Dawn Harshaw / Dream Magic: Awakenings / Chapter 20 - Nightmare Mastery

Chapter 20 - Nightmare Mastery


When the fear is gone, don't rush to fill the temporary void with nervousness, anxiety, need, addiction or negative habits. Take the deepest breath you can... then breathe out. The world is yours to dream!

- Practical Guide to Nightmares,
Dreamer's Handbook

"I'm glad you decided to come. As you know, the final nightmare class is not a teaching class, but a trial." Mr. Smith dangled a vial of black liquid in front of them.

"While fear on its own is terrifying, it is the confusion our minds create to avoid fear which allows nightmares to disfigure and magnify that same fear out of proportion - making it appear so much worse than it is. This concoction will force you to follow the fear to its source and face some of your deepest fears directly. Think of this 'nightmare essence' as a vaccine - you deal with the fear now, in a controlled environment, so the nightmares at the Outpost will become more easily illuminated for and by you."

Master Joe stood behind Mr. Smith with solemn dignity, giving weight to the words and making them official.

Color drained from Eric's face. What if we fail?

Other than the two teachers, Eric, Rose and Lucy were alone in the class and the treehouse it took place in. This wasn't one of Maeve's insanely-big-on-the-inside warehouses, but a small, cozy, log-cabin kind of treehouse. It even had a fireplace.

"You can still change your minds, but I have to ask each of you," Mr. Smith turned to Eric, "are you sure you wish to proceed?"

Eric cleared his throat, and answered "Yes."

Mr. Smith turned to Lucy. "Are you sure you wish to proceed?"

Lucy, too, was paler than usual. She nodded tentatively, and followed it up by saying "Yes."

Mr. Smith looked at Rose. "Are you sure you wish to proceed?"

"I guess so," Rose said.

"Not good enough. You have to be sure this is what you want."

Rose contemplated for a moment. "I'm sure. I wish to proceed."

"Very well. You will need that resolve," Mr. Smith said and swayed the vial again. "I'll give each of you a vial such as this one. You will have to assimilate the contents of that vial. The common options are drinking it or letting it absorb through your skin, but any other option will work as well. I will now demonstrate, after which it is your turn."

Mr. Smith uncapped the vial and stared at it from close up. The liquid sprouted tiny tentacles which wiggled around. The black tentacles slowly elongated, and when one of them made contact with Mr. Smith's eyeball, they all latched onto it.

The liquid filled Mr. Smith's eye, soaking up through his tear-ducts and tracing his nerves. His other eye turned black too as the liquid emptied from the vial.

After several seconds of staying motionless in that state, Mr. Smith's body began to convulse.

Rose, Lucy, and Eric glanced at each other questioningly. Is that supposed to happen?

Master Joe walked forward with slow, measured steps. He let his right arm fall with a snap, and a large hammer materialized in his hand.

"I have a confession to make; you guys are not the only ones who will pass a personal milestone today. I modified that potion, which Johnny probably realized by now, but I'll nudge him just in case. Don't worry, his obstacle is different than yours - you'll still get the standard version."

Master Joe raised his hammer, swung it, and severed Mr. Smith's head right off his convulsing body.

A part of Eric marveled at how clean the cut was as the head rolled on the planks of the wooden floor. After a few seconds, it dissipated into a bloody mist.

The convulsions became more chaotic and fast beyond perception - the headless torso looked like it was about to explode. Instead, the bloody mist flew back into the body, and the seizures slowed.

After a while they stopped completely, and a smiling boy stood in front of them, only slightly taller than Eric. He wore blue jeans and a t-shirt.

"That was a bit too much old-fashioned zen; I almost couldn't handle it," the boy said to Master Joe.

"Well, it worked, didn't it? Johnny my boy, a slap won't do anything to people like you. How many times have I told you? When you meet yourself on the road, kill it! Even if it's your mental composition - especially if it's your mental composition."

"I saw the logic of it, but I didn't quite... grok... what you meant. This balance is so different. The zen bridging emotion and logic is..." The boy struggled for words, but couldn't find any.

Master Joe simply nodded.

"Do you need me here?" The boy asked.

"Nah. Go have fun," Master Joe said.

The boy ran to Master Joe, hugged him, waved to everyone, and ran out of the tree house with a happy grin on his face.

The three of them waved back, half-stunned and unsure of what happened.

The hammer in Master Joe's hand shrunk as he pocketed it. When he withdrew his hand from the pocket of his robe, it contained three small vials, all filled with a liquid of midnight black.

"Here you go. Drink up!"

* * *

The liquid assaulted Eric's throat and he lost consciousness.

