she insists.
“How can you possibly know that?”
“I haven’t felt her die yet.”
There are no paths, but Francesca forges a path of least resistance and follows it to a mountain.
The forest becomes gloomier than ever. Thick twisting branches prop up a dense canopy blocking out a sun she’s only just become aware of, as it recedes into the impenetrably leafy overhead mass.
Steepness rapidly gives way to sheerness. Francesca climbs and soon emerges above the trees to see the forest sweep away behind her and the mountain loom forth. Unhesitating, she closes her fingers around protruding rocks and hauls herself up. It’s slow, but it’s progress. She keeps climbing, mindful that the Stalker has neither hastened its pursuit not relented from it. It’s not far away, but has gained no ground.
She wonders why it has not sought to close the gap. It’s a troubling question, but she has no plans to indulge it by waiting for the Stalker to find her.
“Trent might be right.”
Most of what’s left of humanity has woken up. Only a handful of Francesca’s trusted crew remain in the dreamscape. Nera Skogg inherited their leadership from Francesca. The Yau half of the Gale/Jasper hybrid regards her with grave skepticism.
“The aperture hasn’t fully closed,” observes Nera. To demonstrate, she manipulates the dreamspace, replicating an image of the crack in reality. Like most of her audience, Nera was taught the craft of shaping the Yau’s dream environment by Francesca, for the singular purpose of destroying the Yau. “It’s an abscess that won’t heal. Too small for the Stalker to return but-”
Gale/Jasper considers the almost imperceptible warp Nera has conjured. “You believe this is evidence of life?”
“It took all of us to open that hole. After the Stalker fell through, we weren’t equal to the task of closing it.”
“Because you lacked Francesca’s power?”
“No. We think it’s because she’s resisting.”
The summit is icy and windswept. Murderously cold, but Francesca doesn’t feel it.
Her Stalker is just below, and now at last it gathers momentum, now she’s reached the top to find she has nowhere else to go. Up close, its hunger is as palpable as the scrape of its hide on the rock face.
“If you eat me, you’ll have nothing left,” she calls, sounding calmer than she feels. “You’ll be all alone.”
She feels pragmatic rather than sympathetic. The first thing she learned from the Yau nightmare realm was how to change it. In this place, hers is the only intelligent will, and she is its queen.
Below, the forest fills with the sounds and smells of life. Birds and animals, crying and calling. The Stalker hesitates, drawn by the cacophony. It turns from Francesca to begin a new hunt.
“All you can eat,” she says, though she can’t be sure anything she’s made is real. “You’re welcome.”
The air before her shimmers – not her doing – and something slips through from the other side, carried on the whisper of her name.
Francesca takes the rope in both hands.
She lets them bring her home.
For anyone who hasn’t been following along, this is the last-but-one story in a sequence: Works Like A Dream, Any Dream Will Do, Alison’s Awake, The Nightmare Bargain and Everyone Dreams, Nobody Quits. If I’m right – and I won’t know for sure until it’s written – there’s one more dream war story to tell.