Nightmares are insidious, ethereal creatures.
They dwell within the mind, a soul inside a soul – parasitic, extremely short-lived, and almost always too weak to do any noticeable or lasting harm to their hosts. But sometimes, if aided by traumatic experiences or malicious magic, a nightmare can grow strong enough to consume its host’s mind.
“This,” the Professor explained, “is what every nightmare wants, of course – to terrify and bewilder its host into a kind of… um… an abdication of its body, so that the nightmare can live out its own life while the host mind has trapped itself in the sensation of endless flight, trying to get away from the thing forever breathing just behind. Certainly this is what has happened to some of those considered psychotically insane. A recurring, increasingly vivid nightmare such as you describe could be quite serious.”
Petra Godfellow sighed. Sentient nightmares! Adrenaline pumped through her, responding to the professor’s explanation; she felt more awake than she had in days. Several questions came immediately to mind: How did I get it? Is this another of Oberon’s abduction attempts? But the most important one seemed to be – “How do I stop it?”
“There are several counter-spells…” the Professor stroked his chin. “One effective method reported is confrontation. The host chooses deliberately to dream, and seeks out the nightmare in its lair, deep inside the host’s own psyche. It requires considerable self-control, and mastery of one’s fear, but knowing that one is dreaming, and that by choice, is reputed to be immensely helpful.”
“And do what when I find it?” Petra asked. “Attack it?”
“No! That would probably be disastrous. You taunt it. Challenge it to come forward, into reality, before it’s strong enough to survive here. It’s called luring the nightmare.”
She grimaced. “That sounds… chancy.”
“There are surer alternatives, but they require waiting until the nightmare has actually taken over your mind before dispelling it. I’d rather you didn’t go through that. First off, that could take weeks, likely without a decent night’s sleep in that whole time, and second, I’ve no doubt that the nightmare has been instructed to take your body straight to Oberon as soon as it has control. Nightmares don’t grow strong like this without help.”
“Alright,” Petra said, smacking her palms against the arms of her chair emphatically as she stood, “let’s do it. How do we begin?”
Wootton chuckled. “Decisive and eager, very good. We shall need an enchantable mirror. And some good strong chamomile tea, I think…”
* * *
“Remember,” Jack’s voice said very earnestly, “it’s not you who’s really there. It will feel like being you, but it is only your envoy, your little dream-self. You are much larger than anything you may encounter while you sleep; all that is about to happen will do so on a stage in a small corner of your mind. You, yourself, surround all the world you are about to perceive.” Petra nodded. “Good. If you panic, and forget, you could get lost in there with it.”
Petra stared at herself in the mirror, looking into her own eyes, first one, than the other, than back to the first. Nothing happened. Then:
She was standing at the edge of a marsh. A crisscrossing series of narrow earthen dykes, upon which grew limp tufts of reedy grass, divided it up into slough-like ponds. Out over the marsh was, not a cloud exactly, but a sort of darkness – a cumulative diminishing of light, until the details of the terrain disappeared into obscurity. Behind her, though she did not turn, was nothing – unlit blankness, the edge of her dream.
“Jack?” she called out, wanting some assurance that she was in the right place, facing in the right direction to discover her nightmare’s lair. Her voice in that place was high and thin like a gull’s, and a wind gusted out of nowhere, flattened her call against the grass, and pressed it slowly into the mud.
There was no answer. Despite the environment’s quick hush, she felt she’d given away her position, and wavered. For a moment she saw herself from above, a little black figure at the edge of a miry bleak brown-green vastness.
The desolation of the dragon, she thought to herself with a smile.
Picking her way carefully along the dykes, she went on into the marsh.
Her progress was slow and uncomfortable. The dykes were not flat on top, but rounded, rather like large pipes, and the grasses made their surface uneven and treacherous. Before long she had slipped and caught herself from tumbling into a pool so many times she lost count. Her hands and shoes got covered in wet foul-smelling mud, and the wind that whipped around the marsh dried and stung and numbed them until she could not feel her extremities. Her immediate mind felt numb also, exhausted from the cold and the effort of keeping her footing on the treacherous dykes.
It got darker and the air narrowed around her as she went on: so gradually that at first she did not notice, and then abruptly found it difficult to see or feel much farther away than the space of a couple pools. She felt claustrophobic, as if she was trying to squeeze herself into a smaller and smaller space. Twin fears arose in her mind: one, the irrational feeling of something closing in around her, and her reactionary impulse to bolt and run, and escape; two, the fear of making any sudden movement that might plunge her into the marsh. From a third place, above or outside, Petra handled these two fears, turned them over, and set them each aside. She went on.
A fish rose unexpectedly from the pool beside her. At first she thought it was a kind of large eel, raising itself on a long, flat, slender tail or body, but then she realized that a slow spout of water was supporting it from underneath; or, no; perhaps it was a lotus stem?
The fish had the exaggerated face of a carp, whiskered barbels drooping expressively on either side of puckered lips. From its forehead protruded a third barbel with a little bob of glowing light at the end, like a deep-sea angler fish. The carp winked at her and seemed to smile.
“Good day!” Petra said to it, feeling as if she ought to curtsey but too afraid of falling to do so.
“Good day to you!” answered the carp. “Can you,” it asked, putting a fin to its mouth conspiratorially, “spot a penny in the mud?” It winked again, as if this were the great thing.
