He stood on the roof’s edge, sweeping his gaze across the city. So many were sleeping peacefully elsewhere, but this place was alive with sounds of life. Street vendors were gaily calling out to those passing by, bright lights cast their colors across those searching for tonight’s pleasure, and over all of this were the raucous sounds of merriment. The sound of laughter and good spirits were soothing to his ears. Bilal had loved Amman since he had arrived, but, as quiet and reserved as he might be, the joy of these people pulled at his heart. It rejuvenated him from the nightmares he would soon face.
He stepped away from the edge, turning to leave the carnival atmosphere behind. So much had been happening that the bear could not afford to be idle. Nightmares were increasing and had even become preying on those awake. All that could be done currently was to steadily eliminate them until an answer to this rising plague could be discovered. Striding towards the other side of the roof, he rapidly accelerated until he leapt across the gap of a street, the arc of flight easily carrying him across. His boots made contact with the next roof and he walked with a purpose. The city was a mix of the modern and antiquity, having withstood the passage of so many centuries and alive with the generations that have shaped it into the metropolis it became.
Bilal considered Amman’s people his children, and he steadfastly protected them from those things which creeped into their minds, unbidden and nauseating in their malice. Now, though, there were so many nightmares plaguing his people that it was difficult to know where to start. He followed the pull of their wickedness and the never-ending battle would resume. It was fortunate that there were less jinn to deal with since the infestation began, but even that was a concern. What was happening that kept them at bay?
Nearby, a woman’s sleep was being tormented by anxieties, fueled by a creature that feasted on her misery. With a nod of acceptance, Bilal decided that he would start there. The sandy-hued bear has yet to find a reason that no other bears come here, or why he is such an anomaly among them, but the purpose of his existence was sufficient to to override any existential conundrums.
It was little effort for the lithe bear to drop down to her window. From there he could hear her crying, shifting around on the bed. Bilal settled into the sill, reaching out to her mind in search of what was tormenting her. Time passed as he navigated through the nightmare; the mind was chaotic, and Bilal could sense the anxiety inflicted on the woman, but also remorse and a sense of failure. He carefully avoided specific memories, being careful to not be intrusive. These thoughts were her own and his interest lay in the false notions being injected, poisoning what should have been good memories and turning them to anguish.
The search took longer than he expected, but alien voices began to draw him closer.
“You never should have left! The shame you bring to them!”
“Worthless, selfish cow!”
“Did you really think you could succeed! No husband! No worth!”
Creeping into the nightmare, Bilal stood, observing, as several porcelain dolls danced around an image of a woman brought to her knees in pain. The figure was sobbing into her hands, the face covered by her disheveled hijab. His face set, the bear advanced on the dolls who remained oblivious to his presence. Realization that they were not alone came as quickly as their end. He watched the fragments evaporate and sat close to the figure, waiting with her until peace settled again and the woman’s breathing became regular. Bilal often wondered what was the root nightmares grew out of for particular people, but chose to remain ignorant rather than be so intrusive. He slipped back to himself and moved on, following the pull of the next soul under assault.
There were so many nightmares drawing his attention, but Bilal focused on two brothers. Their dreams had become intertwined, tainted by another presence. They slept fitfully, any rest disrupted by whatever was preying upon them. Rather than sitting outside to avoid intruding on their home, Bilalslipped into the small apartment. The dwelling was one room and poorly maintained. Listening to their thoughts led the bear to realize that they were nearly destitute, having lost their jobs recently and forced to live in whatever accommodations they could find. His eyes narrowing, Bilal walked towards their beds, slowly fading away as he entered their dreams.
Once in the brothers’ dreams, he saw that this infestation had been affecting them for a long time, but had been so slow and methodical that the trouble escaped the bears’ notice. Bilal found a crumbling landscape of ruined buildings and lifeless vegetation. The thoughts of the brothers were nothing but a desolate wasteland. Anything of value was caught in a state of entropy that mirrored their damaged hearts.
Creeping along, Bilal was careful not to disturb his surroundings. He escaped the notice of various things, malicious imps created to wreak havoc by pulling the two minds apart piece by piece. He wasn’t certain, looking at the coordinated destruction, that the two men would ever be whole again. Determination drove him on, however, resolving to bring them whatever peace he could manage.
