Dawn Harshaw / Dream Magic: Awakenings / Chapter 13 - Nightmare Combat
With every ounce of resistance you're making your fear stronger. Every such thought or feeling is like saying: "This thing is so strong and I am so weak!" Why would you give your power and integrity away like that? Face your fear head on, accept it, let it go and see it vanish.
- Practical Guide to Nightmares,
Eric was sitting on top of a hill, twiddling a blade of grass and listening to Mr. Smith.
"...so, try not to do anything that would seem cowardly or too otherworldly. Here are some guidelines: engage head on, at short or mid distance. No long-range sniping, alright? No excessive flying either - a hop or two is allowed, but keep the battle on the ground. No mind control, no illusions, no hexes, no curses, no domination magic, no necromancy-"
"We don't know any of those," Lucy said.
"Good... nothing too dark or too cruel. Charge and bash their skulls in, or blast them from not too far. No sneaking, no backstabbing, no eye-gouging. Kicks in the groin area are just fine - dirty, but not dishonorable. We want them defeated, but it should be very clear to them that they are being defeated at their own game in a friendly contest. Questions?"
"Why are they attacking us?" Rose asked.
"They have a battle culture; probably no reason beyond that. For them, battle is how they find and validate their own place in the world. For us, this battle is a communication attempt. By making a show of force, we are saying we are not pushovers and that we share some of their values. If we exhibit too little force, they'll despise us. If we exhibit too much, we risk being revered. So, we aim for the middle and hope to establish a basis for future diplomacy."
Mr. Smith raised a pointed finger. "That's where you come in. We, the teachers in this camp, are too powerful, so we'll let you kids take the front lines. The fight will be fairer and the goblins will have to acknowledge the ferocity of young humans. It should be a learning experience for you as well."
"And what will you do?" Rose asked.
"Observe, mostly, and prepare for the unexpected. I'll keep the portal and the realm stable, make sure no one scares to death, and take other precautions you don't have to concern yourself with."
A vast field stretched below, filled with the shush of green grass. Across the field and a little to Eric's left, towered a hill higher than the one he was sitting on. To his distant right, densely packed trees marked the boundary of the field. Beyond the trees, all he could see was a large body of water going till the horizon. Is that a sea? Hmm... I think not. It might be the same lake I swam in, just in another configuration.
On the far edge of the field was the reason they were here: the portal. It still looked strange, but it was no longer simply an anomaly in the space-time continuum. It was strong, more symmetrical, its movements and rotations no longer haphazard. It twisted light around it like a kaleidoscope, but it also radiated: the light of another sun was shining through it.
"Wasn't the portal on top of the cliff?" Eric asked.
"We moved it. We needed space and static distances, so we constructed this battlefield for the occasion."
"I didn't know it was possible to move a portal," Lucy said.
"Everything is possible," Mr. Smith stated.
There was movement near the portal. A figure appeared, ran around quickly with a raised sword, and shouted loud enough even for Eric to hear it. One more goblin appeared, then another and another... They quickly formed a defensive circle around the portal.
One figure seemed taller than the rest. No... he's short and hunched just like the others, but carrying a staff. It must be a shaman. More of them were appearing fast, kind of just slipping out of the portal.
So, that's how a goblin invasion begins. Even though he knew a battle was forthcoming, Eric felt remarkably tranquil. Looking down from the hill, the conflict seemed distant in time as well as space.
The goblins were already too numerous to count. Loud too; their yelling and growling added a constant hum to the background noise. The air carried a different scent, and the grass near the portal seemed to grow darker. Maybe I'm just imagining it.
Upon recognizing other, more familiar sounds as well, Eric looked to the left. Groups of children were coming in from the Playground, clamoring and battle-ready. Eric took a deep breath to absorb all the anticipation around him.
"It's time. Let's go, we'll find you some equipment."
* * *
For a long moment, Eric stared at the goblin warrior charging at him.
They locked eyes, and the shape of the goblin's ugly grimace mirrored into Eric's stomach; constricting it and making it nauseous.
Eric did not simply freeze, in the way fear and indecision are known to affect a person. The fear punched a hole in his abdomen, taking away not only Eric's nauseous feeling, but also many of his thoughts that were telling him to be afraid.
Eric's thinking ceased and his mind went blank - the implosion of fear turned into an explosion of perception. It was a strange kind of moment, where he could sense everything going on around him.
Everyone, all screams and clashes, were interlocked in the greater pattern of the battle.
The goblin warriors were short and stocky, dealing wounds more proficiently than their opponents. The kids were nimbler, dodging and ducking, outswarming the goblins and putting them off-balance.
There was Ohlson, overseeing the youngest fighters and attacking surgically with Dancing Feather. There were Kyle and Lyle and Duke, biting and yelling, running through enemy lines and casting unstable magics. There was Lucy, and Rose in another spot, fighting alone and pushing the frontline deeper.
Eric's eyes were still on the goblin, and if he had his full mental faculties, he would have found it interesting how the goblin's grimace changed in slow motion.
This state, being so much in the moment to be absent from it, was not without limitations - Eric's trance was slowly fading.
The goblin appeared to be suspended mid-charge and couldn't have changed its path even if it wanted to. It was clear to Eric where the goblin's steps would land and when its crude sword would come down.
The moment was gone. Eric sidestepped, avoided the slash, and whacked the goblin just above the neck.
Eric felt the bone break and the skull crush under the hilt of his sword. He noticed the goblin's battle yell only when it turned into a cry of pain. The goblin's body turned into crimson smoke, leaving behind a smell of blood and perspiration.
