Dawn Harshaw / Dream Magic: Awakenings / Chapter 4 - Nightmare Examination
In real life the default action is to sidestep the things we fear. Don't do this, avoid that. It works well enough - up to a point. In our dreams we can no longer pretend. We can no longer avoid our fears, and they come rushing from the dark depths of the subconscious, coloring our dreams in ghastly nightmarish hues.
- Practical Guide to Nightmares,
"Good day. My name is Mr. Smith."
Mr. Smith stood tall, his suit gray and stylish. He raised his hand, and tried to adjust the necktie he wasn't wearing. "Thank you for coming."
Eric, Rose, Lucy and other youngsters were sitting on a wide wooden platform. It was late afternoon and the rays of the sun colored the sky red. A breeze appeared once in a while to rustle the leaves of the trees.
Eric was quite adamant about taking the nightmare class next, and they ended up signing up for it. Lucy agreed it was a necessary experience, while Rose thought it would be an easy class.
"I will be teaching the three nightmare classes: nightmare examination, nightmare combat and nightmare mastery. This is the first of the three, and I hope you will partake in the advanced classes as well. The master level class includes a trial - if you choose to test yourself and pass, you will be invited to visit the Outpost, engage in missions, and help others deal with their nightmares."
Mr. Smith cleared his throat.
"Well, let us begin by familiarizing ourselves with the structure of nightmares. At the core of every nightmare is an emotion of fear; when this fear manages to surface, it latches onto the senses and distorts them out of proportion."
Eric had mixed first impressions of Mr. Smith. On one hand, he was a serious man, who didn't smile or twitch facial muscles if he didn't have to. Yet, the eyes in that stern face were almost kind, and his strict demeanor carried an aura of purpose and precision. An old-school teacher. Mr. Smith seemed distant, foreign even, to this ambience of tranquil joyousness.
"The senses attacked first are usually sight and hearing. This initial phase we call 'encountering a nightmare', and it will be the focus of today's class. If the nightmare is allowed to intensify, it takes over all the senses - distorting the presence as well as the decision-making process of the person. This phase we call 'being trapped in a nightmare'."
Mr. Smith paused, crossed his hands in front of him, and took a few breaths before continuing.
"Unfortunately, the process doesn't stop here. When a nightmare persists, it begins to inflict permanent damage depending on the nature of the nightmare - whether it's overt or covert, continuous or recurring, of variable intensity or not, and so on. Common resulting forms at this stage include mental breakdown, persistent anxiety, system shock and psychosomatic stress."
Mr. Smith's left hand began to tremble and he clutched it tightly at the wrist.
"The final phase is either partial or total obliteration of the ego structure. With partial obliteration, the nightmare becomes an integral part of one's identity and the shape..." Mr. Smith didn't finish the sentence. The trembling became more violent and pained nervousness showed on his otherwise expressionless face. "Excuse me."
Eric watched Mr. Smith turn around, retreat several steps, and straighten himself. He let go of his hand which was still twitching and shaking. What's that about? Eric looked to Rose and Lucy, questioning. They replied with shrugs and equally puzzled looks.
After a while, Mr. Smith returned and the shaking was gone. "I apologize for the interruption. Hopefully, you will never experience the more ominous stages of nightmare progression. Nevertheless, you will surely encounter them in others; many adults have lived with their nightmares for so long they don't know who they are without them."
There was concern in Mr. Smith's voice. He raised his hand and pointed all-around in an encompassing gesture: "Out there are the many grand dreams and goals which have spiraled out of control. These dangerous nightmares turn into a collective psychic sludge which threatens not only the dream realms of humanity, but the real world as well. To stop this downward spiral, we need dreamers who are disciplined warriors and wise mages!" Silence followed, and Mr. Smith's gaze became lost in the distance. "The necessity is obvious."
Eric was taken aback by the sudden change of tone. There was urgency, and a strange kind of sincerity in his voice. He's a peculiar fellow. Mr. Smith was knowledgeable, yet gave the impression of a monotone personality. I mean, who wears a gray suit in this place? But, there was something else that didn't quite fit. Eric's mind worked furiously to find a word to describe it... and churned out the word 'broken'. Eric couldn't explain why exactly this word got stuck in his mind, but it made him feel a little sad for Mr. Smith.
Mr. Smith's voice steadied and he continued with a lowered tone. "For the time being, let's focus on the task at hand. I will presently use ward magic to create a minor protective barrier, and conjuration magic to summon a specimen of the goblin species. Please sit around the circle I shall form now."
