Tuesday, 21 May 2019, Morning
Paxwood, Whatcom County, Washington, USA
Eyewitness: Kerry

One moment, I was screaming as incorporeal forces dragged me forward, sneakers squealing on hardwood.

The next, I was standing on the threshold of a grand ball. All around the room, men and women in early 20th century fancy dress whirled arm in arm to beautiful live string music. Masks covered every face—some grotesquely exaggerated demon faces with horns curling over human ears and hair, others cherubically lovely and innocent and adorned with feathers.

I was standing in flat black oxford shoes. A black pinstripe suit, with a deep green vest over a crisp white button-up shirt. Men’s clothing that suited the apparent fashion era, but cut in a way that still flattered my feminine hourglass. My touched my face and found a mask there, too.

“Miss Kerry Rhys Hayes,” someone announced.

And then the guest behind me bumped me forward, toward the dance floor.

Or, more accurately, toward the evergreen carpet that cut a path along the edge of the room, leading toward two women and one man standing around an empty throne.

No, three women. One of them, much like me, wore a tailored pantsuit.

But throne was the only correct word for that chair. It towered, with twisting bare branches stretching up and out in an interwoven pattern that reminded me of the lid of Florence Paxwood’s jewelry box. It was a pattern, or a pattern concealing a symbol, or simply pretty interlaced branches. The emerald green velvet tufted cushion was massive. Two humans, maybe three if they squeezed, could all fit between the arms of the throne.

I could tell I was supposed to approach, perhaps to kneel before this seat.

A hand grasped mine and pulled me sideways, off the carpet and into the dancing crowd.

“You don’t want to go there,” the dancer said. “Dance with me instead.”

He didn’t fit in with the rest of the crowd. A cheap child’s plastic Halloween Night Fox mask covered the top half of his face. (You know Night Fox—that comic book vigilante billionaire who combats a rogue’s gallery of gangsters and villains. Every decade we get another animated series or movie adaptation. That Night Fox.) He wore jeans and a tuxedo-patterned t-shirt instead of a suit. But as he pulled me into the dance, he placed my left hand on his upper arm, his right hand above my waist, gripped my right hand in his left, and moved to the waltz beat in perfect time.

“What… is happening?” I asked, looking from my new dance partner, back toward the golden branches of the dead tree throne.

“Keep your eyes on me,” he said. “You’re dreaming, but… this is not the type of dream where it’s safe to wander. More of a nightmare, really.”

“No, I’m not asleep, and even if I were, none of this is like any other dream I’ve ever had in my life,” I replied. “Where does tuxedo t-shirt cheap mask Night Fox come from in my imagination? Definitely nowhere. I’d want to meet Sol-Ace.”

He laughed. “That’s right. Keep your focus on me. The announcer said your name is Kerry. Is that right?”

“Yeah. She/her pronouns.”

“Bast, he/him.”

“Bats?” As I kept my eyes on him, the music and the dancers all blurred.

“No, Bast,” he insisted.

“Like… the Egyptian cat goddess of protection?”

“Bast, like, my name is Bast,” he replied, sounding annoyed.

It was his name, given to me, and even as confused as I was about everything, I knew better than to keep pushing. This was what the dancer wanted to be called. I’d go along. “Bast. Bast is you.”

“What’s the last thing you remember before coming to this little dance?” Bast asked.

I tried to remember before the dance. “I… was…”

“It’s okay if it’s hard to remember,” he said. “Sometimes dreams are like that. Take a breath. Take a beat. How about a little further back, like… yesterday? What day was yesterday?”

“Sunday,” I said. “No, wait. Monday.”

“Okay, good. Now, what do you usually do on Tuesdays? School, right? What grade are you in?”

“Tenth grade,” I said. “I usually go to school.”

“Tenth grade,” he repeated. Was there a hint of longing in his voice?

“What about you?” I turned the question back to him. “What do you usually do on Tuesdays?”

He chuckled. “There’s no usual Tuesday for me these days. I’m a traveler, an interloper, an adventurer. Every day is something new.”

“All right, Peter Pan, and do you never grow up, too?”

