It’s a little brighter once I open my eyes.
The sun is setting under what seems to have been a beautiful day. Even though that humid hum of the air urges me to deny it, I still believe I’m homebound, lying on the mattress of my king-sized bed. It feels the same. I’m convinced it does. A soft, spongy, sinking texture – the unforgettable sensation of my brand new mattress. Only a couple of days old. An adulterer to evanescence, that mattress’ silk has a perpetual freshness, just as it should (and will always) have. No matter how many times I sleep in that bed, there’s not a night I fall under those satin duvets where the mattress feels in any way similar to the way it had felt the night before. It’s an eternal novelty I can hear from the crisp crunch of the clean sheets, measure from the youthful spring in its depth and even judge strictly on the nostril alone, off the whiff. Because whenever I wake, the air simply smells fresh…
Then again, that isn’t what I smell here. What I smell now is something equivalently sweet, but riper, holier, and weightier, as if it isn’t new at all, but has lingered for some time; a satisfying aroma that reminds me of something I so fondly remember. But what is it? Aaah, yes—yes, yes, yes! My mother’s old banana cakes! How could one forget the seduction of those inviting bakes? A scent from home. The sibilant delight of them crackling in the home oven was enough to make grown men drool with the dogs…
Dogs? Is that what that sound is too? No… birds, maybe? Howling birds?
I sit up…and a heap of sand showers off my back, down my shoulders and from the sides of my head. Shivering gate-crashes my submission to the cordiality of my new surroundings. Suddenly, a subdued breeze hits me, unacquainted. I’m soaked to the bone, the chilly wind purely accommodating this uncomfortable revelation. But—water? From where? A wave must have flushed over me whilst I’ve been lying here. A wave? From where? Well, come on: from the ocean, of course.
There—I capture it!
A ceaseless stretch of water that spans far beyond the sun-christened horizon, shimmying a thousand currents in every direction. Resolutely bountiful, the aquatic sanctuary showcases a landscape broader than any of the unblemished reservoir resorts I’ve visited during my monthly vacations. But is it a lake? Can it be? At least, can it be one of the huge and famous ones I’ve been to, or, even in the slightest aspect, be one of the private, intimate destinations that I remember for all their fortified nostalgia? None of them are comparable, for this can’t be a lake in any shape or scope. If it was, I’d be able to see the other end of it, another shore in the distance. There would be trees and people, or boats and little houses. Nope, it isn’t a lake. Far more impressive—
I quickly jump up, slipping on the soggy patch of sand on which I’ve laid. Heart pumping, head throbbing, I’m unable to comprehend anything at the moment. I’ve never seen the ocean up-close before…nor have I ever before taken the chance to learn how to swim for that matter. How my mother had used to urge me into taking regular lessons and I’d been having none of it. I’d neglected every opportunity. And now, here I am, thinking: She was right about the ocean. It’s a tomb to those who can’t swim. She had always been right in the end. Regardless of what it was, her experience always cradled the most sense and quite soon after that wisdom diminished I became a very regretful person. ‘A remorseful child,’ Aunt Sibyl would still criticise me on occasions. ‘Always the child to make the wrong decisions and rather talented at making the wrong decisions. Behold the son of a Decider.’ That was only half-true – like now: how I’m attempting to rub the salty wetness off my calves but only smothering them in a slushy coating of aureate sand; bad idea, but not exactly a gift.
The heat is constant and it’s strangling me. No wind. Just mugginess. Very soon, I’ll pass out, as I’m already remarkably dizzy after mere seconds. I don’t know whether or not to move, for, at this point, I’m unsure if the ground is safe or stable – my legs really aren’t at all. So, I take the risk, staggering my way cautiously down the length of the ‘beach’. Yes, it’s definitely a beach. The sand isn’t hot like people have warned me it can be. Instead, this sand is cool. And this entire stretch of the shore is shadowed by the dimness left from the descending sun. As I walk further, the dark, golden sand starts to become more like snow, colder and colder and I’m not enjoying it. (Quite the opposite of what those yakking liars told me). Its depth and thickness works me so stiff that I can hardly respire after each step; I’m rather more dragging my feet along—
This one is freezing, sending chills up my legs. I sense myself wobbling and decide to let all my hard labour collapse back into the sand. Dry sand—Phew! I pull myself backwards up the shore to save myself from the perimeter of the impending waves, then sigh exhaustedly. With my back in the sand and my legs splayed outwards, I gaze up at the purplish-reddish sky. It’s predominantly purple, a soothing shade that causes my eyes to buzz in a state of dreariness. Since the sun is already semi-consumed by the ocean’s brink, the colour begins to fade away, divorcing the horizon and shuttering daylight behind an opaque, black oblivion, and that’s where the night-sky plunges in. The transition of sunset happens within moments. It’s clear—peaceful—jubilant. And all to be seen are the stars. Millions of stars have spawned. My eyes widen at this startling spectacle. Something I’ve never witnessed in my life. Where I’m from, stars are the stuff of myth. They’re the blueprints of dreams. And dreams are full of them. Only, never have they appeared so crystalline as they do in this…
Dream…Is this one?
If so, then why does it feel so palpable? It’s surreal, yet it carries an intuitive ambience like some hazy reality. Why is that? Why does it feel so alive?
‘Because it is.’
I sit upright abruptly. The voice sounds frighteningly close. Although, it doesn’t sound like anything intelligible at all. In the mellowness of the evening – if I can really call this placeless situation ‘evening’ – the noise rings like a tetchy zephyr chasing the stuffiness out of the air. The words don’t really linger like words normally do; they lack weight, riding between the wisp of the sea current and the wind. They’re transparent, insubstantial. Shuddered by this discovery, I spin round, expecting to find a face.
‘That’s because words mean nothing. They’re only sounds afterall.’
There it is again—
‘They are the primal utterances of cudgel-bearers that many generations of progenies have since strung pretentious meanings to—namely, human beings.’
And there again!
I swing my glance right around, disturbed. Sparing a breath, I pause—and all to be heard are the rolling waves and the arbitrary chirps of the birds far in the jungle. The jungle? Ah, yes! Towering palm trees, stretching for as far as this length of the beach goes. A classic tropical island scene. That’s what it is! I’ve been marooned on a desolate island and all I have to accompany me is my teetering sanity – which has no means of improving – and my dark, strangely talkative imagination.
‘You watch far too much television…particularly reality shows.’
‘Ha—ha, ha––No! This isn’t a joke! I happen to be lost, if you don’t mind!’
‘Lost? You’re lost, are you?’
‘Yeah, I am!’ I’m actually replying to it – I kick myself.
Gratefully, there’s no answer this time. I force myself to think rationally and, in doing so, close my eyes again and try to recapture some sleep. Perhaps then I’ll be transported back home and wake up in my ordinarily new bed on my seemingly normal mattress in my magnificently real home! I do exactly that. My eyes are shut firmly and painfully. But I can’t withhold the strong, sweet aroma of…whatever it is. Banana cakes? MummyMummyMummyMum…
Curiosity holds me hostage. But I want to go home! I want to go back to where I—
‘Sure you do! Go! Don’t worry about anyone else! It’s you who wants to run home—you Selfish Wimp!’
My imagination is starting to get a little feisty with me now.
‘I’m not your imagination. And I’m most definitely not your conscience! What are you? A wooden puppet? Feisty…’
Don’t answer, don’t answer, I tell myself. I have a bitchy imagination, that’s all. What’s worse? It’s beginning to make fun of me!
‘For the last time, I am not your imagination! You fool!’
‘Then, what are you?’ I shout.
‘Would it help if I gave you reminder of the pecking order here?’
Gave me a wha—?
Something very sharp pinches my cheek.
I open my eyes to be confronted with a bird. But it’s not any bird. It’s a parrot, cackling a very human laugh from a bulbous beak; its head is cocked back as if mocking the sky above, while its thick neck is chugging hysterics. It has small, dotty eyes and the colours of its feathers are bright, random and prettily immaculate. Also, it’s a glowing parrot with its body outlined by a shimmering silver glow – sure, why not?
‘Is this a coincidence? I hope it is,’ I say, annoyed. ‘You…and the voice in my head?’
‘A coincidence? Does this look like a coincidence to you?’ the voice says – but it doesn’t seem to be coming from the parrot. ‘You are so naïve!’
‘What? Wait, so…this isn’t a coincidence?’ I must appear so stupid.
‘Oh, I see. You’re wondering why my lips aren’t moving in sync to what I’m saying. Well, let me just make it obvious to you: I’m a bird; a bird does not have lips.’
‘Well, yeah, I knew that much. But you’re a parrot. Parrots can’t talk…PROPERLY! They can repeat things, yes, but not have—a full-on, opinionated conversation with someone!’
‘That’s a stupid circus trick that everyone falls for. Honestly, I thought you were better than that.’
‘You had better expectations of me? You’re a bird with a conscience!’
‘What’s your name, Dreamer?’
I hesitate before revealing anything more. The situation is humiliating enough. ‘Dreamer?’ I respond.
‘Well, that’s what you are, aren’t you?’
‘What? So, this is a dream? Wait! Before I tell you anything, I want to know where the hell I am!’
‘You’re not home.’ The parrot’s beak is curled as though it’s constantly smirking. ‘Home is cosy, not a place for thinking on your toes. Anywhere that isn’t home is “roaming” and requires some getting to know—’
‘Can you stop talking in riddles. I’m right here, right now and everything seems normal, everything appears real and everything looks—’
‘Alive?’ the ‘bird’ finishes my sentence. ‘Aware? Conscious?’ he utters.
‘Where am I?’
‘Well, let’s see. You fell asleep and you didn’t wake up…yeah, that just about sums it up.’
‘But I did wake up! I woke up here!’ I hiss.
‘No, you didn’t. If you had done, you’d be in your comfy new bed, on your spongy new mattress.’
‘How’d you know that?’
The parrot’s smirk does not falter. His unblinking glare is expectant like he’s been here before and explained this to many.
‘Who are you? Do stray parrots have names?’ I’ve got a feeling this comment might ruffle his feathers.
‘I’m a Dreamer just like you. But I’m rather more experienced than you are.’
‘Experienced? You’re an Experienced Dreamer?’ This is becoming harder to believe by the second.
‘They call me the Steward. I come to inspect the beach for new arrivals. New Dreamers. More people like you.’
‘And who are “They”?’
‘Dreamers. I just told you that.’
‘No. I meant “They”. As in, you said “They call me the Steward”. Who are “They”? The original inhabitants of this island?’
‘Original inhabitants? What are you on about? No. There are no “original inhabitants”. We’re all the same here. We’ve all come and gone. Only, some have been about longer than others.’
‘So, this isn’t a quaint, little island?’
‘Then, what is it?’ I sound too eager to be talking to a bird.
‘It’s a beach. You’re on a beach.’
I sigh in frustration. ‘You don’t give very useful answers, do you?’
‘Was that a rhetorical question?’
‘Yes, it was.’
‘No. I just asked you a rhetorical question by asking ‘Was that a rhetorical question?’ You weren’t supposed to answer,’ the bird chuckles – the bird actually laughs (this time it isn’t in my head). ‘Oh, newbies are hilarious! This can get fun!’
‘Really? Because I’m all for sarcasm, but I’m not actually getting the joke here. Moments ago, I hoped to find myself sitting on what should have been my bed-mattress, in what should have been my bedroom, in what should have been my own living space, but perhaps the actual joke is how that reality was everything it wasn’t and more! Instead, it was a pit of itching crap that I found myself lying in, dripping, and shaken all over! Like a sow rolling in squalor! My head stings, I can’t stand because my legs ache, and now I’m being wised-up by a crackhead parrot!’
‘That really helps my job, kid. Thanks a lot for your compliments. Really friendly!’
‘What is your job again…Mister Steward?’
‘Please, call me Stewart,’ the bird tilts his head slightly, almost to show that he’s flattered to be called ‘Mister’. ‘I didn’t start out as a bird, allow me to just clarify that. And I wasn’t one of the first, you’ll be happy to know, so I won’t be blabbering on all the time like I know every last corner of this place. Like I said, I am rather experienced – more than you, anyhow. I’ll leave all the surprises to you.’
‘One of the first? What is a Dreamer? The exact definition.’
‘You are a Dreamer! I am a Dreamer! Everyone on this entire planet is a Dreamer!’
‘Planet? This is a planet? I’m on another planet?’
‘Dreamscape, dimension, planet—this place is whatever you make it. Nothing here’s real. It may feel real, but you’re only imagining it to be. Think about it, you’ve never seen a real palm tree before, you’ve seen the ocean – but never for real – and you’ve only ever been told what sand feels like by friends, family – those who’ve been lucky enough to visit a beach over their vacations and haven’t been locked up in an urban birdhouse like you. Everything you see, feel and hear are the things which you could only ever imagine.’
‘So, I’m imagining that I’m on vacation?’
I can tell by the awkward silence that the parrot is unsatisfied by this answer. It’s his way of saying: ‘Try again.’
I do: ‘What you’re saying is that everything around me, everything I’m imagining, is something I’ve never seen or experienced before in the real world? I’m only imagining what it must be like from what I’ve heard and, therefore, that’s how it exists…in my mind.’
‘Now you’re beginning to sound like a Dreamer,’ Stewart seems happy with that.
‘But—why me? Why am I here?’
‘Everyone who comes here comes for a reason.’
‘Everyone? Where is everyone?’
‘You came at a bad time. Not many Dreamers arrive in the night.’
Is it night already? The sun has fully set and all that remain are the sparkling stars. That was fast.
‘Does that make me special then? Is that a bad thing?’ I ask.
‘What’s your name, Dreamer? You’re leaving me hanging here.’
‘Oscar Philson,’ I tell him. ‘But I thought you could read minds? You read mine.’
‘It’s called telepathy. It’s how I choose to communicate with everyone. It doesn’t make me a psychological intruder with sophisticated mind reading powers. And it’s not just you, remember?’
‘I hope so,’ I say, unconvinced, but the greater distraction of bitter sand itching at my feet reminds me that there are weirder things to care (and worry) about right now. ‘Am I only temporarily stuck here? And, if so, for how long?’
‘I think you’ll grow to like it here.’
‘So much that I won’t want to go home?’
‘Stop mentioning home and perhaps you will. Besides, what’s left of the world you call home these days, eh?’
He says this in such an unforeseen tone that I go quiet. Suddenly, the waves sound more distant and the birds have stopped harmonising amongst the trees in the jungle.
‘My advice to you: I wouldn’t lie around here at this time of night. We might not be expecting arrivals, but we are expecting to see some departures.’
The bird glances up. And this influences my own attention to switch towards wherever Stewart is looking. I turn on my belly, so I’m facing the jungle. It’s in this direction where I hear mild rustling against the bushes and ivy. In the darkness of the night it’s hard to see, let alone witness the line of dark figures approach from between the first trees. As they come towards us, I watch in fascination, for it’s soon clearer who they are. None of them are distinguishable faces, only shadows identifiable by the pyjamas they’re wearing. Yes, they’re all dressed in their pyjamas – some wearing atrociously less than others. And a few wearing garishly more than you’d expect in even the wintriest of alternate realities. Each figure carries a jar out before them, clasped in two hands. Inside the jar is something glowing, a lively agent that lights the way. Fireflies. Of course. It made sense, fireflies – more things I’ve never before seen first-hand in reality, but had in the movies and on the TV screen – were often caught in jars and kept as temporary pets or boasted captives. It’s sometimes done as a hobby. Unflinching, the pyjama-figures continue to gradually drift towards us. I just about manage to lift myself up onto my feet and stand tightly next to the now fluttering Stewart.
The pyjama-people pass us without noticing our presence. They’re all bare-footed with the cold sand covering their grubby toes and their legs continue to sink until they’re shin-deep. It’s then when I realise that the fireflies aren’t only used to paint a pretty picture. They have a function. Each and every one of the pyjama-people comes to a stop in a space somewhere along the beach. There are more of them than I’d first anticipated. Hundreds, in fact. Still, legions continue to protrude from the jungle. Now is when the first wave of pyjama-people, having come to a stop on the beach, place their firefly jars into the sand in front of them. Nothing happens for a few seconds, but then the pyjama-people begin to let themselves fall backwards into the sand. And, subsequently, they vanish in a flash of light. One-by-one, the pyjama-people disappear into the sand. I gape at the rapid decline of bodies, astonished, until none are left to count. The last of the sinking-ditches soaks up and the beach is vacant once again.
