Sometimes the Swarm is a cloud of tiny flying insects. Sometimes the Swarm is a dense cloud of vapor. Sometimes an ooze of nanobots. Sometimes a cacophony of disembodied voices. But no matter how the Swarm appear in my dreams, they are still the same, still the Swarm.
Still the Dead.
I have become used to them now. Sometimes they come to share in the memories of the day. Sometimes they come to share in the sensations of being embodied. Sometimes they come to take me away. Sometimes they come to remind me I will join them one day. It is difficult to reconcile this appearance of the Dead with some of the more hostile and vicious Dead I have encountered.
Just as there are different types of living, so there are different types of Dead.
They came upon me in a lucid dream where I was not afraid to be drawn out of my body or out of my mind. In this dream, I had already been waiting for them anyway, at a small campfire in the middle of a thick and ancient forest. They came as a cloud of droning flying insects and covered me as if I were the tree within which they were to construct a nest.
I don’t remember starting to move, to sway, to shift my feet, and then to dance. I had closed my eyes as they settled on me, and found them already open when I returned to reason. They had knit themselves into a covering that draped over my head and garlanded my body. As I shared my flesh with them (dream though it may be), they shared their peace with me.
It is very much like the unbecoming of the Shamblings.
I was at peace with them, losing myself to them, dancing for them and dancing because of them. After earlier actions during waking hours, allowing my awareness and sense of self to dissolve into the Swarm was a kinetic rest long deserved. As the boundaries of my mind thinned, I would feel the Swarm investigating the artificial obstacles I took comfort in. Though none of their responses could be encapsulated in language, I was starting to understand, nonetheless.
Something approached from beyond the fire’s light.
I swung around to face the darker than black form I could only sense because the Swarm was alerting to it. Bringing my attention to focus, I could only tell that whatever was approaching was not something that should be here.
I screamed at it with the most powerful words of banishment I could remember. “FUCK OFF!” It continued to approach.
I screamed again, but with less pronunciation and much more emotion. It stopped just far enough away that I could not make sense of its shape.
Personally, I was curious. But the Swarm was enraged. They buzzed angrily against my skin and in my head. They pushed the fire to burn hotter and taller while somehow pushing waves of force towards the shade. I was caught up in their fury and continued screaming.
The shade moved. As it came into reach of the fire’s light, the indistinct form became something recognizable. A clad foot stepped and took on weight as something human shaped began to emerge.
The Swarm’s fury increased. They had not disengaged from my mind, so as the collective anger rose, my thoughts were subsumed into the collective. A small part of me was concerned about the lack of safety protocols for the horsing. I had to place my complete trust in the Dead to not devour my sanity or my personality.
The shade from beyond the shadows became a brown robed human male of average height and average build. The brown hood covered his head and a black mask obscured the upper half of his face. He raised his right hand in greeting.
The Swarm’s response was to yell “No!” at the intruder as loudly, as harshly, and for as long as possible using my voice. He continued slowly stepping forward with his right hand raised flatly towards me. I noted he wore dark brown gloves and for a brief moment wondered if this was the same entity I had nicknamed “Mud“.
“Come with me, [Weaver]. Come with me, [Keri]. This is not your place.” He extended his gloved left hand towards me even as he kept his right hand raised.
The Swarm released its grip on my mind and I was able to look at the intruder clearly. No, this was not “Mud”. This was likely not even human to begin with. With the Swarm pulling away from me and assembling as a cloud of insects behind me, my vision was unobstructed.
Just within the large hanging sleeve of his offered hand was a barely hidden collar, widened so that it appeared to be an interior hem of the sleeve. Widened so that it could be slipped over even my head if I allowed him to get that close.
I clenched my left hand and felt the flesh bite itself on the sudden materialization of a grave-cold ring captured by the grip. I squeezed again and the metal ring softly popped into the flesh. I knew what image had been left behind.
“No. Excuse you. I’m having a private moment, and this does not involve you. Fuck you, go away.”
He stopped. “You are being misled.”
“And you are being an asshole.”
