In Naomi's second year at St. Blair's School for Proper Night Time Activity (formerly St. Blair's School for the Dark Arts, until the Board changed it hoping to up attendance. It was more commonly called St. Blair's School for Witches), she received her first familiar.
This was a big moment for a young witch. A witch was expected to summon thousands of familiars over the course of her lifetime, but the first was generally agreed to be the most important. Familiars acted as a personal assistant, a magical storage compartment, and, most importantly for students, as the perfect test subject for new spells. This was because familiars could never actually be harmed by their own witch's magic: they were made of it, after all. Their shape was often a strong hint of what shape a witch's power would take, and, in turn, something for a young witch to keep in mind as she cultivated her powers for the good of Society.
Familiars were therefore a key component to any witch's proper education, and the fact that St. Blair's encouraged girls to summon their first in their second year - a full year earlier than most schools - was a big draw for attendance.
So Naomi had come into her second year full of excitement and, maybe, a little fear. She had a lot to live up to: her mother's familiar was a dainty white fox who could always be found curled over her shoulder as she came home from her job with the Embassy, where she did translation work. Translating spells was a tricky business, as sometimes spells did not want to be translated, so her mother's familiar was well suited to the task: he could sniff out all sorts of oddities and, if the spell chose to go violent, he could triple in size and number of tails in less than a second. Naomi had never specifically seen him do this, she'd only heard stories. Still, by all accounts he was an ideal partner for her mother, and Naomi had hoped that when the time came for her to stand before the review board, lay her painstakingly designed personal calling contract on the floor, and call her magic to take shape, she would get someone as elegant and useful as him.
But when the smoke cleared, and she stared out at empty air, she suspected that would not be the case. And when she dropped her eyes to the floor, and to the tiny lump that had materialized in the center of it, she knew that was not the case.
What she got was Baku.
"And what's THAT?" said Serra Meyer, the third year who liked to have lunch with Naomi because she was thoroughly convinced Naomi was out to get her. "Is that your FAMILIAR?"
Serra's familiar was a beautiful cat with two different colored eyes. He was as long as her arm and had a luxurious coat of long black fur, not a hair of which was ever out of place. His fur was night black, broken only by the lines of Serra's ruthless, sharply angled calling contract as it glowed on his body. It made him look more fearsome. At present, he was resting under her chair, his face oozing against one of the legs. He kept one eye open, glaring balefully, as though to say 'why yes I am aware that I look quite stupid like this, but are you going to say anything about it?' He reflected Serra to the letter.
Naomi put Baku down on the table. Baku didn't seem to mind. He didn't even seem to notice. He simply slouched. His snores got louder. He was covered in short, wiry black and white fur. He accidentally rolled over his nose. He began to cough. Naomi set him upright again.
"He's portable," said Naomi. She said this with her nose turned slightly up, because with Serra Meyer the only acceptable tone was a prideful one.
Serra snorted. "I see that. But what is he?"
"I don't see why I should say."
The corner of Serra's eye twitched. "You want better marks in history this year, don't you?"
Naomi flinched. She hadn't been taught in the same primer schools as the rest of St. Blair's, and so she'd come in woefully behind. She'd received near failing marks in history all her first quarter, until she'd approached Serra on the subject. Serra was an expert on all witches since the Roman times. "I've been studying all summer," said Naomi, defensively. "I'm better now. And I could just go ask Ladonia for help. I understand her, now."
"Pff," said Serra, although her fingers drummed restlessly on the table. She regarded Baku with a mix of wariness and true confusion. "Are we really so sure of that?"
Ladonia's marks were good, but not as good as Serra's. "He's a Baku."
"He looks like a midget elephant."
"And what's a tapir?"
"...a...small elephant," said Naomi, flushing slightly.
"A-ha," said Serra. She leaned forward on her hands, fingers framing one of those trademark smirks that gave some believability to the rumors that she was one of the secret grandchildren of the current Witch Queen. "I see. I feel more knowledgeable already. And what exactly does he do?"
Something about how smug and triumphant Serra looked really bothered Naomi. She did her best to sit straight and prim, and gathered Baku onto her lap. He draped himself forward over her folded arms, his nose wriggling just slightly. His eyes never so much as flickered. "Oh," said Naomi, with an air of great importance. "You know. Lots of things."
"If you say so," said Serra, with a toss of her head. She laughed it off, but Naomi could see the uncertain way she twiddled her hair between her fingers. In a way that meant, for Serra Meyer, 'well, damn what does she think she has over me now?'
The truth was Naomi wasn't exactly sure what Baku did either. The teachers at her review had told her that she'd done well. The marks she'd laid over the familiar were certainly different, but perfectly serviceable, and what's more the form was a new one, which was in general a sign of unique gifts. Most familiars took forms and magics that were easily recognizable as, well, familiars: frogs, and owls, and crows, and cats. Ladonia's familiar was a large red-eyed black dog through whose howls and ghost forms she could set wards and timed curses. Adrienne's was a snake she kept wound around her neck, who could grow into a huge feathered serpent and eat fire spells she fed him for her later use. Serra's cat kept glamours in his long luxurious fur. Even the nasty second year Carmella, with whom Naomi had shared a room in her first year, had called a familiar that took the form of a little mocking bird. She kept her on her shoulder, and the bird had already proven to have a gift for recording and distorting the human voice.
Naomi, for her part, had tried to put Baku over her shoulder, but he had slipped off. He'd landed on the floor with a soft 'plurk'. Naomi had quickly picked him up and apologized, but Baku had only lifted his nose in mild confusion at all her hushing and her stroking, and gone right back to sleep.