‘Finding it hard to believe?’ Stewart asks from beside me. He begins whizzing around, inspecting the shore.
‘I’m finding it easy to believe that it’s a dream. Is that good?’
‘Don’t ask me.’ He’s gone to where one of the pyjama-people has left their firefly-jar and starts to peck at the lid. The rim begins to part and once he’s covered the entire circumference of it, the lid detaches and the firefly is released.
‘Is this what you do?’
‘I’m here to greet newcomers. New Dreamers. Those homebound Dreamers you saw just then were advanced. They were experienced Dreamers. They come and go with little supervision. They don’t require my assistance as much. You, on the other hand…’
‘Why were they wearing pyjamas?’
‘What do you think you’re wearing?’
I look down at myself, and gasp, for I’ve just realised that I’m nude. Completely. From head to toe.
‘Don’t worry. Just imagine something a tad more…dignified or…appropriate…or not naked.’
I stare back up at him, confusedly squinting my eyes. Then I return my sight down to…I’m wearing clothes! Well, pyjamas at least. My pyjamas. The blue silk ones I’d worn to bed.
‘I repeat: are you finding it hard to believe?’ Stewart has drifted over to another jar-lid and has started pecking at this one.
‘Good. Because, you’re not supposed to find it easy. Not at first anyway.’
‘Then, what am I supposed to do? If this is a dream…? I’m here now—what reason do I have? What do people do in dreams if they can’t take their environment or themselves seriously? If they’re inexperienced like I am?’
‘Dreamers! You’re a Dreamer now. Think, what do Dreamers do in dreams? You do have a role here, Oscar. Find it before it finds you—as it did in my case.’
‘People—Dreamers come and go. Like guests? This is some sort of…imaginary pit stop? A service station for the mentally disturbed?’
‘Oh, I wish it was, son. Just remember: In dreams, things don’t always seem the way they are. They aren’t supposed to, for your own safety and sanity, because when a dream gets too real it becomes—’
There’s an oddly frozen lull as he pecks away at a few more jar-lids. I take this time to look at the stars once more. Their glistening delight is phenomenal. How there must be billions of them up there, watching us as admirably as we gaze up at them. My mother, could she really be somewhere up there with them this time, watching over me at last, in this place with the pungent aromas that remind me so much of what home used to be…?
Suddenly, all around, thousands of specs of light shoot up into the air. The fireflies have been released from their jars and they now ascend up towards the sky, twinkling brightly. Each is so fast that I have trouble seizing sight of them all. But then I do, once they unite with the vista of constellations. Up above, there are more stars than before.
‘Don’t stop disbelieving. Once you start trusting things, the more dangerous it will become for you here.’
‘Okay, that almost made sense,’ I laugh at his remark, still transfixed on the sky. ‘Those are beautiful.’
At first, the bird doesn’t reply. Only once the crash of another wave or two has rustled back into the ocean are his words lifted with the sea breeze: ‘Scepticism can be your closest ally, but only befriend those who are as sceptical as you.’ The restless sea does not shuffle in her bed again after this is said. Now at rest with the last gales of the evening cuddled close, her silence is when I suspect most that Stewart has truly retired for the night. The parrot has left the shore.
How long has it been since I’d last stuffed down a slice of that banana cake? I ponder, since the smell is growing stronger and the more I continue to think about it – as well as inhale it – the more I think of my mother and how much I miss her and how little I can remember of our past. It was almost half a lifetime ago. I was nine-years-old; I’m seventeen now. At any other time or place, it would’ve been hard to reconstruct the way she appeared in my mind, but now that my imagination is at its ripest, it’s doing me a delicious favour. I can picture her as pristinely as the moon above.
I sit in the sand further up the shore, observing the massive moon, which glooms above the horizon and gives the impression of being sensationally closer than it really is. Its light is invigorating, each beam a chamber, an ignition of cognizance, through which I am slowly led to my senses. My true senses. My human senses. Not my surreal, Dreamer World senses. Although, according to a talking parrot, I’m apparently a part of this strange ‘Dreamerverse’, whether I like it or not. Where the waves hound you the same as those in the great fabled storms I was repeatedly told about in folktales. Where even the night-sky isn’t entirely dark, with the moonlight decolouring the black – and, instead, stirring a lugubrious shade of blue. Where you can appreciate the sun-ironed sand like velvet beneath your feet. Where you can score a sweet taste of hot bananas every direction you go along the shore. Where you can witness the mythic stars in an abundance only the privileged eyes of those once living in a past reality had done.
There’s no rationale as to how this can all be happening to me so suddenly, so randomly. I clamber up from the sand in an unintended strop, flicking a lump of sand into my face, into my eyes. I scratch it out, whining inaudibly to myself and questioning how my subconscious mind could be cruel enough to abandon me here. Why trap me in this prism of inhibitions and not someplace where I would be deemed more fit to survive?
Faintish, I dopily turn to face the line of palm trees that shield the entrance to the jungle. The stench of ripened banana soars stronger in this direction. It hits me like a lorry on the motorway.
Timid, I slip through a gap in the bushes. There isn’t much to be seen ahead, other than trunks and vines. Also, there isn’t much to be heard other than countable tired birds, chattering up in the canopies.
I pass the first row of trees. Broken branches and twigs, which have fallen from unknown heights, scrape my legs and small cuts and scratches quickly manifest on my ankles. This isn’t going to be a tranquil walk in the countryside. I stop to gather myself. Collect my strength again.
But something withdraws my attention.
A barbeque must be taking place nearby. Could that be? Is that what I’m smelling? Well, it seems to be overpowering the old, hanging banana-stench. So, it must be.
Then, I spot heavy, white fumes rising in the distance. Even through the dark, I can sense a fire at-large. Meat sizzling, sweating on a grill, perhaps? A grill out here? Made of what? A fire formed by sunlight or bow drill? The smoke billows confidently like the fringe of a recently lit flame. But it’s the belief that there may be more pyjama-people nearby that really unnerves me.
I follow the trail of smoke that covers quite a generous portion of the jungle. The temperature has dropped drastically and it’s no longer humid. Instead, to my surprise, there’s a whistling draught everywhere. No animal presence can be heard even as high as the canopies this late. No ambience of insects, not one click from a single cricket. And it’s not until I’ve trekked past sixty, seventy, or eighty palms that I bump into something validly phonetic again. Someone, perhaps?
‘You! Yes, you! Is there any other you that you know of?’ the voice is a husky rasp that stabs at me, though I register an amateurish attempt at vindication all the same.
‘Who is that? Who’s there?’ I question.
Dangling from a bundle of vines above me is a large, brawny monkey. Its tail has been tied to one of the vines, hoisting him up, and his torso has been twisted so that he can meet my face without his head being inverted with the rest of his body. His eyes are a dark and murky green, terrifyingly translucent in the shadows. Intrepid, they stare objectively. Blind to everything, except me. Talking monkeys are also on trend here.
‘What are you doing in the jungle after sunset?’ it queries like a dutiful detective. ‘Do you not know it’s prohibited to be on jungle sands at this time? It is not safe around these areas. Dreamers fall into trouble during the night far more commonly than they do during the day.’
‘Then why are you here?’ I retort.
He doesn’t expect this response.
‘Let’s just say, for our understanding, that I know my way around a lot better than you do and it is the irresponsible Dreamers like yourself who need to be watched by someone. Believe me, I have seen with my own eyes that reckless Dreamers don’t turn out so fortunate when lurking under these high palms at dangerous hours after sunset. Who dared you? What is your business?’
‘I’m new here,’ I explain to defuse his doubts. ‘Trying to find my bearings.’
‘Newcomer—huh-huh-huh-hoo,’ the monkey scorns. ‘A rogue Dreamer frolicking in the jungle this long after sunset…when I happened to watch the last Dreamer depart from Awakening Coast just shy of an hour ago. So now you’re lying to me as well, are you-hoo-hoo-hoo?’
‘I’m not! I swear—I’m not!’
‘You couldn’t have just arrived,’ the monkey spits stubbornly. ‘New Dreamers arrive at sunrise.’
‘I’m not every Dreamer – apparently.’
The monkey lowers himself gradually from the vine, the muscles in his tail working like iron pistons to hold him up. Bragging his strength, he manoeuvres effortlessly to get a better look at me. And with a graceful silkiness, he swings with his tail to another vine and stands there upright on his legs. His hands are firmly on his hips.
‘Dreamers can have extremely devastating encounters in this jungle,’ he yarns. ‘It is not the jungle natives you should fear – the wild beasts, the poisonous plants and critters, or the mysterious monkeys with a knack for popping up from out of nowhere – but the other lost foreigners like yourself, who are scared and bewildered and will hunt and feast on other nomad Dreamers just to feed their starving panic.’
‘People can seriously die in an imaginary jungle?’ My playful responses are not appeasing this creature. I understand – the baboon wants to be spoken to like a man. He’s clearly been misanalysing my motives from up in those treetops and now that my naivety has come clean, he doesn’t have the patience for tourists. But I have my own suspicions. I’m just as vigilant of him as he is of me.
‘Listen,’ the monkey finally gives in, ‘to tell the truth, the Dreamers won’t eat you, but something will unless you stop clucking like a farmstead chicken. You really must be new around here if you’re dumb enough to believe any of the nonsense I just spewed, so I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and let you off this once. But you do have to understand that it is not welcome for Dreamers to gallivant around the jungle alone – especially not at sun-fall.’
‘If none of those pyjama-hippies are going to eat me, then why?’
‘Why? Well, simply because every individual being on this world is cursed from the moment they first step foot on it. It’s in the sand, my friend. The curse has been cast into the sand since millennia-ago-ho-hoo-hoo-ho.’
‘The Stellar Gods who form the constellations, who regulate the Dreamerverse and this world in it, Constellation Planet. They are the ones who pick and choose who they allow to enter this world. Not everyone or anything is allowed to materialise here. The Stellar Gods only select those who they credit great trust in. A Dreamer must be selected as an individual of broad cranial capacity, must lack the tendencies of narrow-mindedness, and must – most importantly of all – provide a powerful imagination. Without that, a human being would cease to exist here. A vivid imagination is paramount to getting around this lucid paradise.’
‘So, are you saying that all Dreamers share the same mentality and, therefore, imagine this place to exist in the same image?’
‘Not necessarily through sheer likemindedness. But all Dreamers have to devote their minds to this realm, share lucid determination and entirely block out the other world – their home of reality. Otherwise, their capacity to imagine will be limited and they will not be resilient enough to survive. To help them with this, the Memory Lane was put in place, which is the Void that separates the Dreamerverse and the real world…Where in the constellations have you been? Did the Steward not teach you all of this on your arrival to Awakening Coa-ho-ho-ho-ho-st? That dippy, psychic quill!’ the monkey curses. He snatches a banana from a tree and, in frustration, breaks it in half and aggressively starts to gobble it up. ‘Only incredibly powerful Dreamers can breach the Void between worlds – the Stellar Gods were once among this kind – and they are known as Night Dreamers. They are tales of myth and legend, of course, so no need to worry yourself about any of that.’
Little does this baboon know that he’s probably talking to one of those ‘legends’ right now.
‘And was it the Stellar Gods who made all these rules?’ I trample over the subject of Night Dreamers.
‘These are the ways of the Dreamerverse. The Stellar Gods are simply the delegated powers behind them and they are responsible for selecting the individuals who they believe will respect these laws and thrive under them.’
‘Who are you? And how do you know so much about all this?’
‘Palm Patrol, Lieutenant Bowe. I enforce the Laws of Constellation Planet.’
‘So, will you be having to arrest me, officer?’
‘Not on this occasion. You are obviously misguided. I believe a verbal warning is more or less enough to suffice your safety. As long as you return to the kingdom and stay clear of the jungle at night, you won’t have to worry.’
‘Why did the Stellar Gods curse the sand?’ This is glued to my mind above all
‘It was the only way they could retain their protection of this world. Decades ago, Constellation Planet was threatened by an impenetrable phenomenon.’
‘Extra-terrestrials?’ This doesn’t ring a bell for the Lieutenant, so I translate it instead as: ‘Foreigners?’
‘It is unclear what this entity was defined as. But it was unbeatable then, as not even the Stellar Gods were capable of eradicating it entirely. When it came all those years ago, it flooded a massive burden upon the planet. And life here was never the same again.’
‘It wasn’t always like this here? Something awfully terrible tainted—this place?’ I say, perplexed. I run my eyes around the dark, along the jungle floor, through the trunks, up to the canopies. Nothing seems out of place to me.
‘Apparently. That’s how the myth stands. I wasn’t there to see it. But enough rumours have led me to believe that it did happen. That event left a terrible scar.’
‘I couldn’t imagine that. This place isn’t far from perfection by the look of it.’
‘Don’t be so sure of your immediate impressions. Not so soon.’
Before I manage to digest this comment, I realise that his presence has vanished, like an unbearable weight being lifted from my lap. The only impression I’m collecting right now is that this jungle must be heaving with more of the likes of him: the so-called “Palm Patrol”. I’m crossing my fingers that, hopefully, there won’t be any others, because at this rate I’m starting to lose orchestration in, not only my sanity, but also my surprisingly vast imagination.
Are you finding it hard to believe now? The bird’s voice is beginning to haunt. Wherever I go, the conversation on the beach follows and I’m leading his voice along on a chain, as shackling and as docile as it can be – the feathered steward on Awakening Coast is my fellow-prisoner upon this hazy exile. And I’ve let his voice loiter on a chain because it is reassuringly evocative. It increases the likelihood of plentiful thinking and questioning, and right now I’m learning that the more I think, the more my mind becomes logged and fogged and bogged with things that don’t add-up or have been shone on me too soon to make any lucrative sense.
Perhaps, he’s my conscience?
Maybe he’s the source of all this confusion?
The voice of reason in the back of my head is supposed to be the thing relentlessly telling me to wake up. Instead, it uses its power to dig me into an even deeper hole.
I look back up at the stars, scattered in their explosive patterns. I’ve never been able to depict them at their best. Never at their greatest. Only ever imagined them in the stories, in the dreams. Well, I can picture them now, shining soundly. And they’re bona fide.
For me to carry on going, they have to be.
The jungle is seeing to my arrival ceremoniously. Further in, the sounds have become louder and more distinguishable. On the tree-trunks, I’ve detected large families of crickets and beetles, chirping and ticking harmoniously. Around them, like a disciplined infestation, red ants scurry up and down the bark. Higher up, owls and small, hairy, prickly-eared creatures with gloating eyes, that make themselves at home in tiny holes and burrows in the trees. Their vision is wide, awake for acknowledging their surroundings. My passing seems to have never gone unnoticed and it’s clearly unfamiliar with many of these creatures, being the only human mistaken enough to intrude on their turf.
On the ground is a different situation. Most of the noise, in fact, is rising from below, among the fallen branches and palm-leaves. Camouflaged frogs and lizards have begun to expose themselves, nestling within these cuttings or crawling out from beneath the shrubs and undergrowth. Whether they’re poisonous or not is a question I have no means of asking. I hold firm and steer clear past them. Far away now, the ocean waves can still be heard whipping the shore – “Awakening Coast” was what the Palm Patroller had called the beach I’d materialised on.
Yet this new – and rather dusky – setting doesn’t expel my curiosities, as there are many more of those to spare. Oh, yes. And the strongest seems to be roused by the stench that has led me in here. Without the edifying warning from the Palm Patroller at hand, I’d have most likely dashed back to the beach. Surprisingly, I haven’t yet had the urge to turn around and retrace steps back to “safety”, and no one else has shooed me off so far. I’ll go right ahead. It’s only a dream after all. Maybe such a liberty as the dream’s lucidness is making me daft, or turning me into a blissfully intrusive tourist? Or perhaps I’ve been left to find out the perils of this jungle curse the hard way? Or, forbid, could it be that alluring smell of a burning fire that has battled with my wits and sense and brought me this deep – to a point where I can evidently see faint fumes drifting up from the distance and into the night sky? Somebody’s at work down there and they’re cooking up a late-night supper. Roasting meat. Sweating flesh, spitting and crisping at the skin.
I’m not only curious now. I’m also quite hungry.