Eric raised his sword as part of an impromptu victory dance.
"I did it! I did it! I di-"
The next thing he felt was his own skull being bashed in; shattered bits and bone pieces splashing not only his brain out but also his sense of self. There was no time for pain.
* * *
"I see her!" Eric yelled.
After reappearing in a grove behind the hill, Eric thought it would be best if he stopped the heroics and sought out Rose and Lucy.
"Where?" Rose yelled back.
Eric found Rose quickly. He noticed a large empty space in the middle of the densely packed battle, marked by flying and falling goblins. Rose stood in its center, flinging airballs.
With many goblins around, she would let an airball grow bigger and more volatile. It would knock back and disorient a group of goblins, so others could step in and finish them off. When she needed precision, she would keep the spell more tightly together, so it would lift up and blast away a single goblin.
She's too reckless, Eric thought when he first saw her fight. She's wielding that flimsy wand well, but she's isolating herself by pushing too deep into enemy territory.
Eric did not deem it necessary to share this observation, but judging by how easy it was to persuade Rose to regroup, she must have come to a similar conclusion too.
"Over there!" Eric yelled.
The two of them were running towards Lucy, hopping sideways at times to avoid a friendly spell or a carelessly charging kid, and occasionally dispatching a daring goblin.
Every so often Eric rubbed the back of his head, subconsciously making sure the memory remained only a memory. I have to be more careful. Each time the nerves in his hand reported a sensation of an uninjured familiar head, Eric exhaled in relief.
It was easier to catch sight of Lucy as they managed to come closer. She was waving her staff without pause: shards of earth rose up one after the other, flew out, and hit their targets. Some goblins got knocked down and remained there, others turned into purplish mist and disappeared.
Eric could see a larger contingent of goblin reinforcements closing in on Lucy's location. They used their swords and shields to deflect her projectiles - with variable success.
"Hurry, she needs help!" Eric shouted.
"I'm right behind you!"
Getting killed by an assailant he could barely see sapped Eric's confidence, but having Rose at his side and the prospect of joining Lucy reassured him. We'll finally fight as a team!
Having his skull smashed in earlier, he knew what to expect from the worst case scenario and it wasn't as terrifying as before. Moments of death are not as bad as the stress of fearing the unknown.
Eric was starting to enjoy the battle and treat it more as a game. That's what the goblins are doing in their crude and grunting way; they revel in it.
As much as he loved swords, sticking to mid-range fireballing seemed more prudent than engaging in melee. Better not risk a trip back from the grove.
The goblin group nearly reached Lucy, and seeing there were too many for her to take on alone, she erected an earthen barrier to protect her. The goblins charged.
Eric kept running. He threw a fireball at a lone goblin in his way, and was considering what course of action to take. The fireball hit, and the goblin evaporated along with the flames.
"Cover me!" Eric shouted to Rose.
The first goblin reached Lucy's shield and gave it a big whack - the shield held.
More goblins arrived and started hammering. A few of them went around, trying to get to Lucy where the barrier was not yet up. Rose's airball made one of them involuntarily airborne, while another got smitten by Lucy's staff.
Lucy managed to complete the shield, which covered her like an earthen bubble and hid her from view. Parts of the shield cracked under the goblins' assault, but Lucy reinforced the damaged parts as soon as she could.
Rose kept hurling airballs, some missing completely, and some serving only as a distraction. "What the hell are you doing?!" She shouted to Eric.
"I'll take care of them, just hold a little longer!"
Eric formed a fireball in his hand, trying to make the improved version he practiced before. He had no staff this time, but he knew what to concentrate on. Keep the clean energy separate. Rotate, push more fire and keep it stable.
Instead of throwing the fireball, Eric rushed ahead while holding it in his hand. I can't afford to miss!
"Lucy, strengthen the top!" He barked, unsure if she would hear.
Eric launched into the air, avoiding half a dozen enraged goblins and aiming to come down on top of the protective bubble.
He loosened the rotations and pushed more fire into the ball, which exploded as soon as it made contact with the shield. The blast traveled along the edge of the shield, catching goblins in the face.
The fire disintegrated all surrounding goblins, except one who just lay there groaning. Lucy walked to the goblin, and slammed down with her staff. This goblin puffed away too; a breeze carried away the reddish smoke along with the earthy remains of the shield.
The blast didn't burn Eric much - it was his fire after all - but inhaling the heated air hurt. Crashing down through Lucy's shield and twisting an arm in the fall hurt even more.
Lucy grabbed Eric's other arm and started dragging him back. He stumbled after her while Rose covered their retreat.
Upon reaching friendlier territory, they stopped and slumped to the ground. All of them were breathing heavily. Eric was singed - his face charred and his hairstyle peculiar.
"What a suicidal rescue," Lucy remarked with weary smile.
Rose drew Lucy close in a hug and planted a kiss on her cheek. "You're the suicidal one."
"What about me?" Eric asked.
"You are too," Rose said.
"No, don't I get-"
"Blehh," Rose pinched her nose and leaned away. "You smell like a burnt pig; I'm not going anywhere near you."
Eric slanted his lips. "Raincheck, then?"
Eric closed his eyes. A battlefield wasn't the best place to rest, but even a moment's respite was welcome. Breathe in... breathe out... breathe in... breathe out... He felt the ache in his arm, throbbing with pain to the rhythm of his heartbeat. He tried to put the pain out of his mind, and for a moment, just BE...
Suddenly, Lucy jumped to her feet. "Incoming!"
Dawn Harshaw / Dream Magic: Awakenings / Chapter 13 - Nightmare Combat