“I suppose so,” Petra answered, a little taken aback. “If it’s not buried completely…”
“Oh, capital, capital!” cried the carp, turning a somersault for joy. “My name is Jackie–”
It paused. Petra waited.
“Aren’t you going to ask my last name?” the carp demanded, pointing a fin at her.
“I beg your pardon!” Petra said immediately. “Jackie what?”
“Lantern!” exclaimed the carp. Laughing shrilly, it dove into the pool, swam in a circle, and then jumped into the next pool, and the next, splashing muddy water and laughing the whole way.
“Wait!” shouted Petra, and immediately slipped as she tried to run after it. The light from its forehead was barely visible, winking slowly in and out just at the edge of where she could see. Jackie’s giggles floated towards her from an indeterminate distance.
“Oh, no,” she said aloud to herself, “I know better than to follow strange lights in a marsh.”
She went on.
It felt like hours of scrambling across the dykes, and as if the going weren’t bad enough already, brambles began to crop up here and there in her way. At first she tried to get past them delicately, but soon admitted it was hopeless and resigned herself to getting scratched. The water had crept up her stockings by now, and she was painfully cold, wet, and miserable. It was all but too dark to carry on.
At last she seemed to be coming to something else – a little grove of musty pine trees, densely clustered. A well-worn path led beneath their lowest clutching branches, scarcely large enough for her to squeeze through. In front of it was a small sign. By squinting, she could just make out the words: TULGEY WOOD. She rolled her eyes and pushed her way through the trees.
The branches settled back into place at once. She was suddenly and uncomfortably aware of the sound of breathing, somewhere above and ahead of her. The temperature had risen and the air was heavy, and darker than ever. She knew somehow that there were more pools of muddy water in front of her – the pine trees being little more than a hedgerow, apparently – and some larger, darker thing ahead.
There ought to be crows in a place like this, she thought, and was promptly deafened by the caw of a crow from the trees just behind her. A murder of crows erupted thunderously into the air all around her and began wheeling overhead, cawing raucously. In the ominous silence of that place, their noise was like the roar of an ocean. Petra shrank back against the trees, knowing that whatever she had heard breathing before was now awake and approaching, though from which direction she could not guess.
“Well, well,” the thing spoke into the darkness above her, “imagine meeting you here.” Then, more quietly, as if to itself, it added, “it is you, isn’t it? Seems hardly likely…”
“I can hear you, moron,” Petra snapped at him, her apprehension sparking to anger. “Of course it’s me. I came to look at you. I beat your first dream – didn’t think much of it, to tell the truth – and wanted to see if that was the best you’ve got.”
All around her the dark moved, swelling in a deep, mirthless, malicious chuckle that echoed back against itself for minutes on minutes and shook her brain inside her skull. “Oh child,” the nightmare gasped at last, “I have been young, and weak; and you are a fool. I did not spin that dream – I only supplied the fear for it. Your own subconscious furnished the story and the detail. But now I am many days old, vast, ancient, and strong, Strong, STRONG!” With every strong its voice leaped in volume; the third rattled the pine grove. “That dream was simply fattening you for the slaughter. Henceforward I am able to take a much more active hand.”
Its talk of ‘spinning’ dreams corrected Petra’s mental image of the nightmare as a dragon. Her inner eye glimpsed a gigantic multi-legged worm on a nest, spinning threads of dream out its backside, but with a draconian upper half. Horrible as the vision was, she still had to stifle a smile at its thought that being many days old made it “ancient.”
Aloud, she made a noise of scorn. “I have lived longer than you. I have outlived hundreds of nightmares.”
It seemed the right thing to say. “Ah, poor thing!” the creature responded, letting its voice sink almost to a whisper. “How little you understand! For when still in my egg I was bathed in magic by none other than Lord Oberon himself, mightiest of the Fay!” When speaking of Oberon, its tone became reverent, awe-filled. “I have lain long here in your mind, longer than any nightmare has before me. I have sunk my roots into your worst imaginings and feasted on your memories. I know you, child.”
Something clammy and rubbery, like a bat wing, brushed past Petra’s cheek, and she flinched sideways, trying to make out the shape of the nightmare in the darkness. She had the feeling she was going to have to run soon, and she wanted to know how it would chase her, how to evade: would it swim, fly, leap, crawl? She needed to see something.
Licking her lips, Petra tried to project an air of false bravado that the nightmare would see through. It wasn’t hard; her stomach was already trembling, and if their conversation went on much longer her knees were certain to join in. “Am I supposed to be impressed? My family has been dodging those fool Oberons for centuries. As for you” – she jabbed her finger in what she hoped was the right direction – “you think you’re so strong, why don’t you prove it. Take over my body now. I don’t think you’ve got the guts, even with me standing here in front of you.”
There was a long, terrible silence, and then…
“Oooohhh,” the creature groaned, or moaned, “the things I could do to you…”
In the dark, much nearer to her face and much larger than she wanted, Petra sensed an impression of movement: a faint gleam on the grey bone of a vast, curving claw; the muscular pulse and throb of some uncoiling appendage. She wanted to scream, and couldn’t, and wanted even more to vomit, and couldn’t. Her throat was so dry she had to work her mouth for several seconds in order to speak.
“I dare you,” she said hoarsely, and pushed through the pine branches, and fled.
Get the whole story here (excerpt from The Eighth Square)