The Nightmare Plague (Entire Series up to 3-5-22)

Voices Within

He chose the blue paint.  The color reminded him of their trip to the ocean.  It wasn’t the vivid blue he expected, certainly not like that in the books he grew up with.  But, on one day of clear weather, the sky was brilliant with shades of blue mixed with whites and grays, contrasting with the dark, sullen sea.  The paint brought joy, constantly reminding him of those happy days.  Now it served as a reminder of their last happy trip together.  Before it all went wrong.  To make it worse, the old street light had gone yellow.  Maybe the bulb had been changed.  It didn’t matter, really, because there was no stopping the dingy light from turning the walls of the room to a noxious green, nauseating to sleep in.  The air felt more oppressive since the light became yellow.  Just one more thing to add to the misery permeating the house.

The voices in the house grew louder.  It was obvious there was a heated argument, but that devolved into shouting.  The words weren’t always clear through the walls, but it became apparent they were about him.

“Get out of my house!”

“This is your fault, Marie!”

“You will not take my son!”

Rolling over barely muffled the words.  The tears were cool against his face, flush with the heat of panic.  Exhaustion caused his eyes to flicker, but he blinked away the moisture and tried to remain awake.  Just under the sounds from outside the room were those from the closet.  They knew he would sleep soon.  They wanted him to know of their approach before his eyes closed.  The struggle to keep them open never lasted long.  Every day brought more fatigue and they passed the time with incessant murmuring.  The words were never clear, almost an echo of what was happening outside the bedroom.  It wasn’t an echo.  It was the creature, clawing its way into this world.  He slept, although the tears continued to stream down his face.

Once the child began to doze, whimpering in his sleep, Montrose came to life.  The nauseating stench and smoke were already drifting out through the slats in the closet doors.  He had stood watch for three days, fighting the monstrosity that came for the boy.  He wasn’t sure if the stitches in his fur would hold up for long, but it was the best that could be done after each fight.  He wasn’t strong enough to win and was keenly aware of this fact.  However, nothing else stood between the closet and bed but him.  He would fight until the last wad of stuffing was pulled from his body.

Drawing the slim wooden sword named Whisper, Montrose set himself to challenge the foe.  A slight change in the air caught his attention, though.  The window was open, letting in the damp night wind.  He scanned the room, looking for who or what could have silently opened the creaking, obstinate portal.  It seemed as though the night was wearing away before he spotted the shadow on the bed.  Starting in alarm, the bear was ready to leap up until a welcome sight stopped his motion.  The shadow was carrying a wooden sword.  It was larger, heavier than his own, and gripped by a chestnut colored paw.  The rest of the figure was obscured by the pattern of shadows in the gloom, but seemed to be wearing a jacket and a flat cap.  There were soft sounds drifting down, as though there was a whispered conversation.  

Montrose was startled by the volume of sound coming from the closet.  He had been watching the bed for so long that the murmering from the closet had become a cacophony.  Whirling around and raising his weapon, he watched the doors begin to bend out under the pressure from within.  There was no time to wonder about the visitor, and barely enough to prepare for the impending conflict.  Unable to resist the pressure, the doors burst.  Before he could move, a sound from above stopped him immediately.   The figure, now obviously another bear, was hurtling through the air, swinging his sword in a wide arc, screaming as he struck the creature:

“I WILL END YOU!”

Montrose stood, stunned, then raced forward to hew at the beast’s limbs.  Its grip on the door frame loosened under the assault and retreated.  Both bears tumbled through the portal which slammed shut behind them.

They landed in a corridor of cold stone, lined with steel doors.  The creature’s limbs were disappearing around a corner.

“After it!  The fight will be worse if it gets into the open!”  Racing through the halls, hacking at the creature whipping around one corner after another, the bears struggled to keep up.  It wasn’t long before they passed through the last set of doors and emerged into an alien world.  Buildings of rough stone loomed overhead.  They seemed to curve, creating a partial canopy and threatening to close in on themselves.  Montrose immediately felt claustrophobic at the sight, but a moment later his attention shifted to the creature.  It’s sibilant murmering began to bore into his ears.  If there were any other sounds they drowned in the noise.

The other bear had not ceased his headlong charge.  He shouldered aside attacks, deflecting them with his body, aggressively pursuing his quarry.  There was little wasted movement to his actions as he relentlessly chopped through the limbs grasping at him.  Montrose leapt at the nearest one, which now looked more like a tentacle than an arm, and easily sliced through.  More and more of the hazy appendages sprouted forth as they attacked it.  The creature was obscured by the writhing and whipping mass.  There seemed no end to them.

In the span of a breath, the monstrosity leapt back, causing both bears to stumble forward from momentum.  They spared a confused glance before Montrose saw him:  The child was across the street, huddled at the base of the opposite buildings.  Shouting, he began to run, knowing that it was a race to reach the small, huddled boy.  The other bear charged to his right, intercepting the grasping tentacles that now sought the child it tormented.  Unexpectedly, the creature pounded the ground around them, cracks spreading out in a web.  Montrose dived for the boy, the other bear changing course to help.  Both were within reach of their charge when the ground gave way, sending all three tumbling into darkness.  The child’s screams mixed with the roar of the other bear as he and Montrose struggled to reach him.  

Montrose grabbed the child’s clothes as the other wrapped his arms around them both.  He tried to shout something into Montrose’s ear, but a rising sound of crashing water drowned it out.  He realized the other bear was turning them as they fell, taking the brunt of impact when they struck a deep pool of water.  Everything went black, and all sound disappeared.

Montrose awoke to a feeling of weight and realized his stuffing was soaked through.  That would be a problem.  He couldn’t afford to be slowed down.  Gently, he began to wring out, feeling the water seep out through the stitching.  His surroundings became clearer as he did so.  They were on a ledge at the edge of a dark pool, the boy sitting a short distance away, and the strange bear pacing impatiently.

“Finally awake, are you?  You need to learn to absorb an impact better than that,” he growled.  “How young are you?”

Montrose stood and looked at his reflection in the water.  He was made to look like an old bear, streaked with gray, and thoughtful, hooded eyes.  He wore trousers with a tweed vest over what had been a crisp, beige shirt.

“A few months,” he answered.  “You?”

The bear seemed to soften as he said, “Generations.  Let’s just leave it at that.  His makers gave him a general appearance of youth wearing red boots, jeans, an untucked crimson shirt, and a gray blazer.  There was the flat cap, also crimson, and the large cross-hilted sword.  Montrose assayed all that in a moment.  What stopped him were the eyes.  While his were a soft amber, this bear had violet eyes, glittering in the gloomy light around them.  They bore into him with an intensity that quickly became uncomfortable.

“What’s your name?”

“Montrose.”

“Look, Montrose, you just look after the child.  I’ll deal with this.  Keep him safe and out of sight.  Silence and speed are our best means of getting out of here.”

Bristling, Montrose retorted, “You have no authority over me!  This child is mine to protect and I will do so until the last wad of stuffing is pulled from my body.  You have the audacity to give me orders?”

The bear’s eyes grew cold, two pieces of amethyst boring into Montrose.

“You are a teddy bear, Montrose,” he spat,” and seemed to have no idea what that meant or how to exist.  Your place is to protect people from the nightmares, the sound under the bed, the odd shadow in the corner, and you have so far made little difference for this child.  Yes, if you continue, every last stitch will be pulled from you and he will be defenseless.  You have a duty, one that needs to be learned fast.  I can teach you, but right now, right this instant, you need to listen to me.”  The voice was harsh and tired, as though the bear was pushed past all endurance.  Swinging his sword up, he rested it across his shoulders.

“Also, there’s one thing you need to know right now.”

Montrose waited, but the bear simply stood there.

“What is that?”

“I am Barnabus,” he said, before giving a wide, mirthless grin that exposed a mouth full of unnaturally realistic teeth.

“Now then, let’s get out of here.”

Barnabus turned and began walking into the gloom.  It seemed the hazy light was following him, leaving Montrose and the child to follow or be left in the dark.  

“I found this passage while you were unconscious.  It seems to lead up, which would be far better than attempting to climb out.  Tell me about the child.”

Montrose looked at the silent figure walking between them.  He thought about the days spent in the house, waiting for the nightmare to come each night.  The child was walking in a daze, a shadow of his true self.

“The father left some time ago and the mother has been doing rather well at parenting without him.  There is something going on with the extended family, though.  They continue to threaten to take the boy from her.  Apparently he is picked on at school.  I haven’t been able to learn too much, not even his name.”

They looked at the child, walking like a somnambulant.  So far he had taken no action but to follow where he was led.  Montrose impulsively reached out to stroke the child’s head and was surprised by  the hug received in return.  Until then Barnabus had retained an impassive look, seemingly lost in thought.  His features softened at the scene and he looked at the boy with tender sympathy.  After a few minutes, he squeezed the child’s shoulder and began to walk on.

“My name is Uri.”  The bears froze, focusing their attention on the boy.  Montrose looked questioningly at Barnabus and saw a look of astonishment and concern.

“What’s the matter,” he whispered.

“I thought this was just a representation of the child, a shadow of his consciousness, but it isn’t.”

Montrose began to feel his own concern rising.

“Then what is he?”

He spoke his name and was responsive to his environment.  The name is the important part, though.  Names have power and most nightmares do not know them.  I think this is the child’s mind, trapped in here with us.”

Watching Barnabus speak increased Montrose’s worries.

“Then, what happens if he is hurt,” he asked, not wanting to hear the answer he expected.

“He will die.  We have to protect him from harm and end the nightmare.”  Barnabus looked at his companion.  “Our job has become far more difficult than it would have been.”

It didn’t take long to finish the ascent.  They had been quiet, each lost in their thoughts.  The trio stopped when they reached a set of stairs leading to a small portal.

“We have no idea what is ahead,” Barnabus said.  “There will be nightmares all over.  Some will be chatterlings, others phantoms.  They are all dangerous.”

Montrose was taken aback.

There’s more than one chatterling?”  He was incredulous at the idea of facing more of the creatures.

“No,” Barnabus replied, “the monster we were fighting is an amalgamation of separate nightmares.  They can split up and cause more harm individually, attacking the memories and subconscious.  That chattering cacophony they emit is the sound of all the voices combined.  Now be still.  We don’t know what is beyond this door.”

Montrose gripped his sword tight as Barnabus forced the small door open.  The bear dived through suddenly and called back moments later to follow.

They were in what looked to be a basement.  A dim light cast shadows everywhere and Uri let out a whimper.  Barnabus looked at him sharply, then at Montrose.

“Something happened here,” he said,” and the entirety of the nightmare probably represents some background to his torment.”

Montrose was puzzled.

“What do you think is the cause?”

“I’m not certain, but the trauma is extensive to call forth chatterlings.  Some form of abuse, real or perceived, is my guess.”

There was a sound from above followed by footsteps.  Something was descending the steps to the basement.  Barnabus jerked his head and they led Uri into hiding behind a support beam.  Several forms became visible, dragging a sobbing person between them.

“No one likes snitches,” one of them said, “and you’re going to learn that.”

As they entered the light, it became apparent they were dragging Uri between them.  There were three older boys shoving him to the middle of the floor.  The sound of crying could be heard from their victim as one of the boys curled his fingers into a fisdt.  He drew back to strike, but Barnabus was on him before Montrose could register that the bear had even moved.  A heavy paw punched hard into the boy, causing him to disappear into a cloud of purplish smoke.  Montrose recognized it as being similar to the effect of hewing through the creature’s tentacles earlier.

Both bears fell on the other apparitions and disposed of them before they could make a sound.

“These were chatterlings,” Montrose hissed between his teeth.

“Yes, and this is a memory of Uri’s that they had overcome.”

At the mention of his name, the boy stepped out and approached his mirror image.  He reached out to touch his opposite, who disappeared, flowing into Uri’s arm.

“That’s what they are doing,” Barnabus exclaimed, “they are hurting him by attacking traumatic memories and increasing the pain!”

Montrose immediately understood.  “We have to protect him and find the memories, yes?”

“It might weaken them,” Barnabus conceded.

“This could take time,” the younger bear noted.

Barnabus frowned.

“Maybe not, he said after some thought.  “I think that the landscape of the nightmare is specific to the trauma.  If that is true, then we will find his memories and the chatterlings as we go.  It could be as simple as going from point A to B.”

Both bears were silent, pondering this, and listening for sounds of movement above them.  Abruptly, as if in one mind, they stood.  Montrose put an arm around Uri’s shoulder and ascended the stairs.  Muffled sounds could be heard through the door.  Barnabus cracked open the door and peered out.

“I see a gymnasium and other exercise equipment.  A community center, perhaps?”

“That fits,” said Montrose.  “Those boys were not just bullying him, but were going to do real harm.  It wouldn’t be difficult to do that amidst all this activity.”

There were more shadow people around, but they did not seem malicious.  Barnabus motioned for the others to stay while he walked out into the room.  No one reacted to his presence although they did swerve around him.

“Come out,” he said, “they have no interest in us.  We are just background to them.”

“Then why are they here?”

Barnabus ground his teeth together.

“He must have walked out of that basement beaten and bloody.  Do you think, based on what you see, that anyone helped him then?  They are here because their indifference made an impact on him.  These caricatures aren’t just the chatterlings, but associated with the nightmares.  They didn’t see because the boy was just background to them and without consequence enough to notice.”

Montrose walked in silence, guiding Uri with one hand and his sword in the other.  Barandus did not speak, but there seemed to be a low growl rumbling out of his throat as they moved past the unseeing figures.  He reached the doors first and began to scan the exterior.  Montrose’s  heart sank when Barnabas clenched his fist.

“What’s out there?”

The bear sighed.  “A lot of figures, but I can’t tell how many are chatterlings just yet.  Most are probably like these,” he said, gesturing around the room, “nothing more than shades of apathy.  We need to watch first and size up the threats.”

They watched the distorted surroundings, buildings twisted in their dimensions, appearing to be hewn from rock and twisted metal.  After a while, they saw a familiar figure.  A copy of Uri was trying to furtively traverse the neighborhood.  He was darting from recessed doorways to disappear into the crowds before finding another alcove.  As he neared, several figures had surrounded him by concealing themselves in the mob of shadow people.  The bears could hear his shriek as he was grabbed.  They dumped out his backpack before throwing him to the ground.

Barnabus stood as a statue, then said, “Uri, I want you to grab your memory when the coast is clear.  Can you do that?”

The boy was calm, but held an expression of determination.  He nodded.

“Montrose, get ready to rush them.”

“Do you think that’s a good idea?”  Montrose hadn’t even finished the sentence before Barnabus threw the door open and charged across the street.  After a brief moment of shock, Montrose took his friend’s hand and they raced after the bear.

Barnabus rushed three of the chatterlings, knocking them to the ground, then spun around, sword in hand, and cut down two of the creatures.  His movements weren’t graceful, but certainly efficient.  As one dissolved, he was already reversing the stroke to deal with the next.  One managed to wrap his arms around the sword, and hooted in triumph.  Barnabus’ response was to release the hilt, and drop low, scything the creature’s legs out with his own.  He fought the remainder with his fists, easing into a boxer’s stance.  His blows drove them back before disappearing in the now familiar burst of smoke.

All this transpired before Montrose and Uri could cross the street.  Uri quickly ran to his sobbing counterpart who disappeared after making contact.  Barnabus turned to the other bear, his eyes narrow slits.

“Be faster next time, boy.”

