Actions

Work Header

A Little Fear is a Good Thing

Chapter Text

Chapter 1: Of Beaches and Sand

 

“You have wakened not out of sleep, but into a prior dream, and that dream lies within another, and so on, to infinity, which is the number of grains of sand. The path that you are to take is endless, and you will die before you have truly awakened.” 
― Jorge Luis Borges, “The Writing of the God”

 

Some humans believe life began on a beach, that shallow tidal pools formed the perfect environment: saline water warmed by the sun; a complex brew of chemicals cradling a self-sustaining reaction; the tidal flux over low rock walls acting as the first semi-permeable cell membranes.

    The Corinthian doesn’t know. He was created after humans, because of humans, for humans.

    His life began on a beach. The infinite sky of the Dreaming stretching away above him, fading down to a pearly horizon. The waves sliding with oil-slick colours, the sand stretching into distance along with the city walls, their only interruption the towering gates, and before him: his creator. Skin paler than the nacre horizon, cold burning stars for eyes, and a shock of raven-black hair as his crown.

    Morpheus, Lord of the Dreaming. And the Corinthian, naïve in his first moments, looked upon him and found him beautiful. Morpheus gazed back with pride in his eyes and placed a cool hand on his face. “You are the Corinthian, my masterpiece. You will accomplish great things,” he said, voice rumbling through the Corinthian’s very bones.

    “What am I to accomplish?” he asked, leaning in towards his creator, as a plant might reach for the sun.

    “You are to be a mirror,” came the grave reply, as long fingers ghosted down his cheek. “A dark mirror, to reflect everything humanity will not confront.”

    The Corinthian blinked his teeth, passingly perturbed as they clacked shut over his vision, but he accepted it, as he accepted this vibrant world around him, the solemn creator before him, and his own, sudden, unexpected existence.

    He smiled, captivated by the points of light in his creator’s eyes. “So be it.”

 

This story starts on a beach.

    Let me paint the scene for you: warm briny air carries across foam-crested waves; sweet coconut cream rises from skin baking in the sun; the laughter of children trills through the air, songbird high in contrast to the shrieking of the gulls. The air is filled with flying objects: hand balls, inflatable balls, volley balls, kites, frisbees. A blond man weaves through the crowd on the promenade, he is unseasonably dressed, but no perspiration or discomfort can be evidenced from his amenable expression. Zipping by on the promenade, young men and women on roller-skates and rollerblades, others standing on small, motorised platforms - scooters without handles.

    One young woman in denim shorts rolls by, peering at the blond man over her shades. Possibly checking him out, possibly checking herself out in his sunglasses. He turns with a sly smile to watch her pass. “What will they think of next?” the Corinthian murmurs, before turning back to track his quarry.

    Has human civilisation always changed so fast? The last hundred and forty years have brought about so much transformation. He never tires of these creatures, endlessly fascinating as they rise from and fall back into dust. Each one of them a veritable feast of experiences.

    His quarry today is not one such, no. These days, he doesn’t just hunt for the thrill and satisfaction of it, nor for the quenching of his curiosity. These days, the Corinthian has plans, schemes, if you will, and at this moment he is pursuing an important piece for the game ahead. He has been on her tail for some time, chased her half across the planet and back, and now, for the first time, he can see her through his incisors.

    Rose Walker, the Vortex. A sweet young thing, by all accounts, and as pretty as her picture. He has let her loved ones live, so far. It would not do to make an enemy of her.

    She is with a human man. Another innocent, no challenge, no threat, but the Corinthian needs Rose alone for the delicate task of inspiring her trust with the right blend of honesty and… omission. After twenty minutes of strolling in the simmering afternoon sun, observing human and vortex pass out fliers, the two finally part ways. It seems it is to be a brief reprieve, so he makes haste to follow her into the shady alcove she has ventured into.

     Two voices. His steps falter. A raven. A raven of the Dreaming. Damn. She is already on Morpheus’ radar, already under his so-called ‘protection’; as dubious a blessing as it may prove to be.

