Grumbling under his breath, he then traversed the center courtyard and entered the haiden where the Elders awaited him. They sat before him in semicircular rows that faced the columned entryway he had just come through. Rising several stories above him, there were so many benches that the Guardians had lost count of how many Elders occupied them long ago.
"Captain Cross," greeted one of them. Which one, Aidan couldn't say. As always, he thought of Master Sheron, knowing the teacher was one among the many, absorbed into what Aidan saw as a collective consciousness. The knowledge saddened him.
He bowed respectfully. "Elders."
"Tell us more about your Dreamer, Lyssa Bates."
It was a struggle, but he kept his face impassive as he straightened. Just the sound of her name spoken aloud sent a shiver of pleasure through him. Despite the darkness of her dream, he had enjoyed his time with her. He'd felt secure behind the massive door, comforted by her trust, inwardly surprised and contented that she would turn to him for himself, not as a phantasm she had created for her own relief. And she'd commiserated with him, seen him as a man, not an automaton who craved nothing so much as a hearty fight and a willing fuck.
"I've told you everything I know."
"There must be more. Seven sleep cycles have passed since you gained entry, and she has denied all subsequent Guardians."
He shrugged. "Leave her alone. She's safe and sane. When she's ready, she'll let us in. She has no immediate need for us."
"Perhaps we have need of her."
His posture rigid, Aidan raked his gaze across the sea of faces, his heart increasing its rhythm. They stared back, clad in dark gray, cowls raised and shielding the upper halves of their faces so that they all looked the same. One entity. "Why?"
"She asked for you."
His breath caught. She remembered him. Warmth spread through him, and he hid his pleasure with a dismissive "So?"
"How is it that she recalls you by your true name?"
"I told it to her when she asked."
"Why does she see through every guise we present to her?"
"She's a doctor. She's smart."
"Is she the Key?"
Aidan scowled. "No. If you knew her, you would know how ridiculous that is to even consider. She would never open the Gateway to the Nightmares. She fears them as we do. Besides, she has the least amount of dream control I've ever seen. Turning the lights on is beyond her, so she's sitting in the damn dark."
"We must send more Guardians to interact with her so that we may prove you correct, but she will not let us in. If we cannot gain entry, we will have to assume the worst and destroy her."
Beginning to pace, Aidan clasped his hands at the small of his back and tried to find a way to argue reason against their unfounded paranoia. "What can I do to convince you?"
"Go to her again and urge her to open the door to us."
As much as he longed to go, he dreaded it. Already this last week he'd been unable to stop thinking about her. Was she well?
She was thinking about him…
A soft shiver coursed the length of his frame. He'd been in her mind, seen who she was on every level. He knew her as well as she knew herself, and he'd liked what he saw and craved more time in her company.
The conflicting desires to be with her and to avoid her goaded him with equal strength. Like a banquet of desserts set before a hungry man—although he knew an attachment to Lyssa would satisfy, it wasn't good for him and he would only end up hungrier. The turmoil he was experiencing proved that.
"If you will not go, Cross, you will leave us with no choice."
The threat hung heavy in the air. The request to revisit a Dreamer was not unheard of, but it was very rare and it had never been asked of an Elite Warrior before. He steeled his resolve. He could manage to hold himself aloof, just as he'd done forever. "Of course I'll go-"
"You will be assigned to her until she opens to other
He couldn't hide his surprise. "But I'm needed elsewhere."
"Yes, your leadership will be missed," the voice conceded. "However, this woman is unique in her ability to bar both Nightmare and Guardian with that door. We must know why she does this, and how. Perhaps it is a skill we can replicate in other Dreamers. Imagine the benefits if they could defend themselves."
"That's not all." He stilled mid-stride and faced them. "If goodwill was your aim, you would assign a Healer or Nurturer to coax her out."
Instead they sent a man known for his aloofness and ability to kill with precision.
There was silence. Then, "If she is the Key, you are best equipped to eliminate her."
His blood ran cold. To think that stupid legend would lead to the death of a woman as sweet and pure as Lyssa Bates made his stomach roil. Every day that passed, Aidan hated his calling more and more. The killing of those who were ruined by madness or inherent evil like the Nightmares was becoming hard enough. If they were now to kill innocents, he didn't know how he would bear it.
