CLARK: Once I dreamed I had this weird virus and I had to keep going forward in time until the end of the universe… The one I hate is where I’m just an actor on a strange television version of my life. Have you ever had that dream?
BRUCE: Doesn’t everyone?
--The Sandman, Issue #71: “In Which a Wake is Held”
The explosion lifted Diana - her bones shook and the air burned hot beneath her, a terrible cloud bringing her up out of dreams and into the biting air of the morning.
The window seemed painted gold, the sun just high enough to peek over the edge of the nearest building and paint liquid abstractions across her walls. She pushed back the sheets and tugged her fingers through her hair, rubbing exhaustion from her eyes. Her fingers shook slightly. As always, the first few breaths of the morning seemed unreal, fragile and shattered with just a single breath or blink. She stood.
Diana had never done well with stillness – even as a child she had hated sitting for lessons – and the lassitude of the night clung to her, making her joints ache and crackle. Or maybe she was just getting old. She smiled to herself and pulled on a pair of stretchy pants and a loose shirt. She needed nothing more.
Her armor had been locked away in a vault at the Banque years ago, when the troubles that Paris faced had become simple enough to put down with gauntlets and speed alone. Even those confrontations were rare, now. She preferred to resolve things peacefully these days. She’d grown tired of the fighting.
She moved into the open space before the windows, beginning her morning exercises.
As her muscles warmed, Paris woke as well. The city stretched its limbs outside her window, shopkeepers opening the curtains and turning round signs reading Ouvert, walkers heading out for lazy strolls with their dogs, young men and women heading toward the Metro or into cars to be escorted to work. They wore scarves and long coats that fluttered in the autumn wind, making it seem that the street was filled with dancers. By the time Diana finished her practice, she heard the sound of conversations floating up from below and knew that she would be late if she dallied much longer.
She chose a simple dress in grey wool for the day, pumps with sturdy heels, and pulled a thick slice of bread from the freezer. She focused on it briefly, bending reality just a enough and drawing on power even she couldn’t quite explain, and the slice warmed as she pulled on her coat and tucked her hair into her scarf. She headed out, and by the time she’d reached the street it was nearly toasted.
She nibbled as she walked to the Metro and descended, waiting for the train that would carry her toward the center of the city, and to work.
The painting arrived on a Thursday afternoon, packed in a box and slipped through the back entrance of the Louvre, wheeled down halls of decreasing glamour and style until it reached the basement, where the offices and restoration rooms of the greatest museum in the West had been relegated. Madame Brunell unpacked the box from afar, the chatter of her directions so quick and voluminous that Diana was drawn out of her office.
She set down the brush she had been using to clean the amphora, stripped off her gloves, and went to see if her neighbor needed rescuing.
She did not, except perhaps from her own excitement.
“Non, non, ne le soulevez pas comme ca!” Madame Brunell’s hands fluttered at the men in the center of her office, lifting a frame from the box. It was covered with a white cloth, but even so Diana could see that it was ornate, and the corner that peeked out from beneath the covering was gilt. “C’est un Lievens, putains d’idiots!”
Diana’s brow rose. “Jeanne, are you alright?” she asked.
Jeanne stepped toward the box and then back, a nervous pacing movement accentuated by the way her hands kept moving, knotting and unknotting as Diana watched. Her burnished hair was thickly braided and coming loose, falling over her eyes so that she had to keep reaching up and brushing it back.
“Jeanne,” Diana tried again, more firmly this time. Jeanne jolted and turned on her heel.
“Oh, Diana!” she cried, pale eyes flying wide. “Have you heard about my newest acquisition? It’s a Lievens, early work, you can almost see the influence of – Merde! Ne le mettez pas là—sur ce chevalet là, imbéciles!”
Jeanne had gone red in her excitement, the color flooding the pale skin between her freckles. Diana had worked next to the woman for long enough to be used to her outbursts. She stepped closer.
“Leave the movers be,” Diana told her, nodding to the men who had begun to recover the box. “Merci beaucoup, messieurs. Votre travail est beaucoup apprécié.”
Jeanne grimaced and brushed past them, moving toward the painting on the easel. She reached out and tugged at the cloth that covered it, untucking the edge slowly.
“It does not hurt to be kind,” Diana told her. “After all, they care for the art.”
It was good that the movers had left already, for the next thing Jeanne said was: “I care for the art. They are nothing but muscle. They would not dare—”, sneering.
“Accidents happen.” Diana moved to stand next to her neighbor. “What’s the subject?”
Jeanne pulled back the cloth, revealing a lush painting of a woman sitting at the center of chaos. Her gown was pale, and shone with the sun’s light. Golden curls tumbled over her shoulders. Beneath her foot a form in black lay prone, twisted and snarling, and the other figures in the scene all turned toward her, kneeling as if in worship.
“The personification of Peace. She wears the laurel crown of the gods and holds the power of darkness beneath her heel. She is beautiful, is she not?” Jeanne’s tone was hushed and reverent.