     Well. This changes things.

     The Corinthian backs away and goes to find Rose’s friend. He smiles, takes a flier of the missing Walker boy, notes that this human is one of the species who finds him attractive, and tucks both pieces of information away for later.

    There is an item he must retrieve before he can resume his campaign. The last person who wore it was meant to defeat the Lord of Dreams. As he has not, and has not been heard of since, he can only assume that the pawn lost the protective amulet before confronting Morpheus. A foolish move.

    No matter. The Corinthian has always been gifted at finding people, and in the last hundred-and-forty years, has only grown better at it.

 

 

 

 The door chimes. Behind the desk, in front of a freshly painted wall, the clerk doesn’t look up. The Corinthian adjusts his dark glasses, and approaches.

    Around his chewing gum, the man asks, “What pump?” He frowns as he looks out the window to the artificially lit gas station; the forecourt sits empty, no cars in sight. “Wait, you walk here, man? Car trouble? Need a tow?”

    “Actually, there’s something else you can help me with.” The Corinthian smiles wider and pulls out his wallet, “There was an incident here, oh, about a week ago. Young man, sitting where you are now, just sorta, blew up. You know anything about that?”

    The clerk looks down at the wallet, “What’s it to you? Reporter?”

    “Let’s say I’m an investigator.” He leans in, “So, do you know anything, or not?”

    The clerk flicks his eyes up to meet the dark glasses, rubs under his nose thoughtfully. “Mighta watched the footage ‘fore I turned it over to the cops. Mighta made a copy, for the right price.”

    The Corinthian looks out at the empty car lot, and then slowly reaches into his jacket. “That’s alright. I don’t need a copy.”

 

 

The little yellow truck is parked in front of a worn-down brownstone. The sidewalk is cracked, trash bags are stacked up next to the communal bins, but someone’s taking excellent care of the flowerboxes in the windows.

    Rosemary, Samantha and Sarah are all in their beds, the sisters sharing a double in one small room, their mother alone in her bed in the other. Presumably because she could not choose between her children, Rosemary is still the one who wears the amulet. Which will make this that much easier.

    He enters the children’s room and makes sure they are fast asleep. Makes sure they stay looping in restless dreams. The rottweiler comes trotting into the room, head held level with its body, hackles up, a low growl in its throat. He turns to it, all smiles. It whimpers, lowering its quaking body and backing out the room.

    He turns on the bedside lamp, bathing the walls in warm yellow light, and sits on the edge of the children’s bed. Crossing his legs, resting his ankle on his knee, he brushes imaginary dust off his slacks, takes off his hat, and lifts his chin. His voice is not loud, nor is it quiet, but it is firm and clear as it carries through the house.

    “Rosemary. Rosemary, come see to your children.”

    She is there within seconds, in a dowdy nightgown, hand clutching the protective amulet around her neck.

     He cocks his head at her. “For that thing to hurt me, I’d have to attempt to physically harm you, and I have no intention of doing anything so… reckless.”

     “Who- who are you? Please, get away from my children.”

     “I don't want to hurt your children,” he reassures, leaning to look down at the furrowed brows and small frowns of the sleeping faces. “Little Samantha, brave Sarah,” he lightly brushes a strand of hair from Samantha’s forehead, “but I will, if I have to.” Dark glasses rotate to frame Rosemary’s twin reflections, “The amulet you wear, it only protects you. And what point is there in your safety, if you can’t protect the ones you love? What joy will there be in growing old, all alone, knowing you could have saved them?”

    Rosemary’s back is stiff, eyes darting between her children and the nightmare sitting comfortably on their bed. She’s only half-listening to him, the rest of her brain is afire with panic.

    “Give me the amulet, or I’ll demonstrate the concept, with the help of one of these sweet little things. It should only take one, before you’re convinced of my argument. So the question really is, are you going to make me kill one of your children?”

     The woman’s shaking hands are already going to the chain around her neck, but she hesitates. Voice quavering, she forces herself to ask, “What assurances do I have, that you won’t kill us all when you have the amulet?”

