Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Last Day

That's it! I'm done! < insert large sigh of relief here >

From Miriam's request, I managed to add a quick little bit about "why Ixy," though it's still pretty vague. There was no way I was going to make it back to have any followup with Elisa, though (Jaden's ex, from chapter 1). Sorry.

If anybody wants it, you can get the whole thing as a PDF file (330k, 159 pages, minimal formatting).

Chapter 30

Jaden watched the dream lord warily, not knowing what to expect. He was more conscious now of their audience again, hovering in the air above and around them, and the forest seemed to slip away until it was just the two of them on a small, grassy patch of earth, facing each other.

It didn't look as though the dream lord was carrying any weapon, other than the scepter. Jaden figured that probably meant he had more to be afraid, rather than less. He continued to crouch slightly, trying to stay at the ready for whatever happened.

But he wasn't ready enough. The scepter flicked through the air like a wand, with a mere twitch from the wrist, and Jaden felt a searing pain slash across one cheek from something invisible. Another twitch of the scepter and this time Jaden swung his halberd across in front of him. Something metallic clanged off of it and cut his arm.

Not knowing what else to do now, Jaden threw himself at the dream lord slashing and jabbing wildly with his halberd. His opponent scarcely seemed to notice, but somehow the scepter appeared everywhere that Jaden struck, just a split second before, and in time to block every blow. Then it flicked out on its own and Jaden fell backwards with the wind knocked out of him.

He remembered the fights with the demons in the forest, and he tried to call to mind the dance hall, and the music, and Zoe. Gradually the secondary scene formed around him. There was a tango playing, with sharp, violent music. Why did it have to be tango? Zoe was in his arms again. He tried frantically to remember any tango at all, hoping to at least reconstruct the eight count basic in his mind. He took a step.

But then the dream lord was there in that world with him as well. He grabbed Zoe roughly, tore her from Jaden's arms, and threw her aside. Jaden saw her flicker and then fade away, and then he too was knocked to the ground. The dream lord ripped the music from his ears, and cast the dance hall into darkness. They were back again on the grassy arena. Clearly Jaden had no choice but to face his foe on his own terms.

He rolled over onto his back, and started to bring his weapon up in front of him, but then found the shaft of the halberd pinned to his chest. The dream lord had caught it with his scepter, and was knelt over him, pressing him down into the grass with his weight. Jaden couldn't move, could barely breathe.

And then the dream lord seemed to be inside his mind, twisting it and contorting it against his will. As Jaden had previously created a new dream of his own devising to overlay the battles, so now was the dream lord pulling him into another world. Jaden could still see and feel himself pinned to the ground, but now he was also present in a secondary reality.

He was in a torture chamber, strapped to a rack, his body covered with bruises and welts and bleeding gashes. The dream lord stood over him, brandishing a whip and laughing maliciously.

"So you think you can beat me at my own game, do you?" he sneered at Jaden. "Never! I will be the master of your dreams, and while you are in my realm, I will determine your reality."

And even as he spoke, Jaden could feel the original scene slipping away, and the torture scene becoming stronger, and more real around him. He tried to force his mind back to somewhere else, to pull a different reality back around himself, but the pain made it hard to concentrate.

"Pitiful!" the dream lord shouted at him. "Give it up! You have no hope here. You will merely die slowly, and dying here means that you will be completely and utterly destroyed."

He reached for the crank to give the rack another twist, but then froze. The world around them seemed to be shaking, or quivering. Then the torture chamber began to fade. Jaden felt barely strong enough to notice at this point, much less cause it, but who else could be imposing their will on this place? He began to feel grass beneath him again, and the pressure of the dream lord leaning on him from above, pressing the halberd shaft into his chest. One by one, pieces of the torture chamber winked out of existence.

Then the sky seemed to split and open above them.

Chapter 31

Lucy didn't know what it was that Malcolm had swallowed, nor why it should have the effect on him that it did.

His body stiffened momentarily, then quivered, and then he let out the loudest roar yet. Lucy was sure she would be deafened by it, but she couldn't tell whether it was a roar of triumph or despair, delight or pain. His attention seemed completely distracted, though, so Lucy took the opportunity to scoot over to where Gordon was recovering and trying to pull himself upright. She took his arm and helped him back farther into the crowd, behind a couple of large, petrified demons, where they could wait and watch from a bit of cover.

The roar faded out into the encompassing silence of the hall, and Malcolm's head, twenty feet above them, seemed to split across the top. A thin gray mist came out, slowly at first and then faster, spinning down in a spiral to encircle Malcolm's body. Within moments he was only a large, vague shadow in a giant column of gray. Then the mist began spinning faster and faster, until it took on the appearance of a stationary tornado. Gordon and Lucy thought they heard another roar beginning, then decided that they must have been mistaken, and that it was actually thunder. They cowered further behind their demon statues.

