The Nightmare Plague: Illusions of Sanity, complete rough draft

There was a soft breeze that caused chimes to tinkle, just enough to be audible.  Much louder were the dogs barking through the night at nothing but shadows and slight sounds.  These and other noises drifted through the pale light of the moon. It wasn’t quite enough light to see by, yet just enough to be present.  Everything was muted, as though the world waited expectantly on something to break the stillness.

The child’s screams could be heard over the nighttime sounds, drowning out the chimes and causing the dogs to keen softly.  His parents were quick to rush into the room. They looked haggard. There had been too many of these outbursts with no resolution in sight.  Something was wrong and both were powerless to stop their son’s pain.  

There was no definable reason for the terror.  Nothing was apparent to the physicians, psychologists, or psychiatrists.  He was a well-adjusted child, but something was locked into his mind preventing sleep from being undisturbed.

They talked quietly to him, trying to project a calming influence on the tormented child.  This time took a while until he smiled weakly and professed to feeling better. None noticed the commotion from under the bed.  It was raucous with violence as a suggestion. What was happening lay beyond their ability to perceive.

As the parents were preparing to return to bed, a small figured was hurled from beneath the opposite side of the bed.  Although the sound of it’s impact against the wall was not apparent to their ears, all three looked in that direction. There must have been a sound outside, all agreed, but none could put a source to the sensation.

The figure slowly began to reach a kneeling position, gasping for breath.  It was in fact a she, partly suggested by her clothes and a subtly hint across the face.  She pushed her scarf back from her eyes, two glittering stones reflecting the night light nearby.  A strangled cough passed her lips before she spat out a wad of fluff, never once taking her eyes from the bed.  A rasping, grating noise drifted out, mocking her failure. She promised to end that malicious sound, to drive it away.

Her name is Marley, and she fights nightmares.

Standing was difficult after the impact, but she managed it, hissing in pain.  In spite of the violence with threw her from the nightmare, she knew there were others nearby.  They were perched in the window nook, silently watching. SHe was familiar with the scents of two of them, but the third was a mystery.  When she was able to speak, she addressed the trio.

“Ambrose.  Sonny. Thank you for coming.  Who is your friend?

Both bears grinned. They could never fool her.

“This is Latricia,” Ambrose said, “I met her a while back.  She caught up as we were approaching.” Marley had still not turned.  She was probably getting the new bear’s scent, Ambrose thought.

“So,” Sonny began, “what have you found to entertain yourself tonight?”  

Marley grinned, in spite of herself.  Her friend’s sardonic way of speaking was always reassuring.  He seemed indolent, but was determined and silent in a fight. Ambrose was more likely to be warm and jovial, but both were pleasant company.

“Latricia, what do you know of bogeys?”

The unfamiliar bear stared down at Marley.  She still had not turned, but was fixed on the shadows beneath the bed.  There was a confidence in her voice that made Latricia feel vulnerable in spite of having fought nightmares for several years.

“I’ve fought boogeymen before.  They’re tricky, but not particularly troublesome.”

Finally, Marley turned, staring intently.  Sonny and Ambrose had gone rigid. Their silence was unnerving after hearing them banter so much on the way to the house.

“No, I said bogeys.  They existed before the boogeymen.  There are more of the latter, but they are pale imitations of the former..”

Latricia noticed that Sonny’s jaw had gone rigid and his nostrils flared.

“Maybe you and Ambrose should stay back.  I’ve fought one before. You have no idea how vicious they are.”  His voice cracked with emotion. He was barely contain a rising rage that lifted his lips quivering.  There was a note of a growl in his voice. Marley evidently noticed this, although she had not taken her eyes off Latricia.

“No.  This is all paws on deck, Sonny.  Get yourself under control.” She turned to look at him, speaking coldly.

“You know how I feel about a bear that cannot maintain their composure.  You’re beginning to act like,” she paused, “him.”

The tone of her voice brought Sonny up short.  He snorted and looked away, but it was obvious her words hit home.  Ambrose was doing his best to not draw attention, looking at Latricia from the corner of his eye.  That glance was a warning. He struck her as being an unflappable personality, but even he was cautious not to cross Marley.