    He smiles wider, “Why, it’s an even chance, I suppose. But if you don’t give it to me,” he takes off his sunglasses, smiling at her with dark promise, “I’ll make sure you outlive your children.”

    Rosemary lifts the chain from around her neck, and the Corinthian reaches out to receive it.

 

 

 

A shift this fundamental in the paradigm of his existence takes a while to sink in.

     Back in Florida, the social worker’s eyes don’t make for an especially pleasant meal. A life saturated by her own woes, and the sadness of too many others, the meagre reward of the few she has helped barely sweetens the bitterness of her world view. Ah well, some meals are for the experience, others useful for sustenance. And now he knows where to find the key to Rose Walker.

    He still casts about cautiously for the raven, the habit of looking over his shoulder ingrained now. The new invulnerability seems precarious somehow. Though he has experienced first-hand the destructive, rending power of the amulet, it is hard to trust it will be enough to protect him from Dream. Clearly, it has the power to disassemble nightmares, but one of the Endless?

    He toys with it, eyeless eyes considering the slitted pupil of the charm. It regards him in return, impassively malevolent. It is of hell, after all, and not of the Dreaming. He smiles and tucks it back beneath his shirt. Insurance, certainly, but the Vortex is too good an opportunity to pass up. A world without Dream? An eternity without the oneiromancer? His glorious, pompous, selfish master, the king of criticism, lord of cold, damning, dismissive glances, erased from existence by a whisp of a girl who has been alive a mere two decades? The thought brings smiles to his mouths.

     Time to find this podunk community, ‘Homeland’.

 

The foster mother’s experiences are of a bitterness equal to Eleanor the social worker. The husband though, his anger and disillusionment give his dim perspectives a piquant, flavoursome fire. He chews thoughtfully, dabbing at a trickle of blood that oozes down his cheekbone.

    The Walker boy, when he emerges, is endearingly terrified, and - despite the brutality and neglect at the hands of his foster parents - still gratifyingly gullible and malleable.

    Despite himself, the Corinthian rather enjoys the road trip. The boy’s evident relief and enjoyment of the open road, his wide-eyed excitement at being spoiled, and the almost instantaneous adoration for his apparent saviour.

    Humans, endlessly fascinating.

    Topped off by the hero-worship when they arrive at the Royal Empire Hotel, the Corinthian is really having a splendid day. It’s curious, then, when he looks over to find the boy talking to the barbarous oaf by the 'Cereal' registration stand, and his mood rapidly sours.

    “Hey, Fun.”

    “Fun Land,” the oaf dares to correct him. “Not ‘Fun.’ Fun Land.”

    He plucks an M&M from the bowl. “Got it. Sorry about that,” he chews with an open mouth and offers his most obviously insincere smile.

    “That's okay.”

    “I see you've met my young friend,” and it’s strange to realise that while ‘friend’ is hardly the right term, there is a surge of protectiveness that can’t be solely attributed to the successful fruition of his plans.

    “Oh. Is he with you?”

    “He is. He and his sister are my guests and under my protection. Are we good?” The unspoken, or do I need to carve out your eyes understood by two of the three parties present.

    A few hours later, slaying Fun Land and saving Jed for a second time proves to be even more satisfying than the first rescue, despite – or perhaps because – the boy now has the good sense to fear him. And of course, now he has Rose Walker too.

    “Hello, Rose. Don’t worry, you’re safe with me.”

    It would not do to make an enemy of her, after all.

 

The auditorium is full, and all of these eager, twisted minds are his for the steering. He uses his words as a conductor uses a baton, directing an orchestra of sadism. “We are explorers, truth seekers. We are swashbucklers. We are hunters. Soldiers of fortune. And kings of the night.”

    And then, he arrives.

    Pale, and draped in darkness, the Lord of Dreams considers his creation, weighing him and finding him wanting. Nightmare and Dreamlord; in that moment they may as well be the only two beings in the lecture hall, in all the universe.