Form normally suggested function, but Naomi's teacher, versed in familiars but not in East Asian creatures, could give Naomi no hint as to what it was a Baku meant in magical terms. "It happens," said her calligraphy professor, Dame Parker, who was somewhat infamous for drawing giant 'x's on the faces of students who tried to goof off in class. The fact that she was four foot two with hair down to her knees was the second thing she was known for. "You're not always supposed to know what they do right away. Some of the greatest powers are those not yet known. Oh, don't give me that look. Don't think I don't know the 'you're just saying that to mess with me' look. I like your brushwork on the calling contract. Did your mother teach you that one?"
She turned Baku in one neat little circle. Baku was either not adverse being touched or just completely unaware of it. He allowed himself to be turned, his four legs splayed out in all directions. His little lopped ears twitched once when Dame Parker gave him one sharp poke in the belly.
"Mrrp," said Baku.
"The first clause is," said Naomi. "It's one of the first I learned."
"Don't tell me what it says," said Dame Parker quickly. "Don't ever tell anyone the conditions of your personal contract. But there's a place to start. You didn't use a typical contract, so you don't get a typical familiar. Your mother might know something about it. I hear she specializes in atypical cases these days.
Atypical was one way to put it.
Naomi wrote a letter to her mother. She told her exactly how the review had gone, how her first week of classes had gone, and the details of her new familiar. She didn't tell her the specifics of the contract, beyond the basic template she'd used in writing it. Within three days the matron slipped the reply letter into her dorm mailbox.
'Dear Naomi,' said her mother. 'I am pleased to hear that you have called your familiar to you. He will be a great asset to your education. From what you have described to me, it sounds as though yours has come to you as a baku, a dream eater. His abilities are his secret to tell, but I have a strong sense that you will be well rested before all of your exams in the future.'
The return address was listed as somewhere in Russia. At least, Naomi had to guess it was, from the Cyrillic characters on the envelope.
Naomi sighed, folded the letter, and placed it in a box with all the others.
"I pray you have had better luck with your esteemed mother?"
Ladonia was from a very old-fashioned family.
"She told me something," said Naomi, sighing as she flopped down over the bed. Beside her, Baku rolled over onto his side, one of his thick nailed feet scratching at his rounded belly. "Which is something, from my mother. Well rested, well rested. Am I good at sleep magic, do you think?"
"If you are, I should like to know this," said Ladonia, combing out all of her straight, bone-white hair. She wore a small black night shift for bed, but only because her roommates had asked her to. "I have found catching my second death most difficult in these past few nights. I blame it on the last breath of summer."
"It's been pretty hot, hasn't it? Let me see." Naomi picked Baku up under his forepaws. Baku let her, mumbling only slightly. She held him up, positioning him so that his long snout was vaguely pointed at Ladonia.
Ladonia put down her bone comb and waited expectantly at the edge of her bunk, her long nails hooked over the edge of her bed. Beside her, her dog familiar perked his ears hopefully.
"Rest," said Naomi. There was a longer clause and incantation involved, but magic through a familiar was meant to bypass that.
Baku shifted in her arms, his short pointed ears beginning to twitch. A breeze filled the room, cool and expectant, and Naomi held her breath, waiting as the contract marks in his black and white fur flickered and then glowed to see what form he would take when the spell moved into its active phase, when she would be expected to request the target and the duration, because you had to be very thorough about these things, and the school expected a written record of every spell you tried, even for fun.
"Mff," said Baku. He began to snore.
"I do believe you have put him to sleep," said Ladonia. "Was that your intention?"
"No," sighed Naomi. "No it wasn't."
"Miss Kira, please remove that pint-sized pachyderm from the lab table," said Professor Bruin, her cooking teacher. Cooking was a large part of some more complicated spells. As long as Naomi could remember, her mother had always taken great care to show her how to cut fish and divide the entrails in ways that would provide protection. At St. Blair's you made soup. Sometimes it was edible, most of the time it wasn't.
The class broke into snickers.
"I would, m'am," said Naomi, "But it's my familiar, m'am."
"IS it?" Professor Bruin took off her glasses and held them a foot from her face. "Ah. So it is. Your familiar is a Tapir, eh?"
"What's a tapir?" asked Ariella in the first row. She was looking prim and spotless as ever. It came from making her lab partner do most of the work while she wrote fervid things in her diary under her desk.
"A small elephant," said Professor Bruin, to more laughter. She didn't seem to hear this. "My apologies, Miss Kira. This damnable heat..." He rubbed at his eyes.
"You may have them fooled," whispered Serra Meyer, over the bubbling pot in front of them. "But I'm not. You're up to something aren't you? You wouldn't make such a spectacle like that if you didn't have something in mind."
"Yes. I'm plotting as we speak," sighed Naomi, pulling the squirming Baku back into her lap. "You don't think Professor Bruin seems a little tired, do you?"
"A good witch never sleeps," said Serra, who had permanent bags under her eyes, but hid them under cakes and cakes of glamours.
"A good witch has a familiar who will talk to her," said Naomi. She wasn't thinking, it just slipped out.
Serra was on her immediately. "Oh? Feigning weakness now aren't we? Please, I've known you from first year. As though I'd fall for something as self-pitying is that. If your familiar won't speak to you, it's only because it's not time. Not all familiars talk anyway. Some of the most powerful never say a word their contract holder understands. So, don't think I'll fall for that sad attempt to look less like a threat."