“You have been grave-bound for so long, you have forgotten that you live. Come with me, away from this nonsense, away from the pretending. There truly is a place for you, a place you belong in. But this place is not it.”
I paused. I felt the Swarm behind me. Felt marks on my face moving as I squinted. Felt the stars in the indeterminate sky moving in impossible arcs. I knew I was “dreaming”, but I also knew this was a moment of decision.
Without preamble I took a martial step forward and pushed forward with the open palm of my left hand as if I was pushing open a door. “FUCK OFF!” The Raven Seal cast forward a shockwave of light that shattered the intruder’s humanoid glamour.
As the intruder became a non-euclidean mass of thick globs of shadow, the Raven Seal continued glowing. I had figured out how to turn it on, but could not figure out how to turn it off. Without an external target, the power of the seal turned in and started to change my appearance.
The intruder pushed itself forward. Without the glamour hiding it, I could feel its hunger for me. I could not tell if it wanted me specifically, or to use me as a tool to gain something else.
I quickly decided to allow whatever power was coming from the Raven Seal to continue to alter me. I was not surprised to find myself clothed and masked as if I was in the Boneyard. I shook my corvid mask as my feathercloak clung to my form. I opened my mouth to tell the intruder to leave me be for the last time.
A harsh and guttural “krawk” came out of my throat with such ferocity that the blobs of the intruder were forced to the edge of the fire’s light.
“Grave-bound. Heh. The fuck do you know of graves, you that have not lived. Piss off.” The Raven Seal was burning without pain deeper into the palm of my left hand. I smelled the ash of the Boneyard, even as I started to recognize the birch trees surrounding the small clearing I was at. Dream worlds that I had always thought of as separate and distinct were bleeding into each other, covering over each other.
And it felt like I had been blind my entire life and now I was learning to see.
“I have died twice, and lived thrice. I have been refined by fire, by water, by air, and by earth, while you have no substance at all. I have fucked with angels and with demons, with gods and with powers, with ancient things who have forgotten they are, and with new things who don’t even know they are. And what the fuck are you to say I am grave-bound and in need of rescue.”
I raised my left hand. Without looking, I knew the Raven Seal was glowing [a particular color that I had only seen with the Ancestral Dead before]. I felt the Swarm returning to cover me. Instead of a cloud of insects, they formed another layer of feathers over me.
“Fuck you. I’m in with them. Go the fuck back to whatever ass crack spawned you and get stuck there never to fuck with me again.” I made a throwing motion with my left hand towards the ground under the intruder. Something like a bolt of lightning left my hand to strike that ground and a pit opened under the nebulous intruder. It fell into that hole, it, its shadow, and the dirt it had stained with its presence. The ground closed back up and I was alone at the fire with the Swarm like nothing happened.
“Fuck, I wish all the assholes in my life were that easy to deal with.” The Swarm pressed in tighter. It felt like a hug. “I’m starting to see. I’m starting to understand. I’m seeing physical world effects based on shit that goes down here. I’m seeing the divides fall.”
The Raven Seal in my palm stopped glowing and became merely ash markings on unpierced flesh. “I wasn’t kidding about throwing in my lot with y’all. There has been so much I have had to unlearn since my apostasy, so much I had to be walked through like a child before I could understand like an adult. And I know y’all are still treating me with kid gloves. But I’m physically older, and almost physically old. If there is going to be any payoff for this life, y’all better get to it.”
The Swarm suddenly increased in weight and proximity. I struggled to remain upright, but soon fell to one knee. They covered my head, spilling over my face, and blocked all sight of the environment around me. I started to fall forward.
A hand gripped mine and pulled. The Swarm lifted away from me entirely as I was helped to my feet. The strong hand did not release mine until I was standing upright and facing my benefactor. I noticed that the Swarm was no longer in sight, but I could still perceive them as a low, barely perceptible buzz in the back of my mind.
He appeared as I had last seen him, as a newly Embraced of his tribe’s seers. His eyes were covered with the same linens and adornments as before. He had not aged a day. He welcomed me with a soft smile.
