A Trick With Mirrors
The moment Claris stepped forwards and peeked out from behind the stage curtain, she felt her insides churn. The entire world seemed to be distorting into a tight swirl, as though she was trapped on a carousel that span ever faster, and it was all she could do to stay upright.
Stage fright was a bummer, even after you had literally found your courage by setting its raw essence free from a nightmare realm full of otherworldly creatures that wanted to use it as a power source to invade the planet. Nightmaren or no Nightmaren, the auditions at the Twin Seeds Tower were notoriously harrowing and the Directors had little interest in any performances that they could not immediately see were destined for the kind of world fame that matched the Tower's reputation. It wasn't like her school plays or drama club. As Claris peeked around the curtain, she caught the disapproving eye of a bald man who looked like an impatient vulture and kept tapping a clipboard at her. He had clearly already written her off even before she had gotten on the stage. His assistant, a fat man whose dated brown suit didn't fit him, appeared to be asleep.
Still, it helped that they were just humans and weren't transforming before her eyes into living shadows with glowing red eyes that snatched at her soul with jagged claws. It really put her off when they did that. This was a challenge she could face. It wasn't weighted against her, an outnumbered battle in the enemy's territory, it was just a couple of people she had to impress by doing something she was best at, something that felt natural to her and that she practised every day for hours on end.
She even had a little advantage.
She closed her eyes and smiled. The mental image of the jester came to her immediately, as if NiGHTs had been patiently waiting to be summoned, hovering just at the edge of her unconscious mind, fully aware that her presence was about to be needed. As she returned Claris' smile along with a wink, the fog of panic in her mind was dissipated by a guiding light – warm and red, like the flame of a hooded lantern.
When she opened her eyes, the room wasn't spinning. She pushed the curtain aside and crossed over to the microphone in the middle of the stage. Without apologising for the delay, she began to sing the song that was in her heart.
As usual, she saw Elliot before he saw her. He wasn't too good at looking where he was going. He must have been good at keeping track of his surroundings, she supposed, or he would be a lousy basketball player, but he wasn't very good at applying the skill to anything except basketball. When she saw him, he was chatting to his team-mates and showing off his ability to keep the ball under control as he walked along. From their body language and the animated way in which they talked and laughed, they had obviously won their match. He would want to tell her about it for hours on end when they next met. She hoped she would be able to bring him back around to more urgent matters.
She sat on the grass in the Town Square, beside the fountain, and took out her sketch pad. She began to draw designs for stage costumes and special effects for a future performance. Being a lot more of a dreamer than a dressmaker or a stage technician, she wasn't sure if some of them were possible. How would that dress stay up on its own, for instance, and how would you get floating crystals to slowly shimmer away like a disturbed reflection in the surface of a lake? She imagined it would involve mirrors, or possibly computer screens. Still, it would be possible when she was a famous actor and had enough money to make it possible. After an hour or so of sketching, she crossed her arms under her head and lay on the grass, staring up at the clock tower.
The sight of the town's landmark (and reflection of Wizeman's lair) reminded her of NiGHTs again, and she briefly saw his face reflected in the clock, winking at her again as though sharing some private joke. She wondered what he was so amused at, and if he even knew she wasn't following his train of thought. Despite the unique bond they shared through the time they spent in the same physical shell as NiGHTs borrowed their Ideya to give herself substance and break free of her prison, Claris doubted she would ever understand what a being of pure dream-reality was thinking.
The sun was setting and she was growing hungry, so she headed home. It wouldn't do to be late getting to sleep. She had an appointment to keep.
"I haven't had such a bad day myself," she told him when he finally shut up about basketball. She didn't really mind that much – it was good just to hear someone she cared about being happy and enthusiastic about life – but she didn't understand a word he was saying, and had no idea how he could think so much about basketball and still enter Nightopia rather than have a dream about basketball, "My audition went better than I expected. You might even see me in the Pageant!"
"Cool! I'll definitely buy tickets!" he promised.