Without another word, he turned and began walking in the direction the memory child had been walking.  Montrose quickly took the child in hand and followed.

“Where are we going?”

“Wherever he was headed.  It’s as good as any other.”

After a few minutes, Montrose swallowed hard and spoke to Barnabas’s back.

“Why are you so angry with me?”

“Because you hesitated, he said after a moment.

“But…”

Barnabus spun on his heel, interrupting Montrose.

“You are a teddy bear, remember?  What might have happened if I hadn’t been able to take them down so quickly?  Would they have joined into that amorphous creature we saw earlier?  Corrupted memory?  How much harm could they have caused?”  The words were hissed through clenched teeth, setting Montrose rocking back on his heels in shock.

“And what would have happened if they had gotten to Uri,” he retorted.  “You were willing to drag him into danger.”

Barnabus continued to glare, then abruptly turned and continued walking.  

“Get off the street,” a voice whispered.

Uri’s head jerked up at the voice and he bolted into the open door where the speaker was standing.  She had mousy hair and, in all respects, looked as average and unnoticeable as possible.  The bears quickly followed the child and the woman quietly shut the door.  Moments later a group of figures rushed past.  They were obviously searching for something.  Montrose guessed they were after Uri.  He looked at the woman and realized she lacked the hazy appearance of the shadow people.  Her features were more clear, as though she had followed them from the real world into the nightmare.  Uri whimpered, walking over to her with his arms outstretched.  She caught him in an embrace that was both gentle and fierce.

A commotion outside caught their attention.  The windows distorted the outside world, but several shapes were visible.  The large display window suddenly cracked from an impact, causing those inside to step back, but, as quickly as they’d come, the figures were gone.

The woman continued to cradle Uri in her arms.  He had begun to shake when the glass was struck, but was quickly calmed by the embrace.  As the bears looked around, it was apparent this was some sort of curio shop.  Lamps, desks, and assorted knicknacks could be seen, but towards the back were shelf after shelf of books.  One memory after another began to creep out from those shelves and approach Uri until a dozen or so had appeared.  He walked to them with his arms outstretched and began to hug the first one.  By the time his arms had closed, all were absorbed back into him, leaving the child hugging himself.

Barnabus turned to the woman and asked, “How do you know Uri?”

She returned his gaze with a flat look.

“Perhaps it’s all those books where he’s been hiding?”

Montrose nearly laughed at the expression on Barnabus’s face, but thought better of it.  He wondered, though, how often the bear finds himself brought up short like this.

“Nice,” the bear said.  “Who are you?”

“Who are you?  This is my shop, after all.  You don’t get to talk to me with that tone, even here amidst a nightmare.”

Now both bears stepped back in surprise.

Montrose asked, “How do you know that this is a nightmare?  You shouldn’t be self-aware.”

The woman laughed.

“I am not a shadow, you see, but a projection.  I have been looking after all these copies of Uri to keep him from becoming lost.  Do you think stuffed animals are the only ones who can come here?”

Barnabus had recovered from his shock and was studying her with renewed interest.

“I rarely encounter anyone capable of this feat,” he said.  

“Few that are capable bother.  It’s a matter of least importance to many, considering there are so many animals walking through dreams, Barnabas.?

Now the bear gripped his sword and stood ready to fight.

“How do you know me?”

“She told me about you once.  Your reckless behavior and willingness to endanger those around you.  You are difficult to destroy, but those who travel with you aren’t so fortunate.”

Montrose was silent, paying close attention to the conversation.  Finally, he couldn’t help but ask, “Who is this she you refer to?”

“Should I tell him, Barnabus, or will you?”  There was a mocking tone to the woman’s voice now.

“A bear I used to work with often,” he said in a clipped tone.

“Oh, just a bear you worked with, hmm?”

Barnabus wouldn’t look her in the eyes at this point, and turned to go back to the window.

“She is lost to you if your arrogance and foolishness continues,” she said to his back, then muttered, “Idiot bear.”

“Enough,” Montrose said firmly, “this is becoming cruel and accomplishes nothing.”

She pointed her finger at Montrose.

“You watch over the boy,” she snapped.  “Don’t let him endanger the child.  So far as I know he hasn’t failed those he has gone to protect, but a number of bears that trusted him weren’t so lucky!”

“It looks clear enough to move,” Baranabus said in a flat voice.  The woman opened her mouth to say more, but the bear had already slipped out into the street.  She turned to Montrose and placed her hand on his shoulder.

“Be on your guard around him,” she said in a kinder tone, “and don’t become another bear to succumb to his folly.”

Montrose looked at her and opened his mouth to speak, but thought better of it.  He nodded, smiled at Uri, and gestured for the boy to follow.  Once outside, he turned right to catch up to Barnabus.

“I have questions,” he began, but a curt gesture cut him off.

“Do you see a playground ahead?”

Montrose gnashed his teeth and said nothing, increasing his pace to match that of Barnabus.  

It was only a few moments before the neighborhood melted away into a large park area.  There was a playground there, but it was crowded with shadow people.  They seemed to be focused on something near the swings.  Navigating through the crowd, the sounds of a disturbance became more audible as they approached.  Emerging into an open area, they saw several chatterlings tormenting another of Uri’s memories.  Their mocking laughter became a physical presence, as though the sound had become solid.  All noise died away as they noticed the bears and Uri.one stood to face them as the other two turned back to their victim.

“Don’t harm the shadows if you can help it,” said Barnabus, as he approached the dominant creature.  It put up a pitiful defense as the bear cut it down in seconds.  The other two snarled and leapt into the crowd.

“I’ll get them, you get the memory!”

To Montrosese’s surprise, Barnabus put away his sword and leapt into the forest of gray figures.  He weaved through the crowd, ducking away from the chatterlings attacks while working his way closer to them.  The creature’s bodies were constantly changing, limbs becoming claws and tentacles whipping around the shadows.  Baranbus deflected their attacks from himself and the apparitions surrounding them.  It was almost a dance for the bear, who was more agile than Montrose had expected.  The creatures were attempting to surround Barnabus until he suddenly rolled backwards and attacked one of them directly.  Not being able to shield itself with the shadows, the chatterling panicked, lashing out wildly, striking several of the figures which shattered like glass.  The bear forced it to the ground and hammered it with his paws until the creature vanished.  

Montrose had become engrossed with the spectacle and didn’t see the attack coming until too late.  The warning shout died in his throat as the tentacle stabbed into Baranabus’s shoulder.  Montrose heard him grunt before grabbing the wispy appendage and, jerking hard, drew the last chatterling close and dissipated it with a hard strike to its abdomen.  

Staggering back, the bear stood still and bowed, his eyes closed against pain.  For a moment it seemed he would topple over, but instead stood straight and the lines of pain in his face softened.  Even at that distance, Montrose was certain the wound began to stitch itself closed, leaving only the tear in Barnabus’s jacket visible.

The bear wobbled for a moment before catching his balance and walked back to his companions.

“We should continue,” he said.

Montrose finally found his voice and said:  “Your shoulder, though?  Are you alright?”

“I’m fine,” he said, waving Montrose away.

The bears stared at one another.  Montrose was young, but knew that there was something strange about his companion.  He also realized that no answers would be forthcoming.

“Fine,” he said, “let’s carry on.  I have a feeling that we are headed for a school at some point.”

Barnabus nodded.  “We could continue to chase individual memories, but going to the greatest concentration of misery should bring an end to this.”

Both bears held gazes for a moment before turning and walking further into the nightmare.

The shadow city began to drift into a twisted landscape, twisted concrete and rebar.  The gray sky gave way to a rough cave roof.  Stone teeth jutted out from every wall and everything looked normal to a subterranean environment at a brief glance.  Looking closer, though, there were little signs that they had reached the school.  Shapes in the walls looked like parking bollards; stone slabs leaned out, looking very much like doors; and ahead was a high wall with a rusted chain web draped across it.  Barnabus gave it an experimental tug and was satisfied that it was secure.  Without a word, he pulled Uri onto his back and began to climb.  Montrose followed them up and was shocked at the sight of a massive amphitheater.  He looked back and noticed more twisted metal and realized they had climbed a massive basketball net.  They were in the school auditorium.

The rough-hewn bleachers were occupied with rows of silent shadow people.  They stared blankly at the central floor, where a group of chatterlings were tormenting two of Uri’s memories.  They were in the middle of a rapidly closing circle.  Montrose was not surprised when Barnabus charged in without a word.

AsThe chatterlings were ready for him and they began to merge into an amalgamous mass , warped limbs began to quiver in anticipation. The bear ducked low and began to swing upward, severing the horrific limbs.  He ducked and rolled around the floor, staying a step out of the way of any attack.  Fists struck the ground.  Talons tore through empty air.  They flailed in frustration as Barnabus continued his assault.  

Montrose realized that the merging of the creatures left them disoriented.  If the battle lasted too long, it could get harrowing.  The creature was clumsily attacking their foe, but were slowly becoming faster.  Montrose watched for his opportunity before racing in with Uri in tow.  The many eyes of the horror attempted to stop his charge.  The bear was precise with his light sword, an economy of movement that kept his world in tight focus.

Barnabus pressed his assault, forcing the chatterlings to give more attention to him. Montrose spared some attention to the bear.  He was shocked at the effortless means that attacks by the creature were evaded.  Barnabus struck true with every swing, but even with such skill the relentless creature still managed to damage him.  There were tears in his fabric.  This didn’t seem to affect his prowess, though.

Montrose tugged Uri through the fray with one hand and scooped up the memories with his other arm.  Dragging them along, he pulled them from harm’s way.  Uri quickly reabsorbed them, seeming more alive and alert than he had before.  The bear nodded at him and turned to enter the fray.  He stopped when Barnabus yelled “Get him out of here!”

Montrose froze.

“Get him out of here and the nightmare will stop!”

Looking from Uri to Barnabus, Montrose hesitated for only a moment.  Grabbing the boy, he began to run through the hellish landscape to return to the closet door.  Their surroundings had begun to crumble as the nightmare began to fall apart.  Uri must have become restless and was stirring.  That, combined with the chatterlings falling under Barnabus’s sword, made the escape more urgent.

Montrose dodged and weaved through shadow people, leaping over rubble, racing through the buildings.  He was forced to assume that Barnabus was winning, as the dissolution of the nightmare was accelerating.  They reached the building as the destruction closed in.  Stairs cracked under their feet as they climbed.  Montrose was relieved to see that the closet door was open.  Diving through the door, the bear could hear the last of the nightmare crumbling away.  Sound died away as the closet returned to normal.  

Uri had disappeared onto the bed and merged with the real boy.  Montrose sat on the floor gasping and forced to speculate on the fate of Barnabus.  His mind reached out, trying to make contact but there was no sense of him.  The boy stirred on the bed and there was a sound that a crying fit was cut short.  

Montrose felt relieved, but lost consciousness before he could climb the bed and see the child.

Illusions of Sanity

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 figure was hurled from beneath the opposite side of the bed.  Although the sound of its 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 which 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 containing 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 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 features 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 its 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 at 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 him 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 too 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, who 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 that 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 of 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 went 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 reaches 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 at 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 at 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 another.  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 synchronized 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 its flesh, drawing out something that, when thrown down, created 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 wordlessly 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 hell was that about,”  Sonny whispered.

Searching for Darkness

“Why are we here, Barnabus?”  Montrose slipped into the bedroom just behind his friend.  It was a mess:  Clothes piled everywhere posters hanging lazily from the wall, and the smell of old food.  He climbed the nightstand to see a sleeping teenager.  Turning to glance over the room and the state of entropy made better sense.

“It is a bit whiffy, that is true, but this one dreams darkly often enough, but just short of nightmares.  We can use her dreams to travel.  I need answers.”

Montrose shrugged, hopping down to the floor.  The bears had been looking for a strong dream connection or an active nightmare.  Somehow Barnabus could sniff his way through the dream world and something had been creating more powerful nightmares such as the Chatterlings that the pair had recently fought and, more recently, assisting Marley and her companions with an ancient bogeyman.  Montrose was young, although his appearance as a teddy bear looked aged, dressed with a certain dignity.   

While Montrose ruminated, Barnabus was searching the room.  The light glinted on his red boots, which matched his cap and untucked shirt.  Jeans and a tweed coat completed his outfit.  The bear was as eclectic as his clothing.  

Exasperated, Montrose said, “What are you looking for?”

“There must be something here with a dream connection.  She rarely has nightmares, so it wouldn’t be in the closet or under the bed.”  He continued to poke around the room, digging into heaps of unwashed clothing.  Barnabus rarely explains what he is doing, so his explanation was a shock to Montrose.  He leaned against a bedpost and watched the other bear continue to search.

“Found it!”  Barnabus held up A reeking shirt with some band name.  “She wears this often and it frequently shows up in her dreams.  Let’s put it in her bed and see if she dreams of it.”

Shrugging, Montrose followed him up onto the bed.  Barnabus placed the shirt in the girl’s hands, which she promptly began to cuddle.  The bears closed their eyes and saw a way into her dreams.

Their eyes opened at the rush of air and the sensation of falling from a great height.

Nothing was visible below them but clouds, the rush of wind ruffling their fur.  The wind was strong enough to stop Montrose from screaming in shock.  He could just hear Barnabus say:  “This hasn’t happened in a long time.  Get comfortable.  This could take a while.”

Montrose looked at the bear, his eyes wild.  Nothing he said could be heard, though.  He was further shocked to see Barnabus cross his arms and go to sleep!

After a while, Montrose calmed down.  He wasn’t certain how long they had been falling and wondered how long it would last.  Eventually he could see the ground and his anxiety increased.  Barnabus woke up at that point.

“Finally.  Have you enjoyed yourself, Montrose?”

The bear glared at him and yelled what they should do now.

“Imagine landing on your feet.  We aren’t as affected as though experiencing this in their minds.”  Montrose focused as he was told and a moment later they were strolling easily along a field of bright grass and rolling hills.

“The purpose of that trip would be…”

Barnabus grinned.

“We just traveled between multiple dreams of falling.  That’s why it took so long.”

“So whose dreams are we in now?”

“I’m not sure and we shouldn’t spend the time finding out.  Since falling tends to be a type of nightmare, we should be able to find a way into others.”

As they walked, the background would shift and Montrose realized they were moving faster as the scenery suddenly shifted past them.  

“Yes, I see it,” Barnabus said before his friend could comment.  “The landscape is shifting past us.  I’m doing that to speed us along.”

Montrose said nothing further and they continued in silence.  Eventually they reached a door standing in the field.  Barnabus said nothing, opened it, and disappeared inside.  Montrose gave up on asking and followed him through.

They emerged into a strange town apparently held within an immense cavern.  The scene held a claustrophobic appearance, with the second stories hanging out over the crowded streets.  Thick smoke billowed out of the chimneys, leaving black streaks over everything.  The people themselves appeared to mostly be human, but there were a variety of other shapes.  There were other animated stuffed animals.  A rocking horse shuffled past them, and there were other, more exotic, denizens.

“Where are we,” Montrose breathed.  “What is this place?”

“The Crossroads.  We can use this place to reach other realms of existence, particularly nightmares.  Cmon, we need to find someone.”  Barnabus set off down a seemingly random street.  

As they progressed, Montrose realized that the humans were dressed in all manner of clothing, ranging from modern to ancient.

“Barnabus, what is the story behind the diversity of clothing?”

“People are dressed appropriately to where they are from.  Some have been here for a long time, but others are just passing through.  Stop staring.”