I hunt after the trajectory of fumes, which are spiralling in my direction, wafting away from the source. With less regard to what’s actually cooking, I start to think more of why somebody would be having a barbeque in the middle of a “prohibited jungle”? Is it something ritual, or religious? A rite to the Stellar Gods? Or am I being stereotypical? Perhaps, somebody’s just famished, but has nowhere to go, let alone cook their meat? Nevertheless, it’s leading the way to somewhere at least and exciting my taste buds at the same time.
I wonder whether whoever it is will see me coming and how I might react if they decide to attack me. If this Somebody has the nerve to put up a fire in the middle of a cursed jungle, then there’d be no reason for them not to put up a fight if a stranger invaded their space. In fact, a Somebody like this probably has all their work cut out like a chain of paper-men, perfectly rowed up into a little army. The Somebody just beyond this colony of tree-trunks and at the end of this trail of fumes must be able to put up – not only a fire or a fight – with anybody or thing that poses a threat or appears to be of an otherworldly nature. Like me! It is definitely a Somebody and not a Something.
It ought to be a Somebody. I mean, I would be very surprised to find a Something that is able to start a fire and cook its own meat. Or, in this surreal situation, would I really be that surprised…?
I guess I’ve already accomplished losing the plot. Can tick that off the bucket list…mind you, at this rate, I don’t think I’ll have much time left to write one.
As the fumes stem thicker, I’m now swallowed by an unnatural fog, which engulfs my surroundings and winds around me. The smoke is relentlessly itching at my skin and attracting everything local almost magnetically with its heat. I’ve invited anxiety to be my last standing companion, now that the trivial urge of hunger has said farewell.
The sizzle and pop of flames at work protrudes from a foundation nearby. The sound tickles my eardrums and causes a plantation field of goosebumps to sprout, flourish and prickle on my arms and legs.
The smoke parts and subsides, opening my vision. I’ve come to a clearance somewhere at the heart of the jungle. Here, more than two-dozen trees have been severed at the stump and all that remain are several long trunks, laying around the empty ground, none having yet been put to use.
Instantly, my attention has been guided away from the scenery and I quickly realise that I’m in the presence of somebody else – and, yes, it’s definitely a Somebody.
A girl, in fact.
Her back is turned. She’s dressed in purple, flimsy pyjamas, which she’s long since grown out of. Her hair is a rumpled cape of dark-red. And most distinctive of all are the gross slippers on her feet. By the looks, they must have been plump and fluffy in the past. But, since being here, it is apparent that stray, bristling branches have had their tear at them and wet sand has managed to seep in via holes in the soles; they are now flat, damp and shapeless. There’s something very familiar about her height – that is a lot of person, particularly for a girl.
She obviously hasn’t heard me coming.
At the moment, she’s attending a large bonfire in the centre of the clearing. The flames bouncing off the branches, twigs and palm leaves spark life into the night, they battle with the stars and flourish in the subtle ocean-breeze. I suppose that is what has become of the timber. Then, I notice the axe lying beside a stump. The long, iron handle is rusted and the sharp edge of the axe itself is crusted with blood.
Perhaps, that’s the only tool she managed to acquire? But where from? I can’t imagine there being a local supermarket somewhere on this island, selling survival equipment to jungle trespassers.
On the stump is half a coconut shell. Inside the shell are what look like a variety of shrimp, clams and crayfish. Tonight’s supper? I wonder. No, that definitely smells like meat cooking. Not fish. Most certainly meat.
She shifts, glancing uneasily to the right, as though she’s heard movement close in that direction. For a moment, I believe I heard the same mild disturbance, before awkwardly remembering that I’m the one who’s not meant to be here. Regardless of what it is that’s caught her attention, I’m swift to react. I quickly jump behind one of the tree trunks surrounding the clearing.
When she’d glanced off to the side, I’d only caught a glimpse of her face. It had been shadowed, but I could see that her cheek was lean and rouged. Though thin from malnourishment, there’s a blush in
those cheeks, which makes me think: it isn’t exactly cold out here. There may be a dusky bite, but it wouldn’t cause a shiver. Nor is it disconcertingly hot. Something else is turning those cheeks sickly rubicund. A certain emotion. Embarrassment? Shame? Fear? It can’t quite be placed.
I peer round at the clearing again to see that she’s begun to prod the bonfire with a fat branch. This causes an array of sparks to fly and shrivel in the air. I strategically move towards the neighbouring tree. Cautious. She still doesn’t know I’m here and I don’t want to make the moment any more extraordinary than it already is. I’m trying to get a better look at the fire, because I’m curious to know what’s cooking, before I announce my arrival (if I announce my arrival). Unless there’s prey (or predators) running about in this jungle, it begs the question: meat from where exactly? And caught how? With an axe? Unlikely. If I’m going to grow some balls, speak up and greet her, I don’t want my appearance to seem unwelcoming, like I’d intended to sneak up on her.
Tracking the garish view of the fire from behind the trunk, I observe. Currently alight, a bed of palm leaves has been built upon the flames that guzzle the timber and twigs beneath. I imagine this to be some makeshift grill at first. But then I see that the thing on the bed is too long to be a boar, or a chicken—and the thing is far too large for somebody to consume alone. In fact, it’s nothing to be consumed at all...
The burning cadaver has blackened and bygone is the stage of melting. In some parts, the skin that is on the brink of disintegration still glows a fleshy golden brown, and in others the carbonised crisp is molten red, singeing in the ardour of the flames. Skeleton has started to show and it’s pushing its way out through the now liquidised muscle. This body is strictly irretrievable. It is absorbing the scorching smoke, soaking up the heat, wilting perilously down to the very marrow of the bone. And the smell is unforgiving, revolting. Stirred with the banana-odour of the cooking palm leaves is the porky stink of hot, thawing flesh, and both are carried in the fumes that amass in the hollow clearing. I feel my stomach contracting when I realise what it is that’s burning on this fierce beacon of death. The spoil of meat that has been set alight on this wakeless night is the charred body of a human being. An unrecognisable person. Cremated and historic, his or her remains have joined the atoms of the air. Up with them follow the soul and identity of a person who’d once lived who-knows-how-long-ago. Somebody knows: She knows.
The cherry-haired girl watches the bonfire. Her eyes glisten, almost as deadpan as the corpse burning before her. She can’t retract herself from the sight. Her emotions are set on the departed – commissary, anger, triumph? I may never know how she feels, only that she was responsible for destroying the remains. For she knows more about this than anyone else. And, hopefully – for the corpse’s own peace – she knows more than it did before its decease and the respects she now pays it. My heart rate is going again – another surreal encounter, which I will perhaps regret in moments to come. Is this really all an aberration? Am I imagining this?
The girl’s arms are crossed. This is especially noticeable, since most of the light is being directed towards her front as the wind bullies the flames. Although her features are still fairly difficult to comprehend, I manage to identify a possible age. She’s no younger than around eighteen. Or perhaps she could be older? She has the body and face of a young adolescent woman, whereas, on the other hand, she swanks an upright posture of self-awareness and maturity, with her legs assertively held apart and her neck cocking her head up towards the moon hidden in the canopies – a confident attitude wizened by experience. My view of her facial expression is extremely limited at the moment. From what I’ve seen of it, when she turned to the right, it had looked completely still, as though I’d caught her contemplating over a severely perseverant situation. The self-effacing scrutiny there is prevalent always, not affecting the interminable determination in her eyes. And those eyes of hers, they broadly disregard me, as well as all her other surroundings. She hasn’t blinked once. Until now…
She notices me!
All of a sudden, elsewhere in this strange and hallucinated whirlwind of Who’s, Where’s, What’s and When’s, I feel something sharp and pointed press against the nape of my neck. Instantly, I realise that it isn’t a loose branch, but the end of a blade—it’s a seizing position. I dare not turn! Too tense to do anything, even gesture by raising my hands in surrender. I’ve never been a man to stand his own ground. And, believe me, a dream is no time or place to be standing on grounds, where you can never really be sure whether or not it is actual ground upon which you are standing.
‘Don’t move!’ a piercing voice hisses from behind me. It’s negligible whether the voice is male or female – I haven’t come to that conclusion. ‘Why are you here?’
‘You tell me,’ I challenge, quite bravely. ‘You folk seem to know a lot more than I do right now. I’m the last guy you want to be asking questions.’
‘Shut up, fool! Who are you? And who gave you permission to be about the jungle at this time of night?’
The point on the back of my neck is close to making an incision.
‘You really don’t want to kill me,’ I say. ‘You really don’t need to kill me.’
‘Forget wants and needs! If you don’t give me a proper answer, I’ll have to kill you! I’ve done it before and, trust me, killing is really addictive once you get the hang of it!’
‘I’m new around here,’ I alert. ‘Can’t you tell?’
‘Camson, what have you found?’ The girl from the bonfire has finally broken from her daze and turned, stepping away. ‘Who have you found? Who is that?’
‘Some stalker!’ the voice behind me replies. ‘Says he’s a new Dreamer!’
‘And what are you doing to him?’
‘He’s breaking the rules by coming out in the jungle at this time—!’
‘No—answer my question, Camson! What are you doing?’ she persists. Her arms are still crossed and she’s looking blindly into the darkness, facing me, but most probably only looking at the tree in front of me.
Camson doesn’t reply.
‘Camson!’ she shouts. ‘Bring him out here. I want to take a look at him.’
Suddenly, there’s a knackered sigh from behind me and I’m grasped at the shoulder. It’s the rough grip of a man. His nails really dig in.
He guides me out from behind the trunk. I almost trip on a shrub before collapsing onto the flat grit of the clearing. The impact strikes my knees and I gasp in pain. I glance up slowly, trying not to be too capricious with my latest acquaintances. The girl stands over me, unmistakably now, her distance only a couple of inches. Her head is still vaguely silhouetted, but I can see that she has a tanned complexion that’s lightly blemished and her hair is a lighter red now that the firelight is screaming at her back, but it’s tangled with leaves and tiny twig-cuttings. But one thing is for sure and it’s astonishing to say the least: she’s undoubtedly recognisable. She has a face I’ve seen before. Steadfast, she approaches me, but not with the zeal of an old friend.
‘Is it true? Are you new here?’ she inquires.
‘Yes,’ I reply honestly. ‘Do you have any idea where this place is?’
‘This is no “place”,’ she states. ‘We’re surrounded by many places on this planet, many worlds expand beyond here. Don’t be so naïve.’
‘I thought the Dreamerverse was just one planet?’ I say. ‘I mean—that’s what I was told—’
‘A Dreamer-verse. It’s not the same thing as a world. It’s not the same as being back in the real world, back on Mankind’s World. There are fewer limits here, less boundaries, because it’s bigger and louder, so the laws have to stretch to apply to much vaster proportions.’
A memorable hand lands back on my shoulder. ‘Which means that there’s more harm we’re allowed to do you.’ Without hesitation, Camson lifts me and throws me aside violently. I land, bracingly, on my backside. I turn to find a little muscular man with dark, powerful features storming at me with a long sword. The blade has been generously polished to the degree where it houses my reflection like a mirror. It glimmers at the tip as he swings it down towards my neck.
I successfully roll over just in time to dodge the metal slicing past my collarbone, and it smacks the ground. Immediately, the girl jumps in and prises the weapon from his hand. She grips him by the collar of his pyjama-shirt and drags his forehead to her chin.
‘Don’t make an idiot of yourself again!’ she snaps. ‘We’re not here to make enemies. Well, I’m certainly not. The sooner you realise that, the better. I sympathise with you, Cammy. You know I do and I want to do everything I can to help you. But we almost got banished from the Kingdom because of you and your fits! Now, I’m trusting you not to cause any further problems. Can you promise me that?’
Camson evaluates this shortly and rather pathetically, rolling his eyes and huffing in disgust. He shoots a look at me, which doesn’t fail to read: This is all your fault! Then, he really says: ‘You can rely on me.’
‘Brilliant,’ and with that, she releases him, tossing the sword off to one side. ‘Get something to eat, Camson. Everyone can see you’re hungry. Just keep in mind that we’re still on the same side. For now, at least. Please.’
Ashamed, Camson strides away viciously, not looking back once.
The girl then pivots back to me. She offers me a hand. I take it. And with one hoist, I’m back up on my feet.
‘I’m really sorry about him. We haven’t eaten tonight. We needed the fire for other priorities,’ she excuses hesitantly. ‘He gets a little bit out of sorts when he’s missed supper.’
‘Is he usually this hungry?’ I ask with a shade of humour, even though I mean to consider this seriously.
‘No, no—He’s just very, very…upset, I guess.’
She focuses on the fire again, numbly avoiding my attention.
‘Why’s that? Are you two lost? Because, if you are, then we may have a lot more in common than we think. It isn’t at all difficult to misplace yourself out here.’
‘It’s not that,’ she admits. Then she pauses and searches for Camson, who stands at the bonfire, holding a coconut shell in his palm and eating crayfish out of it. When she knows for certain that he’s not listening, she continues. ‘We lost somebody. He lost somebody. His son drowned in the water yesterday. This morning, we went fishing for whatever we could find of his boy. His son was stolen in a flash. We both saw it happen before our own eyes.’
‘What did you see?’
‘I wasn’t on the scene at first,’ she whispers. ‘I arrived a little after it started. Camson got in a sticky situation in the water, said he could feel something tickling his feet from down-under. He presumed it was just crabs initially. Whatever it was got a lock on his legs and his son, Thuban, went to help him out. I soon arrived to support. We managed to get Camson out, but his son then got caught seconds after. It happened too fast. Before we knew it and before we could do anything, Thuban was dragged straight under. The force was too strong. All we could see after he’d gone was a round, glowing… blue light in the seafloor under the water. We’ve stuck with this idea that it was a beast that lurched up and snatched Thuban. But we don’t know. Dreamers being kidnapped in the shallows of the ocean? Have you heard of that before? Is that even possible?’
‘I guess anything is,’ I say. ‘I’m still not quite certain about anything yet.’
‘I wish we’d been able to drag that poor kid out. Camson has been in a fowl mood, as you can see.’
I can’t keep my eyes off the bonfire—I daren’t say anything about it—I daren’t even mention it…and yet, that’s exactly what I do. ‘Is that…is that not the kid’s body?’
She looks to the bonfire and, suddenly, I notice that the paleness hasn’t left her complexion and her innermost emotions seem to be solemn and reflective. She’s stubborn, cautious not to say too much. When she does decide to finally answer, she hardly says anything at all.
‘No.’ Her voice is still nothing more than a deep whisper. Then, to call closure to the subject, she throws her head back and gazes up at the stars. More of them have appeared and their company is mellowing.
‘Where did you come from?’ I ask the girl. ‘The same reality as me?’
‘Of course. Mankind’s World,’ she replies. ‘It only makes sense that a dimension as beautiful as this would never exist back home. It can’t even compare. Here, the seas are too vast, the trees are too tall, the mountains are too distant, the sky is too clear and…they really do exist here.’
‘I’m sorry? “They”?’ I latch onto this.
‘The stars,’ she says. ‘They exist here. Back home, it’s always overcast with grey and gloom and the people below are bound by a glum notion. Even when you rarely do see the stars through a telescope at night or in the illustrated pages of a book, a fantasy, you never meet them for real. And such an experience can’t fulfil your deepest curiosities. We wouldn’t know what to expect and, believe, when it comes to the constellations. Some others wouldn’t even know what to look for, let alone be aware of their existence at all. The few stars on Mankind’s World never flirt with your imagination like these ones do.’
‘You’ve got that right.’
‘They used to say “every cloud has a silver-lining”. Well, the clouds back home never do. Don’t matter where you look for it. Reality doesn’t really have a soft spot. Mankind’s World finds simple things too hard to understand. But these embellishments sparkling in the sky are reassuring, aren’t they? They’re like souls, or even gods, looking down on everything, recognising the flaws among us and the human idiocy we permit and they’re laughing at us, the stupid ones who believe everything we see and hear on the stage They created.’
‘You’re religious,’ I jeer with a weak and disappointed huff.
‘Nope. I’m just not sceptical like you,’ the girl reasons.
I look at her with fascination. The paleness in her face has died and her cheeks are blushing again. She’s still gazing up, not realising that she’s become quite the glowing spectacle herself. But she doesn’t care and that’s what’s so extravagantly modest about her. That’s what I find appealingly different about her and it’s something I can’t quite understand or put into words.
‘How’s your life in the real world?’ she asks. ‘Do you live in the City?’
‘Lived there all my life,’ I respond.