Bilal drifted among the rubble and decaying trees, moving gently through the dreamscape with ease and without creating a disturbance that could be felt. He remained calm and focused, easily moving from one place of concealment to another. He had traversed the dream in the manner for some time before he found the source of the blight. A short distance away, a marionette was giving instructions to a trio of boogeymen. The creatures weren’t as cunning as their forebears, but retained enough to be capable of carefully orchestrated misery with directions from a more intelligent being.
As he watched, the small, mindless apparitions were bringing bits and pieces of the dream world to the group where the boogeyman methodically destroyed the offerings. Piece by piece they had been prolonging the men’s suffering for a considerable amount of time. It was then that Bilal saw it: A small, beautifully crafted cabinet with strings leading off into the distance. He recognized the device from Barnabus’ descriptions as some sort of battery, absorbing the pain caused by nightmares and storing it away for some purpose.
Settling in, Bilal watched, making certain that the four were his only obstacles. After a short interlude, he was satisfied that the small group was his only concern. Standing slowly to avoid being noticed, his body tensed, storing the energy it would need. Feeling prepared for the conflict ahead, the bear leapt forward, running as light as a gazelle across the intervening space between him and his quarry. The nearest boogeyman turned too slowly to evade the light, curved wooden sword that ended its terror. As the others began to move, Bilal swung low at the next, the sword’s cut trailing a noxious, black mist. The third was leaping towards him when the bear stepped to the side, bringing his weapon down in a two-handed blow that severed the creature in two. As the boogeymen dissolved into nothingness, the bear turned his attention to the marionette.
The fight had lasted but a few seconds, and the puppet was still reeling in shock at the bear that was slowly advancing towards it. The limbs moved in a jerky fashion, as though it had only recently had its strings cut and was used to freedom.
“What are you,” it croaked, stumbling backwards, ultimately tripping over a pile of dream fragments.
The bear was serene as he approached the monstrosity, his soft boots barely making a sound.
“I,” he began, his sonorous voice ringing through the silence as a song, “am Bilal, and I am here to end you.”
The marionette remained in a state of shock, never uttering a sound as Bilal ended his terror. He then stepped back, scrutinizing the cabinet more closely. The strings leading off from it vibrated as though alive. Reaching to his back, the bear drew forth a dagger, large enough to be a sword to one of Bilal’s stature. He had taken a blade from the jinn that Barnabus destroyed, reckoning that he would also have need of one of the demon’s weapons. He approached the construct slowly, keeping his attention on the strings. Springing forward, he brought the blade down on the strands, the blade slicing through the air in silence. As they were cut, Bilal heard a distant shriek, as though the severing of the strings wounded something far off. It was but another moment before he shattered the cabinet beyond all recovery.
Reassuring himself that the brothers were safe, the bear slipped back into the night, searching for the next task. Retracing his steps, Bilal could again hear the sounds of merriment, but something caught his attention. There was a pile of fabric stuffed behind some bins and, when it was pulled into the light, he was startled to find the remains of numerous teddy bears. They had been normal plush bears, and yet someone dared not take the chance that they would wake. Turning to leave with a mournful sigh, Bilal noticed more felt behind the bins.
Pulling the tattered, muddy pile closer to see, he found that this bear had barely been damaged. Smiling to himself, he thought that this would make an excellent companion for some lost soul. He jumped back when it began to move, sword immediately in hand. The bear gave a soft groan and Bilal put away his weapon before rushing over.
“Can you speak,” he said. The words were soft, yet insistent, betraying the hope that underscored their tone.
“I think so.” The words came out haltingly, sounds just barely shaped into words. The bear began to move a little more before slowly raising its eyes to Bilal’s.
“I am Irfaan, I think.” The words were coming out stronger now as the bear began to move some more. The gashes in his felt had sealed up and the filth seemed to have slid off of him, revealing a bear the color of chocolate with deep, amber eyes.
“A pleasure to meet you, Irfaan. I am Bilal. I had long wondered why there were no other bears around here, but it seems someone has been destroying them before they could come alive into this world. You are most fortunate.”