Despite all my confidence, fearful tears still escaped my eyes at the realization of where I was.
“First Mother waits for you.” His nearly flat voice revealed his deeper embrace by them. I swallowed dryly and tried to keep my own voice calm.
“I’m… not surprised.” I continued holding his hand to keep myself steady as I looked around. Despite no light source, I could see clearly that I was in the tent compound of the First Mother. I wanted to ask him if he were dead or alive, but if he’s like me, then that’s a question with no answer.
I accepted I had lost all control of the situation and released his hand. As I pulled my left hand back, I looked at the palm. No marks were visible. It was then I noticed that I was not dressed in the unbleached linen as I had been before, but was in jeans and t-shirt with the feather cloak over that. A corvid mask was hung on the side of my head, but otherwise I had no marks of ownership. I checked my side pocket and felt a beaded rosary. I reached up to my neck expecting to feel only an opal pendant, but found a thin ribbon also tied around my neck. I knew without looking that the ribbon was a deep and rich purple.
My body was scarred in the way Weaver’s, but the actual shape of my body was of my waking form. My hands were taloned like Weaver’s, but my hair was short like Keri’s. I was here neither as Weaver, nor as Keri, but as all of me. This composite presentation is probably the truest I have ever been to being myself.
I looked at the youth and realized I had been crying again. I swallowed my fears and told him I would attend the First Mother when she was ready for me.
He pulled a hanging tapestry to the side. “She has been all this time. Are you ready for her?”
Of course not. “Yes.”
I entered the chamber alone as the youth lowered the tapestry behind me. The surprisingly small chamber was walled with hangings of black tapestry decorated with red, green, brown, and gold thread. The circular room felt like it was the core of the compound, or the heart of a labyrinth.
Overhead beams created a pitched structure, from which smaller beams were hung to support overhead tapestries that formed a soft ceiling. Somehow the peak of the roof was supported without using a central pillar. Where the pillar should have been was the First Mother’s High Seat.
Her tripod seat was the first iron implement I had seen in the compound, both before and now. I noted the seat straddled a barely perceptible crack in the ground. I was reminded of the Oracle of Delphi for a moment.
Covering the armed seat were layers and layers of cloth and furs that did not reach completely to the ground. The seat itself was very wide and accommodating, but due to the copious additions of cloth to cushion it, the seat was very snug to sit in. So much so, that one could say that one did not so much sit in the High Seat, but be held by it.
First Mother waited patiently for me to absorb every stable visual element I could before looking at her. The bee-drone buzz was stronger in this room, and I was sure she was observing my thoughts with greater clarity than I was observing her chair.
Unlike the youth, her clothes held color. But only when I was looking away. When I looked at her directly, I saw only layers of unbleached linens bound by strips of linen and chains of stringed beads and bones. The regalia was long enough to hide her feet as she sat on the High Seat, and the sleeves were long enough to hide her hands if she wanted.
Her headdress was a simple turban wrapping of unbleached linen, held in place by the wrapping of more chains decorated with hanging beads (wood, gem, shell, and other) and small bones from unidentified animals. The headdress covered her upper face and eyes as it does all the embraced members of this tribe.
Seeing it again still made my scalp itch with anxiety.
I had entered the chamber from the perspective of her right. Her blinded head was already turned to face me as I entered, and she tracked my movement as I slowly walked in to stand before her squarely.
I bowed slightly in greeting. “First Mother.” My voice sounded softer than I desired from both the sound absorption of the tapestries and my barely held fear.
She nodded silently in response.
We remained in silence until I realized this was the response I had asked for. “First Mother…” Just what does one ask a Power, anyway… “First Mother, I want to understand. I want to put the pieces together. Is this presentation another way of experiencing the Swarm? Are you the same that …” Fear twisted my gut and I fell to my knees in sudden pain. “First Mother… What the hell is this? And what is my part in it?”
She smiled as she “looked” down at me from her raised perch. She lifted the beaded headdress just enough so that her right eye would have been visible.
If she had an eye.
