“And is that a problem?” Aurelio asked “If the dream changes it might become a nightmare.”
“If the dreamer notices we’re here” Sybilla said “Which becomes more likely the longer we stay, then they may make us part of the dream, and if that happens we lose the ability to leave.”
“Right…” Aurelio said “Lead on then.”
Sybilla walked with purpose towards the edge of the dream, and Aurelio was worried she might create another door into the howling chaos that existed between dreams. He didn’t fancy the idea of being led blindly like a useless burden through that twisting madness like he had before.
The icy wind began to pick up as they neared the edge of blackness, but just as the buildings of the street began to lose shape and the streetlights dimmed, a new scene opened up around them. Tall trees moved out from the shadows to take their place, a thin layer of frost began to blanket the ground beneath their feet, and the path was soon lit by a large silver moon.
“Are we in a different dream?” Aurelio asked, looking around.
“We are” Sybilla said.
“Then how come we didn’t have to pass through all that whirling madness from before?”
“As I said” Sybilla sighed “That was merely to break from our dream into a random one in the local Dreaming. Now that we’ve found one dream, we can move more easily from one to the other using aspects they have in common.”
“I think I understand” Aurelio said “But why is it you could move through that chaos so easily?”
“It takes practice.” Sybilla said “And a guiding hand.”
Aurelio frowned “Learning tricks from your Master?”
“She’s not my Master anymore” Sybilla said “And she wasn’t always a monstrous goddess.”
“Pardon me if I’m not too concerned about her circumstances.” Aurelio said “What matters to me is what she does and how she can be stopped.”
“The answer I’d expect of a huntsman.” Sybilla said with more than a little scorn in her voice.
“And what is that supposed to mean?” Aurelio shot back.
“It means you have a rather one-track mind.” She said “You see a problem as quarry to be hunted. You look to the immediate and often violent solution rather than the long-term. It breeds an arrogant sense of righteousness and a drive towards immediate solutions.”
“And what exactly is the long-term solution?” Aurelio asked, not keeping the anger from his own voice.
“Free Huldra from Nidhoggr’s corrupting influence.” Sybilla said, and Aurelio openly scoffed. Undeterred, she continued.
“By free Huldra you not only lose a potent enemy but you gain a potent ally.”
“If she even wants to be freed” Aurelio said.
“No one wishes to be a slave.” Sybilla said “No man and certainly no god.”
“Is that why you’re in Rome?” Aurelio asked “looking for a way to free your Master?”
“Part of the reason” Sybilla shrugged “Now…be quiet” If she was going to make another point she stopped mid-sentence, bringing her hand to his mouth to silence any reply as her eyes looked out over the dream. Aurelio frowned at the hushing gesture, but knew as a huntsman never to be loud if the situation demanded it.
“Something’s moving out there” Sybilla whispered “We need to get off the path”
Together the pair of them moved quickly and quietly off of the trail they had found themselves on. Aurelio’s ears were sharper than Sybilla’s and he could hear the sounds of two things running down the trail.
They moved where the shrubs grew thick around a tree and crouched down low as they waited, peering down the dark moonlit path. The light, Aurelio realized, was unusual. It should have been much darker at night, even with a large moon overhead. He didn’t notice it at first because his heightened champion’s senses usually made the night this bright. It was then that he realized that it was rare to be unable to see in a dream.
They did not have to wait long before two figures came into view, one following the other. The one in the lead was a man, and likely the dreamer. He was young, and was trying to move as quickly as he could down the path, but there was an odd sluggishness to his movements, as if he was trying to force his way through thick tar rather than through empty air.
Behind him, a great shadowy bestial creature loped in pursuit. It had the vague outline of a werewolf, but was altogether larger than most monsters and lacked a distinct outline as it darted between trees and through underbrush, never fully revealing itself as it pursued the man across the trail. It was quick enough that it easily could have caught him, but was either toying with the man or it was simply obeying the laws of the dream.
Aurelio went for his bow, vision sharpening as his hunting instincts focused on the monster.
Sybilla’s hand moved over his before he could pull it from his back, and when he turned to look at her she shook her head before whispering, barely audible over the movement of the beast.