When he came to, his mind was in a strange place. He was lying on something uncomfortably hard and cold. He opened his eyes, but couldn't see anything except the irritating flicker of a faint neon light. He tried to get up, but his arms, legs, chest and forehead were bound to whatever he was lying on. Shit. He struggled to break free - with no result.

Calm down and think!

After a few breaths, Eric relaxed enough to attempt teleporting. I'll just blink out of this. He extended his spatial awareness and tried to desync into various selves, but he instantly and involuntarily snapped back to his initial point of awareness. He tried a few more times, but the result was ruthlessly the same. Like an invisible wall, something made his thoughts bounce back and prevented his imagination from moving. My hands are bound and my mind is in a coffin. Shit-shit-shit-shit...

On the verge of freaking out, Eric let a familiar part of him take control: his rage suppressed the fear and kindled the flames inside him. Fire was his friend within; his primary element. Eric allowed the fire to well up and he let it out in the way he practiced many times before. He gave it all he got. He fully expected, if just for the moment, to become a flaming elemental, burning away all that bound him and reigning hellfire on all those who put him in this situation. It felt like shouting his soul out in flames.

The moment passed. There was no fire; the cold light flickered as if nothing happened.

Eric, after giving it his all, panted. He wished he would black out and wake up elsewhere.

A faint, malicious laughter echoed in his head, but he couldn't tell where it came from or if it was there at all. Only the ebb and flow of his fear assured him of his own existence and the passing of time.

Start, his mind echoed the word.

Shadowy hands stuck needles and injections into his body. The needles were thin - like for acupuncture - and didn't penetrate the body deep, but they were inserted precisely to inflict the most excruciating pain.

Eric cried out, and his body jerked from the strength of his cry, but no sound left his throat.

The large syringes had thick hypodermic needles, suitable for a horse or a small elephant. Oddly, the injections caused only numbness as green-gray liquids pumped into Eric's body. The mental anguish, however - what are they giving me?!?! - was on par with the excruciating pain.

Eric's soundless screams continued until they stopped. The needles got removed, but the respite didn't last.

The shadowy hands held small blades, which, with the hiss of metal sliding through flesh, cut into his body with quick successive moves. The rhythm and predictability of cuts would have been almost soothing if not for the pain and abominable nature of the act. They are marking me. The cuts were all over his body, but the majority centered on his face and torso. Surgeons use medical marking pens; they are using shallow wounds.

When it was over, his violated skin was covered with an intricate grid of blood. Eric heard the evil laugh in his head again.

Slowly, a single shadowy hand came into view and dangled a sheet of paper in front of Eric's eyes. What? With an apt move, the edge of the paper cut into the cornea of his left eye, and then his right.

Eric frantically ran from the screaming in his own head. The fact that the same shadowy hand promptly and successively plugged a normal-sized injection through the center of both papercuts did not help. Whether the injections pushed something into his eyeballs or pulled something out, Eric wasn't in the state to tell.

This is only a dream! This is only a dream...

Feeling resigned and empty, his vision red with haze, he barely noticed a small blade about to cut his eyelids away. Snick-snack, the blade worked like a scissor.

Panic resurged from whatever hidden pockets of strength Eric had left, just in time to notice the shadowy hand holding an ordinary spoon.

The hand did exactly what Eric feared it would do: the spoon breached one eyesocket, reached behind the eye, jerked until the muscles holding it snapped, and scooped out the eyeball.

This is the time to faint, Eric asserted, but he was prevented from fainting and the screams in his head reached an even higher pitch. The shadowy hand repeated the process with the other eye.

The screams went on for a long time, but their echoes eventually subsided and Eric had to accept the new normalcy of his situation. He couldn't see things ever going back to how they were before. Also, he couldn't see at all - since he had no eyes - but a tactile kind of sight enabled him to sense the immediate vicinity of his desecrated body. At least the neon light is gone, he remarked, but his attempt at humor left him even more hopeless and depressed.

The shadowy hands were back, brandishing large blades, saws, needles and other instruments.

A long blade made a large incision on his abdomen. The pain was dull. Several smaller cuts followed inside, but Eric barely noticed them. There was only the pressuring, choking, ominous feeling that they were doing something very sinister.

Dull pain marked another long incision, this time on his chest, and a large number of smaller cuts followed. They're doing something. They're removing something. They're cutting out my organs!!! Another incision, another dull pain.

As if the hands wanted him to see what was going on, Eric could sense his heart beating - no longer in his chest, but in the palm of a shadowy hand - fading into the dark.

How am I breathing? Eric felt like he was breathing, but he had no lungs - he knew this to be true.

Eric examined his condition to the best of his very limited abilities, and he felt empty inside. Literally.

