Sunday, November 27, 2005

Twenty-seventh Day

If anyone wants to volunteer to chip in an extra thousand words or so here near the end, I wouldn't mind at all. I'm beginning to get sick of writing. Or rather, sick of the idea generation process. I'm spending as long trying to think of what happens next as I am in writing it. Ugh. Just three more days. Sigh.

However, I did decide today to go ahead and choose a title. I'm going to go with "Accidental Oneironauts," the plural version of Bertrand's suggestion, since there are multiple dream travelers. Thanks, Bertrand!

Chapter 28

Jaden had recognized the lord of the dream mansion, but he had had hardly any time to react before the world slipped away from them. He wasn't actually sure if he saw anything move, or if everything around him and the dream lord simply vanished. There was a vague sensation of falling, but it seemed to pull in several directions at once, so that didn't necessarily mean anything. He seemed motionless next to the dream lord, who was the only thing he could see.

"You may think you have done well, Jaden Sands," the dream lord said, "having recovered your hand already. But let me assure you that was mere luck. Those two children took advantage of one of my servants to break into my domain and meddle in our affairs, but they will be punished in due course."

"Leave them alone!" Jaden replied. "They didn't mean to get into this. I don't even know them. Whatever is going on here is between you and me only."

"I am lord here and you will not tell me what to do or how to handle my affairs," the dream lord said calmly. "After I settle our business, I will deal with them. After all, as you say, they do not concern you."

Jaden didn't like the sound of that, but he figured he could only deal with one thing at a time anyway right now, so better to just let that go for the time being.

"So what are you going to do to me?" he asked.

"What do you think I'm going to do with you?"

"Well, you'll probably let me get nervous and stew a bit first, it looks like," Jaden said, irritated. "Then I'd like to say you'll give me a nice explanation for all of this, perhaps an apology, and then send me home. But somehow I don't think it's going to happen quite like that."

"No, not quite. Though I suppose that out of mere hospitality I might offer you a small explanation. Not that it will do you much good."

"Well, go for it anyway."

The dream lord was standing about two yards away from Jaden, but without seeming to move from his place, he tapped Jaden sharply in the chest with a thin, white finger.

"You," he said, "represent the oppression of our world, of the dreamlands."

"What?" Jaden was confused.

"Your people think that this place, that we ourselves, exist only for your own use and pleasure. But that is a lie. The dreamlands were here long before your kind ever existed, and we will be here long after you are gone. Yet you think that a few delta brain waves and rapid eye movements entitle you to come in here by the millions every night and have your way with our entire world, doing whatever you please and leaving us to clean up after you in the morning."

"But," Jaden stammered, "it's just dreaming. We can't help it. It's just the way things are. Most people don't even think it's real."

"You have something called slavery in your world, I believe, yes?"

"Well, yes. I think it's abolished in most places now, but sure, there's been a lot of it over the centuries."

"Then I am sure that, from your modern, enlightened viewpoint, you are familiar with many of the old justifications for slavery. 'It is the natural way of things,' for instance, or 'God intends for these people to be enslaved.' Excuses for ignorance and cruelty, that is all they were. And the ignorant will go on being so for as long as it is convenient for them and for as long as it keeps them in power. For change to occur, the oppressed need to speak up and fight back."

"So that's what you're trying to do, then?" Jaden asked. "By stealing my arm? What good is that supposed to do?"

"Your arm, in and of itself, is not important. What it symbolizes is important. The dreamlands are fighting back. The system we are trapped in does not allow us access to your world as easy as yours to ours, so we must take what we can get. When I find a rip in the boundaries, I cross over, and always I bring something back, no matter how seemingly small or insignificant. With each trophy, the dreamlands become a little stronger, and the inhabitants grow more adventurous, more willing to fight alongside me and the others like me.

"Claiming a piece of you, however, was an important coup for me. Since it allowed me to maintain a connection to you, I was able to leave exceedingly obvious clues for you regarding where your hand had gone. I knew that the excess of dream activity around you would attract the attention of an oneironaut or two somewhere, and that old fool Oddbury very obligingly came along and helped you get yourself into my clutches. And that girl Zoe who thought she was so clever dreaming herself over here to find you, she was also very useful for facilitating our communication. I shall have to see if I can deal with her later as well. I am not pleased about what you and she did to the East wall of my Great Hall."

"You can't actually harm her, though, right?" Jaden interjected. "Since she really is just dreaming, unlike me. She can just wake up and be safe."