She had been busy adding things to her dream, such as cake and a picnic blanket and a teapot. Nightopia was the perfect spot for a picnic, if she could ever keep the Nightopians from trying to steal her cakes with their fishing rods. Lucid dreaming was a skill she was slowly perfecting. She could only influence her dreams in small ways and it was easier if they made sense in context. Next, she planned to bring her sketchbook into her dream so she could make dresses and stage lighting.
She guessed she was already very unusual in that she could plan to meet up with other people in a shared dream and they would always be there. Most people couldn't share their dreams, only create dream-versions of the other people. That was probably because of the unusual nature of Nightopia, and because they had already shared their dreams when NiGHTs brought them together so that they could finish a task that needed two people.
"I saw her again," she told Elliott, "Twice in one day. In broad daylight."
She looked around to see if she was listening, more out of curiosity than any desire to hide from her. It would be impossible in the middle of Nightopia anyway.
"I saw him as well," he replied. He always saw NiGHTs as male, "Do you think he's really looking out for us?"
"It feels like it, but where would he be? I thought he could only exist inside a dream!"
"Its because you're always daydreaming so much," he said, laughing.
"I daydream? Its you who walked past me twice today without seeing me!"
"You should stop stalking me, then," said Elliot.
"Stop getting wound up. You'll get us kicked out of the dream," she warned him, offering him a slice of cake.
NiGHTs thanked the Nightopian for the cake. While the little creature cast his line again, the ex-Nightmaren licked the crumbs from his lips and leaned back on the branch. The children were completely unaware of his presence. Once, Claris had looked straight in his direction but she was only trying to follow the fishing rod so she could keep her cake safe. She was slowly getting better at it but she still made mistakes. It was a shame there were actually three Nightopians, one of whom was hopping between multiple trees.
The children were improving but there were things they still couldn't do. They couldn't keep cake safe when he really felt like cake. They couldn't find him when he didn't feel like being found. They still couldn't tell a very realistic dream apart from the waking world half the time.
Wizeman had done a lot of damage to Nightopia and to the overall dreamscape that was managed via the realm. Entire dreams were still full of gaping holes where the Nightmaren had drained Ideya out of them. Parts of the structure had been warped to make way for Nightmaren-built structures such as Ideya cages and lairs for high-ranking Nightmaren. Other dreams had been structurally damaged as the collateral of battles between NiGHTs and the Nightmaren as he darted from dream to dream in search of the missing Ideya. The dreamscape was a mess and, even with the Ideya returned and fully charged, they didn't have the energy to repair everything. They couldn't just leave it for later. It would damage some poor dreamer's psyche.
Any dream was more stable when there was someone dreaming it. Especially a powerful, creative mind. Especially if it was the one who had dreamed it up in the first place.
It was only a temporary solution and it would only be for a few hours a day. The way most humans were, they wouldn't even notice anything was different. The children would benefit most from it, in any case; their own dreamscape had been in the front lines and had taken the brunt of the damage.
A plate whistled through the air like a frisbee and hit the Nightopian in the face. He squawked and fell backwards, dropping his fishing rod. Two branches down, he managed to flap his wings hard enough to control his descent. NiGHTs laughed under his breath.
One day, the children would be able to solve problems like this on their own. Well, almost on their own...
"Let's see how long we can stay here without waking up!" suggested Elliot as Claris crafted another plate.
"Sure, why not? Its Saturday, so I don't have to get up in the morning."
"I don't think that's how dreams work..."
"Anyway, my alarm clock is broken," he said suddenly, "It won't ring, and it just says random numbers."
"Have you changed the batteries?"
He nodded, "I should probably get a new one, but that'd make three this week I've broken. I think there's an electrical fault somewhere."
"It must be the whole block," she said, "Mine doesn't work either."
"But everything else electrical is working," he said, "And I thought your alarm clock was a mobile phone..."
"I don't understand technology," She shrugged, "Do you want another cup of tea?"