    “You disappoint me, Corinthian.” Even now, after centuries of disappointments, the words pluck plangent discordant chords within the nightmare’s core, and Dream - oblivious or uncaring - goes on, “You and these humans you've inspired and created... disappoint me.”

    “I've done my best to be what you made me.” Why is he still defending himself? His master has proven again and again his hypocrisy, his incompetence and hubris.

    “No,” Dream asserts, walking forwards, solemnly and subtly menacing in his intent, “you've done your worst, which was in so many ways what I had hoped. You were my masterpiece. A dark mirror made to reflect everything humanity will not confront.”

    Why then am I punished for it? “That's what I am. That's what I've done.”

    “No. Look at you, walking this Earth for over a century, infecting others with your joy of death, but what have you given them? What have you wrought? Nothing. Just something else for people to be afraid of. That is all.”

    Justifying himself, arguing with this arrogant shard of eternity, will get him nowhere, as he discovered on that cold night in Germany, 1916. The betrayal of that exchange, of sinking to his knees, beseeching the master who had once looked upon him with pride, begging the inscrutable helm for his survival.

    He will never be so powerless again.

    His throat is tight, dry, but he refuses to concede to it as he asks, “So what now? You send me back into their dreams?” He draws his knife from his jacket, “'Cause I won't go willingly.”

     Morpheus advances, a small, condescending smile lighting upon his lips. “A knife? Against a dream?”

     “You don't think dreams can die? Let's find out.”

    “Enough.” Dream raises his hand.

    Against his chest, the amulet stirs, growing warm. Before it can lash out with its eldritch powers, the Corinthian stabs through the Dreamlord’s palm.

     Pain and surprise send the oneiromancer to his knees, and oh yes, the Corinthian could get used to this. Dream of the Endless bowed before him, looking up at him with incredulity and… could it be? A touch of fear? Yes, he could grow to like this indeed.

    “How?”

    And the battle for Rose Walker commences in earnest.

 

The walls are crumbling. Around him, the fantasies of the auditorium combine into one glorious dream. Rose is wavering between them, the Dreamlord’s earnest defence of his position strangely effective. The Corinthian hisses the truth at the Vortex, desperate for her to see sense, “He can't kill you if you kill him first.”

    “Killing me may save your life, but it won't save the lives of those you love.” So rational, so cold.

    “I'm trying to keep you alive, here,” the Corinthian growls.

    “I'm trying to keep your world alive.”

    “You have to choose one of us, Rose.”

    “Enough!” The air around Rose begins to distort, authority radiating from her. “If I'm as powerful as you say I am, then I will find my own way. In the meantime, the walls go back up. Because I'm not dreaming anymore. Thanks to you two, I'm wide awake.”

    The single unified dream of carnage fractures as the walls rise again. Dream and the Corinthian are back in the auditorium, the prize they fought over no longer within their grasp. Morpheus is staring at the wound in his hand, apparently still bemused by his vulnerability.

    The Corinthian takes off his glasses to look, without shame, at his beautiful, traitorous master, and sneers, “If you think I'm going back to the Dreaming with you-”

    “You're not going back. I brought you into this world to serve humanity. Not to feed upon it.” The bastard has the temerity to sound sad.

     He already knows there’s no point in arguing, but here, at what could be the end of the line, he gives it one more shot. “Do you know why I do it? So I can taste what it's like to be human. And you don't care about humanity. You only care about yourself, and your realm, and your rules.”

    “I contain the entire collective unconscious. Without my rules, it would consume me. Humanity would be consumed.” So dramatic, so filled with the sense of his own importance.

    “Or you might actually feel something. I am not the problem, Dream.”

    “You're right. This was my fault. Not yours. I had so much hope for you. But I created you poorly then. So I must uncreate you now.”

    Yes, even now, after everything that has transpired, his creator’s words still wound deeper than any mortal instrument. Made poorly. Wrong. Disappointing. The Corinthian has never cried, never known if he even could, but his face twists with the knife of Morpheus’ judgment, with the profundity of this rejection.