Montrose stared at the back of Barnabus’ head and followed in his wake.  He did notice that the crowd parted for the bears, but felt it prudent to stop questioning his companion for now.

It wasn’t long before Barnabus led him into a door that looked no different from countless others.  Inside was a mix of curio shop and cafe.  The low-ceiling room held as much variety as the street and they made their way to a booth near the back of the shop.

“I don’t see him, so we must wait.  The pear cider is quite good here.”  Without waiting for a response, Barnabus held up two fingers.  Within moments a clockwork figure approached with two drinks, set them down, and disappeared as quickly.  Montrose did have to admit that the drink was good.

Before he could speak again, Barnabus spoke.

“Everything and everyone here is either part of a dream that escaped or are visitors such as us.  It’s actually a rather calm place.”

“How do you know the difference between dreams and travelers?”

“It’s difficult and considered rude to ask.  You’ll get used to it.”

While they spoke, someone entered that drew Barnabus’ attention.

“There he is,” the bear sighed.  

“Is there a problem I should know about?”

“Wee Hamish is just…different.”

Montrose looked again.  The figure looked like a corgi wearing the finery of a Scottish Highlander.  He strode through the room with a great smile, stopping to speak with everyone he encountered.  

“He is certainly jolly,” Montrose noted.

“Many plush animals in particular will take on attributes given to them by their first owner,” Barnabus said.

“So was your first owner such a bitter, sarcastic…”  

Wee Hamish arrived before Montrose could finish.  He jovially shoved in next to Barnabus, spilling some of his drink.  The look of disappointment was almost a physical presence.

“Barnabus,” he squeaked in excitement, “you never come around here these days!  What brings you to town?”  He threw an arm around the bear’s shoulders.  Barnabus’ discomfort was obvious to everyone but Hamish, to Montrose’s glee.

“Settle down, Hamish.  I need your help,” Barnabus said.  “There is a surge in dangerous nightmares.  I think it is a concerted effort to poison dreams.  Have you heard anything?”

The corgi’s face didn’t seem capable of anything but excessive cheer, even when contemplating something distasteful.    He tilted his head in thought, sitting still for a moment before reanimating.

“Well, there’s always the Workshop.  Some of those dolls they produce are upsetting.”

Before Montrose could interject, Barnabus spoke intently.

“Why would that cause you to suspect them?  They pride themselves on how creepy people find their creations, but that doesn’t make it a hotspot for the severity of the nightmares we have encountered.”

“There is a puppet there that has been stirring up trouble.  His name is Shankill.”

Montrose watched as Barnabus’ fingers stretched out and claws grew from their tips.  His hand contracted slowly, leaving deep furrows in the table.

Hamish turned his attention to the gouges in the tabletop.

“So,” he said, still staring, “you know of him.”

“Yes,” Barnabus said through gritted teeth.  “I thought he was destroyed.”

“The crafters at the Workshop can repair nearly any damage to a puppet,” Hamish said.  

There was a pause in the conversation.  Montrose could not contain his curiosity.

“What is the Workshop?”

Hamish looked at Barnabus and realized he wouldn’t answer, still consumed by emotion.

“Many wooden and porcelain dolls are made there.  Have you ever seen a doll that made your fur stand on end?  Those are real versions of the creations of the Workshop.  They usually create creepy stuff, but some have inspired true nightmares.  Occasionally the spirit versions are able to inhabit those physical representations.  An unpleasant thing to encounter.”

Montrose shuddered at the thought of the dead eyes of innumerable dolls he had encountered.

“Who is Shankill?”

“He’s a nasty piece of work.  He tries to harvest nightmares from the dolls he has control over, manipulating their strings.”

Montrose and Barnabus both started at the word harvest.

“That sounds quite familiar,” said Montrose.

Barnabus, eyes burning, said “The strings in the Garden and the wooden cupboard!”

Hamish looked back and forth between them, again tilting his head in confusion.  Montrose, looking at Barnabus, gave the corgi the details of their encounter with Marley and the Bogey.  He didn’t hear Hamish’s whimpering until the story ended.  Then he noticed the tears.

“I’m sorry, Hamish.  Certain details could have been glossed over.”

Barnabus looked over, and nudged the corgi with his shoulder.  Surprisingly, Hamish put his head on the shoulder.  The move shocked the bear, but he allowed it, much to Montrose’s surprise.

“Shankill created the Gardens,” Barnabus said, “and that wasn’t the first time Marley and I have encountered them.”

Montrose nodded solemnly and the three were silent for a time.  They perked up when their drinks were refilled.

“The Workshop is a strange place.  I’m surprised you haven’t heard of it,” Hamish said, looking at Montrose.

“He’s young,” Barnabus said, “so we need to fill him in.”

Barnabus’ face became stern.

“There’s an old enmity between dolls and plush creations.  We supplanted them in many ways and they are resentful of it.  They gain some measure of life from any intention, whether love or fear.  Many of them have come to enjoy the latter.  They will be resentful of us intruding on the Workshop.”

“Shankill is making it worse though,” Hanmish added, “but I’m beginning to wonder if he or someone else is taking advantage of this power they receive from negative emotions.  I am not well-versed in the nature of the Gardens, but your description makes it look like someone is gathering as much as possible.”

“The details lead to Shankill, though,” Montrose said.

“Yes,” Barnabus said, “and we need to get into the Workshop and look around.”

“If they dislike us, that would be difficult,” Montrose noted.

Hamish had been quiet, and spoke softly:  “I may know a way to do this.  There’s a person who could make certain you would receive little attention.”

The corgi’s reticence was telling to the bears.

“What’s the problem,”  Barnabus asked.

“Best to wait to find out,” Hamish said.

Hamish drained his cup and stood, walking away silently.  The two bears shared a look before standing to follow.  He led them through the winding streets.  Eventually they arrived at a shabby building and walked down a set of nearly invisible stairs to a rotted door.  Hamish knocked perfunctorily before entering.  Little could be discerned in the gloom of a few candles, but bundles of plants, pots, and various detritus cluttered the place.

“Baba,” Hamish called, “I need your help again.”

A shuffling sound from the darkness revealed a robed figure that seemed to move with pain.  When the figure entered the candlelight, it pulled by the hood.  A woman was revealed, possibly it had been human, but one side of the face was that of an attractive woman, while the left side was shriveled up as an old woman.  Both eyes were fierce and cold, seeming ancient in their gaze.

“Baba Stratha, this isMontrose and…”

“Barnabus,” she finished.  “I know of this bear.  Her cold gaze had not changed.  Montrose realized that she was not much taller than they were, and he wondered again what she might be.  She seemed to sense his thoughts, saying “Never mind that, young bear.”

Montrose flinched when she reached toward him with the youthful right hand, but she only stroked his muzzle.  A sorrowful look crossed her face, but it was so quick that he wasn’t sure if he had actually seen it.  The hard expression stretched across her face.

“Why did you bring bears to my home, Hamish.”  It was a statement rather than a query.

“We need to get these two into the Workshop.  Can you help, Baba?”

“Why would I assist these two in risking their souls?  It wouldn’t make much difference to one,” she said, looking at Barnabus.  He returned her glare.

“Someone is making nightmares deadly and destroying bears and other plushes in horrific fashion, Baba,” Montrose pleaded.  “We have to find out what may be seen there.  This is an urgent task.”

She looked at Montrose, shrewdly.  He became uncomfortable under her stare.  She spoke after a length of time.

“I can disguise you to a degree, but I am certain you will not like the result.”

“Is this a permanent change,” Barnabus asked.

“No, you can cancel it at any time.  If you end up in dire straits, you might want to do so.  You will have enough trouble adjusting to the alteration as it is.”

“How long will this take,” Barnabus asked.

Baba Stratha reached out and placed her left palm on his chest.  He quickly curled up and moaned, his fur falling out to reveal a body of wood.  She cackled at him.  She reached out to Montrose with her right hand again, brushing his face.  Unlike Barnabus, he smoothly transitioned to a wooden bear.

Barnabus straightened up, gasping.

“Why did it not harm him?”  The bear said with rising anger.

Baba grinned her strange smile.

“I don’t like you.  Now get out.  I detest your presence.”

The trio left, wandering the street so the bears could get used to their temporary bodies.  There were some distrustful looks cast their way and others were openly hostile.  Puppets were barely tolerated in the Crossroads.

“I think we need to hurry up and leave,” Montrose said.  “We aren’t exactly welcome looking like this.”

Hamish nodded.  “Part of that is because you look like puppet bears.  It’s like you were created like a mockery of plush bears.”

He led them to a new section of town.  Barnabus seemed confused.

“I’ve never been here before.  Is it new?”

“Yes,” Hamish responded, “this appeared recently, but most avoid it because of the door leading to the Workshop.”

“What,” the bear exclaimed.  “There’s a direct passage here?”

“Yes, but we don’t know how or why.”

They stopped in front of a finely crafted wooden door, covered in delicate designs.  It was a thing of beauty created by a master craftsman.

“Here it is,” Hamish said in a somber voice.  “Be careful, bears.  The place can be a veritable warren of rooms, much like Crossroads.  Don’t get lost in case you need to make a quick exit.”

Montrose looked at him speculatively.

“Have you been there before?”

“Once, and I lost several friends on that misadventure.”

“I apologize for bringing it up, ” he said contritely.

Barnabus put his hand on the handle and looked at Montrose.

“Ready?”

Montrose drew in a breath.

“Let’s do this.”

Hamish rocked back as the door was opened and Barnabus, without a word, walked through.  Montrose silently followed him through.

The pair were in a corridor of polished wood, graced with delicate designs.  The place was beautiful, until they looked closer at the designs.  One wall was graced with a carved depiction of a Garden of Souls, the lines spread out like a spider web.  Montrose shuddered.

“This looks recent,” Barnabus said.  I am wondering if it is a sign of a power shift.”

They continued to walk down the hallway until they saw an open portal.  Inside was an immaculate carpenter’s shop.  Half-finished puppet heads sat on the bench.  They all swiveled to look at the bears, some of them with empty eye sockets.

Barnabus gave Montrose a look and walked away, making a whistling sound.  They continued down the passage, passing numerous workshops for a variety of tasks.

“This seems more orderly than Hamish indicated,” Montrose said.

“It may have changed significantly.  The place certainly looks ordered and efficient.  I find myself wondering how many dolls and puppets are created here.”

“Where is everyone,” Montrose whispered.

“Who knows?  I expected it to be full of dwarves and gnomes here at work.”

Montrose stumbled in shock.

“Those are real?  I thought they were just a myth?”

“No, and always tread cautiously around them.”

Montrose looked at him skeptically, but dropped the subject.  It was some time before they found a workspace that wasn’t for carpentry.  They walked in slowly, looking at the spools of familiar string.  It was the same that was in the nightmare where they joined Marley.  Barnabus walked forward and ran his fingers along the string.  

“This is a marionette’s string,” he said at last, looking around, “a lot of it.”

“How many marionettes could this be for,” Montrose breathed.  

“No, how many Gardens could this create?”  Barnabus’ face distorted in revulsion.  

Montrose’s mouth dropped as he looked at the spools with new eyes.

“Could the cabinet we saw have been made here as well?”

“Possibly.  Wood was once alive, so it could retain more life energy.  That Garden was collecting energy.  The cabinet was the battery itself.”

Montrose looked around.  

“I think we have enough information.  Let’s get out of here,” he said.

Barnabus nodded.

“We still do not know for certain that Shankill is behind all this, but I think you are correct.  There must be a reason we haven’t seen anyone, so let’s make that a winning streak.”

The bears returned to the corridor, then froze.  It changed while they were inside the work space.

“I don’t think the Workshop likes us,” Barnabus said.

“How could it even…” Montrose stopped, recalling what his friend had said.  “It’s alive, isn’t it?”

“Yes, and it knows we shouldn’t be here.  We’ve walked into a trap.”

The bears looked at each other and willed themselves to change.  Their wooden disguise drifted away in sheets of sawdust to be replaced with their fur.  They drew their swords, both wondering if the wooden blades could be trusted.  With no other recourse, the two walked in the direction they had come from, moving quickly.  Montrose looked at the walls.

“The Garden’s web!  Follow it!”  

Barnabus nodded in approval.

They raced along the hallway, previously straight but now twisting and curved.  From behind them a voice drifted through the air.  It was a grating sound that dripped with malice.

“Barnabus!  Welcome, Barnabus!”

The sound crept up Montrose’s back and triggered a primal rage and fear.  He knew immediately that it was the puppet Shankill.  Porcelain dolls and wooden puppets began emerging from the rooms lining the corridor, as well as marionettes trailing tattered strings.  All of the creatures bore hideous expressions of glee.  Montrose felt the growl from Barnabus more than heard it.  In a flash, he began cutting a swath through the monstrosities, filling the air with the sounds of shattered porcelain and splintering wood.  Montrose’s own slender blade began singing through the air.  Neither bear slowed their pace.

It seemed to Montrose that this went on for an interminable time, but it could only have been a few minutes.  He felt a tug on his arm, and realized that a marionette’s string was wound around his wrist, and a sudden pressure tugged him back.  In a flash, Barnabus spun, severed the cord, and resumed his assault.  Montrose began to see black spots in his vision, but could not remove the cord from his wrist.  Weakness began to overtake him and the last sound he heard was Barnabus yelling at him over the sounds of battle.

In Pursuit of Salvation

“I warned you.”  Hamish’s voice was soft, lacking in accusations.  He knew the situation was beyond the bear’s ability to foresee.  He and Barnabus stood over Montrose’s comatose body, the sounds of the cafe drifting up through the floor.

They stared at their friend, willing him to awaken, but nothing could rouse him.  Every attempt to remove the cord from his wrist had failed.  The flight from the Workshop was furious as Barnabus half-carried Montrose until they reached the doorway.

They stood in silence for some time before a disturbance below broke through their reverie.  Barnabus sighed and went to the rocking chair in the corner, seated himself, and slowly began to rock back and forth.  Moments later the door opened and Marley entered.  She stared from Montrose to Hamish before stalking across the room to Barnabus.  Ambrose, Sonny, and Letitia entered, then went to the bedside, keeping vigil with Hamish.  All four found it preferable to ignore what was about to happen.

Marley grabbed Barnabus by the collar, dragging him to his feet.

“You careless fool!”  Her shout caused a lull in the sounds of the cafe.  “How many bears must be hurt because of your willingness to lead them into danger,” she continued.

Barnabus stared at her, but did not respond.  Their violet eyes locked together.  Eventually, releasing a long held breath, she released Barnabus and turned back to the bed.  He continued to stand where she left him, still saying nothing.  Eventually the others began to murmur amongst themselves.  They had not noticed that Barnabus had moved until the door clicked shut behind him.

The chatter in the cafe lulled again as Barnabus walked through.  Those who had not heard of him before, learned his name in the days since he returned from the Workshop carrying Montrose.  Now the place muttered about the bear’s reputation.  He said nothing, but exited the buildings, easily slipping into the flow of beings outside.  

It took longer to reach his destination than before.  He was not in a hurry; it gave him time to think.  Arriving at the building with the barely seen staircase and did not knock when he reached the bottom, but entered unannounced.  Baba Stratha hobbled quickly into the candle light, but was unable to speak before her visitor.

You know what happened,” he stated.  “You did not disguise us as well as you indicated.”  His voice was flat, lacking in emotion.

