Tash's Nightmare Chapter 9
Azaroth promised to keep in touch with the couple via Charlie's crystal, hung from a leather string about his neck.
As for the island itself, it was tropical, the kind one might see in a movie or an ad for a pacific island vacation retreat: lush tropical forest interior with sandy white beaches ringing the shore. Except where the lake lapped up at the sand, it left a red stain, a marker that the island was anything but a vacation.
As for the forest itself, it wasn't nearly as beautiful due to the eternal twilight of the Nightmare realm, what with the scarlet clouds and the giant white moon shining down, giving an ethereal and decidedly creepy (some might say evil) aura to the place. And it was quiet.
"Too quiet," said Charlie to Susan as they walked through the forest.
Susan agreed, adding "and too green." And indeed, the couple had been dodging leaves and branches so green and full of life that they looked like they were plucked straight from a painting, completely out-of-place against the bloody backdrop of the Nightmare. "And I feel as if we're constantly being watched, like something is waiting to pounce," she said.
Charlie was about to agree when he was knocked to the side by a giant something that came from nowhere. "Augh! Sonofabitch!"
What had attacked Charlie wasn't a beast like they had seen before. It looked like a giant housefly, standing on two legs, with four hideous arms protruding from its abdomen. Its head was a bulbous mass, its once-human eyes now split into many like a cell undergoing mitosis. The lines between his many eyes secreted some sticky yellow goo. On its back were thin wings, four of them, exactly like an enlarged fly's, but asymmetrical, as if when they grew out of his back something went wrong and they came out deformed and misshapen. It was abuzz with fright and fury, like a giant angry wasp, or a horde of wasps, and in a flash Charlie had drawn Liar's Laugh from its sheath and gave the thing a sharp thrust, drawing the same yellow sticky fluid instead from his eyes, bursting forth in a fountain that wasn't natural. The thing backed off, inspected its wound, and then resumed a fighting stance.
Charlie raised Liar's Laugh as the thing rushed him, but a shot rang out and it suddenly went limp as another fountain of goo burst from the side of its head, its momentum slamming it into Charlie and knocking the wind out of him as he tumbled with the lifeless corpse to the ground.
"Yuck," said Charlie as he rolled the thing off him. He got up, now covered in goo and dirt, and looked over at Susan. Her rifle was still smoking. "Thanks," he said.
"Thought I'd help out," she quipped. "Are you okay? Anything broken?"
Charlie inspected himself over, looking at his goo-covered hands. "Nothing but a few scratches here and there," he said. His pants were torn down the side below his knee by the thing's razor sharp talons, and a thin line of blood appeared.
"You're bleeding," noted Susan, pointing it out.
"It isn't deep," Charlie reassured. "Now c'mon, I think I hear more of those things coming towards us."
Susan strained her ears, hearing the mad buzzing of more of those fly-things stampeding through the forest reached them, closing in at an alarmingly fast pace. The crystal pulsed, and Charlie took Susan's hand.
Go to the center of the island, advised Azaroth.
"But that's straight towards those things!" cried Susan.
Tash wants a show. He'll make sure you survive long enough to give him one.
"C'mon," said Charlie, gently pulling her forward, "she's brought us this far." Susan agreed, raised her head and swallowed her anxiety. Together with Charlie, her rifle at the ready, the two charged into the forest.
They had been running for at least five minutes when Susan suddenly stopped, grabbing Charlie's arm and he nearly tripped. "Woah!" he exclaimed and spun around with Liar's Laugh raised. "What? What is it? Where are they"
"Sssh," Susan hissed. "Do you hear it?" she asked.
Charlie strained his ears through, but all he could hear was the awful buzzing of the monsters. It was difficult to concentrate with those on their tail. "Nothing," he said. "Which is what we'll soon be, if we don't hurry!"
"Tell me what you hear."
"Those things!" he yelled, scared. "Now c'mon, before they make mincemeat out of us!"
"Exactly!" said Susan. "Those things are all we can hear. They're buzzing as if they are right up beside us, all around, but where are they?"
Charlie stood still, realizing she was right; that horrible buzzing really was all he could hear, but those things weren't in sight.. Gradually, his adrenaline slowed as he sensed they weren't in immediate danger, but he held Liar's Laugh at the ready. "Just to be safe," he said, and they continued forward.
Presently, they came to a clearing. The ground was smoking, smelling of burnt wood as if a fire had recently swept through the area. "Ugh," said Susan, covering her eyes and mouth.
"Try to stomach it as much as you can," Charlie advised her. "Otherwise, you're open for ambush." There was a change in his voice, like he spoke from first-hand experience. His voice was hardened, less like her sweet Charlie and more like the Charlie that haunted his own nightmares—the ghost of a soldier.