Diana’s fingers itched to brush against the cheek of the woman at its center. She was beautiful and proud, and the look in her bright eyes was haughty. She reminded Diana of her own mother, Hippolyta.
It had been many years since she had seen her mother, and as Diana looked at the painting a noose seemed to draw tight around her throat. Her wool dress seemed suddenly scanty and inadequate to stop the shifting of her fingers. The instant seemed to freeze and stretch out, even the sound of her own breathing silenced. She needed the feel of leather beneath her hands, ridged and belted. She ached for the pommel of her sword and the burn of the lasso against her palm. She swallowed hard.
“More beautiful than I remember,” she murmured.
Diana stepped up on the rail of the little boat, rocking beneath her, and took a deep breath before diving forward. She slid through the air in an arc, and just as easily into the sea.
The waters of the fair isle glittered cerulean. Even the depths gleamed, overgrown. Diana pushed through the water and swam toward the island, breathless with anticipation. She pulled herself up onto the white sands and wrung the water from her hair, licking her lips clean. With a grin she leaned back and looked up toward the cliffs upon which her city sat.
“Hello!” she called. “It is Diana! I have returned!”
Her voice bounced off the cliffs and came back to her, and the surf tugged at her heels. She waited, but there was no response. Knowing that it was quite the distance to the city, she headed for the path up the cliffs, which rose steeply and wove back and forth, sinuous and slippery as a snake.
She climbed easily; it had not been difficult for her since she’d turned ten years of age and begun to gain her strength. When she came over the top of the cliff, she stood and placed her hands upon her hips, looking at the city of Themyscira.
It was made of white stone, colored in parts by rich vegetation that grew up the walls of the homes and the palace. The sea breeze was faint this high above the water, and the air smell thickly of wet stone and the jungle. Diana shaded her eyes and looked down the streets of the city.
It was strange – she could not remember the last time she’d been in Themyscira, not precisely. It could have been yesterday or a thousand years before. She knew only that the city was silent now, and still, and it had teemed with life when she had left it last. Something was wrong.
“Mother!” she cried out, and raced down the empty streets toward the palace. “Euboea! Menalippe! It is Diana!”
No one responded to her calls. She raced toward the palace, slowly just before she reached the main steps, and turned round in the courtyard there. Her heart raced as she searched for a sign of her people, but she saw nothing and heard nothing. It was as if they had vanished entirely from the world.
She had opened her mouth to cry out again, as loud as she could, when a flash of movement caught her eyes and she whirled. There was someone in the palace.
Someone still lived here.
Diana grit her teeth and bounded up the steps of the palace, taking them ten at a time, and burst through the tall doors that stood at the front. Inside, the air was stale and old, and motes of dirt floated through the air, catching the light of the sun and throwing it to the ground, shattered, all around her.
She turned and ran up the interior stairs to the upper levels of the palace, where she had seen the movement.
Halfway up, the front of her sandal caught on the edge of a step, and just as she began to fall—
She woke, heart racing, and stared at a ceiling painted white and made of plaster, not stone.
“Bonjour, Mademoiselle Diana,” said Madame Brunell as she stripped off her gloves and unpinned her hair at the end of the day.
Diana blinked at her for a second. “Have we not already said good morning, Madame?” she asked her. She stood in the door to her office, fingers hovering over the light switches, mind still caught by the gazes of carven warriors and their wild steeds, which had seemed to watch her from every angle today.
Jeanne’s lips lifted. “Not yet. You were so focused on your work that you hardly left your office at all. I had begun to worry that I would find you here tomorrow morning, wearing the same clothes and bent over the same stele fragment. You must take care of yourself, Diana.”
“I try,” she said dryly. She is one to talk. Jeanne’s coat was in a disarray, crumpled at the wrists where she’d shoved the sleeves back instead of removing it, and her hair was tangled and falling forward over her eyes. “How is it going, with the new painting?” She flicked off the lights and stepped into the hall, turning to lock the door.
“Oh, the Lievens,” Jeanne sighed, rapturously. “It is quite spectacular. What an honor, to work with one of the foremost artists of his time – though of course, not everyone recognizes him as such.”
“Oh?” Diana asked distantly. The pale eyes of Victory had caught her attention, and no would not leave her alone. She felt that she was seeing traces of her mother everywhere, in the stance of every warrior and edge of every blade.
“Lievens was a master. Much overshadowed by his roommate of course, but aren’t we all.” Jeanne’s brows quirked and she tucked the ends of her scarf into her coat before buttoning it.
“I wouldn’t know,” Diana said drily.
“Of course. You are the only woman in the Louvre wealthy enough to afford a flat in Paris without a roommate or lover. One day you will tell me just who you killed to be so lucky,” Jeanne sighed, only half teasing.
Diana let the words pass by unremarked. Jeanne was always amusing, but sometimes too strange to be understood. They started down the hall together, their coats and bags drawing up walls between them.
“You are leaving so early?” Diana asked her.
“Yes,” Jeanne said. “My wife wants me home in time for dinner tonight, so I must leave my beloved behind in this cold vault.”
That surprised a bark of laughter from Diana as they walked down the hall. “Do not tell her that,” she chided.