The two-faced hag said nothing, but waited.

“You know what I am and I know what you are, so let’s not waste too much time over mutual distaste.  Tell me what I want to know.”

Stratha’s lips twitched as though she was about to speak, but thought better.  Her eyes narrowed as Barnabus flexed his fingers and long, thick claws emerged.

“Fine, ” she said at last, “You must find the first teddy bear, imposter.  Now leave.”

“Not good enough.  Give me a heading to begin with.”

“You must go to the other side of the world to the King’s Quarters, the place Ptolemy conquered, and the place of wonder carved into the cliffs.”

“How helpful,” he said sardonically.

Stratha began to speak again, but Barnabus had already turned to leave.  Her words trailed off as the door closed on them.

The bear crossed the town to a portal he knew, and entered a dreamworld, setting off to find the mind that could help him.  Traveling from dream to dream, he found the one that he sought.  The person was sleeping soundly, and dreamed of a warm, pleasant place.  The dreaming version was sitting idly beside a tranquil pond.  She looked up without surprise and greeted her visitor.

“Hullo, old bear.  It’s been too long since we have met.”  Her face was blissful, a great difference from when Barnabus first encountered the woman.

“I apologize for being absent so long.”

“You are a busy bear,” she said fondly.  “Please, join me.”

The bear sat next to her and they leaned into one another, sitting in silence for some time.

“What brings you here tonight, old friend?”

“A bear is in danger and I was told to go somewhere for answers.  I don’t know what the directions mean.  I hope you can assist me as time is critical.”

She smiled wanly.

“Give me the details.”

Barnabus related the conversation to her.  When he finished, the woman furrowed her brow in concentration.  It was some time before she spoke again.

“You came to the right person, of course.  Although the subject isn’t among my specialty, I do have some knowledge of your destination.  The place you must go is Amman in Jordan.”

“This will be quite the journey.  It has been some time since I have needed to travel so far.”

She smiled and his words.

“I enjoy that you are so trusting that there was no question about how I arrived at the answer.  Have you really been to the other side of the world?”

“I have never met a historian so knowledgeable in my life.  That’s why I came to you.  I have been to various corners of the world during my existence, but never to Jordan.  I am not certain what I am looking for, though.  Most likely that will resolve itself.  The hag seemed certain.”

The woman reached out a bony, aged hand and gently scratched behind Barnabus’ ear.  Few people could attempt such an intimate touch with any safety.

The woman had appeared youthful at first, but now her true age was apparent.  Reality began to exert itself on her.

“I’m waking up, old bear.  Being trapped in my mind is so tiresome.”

“You wake?  I thought you were unable to do so?”

“It’s not apparent to those outside and the machines barely show anything, but I do wake after a fashion.”

Barnabus sighed.  He had known the woman since she was a child.  Knowing that her time was limited left him in sorrow.

“I will return again soon.”

“You skip from crisis to crisis.  I understand if you are incapable.”

The bear did something that would have shocked everyone who knew him:  He climbed into her lap and snuggled up to the old woman.  Tears trickled down her cheeks and held him close for a while.

“You saved me from death, dear one.  Go and save others with my eternal love.  I can pass secure in the knowledge that I have helped you one last time.  

Tears dampened Barnabus’ eyes as he stood up, and reached out a soft hand to brush her tears.  He hung his head and left the fading dream.

Barnabus traveled the dreams and nightmares of one person after another, traveling to someone seated in an airplane.  He materialized in an unattended corner, staying there through the flight, listening to the dreams and nightmares, addressing the latter as needed.  The flight was long, arriving in Europe later, where he resumed his dream journey until he finally arrived at the country of Jordan.  The last dream took him to the place of Petra.  

Without a definite answer for what he searched for, the bear wandered through the site, admiring the carved structures and caves that covered the stone walls.  As he continued, a familiar presence came to his senses.  Barnabus began to move with purpose towards the bear he knew was there.  He stopped after a while, looking straight ahead.  A smile split his muzzle.

“Hello, Teddy.”  The warmth of his words were evident.

“Hello Barnabus, my boy.”  The speaker was a black teddy bear, his eyes squinting behind thick spectacles.  He had a sturdy handshake and a knowing look.  Barnabus was not always comfortable with that stare.

“How are you, old bear?”

The bear laughed.  It was a jolly sound that ricocheted off the walls.

“Old?  You’re one to talk.  What brings you here?”

Barnabus related his story to his friend, going back to when he and Marley caught up with Marley after passing through the Garden.

“This catastrophe could easily expand,” Teddy said grimly, “and word must be spread so awareness may be a bulwark against the storm.”

“You think that this is a greater threat than I expected.”

“Barnabus,” the bear said primly, “you are not a fool.  Do not understate the situation.”

Barnabus opened his mouth, then shut it again.  

“You’re right, of course.”

Teddy sighed.  “You are strong enough to take on most anything and are unique, but those who follow you are not.  Be more careful about those who travel with you.”

The rebuke was gentle, but Barnabus felt the force behind the words.  He nodded silently to the old bear before him and walked over to sit on the steps of a nearby building.

“You know I am doing my best in changing what I was made to be.  It would be easier if I were just a teddy bear, but I’m not.  

He felt Teddy’s paw settle on his shoulder, the grip reassuring him.  Barnabus sighed and looked up into the squinted eyes.

“Should I stay away from other bears?”

The other bear stared at him for a moment before shaking his head.

“No, the younger ones still need you to help.  But stop dragging them into any situation that arises.  You need more experienced bears to overcome the obstacles you meet.  If Montrose had not been with you, the Workshop would have gone differently and you know it.  There is a difference between bravery and hubris.  Remember that.”

The two sat in silence, listening to the wind pass through the canyon.  It was some time before they felt the presence.  Neither bear encountered such malice often and it sent them racing down the narrow canyon without a word.  Their boots kicked up dust as swords were drawn in haste.  Their pursuit led to an ancient theater, row after row of carved seats.  Barnabus was reminded of the colosseum where he fought the chatterlings.

In the center, taking the stage, was a creature of darkness.  It towered over a cowering man, his face pale with fright as it beheld the lean, monstrous thing before him.  It was tall and lean, corded muscles covering the limbs that ended in a taloned hand.  Horns jutted out from the beast’s forehead.  The twisted mockery of humanity drew a slim, curved sword from its belt.  Spittle dripped from the fangs of that leering mouth.

The creature advanced on its intended victim, seemingly unaware of the bear’s ceaseless charge.  As they approached, though, the frightened man dissolved into dust, fixing them with a maniacal grin.  The creature spun around, swinging its sword at Teddy.  Barnabus shoved the old bear aside before rolling away.  Both bears were on their feet in an instant, entering into a defensive posture to wait for the next attack.

They circled the creature, waiting for an opening.  Barnabus charged in, causing Teddy to shout a warning.  It feinted, the dull gray sword sweeping in.  Barnabus blocked the worst of the blow, but the felt of his arm slit open.

Teddy lunged in to distract their opponent, leaping back from the return attack.  Barnabus swung a massive blow, severing the hand holding the weapon.  It dissolved in oily, black mist as the monstrosity screamed in rage before sweeping its other arm around the body.  It was wrapped in a swirling, dusty cyclone before joining the desert wind and disappearing into the distance.

Teddy growled, turning to glare at Barnabus.  

“We could have kept it trapped between us and prevented this!”

Barnabus was panting with rage, a low growl issuing from his throat.  

“I’ll find the thing, make no mistake,” he began, but was immediately cut off.

“It could find a victim in the meantime, Barnabus!  It is wounded and malignant.  Who knows what it will do before we can catch up.”

Barnabus clenched his fists at the admonition.

“I will end it,” the bear said with conviction.

Teddy sighed in resignation.

“Let’s go, my boy.  We have to get after the thing.”

Sharing a look, both bears nodded and took flight down the canyon.  Their minds reached out searching for signs.  It wasn’t long before the sense of unease was found.  The creature had not stopped to select a victim, but its passing left an impression on sensitive souls.

Barnabus sensed a foothold and grabbed Teddy, dragging him into one of those thoughts.  She wasn’t asleep, but had become unsettled by the touch of the creature.  The girl was daydreaming to the rocking of the tour bus, but that sense of wonder had become tainted until she saw, through tear-filled eyes, the reflection of two teddy bears in the window’s reflection.  The one with the violet eyes gave an embarrassed wave while the other, with his squinted eyes behind thick spectacles, grinned and held a finger to his muzzle.  She nodded, grinning, and waving back as the tears fell unheeded.

The little girl’s daydreams carried them forward until other errant thoughts and dreams carried them forward, slowly gaining on their fleeing adversary.  The bears skated among the thoughts in their path and could feel the presence growing closer.  The bears leapt from dream to dream so quickly that they skidded into a dark alley when reality caught up.  

“Any idea where we are,” Barnabus asked, panting heavily.

Teddy crept to the mouth of the alley and looked around.  

“That’s Rainbow Street.  We’re in Amman.”

“It knows we’ve followed along.  I can’t sense it any longer,” Barnabus said.

“Same here, but I do sense an old friend.  Come along.”

Keeping to the shadows, the bears made their way up the street.  They soon reached ancient ruins, crumbled structures scattered among pillars that stood amidst the passage of time.  Barnabus could feel the presence of malice.  Someone was facing off against the creature.

It seemed to be a plush, but the head and most of the face was covered in a red and white scarf of a sort Barnabus was unfamiliar with.  Thoughts of Marley came to his mind and he shook away the thought.  A slightly curved saber was in the figure’s paw.  No sign of concern or distress was evident.  Whoever or whatever they were, the creature did not cause alarm.

The creature straightened up, sniffing the air.  It turned slowly to observe the bears.  The stranger reached up and pulled the scarf down and pushed it back from his head.  A sand-colored bear with a sleek felt looked at them with a calm, pleasant smile spread across his muzzle.  Shouldering his sword, he began moving to the creature’s right side with a gesture that Barnabus and Teddy should also move to flank their opponent.  Before they could surround it, the monstrosity swirled into a spinning vortex of shadows and drifted away.

Teddy and Barnabus growled in frustration, but the other bear only made a tch-tch noise.

“As-salam alaykum, Teddy,” he greeted.

“Walaikum as-salam, Bilal.”

“It’s still close.  Somewhere in the neighborhood, I think,” Bilal said.

“We’ll have a better chance with greater numbers,” Teddy said.  “Bilal, this is Barnabus.”

Bilal approached warily, examining Barnabus with curiosity.

“So, you are him, then.  I have heard much from you.”  Bilal’s voice was soothing.  Barnabus felt calm in the bear’s presence.

“Probably not all of it my best,” Barnabus said wryly.

Bilal smiled, saying, “You are a brave bear.  There are some drawbacks, but your dedication is respected.”  His tone became troubled, though.  “I have heard some upsetting rumors, including one regarding a young bear several days ago.”

Barnabus sighed.  “Word travels fast, it seems.”

“You aren’t the only one searching for solutions, Barnabus.  Marley has sent word through the dream world to find a means of salvation.  I feel that the shaitan that we are hunting might have something of use.”

Barnabus stared in disbelief.

“You mean that is…”

“No, no, it is a shaitan, a spirit that is found in this part of the world.”

“Oh, well, that’s better I suppose,” Barnabus said wryly.

“We’ve already wounded it, my boy,” said Teddy, “so between the three of us we stand a better chance of stopping it.”

Bilal nodded.

“Let’s proceed back down Rainbow Street.  That’s the direction it went.”

The trio walked down from the crumbling ruins, again entering the nightlife of the popular avenue.  They passed unseen, searching for anything out of place.  It was not long before a disturbance at a restaurant caught their attention.  Shouts and curses drifted out of the open doors.  As they approached, the fracas tumbled into the sidewalk, men and women kicking, biting and swinging punches.  Without pausing, Bilal walked into the building, his delicate sword in his hand.

The establishment was chaotic.  Arguments and fights were everywhere and the place was in shambles.  Tables were upended and a few chairs were still being thrown about.  The bears slipped through the room, following the sounds of violence.  They found the center of the maelstrom on the third floor.  The carnage was shocking to even the jaded Barnabus.  Bodies were strewn across the floor, though most still moved or groaned.  People were beating and clawing at one another, caught in the grip of a madness they will never understand.

All three bears stood still, observing the scene before them.  The adversary was present somewhere and it was a short time before the sickley colored outline at the balcony seating.  Without a word, the bears began to range out, working their way to surround the creature.

Wooden swords were hefted and Barnabus’s growling slowly cutting through the pandemonium, the shaitan realized that it was being stalked.  Before it could again dissolve into mist, Barnabus leapt and grabbed the beast by the throat.  His violet eyes blazed and drove the shaitan into a panic, seeing something there that no others could see.  The bear threw the monster to the floor, and all three closed in as one.

The shaitan rose to its feet, wisps of smoke still trailing from the stump of arm it waved at them.  The gesturing punctuated statements in a guttural language.  Teddy and Barnabus cautiously looked toward Bilal, who shrugged.

“I have no clue what it says,” he responded.  

The voice rose in anger, the vitriol expressed being apparent.  Barnabus lunged forward, causing it to turn in his direction.  BNilal and Teddy took the distraction to their advantage, slicing quickly, their swords trailing more of the smoke.  The shaitan howled in pain.  Barnabus stepped in quickly, slicing deep into the creature’s back.

The trio continued to move in a circular motion, feinting and striking when it was distracted.  Each blow drew more smoke, and the shaitan noticeably shrunk as more smoke was released.

The fight was short and left the creature a shriveled and wizened shape.  It was a grotesque little thing, looking aged terribly.  The fury in the eyes, though, was filled with an energy that the body no longer possessed.  The bears stood their ground, each hesitating to attack the dwarfed monstrosity.  

“It’s a trick,” said Barnabus.  “It will recover and return to causing pain.”  Without another word, he swung his sword in a high, overhand stroke that caused the diminutive form to vanish in one last puff of smoke.

Teddy sighed, but Bilal looked on with approval.

“Not many have the wherewithal to complete the task when this happens.”  Turning to Teddy, he gave a wan smile.  “He did it properly.  It would have returned to strength eventually.”

Teddy appeared thoughtful, glancing at Barnabus.  He seemed to accept his actions.

Where the creature had been was a long, fine knife.  Barnabus walked over and bent to pick it up, but Bilal hissed.

“Careful!  That is the weapon of a spirit and it will still have something terrible in it.”

Shrugging, Barnabus picked it up and tucked it into his belt.  The bear stared at him in shock, but said nothing.  His eyes seemed suspicious, though.  Ignoring this, Barnabus looked off into the distance.

“There’s a dream nearby that can get me to Europe.  I need to return to Montrose.”  He looked at the bears.  “Thank you for the adventure and I will think of the words you gave me.”

He took several steps before disappearing.  Bilal turned to Teddy, but the only response he received was the bear shaking his head.

“Don’t ask me questions.  I cannot give you satisfying answers,” he said.  Bilal said nothing and the pair walked off to undo what damage they could to the creature’s rampage.

An Unexpected Guest

Barnabus was enjoying the flight, partly sitting in the dreams of the passengers and partly in the plane itself.  It was intrusive he knew, but some were having a terrible trip so he felt the need to tinker about taking the stress off their rest.  They were somewhere over the Atlantic, though, when he felt a pull.  Someone’s dream became entangled with another.  The second dreamer was not on board, yet the two were intertwined.  He could feel an intruder in the dreams and felt the familiar rage at the pain it caused.  He walked through the nearest dream, cutting it off from whatever was influencing it, crossing into the other.