‘Really?’ she takes this by surprise. ‘I’ve only just moved there in the last couple of years. Arrived with the narrow-minded belief that the City’s supposed to be the safest place in all Mankind’s World. I’d beg to differ now.’
‘What d’you mean? I like to think the City’s still a safe place,’ I argue defensively.
‘After landing in this place? That’s where you stand? Still persuaded that the City is a haven?’ the girl winces. ‘Are you really that vanilla?’
‘Not vanilla. Just passionately preferential.’
‘Oh—it’s because you’re new here. I guess that’s why. Your head is still in the real world. You haven’t acclimatised yet and still having trouble feeling your way around somewhere that doesn’t have a mall on every corner, a restaurant in every crevasse, or someone that doesn’t iron your clothes for you,’ she deflates her puzzlement and rolls her eyes at me contemptuously.
‘There’s nothing wrong with preferring where I come from,’ I respond. ‘And there’s nothing wrong with being a little homesick. Yeah? So what?’
‘Some toffee-nosed City-boy you are, aren’t you? You probably hate the feeling of sand on your feet, the stink of seaweed, the sight of monkeys, birds and insects. I bet you’d really love to wave your hometown flag right now. Wave it right in my face.’
‘I don’t see the problem with preferring a civilised and highly established urban jungle to this…jungle.’
‘Do you know how much conflict the First Nation has caused back home? The damage it’s constructed in Mankind’s World? How much they’ve contributed to the rapid collapse of civilisations? Once that war ends, we’ll all be at the mercy of the West.’
‘Now you make us seem like the bad guys.’
‘I’m not saying the West are the bad guys. I’m just saying they’ve started most of the conflict by prodding the East from day one.’
‘The East loves to play victim!’
‘We perhaps shouldn’t talk too much about that, anyway,’ her grainy voice has shrunk into another whisper. ‘He’s not too sharp on people from the West.’ She discreetly gestures at Camson.
‘Not too sharp at all, is he?’ I remark. ‘Not unless he’s a got a sword in his hand, that is.’
‘Why? What’s wrong with him?’
‘Can’t you tell? He’s an East veteran. Fought against the West fifteen years ago. Helped to kill over two hundred million of your men.’
‘Disgruntled bastard,’ I huff. ‘I could smell something rotten in him a mile off.’
‘I wouldn’t tempt him. He doesn’t have the time or the state of mind for the likes of you.’
‘And where do you stand? In the middle? Because you’re “the likes of me” too! Living it up in the City.’
‘I don’t advocate global harassment, so I don’t support the West or the City. Keep me out of it.’ She begins to move towards the fire, leaving me for dust. I follow urgently.
‘Hey—I never said I was all for war!’ I call after her. ‘That isn’t what I’m about! The City’s reputation doesn’t define me! I was just brought up there! I don’t know anything else.’
But she doesn’t turn. She’s ditched her interest in me. My new face has lost its novelty for them both.
‘When I said I had passion, I never meant it like that!’ I explain to the red-haired girl. ‘I’m not proud of where I’m from; I’m just comfortable there! Boy, you have one hell of a preconception when it comes to strangers.’
‘I could say the same about you,’ she mumbles.
‘Okay—fine! Don’t we all have perceptions afforded to us by our upbringing?’ I say. ‘But that’s why we’re here, isn’t it? In this Dreamerverse? We share the same perception! Or, at least, similarities…don’t we? So, there must be something we have in common. We’re Dreamers and we’re all on the same wavelength! I was told this place is one big perception!’
She spins on her heels to assert me abruptly. ‘How many times do I need to remind you? This is not a “place”! We’re not placed here! We just appear and it’s as coincidental as that. And it will always be as coincidental as that!’
‘Whoever said it was a coincidence? Why can’t there be a logical reason behind this?’ Nothing I say seems to attract her back to me. ‘It isn’t an accident why we’re here! The Stellar…Gods…select us!’
‘If this all really is as much of a “perception” as you say it is, then, why does it feel so natural? To me, this feels like it should be home! Not the City!’ There’s a rattle of condescendence in her tone, like she thinks she’s the only one with any sagacity about her. ‘I’ve never felt as much at home and at peace as I do here.’
I glance around, trying to soak up the atmosphere, trying to find her “peace”…
‘In the jungle?’ I utter, screwing my mouth a little.
She gives me a sarcastic glance and then marches off again, away from the bonfire this time. Not mentioning any more, as if she’s muting herself for my own good. Have I not picked up on something she said? Am I actually dodging something important here? I don’t intend to be ignorant—I’m just struggling to relate. But the glint in her eyes suggests other things. There’s so much more that she wants to tell me, but she doesn’t feel that we’re familiar enough to do so. She’s holding back.
I groan. ‘What is it you have on me?’ I register. ‘Have I offended you?’
She doesn’t stop. She’s headed back for the fire again. I scurry after her still.
I catch sight of the sizzling corpse one more time. And suddenly, the pungency of sweating meat and browning bananas returns to me. ‘What about the body?’ I urge. ‘Who was it? You have to tell me that much at least.’
The cherry-haired girl is helping herself to another coconut-shell – the other half of Camson’s – waiting on another stump. Picking at the crayfish, she exchanges a knowing look with Camson. The pair have a very odd bond. The sort of relationship an under-aged female secretary would have with her older male boss – out of the hands and control of the gentleman’s estranged wife. They have their secrets and, the majority of the time, it’s not a matter of whether they’re prepared to tell you those secrets, but rather, a matter of whether you’re ready to hear them.
‘None of your business,’ the girl says. ‘Besides, it doesn’t matter anymore. She doesn’t matter.’
I don’t know if this is bad news or not. It’s definitely a task to digest, as most of the minor and major details have been left to the imagination. The carbonising corpse belonged to a “She”. They’ve told me just about the appropriate amount I need to know. For the time being.
And now she’s bending over, placing the coconut back on the stump and sucking the fish off her fingers. She passes Camson, who’s demented by the fire, and grabs the axe from beside an empty stump. Then, without further ado, she begins to hack at one of the remaining trees surrounding the clearing.
I’m left standing awkwardly as I watch her do this. But to kill the tension, I open my big mouth again: ‘So, what are the pair of you still doing out here? I thought Dreamers were supposed to leave at night? You know…Awakening Coast?’
Camson doesn’t answer. He continues chewing the claw of a little lobster. I notice the embroidered patterns of long snake bodies coiled around the sleeves of his red robe. The girl drops the axe and turns slightly, half-facing me and obscurely profiled by the moonlight shredding through the canopies. ‘We’re not supposed to do anything. Our time in the Dreamerverse depends on our conscience. We leave when our minds are prepared to leave. Have you ever dreamt before? Oh, yeah—’ she chuckles cheekily, ‘I keep forgetting you think you’re already living the dream in the City.’ She hesitates before taking another swing at the tree. ‘But wait…when did you arrive?’
‘Just now. An hour and a bit ago. Why?’
‘You arrived after sunset?’ she turns fully now, discarding her censorship. Her arms are crossed again and she slants on her hips. Her reaction catches Camson’s attention and he’s sharply seduced away from the fire.
‘Yeah,’ I confirm. ‘The bird mentioned there was something strange about people arriving at night. I just thought that was because sunset was the time Dreamers usually decided to leave. Why? What else does it mean?’
‘That’s what the damn bird told me!’ she barks.
‘You met the parrot too? Did you arrive after sunset?’ I’m starting to become annoyed by my own dumb nosiness. But I can’t help it!
‘No! He said that was impossible! It never happens anymore.’
‘You must be one special guy,’ she says bluntly and huffs. ‘Nobody arrives after sunset. It’s rumoured that only the most capable Dreamers arrive at night.’
Capable? What does she mean by that?
‘Capable? I don’t follow…’
‘It means that you must be a star pupil of the Stellar Gods, specially chosen, that’s all,’ she says, mockingly. She has trouble pronouncing the words: “specially chosen”, trying to dress it up with a frilly imitation of a First Nation accent. Then she cherishes a small grin. She addresses Camson, who’s placed his own coconut-shell back on a stump. ‘He’s from the City. Would you believe?’ she sways the subject in this direction once more and towards Camson, as if it’s a pending joke she can’t wait to share with him.
‘The City, huh?’ Camson champions this as a chance to examine me. He sticks his nose out at my chest, trying to intimidate me from a foot below my chin, sizing me up shortly before giving his damning opinion. ‘You should be used to fixing problems by now, shouldn’t you, City Boy?’
‘What are you talking about?’ I spit back.
‘As open as the battleground looks here in your dreams, our grievances haven’t been left behind with the Conscious. Not with me around,’ Camson warns.
The girl wades into the confrontation. ‘What’s your name?’ she says to me, erratically.
‘Oscar,’ I tell her. Deliberately avoiding my surname. ‘Yours?’
‘Samuella,’ she does the same: simply first name, no surname. She and I must definitely be on the same wavelength. I guess that’s what occurs between City Folk. Well…that’s the view I’ve believed for so long. Whereas, I don’t understand a word Camson’s on about – perhaps, he doesn’t understand me either. He has a twisted attitude about him. An unbreakable grudge. Lost his son in a dream and now he seems to be blaming everything on the West again – even though he isn’t in the West. Dummy. This doesn’t look like the City, but to him it must be the equivalent to such a horror show when he’s surrounded by City Folk in a cursed jungle. Those of the East are certainly not on the same wavelength as those in the West and the real world has nothing to do with this camp Fantasy Land. The Stellar Gods must have made a mistake drawing the three of us together.
‘That’s a memorable name,’ I comment. ‘Sort of.’
‘Not as funny as yours,’ Samuella manages to flip the topic back onto me again. ‘There’s a smidge that’s familiar about you. Something I can’t quite spot, but definitely something mutual there. I’ve seen a face like yours before.’
‘I could say the same about you,’ I match her confidence. It’s an inkling of a notion, a memory. But any hint I can grasp from the real world is a gem for me right now. Nothing has changed in my mind. I want to go home.
‘I don’t recognise either of you. Thankfully.’ Camson regards.
‘Did you just come straight from the beach?’ Samuella says to me.
‘Yeah. Where’d you two come from?’ I exchange.
‘The Kingdom Palace—not long ago,’ she says. ‘But we were sent on an expedition, you see. Following an order given by the king.’
‘An order from the king?’ My ears perk up. ‘To do what?’
‘Well, we were about to be exiled from the Kingdom, once Camson and his mixed bag of emotions started spilling all over the place. But we were told that we could ‘redeem’ ourselves if we managed to catch and slay the beast. It is believed to be the same beast that kidnapped Thuban.’
‘A beast? There’s a beast?’
‘Some call it a misconception, a humourless rumour, a mythic entity,’ she lists. ‘Others know it purely as the Drag-in.’
‘I might have heard about that,’ I murmur, waiting for her to elaborate. ‘Something like it.’
‘Once we find it and tie it down, we can return to the kingdom. But, until then, we’re stuck out in this jungle, living off bite-sized fish.’ She looks down at the ground temporarily, then throws her head back and searches, yet again, for the brightest sparkle in the sky. She sighs. ‘What I’d give to stay here forever. Imagine that. It makes me reminisce living in the countryside. And I admit, at the time, my little countryside keep had been everything to me. I’d felt lonely and unambitious, but it was enough. On those old fields, I used to dream of the City and its twinkling, majestic lights and its bursting atmosphere of constant excitement.’ I notice Camson grunting with mockery. He begins to hum to himself, blocking out her voice. But she continues, not taking any notice. ‘Then…once I finally got there for myself, I started to realise how accustomed I’d been to the rural life. Because, in a place like the City, nobody cares where you sow your seeds. You’re on your own and I quickly became aware of that. And I still hold regrets about leaving behind the old keep with all of the animals still grazing on the farm – the ones I’d eventually sold to another couple who’d conveniently arrived from the mountains. I never met the new owners, but thought of how happy they would be in my place. Indisputably satisfied. Surrounded by the pigs and the sheep and the cows and awake at the cry of the fowl. The flocks had been my only motivation. It was enough. They were all I needed to depend on, all I had…that and the stars. I do remember the stars. There weren’t any more stars left when I got to the City, which is exactly why, when I look up at the sky now, I realise they are all the motivation I have left.’
‘Why do you need motivation?’ I query. ‘If you don’t mind me asking.’
‘One needs it to be sure of what they choose to believe in life and the decisions they make. For me, having a role in the world that gets me out of bed in the morning and aligned in a routine like the stars in their constellations gives me faith in tomorrow. Albeit, a new purpose will guide me to a place I can call home again,’ she answers.
I observe her as she moves for the fire again. She passes it and walks out through the first blockade of palm trees. She disappears amongst the shadows shortly, before returning to the clearing with a large wooden bucket filled with water. She launches the water at the flames, choking the fire. I then see that Camson has appeared with his own bucket. He spurts the fire, managing to kill it.
There is nothing remaining of the unrecognisable corpse. The burning aroma continues to drift up into the canopies and it’s within this moment of smoky silence that I hear the last of the Sunset Birds flutter to their hideaways. The ocean waves in the distance are strikingly audible now that the fire has dissolved with the nightlife around it.
‘Do you think the king will still be awake?’ Camson’s voice emerges from somewhere in the new darkness. ‘Or will he have already departed by now?’
‘He departs via his own private area of the beach, from what I understand. Doesn’t like to be seen. So, it would be hard to tell,’ Samuella replies from somewhere else. ‘Why? Are you thinking what I’m thinking?’
‘We ought to introduce him to the king.’
Night, warm and black, is like the cape of a blanket, tucking the world around us. The sound of the ocean fades ever further away the deeper we trek through the jungle and the birds are absent from the palms above. Although that cooked-banana smell has abandoned us, the balminess of smoky entrails picks at my goosebumps.
Camson knows his way through the jungle in the dark. Every narrow track and splitting turn is memorable for him, which gives the impression that he’s been exiled out here for a while and his comfort with it is his refusal to go home. Or – according to Samuella’s logic – his conscience isn’t yet ready to return to the beach. Now I realise that he isn’t leading the way alone. The stars are responsible for this. Marked in their inviolable patterns between the palmtops, they retrace us along a jagged trail. Wherever they can be seen, we should be safe.
‘So, what is this Kingdom? I thought this was all there was: a jungle, deserted tropical landscapes and telepathic wildlife. It doesn’t seem like a very civilised planet, closer to a desolate island,’ I address Samuella, who strides beside me.
‘To a Dreamer who’s only just woken, that’s how it seems. But I wouldn’t stress thinking too philosophically about this world and the laws of its universe – it’s a smidge too sophisticated for our weeny human minds to understand,’ she replies. ‘Its appearance responds to whatever our conscience is thinking. What we imagine is what we see, remember? So, keep it simple and you shouldn’t run into too much trouble.’
‘Don’t you want to find any reason behind that? Any meaning as to why you were selected to arrive here above anyone else in the real world?’
Finding it hard to believe still? The steward’s voice is ringing in my ears again.
‘Not for much longer!’ I hiss at it. ‘I’m getting to the bottom of this Dreamerverse-place, before getting the hell out—!’
Samuella shoots me a look of wild concern. And yet, me talking to myself doesn’t seem to bother Camson as much. Regardless of whether he heard it or not, he’s pretty good at pretending to ‘lead the way’.
‘What’s wrong?’ Samuella says, nervous.
‘Nothing. Just…just something I forgot,’ I lie.
‘What did you forget?’
‘I forgot to switch the light off in the bathroom before I fell asleep. That’s all.’
‘Rubbish,’ she debunks, grinning. ‘It’s impossible to remember anything so minor about the real world here.’
‘Oh…is it?’ There I go again – another dim blunder from the unpalatable novice.
‘There’s the mental void that divides both worlds. We call it the Memory Lane. And, because it’s there, we can’t remember anything vague about here in the real world and, vice versa, we can’t remember anything indistinct about the real world while we’re here. The only exceptions are the big memories, the ones that punch enough out of the Void for us to see them. This world may be an open battleground – as Cammy likes to put it to you – but it still has its laws and those laws have to be regulated.’ Then I remember all the banana cakes hovering about my mind – aren’t they small, and vague, and indistinct? Kind of. So, how can I remember that?
‘By “vague”, what do you mean?’ I mention. ‘Would my bathroom light switch be subject to this Memory Lane?’
‘If you were honestly remembering a light switch in a dream and not just making things up to hide your weirdness, then, yes, you’d be out of your mind. Besides, it’s only the big and obvious things we can remember between worlds. People have faces and they also have names. But a face will always be stronger than a name.’
