There are times when being alone is the most wonderful thing in the world. The stillness and quiet of solitude can help us regain our balance and declutter our minds. That benefit can be lost though when the solitude isn’t of our own choosing.
“Puppy! Come here puppy!” Peri whispered as she crept forward, deeper into the monster-under-the-bed’s nightmare realm. The path she was on had looped over itself several times already so getting back to our world would have been challenging at best. Peri was so focused on finding Belle that she hadn’t noticed that problem yet. She had noticed she was alone though and, no matter how brave she was, a spooky forest was daunting for a four year old.
I watched as she slunk down the broken cobblestone road that wound through the night black forest of gnarled and withered trees. Her shoulders were low, her back was hunched and her head was down. She wanted to find “her puppy” but she was tingling with fear at being in such a strange place. The part of the me that was a good big sister wanted to swoop in and pick her up before any of the creatures that inhabited Bedlam found her.
It would have taken less than a moment. I was observing her in the form of a puff of wind that was dancing through the forest. All I needed to do was step onto the path and turn back into the sister that she knew. We’d even be able to continue her quest together.
Instead, I flicked a finger so that a root sprang from the ground and smacked her in the back. Not hard enough to do any damage. Just enough to sting.
“Stop That!” she said and punched the root that was hanging behind her. She’d straightened up in response to the smack and was glaring daggers at the root, daring it to try that again.
“Hey! What’s the big idea?” the tree stump the root was attached to said. “Why’d you hit me?”
With the casual acceptance of weirdness that only a little kid can possess, Peri turned to the tree stump and said “You hit me first!’
“No I didn’t, you stepped on me!” Stumpy said.
“You hit me!” Peri insisted and punched the root again.
“This is going well.” a suave and cultured voice whispered to me. It’s a sign of what my life is like that I didn’t jump or startle but instead breathed a sigh of relief. When things go smoothly I get worried. The unexpected and creepy feels comfortable by comparison.
I kept an eye on Peri and reached out with my meta-awareness to find a ghostly version of the monster-under-the-bed (aka Reclusive Guy) standing beside me. I cast out a little farther and confirmed that his body was indeed still entombed in ice in the ruins of the sprawling gothic castle he’d created as his center of power. .
“Spirit casting.” he said, guessing my next question. “You only froze my body.”
I nodded in appreciation. That was a good trick to have worked out so quickly. Since he’d figured that out, I was sure he could use a variety of other powers in his ghostly form but the realm was mine so I’d be able to block them if I wanted to.
“Clever. But you’re aware that you’re also uniquely vulnerable in that state, right?” I asked. I gestured to one of the trees near us as it reached down and wrapped him up in it’s branches. He was immaterial in his ghost form but the magical trees got to play by whatever rules I decided and having them able to capture ghosts seemed handy.
It was tempting to stuff him back into his body and place him in an enchanted sleep to keep him out of my hair. Monsters are usually either helpful or malevolent. The bad ones are annoying and the helpful ones tend to odd ideas about what exactly constitutes “helping”.
“I don’t think you want to do that.” he said, brimming with smug confidence, as the tree reached up with its roots to drag him into the earth.
“And why would that be?” I asked, waving to the tree to stop. I’m a sucker for a chatty monster.
“Because you don’t understand this realm” he said, showing no signs of discomfort or discontent at his predicament.
“Don’t I? You created it to feed on fears. They’re the lowest, easiest path for connecting to a psyche. The more you drain, the more real you become, until you have a solid home in my world.” I said.
“All true, but you don’t see why yet do you?” he asked.
“Do you need a reason?” I asked incredulously. Most of the beasts of the Unreal did what they did for no more reason than “because”.
“Technically no, but in this case there is one and you won’t get that little girl out of here if you don’t know what it is.” he said.
“You know what I am? You know what I can do to you right?” I asked.
“Yes. You demonstrated that quite sufficiently already.” he said, rattling a bit in his rooty bonds.