They took all my inner organs. Why am I not dead?! I should be dead! Death was no longer something to be feared, but something to be welcomed. I should be dead. Both his rationality and emotions dictated that death is preferable to his current state. It is time. I want to die.

Having made the decision, a wave of relief washed over him. He let go of his attachment to his body, floated above, and looked for the proverbial light at the end of a tunnel. With the release, he did see a light, and it was brilliant. I'm going Home.

Eric felt ecstatic and almost happy as he neared the light. I'm coming.

He began merging into the light...

Only to be yanked back and denied. Eric was jerked back into his severely mutilated, damp, and limiting body. Let me die! I want to die! Why don't you let me die! He yelled, but he knew it had no effect.

The shadowy hands did not let Eric die and they did not relent with the torture.

The top of his skull got sawed off and his brain syphoned out. With nothing major left except bone and skin, they began extracting individual muscles in the most painful way possible. Let me die! Let me die! With each piece removed, the prison of Eric's soul grew smaller and more crushing.

After every muscle piece got cut away and discarded, they began cutting away Eric's extremities; toes first, the fingers on his hands second, one knuckle at a time. Ears. Nose. Teeth, one by one. Lips.

The shadowy hands were running out of things to remove, but they took their sweet time. Eric's body approached being only a bloody, amorphous mass.

Arms and legs were severed in multiple stages, to make sure Eric was conscious enough to experience the pain. Chop-chop. Substantial force and heavy blades were required to cut away the bigger bones. His pelvis was crushed and then removed. The skin on what was once his abdomen and lower torso, torn away with reckless abandon. The vertebrae in the lower and mid spinal column got picked apart and severed, one by one. His ribs broken by sheer force, one at a time. His skull smashed and most pieces removed.

The passing of time no longer held any meaning to Eric. With most of himself gone, he wasn't sure he was 'Eric' anymore. He had just enough consciousness to experience pain and to feel the futility and sheer maliciousness of his imprisonment.

His prison was small: his lower jaw, a neckbone, and his right shoulder. That was it - all that remained of his dissected body. He thought they couldn't torture him more because taking away anything more would break their hold on him, but now and again they added something back only to take away something else, and ensure a perpetual state of pain and despair.

Eric saw broken dreams. He felt like he has woken up from this many times before, but not ever did he find the solution or exit from this most horrible of nightmares. Those Erics would wake up and go about their lives, but if they imagined the wrong thing or looked in the wrong direction, they would feel part of this nightmare and never be completely free.

He saw them waking up but not waking up, forgetting but not forgetting.

I'm the crux. The fool.

Whenever his thoughts strayed or attempted to escape, they were pushed back into the prison and the experience of pain. Eric's screams were silent even in his mind.

An infinity passed.

IT'S OKAY, came the words carrying a feeling. IT'S OKAY NOT TO BE YOURSELF. Eric's mind raced around it; something clicked. It's okay not to be myself, he internalized.

Eric's mind didn't have much time or will to analyze with words what it meant. Does it mean it's okay to die? Does it mean I can be someone or something else? Or does it mean I don't have to exist at all? Or that I can exist? Or...

The words quieted as Eric followed the light of his realization. He looked at and into his fear, followed it to the source, and saw there was no longer anything there. Only stillness - and he let go.

The laugh was his own. Of course.

His prison and pain no longer bound him. He reached the point where death met life, and Eric became an outpouring of Love. His ego no longer limited him, and he started claiming and rebuilding himself.

He drew lines of light upon his remaining mutilated husk.

The light multiplied under his Touch.

Bones, nerves, organs, flesh, skin; all grew anew. Eric reached into the darkness of the shadowy hands and pulled it into his light. He understood they were parts of him he judged or rejected, and that torture was their way of getting Eric's attention.

Eric felt invincible, and he stated the fact to himself. Sure, I can be killed, maimed, imprisoned or worse; but I can always BE, and laugh about it.

Eric's outpouring of Love was answered with outpourings of Love from elsewhere, and he accepted gratefully. He never felt so Loved before. Some aspects of him were close, others more distant, but they all congratulated; he felt acceptance, approval, and shared joyousness.

Eric went over the light-form of his now complete body, and made minor tweaks here and there. It didn't near the complexity of a physical body, but as a resilient ego-image template to return to and regenerate from, he found it pretty awesome - beautiful even in its glory.

Eric echoed thanks throughout the realm, and vowed never to forget the Love.

He opened his eyes.

Chapter 19 - Teleportation   Dream Magic   Chapter 21 - Epilogue


Dawn Harshaw / Dream Magic: Awakenings / Chapter 20 - Nightmare Mastery