Shaper of Dreams
By John Cash
Grace Corey was not much given to dreaming. At the very least, she made no appreciable effort to recall any nocturnal flight of fancy in the hard light of day. Attaching even a minimal sort of significance to such fantasy was, in her clinical ordering of everyday human phenomena, the province of the weak, the frustrated, and the simple—and Grace was certainly none of those things. She understood the concept of escapism well enough, had manipulated that need in others on more than one occasion herself, be it through telepathic influence or more prosaic means. But Grace possessed the resources, the power, and—most importantly—the will to shape the waking world in accordance with her desires. What was the value of the hollow conjurings of her sleeping brain, compared to such fulfilling reality? Precisely nothing.
And so, when she seemed to open her eyes and found herself in an endless, grayish-green swamp rather than her own luxurious bed, her reaction was one of simple exasperation. How, exactly, had her mind managed to come up with such an appallingly dismal geography? Nothing but briny marsh for as far as she could see in any direction. Which wasn’t at all far, since the whole repulsive mess was wreathed in a heavy, clinging mist that reeked like a thousand rotting fish in an especially close market square. Even so, here and there Grace took note of titanic monoliths and pillars of stone standing out as dark silhouettes in the diffused light of her dream-bog. The nearest of these she spared some passing scrutiny, but only for about as long as it took her to make a brief catalogue of the relevant facts: it was ugly, irregularly fashioned, sheathed in slime and grasping tendrils of seaweed, and resembled nothing so much as a somewhat twisted, laughably oversized phallus.
Grace’s lips curved into smile. It was so very trite, really. Next, the ancient Professor Morgan was going to appear and declare his irresistible passion for her, right before he tried to give her a spanking. Could her unconscious mind possibly be that pedestrian?
Her ruminations were interrupted when she noticed that the oppressive humidity of this particularly abysmal phantom landscape was causing the sheer nightgown she had worn to bed to cling to her in variously uncomfortable ways. Uncomfortable, but perhaps highly flattering under the right circumstances—not to mention useful. Nevertheless, since this was a make-believe world, and there didn’t appear to be anybody else around to benefit from the enhanced view anyway, comfort was clearly her priority. With a thought she banished her insubstantial sleepwear in favor of her more durable, but scarcely more concealing, “work attire”.
Perhaps dispensing with the expensive peignoir had been the prudent move, too. Being forced to drag it through all this muck might have tweaked her ossified heartstrings just a little. If the present scenario had been anything more than a particularly insipid figment of her apparently sorely underutilized imagination, at any rate.
A scenario which had worn out what minimal novelty it could boast scant seconds after Grace had taken its measure. It seemed high time she banished the repellent vista in favor of some more congenial surroundings. Closing her eyes, Grace recalled the avenue des Champs Élysées and the sights and smells of Paris in the summer. But, to her surprise and profound disappointment, when she looked again all she could see was that same abominable, filth-choked swamp with its wretched fog and absurd rock formations. Frowning, she tried again, this time picturing a quaint Florentine Palazzo she had rented some years ago, and the high balconies from which she had watched the sun set over the Duomo. This time she concentrated intently on the images, expending a great deal more psychic effort than should have been necessary.
Again, when she hazarded a glance, there was nothing to see but a small infinity of dreary slime and dark spikes of algae-covered stone.
Now Grace was on her guard. Even during her infrequent dreams, she had never for an instant doubted in her mastery of her own mind. Abjuring the gruesome setting before her should have been child’s play, and yet it remained, unaltered. And growing increasingly more menacing by the moment.
Which opened a new and disturbing possibility: her unconscious had been invaded by another intelligence. An extremely powerful one, too, to have resisted her attempts to transform the dreamscape with such facility. The list of psychics capable of such a feat was an extremely short one, and Grace could not for the life of her fathom why any one of them would bother. Nor did such a macabre environment seem at all in keeping with their established tastes and proclivities.
A new player, then. The thought did nothing to assuage Grace’s increasing sense of concern, although she was sure the icy composure of her dream-avatar remained firmly in place.
