Museums and other public buildings of a certain age tended to be built alike. You had your grand facades and impressive exhibits on the upper floors, but you also had to things which the public should never see. Old exhibits, janitorial closets, and security offices were all placed out of sight, and out of mind. They were in the basement. Pushed out of the light. Shoved into the darkness.
And it was very dark in the basement of this nightmarish museum. It shouldn't have been. There were lights, which were even on. But the light seemed weak and watery, and the shadows very thick. Moreover, the doors... sometimes they shuddered. As Caelan passed down the hallways in the basement, the doors would rattle, and shudder, and occasionally bulge outward, splintering a bit. There was never any light beyond them, though.
The security room was at the end of the corridor. The door was open, and Caelan could see firelight within it. The center of the room was given over to a burning fire, though it looked as though broken tables and pieces of office-chairs composed the fuel for this bonfire. Cords and cables ran from the walls to the fire, and in the flames, things moved. Images and visions moved in the fire, showing glimpses. Caelan thought she could see Robert's face on occasion, but then it was obscured as a form stalked in front of the fire.
It was a woman, and she was... beautiful. Unimaginably beautiful. Pale, alabaster skin. Black hair like raven's wings. Delicate features with high-cheekbones, exotic, slightly foreign eyes. She was like a doll, or a dream, something from a magazine cover. Living people, normal people, were not this beautiful. And then there were her eyes. They were a brilliant yellow-orange. Fox's eyes.
The beautiful woman stood before the fire, and pulled her coat closer about her form. It was a strange garment. A long, floor-length fur coat, with long sleeves and a hood. It was made entirely of fox fur. Russet fur, but not carefully sewn and cut. Rather it was as though the entire animals had been combined into this coat. Caelan could catch a glimpse of tail, a glimpse of black paw, even perhaps the shape of a head near the hood. The gorgeous woman pulled it about her, as though cold, and gazed into the fire.
Deeper in the darkness beyond the fire, something shifted. Something dark, and grey, and lean.
Nope, she couldn't do it. Nope, nope, nope, nope. Cae nearly went fleeing in the other direction, not a single thought or control in her damn, cursed head. Luckily, she was able to step back, look away, and shake like a rabbit for a good, solid minute.
There was a sudden movement as the woman twitched in her foxfur coat. She turned her head a little, and Caelan caught a glimpse of something truly odd. The woman bared her teeth, and her mouth was fanged. Not like a vampire's, but closer together, like the teeth of a fox. The woman paused for a long moment, then returned to gazing into the fire.
Caelan hadn't made a sound to her knowledge. If she had, the shroud would have broken. But this was a dream...
Foxes. Dogs. They could smell fear, even a vampire's, surely. Cae stepped silently to the vixen's side. What was she doing here? She couldn't tell if it was a part of Robert or if it was an interloper.
This was not good. She was certain this wasn't right for Robert's nightmares. And if she wasn't mistaken, another changeling had parked herself in Robert's dreams. Or something. It would have been nice to have Abonde here.
Cae was intrigued. She was also frightened out of her boots, being the ninny that she was. So she circled back behind the vixen changeling.
"Good evening, Madam," Cae said in her polite, talking-to-a-bishop voice. "I have permission to enter here. Do you?"
The politeness was especially important when she was accusing her of something. Then again, Cae wasn't very good at manipulating people. She didn't have the blue eyed-blonde thing going for her. She had the pale-dead thing.
The fires leapt. The flames turned a brilliant purple-green color, and the images burned away into an angry conflagaration. But though it had leapt to the size of a bonfire, the fire didn't feel hot. It felt chillingly cold on Caelan's dead skin.
The fox whirled, baring her teeth in a snarl. She had sharper teeth than Caelan, and her eyes were golden-yellow. She was still beautiful. Feral, but utterly beautiful. Then she saw Caelan, and the animalistic snarl turned into a sudden smile, as the fox-woman became demure and calm. The fangs were less visible when she smiled, at any rate.
"Good evening, morsel." The woman said. She had a lovely voice. A singer's voice, perhaps. She looked at Caelan, her golden eyes gleaming. "I did not ask permission."
Cae tried to ignore the predatory implication. "I see, ma'am. Are you familiar with the man...whose dreams you inhabit?" Again she forced formality of speech and a smile to go with it. She clasped her hands behind her.
"The autumn tinker? Indeed I am, little bird." The fox-woman said. Her golden eyes gleamed. "But I am not familiar with you. Pale of flesh, a waking dreamer... who are you, morsel?"
Her brain stumbled for something metaphorical to say in response. "Merely a watcher, ma'am, trying to find the cause of his nightmares."
"You have found me." The fox-woman said, with a nod. She stepped towards Caelan, the heavy, fox-fur coat ending just above her feet, a massive covering for a slender and pale body. "And do you wish to watch, little bird?"
Cae gave a wary, tight-lipped smile. "Don't suppose it'd be trouble for you, would it?" Her dream-body readied, her knees bending slightly; she was expecting the worst.