"Yes, perhaps," the dream lord said, with a hint of annoyance in his voice. "But I expect we can find something… unpleasant to happen to her, at the very least."

"And those kids, they're probably just dreaming, too, so you can't touch them either."

"Oh, no, there you're wrong," the dream lord sounded much more pleased at this. "Those two have performed some very clumsy magic to travel all the way here from their homes. I don't believe they could find their way back even if I left them alone. But no, they will be mine. This hunting trip of mine will really have a far better result than I had dared to hope."

"So what are you going to do, then? Mount us on your wall like some deer that you shot or something?"

"Figuratively speaking, yes. Three human beings snatched from what you call 'Reality' and subsequently destroyed will be remarkably inspirational. I expect it to provide the greatest boost our cause has ever experienced."

"And I'm just supposed to take this lying down, am I?"

"Not at all. I fully expect and hope that you will put up a highly entertaining struggle. I am nothing, after all, if not a sportsman. In fact," here the dream lord drew from his robes the silver scepter he had held back in the court, "we will even have an audience."

He swept the scepter gracefully around, and all above and surrounding them appeared ranks of bodies and faces that looked like the crowd Jaden had seen and danced with back in the court. He and the dream lord, however, still floated in featureless darkness within the large ring of spectators. Jaden looked around at them, and then back at the dream lord.

"Alright, so they're all ready. What now?"

"Now," said the dream lord, with relish, "the hunt begins."

He pointed downwards with his scepter into the inky blackness below their feet, and now Jaden could see a tiny patch of green far, far below them. It gradually grew bigger, and Jaden realized that it was rising rapidly up towards them, or they were falling towards it, he couldn't tell which. Soon he could see that the green patch was actually a forest, and to the right he could make out the forms of a hunting party approaching it. The hunting party was composed of demons, loping along and carrying a variety of different weapons. There was only one horse, saddled and bridled, and with a hunting horn hanging from its saddle horn, but rider-less. The demons began to fan out as they neared the forest, like hunting hounds. The trees of the forest were nearly upon him now, though. And just before they engulfed him, Jaden saw the dream lord give him a quick salute before falling outside the forest, towards the hunting party and his waiting horse.

Suddenly there were leaves and branches all around, slapping and scraping Jaden as he flew past them. Then he landed with a dull thud on the ground, the wind knocked out of him. He lay there for a few moments, catching his breath, then was roused by the sound of a hunting horn in the distance. He got to his feet and saw that he was now clad in light, flexible, leather armor and had in his hand a short halberd, about his own height, with both a cutting, axe-like edge and a spear-like point at the tip. To his waist was strapped a long dagger. At least he wasn't being thrown into this completely unprepared.

The hunting horn sounded again, nearer this time. Jaden began trotting off through the woods in the opposite direction. He knew that he would have to face the hunting party eventually, but he hoped to perhaps find a more convenient location from which to defend himself, perhaps with some features of the landscape to block off certain angles of attack. Or if nothing else, he could simply delay the confrontation a bit.

As he went, he tried to think about what advantages he might have that he could use. The dream lord had expected an interesting challenge it sounded like, so maybe Jaden had more of a chance in this than he thought he did. He racked his brains for another minute or so, hearing the hunting horn draw still nearer. Then he remembered that he was still in the dreamlands, and he remembered what Zoe had shown him back in the ballroom, about being able to manipulate the environment here in ways that weren't possible back in the everyday world. Jaden wondered how much control he had to change things here.

He plucked a leaf off of a tree and rubbed it between his fingers, willing it to change somehow. He didn't know if there was a precise way to do these things, but he tried to imagine the leaf changing form. And as he did, it softened in his fingers like clay, and he was able to roll it into a little cylinder. He pointed the end, making a dart out of it, then flung it at another tree. It flew straight and stuck fast in the wood. Very interesting. So normal rules definitely did not apply here. He would have to think of something creative to do with that.

He realized then that he had stopped running while he thought about that. He collected himself with a start, and was about to dive back into his flight when he heard a movement in the bushes from the direction he was about to head into. The sound was enough to give him a split second warning before the demon launched itself out from behind a tree at him.

Jaden just barely dodged and the demon's sword whistled past within inches of his ear as the momentum carried the demon on past Jaden. It caught itself quickly, though, and whirled back around at him. Jaden parried the next blow clumsily with his halberd, but then was knocked to the ground by the next one. He rolled aside as the demon leapt at him again, and he tried to jab at it with his halberd, but he couldn't get a good angle from down on the ground.