A magic sphere appeared in Mr. Smith's hand and quickly took on a green-brown hue. The sphere expanded to include Mr. Smith and a large portion of the wooden platform. A bright circle flared where the sphere intersected the ground, and except for the occasional shimmer, the rest of the sphere became invisible. He gestured for them to sit around the circle.
"The creature I'm about to summon is not evil. He is not from the human world, but he lives and dreams its own dream. At times, their dreams entwine with ours, and our fears are quick to fill the blanks of what we don't know. Fear distorts the dream; it hides and exaggerates. To see past the nightmare, you have to see past the fear. Do not be alarmed, the goblin cannot leave the protective circle."
Mr. Smith closed his eyes. He put his hands together so that only his fingertips touched, and murmured under his breath. A flash of light appeared at the center of the circle and disappeared just as quickly.
There was a goblin at the center; the same kind that haunted Eric's dreams. Those teeth! It had green pimply skin with charcoal markings, and it was wearing a tattered loincloth. No club in either hand, Eric noted with tense relief. The goblin grunted.
"How many of you have met a creature like this?" All hands went up in the air, some more hesitantly than others. "Good."
Eric's heart was beating fast, but the goblin made no hostile movements and there was the protective circle as well. He calmed himself. The goblin was much less fearsome in the flesh than in the back of Eric's mind.
"Thank you, Gokrag, for answering the summons per our agreement. Please accept this token of continued good will." Reaching behind, Mr. Smith produced a basket filled with food, and offered it. The goblin took the basket, sniffed it, lowered it to the ground and picked out a bony piece of meat. After slumping to the ground, it took a few small bites and began chewing slowly.
"Observe him," Mr. Smith addressed his students. "More importantly, observe the difference between what you saw in your nightmares and what you see in front of you. Even now, your perception is most likely distorted to a lesser degree. What do you find scariest about the goblin? That part is where the nightmare latches on to inflate itself."
Eric turned to Lucy and said quietly: "The scariest is the rocket launcher on its back."
Lucy chuckled. "Shhhhhhh."
It didn't take Eric more than a few seconds to realize that the teeth were scariest to him. The eyes didn't look red nor demonic: just small, black and tired. Granted, the goblin was a bit smelly, but not nearly as obnoxious to overwhelm one's senses.
Why the teeth? Eric looked at those jagged edges and yellowish spikes, devouring the meat one bite at a time. There was not much order to their arrangement; a few fangs didn't fit inside and remained in sight even when the creature closed its mouth. Eric tried to count just how many teeth there are, but the goblin refused to stop chewing. They are not as big as I thought. In Eric's past nightmare encounters the creatures' teeth were disproportionately big - such giant teeth couldn't possibly fit within the small head of this goblin. In his mind's eye, the goblin teeth shrank to the somewhat proportionate size visible before him. Not big at all.
Time passed in quiet observation and self-reflection. The goblin was done with the bone and munched on a juicy orange.
"Is anyone brave enough to step into the circle?" Mr. Smith asked. "Is the fear really gone or have you just swept it under the rug? This is your chance to test yourself and find out. Will you make sure this type of nightmare doesn't rear its ugly head again?"
Eric smirked. His hand was up in the air, along with Lucy's, Rose's and several others'. More than half the class. Barely.
Mr. Smith picked out a tall, scrawny boy and directed him to enter the circle. The boy clasped his hands and raised them. He puffed his chest, and walked towards the circle as a champion entering a boxing ring. Mr. Smith's stern look silenced any would-be cheering from the audience, but amused expressions and a few chuckles could not be suppressed.
The boy carefully planted one leg inside the circle, and when the action met no response from the goblin, another careful step followed. At the third footstep, however, the goblin sniffed the air and made a slow, but deliberate advance towards the youth. In a blink of an eye, the boy was outside the circle. He sighed with relief and repeated the procedure several seconds later.
After a few tries, the goblin got annoyed and turned its back on the boy. Encouraged, the boy took a few more careful steps.
Suddenly, the goblin turned around with raised hands and the loudest roar - scrambling to cover many steps in one, the boy fell on his behind with a thump.
The audience was stunned in silence.
The goblin made no further sign of aggression, but its roar turned into a throaty, cough-like sound. He's laughing! The boy quickly left the circle, obviously relieved and glad to be alive. There was cheering now, albeit unclear for whom it was intended.
"Courage is admirable; cockiness is not," Mr. Smith said. "Who wants to go next?" After the spectacle, fewer hands went up in the air. "You. Go."