Naomi stared. "...I think that's one of the nicest things you've ever said to me."
Professor Bruin rubbed the bridge of her nose. "Add the liver, everyone!"
Serra Meyer pulled a face and pushed away from the table. "You do that, Kira," she commanded. "Where I can see you."
That was more like the Serra that Naomi knew. She stabbed the shivering pile of liver with a fork and tossed it in.
"He doesn't look that much like an elephant," said Adrienne, closing her locker.
Adrienne was a third year like Serra. Unlike Serra, she got her own room in the dorms. This was because Adrienne was actually a boy. Male witches were rare. Which wasn't to say that male magic users didn't exist - the wizards and the inquisition were full of those - but a true male witch, one whose mother was a witch, and whose grandmother was a witch, who could survive a dunking in the bath tub, and fly using household appliance, almost never happened. The few times they did they tended to be met with the sort of opposition and discrimination that led to unfortunate things like trying to take over the world. Barring that, they often tried to overthrow the witch queen. This in and of itself wasn't what made the general population wary of them: many perfectly normal female witches tried to overthrow the witch queen too, many of whom were family even. It was more the distressingly disproportionate number of people who had died in the last male witch's attempt.
As a result, when Adrienne's family had discovered he had the exact same powers as his mother (who had had all boys and was truthfully very happy to finally find someone who shared her powers and didn't care what gender they were) they had taken loving, concerned measures to insure he didn't suffer in the way his predecessors had.
Which meant a word with the school administrators, pleated skirts, and a very confusing set of mental pronouns. Naomi was the only person in school besides the dean and the chairman who knew that Adrienne Harvest wasn't strictly female. She had promised to never let another soul know. This had made Adrienne her friend solely by sheer desperate default. Adrienne didn't like having friends.
"That's nice, but you don't have to say that, Adrienne."
Adrienne looked mildly relieved. "Mm. Thank you. All right. He looks an awful lot like an elephant. But he should!" he added, very quickly, as Naomi's face began to fall. Adrienne got very panicked when it came to what people wanted out of him. "Tapirs are cousins. Did you know that? It's really interesting..."
Naomi looked at Baku, curled up in her side bag. His ears gave a faint flick. "He's not really a Tapir either, he's a Dream Eater."
"A dream eater? What does that mean?"
"I don't know yet."
"Well, obviously the consumption of dreams is a big component," said Adrienne, fixing his glasses. He bent over to have a look, pigtails falling over his shoulders. Adrienne was undersized, and very delicately boned. He made a very convincing girl. "He must be in some dormant state right now..."
Naomi couldn't help but laugh, "He's always in a dormant state. He hasn't even woken up to tell me his name."
"Oh, that happens. I didn't know Quetzel's until the end of last year," Adrienne looked up over his shoulder. Quetzel didn't. That struck Naomi as odd, so she asked about it, and was greeted to one of Adrienne's somewhat famous dithers. "Oh, it's nothing bad just. Ah. She's sleeping, in my bag. It's a thing lately. It's very comfy in there and she likes places that are warm...so your familiar is a Dream Eater? Has he...done any of that Dream Eating?"
Baku's eyelids flickered faintly, and he lifted his head, following the movement of Adrienne's gaze in a vague rocking of his head that was the closest to aware he'd ever gotten.
"I've been sleeping very soundly since the term started," said Naomi. "I don't know if that's him, though. I only ever remember dreams if they're bad. Or if they're...well, from someone."
Like mother. Mother sometimes did that. Naomi had never liked it very much.
"He's probably doing that, then." Adrienne smiled. That was when Naomi noticed the lines under his eyes, through the glare of his glasses. "Ah, I wish he could do that for me."
"Have you had trouble sleeping, Adrienne?"
"No, no, everything's fine just... well, yes." Adrienne stood, plucking at his skirts self-consciously. "I'm thinking maybe it's just stress from the term starting. You know. Worry I'll miss a class. Or turn up... not wearing anything. Or find out mum made a mistake and sent me to the boy's school and they're all really big and I'm still wearing my Blair uniform...." His voice trailed off. "...do you think he does sleep spells?"
Naomi sighed. "I tried that."
"Oh," Adrienne's face fell. He did his best to be conciliatory. He liked to be conciliatory; it meant people were less likely to suspect he was going to grow up to be an evil dictator. "Well, he's really cute."
"Thanks," said Naomi, with a pained smile.
"Hi," said Ariella, one day after class. "Naomi, hey. What's up? How have you been?"
Naomi froze with one foot still in the air, halfway out the door of her calligraphy class. It wasn't one of the ones she shared with Ariella, and for that she'd been horribly relieved. She hadn't seen too much of Ariella since the start of the term. It suited Naomi fine. After last year, she would have been content to never see her again, but the nature of St. Blair's made it impossible to miss anyone for long. So here Ariella was, all bright smiles, with Midge and Louisa behind her even. That couldn't be good.
"Hello," said Naomi, shortly. "I'm fine." She held Baku very tightly under her arm as she gathered her things in an attempt to make a more aerodynamic escape.
No such luck. Ariella tapped her arm almost excitedly. "Oh, hey! You have a familiar now. Me too." Naomi could see that. It wasn't hard to. The bird was bouncing on Ariella's shoulder, eyes bright and eager to please. "Can I see?"
"I have to go," said Naomi. She knew a curt tone was a mistake. She could see the way Pam and Louisa exchanged glances over Ariella's shoulders, as though having confirmed some quiet theory they shared. "Congratulations," she added.