‘The Laws of the Dreamerverse?’ I suggest. ‘The Stellar Gods really couldn’t hold themselves back with that one, could they.’
‘Not one bit. But, as a rule, it’s a necessary one! Think about it! If we were able to remember things inter-worldly, it would be classified as a sixth-sense. Humans are limited to their senses. We only gather five from birth. Developing a sixth would be physically and mentally impossible.’
‘How do you know all this?’
‘We’ve been here a while, haven’t we, Cammy?’ she admits. ‘And I’ve read into these subjects a lot back in Mankind’s World.’
‘We all know you have a load of time for that,’ Camson notes.
‘Yeah—of course…I still make time to read those science articles…when I’m not working my butt off.’ Her cheeks regain some colour suddenly and start to fluoresce red. She’s embarrassed by this remark. Maybe she doesn’t want to be known as somebody who has a lot of time on her hands? I try to consider. But, what’s wrong with not being a busybody from time to time? Nobody wants their body to be busy all the time.
‘There’s nothing wrong with that,’ I say, ignoring Camson’s scowl targeted at me.
‘You’re only a rural girl once,’ she declares. ‘Especially since nobody has to do anything in the City anymore. Everything’s done for them. I consider myself one of the few capable of lifting a finger. Sometimes I have to agree with the fact that the West is lazy. City sounds a lot like settee.’
Camson giggles. ‘You can say that again.’
‘Are you only grovelling to him because he’s carrying the sword?’ I look to the long, glimmering blade in Camson’s right hand.
Samuella smiles. ‘Believe me, a goldfish wouldn’t be afraid of this guy. He doesn’t even know how to fan a palm-leaf, let alone wield a sworde doesn’H. Did I put enough emphasis on the title “war veteran”?’
‘Well, hold on—’ Camson tries to slice his way in and save himself some dignity.
‘I’ve seen you attempting to fend off smidgy fireflies with ginormous palm-leaves. Don’t try it on with me, Cammy,’ Samuella bellows, smiling a little as if she’s finally pinned one over the smug little man.
An awkward hiatus in conversation suddenly inserts itself between my captors, with me being the main subject of such verbal caution, sandwiched in the middle. Samuella’s intense presence against my back doesn’t let up; she’s a heavy breather. I steal this silence as a chance to scrutinise Camson from behind. To say that he’s five feet off the ground would be a euphemism. Over his pyjamas, he wears a long, red, silk robe. Two embroidered snakes woven into either sleeve boast their heads on his cuffs, their fangs resting just under his wrists. His hair is firmly packed into a field of greasy perm. And on his feet is a pair of opulent leather slippers.
I mean, look at the amount of Balm cementing this dwarf’s hair! A head louse would be skidding between an ice-rink and a marble ballroom under that hairline. East Folk, I think disgustedly. Always blaming the West for their excessive greed, and their plunder, and for their horrendous famines, when they’re just as equally to blame—if not more!
It would help if they all just stopped fighting, wouldn’t it? This voice is new. It doesn’t sound like the parrot; this isn’t Stewart’s telepathy flapping in my head again. It’s a new personality that rises from out of the boggiest pits of my brain.
Well, we all know that’s not going to happen any time soon, I orate in the theatre of my skull. I peel the subconscious conversation onwards, keen to garner another response from the new lodger in my thoughts.
One day it’s going to get out of hand. And then we’ll all be sorry. I finally recognise the nature of the voice. With its light and airy echo, I know that the person speaking to me is not here to taunt me, only to advise. I smile warmly.
Before we can better acquaint, however, a flurry of distortion hovers over our surroundings, contaminating the atmosphere, and it suddenly causes everything to seem somewhat darker. Camson freezes in his tracks ahead of us. His head has shifted abnormally in a way that his neck almost arches in a curve and his hand automatically places itself on the handle of his sword. Warrior’s instinct. Meanwhile, Samuella has gone for my arm. She grips it tightly, sending spurts of goosebumps up my elbow and forearm. I don’t move.
We’ve all stopped.
High up in the canopies, the last of the fleeing birds have fluttered away in alarm. Once they’re gone, it’s only us who remain in anticipation.
Nobody says a word. Nobody has anything to say aloud right now. A frosty breeze overwhelms us, and a sibling to this chill is the daunting mist that starts to approach from out of the darkness. Thick fumes of fog and steam fasten around us, weaving in and out of the gaps. I’m short of breath. And this breathless feeling rapidly worsens into choking.
Only now does Camson draw the blade and he swings it out before himself. Then hurries off into the mist, leaving Samuella and me behind.
‘What’s happening?’ I manage. ‘What’s going on?’
‘It found us,’ she says quietly, as if not to provoke any more chaos than there already is. ‘It was too easy a hunt! The sands are too shallow! The Stellar Gods’ curse can’t protect us here! It’s found us!’
‘What is it?’ I tremor. ‘Tell me—!’
‘Run! For God’s Sake! Run!’
Without question. I dash. Drifting seconds fleet into relics of the ancient past. Winding acid industrialises my stomach and a flush of heat has engulfed my head. I’m running so fast that I can’t even feel my feet touch the ground. The ground doesn’t exist. There’s nothing other than a thick mist rising over my knees and ascending taller up my thighs and waist. The sight ahead is limited, clouded. Trees and bursting-roots seem to be out of the question – I haven’t crashed into one yet, so I can only imagine that they no longer exist in this region of the jungle. Voices are everywhere. Different whispers are filling my ears. The whispers of ghosts, strangers and anonymous auras. Ethereal taunts so volatile they have become somatic. Something is trying to speak to me, call to me, using a million anonymous voices and personas to do so.
‘I can follow you home…I will follow you home…even when there is no home for you to go to…I will always follow you home…’
The only way to escape the harmonic haunting in close proximity has to be to ignore the voices, close off their alluring insights. It’s hard to achieve, but I try it. I think of the parrot on the beach and I think of the banana cakes and I think of my mother and I think of hom—
‘Run! For God’s Sake! Run!’ Samuella’s voice is resonant through the mist. Hearing the echoing of her words, stolen and resounded by the vapour and artificially reconstructed like the imitations of a puppeteer, knocks me off balance. My lungs can’t handle the stress of making up for the shortage of oxygen. The smoke is blocking it out, gagging me. Whatever this mist is, or whatever form this creature appears to have taken, it isn’t at all compatible with human beings. Dreamerverse or not, anatomy still applies.
‘It found us…It was too easy a hunt…Sands are too shallow…Stellar Gods’ curse…can’t protect us…It’s found us!’
I trip on something and fall instantly to the hard and unsympathetic ground. The moment I land, my back collides with the monster-of-a-root that I lost my footing under. I screech in agony and splutter helplessly at the same time. Is that what tripping on a root feels like? Is that what a tree root looks like? Is that what a palm tree looks like from underneath? It seems stupid, but this new world couldn’t feel any more outlandish than it does right at this moment. The jungle welters into a blur. Soreness in my eyes has made its debut. My sockets feel fiery. I want to bounce up to thoroughly rub them, but I can’t. My back is bruised, in conjunction with something else that’s pressing my shoulders to the ground, preventing me from moving. A pair of invisible hands, maybe? Strong, invisible hands. I don’t bother opening my eyes to see; I’m too afraid and my body has already slipped into a gruelling struggle of distressing spasms. More mist fills my eyes, ears and mouth, forcing the upper body pain to become immensely unbearable. Though, in a coexisting mind-set (perhaps while fast asleep in another reality entirely), I am numbly transfixed by the force of those invisible fingers that render my uncompetitive body lingering like a haemophiliac upon a crucifix. But, here in the Dreamerverse, the experience could not be more tangible. The danger could not be more stifling. I caw. I curse. I cry. I do everything I possibly can to break free. But…
‘Don’t struggle…Don’t be angry…’ a calm voice pirouettes in the air above me. ‘…You’re safe, and you’re alive, and that’s all that matters…’
This calling is also very familiar. It isn’t Samuella. Nor is it like any of the other souls slaving in the mist. This voice is original and boomingly virile. But it strikes a personal note, just like how I recognised Stewart’s and the other when they’d spoke in my head earlier.
‘…You’re safe, and you’re alive, and that’s all that matters…’
I’m dreary. The fire in my stomach is dying and so is the heat-flush in my sinuses. Instead, my body is getting colder and colder. There’s a vicious face in the mist. Something ferocious. The cruel charm in its eyes reduces the flame in my heart to a flicker, as they pop into view above me. It has championed the very soul of the jungle. The anger and the threat and the terror are unhidden in its glowing, silver gaze. And it’s looking straight at me. A beast made entirely of smoke. The beast’s mouth drops open, revealing rows of long, piercing teeth. Preying on me, the creature doesn’t pounce instantly. I dread the instant it does.
In the short distance behind it, the small figure of a man stands broadly and unafraid. His red robe billowing in the riotous wind. The long blade in his hand shines in the dark, illuminating a patch of glimmering light in the mist. He doesn’t move either. It isn’t clear whether this is because the creature hasn’t yet noticed him and he’s choosing his moment to take action wisely or because he wishes to do nothing at all. I would shout to him in the hope for help, but I know well that he wouldn’t for love or reward. His intentions aren’t to save me, his enemy, but to save himself. And this is where the true conflict stands, where the line is drawn.
The figure turns casually, as if taking no notice of my mercy, and leaves. Then, without a gasp left to spare, the head of the beast lunges down and devours me…
The phase of horror has fled when my eyes reopen. The terrible apparition has departed. The smoke has fully receded. And I’m lying on my back again; only, this time there is no monstrous root beneath my spine. Instead, a cluster of fallen palm-leaves form a bed around me. Not exactly my brand new mattress, but definitely something creditable all the same. I realise that I’m not facing the night-sky directly, as my head is being cocked up at a right angle by something large and round. I immediately think of a fruit…a round fruit…a coconut?
I hadn’t passed out, but only been a detainee to delirium. Must still be alive. For some reason, I must be alive. Spared by that beast. With the jungle night still everywhere, blotting out my surroundings as thickly as the aggressive smoke had, the thorny motions of ants, woodlice and centipedes under my skin and the infinitesimal mob of moths and mosquitos twirling around my head, remind me that I’m still listening uninterruptedly to the static-buzz of silence, a sonic pool for the loud heaves of a healthy pair of lungs. I am surprised how capable I am of captaining my breathing again.
After several blinks of reassurance, my sight develops the obscure figure sitting on an enormous boulder, a couple of metres in front of me. This time it isn’t the little man who’d willingly abandoned me during my final few moments of survival. It’s the young lady with redolently long red hair. She now possesses the blade that the little man had wielded. The blade is clean, advertising not a single stain or scratch. Since dragging my body up from the bed of palm leaves, my eyesight has wired-in fully and I can now make out her calm and soporific expression.
‘Thought it would be best to wait until you woke up,’ she says, ‘before we continued travelling. I couldn’t imagine Camson or me carrying you anywhere. You’re quite a big fellow and you’d slow us down.’
‘I thought it killed me? The thing ate me?’ I squeak. ‘But, I’m—I’m—’
‘You’re breathing now, aren’t you? Without any serious injuries?’ she examines briefly.
‘Well, that’s that bridge crossed and we’re good to go! Would you mind getting up now? Because we’ve got a meeting at the Kingdom Palace and you’re our only key to getting back in the house of the king. I don’t think he’d forgive us it if we were late, let alone if we never thought to show up with you at all, Night Dreamer.’
‘No, no, no!’ I cry. ‘I need answers! Long, complicated, understandable, substantial…answers! I need them now! Before we go on! Before I go anywhere with either of you! Also, I’d like to have a chat with Camson! That square-faced twit left me for dead when that creature burst out of thin air and cornered me!’
‘I can explain things once we get going. Where we’re going will be explained once we get going.’ She slides down the boulder and lands like a feline. She’s up on her feet now, swinging the sword around loosely and ineptly. ‘Talking of Camson…Caaam—Caaammy!’
A distant voice arrives in response to this calling, from somewhere high up. ‘Is he awake yet?’
‘Yeah! Let’s get going!’ Samuella demands.
Camson returns. He drops down from some branches above and lands between us, carrying a net of various fruit he’s found. ‘About time you decided to come around. We’ve been hanging about for hours, waiting for you to return to the Land of the Dormant. Look! You’ve even given me time to tie a net and go grocery shopping!’
Magically, and to everyone’s astonishment, I manage to flare up onto my feet. Samuella’s impressed and Camson suddenly gets defensive, flinching in shock before squatting steadily. Unfortunately, this action-sequence doesn’t last—I reach for my back, scouring in pain.
‘Would you like to say something?’ Camson mocks. Though his face is sombre, settling a little from his brief unease. His cocksure attitude is nauseating.
‘Why did you leave me?’ I hiss at him. ‘When I obviously needed someone’s help, why did you leave me there? You were happy to watch that thing tear me apart?’
Camson liberates a callous snigger from his mask of seriousness. ‘It’s an awkward life we live in, isn’t it? You can’t stand by anyone, especially when they’re about to shake hands with death. If you had even half a clue of what it was really like out on the battlefield – a battlefield that I used to call my home for years – you wouldn’t be thanking me for standing-by. If I was killed because I offered you sympathy, Samuella wouldn’t have stood a chance against that monster, that Living Smoke, not alone. Combat is all about numbers – three is better than two, two is more flattering than one, and one is just not an option – because that’s what fighting is all about. But, sometimes one must be sacrificed, so that the other two are at least left with a chance of survival. Kid, from experience, I know what it’s like to work it out in a situation like that. The men who you used to call family…all of them dying in front of you, and meanwhile you need to decide whether to save them or save yourself. Most men in my position don’t even need to make that decision; it’s already been made. You stick by your guns, follow orders and do as you’ve been told. Afterwards, you start to wonder whether they’d do the same for you, if anybody would be willing to save you and risk their own life for the success of a campaign.
‘Now, before you point your finger at me, think to yourself: would I really spare the soul to save a doormat like you, if I hadn’t even the power to save those I loved most?’
‘I’m sorry about your son,’ I admit. ‘But that’s all I’m sorry for. You and I are from completely different worlds and I understand that fully. But I think you need to realise that this world belongs to neither of us. And, one way or another, we’re going to need to somehow come to terms in No Man’s Land. Which means that you can’t be leaving me to get slaughtered by a massive carnivorous beast. Not if there are only three of us. What is the good in there only being two of you? You clearly need all the help you can get. The economy in this is a lot less than in the wars you’ve fought back home on Mankind’s World. There are no other soldiers here. Only three relatively powerless strangers who met by chance and one extremely powerful entity that doesn’t even need to take a chance to kill us all. On this battlefield, I’m as useful to you as you are to me. It won’t do trying to oust me before letting me show what I can offer. In order to get at this thing, I’m afraid we’re going to need to do it together.’
Camson hasn’t tried to consider this much yet, but he’s definitely thinking about something, reading my eyes with his own beady little pupils. ‘Didn’t say you weren’t “useful”,’ is all he says, shaking with glee. ‘You’ve proven to be a reliable source of bait.’
‘So, you’re going to help us slay it?’ Samuella has only honed in on that one small (and very unlikely) detail.
I turn to her. ‘As soon as you tell me more about what we’re dealing with and what’s at stake here.’
She’s smiling now. I can feel the power of her hope uplifting me from within. We’re momentarily on the same page again. And somewhere along the line, Camson has been dropped off at nursery and left behind.
Suddenly and without announcement, a loud crashing noise enters the jungle. The crunch of barged tree trunks and leaves being puffed into the air and out of the way has emerged from out of nowhere. Impossible uproar.
There are no more birds left to flee, no insects left to mute, nor any Living Smoke left to rip through. So this very placid interval is the perfect time to rouse undisturbed commotion – it has chosen well. And this is exactly what these intruders intend to impose. Attention. New light materialises from between the tree trunks. A large object on wheels follows through, squealing and wobbling erratically to a nervous brake. On either side of the vehicle’s front are two small fire torches, sticking out wide and exposing the space ahead clearly enough for the driver to realise that he doesn’t need to run us over. The vehicle is round and built of wood. Not newly carved, freshly varnished wood, but rotting and damp timber. This vessel has been around the jungle a time too many and it’s not too obvious how long – Very Long would be my best and only guess. Then, once the wooden carriage has fully rattled to a close stop, two creatures suddenly flash into view at the very front of it, as if revealed from beneath a magician’s vanishing curtain. Two huge, sparkling lizards have hauled the carriage, each of them spattering saliva they find difficult to hold in their wet mouths with long, flapping tongues. I squint and twist my head a little, struggling to look at the frightening creatures and the glaring lights face-on, and notice that these overgrown reptiles are salamanders. I’ve seen them in archived wildlife documentaries – notably slim and flat-headed. These have smooth scaly skins are patterned with a glossy dark-red and orange blend. The lizards are bound to the front of the carriage by the chains locked around their necks.