And then the tornado slowed, and the spinning mist began to clear. Behind it, the dinosaur demon was gone, and there stood a towering figure in a white robe, with an amulet suspended from a red cord around his neck. He had black hair that stuck out from his head at spiky angles, his face was thin and pale, and his eyes so very dark that they seemed to be composed of nothing but night.

He stood with his face and arms upturned for a moment, and then lowered them with a sigh that might have indicated relief or contentment, or both. When he looked down he saw Gordon and Lucy and began to walk towards them. As he walked he shrank, until he stood before them, the size of a normal adult man. His voice when he spoke was smooth and warm, and seemed to come from within each of them, soothing and relaxing them throughout their bodies.

"Thank you, Gordon Ross and Lucy Campbell," he said, nodding to each of them. "We have not the words, even here in the dreamlands, to properly express my gratitude."

"You… you're… welcome," stammered Lucy, as Gordon shook his head, thinking he must have been hit harder than he had thought. "But I'm not sure what we did. Or even who you are, now that you don't seem to be Malcolm anymore, at least."

"Whether you intended it or not," the man said, "you were instrumental in bringing events to this point, and for that I thank you. I am King of the Dreamlands, and you are honored guests of my realm."

Gordon and Lucy shuffled awkwardly a bit, then tried to bow and curtsy, but the Dream King waved them back up.

"There is no need for that here," he said. "Being King of the Dreamlands is really more like being a caretaker than a monarch, and I do not require strict subservience of my subjects."

"But, sir," Gordon asked, "what happened here? Where were you? What's going on?"

"I have spent the last year entrapped in the body of a minor demon," the Dream King explained, "known as Malcolm, as you are aware. Not only was my body not my own, but my mind and memories were stolen from me as well. Even now, some are still slowly making their way back to me from the far reaches of my realm.

"The one who calls himself a dream lord, and master of this castle, is but a villainous fiend. We had a dispute, and through trickery and stolen magic, he trapped me. I have been unable to fight back or free myself for these many months, until a chance accident gave me contact with your world. I did not understand this at the time, but it eventually led you to me. And you in turn were kind to me, and took me with you, and inspired in my small demon heart the bravery to fight for you. Your companion's amulet that the demon Bratch carried then provided the final catalyst for my transformation."

"That was Jaden's?" Gordon asked. "Where is he now? Is he okay? And were did Zoe disappear to? Did she just wake up?"

"So many questions…." The Dream King was silent for a moment, and his invisibly black eyes seemed focused on something beyond the normal senses.

"Jaden is in a duel for his life," he said. "Zoe was with him for a time, and may still be. I sense her slipping back and forth between worlds. They need our help, and we will go to them. But first I must release these creatures."

He went to one of the frozen demons that Gordon and Lucy had been hiding behind, and passed his hand in front of its face. The creature melted back into life, and stumbled slightly as its foot fell in completion of its interrupted step. It looked around, confused.

"Listen to me," the Dream King told it. "You and your kind are no longer under your master's command. You will return to your barracks, collect any belongings you may have, and disperse. Go, wake the others, and do as I bid you."

With a grunt, the demon slunk off and began seeking out the other soldiers in the crowd. Each one he touched was released from its paralysis. Gordon and Lucy watched nervously.

"There is nothing to worry about," the Dream King said, reassuringly. "They will not harm you against my wishes."

He then turned to a nearby elf, and released it in the same manner.

"You and the other guests of this hall may return to your homes and go about your business. We have no need to keep you here. Wake the others for me, and go."

The elf bowed elegantly, and floated off on light footsteps to carry out his task. The frozen crowd around them was gradually thawing and dispersing, with many of the creatures yawning and rubbing their eyes, or looking around confusedly as if having been awoken from a long nap. Gordon and Lucy watched in fascination, though they still kept close to the Dream King, who was given a respectful amount of space.

"And now we are ready," the Dream King said. "Let us find and rescue your companions."

He put a hand on each of their shoulders, and then everything around them seemed to wink out into blackness.

Chapter 32

As the split in the sky widened, Jaden could see the assembled audience disappearing. One by one they were vanishing. The dream lord had noticed this, too, and he looked worried about it now, though he still kept Jaden pressed to the ground with his scepter. The gap in the sky was edges with blinding light, but the interior was an even inkier black than the darkness around it.

And then out of the gap there stepped a figure in a white robe. He seemed only the size of an average man, but with one simple step he crossed from the gap in the sky to the ground, just a few yards from the combatants. Behind him stumbled the two Scottish kids, whose names Jaden had never gotten. They looked a bit disoriented, but seemed to be following the man of their own free will, which Jaden hoped was a good sign.

The dream lord had now stood up and was facing the white robed figure, on his guard. Jaden pulled himself up a little bit to watch, but tried not to draw any extra attention to himself. The man in the white robe spoke.

"Your games are over," he said. "Your demon army has been disbanded. These dreamers will now be free to go, and you will await my punishment."

