The nightmare was getting worse. Each night was stronger, and when he closed his eyes, he felt himself slipping further into the cold, dark depths. There were things there, and he feared they would come back with him. That they would be there, waiting.
He knew it was silly. Nightmares weren’t real. They were just thoughts trapped in your head. That if you watched a scary movie or played a game that had monsters, you would see them in your dreams. That was how the monsters came. They worked their way into your nightmares.
But he hadn’t watched any scary movies, and his mom had grounded him from his Xbox. He was stuck spending time with his younger sister and wasn’t even allowed to play with his friends. The last two weeks had been nothing but playing dolls with Emily, “spelled with a ‘y’,” as she would say, “so no one accidentally spelled it with two ‘e’s’.”
Not that he cared enough to spell her name. He should be off having fun, doing cool things, not staying home with his spoiled brat of a sister.
So he was stuck with her, not watching anything that would cause nightmares. Well, unless the nightmares were of him being covered in dolls, each crying to be held. Or of him being chased by a really large one that wanted to pick him up, cooing to “hold you and dress you and kiss you all over.” Now that was a disturbing thought. He hoped he never had that dream.
No, there was something else in the dark. It was large, and there were times he swore he felt its breath upon his neck. It would breathe, then snort. When it did, a shiver would run down his back, as though someone had wedged an ice pick at the base of his neck. No matter how hot that snort felt, and it sometimes seemed like a wave of fire washing over him, he got the chills.
It was always behind him or hovering over him. No matter how much he turned, he could always feel it there, just out of the range of his vision.
This shouldn’t be happening to him. Not him… He should be able to resist it. He was a Dream Chaser. He knew how to control his dreams. In order to fight the nightmares in other children’s dreams, he had to know how to dominate his own. It was one of the first things Dream Chasers learned.
He had been fighting nightmares since he was ten. He lived the decree, “To fight a child’s nightmare, you had to be a child.” This one shouldn’t be able to get into his own head. He could control these things.
But, still, the nightmare came, growing stronger.
He didn’t want to close his eyes, to sleep, to slip into the dreamscape because he knew the nightmare was waiting. Each night feeling more real, pulling him further down the rabbit hole. Was there a bottom, and could he reach it without losing himself?
Last night, he vowed he wouldn’t sleep, making it until the middle of the night. Then, even with all the energy drinks, he could no longer hold back the veil and had slipped into darkness.
It started with him falling. Most dreams did, especially when one was fighting it. It was that slipping into the dream realm sensation, and if you were not ready for it, you would jerk awake with that sense of slipping away. It was disorientating and the hardest element for new Dream Chasers to overcome. It took nearly two months before it had stopped affecting him, and he hadn’t felt it since…until last night.
There were a few false starts. He sat at his desk, the lamp on and facing him. He had heard that intense light could cause sleep deprivation. In movies, they used it as a way to torture somebody and get them to say what they wanted.
His desk lamp must not have been strong enough because he still “dream slipped”. The first time, he had knocked his homework to the floor, which had woken up his dog sleeping at his feet. The second time, his forehead had slammed down onto the desk, waking him. Third time, his head had hit the desk again. It hadn’t been enough, and he was lost to the nightmare.
It had been dark and wet. Not too far away, he heard dripping and smelled something like old socks. But it was more…earthy, like damp dirt. He thought maybe he was in a cave, a deep one, large creatures scampering around him. Large, but not the largest.
He could hear that one in the distance, feeling the ground shake as it moved toward him. He guessed the ones around him to be man-sized rats. He saw them in his head as they moved around, gnawing on whatever food they had found and brought back to the cavern.
He knew what the food was. He couldn’t see it with his eyes, but somehow saw it with his mind. He refused to look. Refused to confirm what he already knew.
The cavern shook hard enough that he nearly fell to the ground. Whatever it was, he knew it wasn’t in the cavern with him, but it wasn’t far away. He felt the air around him heating, making it hard to breathe. The nightmare felt like it was trying to burn him, and he knew it was real. This time, whatever happened in the dreamscape would happen to him.
Of course it will. You’re not wearing your protective gear. You’re in your own nightmare, not fighting in someone else’s.
Which was true. He wasn’t off protecting some child from their dreams. This was his own nightmare. So why wasn’t it being detected by somebody? He was as close to home base as he could get, but no one was coming to help. Why?
Did they think he could handle it on his own? Had they abandoned him to his fate? He went into the office every day, but lately, he saw how they looked at him…the contempt. After all, he was the dumb one of the team, not smart like the others. Maybe they had turned on him and left him to fight on his own, to lose his battle to this thing.