     Morpheus lifts his hand, and sand starts to stream from the Corinthian’s skin. A red glow, and then a green one, and Morpheus falters. For the second time in under an hour, surprise pulls Dream’s face into a mask of shock, and then it is he who is being torn asunder. The fabric of his being is flayed open, layers of him sluicing off and twisting around, diminishing and dispersing until the Corinthian stands alone on the podium.

    Relief. Triumph. A harsh crack of a laugh barks out of him. He steps back, resting a hand on the lectern to steady himself, because through the electric exhilaration of still being alive, of being truly, finally free, there is a strange quivering of nausea. His smile fades, and he looks up at the upturned faces of the crowd, his admirers all still in the stasis Morpheus left them in. Lifting his head, he gingerly scents the air and puts his sunglasses back on.

    Dream is still alive. He knows this, the way he knew when he’d escaped his jailors. That inexplicable link between creator and created. Well, if the amulet hadn’t ended the Corinthian, it wasn’t going to truly end an Endless. Most likely, it had flung him back to the Dreaming. No matter. Dead, or stripped of his power over him, Dream no longer need factor into his decisions.

    The queasiness remains, swirling through him like a phantom snake, swishing this way and that between the walls of his being. What now?

    Despite his careful plans for the Vortex, his coup has been… mostly unsuccessful. He no longer has to worry about being unmade; is there any purpose in trying to find Rose again? In the case of Morpheus' destruction, the Dreamlord insists the universe will implode, or something, and he’s grown rather fond of this strange little world. Morpheus is probably just spouting nonsense to save his own hide, but why bother with any of it, if realm and rules and master no longer pose a threat? Perhaps he should just get back to doing what he excels at, here, in the Waking World, where it actually matters.

     He looks out at the sea of sleeping faces. He rather enjoyed their admiration, but now that the Vortex has mastered rebuilding the walls of the Dreaming, they no longer serve any purpose. Besides, invulnerable or not, he does rather like his anonymity.

    He takes out the knife he had stabbed through Dream’s hand, enjoying the thrill of the memory, and steps down from the podium.

     One after another, he cuts free their eyes, leaving an audience of the dead in his wake. Yet, after gorging on a roomful of ‘cereal' killers, he realises the feast was less gratifying than he had hoped. Perhaps it’s absorbing the memories of so many pathetic killers and then comparing their experiences to his own sovereign identity. Perhaps part of the thrill had been in tempting Dream’s wrath.

    He’ll never stop; he knows this. But… is this it? Is this all that he’s strategized and fought for? He thought it would feel… more somehow.

    That he would feel more.

    He tugs on an arm, toppling a body onto the floor, and claims the seat with a sigh.

    The Corinthian has never been given to fits of melancholy, but then, he has never before been truly free of Dream. On his leash or on the run, either way, the shadow of him loomed large. His mark secreted into the subtlest parts of the nightmare, his signature engraved deep in the masterpiece he had created. A creation, so well made, that it could out-manoeuvre its architect.

    Made poorly, he had said, disappointing.

    The Corinthian's hands grip into fist.

    ‘You've done your worst, which was in so many ways what I had hoped.’ There should be vindication in that, and in the fact that Dream had accepted responsibility at the end, but there is none to be found. The greater understandings the Dreamlord failed to grasp -  of how he operated in arrogance, of his ignorance of the humans he claimed to sculpt with his dreams, of how his creations acquired a sentience of their own which he had no right to – these still eluded him.

     Some new insight stirs in the back of the Corinthian’s mind, a slow revelation that begins as a soft breeze and finally hits him with the force of a truck.

    Perhaps Dream has been wrong about something else too. Perhaps, without realising it, Dream had not made the Corinthian as a dark mirror to humanity, to reflect everything humanity will not confront. Maybe, he is a dark mirror for Morpheus, for everything Dream of the Endless will not confront about himself.

    The Corinthian smiles, straightening his slacks as he stands. It’s time, he decides, to return to the Dreaming.