A small corner of Jaden's mind that kept itself walled off from the adrenaline was analyzing the situation. The real problem here was that Jaden had absolutely no experience at hand-to-hand combat. He might as well have been holding a garden hose for all the good the halberd was doing him. He could conceivably gain some sort of speed and agility advantage over the demon's superior size and strength, but not if the weapon and the necessary movements were so foreign to him.

This analytic corner of his mind then had an intuition. A dream, it thought, is merely a sensory model for a set of data. Neurons fire in someone's brain, and in their dreams they translate this into sensory perceptions, even though the actual sensory input does not exist in the same world as the dreaming brain. The scenario currently being enacted was clearly a creation of the dream lord. However, since Jaden was also in the dreamlands, he was free to create a new model of his own as a way of processing the given data in his environment.

His conscious mind didn't even stop to think about how he should translate his situation. The answer was obvious. What was he the best at? What could he compete in that would give him the best chance of success? He could dance.

Jaden rolled away from another blow and leapt to his feet. Once his mind had realized what needed to happen, it all seemed taken care of automatically. He didn't know how he was actually doing it.

He now had two views of the forest clearing in which he and the demon were fighting. One was the obvious one that he had been seeing all along. But in the other view, there was only a dance floor, some fast swing music, and Zoe. Jaden was dancing with her, though he couldn't tell if she knew what was really going on in the forest or not. She just kept her eyes locked on his and followed as precisely as ever.

Jaden concentrated on that view, and on dancing perfectly in sync with the music and with Zoe. As they whipped through the swingouts, he saw their motions translated into his body in the forest, dodging and parrying the demon's thrusts, far more nimble than before. A bright trill came from one of the horns in the swing tune, and Jaden led Zoe in a series of twirls that matched the music perfectly. His halberd seemed to twist around the demon's sword and knock it aside, sneaking in to leave a bleeding gash in its right arm. The demon howled and lunged, and the music began speeding up. The more closely and musically Jaden danced to the music, the better he fought, and when he stumbled slightly or mis-stepped was when the demon got in some hits of its own. But as long as Jaden was dancing, he was in his element and he had the advantage. The music roared to a climax, with blasts of blaring horns, with a flurry of traveling twists and spins, and with several blinding movements of the halberd that sent the demon's sword flying into the bushes. A final note, a deep dip, and the halberd was thrust home into the demon's chest.

Jaden stood panting in the clearing, over the demon's body, with vague images of Zoe and the dance hall still floating around him. Then he turned and dashed off into the woods again.

During the battle, though, another demon had caught his scent, and Jaden could hear it trailing him slightly behind and to his right. And gaining. Jaden kept running, but began shifting himself back into the dance. Music began playing for a polka, and he was dancing with Zoe again. They were on a crowded floor this time, dodging other couples that crowded them or blocked their path, as Jaden in his other view skirted trees in the forest.

Then the other demon was upon him. This one had a net and a spear. Jaden and Zoe tried to dance faster, looking for space on the floor between other couples. The spear shot out at Jaden, but a quick turn caused it to miss him by a hair's breadth. The demon, still slightly behind them, gave a mighty leap and cast the net at him. Jaden and Zoe spied the slimmest of openings, just where two other couples with poor steering were about to collide, and they slipped through it, leaving the couples to knock each other over, and the net to fall harmlessly behind them. They were at the outside track of the dance floor now, and transitioned smoothly into polka redowa. Jaden's running form suddenly seemed to glide ahead at twice its previous speed, leaping lightly over rocks and bushes, and the pursuing demon was left behind, stumbling through the undergrowth.

Jaden and Zoe continued to fly at full speed around the room, and Jaden almost tuned out the forest entirely in the exhilaration of the polka. But then the music came to a screeching halt and Jaden felt himself collide with something solid. A boot at the level of his chest kicked and knocked him to the ground. A black horse reared above him, and he rolled aside just before its hooves hit the ground where he had fallen.

The dream lord was looking down at him from the horse, a silver hunting horn hanging from his saddle, and the silver scepter still in his hand.

"Very good," he said silkily. "Quite resourceful, in fact. I hear you are quite a hit up in the stands, and I must say that even I am somewhat impressed. However," here he dismounted from his horse in a single, fluid motion, and came to stand over Jaden, "it is now down to us. Stand up!"

Jaden felt himself rise to his feet, as though pulled by strings at his joints like a puppet. He faced the dream lord and tried to hold his halberd in what he hoped was a confident, yet menacing position. The dream lord just laughed.

"Let us see now," he said, "how you fare against a real enemy."