Lucy stood up. She walked casually along the protective luminance of the circle, intending to enter from the point farthest to the goblin. She took a deep breath.
"Good luck!" Rose yelled.
Lucy stepped inside, paused, and took a few more steps towards the goblin. They watched each other silently for several seconds. The goblin tried to pull the same trick as before: it turned around, waited a moment or two, and then gave a loud roar. Unfazed, Lucy didn't budge. She held out her hand, above which a perfect little magic sphere appeared.
"Come closer and I will make you eat this," Lucy said coldly.
The goblin seemed to comprehend the intention, and neither of them made a further move. Lucy's breathing remained steady.
"That will be enough," Mr. Smith's voice broke the stand-off.
Lucy backpedaled slowly until she was out of the circle, and then let the sphere disperse.
It was Eric's turn. Rose tapped his shoulder for encouragement, and he stood up. He exchanged nods with Lucy on his way to the far side of the circle. Once there, Eric jogged his shoulders and turned his neck around a few times to loosen the muscles. Am I supposed to fight? Not likely. If it jumps me, I'll shove to the side and get out. Deciding on this exit strategy freed up his mind to focus on the here-and-now.
"I'm ready!" Eric announced out loud, partly to motivate himself and give voice to his decision. There were no objections, and upon Mr. Smith's slight nod of consent, he entered the circle.
The goblin made no hostile movements. Cautiously, Eric walked as close to it as Lucy did before.
He could smell the creature. Obnoxious, but bearable. Eric glanced at the claw-like hands, the teeth that had some food stuck in them, and finally the eyes. The goblin was already staring at him, and once he met the creature's gaze, he couldn't look away. One moment passed, then another. A staring contest, Eric realized.
Time went by, and he grew more aware of the subtle stirrings within the goblin's still gaze. Eric's breathing slowly steadied.
Will it make a move?
There was a meager bone in goblin's hand, and the memory of a previous nightmare flashed in Eric's mind. A feeling of being chased by angry teeth and hardened clubs seeped in. That was then - this is now. Eric's gaze wavered for no longer than an instant-
The goblin stepped forward and let out a battle cry. Instinctively, Eric responded with a tense, loud shout of his own.
The shout-out lasted several seconds, but neither of them made any other move.
Out of breath, the goblin huffed, stepped back, and calmly bit down a piece of meat from the bone in his hand. It's over. Eric retreated, and once out of the circle, he let out a sigh.
"Anyone else? Who's next?"
Eric walked back to his friends. Rose stood up, and waited for Eric to be seated.
"Go get him," Eric said.
"I sure will," Rose smiled, and her eyes twinkled with a dash of madness. "He's a sweetie."
Rose continued talking as she casually entered the circle. "Oh my, you're a cute goblin, aren't you? Who's a cute goblin? Yes, you are." She placed her hands on her knees and lowered herself a bit so the two of them were at the same eye-level.
"I met some of your cousins; they act all tough and mighty, but they're just big moochies really." She was treading closer in half-steps. "I bet you have a big heart beating in there too, I just know it!"
Rose kept talking, on and on without pause. The goblin watched her quietly, tilting his head once in a while.
"...wanna be friends? I can be a good friend, why, just ask anyone..."
When does she come up for air, Eric wondered. She's relentless.
"...come on, let me see your smile! Just a little, teeny-weeny smile..."
Finally, the goblin had enough. He reached into the basket, pulled out an apple, and tossed it towards Rose. The goblin looked her in the eye, and made a shoo-away gesture.
"...an apple? For me? I was just getting hungry. Thank you! You're so kind!" Rose waved back to the goblin and stepped out of the circle. She was grinning senselessly.
"What's your name?" Mr. Smith asked her.
Mr. Smith nodded. "An interesting approach, Rose. Well done."
"'Interesting' is one way to put it... 'insane' is more like it," Lucy whispered. She stared incredulously at Rose as she came closer, and continued out loud, "I can't believe you managed to sweet-talk that ugly thing into giving you an apple."
"At least I didn't threaten to blast him away, ha!" Rose retorted. "Plus, I have an apple and you don't!" Rose briefly stuck out her tongue and maintained a mock-serious expression, but couldn't keep the grin off her face for long.
Lucy tightened her lips and gave Rose her best impression of an evil stare.
"You're both crazy," Eric said. "Much crazier than any goblin."
The next thing Eric noticed was an apple bumping his head and rolling down his lap. "Auch!"
Dawn Harshaw / Dream Magic: Awakenings / Chapter 4 - Nightmare Examination