"You stayed with her, Cross. You could have withdrawn, allowed another to comfort her. Yon have only yourself to blame for this mission."
He held his open palms out to them. "What's happened to us that we, the Guardians of the innocents, would now kill simply because we don't understand?"
"The Key must be found and destroyed," the Elders intoned in unison.
"Forget the damn Key!" he yelled, his voice booming through the domed space, causing the Elders to recoil as one body. "You, who are so wise, can't see the truth even though it's staring you in the face. There is no Key! It's a dream. A myth. A delusion."
He pointed an accusing finger at them. "You want to live on false hope instead of facing the facts. You want to believe that there is some miraculous thing out there that will absolve you of the guilt you feel in bringing the Nightmares here. But we have nothing more than our will to fight, and we are wasting energy searching for what doesn't exist. The war will never be over! Ever. We can only con-tinue to save whom we can. What'll we become if good is killed along with evil for a lie?
"Unless," his voice lowered ominously, "there's something you're not telling us. Some proof."
The silence that followed his outburst was deafening, but he didn't take it back. He had only spoken the obvious.
Finally, someone spoke. "You did not tell us of your crisis of faith, Captain Cross," came the far too calm rejoinder. "But all things come in good time, and this mission is even more suitable for you now that we are aware of your feelings."
Locking himself away sounded better and better to him, too. "Fine. I'll go to her now. And I'll continue to go to her until you tell me otherwise."
He hoped they would come to their collective senses and realize how fanatic their beliefs had become. In the meantime, he would defend Lyssa from both herself and the Order that was sworn to protect her.
Aidan spun on his heel and left in an angry swirl of black robes.
He didn't see the Elders' collective smile.
And no one saw the one Elder who didn't smile at all.
"What happened to you? You looked so good last weekend."
Lyssa rolled over and pressed her face into the back cushions of her couch. "That one night of rest was a fluke."
Her mother sat on the floor and stroked her hair. "Your whole life you've had trouble sleeping. First it was growing pains, then nightmares, then fevers."
Shivering in memory of ice water baths, Lyssa tucked her sage green chenille throw closer around her. Jelly Bean hissed at her mom from his customary spot on the armrest.
"That animal is possessed," her mother muttered. "He doesn't like anyone."
"I'm not getting rid of him. He's the only guy who puts up with me being like this."
Cathy sighed. "I wish I knew what to do, baby."
"Yeah, me, too. I'm so sick and tired of being sick and tired."
"You need to have more tests run."
"God, no." Lyssa moaned. "I'm done with being a human pincushion, Mom. No more."
"You can't keep living like this!"
"This is living?" Lyssa muttered. "If it is, I would rather be dead."
"Lyssa Ann Bates, if you ever say such a thing again, I'll… I'll…" Growling, her mother stood, apparently unable to think of a threat direr than death. "I'm going to the store to get the ingredients for homemade chicken noodle soup. And you're going to eat all of it, young lady. Every drop."
Lyssa groaned, and squeezed her eyes shut. "Mom, just go away. Let me sleep."
"I'll be back. I'm not giving up, and you're not either."
She distantly heard her mom gather up keys, then close the front door, leaving her in blissful silence. She sighed wearily and drifted into sleep…
And was jarred awake by pounding on the door.
"What do you want?" she cried in exasperation, rolling over in the pitch black darkness. "Go away!"
She paused, the soft brogue sweeping gently through the vast space despite the door between them. Her heart leaped. "Aidan?"
"Can I come in?"
Sitting up, she wrinkled her nose and wrapped her arms around her bent knees. "Where have you been?"
"Working." There was a long silence, and then softly: "I've been worried about you."
"Charmer," she huffed, hiding the pleasure his words gave her. Using her mind, she opened the door with a sigh and wished for the thousandth time that she could see the man who went with that voice. She listened to him step inside, relishing the confident, steady stride that revealed so much about him and made her feel so safe.
"You can close the door now," he said, so she did.
His steps slowed, and she could sense him searching for her. "It's still dark in here."