"You know this…from Korea?" she asked cautiously.
"P.J. training," he said. "We used to run obstacle courses with a about 120 lbs. on our backs to simulate a person, and we'd do this in the rain, snow, whatever. If you dropped the weight, you failed. And it wasn't always the environment: sometimes they'd just throw shit in your face—bottles, cans, cigarette butts, anything on hand, really—but you can't let it distract you. 'Cause if it did, and you dropped the load—"
"You would fail," Susan finished for him. Charlie looked at her and smiled.
"You got it."
Susan tried her best, and for short periods of time, perhaps a minute or two, she could withstand the smoke until her eyes watered and she erupted into a small fit of coughing. But when that was over, she'd hold out for another few minutes, and slowly she found she could withstand it for longer periods of time.
She looked around when she could. The clearing was nothing but smoking soil with green lush tropical forests ringing it, seemingly unaffected by the smoke. It was about the size of a soccer field, but in the middle, there shone a great golden gleam. As they got closer, she saw it was a man, or more specifically, a knight, clad in full golden armor, polished and shining brilliantly.
But they noticed that second. The first thing they noticed was the man occupying it, for he was burned. His skin was still attached to his skull, but not much, as if a charred elastic mask had been pulled over his eye sockets. Beyond that, the armor covered everything below his neck. He didn't seem to have a helm, and he leaned forward on an enormous great sword, the blade stuck a few inches into the soil. "What in the world…" Susan gaped, astonished. She looked closely, coming up to the knight and bending down to inspect the breastplate.
"Su, stay back," warned Charlie, but she didn't listen. Instead, she looked as close as she could, and noticed through the golden glare that part of the armor was sparkling, and the shade of gold was lighter.
"Charlie, come, look at this," she said. "There's a sort of design here. Maybe it can tell us where he's from—what world, maybe."
"It's a lion," Charlie said after a moment.
"A lion…?" she mumbled to herself. "Curious." She took a step back, and was shocked to see the royal insignia of Narnia. "Cair Paravel," she said to herself forlornly, for this was the insignia of Caspian X, after they had restored him to the throne and he had abandoned the Telmarine Narnian symbols.
And at that moment, a shadow fell over the sky. The two looked up to see a black figure in a flowing robe, spread out as if the cloak was a pair of wings, revealing talons for feet as it levitated above the knight. The specter lowered itself to a few inches off the ground, and with the beak of the hooded mask it wore, it kissed the knight on the head.
The Burned Knight awoke and raised its sword.
"Noble travelers," it spoke, and Susan immediately recognized its voice.
"Caspian?" she breathed, astonished, but before she could ask any more, Caspian slammed his giant sword into the ground angrily.
"Do not interrupt!" he shouted. He looked at the two, weapons raised, and continued. "Noble travelers, you have come far to seek the Nightmare's escape. But surely you know none escape Tash and his Nightmare?"
"Caspian!" shouted Susan excitedly, rushing forward. "Remember, it's Susan! High Queen Susan! We fought together against your uncle Miraz! Oh, please, please remember me!"
Caspian stared blankly, then swatted her aside and she went flying, hitting the ground with a roll. "Susan!" shouted Charlie as he ran to her side.
"I'm fine, I'm fine," Susan waved him off, then erupted into a fit of coughing.
Azaroth came through to both. That is not Caspian, she said. It's an imperfect phantom copy of Caspian X, assembled by Tash as a guardian of some sort.
Charlie stood up and faced Caspian. "Let us pass," he demanded.
"Beyond here lies the House of Illusion," said Caspian. "There is no escape from the Nightmare of Exalted Tash, the Irresistible, but if you wish to enter the house, I may be challenged for entry."
Azaroth's voice came through. Do it, she advised. This invisible house he speaks of holds the spell that keeps us from moving forward.
Susan came up beside Charlie, having recovered from her coughing fit. "What are the terms?" she asked.
"You will both fight me at once, to keep our match fair and honorable," said the Caspian Phantom. "To defeat me, only one of you must draw first blood."
"And for you to win?" asked Susan.
"My victory results in both of your deaths."
"What if we refuse?" asked Charlie.
"You have no choice in the matter." Then the Phantom raised its sword, and with surprising speed he rushed them, bellowing, "begin!"
They barely had time to dodge out of the way.
Susan had her rifle at the ready, constantly moving forward towards the Phantom and backing away when he attacked. Charlie stayed behind the trees at the edge of the clearing, calling out to Susan. "Su! Back off!"