"Hardly troublesome, little mouse, but what fun is there in watching mere work?" The fox-woman said, a small smile crossing her face. She was still beautiful, in a wild way. She held out a small, delicate-boned hand to Caelan.
Cae looked at the hand skeptically. If it was for a shake, she hadn't offered a name to go with it.
It wasn't. The fox-woman reached out to touch Caelan's arm, a gentle caress. Then she kneeled before the vampiress, looking up at Caelan. She had a delicate, petite face, vaguely Asian, perhaps, but with those strange, alien eyes. "Why have you come, little mouse?"
Caelan flinched and took a step back. "I told you. To watch his dreams. I saw your eye watching Robert, and I found you here."
"You're lying." The fox-woman said gently. She didn't move, didn't gesture, but the bonfire behind her suddenly flared to mad life, glowing with crimson color.
She blinked and flinched harder, her gaze blatantly flickering away from any flame. Was she lying? "No," she said evenly. If it came out unsure it was only her anxiety. "He's convinced they mean something. But maybe you know about that already?"
"You're still lying. Wormwood sent you, did he not? He has a way with finding agents." The fox-woman said. The fire behind her began to spread out across the room, very slowly. The beautiful, golden-eyed woman remained kneeling, but a cruel little smile crossed her face. It showed fangs, a fox's cruel fangs. "But I'll play. I crafted these dreams, and all those like them. To flush out the dross, to clear the field. And perhaps, to lure someone like you here."
Cae backed further away, avoiding the flames by many feet. "Wormwood?!"
"You are beginning to irritate me, little mouse." The fox woman said softly.
"Look, lady, I'm here on Robert's behalf. I'm a paranormal investigator," she sputtered, though rather proud of being able to slip in that job title, "and if you have something to do with Colin Meade now would be a good time to tell me." She made sure to stay away from the vixen's 'delicate' grasp.
The fox-woman gazed at Caelan for a moment, her head tilted slightly to the side. "You are not one of Wormwood's minions? Swear it. Make an oath upon your heart's blood that you are not one of Wormwood's agents."
Cae gave the vixen an incredulous look. "Yes, I swear. Now would you tell me what the hell is going on?"
The fox-woman continued to look at Caelan, and the vampire felt her body grow warm for a moment. A whiff of flowers hung in the air. There was a pause, as the fox-woman peered at Caelan, seemingly nonplussed that the vampire did not begin to writhe in pain.
"It is possible I was mistaken." She conceded, at length. The bonfire behind her collapsed within itself rapidly. "Very well, morsel, I shall explain. I am a hunter, as is my consort, and we hunt the creature known as Wormwood."
"All right," she replied, a little worried about the warmth and the smell, but having no idea about it beyond she just did something to me... "If you're hunting it, why are you hiding from it?"
"Have you ever hunted tiger, mouse?" The fox-woman said, arching a brow. "To be hunter and to be hunted are but a hand's breadth apart."
"I'm not confined to my nature," Cae said philosophically, between clenched teeth. She looked away. "But fine. What does this have to do with Robert?"
"It does not. Or very little. Your autumn tinker and the rest of these mortals intrude upon where we would hunt. I would send them dreams of terror to persuade them to be elsewhere." The vixen explained easily enough.
"Great, great," Cae rubbed her dream-forehead in frustration. "So you're here for a completely unrelated reason..." she thought aloud. "What do you mean where? The museum? Or do you mean...something more, more esoteric? Less physical?"
"In the museum. Tomorrow the Wormwood will come, and we will hunt him. My consort and I would rather not have more mortals about than necessary then."
Cae opened her mouth, then shut it. "What the hell," she muttered. "Okay, I'll tell them that. What's this Wormwood creature like, just in case?"
"Dangerous." The fox-woman said promptly. "Cruel, malicious. It takes pleasure in pain. It is cunning. Wise in the way of men, it uses lackeys and toadies. It is nigh immortal as well. On our last meeting it survived one of my consort's traps."
She swallowed and frowned. "Does it take human form? Is that what you're saying?"
"Indeed it does." The fox-woman said. She smiled broadly. The canines were larger than Caelan's. "And it will fetch a handsome price indeed."
Cae regarded the vixen with mild disgust. "Yeah, great...so you're sure you know nothing about Colin Meade? You just made this shite up to scare the pants off Robert and his gang?"
"I do not concern myself with mortals." The fox-woman shrugged. She gazed at Caelan. "Take my advice, little mouse, and be gone from here this next night. If you interfere with our hunt, I shall rip you asunder and devour your liver."
Cae responded by shoving her fear down and saying something stupid: "Don't mistake me for something I'm not. And I wasn't planning on it." She wanted to get the hell out of there, anyway. With a flicker of thought she disappeared again.
The fox-woman screamed. It wasn't not a human scream. It was this bizarre, ululating half-howl, a sound that echoed throughout the corridors of the dream-museum.
Only minutes had passed, the entire dream playing out at the speed of thought. This meant that Caelan had missed precious little. Unfortunately, it also meant that Robert was out like a light, and was likely to remain as such for a while in absence of smelling salts or something severe like that.
Distantly, Caelan's augmented ears could hear a sudden tick-tock sound.