Eric was running. Not this nightmare again, he thought.
He was gazing ahead, his eyes seeing only the path where his next two or three steps would land. The surroundings were nothing but a colorless blur he was running through. His mind worked frenetically to see not what was ahead, but what was behind: two goblins half his height trying to catch up to him. Eric could very clearly see in his mind the dark green skin and the multitude of those pointy, crooked teeth. They were swinging small clubs made from hard wood, the smoothness of which was most likely forged by a lot of clobbering action. Eric could not stop envisioning the jagged teeth and burnished weapons, since he was constantly hearing a grinding and munching "rawbrawrawrblr" sound coming from behind - a sound similar to that of a hungry dog attacking a bare bone.
I hate this nightmare. I hate it hate it hate it! This is the sixth time already.
Eric tried to increase his pace, reasoning that short goblin legs should be no match for an energetic, young boy. When he sprinted ahead, the ground became muddy and his rapid steps sluggish. The rambling sound became more distant just for a moment, then returned with the same intensity. With a feeling of resignation, Eric resumed his normal pace and the ground was solid again.
This is my dream! I should be able to dream whatever I want, not these stupid nightmares...
Still running forward, Eric tried to push the thoughts of failure out of his mind. There was a kind of calming rhythm to making one step after the other, but the grinding sound intruded each time he tried to let the pace soothe his feelings. The dread he was hearing was also the dread he was feeling. His whole body was tense, but the knot in his stomach was the worst.
Why can't I do something?!
A new feeling was growing alongside the fear: anger. Eric was angry not at the goblins, but at himself. I'm weak, I'm pitiful. He felt the anger stir up inside him, displacing some of the fear. He instinctively knew that this is something he could use, and tried to intensify it.
He let out his anger in what seemed to be part shout, part scream, and part battle cry. His anger propelled him forward; he didn't even feel his steps but seemed to float ahead with haste. He kept going in this half-conscious state as long as he could.
The moment the cloud of anger receded from his mind, the fear came back more powerful than before: his stomach tightened and he bent over as if a powerful force punched him. Eric misplaced a step and fell.
Get up get up get up, they're going to get you, faster faster faster-
What little sense of balance he had, abandoned him. His mind was in a state of panic; his heart raced arrhythmically and cold sweat was all he could sense. Trapped in the nightmare, he continued to stumble forward.
Running seemingly forever with the smell of sweat and fear in one's nose would weary anyone, and it was getting to Eric too. He was tired of running and tired of being in a state of fear. The path he was following led across a shallow riverbed, where he absent-mindedly hopped through the stepping stones.
Not long after passing the river, exhaustion finally overpowered the fear: Eric stumbled a few more steps and put his hands on his knees to prevent himself from collapsing. His lungs burned with each struggling breath, and when he noticed this particular pain, he became aware of all the aching muscles in his body. He kept breathing: in-out-in-out-in-out, until his breathing settled into a more relaxed rhythm. He rolled down and stretched out on his back.
Abruptly, he remembered the reason for running all night and lifted his head to see where the goblins are. He saw two small shapes in the distance, jumping up and down on the riverbank. Haha, they don't like water. He closed his eyes, let his head slump back down and succumbed to fatigue. The grass feels so nice...
* * *
It felt good to just lie there, body and mind thoroughly exhausted. It was the kind of rest that invigorated from deep within one's soul. Memories of the nightmare faded away into the distance.
When Eric opened his eyes, he noticed how warm the sunshine felt on his face. He grabbed a chunk of grassy earth just to experience the sensation of touch. The leaves of the trees around him never seemed more vivid and full of life - he could see the hue and motion of every single leaf. Now this is what a dream should be like! It felt as if the sun shined happiness to earth and nature responded in kind, with Eric in the middle of this magical motion. He quietly enjoyed being part of this experience for a small eternity.
Eric turned his head, and saw a young woman with an open smile and long blond hair. He got to his feet and said "Hi."
"I'm Annie. What's your name?"
"My name is Eric. Nice to meet you," he said formally.
"Very nice to meet you too, Eric. Is this your first time here?"
"I guess so... Where are we?"
"Wonderful, welcome to Dream Camp! Well, technically, these are the training grounds of Dream Camp. I see you have already attuned to some of the deep magic here - nicely done! Anytime you fall asleep, just remember the feeling of magic and you'll be able to dream here."
"Thank you." Eric looked around, but he didn't see a camp anywhere. He wasn't feeling particularly magical, either. A thought hit him, and he said it out loud: "Hey! How do you know I'm dreaming? Isn't this supposed to be my dream?"
Annie smiled warmly at him. She pointed down the path and offered Eric her hand. "Come, everyone is at the Playground. We can talk along the way."
Eric pondered for a moment, and took her hand. She was taller than him; her scent reminded him of a big sister he never had. A feeling of loneliness passed over him at the thought, but that moment went away as quickly as it came. "Okay, let's go."
"Dreams would be boring if we were the only ones dreaming them," Annie explained as they went. "Sometimes we want to dream our own dreams, but sometimes we wish to share them with others. Dream Camp is a place where we can master the magic of dreams together. When I was your age, I spent most of my dreamtime here with friends, playing and learning. Now that I'm grown up, I realized I like it here the most, so I came back to play and learn some more," Annie grinned. "I also try to help out youngsters such as yourself."
Annie paused for a moment. "Let me show you something. Ready?"
Eric shrugged, then nodded. The next step they took seemed like a hundred, and he felt a bit dizzy. "What was that?"
"It's called teleportation magic. The fastest way to get someplace is to just be there! Don't you agree?" Annie laughed heartily. "Walking is better only if you want to enjoy the scenery."