He emerged into a nightmare of water, filled with sharks of tremendous size and gaping maws under a violent sea.  They were only a symptom, though, and not the cause.  He dealt with them regardless, giving the dreamer some measure of comfort.  He re-emerged into the world, soaked, and left small boot prints as he squished along.  

The nightmare was quickly understood when the bear realized he was on a cruise ship.  He followed the thoughts of the workers until arriving at a laundry station.  Climbing into a nearby dryer while the attendant was busy, he was soon tumbling around in a mass of sodden bed sheets.  He could have found other ways to dry out, but felt that being expedient was in order.

Feeling better and smelling of lavender, Barnabus began to walk the ship, looking for nightmares.  He passed through several normal nightmares before he felt a pull.  Following the sensation, he noted, in a clinical fashion, that it was unfamiliar.  Probing the sensation, Barnabus assessed it, assigning the experience to his various senses.

The trail led him to a small cabin.  Barnabus partially entered a dream to slip through the door.  There was a person on the bed, writhing and whimpering.  Next to the bed was an apparition of a child seemingly dressed in white with long dark hair.  The bear looked on in boredom.

“You can knock it off.  I know you aren’t a ghost.”

The apparition spun around in shock, before snarling and disappearing through the wall.  Shaking his head with a sigh, Barnabus bolted through the wall, pursuing the apparition.  

Once back in the hallway, the creature had disappeared.  It was still too alien to reliably follow, but Barnabus knew they would meet again.

He began to wander the halls, looking to see what kind of ship he had stowed away on.  After a while, Barnabus felt something that must have been masked by the apparition.  Following the feeling took him to a large toy store.  Slipping inside, he found a large collection of stuffed animals.  An insistent susurrus emanated from the pile.  

“Hello,” the bear said, “my name is Barnabus.  I was wondering if you could help me.”  It wasn’t asked, but an expectation.

“I’ve heard of you, dude.”  The voice was deep and friendly.  Barnabus followed the sound to a large bear with white fur.  The upper left arm had a bright red heart with Janice stitched inside its borders.

“Janice,” the bear said with a smirk.

The large bear sighed, giving a nod.  He climbed down from the shelf.  He dwarfed Barnabus.

The smaller bear looked around at the other plushes.  “So, who knows anything?”  Janice shrugged, but several others hesitantly raised a variety of limbs.  “Yes?”

A crab waved a claw in the air.  “It has been around for a little while, maybe since the last port.”

A bird joined in.  “Yes, I don’t recall it before that.

A rat in a chef’s coat was the next to speak.  “It is ravenous.  I have seen it flitting from room to room one night.”

“The staff are trying to keep people from becoming alarmed by the number of passengers that it has made ill,” said a ragged alley dog.

Barnabus sighed.  “It will be miserable trying to catch it if the creature moves so quickly among the victims.  I’d best get started, then.  Thank you for your help.”

“Wait,” said a snowman, “we can help you look for it.  Please?”

Janice looked thoughtful.  “Sounds like a good idea to me,” said Janice.

Barnabus looked around at everyone and looked thoughtful.

“Let’s do this, then.”

The army of plush animals began to climb down when a soft, trilling voice began to speak.  Barnabus turned to see a collection of dolls.  The voice came from somewhere in their midst.

“Poor little bear, hands bound with hatred.  A simple bear cannot prevail.  You will fail to save them, Barnabus, and all shall be planted in the gardens.”  The plushes shrank back from the mocking voice, but the bears stepped forward, Barnabus raising the Rook and Janice pulling out a massive, wooden ax.  The dolls began to speak in unison, but were caught unawares when the bears fell on them.

One of the plushes, shocked at the violence begged them to stop.

“A bunch of awakened dolls are just as dangerous as the creature we seek,” Janice said soothingly.

The plushes accepted this, but looked at the bears warily.  Everyone split up and spread out and dispersed throughout the ship.  Janice began to follow Barnabus, but the smaller bear looked at him curiously.

“Shouldn’t we better our chances by splitting up?”

“Nah,” He shook his head.  “Better to both be ready to attack at once.”

Barnabas started to speak, but paused and shrugged his shoulders, Turning to walk on.  Janice, following along, sniffed the air.

“Do you smell of lavender?”

Barnabus ignored the comment and carried on down the corridor.  Behind them there were shouts from the gift shop.  

Ahead of them was a promenade and a festival was in full swing.  People wandered around in playful costumes to the delight of children.  There was lively music drifting through the ship.  The bears wandered through the crowd, trusting in their ability to remain unseen.  It was a shock to them when a group of children approached them.

“I don’t recognize them,” said one, pointing at the pair.

“What movie are they from,” asked another.

Barnabus muttered “Why me?”

The children pinned them to the wall, petting their fur and chattering on until Barnabus raised his paws and hissed for silence.

“Yes, you can see us, no, we are not performers, and yes we are real.  This bear and I are hunting a ghost that’s making people sick.  Have you seen people getting sick suddenly?”

The children stood still, shocked into silence, until one spoke up.

“My mother loves boats, but she has sea-sickness and is in our cabin.”

The bears leaned in and Janice asked when nothing else was forthcoming.

“Where?”

Within moments the bears were racing down the halls two decks down.  They slid around corners, attempting to keep the pace up.  They began to feel the air of menace as they approached the cabin.  They passed through, drawing their weapons to find an empty room.  Looking closer, though, the bears saw the mother on the bed, sweating and in a deep stupor.

Janice began to look around the chamber while Barnabus closed his eyes, focusing on the sensation.  Becoming more aware of the environment of the ship made it easier to trace the signs of the creature to dozens, possibly scores, of victims.  The bear hissed in frustration.

“There’s too many.  I can’t isolate it from everyone under the spell!”

The snowman suddenly stuck his head through the floor.

“We found it,” he squealed in excitement.  Again, the bears were off, racing through the ship, arriving in time to see the apparition exiting a cabin.  The other plushes were attempting to menace it, but were obviously trembling.  They did provide a distraction, though, allowing the bears to take it unawares.  It turned their direction in time to see them sailing through the air.  The tackle drove the creature towards a door to a nearby balcony.  The three tumbled over with both bears pummeling their enemy.

The three became a rolling brawl with the bears gaining the upper hand.  Barnabas rolled free, drawing the Rook.  Janice ducked the swing and the sword struck the creature, ripping through it with a sound of tearing fabric.  The other bear stepped to the other side to trap it between him and Barnabus.  His ax tore through their enemy producing the same tearing sound.  The gaping holes showed that the ghostly apparition was a disguise.  A lean, muscular arm emerged and ripped away the tattered image.

Janice’s jolly attitude disappeared as he roared “Demon!”

He charged in again, only to have his ax harmlessly slide off the beast’s flesh.  The demon laughed at the bear’s impotence.  It swung a powerful arm, knocking the bear into the nearby pool.  His plush waterlogged quickly, dragging him under.

Turning to Barnabus, the demon grinned, showing a mouth full of crooked, jagged fangs.

“Well, what does the little bear intend to do now?  You should have just kept traveling.”

Barnabus took on a pained expression as he sheathed Rook.  

“No, you cannot be harmed by a teddy bear’s usual weaponry, he said.  He removed his cap and tossed it into a corner.  Moonlight glittered on the bear’s violet eyes.  Claws began to extend from his paws, teeth lengthening into fangs.  “Fortunately,” he growled in a deep, rumbling voice, “I am not one of Teddy’s descendents.”  Without a sound, he leapt at the startled demon, mauling the creature.  The task didn’t take long, and Barnabus threw the rapidly decaying demon over the rail.  Turning around, he saw the plushes watching in terror from the balcony.  He raised one talon, still dripping ichor, to his muzzle and whispering “Shh.”

Janice struggled out of the pool, sloshing along the deck.  He looked around in shock until his eyes noticed the sizzling trail of slime leading to the rail.

“You threw it overboard?”

“Yes.  The people here should be better soon now that it is off the ship.  No,” he said, stopping the following questions, “it is over and that is all.”  Barnabus looked up and saw that their smaller companions had fled the balcony.  He retrieved his cap and looked at his companion.  

“If you aren’t busy, I could use your help.”

Misplaced Faith

Marley stood watch over Montrose’s prone form.  The others came and went, but she stood waiting.  There was a sliver of remorse for her words to Barnabus, but truth is found in anger.  Hopefully Teddy could find him and assist in the search, but also talk some sense into the bear.  

“We should be looking for a way to help Montrose, not trusting that mad bear to succeed!”  Ambrose thumped his paw against the wall.  Sonny nodded his agreement, though Latricia seemed pensive.  She had taken the habit of waiting to see how Marley reacts before settling her mind on a subject.  Hamish sat watching them all.  He rarely spoke, which was unnerving to see the corgi so subdued.

Marley looked around at the assembled faces before stopping at Ambrose.

“No.  As perturbed as I am with him, I cannot deny that Barnabus has a reputation for success.  We must give him the time to return.”

Ambrose did not look convinced, but said nothing more.

Marley returned to her thoughts, not voicing the question in her mind:  How could Barnabus have freed her years ago but be helpless to do the same for Montrose?

Eventually Hamish returned, walking over to Marley.

“Stratha wants you to visit,” he said.

“Curious,” she replied, “but I am not willing to leave Montrose.”

Laticia stepped up, placing her paw on Marley’s shoulder.

“I’ll stay with him,” she whispered.  “If not for him, I would have lost more than an eye.”  She sat down on the edge of the bed and took the bear’s paw on her own.

Marley looked at the young bear before nodding at Hamish, leading the way out of the room.  The small group made their way down the twisting streets to Stratha’s subterranean lair.  The bear led the way inside without bothering with knocking.  Stratha looked up in annoyance, but shrank back from the cold, violet eyes boring into her.  

“You called on me, witch,” she snarled, “speak quickly.”  

Taken aback, Stratha tried to salvage her haughty demeanor.  “You have an endangered companion.  I have news for you…” she broke off when Marley interrupted.

“You aided those two fools to go somewhere they shouldn’t have stepped foot.  You are the reason for Montrose’s condition.  This had best be good.”

“I have information regarding Shankill.  He has another cabinet being constructed in a young woman’s dreams.”  She held out a smooth stone carved into the likeness of a book.  Marley accepted the token, closed her eyes, and her lips moved slightly as though she was whispering to herself.  

“Very well, witch.  I will look into this.”  The bear turned on her heel and stormed out into the street, followed closely by her companions.

A hollow chuckle sounded out of the shadows.  A marionette shuffled up behind Stratha, stroking her withered cheek with a shaking wooden hand.

“Very good, very good!  More fruit for a garden!”

Stratha shuddered under the puppet’s touch.

“Just remember our deal, marionette.”

Hamish, Ambrose, and Sonny followed Marley through the Crossroads.  Eventually they arrived at a door decorated in finely carved wood and pastels.  She entered without hesitation and the others trooped in behind her.  The inside of the door and frame, though, were rotted, green with mold and decay.

Their surroundings were a bucolic neighborhood, the streets lined with lush trees.  Behind this were gingerbread houses with more pastels apparent.  The bears and corgi walked the streets looking for signs of their destination.

“Well, this looks promising at least.  The nightmare has not begun yet,” said Sonny.

Marley looked at him with a grim expression, walking over to a tree.  She drew the Queen and swung hard, easily slicing through the trunk.  The inside was full of pulpy, rotted wood.  The bear said nothing, but continued down the street.

“Marley,” Hamish whispered, “anything could be hidden within this nightmare.  We should leave and return with more bears.”

The bear nodded in agreement, but still seemed reluctant to withdraw.  

“Hamie, I can’t just walk away.  I don’t know why, but I have to continue.”

“That’s Barnabus speaking through you,” Ambrose accused.

Marley rolled her eyes and continued the search.  Hamish, also unvocal, stayed by her side.

The small group continued down the street, reaching out with their senses to find some thread to lead them to their quarry.  After some time, they began to draw into a particular house.  It was a bland, two-story of suburbia, barely distinguishable from those nearby.  Marley hesitated.  They were a long way from the door, making escape troublesome.

“This is it,” said Ambrose, “let’s get to this.  Hamish looked at the bear, noting its greater than normal aggression.   Ambrose led the way into the building.  

Marley and Hamish fell in on either side of Sonny to protect the younger bear.  He claimed to feel better, but both suspected he was still in pain.

The interior was much like the trees, crumbling and rotting.  Cords, draped like webs, covered the space.  Sonny made a soft croaking sound as Marley and Hamish raised their swords.  There were scuttling sounds coming from the adjacent rooms.  Marionettes appeared, creeping along the cords.  Ambrose had yet to draw a weapon.

Marley grabbed Sonny and threw him through a gap towards the staircase ahead of them.  She and Hamish followed him through and began to race up the stairs dragging the younger bear between them.  Suddenly he was tugged out of their grasp.  Spinning around, they saw him disappearing out of sight, his screams muffled by the soft, brittle wood of the walls. Marley began to pursue him, but Hamish wrapped his arm around her waist, dragging her up the remaining steps.  Before rounding the corner, she saw Ambrose approaching the stairs with a web of cords in his paws, carrying them as a net.

Hamish grabbed the bear by the khimar and continued pulling her along.  She gave a pained roar and broke free of his grasp.  Hamish was thankful to see she was running alongside him.  As they burst into a wider space, there was a cabinet ahead.  Without slowing, both swung their swords, shattering the device.  Marley growl;ed and ducked into a nearby room, closely followed by the corgi.

They were in a bedroom, decrepit as the rest of the structure.  Hamish reached into her pocket and snatched out the token Stratha had given her.  He grabbed her by the paw and rushed at a nearby mirror.  Both disappeared through the cracked surface as the door behind them burst open.

They landed in a heap in the dimly lit room below street level.  Marley leapt to her feet to search for the witch, but froze in horror.  Stratha was tightly bound to another cabinet, the flesh sagging on her already sparse frame.  Her head lolled forward, there was a slight groaning sound from her.  Hamish looked over the bear’s shoulder and shuddered.

“There is nothing we can do for her,” he said softly.

The pair stepped back and quietly slipped through the door.  Behind them there was a barely audible voice:

“Run, little stuffed animals.  Go find the beast hidden in felt.  You need his untamed ferocity.”

A Banked Flame

Laticia jumped to her feet, sword in hand, when the door crept open.  Barnabus stepped in, followed by the biggest teddy bear she had ever seen.  Barnabus stopped and looked around, puzzled.

“Where are Marley and Hamish?”

Laticia glared at him with her one eye.

“Where have you been,” she asked in a flat voice.

Barnabas snorted before replying.

“Yes, it was just a moment to find what we needed so I decided to take a vacation.”

The large bear’s brow furrowed.

“Well, you were on a cruise ship.”

Leticia sucked in her breath to unleash a blistering tirade, but Barnabus interrupted her.

“Latitia, this is Janice, and vice versa.  Janice and I hunted a demon on the ship.  Can we delay this lovely reunion to cut the damn cords off of Montrose?  Yes?”

Without another word, he walked over to the bed, drawing the jinn’s knife.  Laying it on the bed, he carefully sliced through the cords on that wrist before moving to remove the rest.  After a few minutes they heard a soft groan from the bear.  The three watchers gave a collective sigh of relief.  Barnabus walked to the chair in the corner and collapsed.