Finally, Sonny nodded his head.  Turning, he crouched and lowered himself to the floor before addressing her.

“Alright, since you decided to give me that verbal slap, what next?”  He bent over and picked up what was left of Marley’s swords, shattered in her earlier fight.  The hooded bear looked at them and pursed her lips before closing her eyes and reaching into the folds of her jacket.  She drew out a large sword with a crescent guard that was barely wider than the blade. Ambrose whistled.

“Does he know that you have that?”

“He does now.  If that old fool were using it, I would have taken his other sword.”

Latricia starred in puzzlement.  

“What are you talking about?  Where did that sword come from?”

The other two bears both made a show of not hearing the question, but Marley turned and said:

“I can draw the weapons of certain bears, so long as they are not using them.  This bear carries several. He’s probably a bit ill with me now.” Her eyes narrowed with dark humor.  

Latricia cast a sidelong glance at the other two bears, both of whom looked sheepish and wouldn’t return her gaze.

“Before we go,” Marley continued,” make certain you are determined to do this.  This creature is a vicious nightmare and little we see will be as it should. The bogey may have already begun to create boogeymen to assist it or to unleash on other dreams.”  She hesitated.

Ambrose saw her jaw clench and laid a paw on her shoulder.

“Marley, what else is there?”

She was quiet for a moment before responding.

“Other bears have attempted to stop it and have not returned.  This has been a long, drawn-out nightmare. The bogey is just playing, but could end the child’s life if it chooses.  You must be committed to the battle, never waver, and, most importantly, succeed.”

She turned and faced each bear in turn.  She lingered on Latricia, her violet eyes boring into the young bear.  Although visibly shaken, she did not quail under the scrutiny. Without a word, Marley turned and leaped under the bed, the other three close behind her.

They were falling through rolling, puffy clouds into the warm light of a spring day.  There was a hint of rain in the air, although no drops were evident as they descended.  Marley landed first, briefly crouching as her legs absorbed the impact. Sonny and Ambrose landed with grace, then turned to catch Latricia, whose fall had turned into a flailing tumble.

“How did you three do that?”

“Practice.”  The response was in unison as the three bears began scanning their surroundings.  Latricia did the same, but she could not see anything amiss. Sonny and Ambrose were intent, yet puzzled.  Marley closed her eyes and stood silent.

Sonny was the first to turn and look to his companions.

“I know something isn’t right, but I’ll be deviled if I can figure it out.”

Ambrose nodded.  “It’s like a shadow at the corner of my eyes, constantly shifting whenever I try to focus on it.”

After hearing this, Latricia began to take in the landscape with an eye to sorting out some feature out of place.  Then she saw the hazy image, just outside of her vision. Meanwhile, Ambrose had begun to watch Marley, who continued to stand with eyes shut, her brow furrowed.  Suddenly, she slammed a paw to the ground, causing a rippling effect to spread out from her. The pleasant scene briefly disrupted enough that the true nature was revealed:  They stood in a gravel-strewn wasteland, studded with stunted and malformed trees. Overhead, the sun was an angry, rippling red, sending down blistering torrents of heat. Just as quickly as it had appeared, the image was gone.

“That’s the most I am able to show you the reality of the nightmare.  This is the strongest, though, and I will be able to disrupt it better the deeper we go.”

She let out an explosive breath.  Apparently it took considerable effort to break the illusion for even a moment.  Latricia was in awe of the bear’s strength.  

“Can you teach me to do that?”

Marley’s eyes focused and she turned around with a wry smile on her lips.

“I’m not entirely certain how I can do that,” she said.  “It came to me serendipitously some time back. If it’s origin is what I suspect, it is not something I am able to teach.  We’ll try, though, at a later time.” She gave Latricia a warm smile and squeezed her shoulder before moving off in a random direction.  After a moment’s hesitation, Sonny and Ambrose began to follow her. Trailing behind, Latricias reached out her senses and noticed a slight pull in the direction they were headed.  The depths of the nightmare and their quarry were pulling them along.