A tiny block of steps rolls down from either side of the carriage like that of a playground climbing-frame, allowing descent from the carriage doors. Four monkeys in fine armour scurry out urgently. Palm Patrollers wearing round helmets, grilled-chest-plates and massive circular shields attached to their backs. Three wield long, bulky swords and the fourth carries a bow – crossed over it are a duo of arrows, ready to fire immediately (at multiple targets).
The warrior with the steadied-bow runs out before the others. He lifts the weapon. His first direct target is me. Both arrows are aimed at my torso.
Samuella suddenly springs out ahead of me, blocking the Patroller’s vision with her sword. She slants the edge of the blade to line it up horizontally with both of his eyes, daring his next move. The warrior freezes, contemplating his actions wisely. He glances at me, then back at the livid Babe With The Blade.
‘Are you the ones All Eyes banished?’ the warrior questions like it’s an open query to everyone not dressed in armour – even the mealworms in the trees and the ants in the sand can answer if they so wish.
Who’s All Eyes? I wonder.
‘Oh, come on! You’re better than this!’ Samuella says feistily. ‘Would you be expecting to find any other brazen mugs hanging about out here? Anyone aimlessly lolling about in a cursed jungle, on a vastly uncharted planet, in the middle of the night would have to be doddering on lunacy. You can go and tell All Eyes that we need a smidge more time or we won’t be playing this game any longer.’
The warrior, humiliated, lowers his weapon slowly. He then wags his hand to the others behind him, ordering them to do the same.
‘He’s been inferring that you should return with news,’ the warrior says.
‘Oh, really?’ Samuella chortles hysterically. ‘Already?’
‘Well, tell him that the monster isn’t dead yet. It’s still having trouble coming and going, but we know it’s getting stronger and more capable of breaching the Void the more we dwindle out here, talking to tree-swingers,’ Camson insults.
‘An intellectual monster? One that can actually learn and utilise the benefits of its abilities?’ the warrior with the bow and arrows elaborates interestedly. ‘Who-hoo-whoever said you were required to wuh-wuh-wait for it anyway? You were given the task to expel the beast from the jungle before sunset! Only then would you be allowed back into the kingdom-hom-hom-hom.’
‘Well, we did…’ The lie escapes Samuella’s lips before she can do anything about it and we’ve all strapped in for the outcome of her sentence, but it never arrives. Needless to say, I don’t entirely trust this primate's ability to shoot arrows—let alone two spearheads in tandem—so, in my head, my urgency to Samuella pleads: Spit it out! Spit it out! Spit it out!
‘Did we?’ Camson spins his own wheel of uncertainty.
Meanwhile, the warrior has shot Samuella with, not an arrow, but an undertone of his disapproval, reading: Where is it then, Miss Queen of the Dumb-Dumbs?
‘…We almost did…’ she finally clarifies. ‘But it was too quick to judge how successful we were! We might have wounded it. We definitely scared it off—well, I did—and, like Camson said, it was too intelligent! The creature, it exhales this…this weird condensation, a smoke that fills the air and suffocates its prey. We couldn’t breathe! We were dying the very moment it came into contact with us! We couldn’t confront it in that condition! Using the smoke to its advantage, it manages to hunt with it, disorienting its victim and overpowering them through contaminating the air!’
‘Living Smoke,’ Camson reiterates.
‘Are you suggesting that the beast has no lungs of any sort? It doesn’t need to breathe—thence, cannot truly be alive?’ the warrior asks.
‘I’m not sure whether it breathes or not,’ Camson theorises. ‘With that substance filling the air, I couldn’t imagine anything being capable of breathing.’
‘From the way it came, it didn’t even seem to have taken complete form yet,’ Samuella adds. ‘It was just an entity, a mist that fell upon us like a freak storm in a random section of the jungle. It hadn’t followed us. There was no build-up. We didn’t anticipate its arrival at all – it just happened.’
‘Perhaps, it’s immune to its own condensation,’ I remark – then laugh at what I’m really thinking: I mean, being immune to something it produces wouldn’t be rocket science, would it?
‘Tell the king that we need more time and more men,’ Camson demands. ‘The task of defending this jungle is too arduous for three strangers.’
The Patroller chuckles at this. ‘I think you are forgetting the definition of a punishment, my friend. You were banished from the kingdom for good reason by His Majesty, so you will serve as he instructs you to serve.’
This infuriates Camson in several ways – a few of those ways seem to be more personal than I can imagine; Samuella and Camson have never met these particular monkeys before, but they’re used to encountering Palm Patrollers. I can see the strain in Camson’s balling fists and the tension in his souring face.
‘That was the first time we’d seen the thing in a while,’ Samuella swears. ‘Before then, it was only ever glimpses we witnessed. We never caught sight of its face. Tonight was the first time any of us saw as much as a glimpse of its body! It was terrifying—the kind of devil nightmares must be made of. Of course, if I knew what the thing looked like in the face, in the eyes, I could draw you a picture of some shape or form.’
‘I saw the creature’s face,’ I declare, timidly.
Suddenly, everyone’s eyes are on me. It’s like being on stage back at the Academy, when the Christmas performance was in full-swing and one little boy needed to recite a monologue from an archaic Trivium Testament – he forgot his words and, within the first two lines, the entire audience were shielding themselves from the horrific shower of projectile vomit. And sometime after that, he would keep remembering the bitter taste of those verses and the tickle of them on his tongue would always make him gag. However, this glimmering reminiscence of the real world is forced from the teetering focus of my thoughts and made difficult for me to remember – as if a pair of scissors are at work through the centre of my brain, parting the vague memories from what I’m currently thinking – and, as easily as I plucked it out of my mind, I forget I even imagined it.
‘You did?’ Samuella utters this. ‘The face?’
‘Maybe I should have intervened,’ Camson regrets, tearing out a feeble simper.
‘It definitely looked like a dragon, like you mentioned. It was round and maned and had teeth alone that were bigger than me,’ I try to describe it to them in as much detail as I can muster.
‘Did it breathe well in the smoke?’ the idiotic Patroller with the aching trigger finger asks.
‘Well, how the hell am I supposed to know that? I guess so. It managed to speak to me. Does that confirm to you whether it could breathe or not?’
‘IT SPOKE TO YOU?’ They all shout this at once, causing me to leap backwards and fumble on my feet.
‘Just whispers and echoes in the smoke. That’s all I really heard,’ I clarify.
‘It exhales toxic fumes and now it can speak to people?’ the warrior shakes his head dizzily. ‘Why—that sounds more frightening than the king permitted our imaginations to believe.’
‘Tell me more! Tell me more! What did it say? Could you understand it?’ the Patroller is eager with excitement.
‘I can’t remember!’ I bellow. ‘It said something like…something like: “You’re safe…You’re safe…and you’re alive and that’s…all that matters”.’
Nobody can process any sense behind these phrases; they all just gawk at one another, struck by the idea that the beast could speak at all.
‘I never heard it say that to me,’ Camson objects.
‘It could just be what Oscar heard,’ Samuella responds. ‘It only spoke to Oscar.’
‘The really strange thing is that I could recognise those words anywhere,’ I tell them. ‘I’ve heard them before. Stolen from someone in my past, a long time ago. But I just can’t remember exactly where I’ve heard them and who they originally belonged to.’
‘Well, I think we should discuss this in the presence of His Majesty, as he has requested all the latest information based on this mission,’ the commanding Patroller who threatened to arrow me instructs. ‘For the safety of the kingdom and the protection of Constellation Planet, he feels it is his sharpest priority to acquire anything jarringly new on the Beast of Living Smoke you describe. After all, he is the omniscient All Eyes.’
‘Who summoned you?’ Samuella asks the warrior, slightly suspicious.
‘We are the Bellator, a contingent of the Palm Patrol who act as the king’s leading military force. We initiate ourselves mostly. But we abide to the king’s orders when they’re declared. On this occasion we were formally requested by the king “to collect three Dreamers wandering in the Jungles of Camelopardalis and escort them to the Kingdom Palace”.’
‘And yet you were still keen to shoot us when you showed up?’ Camson argues.
‘And you told us we couldn’t return until the beast was deterred from the island?’ Samuella snaps. ‘You lied!’
‘Precautions, my Fellow Dreamer,’ the Bellator Leader with the bow and arrows upholds his dignity. ‘I had to be sure it was the right group of Dreamers I was addressing. The reason I didn’t tell you about your relief from exile in our introduction was also a part of the test. You have successfully proven yourselves as the Dreamers tasked by All Eyes.’
‘But we’ve been banished from the kingdom. Ejected by His Majesty,’ Camson says. ‘What have we done to earn our acceptance back?’
‘On this occasion, His Kind Highness has requested your company with the news of a New Dreamer present within your group. The newcomer is another to arrive after sunset.’
Another to arrive after sunset? This statement gets me thinking. Am I really the only Night Dreamer—could there be others? Might I not be so “special” after all?
‘Excuse my cursed curiosities,’ the Bellator Leader says, ‘but which of the three of you was it who recently arrived after sunset?’
‘I did,’ I say quietly, as if owning up to a remorseful crime.
A stunned look fades over the warrior’s face – which I’ve begun to notice is quite young and without sign of a single battle scar. This cute look of inexperience spreads between the other warriors.
‘Don’t look so surprised!’ Samuella snaps at the warriors in my defence.
‘Why, I have never been so privileged…’ the young warrior drops his bow, allowing the two arrows to roll onto the ground, into the reeds and grass. ‘I mean…apologies…’ He scratches his elbow, then goes to collect his weapon and ammo from the ground pathetically. His eyes are in a daze and he’s not taking them off me.
‘Do you have any respect at all?’ Samuella’s prepared to take advantage of the Patroller’s vulnerability, telling him all the harsh, ballsy things I wish she wouldn’t. Only, I don’t think she’s doing it on my behalf. Like Camson, a subtle jealousy at the awe and attention I’m receiving has crept into her tone and I’m the only person noticing it. It’s at an instance like this when I start to remember that we’re not as friendly as I thought we were.
Then it all starts to become clearer. The Bellator’s slip of the tongue: Another to arrive after sunset, Samuella’s subtle envy…
‘You arrived after sunset too, didn’t you?’ I whisper to her.
‘Shut up!’ she hisses at me and then whispers back: ‘I didn’t come to this world for a reputation. I was put here so I could get away from that rancid reality I’ve been forced to endure all my life. The reality you’re so quick to defend, City Boy. I won’t let you mess up my only opportunity in this world.’
‘Yes, he did arrive after sundown! There you go! Lock him up! Do what you want with the boy?’ Camson says straightly. ‘To be honest, he never really fit in with us to begin with. Bit of a third wheel, a loose cog. You can have him.’
The East Man repulses me. I want to strangle the disloyal buffoon until his eyes burst from their sockets. However, I’m sensible enough to catalogue the muscular men with swords and arrows and the wicked potential of a hormonal redhead, wielding a sword that is far too big for her.
‘Don’t listen to him,’ Samuella tells the warriors. ‘Camson had the unfortunate event of losing his son – and his appetite – not long ago, so he’s garbling all kinds of nonsense. Don’t try anything funny with him either, because he’s grieving and isn’t giving into what most of us like to call “optimism”. And yes, our friend, Oscar, did arrive during the sundown hours. So what? Dreamers who wake at night aren’t criminals! They can’t help it! They don’t make that decision! Such a phenomenon is nothing to get excited about – we all have our secrets.’
I respect her tenacity not to taint or obscure the Bellator’s perception of me (unlike the ugly, mean-spirited East Man), but I’m getting a vibe that she’s trying her hardest not to let a secret of her own slip, rather than defending me from slipping into another naïve rookie mistake. Okay, the warriors now know that I’m the Night Dreamer, although that doesn’t appear to bother Samuella as greatly as what she doesn’t want to reveal about herself – and she’s clinging onto it like a trained funambulist to their ropes.
The warrior cannot prevent his jackpot grin seeping out from under a moustache of fur. ‘Dreamers who arrive in the night aren’t arrested. They never were! You’ve been listening to too many rumours. Honestly, His Majesty wishes to meet him. “The Night Dreamer”, he calls these folk. A lieutenant of ours addressed the king just a few hours ago up at the palace, where he mentioned about the Night Dreamer he bumped into and how the newbie had been casually strolling in the jungle afterhours. His Majesty responded to the Patroller, saying that Night Dreamers might be our biggest saviours yet—go get them all.’
Deep eventide chases the carriage through into dawn and, gradually, there become fewer stars visible in the sky. The first few rays of sunshine sink through gaps in the ceiling of palmtops and shed speckled pools of light on the jungle floor.
The salamanders at the helm of the carriage register an invisible force, quickly tugging the weight of the vehicle on its way, as if a fixed track is routing it. A tatty wooden wall divides the interior of the vehicle, splitting it into two tiny cabins. In the cabin at the front of the carriage, the king’s Bellator warriors are at least pretending to be aware of their chauffeuring, while gossiping drearily between themselves. Whereas, on our side – the back of the carriage, where Samuella, Camson and I have been nestled into a narrow cabin and sit on parallel bamboo benches – Camson is roosting on the bench facing me, gazing out of the window sorrowfully and sucking most of the youthful sunlight onto his unpleasant face (he obviously hadn’t been satisfied with NOT being the land’s “biggest saviour yet”). Samuella has placed herself beside Camson, though being sure to keep a decent gap between herself and the East vet. I’ve quietly observed she’s only doing this for my satisfaction, just so I’m not to feel excluded and antagonised against their already maturing bond. But I can imagine how cosy they’d been when I wasn’t around, can still smell it on them, fresh like the drifting smoke of a recently doused bonfire. The sword lies exclusively on her lap. She strokes the gleaming blade with her hand, as her eyes are focused on the scenery coming to life outside of the window. I watch her. She hasn’t been disturbed by my staring – not yet.
What is she doing with the sword? In that time of crisis, when the smoky beast attacked, how had Samuella managed to prise it from the gobby goblin of a man?
‘Where did you get that?’ I inquire delicately.
She glances at me. Then she lobs that look straight back out the window. ‘I got it a long time ago.’
‘I asked where you got it. And how?’ I nod discreetly towards Camson.
Camson wouldn’t have given that weapon up for anything. It’s his power of defiance. It’s what he stands for. A soldier.
‘Does it really matter?’ she growls. ‘I have it now. We’re taking shifts.’ Her shaky hand cradles the handle and I decide to avoid sparring about the question.
I spot a glint in her pupils. Something suddenly connects between us. What she said—Taking shifts? For a moment, I know who she is. Or, at least, I know who she might be. It lasts for a few seconds and passes like the distant sea breeze. I forget. (I seem to be forgetting everything; must be the Memory Lane playing on my imagination).
At last, I’ve come to terms with the real reason I’m sitting here, alive. It’s thanks to her. It’s no surprise this young redhead sat facing me can assert herself above the lippy, little East Man who seems to have all the pride an imp can ingest without exploding. Credit to her. How she procured the sword from that stubborn cretin is a mystery – it would have, I believe, involved some shouting, some intimidating, some demining, and some patronising (all of which inflate me with supressed pleasure). The sword bears prestige and she’s the dominion of its passage; the East Man merely wanders that path, having to labour in and out of the craters of her footprints. The sword in her possession resembles compassion. And so it is because of compassion why I’m still alive. Samuella’s attempting to be fair and spare her compassion for both of us – spare a heart for both him of the East and me of the West. How peculiar she is…more than I first imagined.
Now she apparels her face with a cruel simper, one that swaps her shrewdness for bliss. The smirk and the sword are signs that I shouldn’t dare to contest her impartiality or her odd discernments. Instead, I should probably follow her suit: grin jauntily out of the carriage window and pretend to be pitiless and shallow.