“Ah, she knows,” Jeanne said, waving a hand. “And she always says to me: Jeanne, je sais que tu as une grande histoire d’amour avec tes peintures, mais rappelle-toi comment finir toujours ce genre d’histoire—un des amants meurt, et meurt de façon horrible.” She grinned at Diana. They reached the elevator and she pressed the button to call it down to them. “Horrible deaths, indeed. I’m not sure if she’s threatening me, or my paintings!”
The elevator arrived with a soft chime, and they stepped inside.
Diana could not stop Jeanne’s words, which rolled around in her mind – love and death, always one right after the other, neither the end or beginning of anything.
“What are your plans for this weekend?” Jeanne asked as the doors slid closed.
Diana shifted, pulling her bag close and adjusting the collar of her coat. “Ah,” she sighed. “Not much. It has been a long week. Perhaps I will stay inside and spend some time with myself.”
She smiled, and Jeanne smiled back, brows raised.
The evening had fallen over Paris with the sudden pallor of the freshly dead. Clouds stretched threadbare across the ceiling of the sky, somewhere between tinted deep blue and golden-edged. Diana had opened the window and leaned back against wrought-iron artifice of her balconet, blanket wrapped around her feet to ward off the chill of the evening that slipped into the room and clung to the wooden floorboards.
Despite having grown up blind to the movement of magic through her life, Diana had long-since learned better. She knew what the touch of power felt like against her skin, even when she was dreaming.
It was those dreams she sat contemplating, in the quiet of the evening.
Several floors below her, traffic was slowing. People went into restaurants and through the doorways of apartment buildings, speaking in low voices to each other or their phones. They moved as a people separate from her, unreachable in their ignorance of her regard. She had no power over them, and wanted none. The city was calm, and left her alone with her thoughts.
The dreams would not leave her alone. For weeks now, she had been haunted by the spectre of Themyscira. She dreamed of sailing toward the island of her childhood and swimming toward the shore. Of climbing up into the city and finding it empty, and then waking soon after. She never found her mother there, or any of the other Amazons. It was a forgotten place, and the sight of it sickened her.
Yet she knew deep inside her that it was not real. This was not a dream of her past, but a manipulation meant to hurt her. She felt the magic brush against her skin, shaping the dream and making her forget reality. Diana had never been one for forgetfulness. She had always felt that the truth of the world was enough for her, even if it wasn’t enough for most of the people she met.
She had always been a rare kind of person.
Diana’s thoughts shied away from her godliness. She preferred not to imagine herself that way – skin crawling with power too overwhelming to contain, her touch the catalyst for destruction. Were all gods so dangerous, or was it just her? Had she chosen this path when she’d gone to confront Ares? Would her wrath always destroy as much as it conquered?
She could not think of anything good coming from the use of her power. She preferred to think of herself as a child on Themyscira, holding her mother’s hand as they walked along the battlements. She had loved to watch the other women fight, their movements a form of art that had nothing to do with death, and everything to do with grace. The Amazons had been the strongest people she knew, and she had never meant a man or woman whom she loved so deeply as they.
Menalippe and Hippolyta and Antiope and Euboea and Aella and all the others, whose names she could recite so easily when she lay on the edge of sleep, were her truest family. They were not her blood, and they were all the better for it.
Diana shifted, the iron railing digging into her back. The light of the evening gleamed. The air was cool on her skin, and shifted lazily.
Between one blink and the next, she fell into dreams.
Diana stood in the great hall of the palace of Themyscira, and she was not alone.
Around her stood the Amazons. Clad in the most formal of their armor, gold and jewels dripping from their necks and ears, they were dressed for an audience with the Queen, who was seated above them all. Her hair tumbled golden around her and her gaze shifted across the crowd, searching. At last her eyes found Diana, and her sudden smile was as brilliant as the sun.
“Mother,” Diana whispered. She could almost hear her mother’s whispered welcome in reply.
Diana moved across the floor toward her. The knots of women loosened and broke apart as she approached, nodding to her in respect and offering small smiles. They did not seem to be surprised to see Diana, as if she’d never left at all. She spoke their names in greeting as she walked, and the litany became a kind of prayer.
One after the next she greeted them, yet it seemed that they would not end. Had there been so many women in Themyscira? She knew each of their names, but not all of them were familiar to her.
She stepped past a knot of woman in armor – Atalanta, Orana, Io – and then a group of women with hard eyes and jackets of dark leather that hung heavily from their shoulders – Angharad, Dag, Toast, Furiosa – and yet another group who wore long gowns and shining eyes – Sakhmet, Morrigan, Hel. As she walked by, their names came to her lips and fell from them, familiar and strange at the same time. One of the French words she had learned recently danced at the tip of her tongue, but she could not quite recall it.
Diana slowed and stopped, frowning at the strangeness of that thought. What exactly was French, and when had she learned it? Looking around the great hall of Themyscira, lined with white stone and golden sunlight, she knew that this was her home, and she had never left it.
