The pancake burst open in a shower of syrup and fried batter as Umbra rose to its full height, surveying the pancake lake for its attacker from nine feet in the air. Not that Dream was trying to hide, of course. He flew to Umbra’s eye level, stopping just out of reach.
“Who are you,” demanded Dream, pointing a large dreamknife dripping with syrup and cinnamon sugar at the towering shadow, “And what are you doing in my subconscious?”
Butter coalesced on the surface of the pancake, spelling out a rather large
before dissipating as Wardell waded through the message, hastily making his way towards the edge of the pancake.
Umbra screamed, lunging for Dream. Its stiltlike legs were still rooted to the spot, though, so it just fell forward, clumsily trying to grab at Dream from far out of reach. It quickly recovered, managing to pull one leg free and plant a hand on the ground in time to steady itself, and it aimed its free arm at Dream. With a sickening rubbery sound, its arm extended far over its usual limit. Long, thin holes in its shadowy skin stretched open from the strain, revealing a hollow interior. Dream flitted out of the way as the arm shot past him, slashing the arm for good measure. Umbra retracted its arm, howling in pain, and planted it on the ground, pulling its other arm free and stretching it to swipe at Dream as it scrambled towards him on three limbs. Dream dipped out of the way, floating between Umbra and –
Whose body was that?
‘UMBRA WONDERED,’ wrote the butter.
That was definitely the person Umbra knew it was protecting, but… that wasn’t Sereno.
Where was Sereno? Who was this?
It was about then that Umbra noticed that its hand had only three blocky fingers.
Despite being mired in syrup wearing shorts and only one boot, and despite his heavy, syruplogged scarf dragging behind him, Wardell somehow managed to wade his way to the outer limits of the pancake. Climbing over the edge turned out not to be a problem; It just came apart as he walked right through it.
That’s not to say there weren’t any other problems, though.
In the time it had taken him to run away from Umbra, the outer pool of syrup had extended another 20 feet in all directions, and it was starting to flow (in the loosest sense of the word) down the street, picking up dirt and dust as it went. As Wardell watched, an enormous waffle fell from the sky and crashed into the ever-expanding lake of syrup, making a pathetic little splash in the thick, unmovable liquid.
Well, at least now Prospect Creek had a creek again, he guessed.
Even Wardell had been paying enough attention to understand the basics of what was going on: Prospect Creek’s mind-altering hallucinogenic gas was distorting Photographer’s reality-altering dreams, and everyone was losing. Umbra had apparently possessed Photographer, so it was trying to protect him now that-
Come to think of it, that probably meant Sereno was dead.
Anyway, Dream was trying to protect Photographer from Umbra, who was trying to protect Photographer from Dream. The fighting going on around him just got Photographer stressed, which was what had caused things like that collapsing saloon from a couple of minutes ago, and the syrup flood right now. The longer the fighting went on, the bigger the battlefield became, and there were no signs of anyone planning on stopping.
If he ran away, Wardell figured, he probably wouldn’t be able to find safety. The fight needs to end.
If Dream won, Photographer’s hallucinogenic nightmares would be over. Mostly.
But if Umbra won (the likely scenario), the dreams would end. Everyone would be safe, and they could all move on to the next round.
Seemed straightforward enough.
Umbra wailed in rage and frustration, pulling free of the syrup and stretching to enormous proportions to dive at either Photographer or Dream – even Umbra wasn’t quite sure who it was attacking or why. With a glance over his shoulder, Dream flew forwards to catch Umbra by the shoulders, trying to hold it back as it reached for Photographer with a 30-foot arm. Dream didn’t have time to stop it. He grabbed the handle of dreamknife, which he had pinned to Umbra’s chest in his haste to catch it, and raised it over Umbra’s head, preparing to stab through a purplish eye.
Umbra planted a hand on the ground by Photographer and raised its other arm. Three thick, blocky fingers closed around Dream and hurled him into the syrup, making as much of a splash as a thick viscous liquid could manage. As Umbra blindly crawled forward, reaching for its new host body, Dream hastily recovered, spiraling around Umbra’s arm as he raced it to Photographer’s sleeping form. He kicked it out of the way at the last second and turned to face Umbra, hovering just above the pancake’s surface. Umbra shrank down to about nine feet tall, solidifying to heal its wounds as it raced towards Photographer on long, spindly legs.
Dream raised his blade and crouched down a bit, bracing himself.
Umbra pulled an arm back, and-
‘SMACK,’ wrote the butter, but its words were quickly erased as Umbra fell onto them. It climbed to its feet in a daze, just in time for another book to smack into its head, sending it staggering backwards. It quickly turned to face its new attacker.
“I am trying to read,” announced Wardell, producing a hardcover copy of Discrete Mathematics Without Applications and pointing it at the shadow. Umbra gave a low, guttural growl that quickly grew into another scream as it lunged, forgetting about Photographer to attack this new intruder. A book to the face quickly persuaded it to stop.
‘HE TRIED TO SAVE ME,’ wrote the butter to his left.
‘YOU TRIED TO KILL ME,’ wrote the butter on his right.
“You’re being too noisy,” said Wardell, giving Dream a subtle nod while Umbra was distracted.
Luckily for Dream, he was utterly speechless. He sheathed the dreamknife to pick up Photographer in one hand and the real knife in the other and hastily floated away from Umbra’s frustrated screams.
Wardell twisted his scarf, squeezing out most of the syrup while Umbra was distracted.
“Thanks!” exclaimed the scarf. Wardell wordlessly clapped a book around one of its ends. The scarf’s muffled protests were subtitled in the butter in front of him, but the writing quickly stopped when Wardell glared at it. Just as he was deciding whether or not he should dunk his scarf in the syrup again, Umbra’s hand surged towards him, so he let the scarf go to parry it aside. He glanced at the pages he had opened to.
SPI, read one page.
DERS, read the other.
The book slammed into Umbra’s face. No big loss, really.
A colossal hand blindly slammed into the syrup nearby, splattering Wardell with syrup. It was too far away to hit him, but much too close for comfort in a situation where he couldn’t even run. The scarf lashed out on its own, grabbing either end of one of the rips in Umbra’s arm and pulling it open. Umbra roared in what sounded like agony but quickly crescendoed into another wail that made waves in the syrup and blew Wardell's scarf back, freeing its arm.
As Umbra readied another scream, Wardell pulled his hood up, drowning out the attack with the books' singing and droning.
Sing a song of sixpence, a pocket full of rye:
Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie.
Admittedly, Wardell hadn't seen that coming.
“Scarf,” Wardell muttered over the chanting.
“That's a ghost.”
“Wait, really? Umbra is?”
“The coat seems to think so. How fast can you get me the encyclopedia?”
One end of the scarf plunged into the back of Wardell's coat, rummaging for a specific book. “Give me three minutes,” estimated the other end.
“I can manage that,” replied Wardell, drawing The Iliad and The Odyssey from his coat. He dodged out of the way as Umbra's hand slammed down in front of him, closer this time. He wasn't worried.
This was and always had been a fight between a ghost-hunting detective-for-hire with an infinite supply of large, heavy projectiles and a shrieky nine-year old.