Ariella didn't seem to want to give up: she walked after Naomi, her friends clattering behind them to keep pace. "How's your new room been? Mine's really great. It's a little hot though!"
It was always too hot or too cold for Ariella. Naomi tried to take big steps so it didn't look like she was running away. "That is very good. I am very glad for you," she said stiffly, refusing to look at her. Looking at her would be a mistake.
"Have you been sleeping well?"
Naomi paused. 'Ah,' she thought. That was it.
"Just fine," said Naomi, daring a quick glance. Sure enough, Ariella was looking sad and hurt. Her lips were pursed, and her large green eyes were shaking with pain. She kept shooting fertive glances around her, as though to say 'look. I am trying to be friends. Look at how hard I am trying'. Naomi aimed her gaze at the ceiling instead and sighed, "Yes. I'm fine, Ariella. Everything okay with you?"
Ariella brightened. "Oh yeah, things have been great." Then the brightness shut off, the nervous, sad look came back between her eyebrows. "Just..well. You don't think that's a little weird? When everyone else has been having those dreams. I mean. I'm really glad you're not having them, but..."
Pam began tugging at Louisa's arm. Louisa shushed her quickly. Their eyes never left Naomi or, more specifically, they never left Baku. "Really bad ones," said Ariella, "Even the Matron's been up. Everyone's been tossing and turning. I'm really surprised you hadn't heard about it..."
Naomi hadn't. Although everyone had looked a bit tired lately. "No. I haven't."
"Oh, hey. Your familiar's a Dream Eater, isn't it?"
"He is." Maybe it was just that she hadn't called him an elephant. Maybe it was just that Ariella looked so genuinely concerned, but for a brief moment Naomi wondered if Ariella was very and truly asking for help. She held him up. Baku's back feet peddled lazily at the air as she did. Maybe Ariella, Pam, and Louisa wanted her input. Maybe Ariella really was sorry about last year. Maybe Ariella really did think Naomi was a good person, who hadn't been responsible for all the curses last year, especially not the one that had caused all the first years to turn to frogs, which had been set by a rogue familiar believed to be working in league with the inquisitors. Maybe Ariella had realized that—
But Ariella took a step back and said, "You don't think you could, you know, turn him off a bit? I mean, we'd all really like to get some sleep again. It'd be really great if you could stop... doing it. Whatever it is."
Naomi stared at her for a long time.
"I see," she said. She turned around and began to walk away. "I have to go."
"See?" she thought she heard Pam whisper. "See. I was right. She doesn't even care—"
"I DO care," said Naomi. She turned back around so quickly that Ariella almost crashed straight into her. Ariella stumbled back against Louisa's arm, flinching as though Naomi had shoved her. "If the whole dorm is having nightmares you should tell a teacher."
"...we were hoping you would," said Louisa, quietly.
"You mean you were hoping I'd confess to whatever it is you think I'm doing?" demanded Naomi. The way the three of them turned red told her enough. "No. I won't. I'd say it's because I didn't do it, but I know you won't believe me. So I'm just going to say if there's something wrong you should go to the board yourselves."
"Please, we already know what you did to them," said Pam, a little louder than she meant. Naomi looked at her, but much to her annoyance Pam just looked her in the eyes and giggled, nervously.
'If I hit her, they'll just be more convinced it's me,' thought Naomi. She pulled her familiar closer. At least Baku was very warm and squishy. He could take a good deal of pent up frustration. 'If I just walk away, they'll say I'm running because I did it. If I do anything, they'll just say it's me.'
Ariella pinned her with wide, sad eyes. "Naomi," she said, gently, "We just want you to be honest about it..."
"And you're all amateurs," said Serra Meyer, looming behind them like some massive mountain topped with a pile of blonde ringlets and disdain. "If you think she has it in her to do anything like that, you know nothing of what makes a truly Wicked Witch."
Ariella, Pam, and Louisa turned an interesting shade of white. They turned, one after the other.
"Miss Serra," said Pam.
"Miss Meyer," said Louisa.
"Er, hi," said Ariella. "How are you?"
Serra threw her schoolbag at the nearest of the three, who happened to be Ariella. It was full of a number of thick spellbooks. Ariella, who was a head shorter than Serra and rail thin, sank under the weight of it.
"You," commanded Serra with a flick of her wrist. "Take that to my next class. You two, go with her. We wouldn't want her slipping through a crack in the floor, would we? And if you stare at me a second more I'll curse your eyes to see nothing but spots for three days--there. That takes care of them."
Serra clapped her hands together, while at her feet, her familiar came rubbing up against her ankles. Naomi wondered if now would be the time to just keep walking. She turned to do just that, but sure enough she felt Serra's hand come down over her shoulder, reeling her right back in.
"I guess you'll tell me I did it too, now."
"Pah," said Serra. "The dreams started two weeks before you moved back into the dorms."
"You stay for the summer term?" Naomi was surprised. Serra always received care packages from outside. She knew because Serra always made a very strong point of shaking and loudly wondering about the contents of every one of them before opening them. She received dozens of letters a week, some of which weren't even love letters. Naomi had always figured her for the sort to have a large mansion she went home to in the summers.
Serra continued as though she hadn't heard. "To say nothing of the fact I know you. You think bigger than that. You'd know that things like that don't work on me."
Naomi ran that statement through her Serra translator. "So you haven't had them either? What--" And then the world whirled around her, as Serra steered her in a circle and down the hall.
"Stay where I can see you," murmured Serra. "Any sudden movements, and I'll know."
"Wasn't your next class that way..."