The women arrayed around her were familiar in the way that all the Amazons were – they were her family, warriors each and every one. She looked up toward the one who ruled over them all, and Queen Hippolyta looked back to her, still at an unimaginable distance. Diana stood at the center of the crowd, and yearned for her mother’s touch. The feel of her armor and the strength of her arms. The scent of her hair and the oil she used on her sword.
“Mother,” she whispered again.
“My love,” her mother whispered back, and the sound carried straight to Diana’s ears. “We need you. Take up your shield. It is time.”
Diana frowned and stepped forward. “Time for—”
A flash of white caught her eye and she stopped, turning with a twist in her heart, and the eyes of the women turned to her bright and blazing, and Diana felt the pain of that burning.
She opened her eyes with a gasp and stared into the light of the morning sun. It poured over her and she lifted a hand to shield her eyes, pulling her knees up close to her chest. She had fallen asleep wedged in her open window, and it seemed that waking wouldn’t be easy.
Her head ached somewhere deep inside. It had been a long time since she had had a headache. She rubbed at the corners of her eyes and tried in vain to remember her dream. It slipped from her grasp again and again, and eventually she gave up trying to remember the details at all. She had been on Themyscira, but beyond that she recalled nothing except the blue of her mother’s eyes.
Standing, she looked out over the city. Paris was, as always, beautiful at any time of day, but the most so at dawn, when the sun sent little fingers of light creeping through the street, rosy and warming as they pushed back the chill of the night. A soft fondness moved through her, enough that she might have called Paris her city, were it not for her dream.
No city could be hers after Themyscira. Even that city was not hers, but she its. She belonged to that place just as she knew her own name – with a bone deep resonance. So why, she wondered, did it feel like her bones were shaking?
Diana pulled the blanket up over her shoulders. The city was quiet. The crepuscular hour stretched long and slow, the sun caught in this moment of rising. There was no call for her, no trilling song of danger.
She turned away from it and went to get ready for work.
The sculptures were no less absorbing than usual, but Diana found that her mind kept straying away from them as she worked. She had cleaned the same curve of sculpted deltoid at least four times before she finally stepped back, exhaling sharply, and put down her brush.
She tugged off her gloves. “I’m going for a walk.”
She had tried to make her tone even, but had not done well; the others glanced up and at each other, brows raised as she swept past. Was she usually this irritable?
She couldn’t recall, but the sensation crawled beneath her skin, a thousand buzzing insects readying themselves for flight. The inescapable pressure forced her to move, lifting the plastic curtain that divided this room from all the others in this warren of a museum, and moving out into the shifting crowd.
It was eerie, as always, to move amongst so many people and yet hear so little. Those who visited the Louvre were not always the best-trained of spectators, but they knew the rules: stare in awe-struck envy, but not too greedily; talk about the art, but not too loudly; move along now, but not too quickly. Diana’s long legs and assured stride carried her through the museum quickly, down the hall and around the corner, where the time-worn faces of ancient Egypt stared back at her.
Now amongst a family not her own, Diana slowed her pace and lingered. These gods did not stare as the ones of her family did – their eyes were cooler and their attention less weighty. They were older even than her own brothers and sisters, and herself besides, and sometimes she enjoyed feeling like the youngest person in the room.
The high ceilings caught the echoes of her heels and threw them back at her. She slowed to a stop near ancient, bleached columns that towered about her and made her small. Looking to the statue of a bull with curling horns, whose eyes had long since been worn down to blindness, she let her mind drift.
“Not yet,” her mother had said to her in the dream. “It is not yet time.”
Or had she? The dream was unclear whenever she tried to think back to it, slippery in the way that dreams usually were, and also more vibrant in places, fairly seething with life. The other women’s eyes – whose names she no longer recalled – had bored into her, peeling back skin and bone. Everything else was lost to her.
But what if she had heard those words? If she had remembered correctly, no matter how fleeting that moment had been?
If they were true words, across all of space and time, then she should already be on a ship headed south.
The statue stared back at her. The neatly inscribed title read Le taureau Apis. It gave her no answers but stillness.
But she wanted to move. Diana felt like she was waiting for something in this city, all her accomplishments engraved on the walls of the world around her, in the buildings that still stood and the people that still breathed and laughed and danced. Her heart twisted briefly, still painful after all these years.
She would have thought it had long since been calmed, mummified and locked away after years of peace and little battles. She was a god, and yet she had only felt godlike once in her long life, for a scant few seconds.
She had not like the sensation.
The statues offer no answers, though she thought she heard their laughter echo down the trail of the centuries, mocking her. Her memory was just as faulty. With any luck, her dream had been just a dream, and this peace would last forever. She would rather be locked into this Parisian stillness than dive back into the strife of war.
She did not wish for death.
She straightened and pasted a smile on, and went back to the restoration room.
Diana did not need to sleep, but sleep she did.
She closed her eyes and fell back into the dream as if she had never left.
The Great Hall in the palace of Themyscira was alit with the incandescent glow of the equatorial sun; it did not exist near the equator of any world, but sat nearly on the equator of many different worlds, all at once. Diana had always known that her birth city was a waypoint, and from time to time they had had distinguished visitors.