As the carriage shudders over the last few sticks and stones of the jungle floor and carefully shuttles between this and a kinder terrain, it’s apparent that we’ve finally slipped into totally new territory. I’m peering out of the window and see a magnificent floral landscape. The diversity of flowers in this boundless meadow is mind-boggling with blooms that are dissonantly converged, and yet neatly disordered. Of course, they all gather to form one cosmic body, but they trend irregularly, colourfully varying in sporadic patches under the brawn of the morning sunshine. There are far fewer palm trees above us in this opening, making us an easy target for daylight, as well as whatever may lurk in the proximity of our surroundings. I have to squint at the hibiscuses, the orchids, the violets, the amaryllises, and the tulips that are so abundant they are interchangeable. I am only witnessing things the way I have imagined them, stored in the haze of my subconscious mind. But I feel the cords of my imagination straining to envisage a botanic display as extravagant as this. It’s a generous, humbling sight and temporarily amends some of the tension the three of us have heaved as luggage into this carriage.
‘I’ve never seen anything like it before.’ I dribble inaudibly.
‘Why doesn’t that surprise me?’ Samuella scoffs at my comment, even though her own awe is sparkling against the sunlight. ‘This is what the world used to look like. Before humanity was born to destroy it.’
‘Is this what it’s like up in the country? For you Bumpkin Folk?’ I mention to her inquiringly, since she seems to think a City Boy like me is due to be humbled by an exhaustive flower show.
‘The fumes and burnings of war back home are smouldering the world. No Nation on Mankind’s World is safe from the smokes of terror and war. It’s tragic our present has come to that, but inevitable nonetheless. I guess, if I were ever to go back to my old country keep and hometown, it wouldn’t be the way it was when I left it all that while ago.’
‘How long have you lived in the City?’ I ask.
‘Fifty-two months,’ she sighs. ‘Well, it feels like it’s been decades to be honest with you.’
‘It has that effect,’ I say, quite proudly.
Samuella takes no notice of this small statement. She just sighs and turns away, back to the window. I do the same, back to mine. Outside, the field has grown more voluminous and thicker and the wheels of the carriage are starting to struggle. Small huts have now appeared, peppered all over the wonderful landscape. They’re miniature bungalows with the capacity of holding maybe no more than a family of four or less. A family of little people, living in a little house filled with little furniture and a little fireplace, sputtering little flames throughout the warm nights – and here they are: dwelling out in a humungous floral galaxy. The huts are built of thick, blood-red bamboo shoots, with light, straw-thatched roofs and one large bamboo rod for a chimney. And there’s something else, which amazes me greater than anything else I’ve seen since I arrived here: the inhabitants!
I actually spot people! Settlers dressed in appropriately tailored onesies for their beautiful wilderness – ‘Not draped in cheap pyjamas like we primitive Dreamers,’ Samuella kindly points out. These are settled folk. They can’t be like the transient Dreamers, toing and froing with Awakening Coast. This folk mean business, they’re the real deal—they live off this world!
They’re far away, but they’re moving, which is enough to convince me that they’re not a mirage or a flicker of my delusion. They’re real, though enigmatic, for the parrot on Awakening Coast had denounced the existence of settlers on Constellation Planet – “we’ve all come and gone” is what he said.
Men in grass hats are sitting in armchairs, out on the wooden terraces of their bungalows as if enjoying the early-rise hours of a summerhouse vacation. They tip their hats at the carriage as we pass by, and then resume relaxation, some shielding the rim over their eyes. Children are playing in the fields, gathering and dancing with their local friends, as well as playing what seems to be ‘tag-it!’ and making angels in the daisies. Meanwhile, their mothers work nonchalantly at hanging-out the washing on thin vines attached between the corner of their hut’s roof and a spear of wood out front. Everything is peaceful and sound, yet, almost theatrically in sync, like a staged event replayed in the fictional sequence of a film reel. Folk can’t live in this world, a world that I and every other Dreamer collectively make up. How can I distinguish that this isn’t quite right, that this adorable scene doesn’t make sense? Where’s the grating error in this? One considerable notion I point out is that every one of these “settlers”, from the dozing fathers to the fretless children, are dressed in matching pyjamas. Though they are very fine nightclothes – no doubt handmade and bought in this supposed “Kingdom” we’re en route to – pyjamas are still pyjamas. Have pyjamas just become a trend or a fashion adopted by these settlers? I try to incorporate this logic with what Samuella said about coincidence and what Stewart had suggested about hiding my own nudity upon arrival. Nothing here is real. It may feel real, but it is only performing to please what I expect to see, what I want to see. In a way, this makes a lot of sense, but it doesn’t compensate for how other Dreamers operate and what they’re thinking. Have they been given the same welcoming and guidance as me? How long have they been here? The parrot’s ominous remark looms over my head: ‘Everyone who comes here comes for a reason.’
Then, I see something that startles me. A massive tiger strides into view, unmistakably striped and snarling with his tail wagging eerily behind him. He growls like a tormented old man, prowling amongst the flowers as if he is a shark-merchant in the City selling illegal oil-rationings and fuel-barrels imported from the East. But this creature is selling nothing to me other than butterflies, as it tiptoes closer towards the vulnerable children, who are still dancing and parading and play-fighting together with not a care in the world – nor have their mothers, who don’t even glimpse over to illuminate the whereabouts of their child and aren’t even fazed by the enormous tiger that has made its debut in their meadow.
Now, a group of four or five more striped big cats have joined the predator, moving at a sinister pace. Each one keeps their distance from the next, targeting a child of their own as prey.
One child, a girl sitting alone with a doll made of seashells and cloth, looks up after sensing the new presence. She stands slowly. Her first impression is curiosity and it ushers her into walking towards the predators. The predators have seen her coming and they go to her. Once in arm’s length, she reaches out to curl her body around the first tiger’s neck. They hug adoringly, a moment of sheer brilliance and defiance. Totally unexpected. The girl has a large smile jetted across her face and her fingers massage the cat’s fur. Soon, all of the children rush to join in, sharing their love in ceremony.
In the distance, not a far distance but where the trees surrounding the flat meadow make their first stand and form a barrier around the floral field, more animals have arrived. A colony of elephants and giraffes and extended families of monkeys and birds of all sizes and giant lizards and zebras and amphibians – all species of which I have never laid eyes upon in all my seventeen years, only fabricated in visionary thoughts and vivid storytelling. It’s odd how such a broad number of different colonies can exist on one little island. But it isn’t just this island. Out there, wherever there is, over the infinite borders of this planet, there are more islands and more life. And it really makes you wonder: how big can a world be?
‘Are you still finding it hard to believe?’
When the carriage begins to struggle over rough, cobbled terrain, I avert my attention to the window again to catch sight of what’s ahead. A heavy wooden bridge greets us. The bridge has been painted a warm dark-purple and it bows over an exuberant stream, or river…or whatever it is – simply, water channelled in a single direction with the ocean’s momentum to rush it at a very fast speed. Once we’re clear of the cobbles and rolling over the bridge, everything is smooth like an aircraft arriving on a runway where ideas of crashing are secrets left short-lived in the clouds.
Down in the stream, the wildlife is animated and making a racket. Frogs as big as the small boulders upon which they reside are the first things to catch me off-guard. I’m captivated by the species of giant beetles that I’ve never known before, their emulations procured only from memories of pictures in books and shows on the HoloVision. Of course, why not, a couple of these bugs have been (somehow) mating with the fish and the rest of the aquatics in the stream, for a lot of the fish prove to be able to crawl on the little banks of the stream. They also share features like claws and tailfins and some jellyfish-like mantises have even grown tentacles. Miniature “Octoroaches” might be the best definition to give them. All I want to do is marvel at this magnificent sprawl of claws, suckers, feelers, fins and feet. Remarked by their many colours and glowing in the water, they glide with rapidness that forces those colours to blur comfortably, then spread like ink.
But there’s a far more outstanding landmark up ahead.
Two colossal golden gates tower above our carriage and peak beyond the palmtops. Seamlessly rectangular and polished down to a nail, these gates have been kept in immaculate condition. Majestic condition. I itch at the goosebumps on my elbow to confirm to myself that the dream around me is still lucid and no mirage. I’m quite literally living the dream. Though nothing tethers my disbelief like this spectacular entrance before me. Unbelievable. The enterprise of this constellation world is simply astonishing.
We come to a brief stop at the entrance, allowing our escorts to converse with others of their kind – more monkey-men on guard, whom they’ve alerted at the foot of the gates. A few of their comments float on the wind and reach the window on my side of the carriage. ‘No. The king is not waiting on one Night Dreamer. He is expecting all three…’ one of the new voices exclaims. All three? I retract away from the window as soon as I hear it and my thoughts swing back to Samuella and Camson.
No—But could they—?
Before long, we’re moving again, headed into the kingdom. As we pass through the parting golden doors, I realise that the monkeys at the gates are yet more Palm Patrollers. Uniformed in militia vests and berets, with insignia that reads: GUILD UNDER THE STARS.
The kingdom is more ambitious than I expected it to be. We first tour through a modest town, where there’s an actual road! Not rocks and cobbles, but a proper, sanded lane that leads us through. Small huts and bungalows line the street alongside baby palms. Living inside this domesticised junglehood are more pyjama citizens – Day Dreamers fortunate enough to inhabit this centre of the jungle, unlike the bumpkins kissing killer kittens out in the meadowlands. We pass through a bustling marketplace of stalls and shopping huts, where varieties of crops, fruits and vegetables are sold fresh on small wooden displays and on patches surrounded by knee-high fences. These harvested foods, organised in large bundles, include some passion fruit, pineapples, melons, mangos, oranges…There are also ambling dealers who want to sell handmade robes and gowns and…sexy lingerie? Okay, well—a stock of very earthly nightwear (both conventional nightwear and, I guess, sensual nightwear). As for accessories, the dealers have beautiful necklaces on sale, as well as fine rings and bracelets of bizarre designs, decorated with painted shells and images shaped from fish-bones. It’s a strange idea for a Dreamer as new to the party I am to have…but there’s an eccentric homecoming aura about it – like it’s somewhere that’s been waiting for me to return. Somewhere I could have belonged in the past.
The novelty is tarnished, however, by the Palm Patroller’s statement at the gates, tumbling over and over again in my head. I glance awkwardly at Samuella, clear my throat and then prop my elbow up on the window ledge as insouciantly as I can before addressing her. ‘Do you trust me?’ I say to her, my vision focused away from her and out of the window. ‘You and him. Do either of you trust me?’
‘I don’t think trust is the right word,’ Samuella responds, confused. ‘Not yet.’
‘The both of you are Night Dreamers—like I am,’ I proclaim, almost in accusation. ‘You never told me that when we met, because you were afraid the Palm Patrollers would hold it against you. You thought they’d come to kill both of you. Though you were quite comfortable putting me up on the hotspot. You made it very clear to them that I was the one they were looking for, that I was the new arrival. Well, you’ll be happy to know that the king wants to see all three of us. All three Night Dreamers. It makes you feel exposed now, doesn’t it? Being an outcast, a third wheel, in all of this doesn’t appear to be that easy, does it? See, I had no idea about any of this, how serious any of it really was. But now, after that long journey and watching this world unfold before my very eyes all the way up here, I’m starting to get the bigger picture.’
‘We were just being honest when we put you on the spot. It wasn’t to be nasty. They asked for the new arrival – the newest Night Dreamer – and we gave them what they wanted, for the sake of all of our lives. Not just yours,’ Samuella answers me bitterly. ‘And we’re not ashamed to be Night Dreamers. It’s not the first time I’ve felt vulnerable here. Or back home, for that matter.’
‘Nope,’ Camson retorts with a grin. ‘We were doing fine—right until you showed up anyway.’
I refuse to dispute it with these two strangers any further. They’re not my enemies – at least, I suppose, one of them isn’t. But they’re not the people I’d call friends either.
Once we’re out of the marketplace and back in the street, one of the Bellator warriors makes an announcement from the front of the carriage. ‘Kingdom Palace ahead!’
I poke my head out of the window and see the enormous building materialising at the end of the boulevard of palms. The Kingdom Palace dazzles with ageing chrome brickwork and a dozen tall, slender towers. Upon those sparkling towers there are a dozen silver onion-dome roofs. Each onion-dome is topped with a golden acorn. And above the palace’s front entrance, a fierce statue of a macaw perches, overlooking us with its wings stretched. Everything about the place beckons youthful crispness, but at the same time, it houses a voguishly ancient quintessence.
‘Welcome to the king’s residence,’ Samuella hails, as we enter through the palace gates.
Purple-coloured walls of bamboo, sanded together with gristly sand granules harvested from the oceanfront, mould the inside of the Kingdom Palace. Hundreds of feet above, the ceiling is unreachable. On entrance, the three of us are led into a resounding hall complete with a marble floor, distantly bordered at either side by golden pillars. Between the pillars are rows of cauldrons, all of them blazing with a fire and lined up towards a curling staircase at the very end of the room. These produce the only light in the room. After coming to the end of the hall, we’re formally escorted up the staircase by two of the Bellator warriors from the carriage.
We arrive at the very top of the staircase to be greeted by a pair of chrome chamber doors. The warriors go for a door each and push them open synchronously.
Samuella’s the first to enter, followed by Camson, and I am the last. The room on the other side is pitch-black, except for a single, shining spectacle in the centre of it. The spectacle is a large, purple orb-like entity, which ripples like the radiance that swells off the sun. The doors close behind us and the warriors have vanished before we can even dare to look back.
‘Arrivals, new and old,’ a deep voice burns through the fabric of the air around us, stirring furore in our anxieties and shaking the ground beneath our feet. ‘What success of my demands do you bring, Faithful Ones?’
On either side of me, Samuella and Camson have fallen to one knee in a bowing gesture. For some reason, they’re paying respects to this hovering ball in the centre of the room. There is no clear reason for this at first. It’s rather cringe-worthy to witness. Pretty embarrassing. A little confused, I sheepishly match the mood by doing exactly the same.
‘Your Majesty, I’m sorry to tell you that, as far as we’re aware, the beast still roams free. We were incapable of discharging the Drag-in from the jungle,’ Samuella owns up. Wow, she really is honest. And remarkably polite.
But even more striking still—
He’s the king! The glowing ball is the king of this place! Suddenly, I’m dreaming again and dreading it. Pinch! I’m tempted to mindlessly draw myself towards the entity and touch it. Just to test whether it is actually what I’m seeing. A hovering sphere of purple fire. But I’m too afraid of the consequences of stirring such foolishness, when our disappointment has already set the tone. There has been no success with the beast loose in the jungle. I suppose it’s the Living Smoke they’re referring to. Samuella just called it “the Drag-in” again.
At first, the king hesitates unreceptively before responding upon the thoughts of another topic. ‘Did you bring with you the newcomer? The Night Dreamer?’
Samuella strokes my elbow indicatively. ‘Say hello.’
‘Oh—yeah!’ I stutter. ‘That’s me!’
‘The prophecy of the Stellar Gods continues to unravel,’ All Eyes rejoices, ‘and the truth is most certainly becoming to read like stars that translate the Constelleavens.’
What the hell is that thing on about?
‘Does he have…a relevance…with us, though?’ Camson remarks. ‘You didn’t exactly tell us to collect him from the beach when he arrived. He came looking for us.’
I want to kick this little East Bug into the pocket-sized black hole in the centre of the room—!
‘I have doubts in your standard of will, Night Dreamer,’ the king responds to Camson’s prudish talk. ‘I believe this young Dreamer did not come upon you intentionally. He tumbled into your powerful society and it is within your powerful society of Night Dreamers that he will become a fantastic contributor, and perhaps even a leader, at some point in your journey together. The Stellar Gods selected you all from the outset. You should respect your newest companion and the duty you share with him.’
‘What do you mean they selected us all from the outset?’ Camson argues. ‘And—our journey together? What do you mean by that? You’re not making any sense, Your Highness!’
‘The journey is your relevance. Your bond. He is a Night Dreamer, just as you are. Disparities aside, you both have something to be connected: a trait, a talent, a gift. One that Day Dreamers do not possess. The Dreamers of the Night arrive after sunset with magnificent prospects and significance. The Drag-in can only be defeated by the prophesised Night Dreamers, since both can transfer themselves to Constellation Planet at any time they desire. They are not permitted to arrive on Awakening Coast at sunrise like most Dreamers. You three are not like other Dreamers. Please take a seat and I will explain.’
Once the voice announces this, three large stone thrones illuminate at the other side of the room. A warm shade of purple light appears beneath them, making them noticeable in the dark. We obey the king’s request and sit in the chairs.