Latitia stood in shock, knowing that teddy bears don’t sleep, but Barnabus had slipped into a stupor.  She looked at Janice, but the large bear just shrugged his shoulders and returned to looking after Montrose.  She stared at him before speaking.

“Does this not make you curious,” she said incredulously.

He turned back to her, briefly taking his attention from the bear in front of him.

“No.  I don’t waste time worrying or clinging to grudges.  Neither do me any favors.”

Latitia closed her mouth and remained silent.  Janice did not know Montrose, but still fretted over him as an old friend.  Wordlessly, she walked over to Barnabus and slipped a footstool under his boots.

A short time later Marley and Hamish returned, both looking haggard, a haunted look in their eyes.  Marley looked to the bed, then at the slumbering Barnabus.  She exhaled softly and walked over to the corner, pulling Barnabus’s cap low over his eyes, and gently stroked his cheek.

No one spoke, pretending not to see the soft scene before them.  Montrose was sitting up with a grim expression.  Hamish began filling him in with what he knew, followed by Janice, relating the events on the cruise ship.  Once they were finished, Barnabas began to speak although he had not shifted position, telling his story.

“Do you think Ambrose was under an outside influence, or has he betrayed us?”

Hamish began to answer, but Martley interrupted the corgi.

“I am certain it was his choice, but no clue what could have led to it.”  The violet eyes of both bears met, holding the gaze for some moments.

Barnabus stood, retrieving the jinn blade.

“We should leave,” he said, “they know where we have holed up.  Besides, I want to have a word with the witch.”  The bear walked over to Montrose, offering his shoulder.  He easily supported the other bear, the pair shuffling out the door with the others close behind.  None saw the glassy eyes, blinking with exaggerated lashes, peering through a crack in the wall.

The group moved through the winding streets to Stratha’s basement.  The door was stuck, however, leaving everyone awaiting a frustrated outburst from Barnabus.  Sensing their stares, he looked around.

“What are you looking at?”

He sighed and leaned back, kicking the door hard, sending a split from top to bottom.  Throwing his shoulder into it, the door gave way.

Inside was a room hazy with humidity.  The wood around them was creaking as it warped under the unnatural atmosphere.  Ahead of them was Stratha, still strapped to the cabinet.  She was gasping in the harsh air.  Barnabus drew the jinn’s blade and nodded to Hamish, who held the witch’s arms steady while the cords were cut away.  It was a slow process to free her, but eventually she was helped away.  Hamish and Janice set about destroying the cabinet while Barnabus began investigating the cords.

Latitia and Marley busied themselves with reviving Stratha.  She was trying to say something, but was barely audible.  Suddenly, Barnabus rushed through the room, grabbing the larger bear and the Corgi.  On their way to the door, he grabbed the witch from the floor.  Without a word, everyone charged through the door, spending their energy running in blind faith rather than wasting time with words.

Barnabus remained unvocal, but continued running toward nearby portals.  As they raced through the streets, dolls began to pour out from buildings they passed.  The group accelerated as Barnabus wrenched open the first door he reached.

“Run, you damn fools!  It’s a trap!”

Everyone tumbled through the door, with Barnabus slamming it shut behind them.  He scratched a series of symbols on the door frame before rushing them onward.  They were racing through a field of sunflowers, the idyllic scene in contrast to what they saw before entering the dream.

Wild-eyed, everyone turned a questioning look to Barnabus.  The bear was gently setting the witch on the soft grass.  The withered half of her body had spread, destroying the remaining vestiges of her youth and beauty.  Her traumatized eyes released a constant stream of tears and Barnabus, no fan of Stratha, stared at her with concern and sadness.

The bears gathered around her, sensing that her end was near.

Marley looked at Barnabus, her eyes fixed on his.

“It was all a trap,” he said.  “She was the battery for traps all over the world.  Those cords stretched through countless dreams and a great many bears are in danger.”

There was a range of emotions on the surrounding faces, ranging from shock to disbelief.  Marley, though, had stiffened at his words.

“We must get the word out, warn everyone…”

“It’s too late,” he said, the words soft and bitter, “everyone is on their own.  All we can do is gather everyone we can.  Teddy is still on the other side of the world.  We need him to begin summoning bears.”  He stopped, looking at each in turn.  “We are at war and need an army.”

Everyone became aware of a barely audible sound.  It was Stratha attempting to speak.  Barnabus couched, putting his ear to her mouth.  He listened, nodding at her words.  Abruptly, he stood and began to walk away.  Montrose and Janice began to hurry after him, but he shook his head.

“I’ll see you again shortly, but there is something I must do first.”  With that, he disappeared into the dream, leaving only a rustle among the flowers.

Marley, feeling numb, crouched down to hear the witch’s words.  Her eyes widened in shock and she jerked back, violet eyes glistening.

“What did she say,” Laticia demanded.

“Secrets that aren’t mine to share,” the older bear whispered.  “Come.  We must make preparations.  We may not be able to get out a warning now, but we can begin to gather bears.  As she began to drift away, the others fell beside her.  As they walked, the ancient witch began to crumble into dust.

The Court of the Good Folk

Few creatures could find the path to this hidden realm, certainly no teddy bear, but Barnabus knew the route.  It was a quick journey for him, being old enough to have found shortcuts through not just dreams but of places only rumored to exist in legends.  He loathed coming to this particular realm.  Not all of these folk were as capricious as those who dwelt here or skirted the line to outright malevolence.  It was a place to find answers, though, and the bear was unafraid of them.  Contemptuous, but never concerned.

A steward ushered him into a grand courtroom, populated with beings that only existed in folk tales.  Some were delicate little waifs, achingly beautiful.  Others were hulking monstrosities that plagued the fears of humans in centuries past.  Whether benign or mischievous, humans called them the Good Folk in an effort to avoid insulting them.  Barnabas saw a few familiar faces that he had fought in the past.  Some shrunk away, while others uttered dark words.

He was presented to a woman whose beauty would have caused men to go to war for her attention, and many had in fact done so.  These bloody courting sessions appeased her vanity until she tired of them and discarded one plaything for another.  Names have power, and hers was a closely guarded secret.  She always assumed an alias, never becoming attached to a particular one.  She had existed for so long by being careful.

Before the steward could introduce him, Barnabus addressed her directly.

“Queen,” he said, in a flat voice.  She bridled at his disrespect, her pale blue eyes narrowing.

“Oh, the bear returns, seeking my favor.  It has been too long since you have graced us with your presence.”  Her tone was mocking, verging on insult.  Barnabus let it pass.

“You know things that I must hear.  Shankill could not have grown so powerful without help,” he said, strolling forward to drop into the throne beside her, where he lounged in insouciant repose.

Several of the monstrous courtiers began to approach, but were waved away by their queen.

“Poor little teddy bear.  Are your friends in some trouble,” she asked sweetly, again with a mocking tone.  There were sniggers throughout the courtroom.

“Hmm,” he responded lightly, “I continue to be confused with a teddy bear.  Teddy was the first, you know, and he’s barely existed for over a hundred years.  I will need to disabuse people of these rumors.”

The queen was puzzled by this, but went on.

“Then Shankill is not your concern.”  Her voice had grown cold, losing interest in the banter.  “You should speak with his emissary.  He arrived a short time ago with a fascinating proposition.  I wonder if you can exceed what I am being offered.”  When she finished speaking, Ambrose walked into the center of the courtroom.  His eyes were glazed, much like a doll’s, and there was a twitch around his muzzle.  

“In exchange for my people’s assistance, he will create a space in the minds of humans for us to inhabit and return to our splendor.  What do you offer, bear?”  She looked into Barnabus’s violet eyes, searching for some hint of anger or despair.  There was none, which caused her a moment’s shock.

Standing, Barnabus walked towards Ambrose, drawing the Rook and slammed the point of the sword into the marble floor.  It cracked and shattered as he buried the wooden sword deep.  Casually, he removed his jacket, hanging it on the hilt.

“I do love this jacket.  It would be a shame to damage it.”

“You do not deserve her,” Ambrose snarled.  I have been by her side all these years, being there for her, supporting her, while you ignore her and wound her with your behavior!”  He was salivating, the tone of his voice turning shrill.  “You cannot be as devoted to her as I can!”

Barking out a laugh, Barnabus looked at the bear with something approaching pity.

“She and I are bonded in ways I wish we weren’t, but she knows where my loyalty lies.  You betrayed everything she stands for, though.  She will never accept such a betrayal.”

The courtiers had begun to form a circle around the bears, but there was some confusion that Barnabus had abandoned his sword; rather, he faced Ambrose’s blade unarmed.

“I saved her life years ago, but she owes me nothing.  She fought bravely, but Shankill had already plucked a great deal of stuffing from her.  The coward and his like ambushed her, knowing that it would take a great many to take her down.  She is rapidly becoming the best of us and will never be owned by you.”  The felt around Barnabus’s fingers sloughed away, revealing his claws.  The paws looked far too real to belong to a stuffed animal.  His teeth lengthened, glistening in the light.  His voice became a low rumble, vibrating the air.

“Have you never wondered why we are the only bears with violet eyes,” he growled.  “It was a side effect of replacing her missing stuffing with my own.  I stitched her together and delivered her to Hamish.  I trusted him to look after her.”  The bear seemed to swell in his clothes.

Ambrose dropped his sword and the courtiers melted back into the shadows, some fleeing the room.

“I will defend her,” he roared, “and I will end you!”  The thing before him charged, and Ambrose wailed in terror.

There are No Heroes

Marley walked around the group, watching their training with a critical eye.  She was pleased that Leticia was holding her ground against Janice and his ax.  Montrose was showing an equal level of skill against Hamish’s heavy claymore.  With the danger approaching, she was determined to make certain that everyone was prepared for the battles to come.  Without warning, she lunged into the fray, raining blows at all four.  She tripped Janice, batted Hamish’s blade out of her way, and spun to level a kick at Letitia.

Montrose was momentarily surprised, but recovered in time to counterattack.  Marley swung The Queen as though it was a light twig.  She matched Montrose’s thrusts and parries.  He was driven back under her patient assault, her strokes becoming faster and difficult to keep the pace.

As suddenly as it began, Marley stepped back and looked around at the confusion she had caused.  

“You all need more practice, ” she said, “unfortunately you will get plenty of experience soon.”

Montrose looked at her with suspicion.

“You seem to be certain about events.”

The bear looked at him, her features drawn tight.

“I have sensed the anguish of many bears that I have known for years.  We are losing a great many to this assault.”

“Why aren’t you going to them?”, Letitia asked.

Marley sighed.  “I cannot abandon all of you.  We are safer together than apart and I would be derelict to leave you here alone.  We have duties to observe.”

Everyone froze as she went rigid, her covered ears obviously shifting around.  After a tense moment, they could hear a clicking sound.  It grew in volume and seemed to come from everywhere.  Marley spun around and gestured at the others to form a circle.  Several long minutes pass before shapes begin to emerge from the sunflowers.  Wave after wave of the creatures lurched into sight, showing difficulties controlling their limbs.

Marley made no sound, standing still facing the approaching horrors.  She was staring intently in one direction from which came a creaking voice that was barely audible.  With a speed belied by its jerky movements, one of the marionettes whipped out with its strings, snaring Marley’s sword arm.  It tried to tug her forward, but she jerked the creature off its feet, hauling closer.  It looked up with a leering face that splintered under Marley’s clenched paw.

The voice was becoming clear now, taunting the bear.

“Poor little bear, who will swoop in to rescue you this time?  Certainly not that savage, I made certain of this.”  The marionette that emerged was slightly larger than the rest and was somewhat more steady on its feet.  The wooden face was a caricature of a grin, twisted and dark, painted garish colors.  It looked old, almost like an antique.  Unlike the others, there were no tattered strings hanging from the spindley, splintering limbs.  A wave of malevolence swept over the bears, causing them to feel nauseous.  The rasping voice went on, filled with glee.

“You escaped me once, but had to have help, little bear.  Too bad that your hero has gone, gone away.”

There was a grunt from Marley and the others cast sideways glances at her.  Teeth sprouted from her muzzle, glistening and sharp.  Her eyes remained fixed on the marionette as she snapped her jaws, severing the cords around her wrist.  The puppet took a step back, caught unawares.  There seemed to be smoke or steam emerging from those now smoldering violet eyes.

A gutteral snarl seeped through those teeth.

“There are no heroes,” she growled, “only the duty that is my birthright.”  Without another sound, she leapt forward, swinging The Queen with both paws, crushing marionettes in her jaws.  There was something decidedly more ursine in her than a being made of felt and fluff.  Her comrades leapt when she did, unable to match the speed and ferocity she wielded against the puppets.  Rather than charging headlong through their numbers at her nemesis, she focused on eradicating its minions.  Whenever one of her friends was snared in strings, she was there, biting through the cords as easily as those that had bound her own arm.  The air was filled with the sound of splintering wood.

In spite of the odds, the bears began to push the hoard back, mostly due to Marley’s unearthly skill and ferocity.  The air was dark and acrid with the anxious fumes of vanquished nightmares.  However, the marionette’s army began to rally, closing in on the small group.  Marley paid no heed to this, spinning like a dervish, crushing one foe after another, but even she was nearly overrun.  A marionette exploded into splinters behind her and The Rook swung into her view to smash several more.  She began to laugh with wild abandonment as she and Barnabus began turning, backs to one another, in a dance of destruction.  Combined, the pair easily began to whittle down their attackers.  At the sight of the two bears attacking in unison, the other bears stepped back, both in awe and to remain out of the way.

Eventually the hoard began to drift back from the furious bears, shuffling backwards as quickly as they could, keeping their eyes on Barnabus and Marley.  Barnabus squared his shoulders and bellowed into the distance.

“Shankill!  You should have sent more than one corrupt bear to me!”  With his words echoing through the dream, Barnabus hurled broken swords at the retreating creatures.  Marley gasped, in spite of her rage.

“Ambrose?”

“Yes,” the other bear hissed, “and Sonny has been destroyed or lashed to one of their cabinets.  He looked down briefly, a guilty expression spread across his face.

“I’m sorry, Marley, but Ambrose was no longer one of us.

Hot tears streamed down her face and Marley gripped the hilt of The Queen even tighter.

“The war has begun.”

Hunted

The bears careened off the alley walls in their haste.  Never had the trio seen so many dolls.  Robyn was the first to be taken, then Thomas.  Everything after that was a haze of running battles.  None of the bears had fought so many opponents in their existence, but now nightmares were walking the streets.  They couldn’t risk slipping into dreams.  Michael had tried that, but, before anyone could follow, his screams echoed through the block.  

There was a busy street ahead.  The bears could use it to disappear and regroup.  As they accelerated to the lights and sounds of the city, coils of string looped around Lisa’s neck, rapidly dragging her up a building and out of sight.  Toby barely glanced back when he heard Alan scream.  Someone had to escape.

He had to risk being seen.  There was no other choice.  Running up the side of a parked car, he leapt through the air and into the window of a car headed uptown.  Turning to address the people in the car, he stared into the glassy eyes of a Victorian doll.  A mannequin was driving the car, and he felt the biting cold in his wrist as the string wrapped tight.

Wilted Blossoms

It had been a long day in the cafe.  The shop was small, but busy.  This allowed the owner to remain in such a valuable location, making a living through a volume of sales rather than the cost.  He repeatedly thought about hiring staff, but he loved to work alone, being so immersed in his work.  Every night, though, was getting more difficult after the exhaustion of the day.  He fell asleep in his favorite chair, unaware that someone was waiting for him to slumber.  At least he always slept peacefully.