“And you know that the girl is important to me.” I looked over and saw Peri and Stumpy engaged in a slap fight. I couldn’t tell which was winning but it was obvious neither was willing to back down.
“So you’re going to try to barter her safety for something. You’re not a good position to barter though.” I said.
“Which is why my asking price will be low.” he conceded.
“What do you want.”
“Let me go. Give me back my realm. Let me do my job. Do that and I’ll tell you what you need to know.” Reclusive Guy offered.
“Your job?” I asked. Things from the Unreal didn’t have preset purposes, but they could have fragments of an identity, and those could include roles and responsibilities. Normally, because they weren’t tied to anything real, the roles and responsibilities could change and morph freely but with Reclusive Guy having gained a measure of reality when I named him, his “job” could have become more real as well.
“Yes. We’re not so different in fact.” he said smiling in a way that was probably meant to be charming but fell short due to his overall creepy aesthetic.
“Oh, I love this one! Tell me how we’re just the same! How the darkness within me make me so very similar to you! Bonus points if you go for the old ‘you’ve done far worse things than I’ line!” I said. I may have bounced a bit.
“I have to say it doesn’t feel like you’re taking this very seriously.” the ghost said with a frown. I almost felt bad for stealing his lines from him.
“Ask yourself if you really want to see me being serious? And consider that the business with your castle was me taking a bit of a break and having some fun.” I said.
His frown deepened.
“The little one is in peril you know?” he asked nodding in Peri’s direction.
Several other trees where moving in to aide Stumpy, which meant Peri was moments away from being completely overwhelmed by the them.
“You should talk quickly then.” I suggested. “You were describing your job?”
“You’re going to do something horrible to me if the little girl is harmed aren’t you?” he asked, concern creeping into his expression.
“I repeat: you know what I am don’t you?”
“Right, my job then: I make borders – barrier realms between out here and in there.” he said, referring to the Unreal and my homeworld respectively.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because they can be the best of both worlds. A little bit real so there’s some meaning to them and a little bit unreal so they’re not so limited. They’re…comfy.” he explained.
“And you make them nightmares because…?” I prompted him.
“Ah, that gets to the bit of information that I intend to trade for my freedom.” he said.
“I have a better idea.” I said. “I’ll give you until the trees reach Peri to figure out how to save her. If you can keep her safe and see her through the whole realm, we’ll talk again.”
“I’m a ghost, how am I supposed to save her from magic trees?” he asked, looking somewhat alarmed. Given how close the trees had crept up to Peri, I didn’t blame him.
“You’re very clever aren’t you? And with your hair on fire, I’m sure the trees won’t be eager to get near you.” I said and smiled at him.
“My hair’s not on…” he started to say and then slumped. “Really?”
“I’m afraid so.” I said, feeling properly wicked.
He raised his eyes to spy on his luscious bangs and noticed I’d been telling the truth. His ghostly locks were ablaze with bright orange tongues of flame. On the positive side, the flames did scare off the roots and branches that had fastened on to him.
“Wait, what’s happening to my real hair?” he said, aghast at the thought.
“As goes the one so goes the other.” I told him.
Stop, drop and roll isn’t taught in monster-under-the-bed school. Instead Reclusive Guy opted to run screaming right at Peri.
She’d been biting one of Stumpy’s roots while two other roots tried to wrestle her off it. Seeing a flame topped ghost careening at her like a mad man, she sprang away from the tree and started screaming herself.
That was cut short when “RG” ran past her and crashed into one of the trees that had been drawing close to Peri. It was pretty unfair that as a ghost he didn’t simply pass through it but the slapstick value was worth it. From one tree to another RG bounced like a pinball madly trying to put out the flames on his head with cries of “My hair! My gorgeous hair!”
The flames weren’t burning him, but they were threatening to the magic trees. The magic trees in turn responded to their crazed attacker by running around in a similarly haphazard manner, bumping into each other and RG wildly as they all tried to flee.