He wished he could believe that wasn’t true, but was unsure of anything at the moment, except for the hot air growing more intense. He took shallow breaths because anything deeper burned his lungs.
He was a fighter. A Dream Chaser sworn to fight the nightmares. How could he allow himself to be consumed by it? How could he do that and still call himself worthy?
He had to find a way to manifest his sword. Every Dream Chaser had a signature weapon. It didn’t matter the shape or what it was. It was more about what was projected and the confidence it inspired.
His weapon of choice was a large sword he had seen in one of his favorite video games. It was as tall as him with ornate silver that stretched down around his hands. There were carvings along the center of the blade, but because he could never make out the fine details when playing the game, this part of his weapon was blurred.
There was a loud snort from the other chamber, the air growing hotter.
It’s now or never.
He closed his eyes and concentrated, tuning out everything around him. He saw his sword in his mind and focused on it, pulling it from inside himself. It was there. He could see it. Now he just needed to bring it forth into the dream.
Once he felt its solid mass in his hands, he breathed a sigh of relief. A smile touched his lips as he opened his eyes to see the sword in his hands. The tip of the blade rose, and he knew he was prepared. The blade glowed in the darkness and hummed with energy. The creatures around him scurried away, the light too much for their eyes.
I am a warrior. I am ready to fight.
His stance and breathing were that of one who had seen too many karate movies. In the real world, he could never pull off what he could in the dreamscape. In here, his muscles didn’t need to know how to fight as much as his mind did. In here, all those cheesy movies helped make him a better fighter.
The room around him shook again as everything suddenly brightened. Heat surrounded him as he saw a blast of green, unnatural fire cascading down the cave, straight toward him.
He held his sword high and concentrated on the energy. The weapon billowed out, forming a shield around him. It was something the sword from the game could never do, but he had found that dream modification was sometimes the best way to survive.
The flame surrounded him. The shield held, though he felt it wobble against the constant roar of heat pushing against it.
Then the fire faded, the light dimming. His sword, sensing the danger had passed, reformed into its original shape. He glanced around. Little fires continued to burn, their ominous green glow reflected off the walls. He looked at them, trying to determine how they stayed lit. It looked like the rock kept them burning.
That was when he heard the growl. It filled the room. He felt that cold shiver run its icy fingers down his back again.
He looked up…and there it was. He didn’t know how it had gotten so close without him knowing it, but he saw its large, extended nose hovering just a few feet over him. Those orange, reptilian eyes squinted at him, watching. They looked angry, hungry, and he knew it was ready to devour him. It yearned to taste him, to take him and… Do what with him?
He tried telling himself this was just a nightmare. This monster wanted something, but it wasn’t like creatures in the real world, was it? Would it eat him like a bear or a crocodile?
He gazed up, realizing it wanted something else. It was teasing him because it…needed him? Why? And what did it matter?
He was not going to allow it to get him. He was a Dream Chaser, a fighter of nightmares. He had conquered scarier beasts than this one. It was time to put this nightmare down.
He raised his sword high and jumped, aiming for the soft spot on a dragon—right under the mouth as it merged with the neck. It rose and fell with each dragon breath, looking like a piece of loose fabric flapping in the breeze. It was so thin, he could almost see the fire building up in the dragon’s throat.
His blade struck home. The dragon didn’t even try to move, probably too shocked. It didn’t matter. This stupid dream creature would be another for his wall, like the many he had already taken down.
But his blade didn’t pierce the creature’s skin like it should. Instead, it shattered. Pieces of it fell around him. It was like glitter, and he started floating in the darkness of the dream. There was nothing but black. No dragon, no little creatures that had infested the cavern. He wasn’t even sure he was still in the cavern. Everything had changed, and he no longer knew what to fight.
He tried to look around, seeing and feeling nothing. Silence and darkness. That was it. He was lost in a void, unsure where his next breath came from.
He took short gasps, unsure if he really was breathing. None of it felt real, which made it worse. For the first time, he felt true terror because he didn’t know if he was stuck in the nothingness forever. Time faded.
How long will I be trapped here?
Would he ever wake up, return to his home, see his annoying sister? He had never wanted to play with her so badly in his life. He actually longed to have a tea party and play with her dolls. How messed up was that?
In the distance, he heard the growl of the beast. His body went still, but internally, it felt like every part of him shook.
Then he had woken up in a sweat.
That had been last night. He knew it was only going to be worse the next time he allowed himself to sleep. He knew he’d be called and sent into a dream, but he didn’t know how to tell everybody he couldn’t because he was too afraid of his own nightmares. How would he ever be able to face them?
He sat in his room, staring at the clock. For the first time, he realized there were things in the dark that couldn’t be beaten. Sometimes the nightmares won…