Bilal wiped dust from his hands after stopping the creeping nightmare.  Reaching into the man’s dreams, he poured a cup of coffee in the dream, bringing it back with him.  Sipping the steaming unreal coffee, he made his way up to the roof.  The night will be long, he knew, so a gentle repose became a necessity to prepare for the work to come.

The nightmares had been growing at an alarming rate.  Bilal worked hard to protect his people night after night.  Duty was prevalent and what truly mattered to him.  This is what he most admired about the bear Barnabus.  He knew that terrible decisions must be made at times.  It was practical, sensible thinking.  Someone had to make these choices to protect their wards.

Most teddy bears start out as someone’s favorite toy, coming to life in a new reality to fight unnatural nightmares.  Many take this to include all nightmares, spreading themselves thin in fighting nightmares that are a common occurrence.  Bilal, though, willed himself into existence and focused on his true purpose.  He was the only teddy bear of Amman and protected it passionately.

The bear spent too much time reaching out, though, sensing the whole of the city searching for his night’s work.  The approaching menace was not clear to him until he was surrounded.

Dolls, their glassy eyes blinking in the twilight.  Puppets dragging themselves along the rooftops.  Marionettes cracking their strings like cords.  Bilal took the last sip of coffee and, balancing it in his paw, blew it away into sparkling motes.  He drew his sword, turning slowly to assess his enemies, knowing that the marionette’s strings were the greater danger.  When his back was to the nearest, he sprung.

The marionette sent its string whipping through the air, but the bear had ducked into a roll, swinging his curved sword as he leapt up.  The creature fell into two parts, clattering on the rooftop.  From there the rooftop turned into a brutal melee, with Bilal moving like a dancer, graceful as he moved.  Other toys in the area could hear the battle, knowing that the bear was outnumbered.  They could see the dolls scaling the side of the building.

It was some time before the sounds of carnage ended and toys became brave enough to try and get a view of the roof.  Those that did saw the remains of dozens of dolls and others, sliced through with precision.  In the center of it all was Bilal.  His felt was torn and there was stuffing poking out, but he stood proud and erect.  There was no roar of victory, no gesture of dominance.  Just a silent bear.

Eyes of Violet

Marley was leaning back on a rock staring into the distance when Barnabus returned.  Although he made no sound, she always knew when he was near.  He sat and leaned on the rock just close enough for their shoulders to touch.  She turned her head and looked at him out of the corner of her eye.

“Did you find anything?”

“You know well that I didn’t,” he said, his voice heated.

“Then do not take it out on me,” Marley retorted.

After a moment, Barnabus muttered an apology.  

“The trail ended a ways off.  They must have had a doorway ready to escape through.”

They sat in silence after that, watching the imaginary wind rustling the fields of flowers.

Eventually, it was Barnabus who broke the silence.

“Whose dream do you believe this used to be?”

“Why do you think it is no longer their dream,” she asked in puzzlement.

“Because it is a ghost of a dream, unchanging, always the same.  I suspect the dreamer passed during it and the dream managed to survive.”

He could feel Marley looking at him again, imagining what expression her face bore.

“That is beyond morbid, old bear.”

“But probably the truth.  Have you never noticed that at times we walk through dead dreams?  The minds that they sprang from are not always dead, but whatever hope or desire associated with it has and the dream becomes cast off, drifting without a mind to nourish it.”

Marley returned to her thoughts, contemplating this revelation.  She looked around the clearing, the carnage of battle having long since evaporated.  Hamish had left first on some errand of his own.  The others had become restless waiting on Barnabus and drifted off into the dreamscape, leaving Marley to wait on his return.

Barnabus again broke the silence, turning his head towards hers.  He and Marley looked at each other at the corners of their vision.  Their violet eyes were sparkling in the wan sunlight.

“What are you thinking of, Marley?”

He never talked down to her, but as an equal.  It was rare that he did so with anyone, even though he was older than anyone she met.  He was impulsive and aggravating, too willing to let emotions get him into troubles beyond one bear’s ability to manage.  Yet, he always did.  He was the survivor of so much conflict that he should not have been able to escape.  How he managed to find her tattered remains and resurrect her remains a mystery that she had yet to solve.

“I’m thinking of that landfill.  I often think of it these days, especially with Shankill still moving about.  I thought you had ended him.”

Barnabas grunted, then inched a little closer to her until their heads were touching.

“He should be destroyed,” he said, “but I have begun to suspect that there is something else out there controlling him.  The puppet no longer has strings, but he remains a puppet.”

“This Bilal you mentioned has violet eyes like ours?”

“I believe so, although I could have sworn they changed colors at times.”

“Are you going to tell me why the three of us have the same eyes?”

Barnabus sat in silence.  Slowly, and with apprehension, he moved his paw to hers.

“One day, when I have the courage to tell you.  Truthfully, though, I do not understand how he has the same eyes.”

“With regards to me,” she said softly, “does it have something to do with how you brought me back?  You have never brought back anyone else who was destined for a Garden, but you did for me.”

“I’m not sure I am capable of doing it a second time, to be honest.”

Marley nodded acceptance of this, even though she still did not receive the answers she wanted.  Her paw tightened against his and she slouched against him, resting her head on his shoulder.

“How many bears are we going to lose,” she asked in a soft voice.

“I do not know, dear heart.”  His voice was husky and she knew him well enough to recognize the frustration and wrath in his voice.

“Well, even we need to rest, especially one of such a great age as you,” she said teasingly.  “Later you will need to tell me what happened with the Good Folk.”

“Will do,” he responded in a similar tone, “little girl.”

They both smiled and within moments, the imaginary wind was rustling the felt on a pair of unusual looking stuffed bears.

The Children of Bilal

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 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 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, Bilal slipped 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 need 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 at 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 in 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 have 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 tailored 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?”

“There is.”

“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.

Bilal chuckled.

“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 aim raatan 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 into 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 wall, 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 gray.  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.

The Prismatic Pearl

Marley trudged through the storm.  She was certain it wouldn’t be much and passed a number of potential refuges.  Of course it began to rage after she had nowhere to take shelter. She grimaced and pushed through the weather, but it was getting more difficult as her plush insides became soaked through.

She again regretted not setting off with Barnabus, but they needed information.  Thoughts of the bear came back to her and the concerns that something is changing within him.  His fury was growing, but so was his unstoppable strength.  He didn’t care for the nickname when she called him the Apocalypse Engine, that was evident.  He did not vocalize a complaint, though.  Marley smiled, knowing that she was the only one who could talk to him that way.

He went off on an unspecified errand and she found herself in some tropical climate, feeling the water squishing through her felt and plush body.  Something drew her here, but it was pure intuition.  There was no clue what pulled her attention to this place in the middle of what must be a hurricane.

The sight of a low overhang, further shielded by vegetation, was a welcome discovery.  Huddling into shelter, Marley’s mind began to replay so many thoughts that had been weighing on her.  Barnabas doesn’t lie, as such, but he is careful with what he divulges.  She was certain that he was withholding something and it gnawed at her.  A direct confrontation had no chance of success.  The bear would close up, she knew, and wouldn’t be talkative.  He had to be drawn out somehow.  Whatever he wasn’t saying could be disastrous for them all.  

Then the question of the bear Bilal came to her mind:  Who was he?  Teddy seemed to be familiar with him, but no word or sense of his presence ever reached her.  He was certainly a strong warrior and was seemingly defending Amman without aid, but how?  One bear defending such a large territory seemed preposterous.

While deep in her musings, the storm had begun to wane, and even some rays of sunshine were peeking through the clouds.  Dragging her sodden mass upright, Marley resumed her walk through the vegetation.  It wasn’t long before she reached a magnificent beach that stretched off to both sides, disappearing at the curve of the coastline.  She sighed and began to stretch, the water squeezing out of her in waves.  Through the sound of it smacking into the sand, a barely perceptible giggle caught her attention.  Marley turned slowly and saw a figure in the distance.  It had an odd sparkle in the sunlight, particularly around the center of the form.

Walking along the beach, water still squishing out of her plush body, Marley’s hair began to stand.  There was something entirely wrong about how the figure moved.  The rest of the form was bone-white, the arms making flowing gestures while the rest was stiff and rigid.  The strange glint was coming from the creature’s chest, sending off twinkles of varying colors.  

Drawing closer, Marley realized it was the strangest doll she had ever seen.  The entire body was porcelain and, but for the arms, moved stiffly or not at all.  The flecks of color erupted from a gray pearl, the surface of which was an ever changing field of colors, ebbing and flowing as though alive.  The doll’s facial features were highlighted by delicate brushstrokes that might have been intended to enhance the artist’s skill, but instead gave it a horrifying rictus.  The eyes were filled with a malicious amusement at the bear, mocking giggles emanating from the mouth.

“Look at the tubby little bear,” the doll trilled, spinning in the air, sending the ringing laughter throughout the air.  “What do you seek, chubby, little bear?  Another pot of honey?”

Marley looked down at her still-bloated form, returned her gaze to the doll, raising her eyebrows in a sardonic expression.  Wisps of steam began to drift out of her clothing, rising in volume until it began to seep through the fabric.  She felt her stretched clothes loosen on her diminishing form.  The doll’s laughter began to trail off, staring in confusion as the bear dried out.

Marley shook off the remaining drops of moisture and straightened up.  A small hand pulled back her long coat, revealing the hilt of The Queen.  The doll resumed laughing.

“Poor little, floof, your precious little sword will do nothing to me.”

Marley was certain she was wrong when it came to this sword, but let her coat fall closed.  Instead, she shifted her legs, left foot forward, raising her little fists.  Again, there was more laughter, causing a grim smirk to tug at her muzzle.

The laughter stopped when the first blow landed on the doll’s cheek, causing cracks to spread across the pristine surface.  Rocking back, the doll was thrown to the side when the second fist landed.  Marley landed on her feet, watching the cracks writhe as they knit themselves together.

The shriek of rage caused Marley’s muzzle to spread in a smug smile.

“Hmm,” she cooed, “you seem to think that no bears are capable of unarmed combat,”  She smiled sweetly at her opponent.  The crack had disappeared.

The doll began to issue a retort when the bear rushed in again.  Marley ducked under the sharp nails that threatened to rip her open, her tiny fist slamming into the creature’s midsection.  Another spider web of crack spread across the smooth, white porcelain.  She continued the assault, large slivers of the material sailing through the air with each strike.

The doll began to shriek in fury, swinging wildly at her nemesis.  Marley easily side-stepped and dodged every one of them.  The cracks continued to seal up almost as soon as they appeared.  When a blow landed near the pearl, the doll began screaming in an inhuman screech, doing its best to shield the treasure.  Marley narrowed her eyes, and charged again, head lowered until her muzzle was pointed at the ground.  She tensed her shoulders and back, using those muscles to power her blows.  Arms pumping like pistons, the doll’s defenses were being worn away until Marley saw her chance.

It took three blows to open a hole in the doll’s chest.  Before it could close, Marley’s hand darted in and closed around the pearl.  She wrenched it free, causing her opponent’s shrieks into a mournful howl, desperately clutching at the air, but the bear had already rolled out of reach.

Marley felt a surge of strange energy climbing up her arm, leaving a feeling of peace.  The thoughts that invaded her mind were pushed aside.  She could examine those later, after she ended the creature before her.  Without a word, she drew The Queen.  This time the doll’s face was twisted in fear.  The cracks in her body had stopped reforming.  Chips and fragments fell out of the face, and the doll collapsed on the sand as Marley resolutely approached and ended the nightmare.

Enveloped in Shadows

The route through the cave passages went from colossal avenues to narrow passages.  The bear remembered the path quite well, even after so much time.  He never cared for the place, feeling that it was a cliche nightmare, that of the monster in the cave.  Every passage he passed held eyes watching him, but none would intrude on the bear’s journey.  They were old enough to remember his past and guarded their continued existence.

No concept of time could be grasped in this place.  Always, when exiting, you were a moment behind when first entering.  Barnabus knew this and occasionally ensured that he met himself to relay what would happen inside.  Regardless of his familiarity, Pugmulch was often troublesome to locate until his scent wafted through on the wind.  This time he found the goblin waiting for him by a small, bright fire.

Pugmulch was a squat figure, possessing a bulging stomach, an incongruous sight on the skinny frame.  Its skin was a repulsive mix of brown and yellow.  The lank hair was thin and brushed across the shoulders.  It looked at Barnabus and gave a grin that exposed a mouth of crooked, blackened teeth.

“Old bear,” Pugmulch said with a sneer.  “You only return when there is a problem.  It pleases me when you admit to being ignorant of something!”  The goblin cackled, the sound ringing through the cave passages.  When the reverberating din settled down the bear could hear things scuttling in the dark.

“Remember who I am, you miserable imp.”  Pugmulch flinched as Barnabus walked past him, taking a seat on a rock on the other side of the meager fire.  The bear was growing curious about that.  Goblins despise fire.

“Why are you sitting in the open, Pug.  You’ve never been keen on open spaces, even in this cave.”  Barnabus looked around at the substantial chamber.  The piles of stone, though, created many shadows and places to hide.  The bear drew the shaytan’s dark blade and began sharpening it on a stone.  The rasping sound spread out through the passages.

Pugmulch gulped, a ripple running through his throat.  

“Look, bear, things aren’t what they were,” he said, eyes scanning the shadows.  “This place is being consumed.”

Barnabus looked at him with a curious gaze before subtly scanning their surroundings.  There was something strange happening to the rock that he missed on the journey in.  The walls looked as though they were crumbling into dust.

“They are devouring this place.  Eventually it will spread throughout the realms of nightmares.  They feed on it, growing stronger with every one,” the pathetic creature said in a low voice.

“If you stay here, Pug, you will be destroyed.”  Barnabus’ voice was flat, possessed of a clinical inflection.

“It is what the thing is,” the goblin replied.  “Old nightmares disappear all the time,” he said with a chuckle.  “Well, most do so.”

The bear stood, looking at his surroundings.

“We are leaving, Pug.”

The goblin’s face screwed up in terror.

“Outside,” he squealed, clutching the rocks around him.

Barnabus sighed.

“I am, yes, but that is not how you will.”  He approached the cowering figure.  “Look into my eyes, goblin.”

Pugmulch realized what was about to happen, and gave a hushed squeal.  He stared into Barnabus’ violet eyes, feeling his body becoming insubstantial, fading into nothingness.

Barnabus concentrated, creating a cave system in his mind, sensing the goblin’s relief at familiar surroundings within the bear’s imagination.  Shaking his head to clear the muzzy feeling of drawing the nightmare into himself before turning to walk away.

The Walking Storm

Bilal enjoyed the warmth of the setting sun on his fur.  The moment was so blissful that he was able to block out the sounds of a busy city.  He prefers the morning light, slowly heating the world and driving back the darkness.  It was a signal of a respite from the constant hunt for the things that go bump in the night.

The last rays were fading over the horizon before he sighed, turning to leave.  The bear paused when something appeared in the corner of his vision.  Fog was slowly creeping through the streets, but some of it was rolling through a side street.  It was moving with a purpose, drifting into alleys before drawing back, only to flow in another direction.  The mist was being controlled by some manner of intelligence.

Bilal squinted his eyes, trying to see within the murk, but there was no sign of a form hiding inside.  Slowly, two swirling shapes appeared, resolving themselves into large, murky eyes, one noticeably larger than the other.  Staring, he realized this was nothing known to these lands.  If that is not born of the desert, Bilal thought, then where did it come from?