It was no use. Though the giant Phantom was slow and lumbering, its armor clanging and clamoring as it stomped around, and though Susan was agile, one hit would do her in. Cursing under his breath, Charlie rushed forward and intervened, shoving Susan away from a swing of the Phantom's sword that would have taken her head off. "Get back behind cover," he commanded. "I'll join you. Run!"
"Don't shove me!"she shrieked, sudden anger flaring up within her. She dodged around another swing of the Phantom's sword. "I could've been killed!"
"I saved your life!" Charlie argued back, ducking under a wide swing of the Phantom's free hand. "I have a plan, just listen to me!"
Susan ignored him. "Y'know, I happen to have battle experience too," she reminded him, furious, as she rushed forward with her bayonet. She was too slow and the Phantom swung at her legs. She barely jumped over it in time. "I was the High Queen of Narnia! What do you think a queen does in wartime? Throw a picnic?"
"YES!" shouted Charlie. He dodged a stomp of the Phantom's legs, and tried to swipe at the gap in his armor at the back of the knee with Liar's Laugh, but he was too far away and missed by an inch. "That's what queens do!"
Charlie turned his head and went sprawling through the air, having been smacked by the Phantom's heavy golden hand, flying across the clearing as blood and phlegm trailed from his mouth and nose, knocked out of his body by the force of impact.
Susan's rage welled up to an unbearable point. The world slowed as her blood boiled. She saw red and she shrieked again, not from her throat but from somewhere deep within her soul, something less than human and clouding her mind, rendering her unable to think.
She gripped her rifle and bolted forward, swinging the bayonet wildly. She was still shrieking, over and over, as she forced the Phantom Caspian back, further and further, dodging around him and forcing him to defend on all sides. Her cries were inhuman, mimicking the mad beasts from the city. The silver blade of her bayonet flashed in the moonlight, drawing a glowing line from side to side in the air as it scratched the armor. More than once, her finger pulled the trigger without her realizing it in her fury, and shots rang out left and right.
Eventually the Phantom was backed up at the edge of the clearing, and with nowhere further to retreat, he fell to his knees as smoke rose from within the armor, his scarred and burned face smothered in black as his body dissolved, leaving the golden armor to clang into a heap on the ground. Its brilliant golden sheen was gone, replaced with a dull rust that accompanied the now yellowish armor.
When the smoke cleared, Susan was still slashing at nothing, her rage refusing to subside. Charlie stood behind her, Azaroth at his side. She growled, a sound that reverberated through the ground and into Susan's bones. She calmed down immediately and collapsed to her knees on the ground, breathing hard and exhausted.
"The Nightmare is infecting you," said the Jaguar.
Susan didn't even turn her head. "I thought you couldn't be here," she said, her tired voice barely above a whisper.
"I was wrong, it seems," said Azaroth as she began to groom her paws. "This curse has two parts: one to keep me off the island, and the other to keep me from entering the House of Illusion."
"Once the Phantom was destroyed, the first part was lifted," said Charlie. At the sound of his voice, Susan leapt up and embraced him.
"I was so scared," she breathed. "How are you still walking?"
"I healed him," said Azaroth. "Not completely, but enough."
At the center of the clearing, the air shimmered, and into existence there came a great wooden door, looking as if belonged to a great countryside manor. The double doors opened and a great hallway appeared beyond, a red carpet set down the center and leading into a darkness. On either side of the hall were pillars and ancient statues, reminiscent of people turned to stone. There were fauns, satyrs, men, women, children, animals, and indescribable creatures from other worlds, all lined haphazardly along the walls.
"Walk forward, you two," said Azaroth. "Find the source of this curse and kill it, so I may enter the house and destroy this island, allowing us to sail forward."
"What's preventing you from destroying the island now?" asked Charlie.
"Remember, Tash is more powerful than I," she reminded. "I may be loyal to Aslan, but my brother rules this realm. If I were to outstrip his power, he would destroy the realm."
"And that's a bad thing?" asked Susan with a tone.
Azeroth began grooming her paws again. "Where do you think the damned went before the Nightmare's creation?" she explained irritably. "Aslan had taken in the good souls, but turned the wicked away. With nowhere to go, they simply roamed around the Wood Between Worlds, falling into the middle realms and causing trouble. The Nightmare is a solution to that problem; its destruction would set free countless wicked souls."
"Pandora's box," said Charlie glumly.
"Indeed," said Azaroth. "Now go—I sense no beasts in the House of Illusion, so you may search everywhere for the curse's source without distraction."
"Will you be waiting for us?" asked Susan.
"I have other business to attend to, but I'll know when you have completed your task." Azaroth then bounded away and vanished in a puff of grey smoke.
The doors closed of their own accord behind the two, and they walked forward into the House of Illusion.