“Let’s say I’m still figuring that part out.” He shook his head. “Okay. Tuesday. You usually go to school on Tuesdays. Tenth grade. Was anything different today, though?”

I didn’t want to think about it. Why didn’t I want to think about it? “I saw a new friend before school. She’s interested in buying Paxwood House.”

The surrounding ballroom sharpened. The music paused, if only for a second, and all eyes were on us.

“That’s a name we shouldn’t say here,” Bast observed, turning me in a sudden spin. “Why do you like an annoyingly flawless super-alien over an imperfect human detective, anyway?”

The music resumed, and with it, the movement of the dancers.

“Eva East isn’t perfect, even if she’s powerful,” I disagreed. “You’ll just think it’s silly, anyway.”

“Go on,” he said.

“She tells stories and looks for the truth. As an investigative journalist, she cares about everyday people, even though she has all the yellow-sun-powered strength and cosmic destiny that she could treat everyone like they’re beneath her.”

“A dumb space rock can’t defeat or corrupt the Night Fox, though.”

“You can like a character without insulting a character that other people like, right? It’s not either/or. It can be both. I can enjoy Sol-Ace without hating Night Fox. I can even enjoy Night Fox without betraying Sol-Ace.”

“All right then,” he conceded. The world had blurred out around us again. It felt safer here with him. “So, without saying that name that got everyone looking at us, what else do you remember?”

“After I met with my friend, I went to school, and…” I swallowed, not wanting to remember. “I… got a message. You see, these people want to buy… the place I mentioned before. They’re here, now. And there’s some kind of hidden treasure they’re looking for. But it’s dangerous. Haunted. Everyone else was busy, so I came to see what they were up to.”

“You… purposefully entered a haunted house. You’re sleeping in a haunted house right now. A haunted house with that name.” Bast spoke slowly, building each thought like a bricklayer putting together a wall.

“The… Wymans, yes,” I supplied. I wasn’t entirely sure that was the best fit, but since we were talking about Sol-Ace and Night Fox, why not substitute in Sol-Ace’s billionaire philanthropist human rival Wyatt Wyman for the Paxwoods?

“I don’t want to scare you, but I’m pretty sure this means you are sharing a dream with one or more ghosts right now. Your consciousness is on their turf, and you are in a great deal of danger.” His tone was grave now. “That might be what drew me here, but I’m honestly not sure how much I can do. I’ve never, uh, actually dealt with ghost dreams before.”

“Ghosts have dreams. Wait. Does everything have dreams? Do trees dream? Or dogs? What about glass cats?”

“You’re going down a rabbit hole, and as much fun as it would be to head there with you, we may not have time for it. Come back here with me, where we can try to make a game plan.” Bast looked over his shoulder. “Clara?”

One of the other dancing pairs slowed down and came into focus. It wasn’t a dancing pair at all. A lovely brunette woman, probably early twenties, in a modern prom dress was dancing with a rigid fashion dummy pinned into a suit.

“He walks here, Bast. We shouldn’t stay long.”

“He who?” I asked.

Bast shook his head. “Another name we don’t say. Call him the Grinner if we’re using comic villains as pseudonyms right now.”

“It’s not the time for jokes, Bast. We should leave,” the brunette named Clara said, insistent.

“If we take her with us, she gets lost in Slumberland, her body ends up in a coma, and I don’t know if we can help her find her way back to consciousness.” Bast groaned in frustration, looking between me and Clara. “You’re trying to keep me safe, but…”

“You don’t want her to become one of the Lost.”

“I don’t, either,” I chimed in.

Bast and Clara both looked at me.

“I’ll keep watch. If… ah, the Grinner, was it? If the Grinner draws near, you cannot stay, little brother. You aren’t ready,” Clara said.

“Understood. So… please tell me someone knows you’re in this haunted house and they’re bound to come rescue you sooner than later.”

I laughed weakly. “Probably not. The only two other living people in the haunted house? I trust them less and less every time I meet them, and I didn’t trust them much to begin with. One friend sent me here. A couple of others might look for me, if I’m lucky.”

“Let’s hope you’re incredibly lucky.” Bast gritted his teeth. “So, ah, favorite version of Sol-Ace?”

20: The Evergreen Waltz

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