Marley began to walk around seemingly at random.  Latricia watched with puzzlement and looked to Sonny and Ambrose.  Both bears shrugged and watched intently. The bear was reaching out with her hand as though looking for some texture in the air.  When she stopped, they watched a pantomime of patting at the air. All three were surprised when she began to push against nothing.  The space in front of her began to stretch, breaking apart like the edges of a jigsaw puzzle. She laughed mirthlessly.

“Come here, all of you.  At my signal, we all shoulder in.”  They followed her instructions and all four lunged into seemingly empty space, breaking through the walls of illusion and into the distressed land that it hid.  Before them was the edge of a dark forest of blighted trees. The sky was a noxious yellow.

Latricia looked like she would be sick.

“What is it doing to the child?”

Ambrose put an arm around her shoulders to give support.

“It is trying to poison the mind.  This appears to be a dream, but that encourages the mind to dwell on it while sickening the child from inside.  The child is going mad from seemingly nothing.”

The younger bear quailed.

“What is the point?”

“It feeds the nightmare, but there is something else going on.  Bogeys can be subtle, but this is designed to destroy the child quickly.  There is a lot of energy being gathered with speed.”

Marley listened to the exchange while examining the landscape.  It was the same bogey. Yes, they could be subtle, but this one is trading that for expedience.  She thought back to that day and idly rubbed where her fabric had been restitched. It was still numb, which was something more disconcerting than if it ached.  The infection of its presence was deeper than she had previously thought.

A whimpering sound tugged at Marley’s ear.  She paid surreptitious attention to her companions:  Ambrose seemed strained, but was attentive of their surroundings.  Sonny and Laticia, though, were clearly having trouble. The sound had come from her, but Sonny was poorly concealing his agitation.  Marley felt alarm rising at the possibility of dragging the two bears through the nightmare. Obviously Sonny had not encountered a bogey before.  

Sonny had been trying to put on a brave face, telling Latricia “I’ll take you back to where we came in.”

“No,” Ambrose said, “you cannot.  Not unless you can fly.”

Both bears looked equally alarmed, realizing that they were trapped.

Ambrose was evidently alarmed by their reactions.

“This is why we exist,” he said gently.  “We fight their nightmares to bring some measure of succor.  You need to hold to that duty.”

Marley left Ambrose to reinforce the younger bear’s morale.  She continued to study the place. Placing her hand on a tree sent images through her mind.  The surmise that the bogey was acting unusually was now evident. She could feel energy being drawn from the child.  The nightmare was acting as a generator. The new question was why. It wasn’t feeding the creature. It was harvesting all that it could.

She closed her senses to the surroundings and returned to her companions.  The younger bears were breathing steady while Ambrose spoke to them softly.

“Ambrose, we need to move.”

“They need a moment longer, Marley.”

“There is no more time,” she growled.  “They must struggle through so we can complete our obligations.  As you said, this is why we exist.”

The younger bears stood shocked at her tone.  Sonny gritted his teeth and Latricia shut her eyes and took a deep breath before both began to follow her into the forest.  Ambrose took up the rear, hoping that being between he and Marley would bolster their companions spirits.

The air grew thick as they progressed.  A miasma had settled in the area, giving off a stench of rotten eggs.  There was no sound but what they made. Their footfalls seemed to echo through the fetid forest.  Walking behind Marley, Latricia saw her occasionally rubbing at her side without even seeming to realize that she was doing so.  The younger bear kept that observation silent at first. After a time, she could not keep it to herself.

“Marley, why do you keep rubbing your side?”

The older bear sighed.

“It’s an old wound from a fight I lost,” she said.

All three bears were taken aback, particularly Ambrose.

“What could you have gone against that was so dangerous?”

Marley didn’t respond immediately.

“There were several of them, one being the bogey we are pursuing.”

This revelation sent shudders through the younger bears.

“But, she added, I was alone.  It was a trap and the bogey was actually the least dangerous.”  She was speaking softly at this point, obviously unnerved by the memory.  “Fortunately, another bear sensed my distress and came to my aid before something terrible happened.”

Sonny was hesitant before asking, “Who was it?”

It was some time before Marley answered:  “Barnabus.”

Ambrose and Sonny both stopped in their tracks.

“Him?”  Sonny practically spat the word out.  Ambrose also did not conceal his distaste.