"What does it matter if I have had them or not?" asked Serra. "I have an idea to clear your name, and mine, while we're at it. I hate having company all night. Come with me. And bring your elephant."
"Whatever you'd like to call it."
Dream seers were a very rare form of witch. They generally called forth familiars with large eyes and calm natures, whose jobs generally extended towards observation. Witches with clairvoyant abilities were generally required to take a number of tests and reviews to insure genuine, accurate prediction and licensing under the eyes of the Grand Coven.
Dream walking was another story.
"I'm not covering this until next year..."
"I know you read ahead."
"Yes," admitted Naomi. "But that doesn't always mean I do everything I read."
Serra laughed. It was a fine, tinkling laugh, like moonlight in the branches of an old clawed tree. "You mean you don't do it if you can't be graded for it. Please don't try to fool me. I know you like the attention."
"We aren't all like you," said Naomi, loftily, but she turned away quickly, to hide her flush. It wasn't entirely untrue. Naomi enjoyed magic, but she enjoyed excelling at it more. 'You don't need my approval,' her mother was always telling her.
Standing in the school cellar after picking a lock using a twig of yew was maybe not the best way to gain approval. Chances were, if they were caught, they'd face an academic review. Still, when Serra had appeared on the second year dorm level, her familiar coiling under the door in a wall of smoke, Naomi hadn't thought to say 'no'. Ariella had at least been right about one thing: the whole school was having bad dreams. It explained the bags under Adrienne's eyes, and Professor Bruin's dottiness. It didn't explain Ladonia's strangeness, but Ladonia had always been strange. She had looked a bit paler than usual, though.
"We are going to get caught," said Naomi. "And I will have to write my mother about this."
"And yet here we are," said Serra.
Naomi had to admit she had a point.
"What I don't understand," admitted Naomi, gazing around at the lanterns of the cellar. "Is why you can't do this yourself."
The cellar wasn't actually as foreboding as it sounded. It was used nearly every other period during the day for practical exercise. The floors were clean and made of black and blue tiles, and the spiders along the walls were a breeding colony kept for specimen work. The stairs that led down to the celler were steep and scary, but the rail was sturdy and the lamps at the bottom were enchanted to always stay on. Serra held one of these lamps high as she stepped out into the darkness. It was darker than usual, but only just. Moonlight spilled through the row of windows set high along the walls. Usually it looked like an unused ballroom, which Naomi had always suspected it was.
Serra glanced back at her. "Pff. You have to ask? Mal isn't suited for this sort of spell. He's restless, like me. Your Baku, however, will take just about anything."
Naomi couldn't help but hold Baku closer out of sheer defensiveness. "Just what is he supposed to take?"
"Oh, nothing much."
"It will only be a short while. I'm sure utterly nothing to a witch of your insidious caliber."
Serra sighed and swung the lamp ahead of her. "All right. You leave him down here and in the night your spirit will wander to retrieve him.
"You want me to..." Naomi shook her head. "Serra, Baku is my familiar."
"Yes. I know. That is why your mind will want to find him as quickly as possible. You'll have a lucid dream. Since you already know where it is, you'll be able to visualize everything perfectly, and while you're wandering after him, you will be able to see what's been keeping us all awake at night. You'll be halfway between both worlds."
"Oh, you can summon another one if you run into trouble."
"What if I don't want to?"
Even in the dim light of the cellar, Naomi could feel the odd look Serra gave her just then. "But don't you? He's fairly useless. You know he won't wander back to find you. And anyway a true witch should be able to send a familiar to do their bidding."
"But..." Naomi had to admit Serra did have a point about nearly everything. She looked down at Baku, sagging in her arms as his body lay limply in its endless slumber. She picked him up, and held him level with her face. In the dark, the white lines of the contract glowed around him. She reached up and touched the first line. "He is my familiar. He came when I called. I'm sure he does have his uses. It's just he hasn't told them to me yet. That's right, isn't it Baku? You will tell me one day, won't you?"
"Mrrh," said Baku, his long snout twitching wetly.
In spite of this, Naomi gave him an extra hug. "Sleep well, all right? I'll be back soon. I think you're more than a little elephant." She untied her uniform kerchief and wrapped it around him, as she laid him down on the floor.
To her surprise, Serra had very little to say about this, although she'd watched her the whole time, her eyebrows slightly raised. "Come on," she said, turning with a swing of the lantern. "Time for bed."
Naomi had expected to take a long time nodding off that night. She expected to spend a number of hours staring at her ceiling, worrying about whether or not the spell would work, worrying about Baku, and wondering whether or not she'd done the right thing by leaving him in a dark cellar all alone. She expected to roll over at least twenty times, and that by the time she did finally nod off, it would be nearly dawn and she would only have an hour to reach him in the dreamscape, or wherever she would be.
Then she had remembered Ladonia's special teas and knocked herself out cold nearly before she reached her bed.
Within moments her eyes were open again, staring up at the bed curtains. She stretched her back, slid up on her elbows, and slid her feet to the floor. Oh, thought Naomi, it didn't work.
Then she looked over and saw her body sprawled out across the bed.
It was nearly enough to make Naomi wake herself up with her shouting. She had done some minor ghosting, in the remedial courses of her first year, but she had only thrown individual senses. She'd fastened her sense of hearing into a shell and set it on the other side of a room to catch extra conversation. She'd put the sight from one eye into a ball and had thrown it across the room, but never, ever had she thrown her whole spirit. She looked at the body lying across the bed and the body she was attached to, and was surprised to discover they were very much the same, if you ignored that her spirit's body was slightly more silvery at the edges, and that her real body was presently sleeping with her mouth open, drooling slightly.