Never so many at once.
The women who crowded the hall were of many sizes and colors, each of them achingly beautiful. She looked upon them and recalled their names with warm familiarity. She looked to her mother, who sat upon her throne. Her blue eyes blazed, and a white shadow stood behind her.
“Diana,” she whispered, and the sound of that voice went straight to Diana’s heart. “My love, it is time.”
Diana frowned, the memory crystallizing. “You said you needed me. That I needed to take up my shield.” She lifted her arm, and her shield was upon it, gleaming and ready. The women crowded closer. “I am here.”
Hippolyta shook her head and stood, and her cloak unfurled behind her. “It is time, but you are not needed here. Go home, Diana. You must open your eyes.”
“I am home!” Diana’s ire blazed sharp and hot, and she lowered her hand to the hilt of her sword. The foil curled around the head of the blade, fanged and biting, and she realized that it was the Godkiller, which had long been shattered and lost. Her fingers curled around its warmth. “This is my home, and I am here because I was called.”
Hippolyta shook her head, mute.
“This is not your home.” The voice was male, middle-range, and utterly unexpected. It seemed to come from all directions at once, and Diana whirled in search of him. She saw no man amongst the crowd; all the women stared at her, as if they had not heard him.
“Where are you?” she called. “Show yourself!”
Not a whisper of movement, as if the whole room held its breath.
She turned back to looked toward Hippolyta. Her mother’s eyes were beautiful, the color of the sky, and just as blank. A chill passed over Diana as she realized that the hall had frozen around her, turned to statues – unmoving and unbreathing.
The Godkiller slipped from its sheath with barely a whisper. She swung round, bared blade gleaming, and saw no one but the women.
“Who are you?”
“Keep going,” said the voice, and this time it seemed to come from right behind her. “You are not home yet.” She turned on her heel, but he was gone.
The women blinked and unfroze. One reached out, and Diana recalled that her name was Hecate. Her expression was in constant flux, as if it couldn’t decide what it wanted to be, and Diana drew back. She paused, then sheathed her sword.
She looked up, toward her mother, and saw that the white shadow behind her had grown till it towered over her mother, a great hunched figure five times the height of the Queen. It reached out with fingers of immense length and Diana opened her mouth and shouted,
The white figure blazed bright and strong, reaching for them, and even Diana was forced to shield her eyes.
The alabaster hand of the devil curled into a fist upon his thigh; Diana cleaned it distractedly, her thoughts in another world entirely. Jeanne had cleared her throat three times before Diana took notice and looked up.
“Diana,” Jeanne said, furrow between her brows. “What has happened? You are nothing like yourself.”
Diana shook her head and set the brush aside. She had never been one for reassuring smiles, so she looked away from Jeanne.
“I am just tired. I have not been sleeping well.” It was entirely true, and very unusual. Diana did not get tired. Bar the worst moments of her life, she had always gone to sleep because she had chosen it, not because she needed to. But in this moment, exhaustion weighed her down, pulling at her shoulders and hands, guiding her with gentle touches toward her bed.
From the corner of her eye, she saw Jeanne frown. “Is it the dreams?”
She turned, fast enough that she knocked down her tray of tools. They clattered across the floor, brushes rolling in all directions, but she did not so much as look toward them.
“How did you know?”
Jeanne’s lips quirked sideways, and a flush crawled up into the space between her freckles. “I’ve been dreaming about you,” she said, then flushed darker. She plunged determinedly on. “You are walking through darkness. There is fire all around you, and it moves closer with every step you take. No matter how loudly I call to you, you never seem to see me. You keep walking.”
Diana shifted, frowning. That was so different from the dreams she had been having. Could they possibly be connected? Or was her exhaustion making her consider strange things?
She rubbed at her forehead and then tugged her hand back down to stillness. “I don’t know. I have not had those dreams… I am just tired. Maybe I am getting sick.” Diana had never been ill in her life, and she didn’t think she was sick now.
She glanced up and caught sight of Jeanne watching her intently, hair shining like gold in the light of the morning. She looked entirely different than Diana expected for an instant, like another person entirely, until her gaze dropped and she nodded, becoming entirely herself again.
“That must be it. This is the time of year for sickness. You should go home and rest.” Jeanne glanced to the statue and smiled, a private amusement. “Lucifer will still be here when you return tomorrow.”
Diana looked up at the face of the statue, poignant and lost, as if the devil himself couldn’t figure out how he’d fallen so far. A wash of dizziness stung her and she pressed her fingernails into her palms. She shook herself to wakefulness and bent, crouching to pick up her brushes, scattered across the studio floor and still rolling, running from her grasp.
The surf was idle, easing her into the cove slowly. Diana had but to lay her hand upon the tiller to guide the craft until it rode up upon the beach and stalled, rocking gently. The sun was high over Themyscira, but the high cliffs cast long shadows that swallowed the cove and left Diana chilled. She jumped over the side of the little boat and splashed through the shallows, rinsing the sand from between her toes as she stepped up onto the rocky shore.