In the end only Peri, Stumpy and RG were left in a rather wide clearing at the edge of the woods. The whole forest had shifted around to spit them out. RG was exhausted from his rampage and was collapsed on the ground trying to catch his ghostly breath. Peri was laughing herself silly and Stumpy was looking in confusion between the two.
“Do you think he’s dead?” Stumpy asked, pointing at RG with a root.
“Oh course, he’s a ghost!” Peri said.
“Should we bury him?” Stumpy asked.
“No, that’s for zombies.” Peri said. I’d have to ask my mother where Peri was learning about zombies, especially learning the wrong things about zombies, but this didn’t seem to be the time to correct her.
“I don’t know. There’s lots of creepy things under the ground. Maybe ghosts go there too?” Stumpy said.
“Thank you. I’m not the burying sort of ghost. Or a zombie.” RG said.
“Well then what are you doing here?” Stumpy asked.
“I’m here for her.” RG said.
“I’m looking for my puppy!” Peri said.
“There are no puppies here.” RG said.
I floated close to him and whispered in his ear.
“She means the beast that was tearing through your hedge maze. The one that’s at your castle now.” I told him.
“In this forest I mean. You were looking in the wrong place.” RG amended.
“Where is she?” Peri asked,
RG’s face sunk.
“She’s in the Castle of Final Peril, atop the Mountain of Despair, beyond the Eternal Hedge and across the Sea of Lost Hopes.” he said. My offer had been contingent on him seeing Peri safely through realm which meant he was going to have to deal with all of the headaches he’d devised to inflict on anyone else who entered his world if he wanted to get her there.
“That sounds far.” Peri said. She was frowning too. In her case it was less a matter of dread at the challenges that lay before them and more that she just wasn’t that patient.
What she lacked in patience though, she made up for in creativity.
“Why don’t you fly me there?” she asked RG.
“I can’t lift you up.” RG said and passed his hand through hers.
“You can lift him.” Peri said and pointed at Stumpy. “And he can lift me.”
I whistled (as a breeze it’s pretty easy too). I hadn’t thought of that at all. Fortunately I didn’t have to admit it to anyone. I try to be truthful in general but “outsmarted by a four year old” is a little too embarrassing even for me to own up to.
“And why would I carry you anywhere?” Stumpy asked.
“Uh, I could say I was sorry.” Peri said.
“You should say you’re sorry anyways. You bit me! I’ve got kid germs on me now!” Stumpy complained.
“I’m sorry.” Peri said with all the sincerity of a four year who wants something.
“Good. But I still don’t want to go flying away. Flying’s not a natural thing for a tree like me!” Stumpy said.
“I could take you home and plant you!” Peri suggested.
“Why would I want that?” Stumpy asked.
“Because we’ve got a nice garden, and it gets lots of sunshine and my mommy can make it rain so you’ll always have enough to drink.” Peri said.
“You’re mother can make it rain?” Stumpy asked, his eyes wide in disbelief.
“Yeah! She can make things grow too!” Peri said.
“Come here child.” Stumpy said. Peri took a few nervous steps forward and Stumpy began sniffing the air around her.
“You’re the daughter of…?” Stumpy began to say and cut himself off. “I would be delighted to carry you.”
“This is patently absurd.” RG said as Stumpy wound a few roots around the ghost and made a carriage seat out of a few others for Peri to sit in.
“If you would prefer to take the long path to the castle, I’m sure I can keep up.” Stumpy said.
“No no. By all means let us be off!” RG said, shaking his head.
“Whee! Giddy up!” Peri squealed as the three of them lifted off into the air and began flying across the realm.
I’d followed Peri with the aim of preventing the Bedlam realm from capturing her. As I watched them fly away it occurred to me that I probably should have been worried about Peri capturing Bedlam instead. If I wasn’t careful the problem wouldn’t be getting Peri to come back it would be getting her to leave my realm in one piece when she was done with it!