Irfaan smiled wanly under Bilal’s concerned gaze. He stood on shaking legs, reached into empty air, and drew forth a curved blade that was far heavier towards the end than Bilal’s lighter weight sword. Bilal nodded in approval at the speed which Irfaan was coming into his birthright.. Looking at the wooden sword in his hands, Irfaan began nodding in solemnity.
When he raised his head again, the dull gloss was gone from his eyes, replaced with a warm glow that matched the look of serenity across his features.
“Bilal, I understand much, now that I can see, but what is my purpose?”
Bilal smiled warmly at this new friend and placed a paw on the younger bear’s shoulder.
“My friend, we are teddy bears, you see? We end nightmares. Shall we proceed to work, then?”
Bilal gripped Irfaan by the shoulder and, with a warm smile, led the younger bear down a maze of alleys. Another tormented soul was pulling at the bear and he was pleased to see that his new friend was reacting to it.
“Just remember,” Bilal stated, “try not to get lost in all the cries for help. You must learn to focus on who is at the most need and the closest. The sooner you can end one nightmare, you can go to the next.”
Irfaan nodded, his brows furrowed in concentration. Bilal spoke slowly to him, carefully guiding him through the chaos of minds to focus on the one they were pursuing. They crossed several more streets and Irfaan began to stare at a three-story building of indeterminate age. Whatever the structure had been in the past, it was now a tenement housing many residents.
Irfaan’s brow wrinkled up and he turned his head to the side.
“This is not a nightmare,” he said, “but several affecting the entire building.” He looked to Bilal for confirmation.
The other bear grinned and softly clapped his hands.
“Correct, young bear. It may be something to do with the history of the building, but whatever the cause, everyone in this building is connected by one source. It is strange, though, how it is tailoring to each individual.”
Closing his eyes in thought, Bilal stretched out his senses to examine the nightmare. It was a conglomeration of several, but they were fluid and not confined to a single manifestation.
“Curious,” he said, after a period of reflection. “I have no notion of what awaits us inside. Do you feel ready, Irfaan?”
The younger bear took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and exhaled after several seconds.
“I am.” His tone was flat and Bilal could see a righteous fury in the bear’s amber eyes. However he remained steady and calm, to which Bilal nodded approvingly.
Bilal walked forward, lightly touching the door, and the sound of locks and latches clicking could be heard in the silent avenue. The pair walked through, the door swinging to after they had passed. The bears walked up and down the halls trying to get a sense of where the activity was the strongest. The search drew them to the next floor, down the hall, and caused the pair to pause outside of one apartment.
Bilal looked around in consternation.
“This isn’t the entirety of the infestation. There is something else, but that is below us. This is the strongest emanation, though.” Reaching out, he set one paw on the door, only to be thrown back against the wall by some unseen force. Irfaan stood in shock as Bilal groped along the wall to steady himself.
“Well,” he stated drily, “that was different.”
Irfaan looked from him to the door, his face full of concern.
“What was that?” His voice was steady, although his tone betrayed the anxiety he felt.
Bilal leaned against the wall nodding thoughtfully.
“That is a new experience for me. More pointedly, I have no idea.”
“How reassuring you can be,” Irfaan muttered.
Bilal grinned, then burst into motion. The bear somersaulted through the air and slammed both feet into the door, causing it to crash backwards. He landed gently on his feet, sword already in hand. He sensed Irfaan rushing up behind him, causing Bilal to immediately go limp, allowing the other bear to drag him off to the side. The pair rolled across the floor from the violent impact. When Bilal looked back, he saw a translucent image of a woman, the face contorted in fury. She wore a fine dress and her hands were raw, turned ragged from the wringing of hands, which she did as they looked on.
Irfaan gasped, his words emerging breathlessly.
“Bilal, what is that?”
The older bear looked as shocked as his companion.
“I have no idea,” he stated, “it isn’t a ghost or a phantasm. However, it is also between us and the door. Isn’t there a window behind us?”
“Then we should be exiting through it, do you think?”
Within seconds, both bears leaped through the window, Bilal grabbing Irfaan and the pair landed on their feet.