There she stopped, because this time she remembered. This was a dream. She had dreamt of Themyscira before – of the hall with a thousand woman watching, her mother’s words echoing in her ears. She could not let the mere idea of this island seduce her again.
She took a deep breath and held it, closing her eyes to the sight of the island, in the hope that it would let her focus. A vain hope, as it turned out. She could still smell the greenery and the sea, salt and mud mixing, a rich scent that made her thoughts drift sharply toward the past.
For an instant she felt small again, freed of worries, running across the sand with only joy lifting her heart.
Diana opened her eyes with a gasp. She pulled herself out of the memory with a great force of will and looked up. Her heart beat hard once, turning over. On the top of the cliffs was a flicker of light, brighter even than the sun.
Darkness curled up from it, then dissipated.
The thought of foliage curling and blackening spurred Diana on; she ran toward the cliffs to climb up and smother the burn, but before she’d taken even five steps it had spread. The fire had risen up and out, exploding along the rim of the cliff top with a whoosh, sending great gouts of smoke billowing up to turn the sky ashen. There was no way around it, and no way up safely.
Diana slowed and turned, looking at the curve of the cliff surrounding the cove on each side. The fire spilled over the sides of the rock, dropping searing embers, orange fading to black as they fell. It came closer by the second, far faster than any natural fire, and it was hungry.
A spasm of fear jerked Diana back. She knew beyond knowing that this fire was dangerous – more so than any other – and could do her true harm.
She turned back toward where she had left the boat, but the shoreline was empty. Looking across the lapping waves, she spotted it after a second, floating toward the mouth of the cove.
It was a dark cup floating on the waves, and standing upright in it was a figure, a white shadow that blurred as she looked at it.
The heat of the inferno was at her back. “Who are you?” she shouted. “Come back!”
The figure reached out, white fingers long and palm upturned, beckoning her to walk across the waves.
The sound of her name brought her back, and she blinked rapidly, turning to look at Jeanne. The other woman stood in the center of her workroom, and Diana in the doorway as if she’d come to ask a question. Only, Diana didn’t remember going to work at all. She didn’t remember anything except her dream, and the white figured against the darkness of the waves.
Jeanne’s brow was deeply furrowed and the corners of her eyes were creased in concern. She reached out toward Diana and then snatched her hand back, fingers fluttering until they nested in her sweater.
“Diana, please come back to me. You’re... It’s like you’re not even here.” He voice was soft enough that she could have been speaking to herself.
Diana swayed, off balanced, and wrestled herself back to wakefulness. “I am so sorry, Jeanne. I don’t know what happened. I just had a moment and I…”
The tension that ran through Jeanne’s shoulders eased. She smiled, and her eyes filled with warmth. “It’s alright. Just take a deep breath.” She reached out again, and this time her hand found the edge of Diana’s sleeve. “You’re here with me. You’re fine.”
Am I? Diana opened her mouth to ask, but the words never came. She had glanced up, past Jeanne, and her eyes had fallen upon the painting that Jeanne so loved – the Lievens. It had changed.
No longer was the woman at the center of the tableau wearing a gown and placid expression – she was clad in gleaming armor instead, and her eyes shone with sparks of blue fire. She carried a long sword in her grasp. The point was buried in the ground, and the hilt was familiar. Diana could nearly feel the curve of it beneath her palm.
“What happened to your painting?” she asked.
Jeanne flinched to glance over her shoulder, eyes widened, and then settled. “Nothing. My Victory is just as she should be,” she sighed. “What did you think?” she asked, looking back to Diana.
“Victory.” Diana let the word move through her mind, a struck chord moving along with a feeling deep inside her. “I thought you said that was a portrait of the goddess of Peace.”
“Peace?” Jeanne laughed, shoulders rolling open and blue eyes widening with delight. “Of course she is! Isn’t peace just another word for the kind of victory you taste only when your enemies are dead?” Her grin transformed her, lighting her from within, and her eyes too shone with pale fire.
Diana’s heart twisted. Victory looked back at her, eyes shining and hair golden, and the smile that tugged up the corners of her mouth was hungry.
The door to the rooftop terrace gaped wide, a maw opening unto darkness. Diana stood at the end, where a low wall stood between her and the open air. The sun had just lifted above the horizon, huddled still beneath the eaves of Paris. The breeze that tugged at her curls was cool, the taste of nighttime lingering.
She wore stretchy pants and a sweater pulled over the loose shirt she normally wore to bed. She’d woken from her dream and stumbled up here, to the clear and crisp sky, lungs begging for clear air. Even in her flat, the echoes of the dreamfire had strangled her.
She stepped up on the parapet, toes curling over the edge, and waited.
Beneath her, Paris was quiet, still half asleep. The peace that hung in the streets was a balm, working into the soreness of her heart and easing its pains. Jeanne’s words haunted her, tugging at her sense of satiety and twisting it up.
Victory was the triumph of Peace. The trouble was, her heart had healed long ago, and the taste of peace had turned sour with rot.
He was near. She felt his gaze upon her.