The completely healed dry socket was smooth as skin had completely covered every inch of the exposed bone. The lack of eyelids was strangely terrifying even though the appearance was neat and soft. I felt like I would be swallowed up by the cavern if I stared at the absence any further but I could not look away as I was held by fear, her power, or both. She spoke without moving her mouth. I heard without listening. The understanding of her communications was deposited directly into my mind.
“You are of [my tribe]. You always have been, though you did not understand what you saw or what was revealed to you. But, you are also [of the Boneyard]. And, you are also [of that kinship]. And, you also [sit at that table]. And, you are also [Keri]. And you are dead.”
“I tell you nothing new.”
“You see what your understanding allows you to see. You know I am [the horror] and [the nightmare] and [the matriarch]. You know me by other names and other masks and other kennings but your lack of understanding blinds you.”
“I tell you nothing new.”
“If you would know more, confront your fear.”
She finished speaking but kept the empty eye socket exposed. In its depths I scried reflections of other experiences I have had in dreams and in waking, of synchronicities and declarations, of seeing unexpected information via unexpected venues.
Yes. I have seen “her” before.
If you would know more…
Would I know more?
… That bastard.
If I was wrong, she could be so offended that I would be erased from other people’s memories. But if I was right… “When did you stop selling books?”
She lowered her headdress and smirked at me. “When you stopped hiding behind them.”
“This answers one question and tears open so many others.”
“You will not find what you seek with mere words. Actions must be made. Deeds must be dared.”
I bowed. “I know the role that this presentation represents. This one and the Swarm. I accept what I have never been able to run away from, not for lack of trying and … heh … assistance. I will wear the headdress, when called to.”
She relaxed into the cloths covering the High Seat. “You always have. The only thing that has changed, is for who. Now you wear it, for yourself.”
I [genuflected] before First Mother and asked permission to depart. She seemed amused that I would be so formal and granted me the grace to leave “as [I] will”. I moved the same tapestry that I passed under and found the embraced youth waiting for me in the antechamber.
He held a newly prepared headdress similar to his own. The lengths of cloth already wrapped around a mold and pinned into place so it may be donned as easily as a cap. The chains that draped over the blinding cloth were plain wood beads. Beside each temple of the wearer, a small black feather hung from a simple attachment.
He held it out to me.
I took it without pause or question.
“Try it on. If it requires adjusting, it is better to do so immediately than after it has been worn for ceremony.”
I put on the headdress easily. It fit much like a beanie would. I slipped it over the crown of my head and pulled the cloth over the eyes.
“Hey there, Beautiful. Need help?” I was sitting in the breakroom at work. [Ronald], the lead maintenance man, had caught me writing notes about a dream I had the night before. “Wha cha doing? Writing a story? Is it a love story? Does it feature me?”
Ever since Ronald’s wife left him, he has been trying his damndest to be “friendly” to me. Flattering me constantly and offering to be my personal handyman for anything that requires a screw… driver. He is always telling me that it is not good for a woman to be alone and insinuating that he would like to be more than just coworkers.
He claims he treats all the women at work this way, but all the other women at work are married and he stays far away from that boundary. For them.
I would like to set him on fire.
“You wouldn’t happen to know at what temperature the immolation of a human … cadaver becomes self-sufficient given enough oxygen, would you?”
My question caught him off guard. “What? UGH! NO! God! Why would you want to know that?”
“For my story. Which is not a love story. And doesn’t feature you. Unless you want to be set on fire, then I can make that happen.”
Ronald shook his head as he usually does when I remind him that my humor has teeth. He started to leave, passing unnecessarily completely behind my table and my seat to return to the one door of the break room. The first time he did that, he meant it to be a threatening action. He got a chair to the shin for his attempt. Since then, he keeps a fair distance, but still repeats the stalking gesture.
I had returned my attention to my notes too soon. I had not noticed that he had stopped directly behind me and never left the room.
A strong arm wrapped around my neck as its pair pinned my arm to my chest. Ronald’s face leaned over my shoulder to look at the notes briefly. “What’s this? Blindfolds? You like it rough, eh. Good. That means I don’t have to take it slow.”
