When we fall asleep, we’re trapped in our nightmares. When we wake up, we search for a stranger’s. Don’t you want to escape this?
Darkness winds and twists around me, thick and suffocating, like a rope around my throat, shadows flitting between jagged shapes rising from the mist. I can feel the cold air seeping through my uniform, the wind reaching out with gnarled fingers and tearing my silver badge away from where it is proudly pinned to the fabric of my shirt. Rain pounds against the ground, thick smoke, grey like pigeon feathers, curling around the strange shapes in the darkness, winding up the surfaces like vines. Those words, I hear them every night when I sink into the agonising torture that I once called nightmares. The pain gets worse and worse every night. Once I called it sleeping; now I call it death. It certainly feels like hell. And those words. Damn, those words. The last words my best friend Mel said to me before she vanished on her own mission. We search for a stranger’s. I didn’t ask for this. No one asks for this. We don’t seek out danger. But we all want to make the Society proud.
Darkness? Is that what this stranger fears most? The old me would have started laughing. Darkness used to be an old friend. Until Mel was lost, presumed dead. Then I felt a whole new kind of darkness. One that’s still inside of me, churning and raging, bitter with guilt and pain. My nightmare is the personification of that guilt, a ghostly figure, burning me, stabbing me, pouring pain and torment into my wounds like salt water. I still feel them when I wake. My mind wants to sink into its old pattern. She trusted you. Those words, those three sentences she gave me before stepping through that damned door. They felt like a secret, like something to protect. You failed to protect those words. You failed to protect her. But I drown those thoughts out, like I’ve learned to do over the years. There are only six words that have been drilled into my head more than those, by my parents, my mentors, the councillors themselves, whenever I neglect my duties, falter in training, allow myself to be distracted. The Society first. Life comes second. With those words branded in my head, I take another step into the nightmare.
The whisper of the wind sounds like mocking laughter, loud and wild, hissing in a twisted glee. The thrumming of the rain against the maze of dark forms scattered through the nightmare realm becomes slower, and slower, until the rhythmic thud begins to sound vaguely like footsteps. The hissing and pounding grows louder, and closer, rising and falling like a chant in a ritual. I gaze around, but no one is there. Nightmares are deceitful creatures, thriving in their little realms and playing tricks on the mind of the souls that wander in. Stories describe them as creatures, at least, because how else can you explain these worlds created around your pain, your torture. My heart beats faster, fear writhing inside of me, a beast stirring from its slumber. Fear isn’t new to me. But usually, I can embrace it. The sounds grow louder, as if taunting me. I harness the cold indifference I have learnt from the Society. Fear is nothing but a distraction. You should know that by now. I step further through the darkness, wading through the cold, sticky mist, struggling through the labyrinth of shapes shifting in the dark. And then the people appear.
Hundreds, thousands of ghostly figures rising out of the mist, their voices rising in a crackling hum, like an out of tune radio, soft laughs and whispers becoming a stampede of noise. I wasn’t imagining the laughter. Or the footsteps. They’re here. What could this nightmare be? They scarcely resemble people, more like blurred forms which seem to be tall enough to be human, with what looks like four limbs, but their eyes are sunken in, hollows of darkness in a flicker of grey. Not crowds, surely. This world doesn’t have the same chaotic nature as you would expect if that was someone’s nightmare. The figures themselves are quiet, only becoming louder with the surge of all their voices combined, and there is plenty of space, corners for people to run to if they hated the commotion. Not grief or pain, either. Now I have overcome the burst of fear, I can see that these people don’t seem to be hurting me, unlike the monster I meet every night, every blow reminiscent of the pain I felt when they told me Mel was gone. How can I find someone in this world of fear if I don’t understand what they’re afraid of?