“What will we do now?” Irfaan was clearly shaken by the encounter.
“We re-enter and search out the nightmares. They may be the cause of that thing.”
“But it isn’t a nightmare?”
“True, but they may be making it more powerful. The strength of emotion emanating from it is incredible.”
Returning to the foyer, both bears stood and reached out, trying to locate their quarry. Both nodded in satisfaction and proceeded to search for the way into the basement.
“I almost wish Barnabus was here. That bear seems able and willing to fight everything.”
“Who is he?”
“A rather pugnacious bear that I met recently. He is filled with a towering rage and I have found him to be an enigma.”
“He sounds like a bit of trouble,” Irfaan noted.
“True, but he is driven with a purpose.”
Locating the stairs, the bears walked down into the darkness with swords in their hands. A faint light could be seen in a distant corner and they began to approach it, their softly shod feet not making a sound.
Within the dim light was a grotesque creature in the shape of a woman, with long, stringy hair and talons that glittered like metal. The skin was weathered, taut in places and sagging in others, and possessed an unsettling greenish-yellow color. Its mouth was stretched wide showing rows of misshapen, jagged teeth. The creature was listening to the grunts and slobbering words of several impish creatures crouched before it.
The bears listened and observed, but could understand nothing that passed between the monstrosities. It was evident that these were the source of the misery in the building, possibly exasperating the thing encountered upstairs. Bilal gently squeezed his friend’s shoulder and nodded to a distant corner, at the very edge of the light. A charnel pile could be seen, the bones thrown into the pile with no regard for the lives they once were. Irfaan looked to Bilal, the horror etched across his face, but froze when he saw the bear’s expression.
Bilal’s violet eyes sparkled like gems, cold and hard. There was no mercy in them, only vengeance. He was focused, though, controlling himself rather than simply unleashing violence upon the world. He simply stood, observing the creatures and their movements. He closed his eyes, slowly drawing in deep breaths. When they opened again, there was no trace of the emerging fury, only a steadfast resolve. Bilal moved quietly toward the group, his body swaying gently as the bear began to tense. Abruptly, he burst into motion and Irfaan leapt forward to follow.
Two of the smaller creatures fell quickly to Bilal’s onslaught before the bear focused on the hag-like beast before him. Irfaan rushed in behind him, engaging the handful of imps that remained. The hag shrieked, swinging a clawed hand at the bear assaulting it, though Bilal deftly side-stepped. He could hear Irfaan making short work of the thing’s servants, leaving him to concentrate on their master. The creature howled with every blow it received, bellowing in frustration at its inability to strike the bear.
The cries of impotent rage from the creature echoed through the room. With a speed shocking for the misshapen form, it leapt at Bilal with outstretched arms, attempting to bring the bear to the floor. With a show of strength, Bilal grabbed it by an arm, easily slinging the monster around until it was prone on the ground. A look of terror spread across its face when Bilal, still holding the arm, placed a foot on the beast’s torso, preventing it from rising.
Bilal looked down, his face impassive as the creature began to burble and slobber out words that could not be understood. The bear continued his emotionless stare, before raising his slender weapon in the air.
“I will end you,” he hissed, before bringing the blade down.
Irfaan stood silently, observing everything. The smaller creatures fell quickly, but he was still not fast enough to see the entirety of Bilal’s fight. Still, he stood. Disturbing the scene before him felt wrong. Eventually, he spoke.
“Bilal, we should do something about the thing upstairs. Do you have any ideas?”
The bear turned, his expression serene, and there was a hint of thoughts interrupted.
Sighing, Bilal nodded.
“First we must learn what it may be. I doubt we could get close enough to the residence now to get a sense of the emotions and dreams within. Curiously, though, I do not have a feel for any nightmares remaining. I do know of someone who could help.”
Gesturing for Irfaan to accompany, Bilal led the way back out to the street. Their route seemed at first to be random, but Irfaan quickly realized that it was a series of shortcuts. They soon left Jabal Amman, but the young bear remained lost as to their destination. He had vague ideas of the city, but his memories were tied to the immediate area where he woke. He was uncertain of the time until the sun began to climb into view. It was in full glory when they stopped outside an old stone structure. Looking around, Irfaan read the sign proclaiming it as the Jordan Folklore Museum. He turned a quizzical gaze to Bilal who gave a slight grin, and led the way inside.