“It is part of the dream, and valuable, we will need his fear to find other nightmares.”
Aurelio looked again at the monster before whispering back “is that not the Mara?” Sybilla shook her head. “The Mara is not so unimaginative. We must keep moving. Try and focus on the fear now rather than the cold.”
Aurelio wasn’t sure what she meant. Fear was an emotion, not a quality of the environment. He’d heard of predators that could smell fear but that was mostly just an idiom. Nothing he knew of could literally smell fear. And yet…
Aurelio closed his eyes, focusing on the dream around him. He could hear the panting breaths of the fleeing dreamer, the ragged snarls of his pursuer, and the terrified drumroll beating of his heart as if it was his own. It was then that he felt it, the fear, and when he knew what he was trying to sense it became immediately apparent. Fear permeated every inch of the dream, touching a sense he did not know he had. It was not quite smell or taste or touch but something like all three, but it was without a doubt the feeling of fear in the air.
He opened his eyes again, still able to sense the fear, and saw that Sybilla was smiling at him.
“Well done” She said, and though she seemed to mean it sincerely he refused to meet her gaze.
“Now, we find the edge of the dream and continue, holding on to that feeling of fear.”
When the fleeing dreamer and his nightmare pursuer had left, the pair of them went back to the trail and began to run in the opposite direction. Aurelio doubted the dream was more than a kilometer across, and doubtless it followed the dreamer like a spotlight, the areas he had passed fading into oblivion. His suspicions were confirmed when they saw the edge of the dream racing to meet them at the forest’s edge, black oblivion threatening to swallow them whole.
Sybilla grabbed his hand again. “Remember the fear” she said “not the cold or the forest or the moon, remember the fear.”
Aurelio nodded, keeping the feeling of fear at the fore of his mind as they ran, trying to shut out everything else he saw or felt and remembering only the fear. As their feet passed the edge of the dream, they stood for a moment in blackness before a new dream seemed to cave in around them. The world was still dark, but a new solidness arrived as they were cramped into a much tighter area than the infinite void they had stood in before.
It took even Aurelio’s champions eyes a moment to adjust to almost complete blackness, and he felt himself surrounded on all sides by soft cloths and furs, bizarre yet oddly familiar. It took another few moments of feeling around before the realization hit him. He had been shoved unceremoniously into a dark coat closet. His heart skipped a beat when he felt one of the coats move, but it was just as quickly replaced with irritation as he realized that coats were not the only things pressed up against him.
“I believe this is a little too cozy for both of us” Sybilla’s voice came from the darkness almost directly into his ear. He could feel her squirming in the tight space as she palmed around for a door knob.
“Agreed.” Aurelio nodded, pressing himself as tightly as he could against the coats behind him, trying to find even a modicum of air between them. After a few increasingly uncomfortable seconds, Sybilla found the door handle and they practically fell out into a dark and ancient-looking hallway.
Picking themselves up, Aurelio saw that Sybilla had ditched her more elaborate coat, and was dusting off her shoulders while correcting the creases in her cape. Still not sure of his abilities, Aurelio simply stripped off his gloves and outer coat.
“This is a nightmare? Aurelio asked, glancing about what seemed to be an aged and anbandoned mansion.
“A haunted house I’d guess” Sybilla said “A good sign, Maras love the classics.”
“So it might have been here?” Aurelio asked “What are the signs?”
“A Mara” Sybilla said “Will take the general frightening aspects of a dream then go the extra mile. Dreams usually lack fine details and narrative continuity; it’s just the subconscious babbling about the things that scare it. If you see things that are very detailed, little extra touches no sane person would think to dream of, then you’re either dealing with a paranoid schizophrenic or the signs of a Mara’s passage. As it moves through the dream it can’t help but improve nightmares along the way.”
“And when it reaches its destination?” Aurelio asked, following Sybilla as the pair moved through the house.
“It will craft a new dream of fantastic and terrible quality, enough to drive even a healthy man to literally die of fright.”
“An awful way to hunt” Aurelio said “People are defenseless in their dreams.”