Nevertheless, as though in response to her unease, there was a sudden shifting of the waterlogged earth beneath her feet. Except that it wasn’t actually a physical shift, but instead more an overwhelming certainty that something, somewhere under the unspeakably vile vision of a marsh, was moving. Shifting, as if caught up in a restless slumber of its own. Something vast and far, far more terrible than any nightmare she’d had since the age of six. It was as if every strange noise and slithering shadow that had once haunted her lonely room had been set before her anew.
When the voice came, it drove Grace to her knees.
UTKSLA’PKIGN MKLIF RWTHU, NGA’KSEEN W’KM’MA FUUSHTI?
Grace’s first thought, once her vision had cleared and her brain was capable of formulating something more articulate than a muted groan of anguish, was that someone must have detonated a small explosive device in her skull. The second was that she had just been contacted by some psionic entity whose mere attempt at communication had battered down her telepathic shields as though her resistance were no greater that that of the dullest throwback. The message itself had torn through her brain—through every neuron, or so it felt—like a psychic hurricane. She wanted very badly to throw up, and wondered if the nausea would remain once she finally succeeded in snapping herself out of this nightmare.
It was probably a good thing that the communication had been entirely mind-to-mind, she reflected with grim amusement. If it hadn’t, she might have been obliged to ponder inconvenient questions, like what the devil that excruciating babble had meant. Grace had certainly never encountered anything remotely similar even in her most exotic travels. Which might have explained why the “words” still echoing through the vaults of her consciousness sounded as though they could only be emulated by human vocal apparatus with extreme difficulty—and the accompanying danger of a dislocated jaw.
“I’m sorry, darling,” she said at last, with all the dignity and scorn she could muster despite her throbbing temples and the rasp of her voice in her own ears, “but could you possibly repeat that? I’m afraid my command of gibberish isn’t what it used to be.” It didn’t help Grace’s effort to recover her hauteur that she had no obvious target against which to direct her disdain, except for the ground. But addressing herself to a mud puddle would have been a great deal more undignified, so thin air would have to do.
MGWULI PTKA’HI NGOT’A LKU!
That second, thunderous declaration was even more brutal than the first, the telepathic equivalent of a vertiginous ride down the face of a mountain inside a giant working centrifuge, complete with regular, painful electric shocks and a dozen or so centipedes wriggling beneath her scalp for good measure. Or such was the best analogy Grace could formulate at the time. Sometime between “ptka” and “Hi,” she seemed to have come very close to passing out—and what happened to a person when they fainted in their dreams, exactly?—only barely catching herself on outstretched palms before she landed face-first in the foul, viscous sludge.
She rested on her hands and knees for awhile, gagging silently and wondering not for the first time just what this was all about. It did not seem like a deliberate effort at torture. Grace was gradually coming under the disquieting impression that if it had been, she would not be nearly so well off. If anything, she’d have supposed that the something drowsing under the swamp was trying to talk to her. She’d always been capable of captivating all sorts of people and holding them spellbound for as long as she cared to, even without recourse to her mental gifts. But she’d never seriously contemplated the remote possibility that this particular asset could ever have become such a curse.
Just her good luck, then.
Rising, Grace brushed the grime from her hands and knees, resisting the urge to straighten her hair since the last thing she needed at this moment was to go quite literally dirty blond. She couldn’t even think the muck away; whatever indulgence had allowed her to re-imagine her clothing earlier had apparently been completely withdrawn. Obviously, whoever or whatever had initiated this shared psychic experience wanted Grace to have no illusions about which of them was in charge. However grudgingly, she had to give him credit for that. Or her. Or it. The point was, she’d have done nothing less, had their roles been reversed.
Returning her expression to one of supreme disinterest, a sudden tickling sensation between her nose and upper lip caused her to brush the area with the relatively clean back of her forefinger. A familiar feeling of warmth and stickiness brought her to examine the slender digit through narrowed eyes.
Blood. Her nose was bleeding. Wonderful.
