Elliot half-heartedly bounced a basketball across the well-kept lawn that surrounded the Twin Seeds Plaza Fountain. He had lost interest in basketball practice half an hour ago and was now just doing something to pass the time. Every now and then, he glanced up at the ponderous old face of the Town Hall clock, then glanced down at his mobile phone. Still no messages. She was still late.
Unless, of course, he had lost count of time and failed to maintain an accurate representation of a timepiece within the dream he was shaping. It was hard to shape a dream on his own that was meant to be a shared dream for two. That was, after all, the idea of this dream; a sandbox world to host a tutorial for a beginning lucid dreamer. Their home town, particularly the Plaza where they met up every day after school and stayed until it went dark, was a backdrop familiar enough for them both to maintain easily so they could focus on altering small details. Shaping the world would come next, once they had mastered the art of shaping objects. Since travelling to Nightopia, freeing NiGHTs and defeating Wizeman, they had been honing their gift whenever they could. Most nights they could easily reach a lucid state and hold onto a dream long after they would naturally have woken up. Their success rate at sharing dreams and shaping their environment in a dream was steadily growing. They couldn't yet return to any part Nightopia though, and they had never met NiGHTs. They had a feeling the jester was watching them – and probably laughing at their attempts like an adult watching small children pretending to be adults – but they guessed they wouldn't be shown the way to Nightopia again unless they genuinely learnt enough to find it by themselves or there was another dire need.
The Town Hall bells tolled and Claris appeared behind him, arms folded straight out behind her back, smiling sweetly and blushing like she always did when she knew she was going to have to apologise about something.
"Sorry I'm late," she said, "I fell asleep. I forgot it was Friday."
While they practiced whenever they could, it was less restful to manipulate sleep than to allow sleep to take its natural course, so they tended to do so only when they knew they wouldn't have to do anything that required being wide awake and alert the next day, and they didn't practice two days in a row. Elliot guessed that Claris had been practising on her own when she should have been getting rest. No doubt, the tolling bells were her work too. They weren't his.
"Get some rest if you're too tired to practice," said Elliot for what felt like the twentieth time this week, "It's not a competition. We're supposed to be doing this in tandem. If you exhaust yourself all the time by working too hard, your rhythm will go out of whack and you won't be able to lucid dream at all."
"You wouldn't even have noticed if I'd done it right," she frowned but sat down beside him anyway, on the bench facing the fountain, "I'll get it right, next time. I was going to surprise you at the new technique I've been working on."
"You don't need to work overtime, you know. You're not behind me, you're way ahead of me."
"I never said I was behind," she replied, "Why, is there some reason someone would think I was behind?"
Elliot sighed. He wondered if she was like this all the time at school, too. If she was as good at other subjects as she was at art and drama, she was probably one of those scary workaholics that shut themselves in their rooms whenever they had exams.
"Can you at least make the bells shut up now?" he asked, "It's struck way more than twelve. Since when did the Town Hall have a twenty four hour clock?"
"I thought it was you doing the bells!"
"Um... it's not you? Oh, great, so either one of us is changing things and not even realising it, or we're losing control of the..."
The clock bells abruptly stopped mid-toll, dead silent, in a way that real bells couldn't do. It didn't even sound like they had been muffled or caught in something, it was more like a recording of some bells had been playing on a machine and there had been a sudden power cut. The silence was more audible than the bells. It sounded like fundamental wrongness, like an omission of something that had always been there, like looking up at the night sky and finding that the moon and stars were gone – not obscured by clouds, but clearly gone.
Then the ringing began, a continuous, frantic high-pitched noise that grew steadily louder.
They knew that sound. They remembered it from Nightopia and they knew to start running when they heard it. The noise getting louder meant the cause of the noise was getting closer to them. Letting it catch them was a bad idea. They bolted to the other end of the fountain, climbed up onto an overhanging waterfall feature and hid inside the grate where the water came out. Those things didn't look up as often as they looked down or around them in a circle. Their spotlights didn't swivel up very easily.
It took Elliot a few seconds to wonder what the hell an Alarm Egg was doing in their dream. They hadn't heard anything from Nightopia or NiGHTs for five years. They hadn't seen a Nightmaren and didn't have the vivid nightmares that their enemies brought with them. Absolutely nothing life-threatening had happened in their dreams except that once dream about Claris that she had caught Elliot having once, and she hadn't really meant it when she said she was standing over him with a kitchen knife while he was asleep and that he would never wake up. Now, without warning, Wizeman's watchdog was prowling around in their dreams again. He wondered if he should summon his Red Ideya. It might protect him or it might just alert the horrid thing to his presence. He wasn't even sure if the Alarm Egg could be affected by the Ideya like the Nightmaren were. NiGHTs had told him not to try and fight them. When you heard the ringing, you ran for it, especially if you were out of time. Running out of time drew them to you. And you never, ever, succumbed to the temptation to wake up, no matter how scared you were.
"Elliot..." whispered Claris, her voice shaking. She was shaking, too, so he put his arm around her. He wasn't sure if that was helping or not. He put a finger to his lips but she ignored him, "Elliot, there's more than one. There's lots of them, all around!"
He listened more closely. Then he realised why the noise was growing so loud. He assumed the Alarm Egg was somewhere very close by and was hiding itself well. Now he could tell that there were hundreds upon hundreds of individual rings, synchronised without so much as a millisecond's lag. A perfectly co-ordinated army, moving as one. And he could tell from where the noise was coming from that they were surrounding him.
"They're moving very slowly. We might still have time..." he began.
"To do what? We can't wake up! You know we mustn't wake up!" she hissed, her voice coming dangerously close to a panic.