“Well?” she called out. The open air swallowed her words. “What are you waiting for? I know you’re watching me! I can feel your magic!”
His magic had been clinging to her skin for days, oily and foreign. She had not been able to escape it, even when she woke from dreams that seemed, at times, more real than reality. He was here.
But he would not reveal himself so easily. The morning was quiet, and there was no response to her words. She looked across the rooftops and down to the street below, but there was no one there. The streets had been hollowed out.
“Are you a coward?” she called, pushing her sleeves up to reveal her gauntlets, which she had pulled out from under the bed as soon as she’d awoke. She turned and promptly stumbled in shock, falling right off the parapet and into the air.
Luckily it was a short drop; she fell to her knees before the steps below the throne of Themyscira. The room was black and crumbling, eaten by fire. The roof was half-gone, and the sky above was hazy with smoke. She sucked in a breath, redolent of ash and sorrow. He stood above her, before the throne and blocking her from it.
“No,” he said, and his voice was both strange and familiar. It was deep and echoed, as if it had been trapped in a vast chamber. “I am no coward, daughter of Hippolyta. You would do well to heed my words.”
Though he was clad in white, with white skin and hair, his eyes held a void that tried to draw Diana in. She wrenched her gaze away and surged to her feet. A single glance was enough to tell her that they were alone in the hall. She laid her hand on Godkiller, which she had known without doubt would be at her side.
She wore her armor in full, and her shield was at her side.
“What purpose do you think this will serve: tormenting me with dreams?” she snapped. He dared to mock her, and her home. She would beat him.
“I do not torment you.” He stepped back and sat, relaxing into the seat of the Amazons. A hot rage rose up inside her and she stepped forward, but as he lifted his hands and folded his fingers together, she stopped, frozen into place. “I am the King of Dreams, and this is my home.” He paused as if he could feel the hatred that turned her stomach. “We are almost family, Queen of the Amazons. I could claim this throne if I so wished. Pity it is only a dream.” The corner of his lips quirked up and he blinked.
The world slid sideways and inside out, and when it had settled into place again, Diana was freed. She shifted to put the blade of Godkiller between her and the Dream King – when had she drawn it, anyway? – and raised her shield.
They no longer stood in the hall of the palace of Themyscira, but another place entire. Its grand architecture named it a palace, but not one that a sane mind had built. The walls curled and curved without end, so that even when Diana looked away she saw them moving against the back of her eyelids. The throne he sat upon was white, carved with intricate patterns to match his robes, and he watched her from it, universes peeking out from the depths of his eyes.
“What do you want?” she asked. Her mouth was dry. She reached for her own power and felt it answer, distant and sluggish.
He shifted and stood. She moved with him, defensive, and he folded his hands behind his back. “Put that away,” he said with a sigh. “It is useless against me, though perhaps more powerful than most weapons, given that that particular sword exists only in dreams at all these days. I will not hurt you, Diana. Put it away and walk with me.”
He stepped past her, down the steps that led to his throne, and she lowered the Godkiller. Following, she kept her gaze fixed on him, as he was the only thing in the room that did not shift and change when she looked at it.
“Who—what are you?” she asked. She kept her hand upon the hilt of her sword, and the breadth of her shield half-raised before her. She knew better than to trust men like him, of such smooth confidence and effortless power. She did not know what he was, or how to fight him, but she would try.
“I have told you. I am the King of Dreams, the Oneiromancer; sometimes called the Prince of Stories and Lord Shaper. I have a thousand million faces and twice as many names. I am the Sandman. I was once called Daniel, and so you may call me if you wish.”
This was delivered in a cool tone, as if each title was a mask he wore, and meant little to him. Diana felt a chill work itself unwillingly down her spine. He led her across the floor of the hall and toward a large arched doorway. There he stopped, and she came to stand beside him.
“What do you want?” she asked. She didn’t dare look beyond him. “Why are you making me dream these things?”
His face was impassive. “I cannot make you do anything, Diana.”
She sucked in a sharp breath. “I have dreamt of Themyscira burning! Of my mother calling to me! You are the King of Dreams, and you’re saying you didn’t have a hand in this?”
“All dreams are within my power. But the dreams of a god – and you are one, no matter how human you may feel most days – are something I cannot do more than touch.” He looked at her then, and she stiffened her spine to stare back, straight into the void within his eyes.
“I have been dreaming of home.”
“Of your own volition. Themyscira is one heart of your dreaming, the place where you were a child. Paris is the other, the city of labyrinths and mazes, where you fled to heal. Your dreams are of your own choosing.”
She was silent for a long breath, as she forced her heartbeat to slow and considered his words. “Paris?”
His gaze flickered, and for an instant she thought she saw the curl of a statue’s fingers and the flick of Jeanne’s bright hair in his gaze. “Yes, Paris. What city could be so peaceful except one that lives in dreams?”
She looked away – tore her gaze away – and stared out at the landscape beyond the room. Her thoughts distracted her from the sight, moving through her head in quicksilver flashes.