“He actually did something altruistic?  I thought he was to self-centered for such a thing.”

Marley gave them a wry grin.

He has his faults and we haven’t spoken in some time, but I owe that bear my life, especially given what was in store for me.”

“Which was?”  Latricia did not attempt to conceal her fear.

“Something I hope you never learn of,” she responded.

Her words further dampened the spirits of the three bears, but resumed their march behind Marley out of respect for her resolution.

Marley didn’t realize that Ambrose and Sonny found Barnabus so distasteful.  

“He has his drawbacks, but there is good in him,” she said, almost to herself.

The four bears continued quietly, making as little noise as possible.

After some time, Marley skipped to a stop.  Her muzzle opened, but only a croaking sound emerged.  Ahead of them the trees appeared to be draped in wool, all held in place with strings.  Ambrose worked past his companions and approached one of them before stumbling back with a cry, falling backwards to the ground.  The wool was the limb form of a teddy bear. All of her stuffing had been removed except that in her head. Her eyes mutely followed him as tears rolled down her cheeks.

Beyond the first were more stuffed animals, some rabbits, others elephants, but mostly teddy bears, all strung into a variety of positions.  All four bears stared in horror. This was eventually broken by Marley whispering, “A Garden of Souls.”

“A what,” Sonny said in a strangled voice.

“It is called a Garden of Souls.  They are still conscious to some degree.  Don’t bother,” she said to Ambrose, whose was about to cut one down.

“Are you mad?  We must save them!”  His words were choked with emotion.

“They cannot be saved.  Their suffering will end with the nightmare.  They are part of the energy being generated.”

Sonny’s head jerked away from the sight.

“They are what!”

“This would have been my fate if not for Barnabus.”  She walked into the center of the horror.

“I will see to it your sorrow ends soon.”  A small chorus of sobs accompanied this proclamation.

She bowed her head and continued with the others following closely.  The sooner they were away the better.

Lost in thought, it was some time before any of the bears spoke.  It was Sonny who finally broke the silence.

“I should not have said that I had fought a bogey,” he said softly.  “This is far worse than I could have imagined.” He went silent again and Latricia took his hand.

Eventually Marley spoke:  “We are all capable of succumbing to bravado at times.  Be careful of overestimating your abilities. Or trying to impress someone else.”

Latricia squeezed his hand and both flushed with embarrassment.

After another long period of silence, Ambrose spoke.

“This nightmare seems rather empty, doesn’t it?”  His tone was clinical and professional.

“There is the pleasant illusion to lull the child into being more open, thus allowing the rot of the hidden nightmare more pleasant thoughts to contaminate.  When I first fought this particular bogey, I was able to stop her nightmare in spite of being defeated,” Marley said.  

Ambrose sounded shocked when he spoke next.

“Are you implying you have fought more than one bogey?”

“Yes, but I had Barnabus’s help then.  We learned to fight well together.”

“Against nightmares or each other,” Latricia asked with a laugh.

“Both,” Marley said with a smile.

She took in a deep breath and asked, “Bogeys create boogeymen.  You need to be ready for that. Even if it is alone, the longer it remains here, more can be created.  That’s what makes fighting these creatures all the more terrible.”

The silence that had marked their travels returned.

“Thanks for lightening the mood,” Latricia said wryly.  That remark got a few chuckles.

“I know it’s terrible to dwell on, but you need to know, particularly since I think we are getting close.”

Her quiet determination gave them a spark of resolution.

Marley was pleased to hear the whisper of cloth as wooden swords were drawn from the nothing where they are stored.

However, the texture in the air was different, though.  It seemed that more than three swords were drawn. She sniffed the air and her muzzle formed into a tight smile.  The others walked past her after Marley stopped.  

“You’re late,” she said as another voice said, “I’m late.”

“Hello, Barnabus.”

“Marley,” the bear said cautiously.

She looked him up and down, noting the tatters of his clothing.  His main sword, the Rook, was gripped loosely. His face was tight and uncertain.  There was also a dignified bear standing just behind him.

Barnabus looked from face to face, acknowledging each in turn.  Ambrose was chilly, Sonny’s nostrils flared, and Latricia, loyal to her friends, glared suspiciously.  He sighed in exasperation and began walking past them with the other bear in tow.