“You certainly know how to keep your guests entertained, whoever you are,” Grace noted to nobody in particular, though she was sure it was listening. “Now that we’ve established that you can liquefy my entire cerebrum just by saying hello, do you suppose we might try a little constructive discourse? I’m sure your time is valuable—and I know mine certainly is—so let’s not waste any more of it with infantile demonstrations of how astonishingly mighty we are.”
It probably hadn’t been necessary to press her point quite that far; nevertheless, death by psychic overload did not appear to be imminent. Indeed, for several moments, there was only dead silence—which was odd, since one would usually expect to hear any number of raucous things like insects or birds in a swamp.
She was just beginning to think that her unseen companion might have deserted her when from under the ground there came a muffled sound, alternately high-pitched and guttural, which Grace could only liken to a thousand cats being systematically tortured to death in a saw mill. The urge to shudder at the gruesome cacophony was strong, but she suppressed it ruthlessly.
“Pfrign hthle’Ngri mgwamu Ut’krsha, thful Mwrag’a cth’li.”
That was definitely a step in the right direction, and Grace resisted the impulse to smirk. Which wasn’t at all difficult, since the voice in her head still left her feeling vaguely queasy. Planting her muddy hands on her hips and assuming a posture of diminishing patience, she said, “Speak sensibly or not at all, darling. I find one-sided conversations frightfully tiresome.” Unless she were the one doing all the talking, of course.
Another silence descended, and then she felt the presence of alien thoughts intruding upon her mind. The impression they left was horrific, like greasy, barbed serpents writhing through her consciousness, and she reflexively threw up her telepathic shields anew to block them out. The effort was wasted, however; it was like trying to catch water in a butterfly net. They snaked and slimed their way through her strongest blocks as though they weren’t even there, not breaching them so much as ignoring them altogether. Grace could not remember having ever felt so profoundly, so utterly violated, and before she could stop it she found she had folded her arms tightly beneath her breasts, holding her midsection in a protective hug.
“You are bold, Grace Helena Corey. That is good.”
Grace exhaled heavily, forcing her arms back down to her sides and chiding herself for not checking such a show of weakness sooner. Still, she was feeling more than a little pleased. Powerful this being might have been, but she had nonetheless succeeded in compelling it to engage her on her own terms.
“You compel nothing of me. I do what is expedient.”
That froze the subtle, triumphant smile that had been dawning on her face. Evidently, this was one who felt no qualms about scanning another’s mind without express permission. Grace expended as much energy as she could reinforcing her psychic defenses while still retaining some measure of cool coherency. “Who are you?”
“Beyond your comprehension.”
Things did not appear to be getting off to a smooth start. Although that probably shouldn’t have surprised her, by that point. “What do you want?” she demanded directly.
“If you brought me here to make an offer, darling, then by all means do so,” Grace replied with renewed confidence. So this was a negotiation. Familiar territory, at last.
Again came that subterranean squealing, chuffing, grunting noise, which Grace was beginning to suspect was something like laughter. The thought made her feel mildly ill.
“You are suitable. You are as We were.”
“Which means what, exactly?”
“Free. Beyond good and evil, laws and morals. Serving no master, save your own desires. And now Me.”
Grace, though somewhat taken aback by the observation, managed a fairly immediate response. “I’m flattered. But I don’t recall agreeing to serve anybody.”
“I don’t recall giving you a choice.”
That remark, and the unconscionable lack of regard it expressed for the primacy of that free will the thing in the ground had been lauding only a moment ago, put Grace back on the defensive. She might have been willing to hear the mental parasite out, might even have given its proposal serious consideration, if the terms had been good, since she was plainly dealing with an entity of staggering power. But she would not be forced into anything, not even opulent servitude—which she had no reason to believe, as of that moment, was even on the table.
The disembodied voice droned on.
“You will be My emissary, carrying My message to others. You will teach them to be free, to revel in the exercise of their own will without care or conscience. To be gods on earth, fit votaries for My rites when My time comes again.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Rejoice, Grace Corey, for you are My prophet.”