That was a little embarrassing. Naomi reached over to fix it, but discovered her hand only passed through.
"Ah," she said. "So that's how it works."
She left her body to its own indignity and set out through the dorm.
The dorm room didn't look unlike the way it did normally. The beds and desks were right where they always were. Ladonia was stretched out across her black velvet sheets, her hands crossed over her chest in that way that always made her look like she was resting at her own funeral. Still, everything felt inherently different. The shadows seemed longer, and more... solid, somehow. They looked as though if Naomi reached for them she would be able to pick them up and wear them around her shoulders like her cape.
She didn't dare.
In the hallway she felt that same strangeness. Everything was so much quieter in the dream world, like the hush of a blizzard. The lights from the tall windows at the end of the hall seemed sharper than usual, and it wasn't until Naomi focused on those window that she realized the cause: the sky outside was the wrong color. When she'd crept back through the dorms with Serra it had been the typical deep night blue dotted by red clouds, framing a half moon. Now the sky was deep red, dotted by night blue clouds, and the moon was full.
She heard the faint sound of hooves.
A door opened. Naomi whirled, fully expecting to be seen, but whoever it was ran nearly straight through her with little more than a faint bolt of cold where the bodies crossed. Naomi saw who it was and forced herself not to shout, because although she wore her black night shift, the person looked nothing like Ladonia at all.
Her hair was missing, for one. Two, her ears were twice as long as they should have been. When she moved it wasn't with Ladonia's usual slithering grace, but thrust forward, on all fours, with fingers that were tipped by claws that looked vicious even in comparison with her regular nails. Naomi ran after her. She couldn't help it. There was something so panicked in the figure's loping gate she had to know what was wrong.
"Ladonia!" she called. "Ladonia!"
The figure turned around, and Naomi nearly fell backwards. Her eyes were nearly completely black.
"Naomi?" asked the figure in a voice that sounded vaguely like her roommate痴, if her roommate had a mouth full of three inch needle teeth. "Naomi, is that you?" Her sharp, elongated nose began to sniff the air.
The sound of hoof beats got louder. Naomi remembered that Baku was still in the basement. Slipping past the bent figure that was somehow still Ladonia, Naomi opened the door to the stairs.
"Naomi," she heard Ladonia call. "Naomi, be careful, it's—"
The door opened to reveal, not a set of stairs like she expected, but a classroom. In the classroom were a group of students. They looked an awful lot like people she knew, but somehow different. She certainly didn't remember Ariella ever looking so skeletal. She was also sure Serra wasn't six feet tall. Naomi could even see herself, in one of the back rows. She had a cold, scornful expression she could never recall her face ever having made. It was presently aimed not at her, but at the person who shut the door just behind her. The door creaked like a braying horse. It shut nearly as loud as a gunshot. A young boy with dark curly hair, a pair of thick glasses, and no shirt stood with his hand on the knob: he looked underfed and miserable, with thin shoulders and a blush that ran from his cheeks down to his stomach. Naomi had to blink. She almost hadn't recognized Adrienne, without his long hair.
"Oh," he was saying. "So you now you know."
"I've known since last year," started Naomi, but Adrienne wasn't talking to her. The class erupted. At first in words, a thousand, angry, confused, sneering words: a boy? What are you doing here? You ate with us? Naomi distinctly heard her own voice say: 'I knew you couldn't do it.' And then Serra's voice, deeper and louder than she'd ever heard it before: 'Traitor.'
'Make him pay.'
Adrienne huddled in the door, his arms folded behind his back and his head low. "...Guess I have no choice."
"Of course you do, Adrienne," said Naomi. Her voice was alarmingly calm, amidst the shouts and the sneers. "You would make a terrible Warlock."
The voices paused as though someone had turned down the volume. Adrienne's eyes flicked up. "Excuse me?" he said, sounding more like himself. "Naomi, is that you?"
"Yes, it's me!" said Naomi, reaching him. Her hand passed through his shoulder, but Adrienne must have felt something, because they jumped narrowly. She was startled at how sharp his collarbone looked on his bare chest. "And I'm telling you you're about as evil as an old pair of socks!"
"I don't know why you're here, Naomi," said Adrienne, squinting in the opposite direction as her. "But you should probably go. The bad part's about to start."
"What's the bad part?" asked Naomi. She was beginning to hear the voices again, the walls were making strange groaning noises, and she heard a rumble, like hooves against cobblestone.
"You don't really want to know," said Adrienne, stepping away from the door. Naomi grabbed the knob and slipped back outside, just as she heard a great roar that sounded suspiciously like a great gout of fire coming alive all at once. The crack under the door glowed red.
Somehow, she found herself standing at the base of the stairs.
"Nightmares," said Naomi. "Adrienne..." she'd never considered that he was afraid of people like that. She was standing in the dorm's first floor lounge, staring at the oak doors that led out into the school proper. Swallowing hard, Naomi strode forward. In the way of dreams, the heavy doors felt like nothing as she pressed them open. Also in the way of dreams, their shadows and hers spilled into the hall beyond, almost touching the far doors. In the windows that looked out into the school's main court yard, the skies had gone a darker shade of red.
Someone was crying. Scanning ahead, Naomi could just make out someone curled up on the floor, a group of gibbering creatures scrabbling at the back of her nightdress. Naomi ran, and although she couldn't touch them, she kicked at them as hard as she could. They popped like bubbles the moment her spectral foot made contact. Naomi knelt beside the girl on the floor.