"Is that so, your majesty?" the dream lord sneered. "And why should I? I might decide to simply lock you up in another useless little demon body again for a while. Or perhaps something you can't escape from so easily. And then I'll set myself up as King of the Dreamlands. I think we're about due for some changes around here, anyway."

As he spoke, though, Jaden noticed that the dream lord seemed to be weakening. His poise was beginning to falter. His voice, which had been so smooth and sinuous before was now becoming harsher, higher pitched, and jerky. He also seemed to be shrinking just slightly in relation to the Dream King.

"You will not," the Dream King said. "You know that you have failed in your one chance to depose me permanently, and already you are crumbling in your defeat. You cannot make such an offense against the laws of this realm and against its king without paying the price. In fact," he looked down at the shrinking figure that was now a full two feet shorter than him, "it appears that my personal revenge will be not only too late, but unnecessary."

The withering figure of the dream lord snarled and clenched a fist in the empty air, but the fist merely crumbled to dust and blew away on a small breeze that came out of nowhere. A strangled cry came from the twisted mouth and the hollow cheeks of his face.

"Go," said the Dream King calmly, "and may your next existence bring you more peace than this one has."

And he passed his hand in front of the crumbling form as he had done to free the frozen dream creatures in the Hall of Fear. But this time, the rest of the body crumbled and disintegrated, then vanished, leaving behind only a pile of dark robes, and a silver scepter on the ground.

"You may get up, Jaden," the Dream King said, and with a start Jaden realized he was still lying on the ground, jaw agape at the scene before him.

"Wha… what just happened?" he asked, getting unsteadily to his feet.

"Your opponent here was a villain, a scoundrel, and an imposter," the Dream King said. "I pray that you do not judge our land too harshly on his account. Now that I have returned, I will be seeking out any other such 'trophy hunters' that he may have corrupted, and they will be dealt with appropriately. You and your companions are, of course, free to return to your own world. Your dance partner has already awoken and is safe at home."

"Thank you," Jaden said. "But I'm not sure how to get home, actually. I'm not just dreaming, you see. One of the demons took the amulet that I needed to get back home."

"Us, too," Gordon chimed in. "Er, what I mean is, we got here sort of by accident. It was magic, but we didn't really know what we were doing. Are we going to be able to get home?"

"That will not be a problem," the Dream King said. "Come, stand before me."

Gordon and Lucy did so, and the King put a hand inside his robes.

"First, I feel as though I should return something to you," he said, and drew forth his hand, holding a small, stuffed toy kitten and offering it to Gordon.

"Is it safe?" Gordon asked, skeptically.

"Completely. Through one of your dreams a year ago, our late villain found this and used it to hold the magic that imprisoned me. Outside of the dreamlands, he thought it was safe from detection, but luckily for all of us, he was proved wrong. Now that I am whole again, that magic is dispersed, and this is once again a harmless toy. Take it home and do with it what you like."

Gordon took Ixy, and thanked the King, who now put a hand on both his and Lucy's heads.

"Close your eyes," he said, "and envision where you were just before you entered this land."

They did so, and Jaden saw them both fade, flicker, and vanish. The King turned back to Jaden.

"And as for you, Jaden," he said, "your amulet was the final catalyst that allowed me to regain my true form. I thank you for the loan of it."

He pulled the red cord from around his neck and offered it to Jaden, who now saw that at the end of it was the amulet Professor Oddbury had given him. The King pressed the amulet into Jaden's hand, pressing the button on it as he did so. Jaden's vision faded and flickered, as Gordon and Lucy had when he watched them disappear. Then everything was gone.

* * *

Professor Oddbury lay slumped and snoring in an arm chair, with the remains of his sixth cup of coffee on the desk nearby. He had desperately wanted to stay awake and on watch until Jaden came back, but he just couldn't handle the late nights anymore the way he used to.

The OneiroPorter was sitting quietly before him, a few small rows of lights winking on and off with a perfect regularity they had maintained since Jaden fell asleep several hours before. But now some of those lights began to speed up, and other, new ones joined in urgently. A valve clicked shut, cutting off the IV drip to Jaden's arm, and the machine began emitting a steady buzzing sound.

Oddburry shifted, murmured, and opened one eye reluctantly. Then both eyes shot open and he leapt to his feet, hurrying over to the machine, flipping switches and checking dials. On the bed inside, Jaden gave a gasp, and his eyes flickered. The purple dream field buzzing through the air was clearing, and Oddbury opened the machine to reach in and remove the needle from Jaden's arm. Jaden's eyes flickered again, and the professor laid a hand on his shoulder.

"Jaden? Jaden my boy? Are you alright? Can you wake up?"

Jaden shifted now, and groaned, but opened his eyes completely.

"Come along, let's get you out of there." The professor helped him out of the machine, and Jaden stumbled over to collapse in the chair that Oddbury had recently vacated.

"That," he said, "was about the least restful sleep I have ever had in my life. But I think I'd like to stay awake for a few days now, if I can. Have you got any more of that coffee?"

The End