Staying on the rooftops, Bilal began following the mist.  No real sense of malice emanated from the thing, but he was certain it was in pursuit of mischief.  Whatever the creature was, there was no evidence of concern regarding Bilal’s presence.  The route was convoluted, marked by numerous false trails it seemed to Bilal, but as they traveled further, the fog moved with more certainty.  The bear could learn nothing from observing the thing and heartily wished that Barnabus was close enough to contact.

No sooner had Bilal thought of the old bear, there was a shout in his mind.

“I am a bit busy right now, Bilal.”

Barnabus’s voice was clear, but there were other, fainter speakers behind his words.

“Pug, just tell them to be quiet!  I need to concentrate on too many things for all this racket!”  

The buzz of voices subsided.

“Barnabus, where are you?”

“The Nightmare Planes.  Something is consuming them one by one.”

“Who is with you,” Bilal asked.

“Just you never mind.  Were you needing something?”

“Yes, yes, there is some manner of intelligent fog drifting through Amman.  There is nothing like it in my experience.”  

“Walk where it may be seen.  I am able to see through your eyes.”

Bilal was recalcitrant to allow the old bear such access to his faculties, but recognized the need.  When he looked down at the fog again, the eyes swirled open once more.  Barnabus spoke in a language Bilal did not understand, but still readily knew it to be a swear.

“Mind your language, old bear,” he chided softly.

“What is one of them doing there,” he exclaimed.  The buzz of other voices resumed, but louder than previously.  The touch of those voices made Bilal’s fur bristle.

“Barnabus, what are you traveling with,” he gasped.

“Never mind!  You have a caillech on your hands to deal with, and that is paramount to what I am up to!”

“A what?”

“Caillech.  An Irish hag, or witch, or whatever you choose.  It seems peaceable enough, but that could change at any time.”

“How do I approach it?”

Barnabus sighed.  “With greater care than I would,” the bear admitted.  “I cannot get to you, but I may be able to get Marley there.  Take no action without her.  She’s dealt with hags before.”

Bilal tried to ask another question, but the touch of the bear’s mind was gone.  The sound of heavy boots caused him to turn.  Standing before him was a bear in a crimson abaya, clothes of gray further trimmed in deep red, and casually holding a large, wooden sword of a design Bilal had never seen.

“Marley, I presume,” he said, lowering his gaze and giving her a bow.

Returning the gesture, the strange bear looked at him quizzically.

“And you must be Bilal.  Something must be significant for the old bear to expend so much energy to throw me halfway around the world to you.”

Bilal met her gaze and saw the same violet eyes as his own.  This caused him considerable curiosity, but filed it away for later.

“Barnabus said this fog is a caillech,” he began, but his words trailed off as Marley rushed to the roofs edge to confirm.  She made a small groaning sound after seeing the fog.

“That old bear owes me for not responding himself,” she said, the words flat and emotionless.

“How do we approach it?”

Marley looked at Bilal in shock.

“That’s different.  I’m more accustomed to more direct action.  This is refreshing.”

Bilal snorted, then took a new interest in the caillech.

“I have a feeling that it is searching.  See how the fog is making contact with every door?”

Marley looked closer, nodding slowly.

“What could be so valuable to bring it all the way from Ireland,” Marley pondered.

The bears continued to follow along the rooftops.  It wasn’t long before light rain began to fall.  Bilal made a sound of annoyance, but that turned to shock when he felt a wave of heat emanating from his new traveling companion.  The moisture was hissing as it struck the barrier.

“You must teach me this trick,” he chuckled.

“It’s useful,” she said, “but it won’t work with heavier rainfall than this.  It will dry you out rather easily afterwards, though.  We’ll work through it later.”

Bilal nodded in agreement, returning his attention to the creature below them.  He felt no malice from it, but there was something, some mix of frustration and anger.  Was this how it existed?  An eternal sense of disquiet?  Reaching the end of the alley, it paused for a moment, suddenly darting down the street.

“I think whatever it seeks has been found,” said Marley.  Wordlessly, Bilal held out his paw.  Curious, she grasped it with her own and he walked them out onto thin air, picking up his pace until both bears were racing down an unseen ramp.  Back on the street, he released her paw and they rushed to catch up to their quarry.

The caillech had stopped outside a shop, tendrils reaching out to touch the door.  They retracted quickly, as though experiencing pain.  Bilal felt the sense of outrage emanating from the fog, and looked at the store’s sign.  It was The Global Curio Emporium.  He knew it as an importer of strange items from around the world, but it wasn’t a significant dealer in antiquities.  Marley glanced at the sign in incomprehension, turning to face the creature which seemed to be collapsing into itself.  The form of a woman began to coalesce; neither young or old, handsome or ugly, but a pleasant visage nonetheless.  

The woman began to speak in a language Bilal had never heard.  It was aural beauty and entrancing to listen to, but so alien that he could not even guess the origin.  Marley stood her ground, her sword ready.  Her eyes were slitted and the lips of the bear’s muzzle moved faintly.  To Bilal’s shock, after a few moments she began to speak rapidly in the same language.  The caillech stood patiently, head tilted to one side as the bear spoke.  When Marley had finished speaking, the creature nodded gravely as if agreeing to a bargain it accepted.

“Marley, how do you know its language,” he asked.

She turned her eyes and smirked.

“If I can hear just enough of a language, I can speak it fluently.”

Bilal nodded and grinned.  Turning back towards the building, he realized there was a faint light inside.

“Odd, I believe someone is inside at such a late hour.  Shall we?”

“Let’s.  She has agreed to do nothing and allow us to handle this, though she will be present.”

Confrontation

Barnabus had grown weary of listening to his “passengers” incessant chatter.  He had only intended to leave with Pug, but encountered so many pleading voices along the way that he could not leave them to be destroyed.  Many of them had been turned to things of fear by people’s beliefs and not began their existence as such.  Their presence in his mind had made navigating through the dreamscape difficult and time-consuming, but he finally arrived at his destination.

“Alright,” he grunted, “get out!”

A mass of figures began to materialize around him.  It had not occurred to the bear how many creatures he had spirited away.  There appeared to be hundreds.  Barnabus took some time looking them over, making guesses on what they would require for an environment to be their new home.  He turned and stared at the void surrounding the patch of seeming earth they stood upon, his face tightening in concentration.  Violet light began to seep through his eyelids, similarly colored smoke escaping his nostrils and through clenched teeth.  

The creatures surrounding the bear stepped away from him, fearful of what he might do.  The empty void began to crack and tearing sounds could be heard as dream material was rend asunder, reshaping before them.  It was some time before the noise died away.  All that could be seen was an ornately carved door.  Slowly, the portal began to open revealing a corridor beyond.  The spirits drifted into the corridor, entering the doors which felt compelling to them.  Pug was the last, pausing just a moment to look at Barnabas.  With the bear’s nod, the small creature entered his door and disappeared.

“Welcome home,” Barnabus said with satisfaction in his voice.

“Just like that, the mighty Barnabus saves a horde of nightmares from destruction.”  The tone was a snarl, the words forced between clenched teeth.  Baranabus did not turn when he replied.

“Are you following me, Teddy?”  He could feel the rage emanating from the bear.  It was almost a physical presence.

“Why did you save them?”

“They did not form out of fear, but were made into such.  Reshaped by the minds of people into what they are now, Teddy.  They have long inhabited the worlds of existence just the same as humans, but were forced into what you see today.”  

“Yet what they are today are nightmares that would have simply drifted into oblivion had you not brought them here.  How did you create an entire plane of existence for them?”  Teddy demanded answers, but Barnabus had spent many long years avoiding questions like these, and remained reluctant to answer them.

“Teddy, you know there are no answers here for you,” the bear started, adding quickly, “but there will be one day.”

The last line was parodied by the other bear in a sing-song voice.

“Barnabas, I could start other voices asking the same questions if I choose to do so.  You have always said that I was the first teddy bear, but you existed before my eyes ever opened.  One day soon you will begin answering questions.”

Barnabus opened his mouth to speak, but was interrupted.

“Marley is becoming like you and I sense something familiar in that young bear Bilal.  I don’t know what you are, but, if it comes to it, I will turn every bear against you.  You won’t give me answers now, but they will be forthcoming soon enough.”

Teddy stepped backward, disappearing as he did so, leaving Barnabus alone.

A Mother’s Rest

The woman had been exhausted for days, ever since the birth of her child.  The old women had been robbing the mother and child of sleep with their constant chattering.  They kept the lights on throughout the night and day, hovering over the pair in the bed.  They declared that, for the safety of mother and child, the lights would remain on and the group would remain in the room for ten days and nights.  Conversations regarding ancient demons occasionally took place with low voices, the words often inaudible to others in the room.  Their certainty of belief in fear led the old women to be overbearing and demanding of those in the house.  The young woman was terrified of the impact these actions would have on her and the tender child beside her.

She had lost track of the days, but it was evident that a ferocious argument was taking place.  In her fatigued state, she was unable to make sense of the words, but the vitriol permeated the house.  She eventually realized that she and the baby were alone and the argument had moved downstairs.  

People must be forcing the old woman from the house, she thought.  This comforted her and seemed to do likewise for the little boy, whose almost perpetual frown was disappearing.  He yawned, flexed his little fingers, and slipped into sleep.  She watched him through blurred vision before following him into slumber.  What she did not see was the shadow detach from the wall, resolving itself into the figure of a bent, old woman, much like those who continued to howl protests from the street.

The figure stayed in the corner, patiently waiting as the day slipped past and into the night.  Once the room was dark, lit only by what light filtered in through the curtains, did the figure move further into the room.  People had checked on the pair in the bed several times throughout the day, being careful not to wake them.  Now, she and the child were alone.  Vulnerable.

The creature began making low cooing sounds, almost like a strange, guttural chuckle.  Features and shape became more defined as it moved, looking every bit of an old woman.  That image began to twist as fast as it had solidified, with joints swelling and talons pushing out through the fingertips.  The back went from being bent to growing a large hump, twisted and knotted.  Lank, greasy hair began to ooze from beneath the hijab.  The strange sound emanating from the creature changed into a victorious chuckle as it approached the bed.  The face contorted as its mouth opened as a great maw, sharp, needle-like teeth growing to unnatural lengths.  It stopped, though, at the sound of a voice coming from another corner of the room.

A small, stuffed bear walked out into view, causing a mocking laugh to begin crawling from the creature’s throat.  The sound ended abruptly at a tapping sound from behind.  Another bear was now visible, tapping her palm with the edge of a wooden scimitar.  Turning back, the creature was startled by a third bear, this one standing over the young mother, her golden fur almost glowing in the weak light.  She was holding an intricately ornamented club.  Turning around to look at the entire room, the creature was confronted by more bears, all armed with wooden weapons.  It snarled for some time before distinguishable words began to ring out.

“What is this,” it demanded, “and who are you to disrupt my work?”

They didn’t speak but closed in around the creature.  It continued to rail against the intrusion, but no response was forthcoming.  The creature’s frustration shifted to alarm as two weights struck it from behind.  Two bears had leapt on its back, forcing the creature to the floor.  The bears all stepped in, silently ending the thing on the floor.  All but the golden bear, who still hovered protectively over the mother and child.  She gently brushed the cheeks of her sleeping charges, and gave each the slightest of kisses.  She straightened up and stood guard, her eyes unblinking, as the other bears retreated back into the shadows they had been occupying.

The room remained peaceful the remainder of the ten days.

A Caged Mind

The workshop, as always, existed in a state of disarray, with the exception of an area around the center.  It appeared as though someone just cannot be bothered to tidy up past a certain point and dwelt in a microcosm in the center of chaos.  Fantastic creations stood in the corners, caked with dust, while the little sphere of order bristled with raw materials.  Carefully arranged bins of bolts, a few small stacks of wood waiting to be shaped, and jars of fresh paint were all in there, although the latter were showing some dust, as though the owner forgot they existed.

Teddy walked to a corner where a small device caught his eye.  At first glance it appeared to be a metal disc, something akin to an over-large pocket watch.  As he looked closer, it was a series of hoops, nestled within one another, and at the center a small, polished stone of some sort.  He began to wipe away the dust, curious at wonderful craftsmanship.  As the dust came away, he realized that the hoops were wood, finely inlaid with a dull, yet iridescent, metal.  His touch did something to the device, causing the hoops to begin turning, picking up speed quickly.  The movements were too quick to be certain, but he suspected they were frequently reversing directions and some of the hoops seemed to move through one another.

The bear stared intently, but the movement was too erratic to focus on for long.  After a short interval, the lines of the hoops disappeared and seemed to coalesce into something like a mirror.  Teddy began to smile at the image that developed on the curious surface, showing him a happier time.  As suddenly as it appeared, though, another image bled through, drawing an immediate growl from the bear, who turned and smashed the thing against a nearby cabinet.  A weak, hollow voice in the center of the room began to chuckle, stopping to wheeze at times from the effort.

“What’s the matter, squinting little bear?  Did you not like that little toy?  I devised it to remind its owner of humility by a juxtaposition of the viewer’s happiest moment before being opposed by the worst of their actions.  Humility has never been your forte, though.”

The bear turned swiftly, snarling at the ancient man behind the workbench.  His sightless eyes were upturned, the frail body shaking with laughter until a series of long, wracking coughs took away his breath.  Regardless, his face remained a rictus, highlighting the mirthless humor he was enjoying.

“Your world became dark from too many such comments, old man,” Teddy said, walking to the bench before continuing.  “Which led you here, to this place where death cannot reach that tattered, miserable shadow of a soul you possess.”  The words dripped with mockery, the loathing evident in every barked word.

“Poor little bear, still so frustrated after these long years of searching for answers that continue to elude you.  Tell me, do you still pursue nightmares to stop or has this existence been entirely consumed with this search?  Ah, the silence speaks as a choir, rich and harmonious to my ears..”

Teddy began to snarl again, hissing through clenched teeth.

“You will never leave this undying existence, old fool.  You will be consumed yourself in efforts to aid me in the search for truth.”

“If you think this bear is other than what he seems, why have you not acted as your namesake would?  He would have gathered brave souls and charged headlong into chaos in search of a goal.  Yet, you lack that courage and determination to see the quest completed through valor.  Rather, your time is spent stalking for what you desire and using manipulation and my devices in place of cunning and a keen mind.”

The bear leapt forward, sweeping a pile of food into the further recesses of the chamber.

“You may not starve to death, but the hunger will be real enough.  Next time you might lose another foot.  I require more nightmare cages.  Now.”

The old man sighed, retrieving a number of hollow spheres formed out of intricately woven wire.  He slipped them into a bag before handing it to the bear.

“I figured it was time you had run out, so I already made more.”

Teddy looked into the bag, nodded in satisfaction, and tied it to his belt.  He smirked at the unseeing man before turning to exit.  He barely paused when the old man spoke again.

“What is it like, little bear, when you become as great a horror as those you are created to battle?”

A slight rustling sound told the man that the bear was gone.  He sighed, reaching down to rub the stump at the end of his leg.  The pain will never cease, always a throbbing reminder of what brought him to this fate.  He reached up and, with long practice, scooped a small amount of grease from a nearby pot and rubbed it around the other ankle where the manacle was beginning to rub the flesh raw again.  The rustle of the chain left a knot in his chest and the tears came again.

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