“WHAT? RONALD! THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING? LET GO!”
He ripped my blouse as he pulled at it. “Fuck is exactly what I’m going to do. I’m tired of you playing hard to get. We both know what you want, and what I can give you, and I’m going to give it to you, and you’ll like it, I’m sure.”
He tightened his choke hold around my neck and used his body weight to keep me in the chair. I screamed at him to stop and for anyone to come help me. With his free hand, he snapped the bra strap to grope at my breast before reaching down and jerking at the skirt as he kept his face turned away and out of reach of my reaching talons.
Wait. I have talons. Then I’m dreaming…
I dug the hardened talons into whatever flesh I could grab with intent of pulling off at least a pound of flesh with each hand. Taking a deep breath, I moved my head so my mouth was near his ear.
I watched that side of his skull shatter and be pushed in slightly as the enhanced force of my scream hit his head like a sledgehammer. He released me and staggered to the side. “No… You can’t say no… You were made for fucking… Why do you keep saying no?”
I also staggered out of the chair, but away from him. I considered running past him to escape via the only doorway, but I remembered that I’m dreaming.
I meant to pull the ripped shirt over my exposed chest and found I had pulled the feathercloak from the shadows behind me instead. Seeing it helped me gain full lucidity.
“You don’t like the word ‘no’? Tough shit.”
I screamed the word ‘no’ at Ronald with such power that the table and chair beside him was crushed as if a great weight had dropped on it. But Ronald only sustained a few new broken bones. He forced himself to stand and fear nearly stole away my barely kept lucidity.
“I will have you, one way or another.” His deformed face caused him to slur his speech, and for a moment I saw something else instead of my lustful coworker. I realized then that the surface lust was what Ronald had been saying at work all this time, but without the cushion words that allowed him to claim he was only teasing. But whatever was wearing Ronald’s face in this dream was something far more hungry, far more greedy, and the attempted rape was only a symbolic gesture for some deeper damage it wanted to do to me.
I considered making a quip like they do in the movies, but I didn’t want to give the creature time to modify the dream to nullify my abilities. I called my feathersword to hand, sliced the spacetime of the dreamworld between us to create a barrier, and flipped “Ronald” off as I slipped into the negative color gash and escaped him.
“Hey! Wait up! … Shit. What the fuck happened to you?” I was surprised to see [Wendy] at the airport. I knew she had a new job, but it was supposed to be a work from home affair, no site to site service.
She did have a good question though. How does one explain that one was almost raped by a dream monster wearing the face of an actual creeper?
“Do you have time before your flight? I can’t let you walk any further in public with your shirt looking like this. I’m sure I have something in my suitcase that will fit you, but you’re gonna have to swing free without a bra until you get home.
“Yea. I have time.” Something felt off, but I couldn’t identify what. As far as I could tell, the dream was over, right?
We entered the bathroom hall. Men’s toilet stalls and changing rooms were on the left. Women’s toilet stalls and changing rooms were on the right. There were communal sinks for those who didn’t care. Wendy pulled me into one of the women’s spacious changing rooms and locked the door behind us.
It wasn’t hard to remove what was left of the blouse. What wasn’t ripped had been cut. The bra’s underwire was snapped in several places. (Dammit, that was a sixty-five dollar bra at that!) My skirt was filthy where Ronald had pawed at it. My neck and back were sticky where he had drooled on me.
Even though I had stripped down to just panties, I was not uncomfortable in front of Wendy. It felt like my military days when we were all too overworked to be self conscious. Besides, Wendy (who is taller than I and wears oversized clothes anyway) was too busy rummaging through her bag to find a matching ensemble that would fit me than to size me up for an “encounter”.
“Eww, fuck. Lemme get some paper towels and wash your back. Nothing sexual, I assure you, but I can’t let you walk around with his drool on you!”