"Are you okay?"
"Go away," sobbed a strangely muted voice. It was Ariella. Naomi reached for her. She tried to at least sit her up, but her hands passed through her. Ariella didn't seem to notice. She slid up against the wall, and Naomi understood then why she'd sounded like she'd had a mouth full of socks, because her face was missing. It was nothing but a flat static space. "Go away. Leave me alone. You all hate me anyway. Go away. It's not my fault. You just hate me. It's not my fault. It's not..."
Naomi sank to the ground across from her, and for a moment all she could do was stare.
"It took you long enough," said a voice across the hall.
Naomi looked up: there was Serra, standing in her frilly pink pajamas. Pom-pom's hung from her collar and ribbons dangled from her wrists.
"I wondered when you'd get here," said Serra.
"Are you awake or asleep?" asked Naomi. Serra reached out her hand. Naomi took it. She was startled to find it was nearly solid. Not completely, she could feel her hand sink in a bit, but solid enough she could pull herself up.
"...don't even know anymore," said Serra. "It's just like this every night. Has been for as long as I could remember. These people are all amateurs. You should keep moving, though, they'll be coming soon."
"Who's they? The people doing this?"
"No," Serra smiled. "My people."
The windows shattered. They shattered all at once. They shattered into a dozen pieces, and through the jagged remains stepped a well-dressed woman in heels and a black evening gown that didn't seem to catch on the glass, despite how it trailed behind her. She stood nearly seven feet tall. After her crawled a well-tailored man. He wore a three piece suit and sharp pointed shoes. He stood almost as tall as the woman. He came to stand next to her. They had wide, sharp smiles. Naomi found it was hard to make out anything about them above the eyes.
"Hello Serra," said the woman. "Are you enjoying school?"
"Yes, Aunt Runa," said Serra. "Everyone listens to me here. Soon I'll be very powerful, like you."
"That's wonderful," said the man, beaming even more widely than the woman. The smile seemed to big for his face. "And have you learned where Her Majesty keeps her crown?"
"Not yet, Uncle Hart," said Serra.
"Oh, good," said the woman. "Then you're still fair game." And then she raised her hands and fired off five jets of deep purple smoke. It surged forward with the arching power of a wave, or a row of horses, melting everything in its path. Serra threw herself to the side, dragging Naomi with her. Behind the man and the woman, Naomi could make out more figures climbing through the broken windows. They were thin and fat, they were tall and short, they were grown women and small children and nearly all of them were female.
"You should go," said Serra, picking a glamour out of Mal's fur and turning one of the pieces of glass on the floor into a sword. "You're not part of the game, but they'll think you are if you stay with me."
"Who are they?"
"Lets see, there's Uncle Hart, Aunt Runa, my sisters Mara, Lee, and Rachel. My mother will probably be last. She usually is."
"They're your family?!"
"No," said Serra, with a flat face. "They're claimants. Go, now. You don't have time to watch me fry here. I won't recognize you in a second anyway. Go now!"
One of the figures resolved into Serra's sister and threw a fireball that tore into the hardwood floors. Serra shoved Naomi out of the way. She vanished into the smoke, shouting. "You think you can kill me? Hah. None of you will kill me! Not if I get you first--"
Naomi ran for the far end of the hall. The doors to the cellar would be there. She could find Baku and then she could wake up. Yes, that's what she was sure would happen. She would wake up. "Nightmares," she whispered. "Everyone's nightmares. But why are they so clear? Why are they so real? Dreams are never this coherent. These ones feel. These ones..."
Her feet on the floorboards sounded a little like hooves. Naomi skidded to a stop. Behind her, she could see nothing but smoke. Ahead of her, were the cellar doors.
"Oh," said Naomi. "Nightmare."
The doors at the end of the hall burst open with a great scream and, in a clatter of spectral hooves, the Nightmare ran down the doors, and leapt into the hall.
Textbooks had always described nightmares as very basic creatures, as far as beasts of the dark arts went. They could be tamed. They could be utilized. They could even be ridden, if the witch was old enough, powerful enough, and scary enough to look them in the eyes. They were born from people, much like familiars were. They were the jagged left over bits from bad dreams, coming together into a being that the textbooks portrayed as a huge black horse with fiery eyes and a long mane full of starlight.
Naomi realized in that moment that the textbooks took severe artistic liberties. The creature that reared in front of her looked like a horse only in that it had four legs and a long arched neck. It was black only so far as its body was a sheer absence of light: like someone had cut out a piece of the night sky, rung out the stars, and stuck it back in a vaguely four-legged shape, and it was only due to the lack of stars that you could you make out any form at all.
As for the eyes, they were fiery certainly, but they weren't red. They were white. They shone with a cold, sick strength Naomi couldn't help but gaze into, transfixed. A horse's eyes were set at either side of its long head. The nightmare's eyes were set in the very front of that vague wedge that made up its face, each glowing spot lashing with cold.
It lowered its head and charged. Naomi closed her eyes and held up her hands. She couldn't think of what else to do. You could never run as fast as you wanted in dreams, and anyway Baku was on the other side of the door. She couldn't very well leave him.
The nightmare passed through her, not unlike how Ladonia had run through her up on the third floor. This was far from that mild touch of cold. The Nightmare's passing felt like being dumped into water that was just above freezing. It scratched through her, dragging on its heels all the awful dreams she had ever had: those murky dreams she didn't even tell her mother about. Like the dream where she failed all her classes. Like the dream where her mother took off for some far away country and never came back. Like the dream where she'd been sent to the Grand Coven for killing someone. Like the dream where she was knee deep in a river that got higher and higher, and on the river bank she saw a man with red hair and the pelt of a white fox clutched in his hand...