The nightmare realms, science tells us, were the result of a twisted experiment. When someone found a way to recreate fear, the documents were sold to the Society. They tried to train children to live with fear by sending them into their own nightmares. The problem was, they never managed to get them out. Until now. Now, we have a force, my force, known as the Nightmare Agents, dedicated to getting people out. Only people over the age of eighteen are eligible to be released from their nightmares, and I’m barely seventeen. But even then, our force isn’t big enough to save everyone. And now, the Nightmare Realms have started to expand. Started to take people of their own accord. That’s where the stories about devilish creatures come from. No one understand why they are growing, how the Realms are stealing children from their beds and dragging them into nightmares in the night. I’m in the second generation, so the nightmares only plague us when we sleep, because apparently the realms can’t reach us in the day, unless we venture inside ourselves. The first-generation victims have got to live with this all day. Which is why I’m heading to save one of them. I’ll be able to save more, but only if I survive my first mission. Not many people do.
I wander through the crowd of ghost figures, their presence sending shivers running through me, an echo of the stranger’s fear. I look around at the landscape. I have moved further into the mist, but the shapes are still barely distinguishable, the people still ghostly forms in the darkness. The mist, the blurred shapes, the darkness: this all seems to play into a fear of the unknown. But even I, venturing further into the realm of a stranger’s nightmare, feel a vague familiarity here. My training runs through my head. Never trust instinct. One mistake is enough to kill you. Instead, plan, calculate every move. Stay defensive until you have the means to attack. I can’t just go by feeling alone… but maybe this is a different kind of unknown. A whole new kind of darkness. Yes, that seems like it. This unknown doesn’t feel grey and murky. It feels so sharp, bitter and all-consuming, like the devil has released its wrath on this place, and the acrid smell of smoke lingers in the air.
The unknown. My mind strays to Mel. Where is she? Is she really dead, or is the Society telling me that to protect me? Or to prevent one of their best Nightmare Agents from getting distracted? I shudder. It is unlawful to question the Society. You could have your duties taken from you or be executed. Or worse, be sent to your Nightmare Realm in the day, like the first gen. My mother’s constant warnings. Even when I was at the top, she always feared I would falter, my reputation would crumble. It was always about what people thought, never what I felt. I shake the stream of thoughts away. You’re being ridiculous. Focus on the task. Then I go back to thinking about Mel. Stop it. Now. You keep getting- and then I realise. The stranger… lost someone. There is grief, but more than loss there is anger, confusion, doubt. They want to know how it happened, and don’t understand it. Not as much guilt as I feel, but still some. The whole world seems lonely, desolate. Without Mel, I feel lonely. Maybe this stranger feels the same.
Then I see a movement. Another ghost figure, is my first thought. Wait, no, I can see them clearly, is my second. And then the panic sets in. Run. My pulse quickens, adrenaline pounding through my veins. This is it. The stranger has revealed themself. This is my one chance. I sprint after them, darting through the distorted shapes, the ghoulish figures that rise higher and higher through the mist, as though possessed, their haunting laughter growing louder, more hysterical. The darkness crowds around me, the figures reaching towards me. Just your imagination. Damn. They’re getting away. The shapes seem to heighten, shadows growing taller, a labyrinth of twisted shapes, but with no center. No final reward. Just me, hunting a stranger within their own nightmare. Why are they running, anyway? Maybe they thought I was another ghost figure. Maybe they’re just shocked to see another real person in the Nightmare. Don’t listen to instinct. You can’t afford a mistake. Yes mother, I remember. But still, I can’t help listening to the part of me whispering that something is wrong. Then I notice a flicker of white. In the split second that it takes for me to catch the piece of paper as it flies through the air, the stranger has vanished. I unravel the crumpled note. The single sentence etched on the paper sends another wave of fear running through me.
Maybe some of us don’t want to be found.
Then, a quiet voice speaks right behind me. “I didn’t get lost in the Nightmare Realm three years ago. I never died. They faked my death. They trapped me here. I have an escape route, but there are clues here. Clues that will tell me why they did this. Stay safe. But don’t try to get me out of here. The Society is corrupt. Please.”
My heartbeat thuds, once, twice, before the words sink in and I spin, trying to find the owner of the oh-so-familiar voice. Damn. Damn. Tears begin streaming down my cheeks, and I am powerless to stop them. “No, I have to help…” I begin to shout. But Mel has disappeared.