The museum had not yet opened and, it seemed, the staff had not yet arrived. Bilal seemed to know every room in the building, leading his young friend to what appeared to be a storeroom. Rather than going straight in, Irfaan was surprised to see his friend knock politely.
A man of indeterminate age opened the door, his mouth spreading in a wide grin.
“Well, little bear, it has been too long since your last visit. I have a feeling that this one is not a social call, yes?”
Bilal placed a paw to his chest, bowing his head in respect.
“Basir, if I may intrude upon you, your counsel is most needed.” Gesturing to his companion, he added, “This is Irfaan, a freshly awoken bear. He and I have encountered something unknown to either of us.”
Basir nodded, stepping aside so that his guests could enter. Rather than the dusty storeroom it seemed from the outside, Irfaan found himself in an office, books aligned neatly on shelves, curious mementos scattered about the room, and a soothing sense of calm in the air. He did as Bilal, and climbed into an overstuffed wooden chair, that was both comfortable and incongruously large for either of them. Basir had stepped out of view, returning with small cups of dark coffee.
“I believe you will be able to drink this if your presence is revealed to the physical world.”
Bilal nodded, giving a little sound of appreciation before saluting their host and taking a small sip. Irfaan raised the cup with the same gesture before bringing it to his muzzle. The strong brew immediately left him feeling lightheaded, causing the bear to tremble. Basir looked concerned and retrieved the drink before it could be spilled.
“Perhaps,” the older gentleman stated wryly, “he is too young for my coffee.”
Bilal gave his friends a warm grin, then his face became solemn.
“Basir, we encountered something that neither of us recognized.”
Basir leaned against his desk, listening to their description of the creature. Occasionally he interrupted them to ask a question to direct their memories to details they did not think significant. Eventually he ran out of questions and walked over to one of the bookcases. He returned with a thin volume bound in leather. Irfaan could not make out the writing on the cover, but Bilal had an expression of comprehension.
Whispering in a strange language, possibly the one written on the book’s cover, caused the tome to open. Pages flipped of their own accord, even going back as though it might have missed the passage it sought. It took some time before the page turning finished, far more pages than such a small book could hold. Bilal was almost on the edge of his chair, rapt attention on his face, as he waited for some expected outcome. The pages straightened and a sigh came from them, followed by a cough, prompting a little cloud of dust to rise into the air.
Basir smiled in delight.
“Talib,” he exulted, “it has been too long since I last received a lesson from you!”
The voice coming from the pages was rough, constantly clearing its throat. After a few moments, the voice came out of the book with a strong, clear tone.
“Basir, my son,” the voice spoke fondly, “I have been wondering how you have been over these long years. It is quite annoying that this wretched book only provides someone at random. Hopefully we will have the time for a longer talk today, but, first, what specifically do you need to ask?”
Basir gave a detailed, yet concise, account of the bear’s story. After he finished, the immaterial Talib made a sound like someone sucking at their teeth. Bilal cocked his head at a sound that reminded him of someone cleaning and filling a pipe. This was further supported by the sound of a match. A puff of smoke emerged from the book, filling the office with an earthy scent of pipe tobacco.
After a lengthy period of thought, Talib spoke in the tone of one preparing a lecture.
“This sounds like an aimra’atan hidad, or mourning woman. They aren’t really a haunting or a spirit, but a memory of a given moment of heightened emotion. This can make them quite dangerous, as your young friends have related.” Bilal and Irfaan shared a look at being described as young.
“So,” Basir interjected, “it is a sliver of time amplified by powerful emotions?”
The sound of clapping hands emerged from the book.
“Wonderful, old friend,” Talib exclaimed. “Your next step should be to discover what happened in that place. Those details may give you some idea of how to dissipate the energy.”
Bilal stood in his chair, bowing his head in respect to the book.
“Thank you very much, learned one.”