"Maybe they haven't seen us yet."
"What else would they be looking for apart from us? There's nothing here!"
"If they'd seen us, they would rush straight for us. Maybe if we stay really still..."
Suddenly, Claris gasped, narrowly suppressing a scream, and pointed straight ahead. The front line of the first wave of Alarm Eggs was visible, as co-ordinated as they feared. And they weren't looking for a dreamer at all; they were deliberately, methodically, destroying the dreamscape. The lights embedded in their faces were solid and glowing like laser beams instead of the dim light of the searchlights and tractor beams they used to capture the Ideya of a dreamer before forcing them to wake up. Everything those lights touched, they cut through, tearing apart the background so that it fell apart, leaving behind a stark, glaring whiteness. Elliot could tell as sure as he knew when a light bulb had burned out that the dreamscape could never be repaired.
The exits had already been destroyed, all of them at once. Elliot held Claris tighter but it was more for his own reassurance than hers.
Then, suddenly, a flute played, one clarion note that drowned out all the infernal ringing for a brief second. By that time, both Claris and Elliot had been hoisted into the air by a pair of strong but slender hands. They hurtled directly upwards at a dizzying speed.
"Those things never look up," commented a completely genderless and rather mischievous voice, then they were dragged out of the dream – not into the harsh light of awakening, but further into the soft, warm darkness that contained the roiling chaos of raw, unformed dreams.
As he swooped low over the pale, silent ruins, like shadows burned into a whitewashed wall, Reala saw the true extent of the damage that had been done overnight to an entire Mare. It didn't mean he could quite believe it. It was everything that had been reported to him and worse. An entire invading army of Nightmaren couldn't have caused that kind of widespread destruction in such a small space of time. No correctly functioning Nightmaren would have tried to damage a system so utterly beyond repair, even one that belonged to the enemy and couldn't be taken.
It looked more like a natural disaster than an invasion. If Reala hadn't already been to three systems affected in the same way this morning, and been attacked in two of them by a force that hadn't quite finished escaping through the jagged rents in the very fabric of the dreamscape, all life and colour drained out of them as though someone had turned off a monitor by throwing a brick through the screen, that they created when they appeared, he would never have believed that the carnage was the work of an invading force.
He used the term 'invading' loosely. They didn't stop to capture territory and didn't target important military installations. Although they went instinctively after sentient life forms, they immediately drained their personal timeline (The things ate time; Reala had seen them go into a feeding frenzy over the crystallised deposits of time that collected in Mares where the difference between dream time and real time was unusually great) and then forcibly awakened them, as though they were an enemy resource to slash and burn. Their only motive seemed to be causing as much devastation as possible whilst advancing inexorably towards wherever it was that they were going. Reala had been sent to follow them and find out where they were headed by observing the pattern of the Mares they destroyed. It had been NiGHTs' job but Reala's faulty twin had failed. Reala wasn't sure whether to be insulted that his Lord Wizeman had asked NiGHTs first and himself second, even though he was clearly the superior, or to gloat over NiGHTs' failure where he, of course, would easily succeed. Not that he would ever disrespect Lord Wizeman by showing any reaction to an order other than immediate obedience.
He could tell at first glance that the entire Mare was damaged beyond repair, just like the last three had been. There were different degrees of damage that could be done to a Mare. Superficial damage to the 'furnishings' of a dream, the appearance that a dreamer would perceive while they were dreaming, could be repaired instantly by any Nightmaren with powers of illusionary magic. Structural damage to the underlying, permanent shape of a dream would require a team of Nightmaren to physically repair it with duct tape and telekinesis. Then there was this kind of damage. Decay to the underlying laws of nature in a dreamscape, its very essence. If it was a computer program, its code would have been deleted, overwritten by garbled nonsense. An area hit by that kind of damage could not be rebuilt. Some areas hadn't been accessible, or even readable by any sense that a Nightmaren possessed, when Reala tried to enter them to assess the damage. When he did step inside one, he ran the risk that the idea of flight had been deleted and he would fall straight into an endless void. Eventually, the Mare would collapse in on itself and disappear from the dreamlands.
Lord Wizeman would be furious at the loss. He would order the Mare quarantined and the defences around the neighbouring Mares tightened even further, if it was possible for security to be more paranoid these days. So far, the invaders hadn't been able to get into most of the larger populated Mares. They were waiting for someone to forget to close the door behind them fast enough, or until they grew strong enough to force the doors open for themselves, or they simply weren't interested in those sectors yet. The Nightmaren were besieged, surrounded by an enemy that could destroy their very souls and who showed infinite patience.
One good thing about this enemy; they could be destroyed in return. In the last system, Reala had spotted an Alarm Egg disappearing into a rift that had opened up in the spot where it shone its searchlight, completely replacing that spot. He drill-dashed towards it before it could swivel its face to shine the lethal searchlight in his direction. Its ringing was silenced forever as it exploded in a shower of cogs, springs and glass. Then he had accidentally brushed his hand against the rift when he was shoving off against the ground to bounce himself back into the air. He had lost three fingers on that hand. Lord Wizeman, who had built Reala using his own magic, couldn't regenerate the fingers.
This Mare had long been abandoned by both the invaders and the surviving inhabitants who had, usefully for Lord Wizeman, managed to escape and lock the gate behind them. There was nothing Reala could do except note that they were still surrounded and outnumbered, then head back to face the inevitable report. Of the many things he wanted to do, including stick his remaining fingers inside more portals, being the bearer of bad news to Lord Wizeman was at the bottom of his list. He wondered if bribing NiGHTs to do it for him was an option.