Eric recovered from his vertigo and looked around. The sunshine, leaves and grass had the same vivid brilliance, but the arrangement of trees was different from a moment ago. Awesome!
"How did you do that?"
"Easy peasy," Annie said proudly, "you just have to practice a lot." She pointed to the left of the path. "Tell me, what do you see over there?"
Eric glanced to where she was pointing, but his vision was clouded. "Sorry, something must have gotten into my eyes." He rubbed his eyes, produced a tissue from his pocket and tugged at the corners of his eyes until he could see clearly.
There was a wooden table under a big tree, with two benches on the wider sides. An old man with a long white beard was sitting on the table, a big hammer in his hand, occasionally banging on what seemed to be a clunky, old-fashioned television set. It seemed to Eric the image was caught between multiple channels and showing lot of static.
"Isn't he too old to be a repairman?"
Annie had an amused expression. "Why? What do you see?"
"A bearded old guy with a broken tv and a hammer. Why do you ask?"
"Repairman, huh?" Annie smirked. "That's Master Joe. He's not a repairman, well, not quite. And you're never too old for anything!" She continued walking along the path.
"He's responsible for all this," Annie waved around with her hand, "all the trees, all the sunshine, and he makes sure there are no nightmares or accidents in Dream Camp. You can discuss with him whose dream this actually is, but he'll say something like 'everyone dreams everyone' and then go on talking for hours." Annie scratched her head. "Honestly, I don't always understand what he says, but Master Joe is a great person. When he's working, like now, I'm not sure what he's doing either, but our minds fill in the blanks in a way to make at least a little bit of sense, you know? Minds are tricky that way." She nodded to herself.
"So, he's like a janitor?"
Annie burst out laughing. She does that a lot, Eric noted. He thought Annie was a little crazy, but there was a kind of warmth to her and he didn't mind this kind of crazy.
"Well, I wouldn't call him that, but I believe he would like that title." Annie pointed a little to the right of the path. "The Playground is that way, not far from here. Should we teleport or walk all the way?"
Yeehaw, real magic! Eric was determined to pay more attention this time.
She nodded, lifted her right hand and made a waving motion from front to back. This time Eric braced for vertigo and resisted the dizziness. A field with plenty of playful contraptions zoomed into view almost at once. He saw dozens… no, hundreds of boys and girls of all ages; everyone running, hopping, swinging, pushing, pulling, jumping, climbing, talking, yelling… or even hovering above ground while training what seemed to be a kind of martial art. Most of the playground equipment was made out of wood, but some of it was grown out of living trees. Treehouses, too, were everywhere; tiny to large, all shapes and sizes. There were so many kids, but when he focused on one of them or a group, the space between seemed to grow larger - it didn't feel crowded at all. When he stopped focusing, the racket became more pronounced once again. Eric rubbed on his eyes, pondering the idea that he might be dreaming a dream within a dream.
"Cool, huh? Just try to ignore the noise. Let me find someone to show you around." Annie thought for a moment, then raised two fingers to the mouth and blew a mighty, high-pitched whistle. "I think it's best if you see for yourself what this place is like. We can talk later about any questions you might have."
A point approached from the distance - it seemed to bring half of all the noise coming from the Playground with it. A dog! Eric saw a big dog with white and curly fur approaching rapidly. Two kids were riding on the dog's back, yelling and screaming at the top of their lungs. The yelling stopped only when the riders arrived and dismounted from the dog.
"Hi teacher! Hi! Hi teacher!"
Annie smiled and made a welcoming gesture. "Boys, this is Eric. Eric, this is Duke," she patted the dog, "and the two mischief-makers are Kyle and Lyle."
Kyle and Lyle both had shiny black hair and beady eyes. They were several years younger than Eric; maybe around kindergarten age.
"Are you guys twins?" Eric asked.
"No, just brothers. We look more alike here than in real life," said the one on the left as he stretched himself upright, "but I'm the older one!"
"Kyle is saying that only because I'm the handsome one!" Lyle turned his head sideways to show off his short ponytail.
Kyle rolled his eyes and patted Lyle on the head. Lyle promptly patted him back, and the two started throwing light, but fast punches towards one another.
"Boys! Boys. I have a mission for you." When the jabs stopped, she continued. "I need someone to show Eric around and help him find a few friends. Are you up to the task?"
Kyle nodded. "Sure. Do we get stickers?"
"Yes-yes, stickers please Annie teacher!" Lyle interjected at once.
"All right. You'll get a sticker each, but you'll have to do an excellent job!"
Kyle and Lyle nodded vigorously in agreement.
Annie reached into her pocket, took out two stickers and handed them over. "I almost forgot," she searched her pocket, took out a book and offered it to Eric. "This is for you."
Eric took the book and examined it. The leathery cover felt pleasant to the touch. The words 'Dreamer's Handbook' were written with big letters on the front cover.
"Thank you. What is this?"
"Well, it's a book. A good one. You can look things up if you don't understand something, or you can just read it from beginning to end if you're the studious kind. Just keep it on yourself; you never know when it comes in handy. You can make it fit into any small pocket - Kyle and Lyle will show you how if needed. Are you all ready to go?"
Annie patted Duke, "Take good care of them, okay?"
Duke inclined his head slightly and closed his eyes for a moment longer than usual.
"Off you go! Have fun!"
The three of them slowly climbed on top of Duke. The dog grew to the size of a small horse, alleviating Eric's worries for its well-being. Eric waved goodbye to Annie, and firmly grabbed onto the white fur as Duke started running towards the Playground.