The bear dropped to the floor and gave Basir a playful punch on the leg. The man beamed down at his friend, himself nodding to his guests. He returned his attention to the book and he and Talib spoke as though friends who had been recently reunited over coffee. Irfaan caught up with Bilal, who was moving ever faster to the exit.
By now the streets were teeming with people running errands and the museum staff were drifting in to work. The bears automatically slipped into the space between reality and dreams that concealed them from people’s sight. Bilal began to retrace their route, shrugged, leapt onto the back of a passing truck, reaching out a paw to help Irfaan up. They did this several more times until they were back at the tenement building. Bilal sat, leaned back against the building opposite, crossed his legs, and seemed to drift into a slumber. Irfaan watched him for a moment before assuming the same posture. As he closed his eyes, a myriad of sensations drifted through his consciousness. He became dazed by the experience, until a reassuring paw settled on his shoulder.
“Try to focus on the building first,” Bilal spoke softly in his mind, “and remember the doors. Enter them and drift through corridors. We are looking for a memory of something traumatic. Let the strength of that moment guide you.”
Irfaan could dimly see an outline of the structure and the faint form of a bear in front of him. He followed the shadowy mind of Bilal inside. Both bears wandered around the hallways, being pulled one direction before retracing their steps to go elsewhere. Eventually both arrived outside of a residence that was one floor down from where they had encountered the mourning woman. Inside was an old woman. She wasn’t sleeping well and hasn’t seemed to have done so in a long time.
Bilal placed one hand on the wal, then rested his forehead against it. Irfaan was dimly aware of some connection between the woman and the event upstairs. Suddenly, Bilal gasped and stumbled back.
“It’s her! The old woman here is the cause of that disturbance!” The bear was shocked at what he had discovered and Irfaan reached out to steady his friend. “The apparition is from her youth,” he said, panting out the words.
Bilal shook his head to clear his mind and there were tears forming in his violet eyes.
“A woman went into premature labor and there was no time to get her to a doctor, so other women rushed to help her while men went in search of medical aid. She knew more than the others and tried to save them both, but could not. Mother and child passed and she blamed herself for losing them. She has carried that inside all these years.”
Tears were streaming down the bear’s cheeks, leaving Irfaan feeling helpless to stop them. Bilal reached out and laid a paw on the other bear’s shoulder. He had done it often and, it seemed to Irfaan, a comfort Bilal had been lacking for some time. The older bear regained his composure quickly and tugged Irfaan along with him into the old woman’s home. He led Irfaan into the bedroom, closed his eyes, then stepped forward into her dreams.
It wasn’t a nightmare, not after all these years, but her guilt and pain were constant torments. The bears walked slowly through the melancholic landscape, draped in shades of grey. There were fountains that had long dried out, bird nests empty of song, and a pall of dust covered everything.
“Her life came to a halt after the loss and, when her composure broke, the onslaught of emotions created the thing upstairs. One sliver of time emerged from a vast heartbreak.” Bilal’s words were soft as he led Irfaan through the empty dreamscape. Eventually they arrived at a garden, as lifeless as everything they had seen. A young woman was seated there. She wasn’t weeping, or distraught, but emotionless. Her only sign of life was the constant wringing of her hands.
There was enough room on either side of her for the bears to clamber up and join her. Bilal began to reach out his paw, then hesitated.
“Would you consent to my touch and allow me to hold your hand?” The woman nodded woodenly, reaching out to accept the offered paw. Irfaan did the same and she likewise reached out to him. No words passed among them, but, after some time, a change seemed to overcome her. She began to breathe more deeply, the raw places on her hands slowly healed, and the sound of bird song echoed through the dream.
Irfaan looked around her to Bilal, who was softly stroking her hand, his eyes unseeing. Irfaan wondered where the bear’s mind was. Was it drifting through the dreamscape? Was he in the woman’s mind? However he seemed to manage it, his touch was transferring life back into the old woman. The figure between them aged to match her actual years and a deep sigh escaped her lips. She reached out and wrapped her arms around the bears and drew them close.
It was still early morning when her eyes opened, but she decided to close them again. The chores could wait. Rolling over, she wrapped her arms around two soft, stuffed bears and drifted into sleep. A few moments later, one of the bears shifted around to get more comfortable.