‘Those were once the thrones of the ancient Dreamerverse Royals,’ the king pronounces. ‘They were the monarchs who were highly commended for their efforts in defending the Dreamerverse and were summoned to the Constelleavens above, where they were knighted as Gods. Rewarded with immortality and eternal peace, they were liberated from both Mankind’s World and the Dreamerverse. Why did this occur, you wonder? Well, their legend is historically misinterpreted as a myth. It only ever rarely comes to understanding that these three Royals were once ordinary mortals of both worlds like you. They were also Night Dreamers, like you. They’d all been summoned from their different lives in the real world, vague and unfamiliar of each other, such as yourselves. Humble beginnings, you could say.
‘The legend tells the story of three Night Dreamers of the previous generation, brought together from their individual existences in reality, as is always the case with this Stellar God policy. One was summoned from a life of wealth and greed, the second from convenience and lies, and the third came from a past of pity and regret. After materialising on Awakening Coast, they quickly crossed paths and set out together on a quest to protect the Void from a terrible parasite. The Drag-in – a fiend that, once loose from the Void, will pillage the stability of the Memory Lane itself and threaten the equilibrium of the Dreamerverse and reality. It is a formidable chaos that can unleash itself far among the stars after so long, bridging itself between distant dimensions and contaminating this world with the incompatible weights of the other. Once the balance between them is disturbed, your reality faces an equal doom to the Dreamerverse.’
‘Sorry to interrupt, Your Majesty, but is this the same monster we’re talking about here?’ Samuella mentions.
‘I hope to think so. This creature has been documented as a unique being, an entity of Living Smoke, totally capable of morphing its appearance and alternating its physicality to fit its environment. The creature cannot be completely destroyed, nor can it be penetrated by weaponry – and I’ll soon be requesting you to surrender your sword, as you won’t be needing it. This isn’t to say that the Drag-in cannot be defeated, but it cannot be palpably harmed. Yet, there is a way of conquering it. And that is how the Royals went about doing it in their legacy. That previous generation of Night Dreamers achieved it and so can you. You must understand, the Drag-in is nothing that can be defined, nothing that can be wholly seen, nothing that can be touched or—’
‘Can it breathe?’ Camson giggles. ‘That was a little joke we had earlier.’
The king neglects his daft comment. ‘The Drag-in you saw in the jungle was a frazzled anomaly, a mere reflection of the beast’s true strength. At this stage, the Drag-in is still detached from the threads of your imagination. It is an insecure vessel rediscovering its orientation in a void that has been dividing our two worlds for centuries. You can still fight this vermin. As a human Dreamer, you are limited to what you can see, hear and feel and this is what the Drag-in doesn’t possess. It does not physically exist in any world, only the Void. That makes it exempt from normal sensory functions, for it doesn’t have to adapt to them. Although, it does retain one function—memory. The Drag-in overcomes the restraints of the Memory Lane, which is a remarkable ability. You three, however, also have this trait. You can remember what other Dreamers cannot. Night Dreamers and the Drag-in both transcend the Memory Lane.’ The king pauses. ‘Unfortunately, I always fail to spell out the end of the legend. Like in most myths, many things remain to the imagination and to the hopes of those listening. The three Royals were never found or heard of again.’
‘But I thought you’d said that they were eventually summoned to the Constelleavens?’ I find myself wriggling into the intrigue that scintillates inside the room.
‘Correct. I did mention that they were summoned to the Constelleavens. But I never mentioned whether they’d survived their mission. Although the Drag-in vanished for centuries after their conquering of it, their own mortal fates were not regarded. And since just as long, after this myth was first told, we who are forever thankful for the Night Dreamers’ efforts have never spoken of the Drag-in.’
‘Who were the Royals?’ Samuella questions. ‘As people, who were they?’
‘Similar individuals to the three of you; the Royals were Night Dreamers who were summoned to Constellation Planet to defeat the Drag-in when it last materialised over a decade ago. They only became royalty in the Dreamerverse once they’d succeeded,’ the king rashly summarises. ‘Understand that Night Dreamers are never selected at random. They are just like regular Dreamers in every way, only more privileged in their freedoms to arrive, leave and remember beyond the mental void. However, besides their late arrival after sunset, there is one other principal that casts them aside as extraordinary – which is that their spirits are fluctuating ones, embedded with conflicting morals and demons. It is an antisocial demeanour that they carry in their soul. And so their nature is not stable enough to comply with the socialisation of the Dreamerverse; Night Dreamers are unnatural variances within the conventional and accepted order of Constellation Planet that is expected and innate of all other regular Day Dreamers. And the cursed sands do not mark Night Dreamers when they rise from Awakening Coast, not like every other Dreamer, which means they are not directly protected by the Stellar Gods – you must defend yourselves in all aspects of your journeys in the Dreamerverse.’
‘Doesn’t sound like much of a privilege to me,’ Camson groans.
‘So, we’re already utterly accountable,’ Samuella notes, ‘and we haven’t even started out yet.’
‘Quite so,’ All Eyes agrees. ‘An overlooked example of the disenfranchisement of the Night Dreamer would be how no firefly can determine their departure from Awakening Coast – which makes sense that fireflies should be absent during the daylight, eating their nectar in the tall grass of the jungles, rather than offering a daytime return from Awakening Coast for a homebound Night Dreamer. The Night Dreamer’s inability to define their spirit is the fundamental reason why they manage to transcend the Void between worlds at their own pace and desire. They aren’t defined enough to fall into the general category of regular Dreamers and so they are free spirits until they die.’
‘I thought every Dreamer was supposed to be a free spirit,’ I probe, far more fascinated by the hypnotic glow of the king’s orb than by his knowledge of the folklore. ‘Wasn’t that supposed to be the whole ethos of the Dreamerverse, a world not bound by laws?’
‘Even nature has laws,’ All Eyes responds. ‘Nobody has to state a decree – not me, not you, not the Stellar Gods – for the laws of instinct to sew its seeds in the virginal ocean of human imagination. Legend tells that Night Dreamers are more emotionally polarised than regular Dreamers. The Royals were no exception to this behaviour. With a conflicting spirit of wealth and desire, there was Queen Cassandra. And then, with a conflicting spirit of convenience and lies, there was a Prince Cephal—How hideous of me that I forget his name. Ah, yes—and, lastly, with the spirit forged from guilt and hatred was Queen Evanescence.’
‘Are you expecting us to live up to their legacy?’ Samuella’s eyes are flickering anxiously.
‘To begin with, only their quest is in your interest. Then, maybe, your names will fulfil the prophecy and, maybe, you will defeat the Drag-in and, maybe so, you will live in a similar legacy and be summoned to the Constelleavens. Who am I to tell a Dreamer not to dream?’
‘What are we supposed to do at this point?’ Camson asks.
‘You must seek out three rare and distinctive emeralds, located at unique locations on Constellation Planet. But only by following your Night Dreamer instincts should you come across a path leading to them, and their usage in conquering the Drag-in will subsequently become apparent,’ All Eyes assures us. ‘There is no greater method or weapon than the mind of a Night Dreamer. The continuity of the Dreamerverse highly regards that.’
‘So, what you’re saying is that the only way we can defeat the Drag-in is by picking up these emeralds? And the only way of finding them is by drawing out our own tracks? Following our instincts?’ Samuella says.
‘Precisely. And I imagine that you will have to go about this routine the same way the Royals did. In each of those unique locations, each of you will be faced with your own dangers and your own opportunity for leadership. I would recommend that you become wise enough to understand your own and each other’s weaknesses and come to bear each other’s intolerances.’
‘I don’t possess weaknesses. Or intolerances,’ Camson declares, supressing a snarl he craves to aim in my direction.
‘I am yet to meet an individual without a weakness or a prejudice. A Miracle Person such as that would resound incredulity.’
‘I think that you’re forgetting that this is a Dream World,’ Camson challenges. ‘Unlike reality, everything here really does resound incredulity.’
‘Just go along with it, why don’t you?’ Samuella hisses at him.
Camson flinches in reaction. ‘I’m just saying that I’m not too fussed about this place and I’m not afraid of the Drag-in—whatever it is! If this really is a matter of listening to my conscience, then I think it’s about time that my conscience started listening to me too!’
I consider recalling the moment that had occurred in the jungle – when the insecure little East Man had abandoned me to the wrath of the beast without even sparing a second thought. But I don’t feel now is the right time for that.
‘It’s not a matter of listening, but understanding your conscience. You will be amazed at how tolerant your mind really is. To think, it is your mind that has formed this entire world before you,’ All Eyes eases the tension in the room.
Suddenly, the doors open again and a group of six Palm Patrollers enter the room this time, marching in an orderly sequence. Among them, I recognise an old acquaintance. Lieutenant Bowe, whom I’d met in the jungle and who’d warned me of straying in the night.
‘Are these our reinforcements?’ Samuella responds to the spontaneous entry with a suggestive twitch of the head.
‘You do not require an army,’ the king answers. ‘You require weaponry.’
The Patrollers form a line in front of us. Two of them step forward, both holding onto objects.
‘I thought we didn’t need weapons to fight the Drag-in? Isn’t it physically impenetrable?’ Camson asks.
‘These weapons aren’t for your battle against the Drag-in. They are your necessities for the journey. It is a renowned and duteous quest, which may well take you across hostile regions and to the utmost edges of the planet.’
The two Patrollers have approached our thrones with three pocket-sized sacks. They hand them to us and we quickly peer inside to take a look at the contents. The sacks each contain a selection of twenty coloured seeds – blue, green, red and purple. No more than five of each colour.
‘What you are holding are probably going to be the most resourceful and consistent requirements in your arsenal,’ All Eyes declares. ‘These are the Seeds of Continuity. In each pouch, there are twenty of them for each of you and, as you can see, they are separated into four colours: blue, red, green and purple.
‘Blue seeds will protect you in action, offering you discretion from powerful and deadly predators. This planet has many creatures from all corners of your deepest imagination and beyond. But some of these adversaries will pose matchless superiority to your strength and wit. If you believe you are overpowered or outnumbered at any point, consume one of these and you will immediately become undetectable from any predator – but be wary not to waste them on simply anything.
‘Red seeds will sustain your health and resurrect you when you are close to fatality. Consume one of these only when necessary – only when you are in grave danger. They can also be applied to regulate your physical health and heal flesh wounds.
‘Green seeds are your means of distant communication. Use them when you have been separated and are out of direct contact with your fellow companions. They will temporarily enable you to speak telepathically and will simultaneously boost your mental health, so they’ll also come in handy when you need to recuperate from stressful situations.
‘And, finally, the purple seeds are the most crucial. They allow you to remain awake in this world for as long as two days at a time and will help you to dismiss the urge of returning to Awakening Coast on every awakening. Returning to Awakening Coast is mandatory here, but the purple seeds will validate you to rest wherever you choose and recover yourself in the same place.’
‘That’s insane! We can stay here for as long as we wish?’ Samuella is blushing with flattered excitement. It’s the best news she’s heard all day.
‘Not as long as you wish. That would be outlandish,’ the king promotes his doubts. ‘The dead do not walk in reality, nor do they walk in dreams. I cannot promise immortality, but I can promise you a new home here on Constellation Planet, if you succeed. You may live here, thrive here, but if so—you must also die here.’
‘What about home? Won’t that change things, time-wise?’ I ask. After mentioning this, I’m receiving irritated glances from Samuella. They’re telling me: ‘Ugh! I should have left you in the jungle to get mauled by that horrible monster—just for reminding me of that dreadful place!’ I’ve no clue what issues she has with Mankind’s World, what hardships she’s endured in the West, but her constant pessimism for reality is grinding me into insanity.
‘There will be no difference in time. Your integration between worlds will remain as normal,’ the king explains. ‘The next time you reawaken in Mankind’s World, you will be revived exactly where you had lain before you escaped consciousness. And regardless of how much time you spend in the Dreamerverse, no longer than a night’s rest of ten hours will have passed in reality.’
‘Why don’t you just go home now if you miss it so much?’ Samuella growls at me.
‘Well, we’ll have to go back at some point,’ I tell her indifferently. I’m not trying to tirelessly tame myself back into her good books anymore. I don’t even care anymore. She and the East Man can do whatever they like when this is over. I’m doing whatever I must to get home.
The two Palm Patrollers who’d brought the seed-sacks return to the line and the next two monkeys in the line of six step forward, taking their place. We’re swiftly handed three glazing and freshly sharpened silver swords as well as one bow and a stack of arrows made from bamboo.
‘You trust us to use these weapons with any conviction at all?’ Samuella complains. ‘I suppose you haven’t known any of us longer than two days, so…’
‘Not in the Drag-in’s case, no. But in the context of winning those emeralds—yes, these arms will come in handy. Believe—they will. Though, you won’t be needing that old blade there, as I mentioned before,’ the king replies.
‘You can have it.’ Samuella’s about to hand it over.
‘No! I want to keep it! It’ll do better than any of these new weapons! We might need it eventually! It’s bigger, sturdier!’ This begging comes from Camson.
‘Believe me, you won’t need that ancient ornament,’ All Eyes states. ‘It won’t enhance your inventory in any way.’
‘Who says? Besides, I wield that thing better than either of these two clowns!’ Camson pleads. ‘Give it here to me! You can trust me with it, Your Highness!’
I’m really tempted to bring up Camson’s loutish behaviour in the jungle again, like a tattler in the school playground.
‘These new weapons are suitable enough for you to fend against the majority of hostiles on this planet, Night Dreamer. Now, step forward and return the sword.’ This time, the king has a much firmer tone.
One Palm Patroller snatches the old sword from Samuella and walks over to All Eyes. He lifts it high above his head and then lands it in a narrow pipe-like orifice at the foot of the orb’s stone platform. There’s a bright flash spewed from a spark of lightning, which fills the room with a deafening bang. The old sword vanishes. Then, all is calm again.
‘Ahh—Thank you! I am very grateful for the Blade’s return. It is a very precious weapon,’ the king rejoices. ‘You only needed it to procure and protect the last Night Dreamer in your group. It was yours until this encounter. It is now out of your hands.’
‘But—hold on,’ Samuella interrupts. ‘I still managed to shoo off the Drag-in using that blade. How comes?’
‘A chance of luck,’ All Eyes suggests. ‘This sword is a knight all on its own, built to protect. We call it the Solar Blade, because it’s been preserved for so long, centuries even. Count Orion was the man who cast it on the anvil and coated it with sands charmed by the Stellar Gods, to preserve its star-encrusted blade. He had such a legacy in his blacksmithing that some believed he was more than just an expert of his trade, but a demigod by nature. Orion was one of the first generation of Dreamers to awaken on this world. He made the Solar Blade’s strength so immense that it is deemed impractical in mundane combat and he dusted it with such a fine layer of supernova energy that its weight is infinitely changing, which makes the blade’s wielding unpredictable and its handling beyond the control of anyone who uses it.’
‘I used it,’ Samuella defends her case.
‘You may be a Night Dreamer, but you are still not artful enough for the Solar Blade.’
Samuella’s face drops at this comment.
‘Is anyone capable of wielding it regularly?’ I ask.
‘Maybe. But, unlikely,’ the king concludes.
Finally, the last two Palm Patrollers step forward, bringing with them a scroll of golden, withered parchment. They hand the scroll to me and I open it up, being careful not to damage it any more than it already is.
The paper is blank.
‘The Constellation Map,’ the king announces. ‘This is your means of getting around. The Map enables you to communicate with your own conscience like no other tool and it will lead the way for you. As I said, you have three prominent destinations, three locations where the crucial emeralds lay. Each of you will have the opportunity of reading the Map, taking it in turns to navigate the route to your own desired destination and plucking an emerald from it. You must remember that each of your locations will surely consist of challenges, confrontations or dilemmas that you must overcome. Do not let me down. The fates of the Dreamerverse and your home world are in your hands. And, remember, if you do manage to redeem the freedom of the Dreamerverse from the Drag-in’s plague, you will be rewarded: you will have new lives in this world and you may stay here for as long as you live.’
Nobody speaks. I don’t even need to glance at either Samuella or Camson to fathom the opportunity of the king’s promise. It’s the possibility of liberation, for sure. But it’s more than that. It’s the guarantee of a new beginning, a fresh start. The request is simple: search for the emeralds, deny the Drag-in and be rewarded with the freedom to choose a new home.
Though we are as far from freedom as we are from home…