“Not as defenseless as you might think” Sybilla said “The difficult part of being the victim is knowing that you’re dreaming, and that something else is in your dream with you. The concept is foreign to most, but if you know you’re fighting a Mara in a dream then as a dreamer you have the advantage.”
“A lucid dreamer is a capital-G God inside their own minds. Not even a Mara can take that power away, but a clever Mara will do everything within their power to subvert the will of a lucid dreamer, and most amateurs don’t know how to fight in a dream like a Mara does. So that’s where we come in.”
The sound of footsteps above them interrupted her explanation, and while Aurelio glanced up, Sybilla seemed more concerned with a nearby window.
“What was that?” Aurelio asked, going to his bow again.
“Just a dreamer, or maybe a monster or a ghost or something” Sybilla shrugged “It’s not important.”
“Not important?” Aurelio rounded on her “it could be dangerous.”
“Don’t get caught up in the dream, Huntsman.” Sybilla said “Come here, look at this.”
Grudgingly, he followed her to the window where she pointed out into the darkness. He could see nothing in the blackness of the night save for silver-blue moonlight that streamed through the window.
“I see nothing” He said.
“I’ll say” Sybilla rolled her eyes “Don’t look through the glass, look at the glass.”
Aurelio leaned in, and he could see the glass was showing signs of great age. It had thickened near the bottom of the panes as ancient glass was wont to do, and there were marks from poorly-applied paint and wear at the corners, a thin layer of frost covered the whole thing.
“It’s old glass, what of it?”
“If all the action is taking place upstairs” Sybilla nudged her head towards the ceiling “Why is there so much detail in this glass?”
Aurelio’s face hardened “The Mara”
Sybilla smiled “That’s right.” She raised her hands, light glowing at her fingertips as she moved them slowly through the air, eerie blue illumination filling the room, and revealing a mist-like trail that flowed in a rough line across the room and through the window.”
“That’s our Mara” Sybilla smiled triumphantly.
“It went through the window” Aurelio said “Quickly, we need to find the door.”
“I prefer to make one.” Sybilla said “We have our trail, the time for subtlety is over.” She raised a hand, and the soft blue light at her fingertips grew hard and red before the window shattered, the frame blasting outwards as if half the wall had been blown out by a cannon. A shriek of terror from the dreamer above them announced they had not gone unheard.
Aurelio glared at her, but Sybilla simply shrugged “He was having a nightmare anyway, and the Mara’s left. He’ll be fine.”
Before Aurelio could respond she took hold of his hand, spreading her cape like a pair of great wings around her and taking off into the cold night air, one hand still raised to illuminate the Mara’s path and follow it into the Dreaming.
Nightmares are not uncommon in Rome. Countless survivors carry the mental scars of the days of Revelation. Many who had lived normal lives now had the dread of real monsters now made immortal in their dreaming minds. Sleep brought little respite to these people, and they suffered through occasional or recurring nightmares with great frequency.
That night, however, a half-dozen dreamers in Rome all had the same oddity in their dreams. They were strangers to one another, and never met to acknowledge the similarities. They simply shrugged it off as bizarre dreams and went on with their lives. That night, in their nightmares, just as it neared the peak of horror, a pair of strangers would crash, often literally, into their dreams. A bickering pair of strangers, one carrying a long bow and the other dressed like a fantasy sorceress, sniping at one another as they ran at speed through their dreamscape, often smashing whatever barrier was in their way as they followed some unseen trail.
There was no sense of time between dreams, but it had taken what felt like quite a while as they had hurried in pursuit of the Mara. Through haunted forest, abandoned hospital, gloomy swamp, or endless hotel they had chased the spirit through a growing number of nightmares.
“This is one potent Mara” Sybilla panted, winded by their chase “They don’t usually go through more than three dreams or so a night.”
“Are we close?” Aurelio said as they stepped past the border of their dream and into a new one.
“I think this might be it” Sybilla said.
Together they walked onto what appeared to be a large vacant stage set before an old and empty auditorium. It seemed largely abandoned and there was no sign of the dreamer or whatever horror they had constructed.
“So what now?” Aurelio asked wryly “Phantom of the Opera?”
“Oh shut up, Huntsman” Sybilla griped as she looked around.