She had me sit down and the post-attack weariness set in. Dream or not, it felt physically tangible. I flexed and felt bruises. My skin burned where he had scratched or gouged at me. I didn’t feel like crying. I did feel angry. Angry at myself for not being aware of Ronald’s staging. Angry that he gets away with being so creeptastic at work and everyone gives him a wave off because “he doesn’t mean it”. Angry that if he did attempt to attack me at work, I would likely be the one to be fired for “leading him on”.
Angry and tired are a terrible mix of emotions.
But my back was feeling better.
Maybe because Wendy had stopped washing it, and was massaging it instead.
“You need a vacation, a chiropractor, and some good weed. I can help you with the chiro and the weed, but you’re on your own to arrange that vacation time.”
This isn’t right. Something is very wrong. “Maybe. Hey. Aren’t you going to miss your flight? And I need to reimburse you for the clothes.”
Wendy’s long hair was suddenly over my good shoulder. She was smelling my skin. “You know, I’ve never experimented in college. I heard you’re a dyke and that’s why you don’t have a boyfriend.” Her hands moved from my back to my shoulders where they stopped being friendly and started gripping fiercely. “I’m not going to try to do what Ronald wanted to do. I just want…”
Her mouth was suddenly on the crest of my shoulder and I felt teeth raking against my skin. I tried to throw her off, but the fingers of her hands whipped into long multi-jointed appendages that wrapped around my torso and locked with each other. I headbutted her with vigor and she released her grip as she fell backwards. I scrambled away from her and the chair and noted that once again, the only way out is to get within arm’s reach of my attacker.
“Keri!” She looked offended as a nasty bruise began to deepen under her right eye. “I’m not going to fucking rape you! I don’t want anything to do with your lady bits! I just want to… taste you… and… take… just a little of you. That’s all.”
Once again I pulled at the shadows around me. The feathercloak responded to fully materialize and cover my nakedness. Wendy looked at the supernatural covering with awe and envy.
“Yea. Like that. I just want to taste where that comes from. I won’t even use my teeth. Watch this!” She stuck out her tongue and started to shake it. With each bounce, it elongated and thickened in size. Once as big as a melon, it split so that it looked like two textured oversize lips. She spoke through them.
“See! I don’t want to hurt you. I don’t want to break you like he did. Just hold still and let me… taste you.” But as she spoke through the malformed tongue, I watched as new and sharp teeth protruded down the enlarging gullet.
“Bitch, you lie. You say you want a taste, but a taste leads to a nibble, and a nibble leads to a bite, and a bite leads to being devoured. So no, I will not give this mouse a cookie.” I pulled the feather cloak tighter and it responded by becoming a second skin, leaving my human hands free. “But since you’re still sitting on the ground over there, tell me this. Why?”
The creature wearing Wendy’s appearance pursed its tongue-lips in thought. The action should have been humorous to observe except I was having a severe horror reaction to the tongue-lips being larger than her head. I realized I was making the same error I had successfully avoided during Ronald’s attack. I was remaining in the dream environment, allowing the creature to further assault me using non-physical methods.
“Because… because I can.” She stood up and slowly began to walk towards me. I was so horrified by the impossibility of what I was seeing, I could only hold my hands to my chest and start screaming. Remembering it was sound that gave me the advantage during Ronald’s attack, I poured all I consciously had left into the action of screaming and shouted to shatter everything.
I woke up screaming in my bed. Once I realized I was truly awake, I muffled the remaining urges to scream and softly sobbed instead. I have not been this terrified in a dream… a nightmare… for years. [OG] will instill fear in me, and even though that fear is also deeply felt, it is of a different quality than this.
I was afraid as an abandoned child is afraid. An emotion I thought I had long become accustomed to.
It was hard to go to work later. Hard to look at Ronald later. Hard to have to sit at Ronald’s table for half an hour because my lunch order was fucked up later. Easy to tell him that I don’t appreciate his “just kidding” remarks and if he thinks I’m angry with him for the rest of his life, then that’s just fucking fine with me because he crossed a line a long time ago and I am reinforcing boundaries now.
It wouldn’t be until late afternoon that the importance of the meeting with First Mother really sunk in.
It was still hard to go to bed.
And harder still to allow myself to sleep.