“No.” Grace spoke the word with all the considerable conviction she could bring to bear. Whatever was speaking to her, it meant her no good, nor her students, nor anybody else on the planet. Grace would far prefer to be damned by her own actions and for her own reasons, not as a slave to this loathsome thing. “You cannot make me do this,” she added, with a touch of petulance.
“There’s no reward or threat you can offer that could possibly coerce me. I’ll die before I lift so much as a finger to assist you.”
“What need have I for rewards? Or threats? And what is death? A chemical imbalance, a broken electrical fuse. Molding your flesh is a simple thing. It will serve Me for as long as it is useful.”
Grace set her jaw grimly, her body rigid. Uncertainty, unease, even the basic impulse for self-preservation were all subsumed by the defiant resolution of her will not to bend. “I will not. You may compel me for a little while, but no matter how long it takes I will be free. And once I am, I won’t rest until I find some way to strike back at you. You’ve been inside my head, you disgusting, burrowing swamp-worm. You know what I say is true.”
“Your understanding is flawed. It is already done.”
She arched an eyebrow with frigid curiosity. She certainly didn’t feel like the helpless servitor of this crawling slime. “Oh?”
“I told you: molding your flesh is simple. While I have been communicating with you, when I pulled your language from your mind, all this time I have been shaping your malleable tissues to suit My purposes.”
The mask cracked, if only slightly. “I don’t believe you.” Surely she would have noticed tampering on such a scale. It simply wasn’t possible, not through her shields, her blocks, her simple awareness of what was going on inside her own head. The very idea was ludicrous.
“What you believe is irrelevant. Go.”
She opened her mouth to protest, perhaps offer some incisive reply, but her words were lost in the sudden rush of wind as Grace was swept bodily into the air, cast aloft through the power of unseen agencies. Rising to dizzying heights, she stared down in oddly-detached bemusement as the swamp shrank below her, revealing a sprawling, fog-bound metropolis that had been invisible from the ground. As she rose still farther, she realized that what lay beneath her was no city, but a massive and baroque tomb of titanic dimensions, and what she had believed to be a bog had in fact been the uppermost surface of the central sarcophagus.
Higher and higher Grace plummeted through the sky, perceiving the island on which the crypt-city had been built, then the vast ocean around it, and then the familiar shapes of the continents as they appeared on schoolhouse globes. All too quickly, she was passing the moon by, sailing on and on, her body falling away until only her mind was left intact, careening eternally through space with nothing save the light of strange, dim stars for companionship. And all the time, a single phrase resounded, chanted over and over again like a mantra as it was borne along with her on that cosmic gale.
“Cthulhu fhtagn . . .”
Grace Corey was not much given to dreaming, and last night had been no exception. Stretching languidly beneath silk bed sheets, she breathed a contented sigh and continued to doze until the rising sun outside her window warmed the air and bed too much for comfort. With a small, vaguely disconsolate sound, she rose, sliding her feet into her waiting slippers and belting an ephemeral robe of gleaming white satin about her waist.
As she passed by her bedroom mirror, she paused, fingers lighting with some shock on her upper lip. Judging by the dry, black trail descending from one nostril all the way down to her chin, it appeared that her nose had been bleeding—and somewhat profusely—at some time during the night. Tsking quietly to herself, Grace made for her private bath. It simply would not do to go down to breakfast with her otherwise flawless face so marred. Still, it was a minor thing. Perhaps she would mention it to the infirmary nurses later, if she remembered, and solicit their opinion.
It was going to be a good day, Grace was certain of that. It would be productive and pleasant because she would tolerate nothing less. Whether teaching a class or discharging her various duties as dean of Miskatonic University’s Department of Applied Psionics, her will was inexorable, once she had set its course. There was so much for the new students to learn: of their powers, and how to use them; of the world, and their place in it. Young demigods, full of potential beyond the dreams of most mortal creatures, and all looking to her for guidance. It was a heady elixir.
She would not lead them astray.
John Cash was born from a cloud of spores, grossly miseducated, and will probably die someday only to rise again as a vengeful swamp-mummy thing.
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