Naomi sank to her knees. She waited until she heard the clatter of the Nightmare's hooves higher above her on the stairs before she launched herself forward. She wasn't running away from it. She was running in the opposite direction. She focused her concentration on the floorboards ahead of her feet, trying to gain ground, even as she heard the Nightmare scream and turn, annoyed to find its prey ignoring all the beautiful images it had found for her.
Naomi stumbled for the cellar door. She was sure it would be locked. She had left it locked, but no sooner had her hands fumbled for the handle than it burst open. Naomi fell to her knees, wincing against the sudden flood of light. She heard the sound of pounding against the floor, but this time it sounded nothing like hooves. Forcing her eyes open, Naomi had to cover her eyes. There was the Nightmare, sure enough, but something else had joined it in the increasingly expansive hall.
It didn't look anything like her Baku. Or at least, it looked nothing like the Baku she had left in the basement. He still had four legs and a long snout, but now that snout was a true trunk, curled high over curved white tusks as furry pointed ears flared at either side of his head. His ears were long and tipped at the ends with feathery black points.. A thick mane ran from between his eyes down his back and chest, long and luxurious, twitching at the ends as though blown by an unknown wind. His body was long and lean, not unlike Serra's cat familiar; if Mal were the size of a pickup truck. The paws that carried him through the hall were soft and padded, but the claws at the end were long and curved. He paced in front of Naomi, his fur shining red and gold, save for the white lines that ran from the tip of the nose to the end of his long, swaying tail.
The calling contract.
The Baku unfurled his long powerful trunk , reaching for Naomi with the soft end of it turned up, almost like an offered hand. Naomi took it. It felt like velvet under her fingers. The Baku angled his body to catch her as she stumbled. She steadied herself against him, feeling powerful muscles of his long, feline body.
"Thank you," she told him. His eyes were dish-sized and glassy, but something about the way they curled at the corners seemed kind, almost amused. "I'm sorry I took so long."
The Nightmare stamped its feet and screamed. Naomi glanced at it out of the corner of her eye. Then she touched her forehead, running her fingers to trace out the shape of the first clause of the calling contract, the one that was written over her familiar's forehead.
"I'd appreciate it," she added.
The Baku ran his claws through the floorboards and launched himself at the Nightmare. The Nightmare lowered its head, preparing a second charge. The Baku stopped short, digging its claws into the floor. Its trunk thrust outwards. Too late, the Nightmare recognized its enemy. Its dragged its hooves. It attempted to alter its charge, attempted to turn around and escape, but the Baku's sides had already begun to expand. An inward rush of air caught the Nightmares nearest jagged corner. The Nightmare flailed its legs, and tossed its head. Its eyes burned with the fiercest cold light, but nothing could stop the Baku's endless swallow. Its black nothingness vanished down that long shining trunk with a noise almost like a guttering drain.
The Baku lowered his trunk and turned. He padded back to Naomi, and lowered his head. He reached out with his trunk. Naomi reached out too, carefully laying her hand along the back of it. It felt warm and shimmered at her touch. In his big glassy eyes, she thought she saw a smile. "Dream Eater," she said. "I see now."
Naomi woke up in her bed. She heard Ladonia snoring in the corner and felt a soft weight on her lap. Naomi winced, reached to wipe her face. The weight on her lap slipped. She reached quickly to catch it--but it was only Baku, swaying unaware as she gathered him to her chest. She hugged him very tight, but he didn't seem to mind. His eyelids flickered, his long snout twitched, and he made only one noise.
"Blrrgh," said Baku. He belched out a single bubble. It was small, and silvery, and in it Naomi could just make out the form of a tiny horse, running for its life.
No one seemed to know why the nightmares had stopped, just that they had and the population of St. Blair's was much less cranky for it. Classes went on as always. Second year students were asked to present their new familiars for various magical activities, and while Baku showed as much enthusiasm and helpfulness as he ever did during these exercises (i.e he slept), Naomi found she didn't mind nearly so much.
"One day you'll tell me what you did," said Adrienne.
"One day," said Naomi. "But not now. I don't think you'd believe me anyway."
"You might be right," admitted Adrienne, but then he had other things to deal with, because Naomi had chosen that moment to give him a hug.
"I'll see you tomorrow," she said. "Let's do study hall together."
"I hope you don't mind," said Naomi.
"I see no reason to deter you," said Ladonia. "I shall miss your company. But I am certain your reasons are sound."
"You've been sleeping better, right?"
"A bit," admitted Ladonia. "Although I shall say, I think I miss some aspects of my poor slumber..."
"I'll see you tomorrow," said Naomi. "We'll have lunch."
"I don't believe it," said Serra.
"He really did."
"He is a miniature elephant," said Serra.
Naomi shook her head. There really never was any telling what Serra would chose to believe at any given moment. She held Baku up anyway. He made a faint mrring sound, but took the treatment with his usual good humor. "Anyway, we're staying with you tonight. You don't have a choice in the matter. I never noticed how tired you looked. I wish you'd said something sooner."
Serra's scowl was just barely visible under the fall of her now mussed blonde hair. "And give you a chance to get at me? Never. These are mine, incidentally." She pulled the comforter and the sheets back over to her side of the bed. "Steal them, and I'll make you regret it."