Marley swiftly grabbed his arm.

“We needs do this together,” she said, ignoring the reactions of her companions.

Both bears stared into each other’s violet eyes.  They made no show of emotion, just maintained their gaze.

Finally, Marley looked him over again.

“Were you in too much of a hurry to change clothes?”

“A titch, yes.”

Marley looked stern, bowed her head, and placed the palm of her hand on his chest.

“You are still too reckless,” she hissed.  There was no rancor in her tone, just a sad note.

Barnabus looked abashed, but only for a moment.  

“I know, but Montrose,” nodding his head at his companion, “and a child would have been damaged.”

Marley sighed with a mix emotions evident.

“You won’t change,” she whispered.

“Forgive me.”  His sorrowful tone made her look up.

“I’m trying,” she said.

Barnabus nodded, understanding what she meant.

“Are you finished hurting her?”  The acidic comment from Ambrose caused the bear’s eyes to narrow and the soft tones had drained from his voice.

“Montrose, let’s go,” Barnabus said, walking away without sparing a look at the others.  Marley closed her eyes and going rigid with anger. When she opened her eyes and glared at the other three, they took a step back from the flashing violet eyes.  No one spoke, silently falling in step behind her when she stalked off after the other two.

Marley caught up with the other two, stepping into the lee of a gnarled spruce behind Barnabus.  Montrose looked over and realized that the fur on both looked more real than that of the other bears.  He filed that observation away for later. Moments later the other three slipped up next to him. The two bears opposite were whispering, but he couldn’t hear their conversation.  Baranabus swaps his sword to the opposite hand and reached back to hold Marley’s empty paw. She hesitantly took his and squeezed it gently.

Marley’s fur stood up and a shiver went down her body.  It was so slight that no one noticed but Barnabus and Montrose.  The former from holding her hand and the latter because he was watching them carefully.  A sound caused all six bears to focus on the clearing ahead of them.

It was the center of the nightmare.  Lengths of string draped through the trees, a black spider web that stretched off into the distant trees.  The near ends draped down into a bundle that was enveloping an ornate box, incongruous to the surroundings.  It was surrounded by giggling figures.  

Boogeymen always reflect something of the nightmare they inhabit.  Here they were a corpse-white, their mouths filled with rows of pointy teeth and long pointed ears.  Their eyes were a black-red. Their appearance mimicked that of the bogey. The creature was alabaster, the skin blemished with little knobs under the skin.  The lips were slit to the mandible and when it opened the space was an abyss of teeth. An ululating laugh emerged from that throat.  

Laticia was wide-eyed and shuddering.  Sonny wasn’t in any better condition. Even Ambrose and Montrose looked sick.  Baranbus and Marley snarled in unison.

“How do you want to approach?”  Barnabus looked to marley from the corner of his eye.

“Let’s do this your way for once.  Namely charge in and strike hard.” She said.

Barnabus looked to the other bears.  “You heard her. Find yourselves and get ready.  We cut a path through for her.” He nodded at Marley to punctuate his statement.

Marley furtively caught his eye before saying, “Sonny and Laticia, go in on my left, Montrose and Ambrose to Baranabus’s right.”  She hoped to keep the younger bears on the fringe of the battle. Montrose seemed to hold himself up rather well.

The bears rearranged themselves and hesitated only a moment when Marley and Barnabus leapt forward without a sound.  They formed a wedge that speared into the assembly. Marley succeeded in herding Sonny and Latricia to the edge, guaranteeing that Barnabus was the leading bear into the chaos.

Barnabus abandoned skill for brutal efficiency, hacking through one boogeyman after after.  Montrose and Ambrose swung out wide, attempting to herd the creatures into the thick know of targets for the bear to their left.

Marley and Barnabus moved in side-by-side, quickly moving into a synchronised slashing motion, mowing through as fast as possible.

Latricia and Sonny were struggling through, but found a natural frame of motion that worked off of each other’s strengths and guarding their weak points.  The bears were closing in on the bogey when the ambush rushed in from the shadows.