If Paris had been a dream, then what was real? She knew that Themyscira was a mirage to her, untouchable after all these years, but she had lived in Paris for years. How could that have been false? She tried to imagine the possibility that none of this was real, but her mind failed her at that and slipped away, falling back into too-human routines.
Daniel reached out, brushing the edge of her sweater with the tip of his finger, and a shock ran through her. She turned to look at him, frowning.
“Why?” she asked.
He shifted and looked away, words pensive. “I have seen it many times – in moments of stress, the human mind retreats from reality and into dreams. Sometimes it cannot find its way out again.” He glanced at her and his lips quirked up. “You are just human enough for that weakness; as are we all. You’ve been trapped in your dreams for a long time. You have to wake up now, and that’s the hardest thing to do.”
“How long?” She swallowed hard and braced herself.
“Oh, eons,” he said easily. “But the time that passes in dreams is not the same as the time that passes when awake. You have dreamt for an eternity, but to the physical world you have just closed your eyes.”
“How is that possible? I’ve been here in Paris – in these dreams – for years!”
“Anything is possible in dreams. There is no future. There is no past. Do you see? Time is simultaneous, an intricately structured jewel that humans insist on viewing one edge at a time, when the whole design is visible in every facet. You are at the center of the jewel right now.”
As Diana tried to digest this, she saw that he wore a jewel of bright green, set in gold, which hung at the center of his chest. It was gaudy and beautiful at once, and she glanced up to gauge his reaction to her gaze.
He caught her eyes and held them. “It is time for you to wake up.”
She drew back. She lifted the Godkiller, but only halfway. “What does that mean? Do I have to—” She didn’t know much about dreams, but she’d heard that dying was the only way to wake.
“Nothing dramatic. I will help. When you’re ready, all you need to do is open your eyes.”
The words were simple, but she had no idea how to achieve them. Open your eyes. The words were strange because Diana knew that her eyes were already open. She stood on the edge of a vast plain covered with every conceivable environment in the world, some from other worlds she didn’t know. They sat there, each a short walk away, shifting and switching places as if they floated within bubbles, dream after dream moving through her view. Was this what the King of Dreams did with his time? Watch dreams from the outside?
Diana looked back to the young man who called himself the Daniel and saw that he was very young indeed – barely more than a child. He was long-limbed and gangling, his white robes half-swallowing him. She wondered how long he’d been this young, because from the look in his eyes that it must have been far longer than his appearance made her think.
She glanced back to the shifting dreamscape. Was there a landscape out there that matched the Paris she’d been living in? A landscape for Themyscira? For a war-torn landscape of muck and stinking gases? She flinched away from that last thought, for her memories of the war were still tender – or not. Her thoughts turned toward the acres of upturned earth darkened by seeping blood, and the smell of ash and fire on the horizon, which she had not thought of for years. And those memories, though still terrible, did not stab at her so deeply.
Her mind carried her back - almost as if in a dream, though she knew she still stood beside Daniel – to those battlefields, and the cracked ruins of the runway where she’d slain her brother, and above which the sky had burned.
It didn’t burn any longer, not even in her dreams.
Open your eyes, he had said. So she did, reaching for the power that sat deep inside her, unused for eons and yet ready and waiting; sharp-toothed and wild, it raged up inside her and lit her from within with a spark of fire powerful enough to burn down the world if she let it free. She peeled her eyes open and looked at the dreams that moved around her. Then she looked to Daniel. There was something about his face that seemed half-familiar, but she shook the thought away.
“I’m ready,” she said, and reached out. Her shield had vanished and she was unburdened. Even the weight of her armor felt like nothing.
Her power yawned within her, shifting to fill her up, stretching out before her with eternity in its grasp. It was hungry for battle, and Diana found that she was, too. She shifted, rolling her shoulders back, and felt the armor move to accommodate her. She smiled.
Daniel reached out to take his hand, and she was surprised that it was warm. His fingers curled around hers and he nodded.
“Open your eyes.”
The words sunk into Diana, stealing her breath away. The jewel that hung at his throat gleamed bright and sharp, and before Diana had time to feel doubt it had sucked her in, time slowing a crawl, and her heart stopped.
With a thunderous rush, her breath came back to her and she stumbled back, feeling the weight of her new sword – gift from her sister – in her hand, her shield upon her arm, and the air hot with fire.
She peeled her eyes open and tore free from the last shreds of the dreaming.
The air was full of fire, bright flashes wheeling through the darkness. She stood on broken stone and stared up at the creatures that flew through the air around her, winged with human bodies, carrying destruction at the heart of their swarm.
A man with wild hair and eyes flew through the air and struck them, skewering three and throwing them to the ground. He leapt forward and wrenched the object free – a great spear with five tines. He spun, flashing her a grin, and turned to face another knot of the creatures. He was laughing.
Diana turned to face the creatures that flew at her, raising her shield to block a blow. They were everywhere, an impossible number. She would have thought she was dreaming – and this dream a nightmare – but her eyes were open.
She could feel the ghost of Daniel’s touch, warm across the same palm that held her the Sword of Athena.
She lifted it high, and felt a smile curl across her face.
She was ready.