“Please…Help me” A quiet timid voice came to them from above, and they looked up to see a young woman trapped in a cage suspended from the ceiling high above them. She clung to the bars, looking desperately down at them.
Just as they began to wonder what kind of monster they would be dealing with, the lights began to dim, one by one flashing out as the girl pressed herself against the bars of her cage.
“Please!” she called out to them “It’s coming!”
Before they could find a way to help her, a great shape took form in the dark shadows above the seats of the auditorium. It was enormous, at least ten meters tall as it filled the air, great wings of darkness sweeping out wards as a horrible snake-like hissing sound filled the air between the rushing wind of numerous and irregular wing beats. From the center of the darkness a great skull-like face appeared, crowned in a regal headdress of gold, obsidian, and black feathers as pale starlight shone out from its eyes. The girl above them shrieked in terror as it loomed over her.
Aurelio was locked in horror for a moment, nothing like the nightmares they had seen was the equal of this monstrosity.
“Huntsman!” Sybilla grabbed his shoulder, shaking him back to lucidity “That’s the Mara!”
“That thing!?” Aurelio shouted in disbelief.
“Just the form its taken.” Sybilla said “It’s still just a Mara, I can keep it hear but it’s time to earn your keep, Huntsman.
Aurelio’s hands were quicker than his mind. In one swift motion he had drawn the bow Diana had given him, pulled an arrow, nocked it, pulled and fired. The arrow shot like a comet across the air, shining with silver light as it struck the forehead of the monster. It opened its maw filled with needle-like teeth and roared at him as he gained its attention. As it began to bear down on him, clawed hands rising, Aurelio wondered just how many arrows it would take.
He rushed across the stage, never pausing save to draw and fire another arrow. His aim was as flawless in the dream as it was in reality, always striking its mark as he aimed for its empty eyes and crowned skull, once striking it in the palm to stop its swinging claws from tearing through him and the stage as it raked the air. Still, the monster showed no signs of stopping and his mind raced for a solution.
Sybilla was working her magic, floating in mid-air, cape billowing around her as she chanted under her breath. He could feel the dream growing solid, more defined. He knew she was trapping it here, giving it no room to flee to another dream, but he still wished she could put a little more effort into subduing it rather than keeping it trapped.
The thought struck him in an instant. There was more than one way to catch an animal, and shooting it full of arrows only worked if you wanted it crippled or dead. He and Elisa wanted this Mara alive, and how did a hunter capture an animal rather than kill it? With a trap.
Lady Diana had never given him any kind of magic bear trap, and there was nothing in the abandoned theatre. But this was a dream, and even if it wasn’t his he was still a dreamer. He merely needed to imagine a solution.
Again he drew an arrow and fired it into the air. This time, however, the silver shaft missed by a wide margin. Aurelio focused his mind, imagining the outcome he wanted, and with relief he saw the arrow curve in midflight, beginning to fly on its own in obit around the monster, never striking it but never flying too far away.
Six more times he fired and six more times arrows flew into rotation around the beast, criss-crossing it in long silver arcs of moonlight as it tried in vain to swat them from the air. With the seventh fired, Aurelio lowered his bow and focused his mind again. This was just the Mara’s assumed form, not the reality. A Mara was small, and for something that small he didn’t need a bear trap or a pit. He needed a cage.
In a single burst of silver-white moonlight the orbiting arrows came together, solidifying around the massive Mara and squeezing it violently into a much smaller space, solidifying from a field of flying silver arrows into a single solid cage.
Aurelio watched the cage float in midair, the formless black mass of the mara struggling to break free, pushing against the bars and stretching them almost to breaking. Before it could get a chance to pull free, new lights began to bind themselves to the cage, solidifying it further and binding the Mara within. Aurelio turned and saw Sybilla, now focused on the floating cage, as she worked her magic to keep it bound.
Together, they moved across the quiet stage and retrieved the cage where it had slowly fallen towards the ground, both looking at the swirling black chaos within.
Sybilla turned and smiled at him “Well done, Huntsman” she said We’ve just captured a nightmare.”
The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9551?chapter=28&sl=645