Laticia and Sonny were in the path of the charging boogeymen.  Laticia took down two, but left herself open to the talons of a third.  The creature’s swing would have done worse than ripping away one of her eyes had Sonny not shoved her away.  His gesture then left himself open to the strike that slit open the stitching on his side. Gasping, Sonny tried to force his hand to close over his dropped sword, but the paw would not cooperate.  

A breath later the two bears were circled by their comrades, creating a constantly moving wheel, each covering the bear to their left.  Although the boogeymen quickly surrounded them, the beasts could not break the wheel. They were all dimly aware that the bogey was pinching the raised bumps on it’s flesh, drawing out something that, when thrown down, creating a boogeyman.  It cackled while continuing to do this, creating more and more opponents.

The bears struck them down as fast as they sprang up from the ground.  Within their circle, Laticia struggled to bind up Sonny’s wound.  

“We are at an impasse,” Ambrose grunted.

Barnabus and Marley swung their swords in a smooth rhythm, as though they could sense each other’s moves.  

“You ready to fly, lady?”

Marley looked sidelong at Barnabus and nodded.  He crouched quickly and she leapt onto his shoulders.  Barnabus stood, flexing his entire body, and hurled Marley over the heads of the boogeymen.  She hit the ground rolling, charging at the bogey that had haunted her thoughts for years. The creature recoiled at her approach, digging at itself to bring out more of the seeds that birthed his offspring.  He wasn’t swift enough.

Marley slammed her sword into the bogey’s mid-section, causing it to fold up.  The impact sounded like the crinkling of old parchment over a sack of flour. She immediately began to hammer at the bumps on its body.

Barnabus went wild against the boogeymen in case she needed aid.  Latricia leapt back into the fray and the bears made quick work of the remaining creatures.  He stopped the younger bear from charging the bogey.

“We wait,” he said.  “This is her fight and we only step in if needed.”

They watched Marley wheel and leap around the bogey, staying one step ahead of its attacks.  Her sword repeatedly hammered into the bogey, but without completely causing it to fall. Regardless, it was slowing down, becoming more lethargic as the duel carried on.

“What’s wrong with it,” Ambrose said.

Barnabus grinned mirthlessly.

“She’s shattering the boogeyman seeds and they are poisoning the bogey.”

They watched with apprehension, even though Marley seemed to be winning.  The bogey was certainly slowing down and its flesh seemed to be bubbling. Her sword strikes began to cause great rents in the creature.  A dark, sizzling, substance began to spill out. The bogey seemed to be deflating as the ichor continued to drain.

A gurgling escaped the bogey’s mouth, and Marley hesitated before striking it again.  Its body began to flop around, as though the escaping fluid was all that gave it solidity.  When it finally collapsed, the remains quickly turned to dust. It was less than a minute before all that remained was a small drift of dust and some ichor that had not dissipated.  There was a wild look in Marley’s eyes as she watched the bogey disappear.

Ambrose and Montrose helped Sonny up and all began to move towards the victorious bear except Barnabus, who remained still.  They paused and looked from him to Marley, all unsure of what to do. It was some time before Barnabus began to move. He approached her slowly, stopping an arm’s length from the bear.

“How are you,” he asked softly.

She still looked flushed and wild when her head came up.  Looking at him through the corners of her eyes, she mutely raised The Queen, offering it to Barnabus.  He shook his head and she tucked it away in her robes. He mirrored her motion and The Rook disappeared before stepping behind her and wrapping arms around her shoulders.  She sighed and held his arms.

“You’re still a careless fool,” she said, continuing with, “but I’ve missed you.”

“I’m working on it,” Barnabus said.  He held her until she moved away.

He gave her hand a brief squeeze and began walking away.  Montrose worlessly followed him and Marley put a hand on his shoulder as the bears passed each other.

The other bears were gathered around the small cabinet.  Marley joined them, staring at it and the network of strings.  She remained silent as the other three chattered over what it meant.  Eventually she jerked back, her eyes widening as she realized what it meant.  Drawing The Queen, Marley severed the strings and smashed the thing before her.  Saying nothing, the bear turned and began walking out of the nightmare.

“What in all hells was that about,”  Sonny whispered.

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