Watching someone succeed where they’re not expected to usually puts a smile on my face. It’s nice to see friends accomplishing more than they believed they could. It’s fun to watch a total stranger discover that they’re greater than they thought they were. It’s even interesting, sometimes, to see an opponent make a play no one would have dreamed they were capable of.
The times when that’s not as welcome are when their success means additional headaches for me. A foe who lands a solid blow tells me I’ve got a good fight on my hands. One who lands a deadly blow means I have to get serious about things, which isn’t terribly fun. Similarly a four year old sister who-shall-remain-nameless, who manages to find her way through a barrier and into a nightmare world means I get to come rescue her. One who manages to take over the aforementioned nightmare world on the other hand is someone I need to handle very carefully.
Mom had looked interested in her youngest becoming a dreamlord too, but I suspected she wouldn’t be overjoyed for me to drag home a four year old Dark Queen who radiated terror and madness. Granted there were days when I’m not sure she could have told the difference but Mom was good at noticing subtle changes. James and Dad on the other hand, probably would have needed the glowing eyes and deadly spikes Dark Lord Peri would be sure to adopt to tip them off. I don’t know why it was so often glowing eyes and deadly spikes, it was like a dress code or something for nightmare rulers. The thought of Peri done up like that was alternately silly and disturbing.
The silly part was picturing how seriously she’d take it. The disturbing part was how she’d basically be wearing my “hand me downs” in that case, from my own brief stints as a Dark Queen. For the time being though, she was still a semi-normal four year old, and I was bound and determined she’d get to stay that way.
I just needed to make sure her current companions took care of her well enough.
“RG”, the former monster-under-the-bed, had chosen to be able to “fly faster than the wind” when he’d crafted his ghost form. That’s how he’d be able to catch up with me when I’d teleported to the forest Peri was in. With RG, Peri and Stumpy flying away and me in the form of a breeze, that was a bit problematic.
RG had been consistent enough in his decorating motifs that there was a perpetual storm cloud over Bedlam. That was convenient for me since it meant I could travel as a bolt of lightning without needing to alter anything else about the world besides myself.
I didn’t technically need to stay near them of course. As the ruler of the realm, I could sense anything in it that I turned my attention to, but it was often more convenient to have an avatar in place near whatever it was I was observing.
With that in mind, I flashed up to the clouds and then jumped from one to the next to catch up with Peri and her crew. As I flew forward, I left a trail of thunder crashes in my wake. They boomed and shook the skies, buffeting the makeshift flying carriage into wild turns and sudden drops.
“The Storm Giants are waking up!” I heard Stumpy call out. I smiled a crackling, electric grin as I lurked in the heart of a thunderhead that overlooked the little party.
The layer of clouds just below me which Peri and her party was flying through began to roil and twist, shifting into new shapes. All around them, one by one, giants of mists with lightning for eyes and thunder for breath stood up and gazed around.
The first roars began a moment later. One of the storm giants had spied something he hated. Interlopers in their domain. Then he spotted something he hated even more. Another storm giant. I leapt down to the cloud that storm giant stood on. He turned to look at me and I hurled myself into him. Before the other storm giants could notice what I was doing I then jumped from his outstretched hand to slam into the storm giant he had noticed.
Usually storm giants will howl and bluster for hours before getting down to business. With how fast RG was flying I needed more immediate results and blasting one of the storm giants achieved that in a big way. The sky lit up like day time with lightning flashes that were so constant it was hard to imagine they would ever stop.
I cast my meta-awareness out to see how Peri was doing. She was huddled into the seat Stumpy had provided hanging on for dear life as RG pulled them through a barrel roll to escape the reach of one of the storm giants. Her eyes were wet but she wasn’t screaming incoherently or shutting the world out yet.
I breathed a sigh of relief.
RG had offered me knowledge in exchange for his freedom. The truth was, I already knew what he was going to tell me. In how what he’d answered and refused to answer the questions I’d asked him, there had been enough clues to work out what his secret was if you knew how creatures of the Unreal generally worked.
He hadn’t needed a special reason to make a realm beyond the existence of the rift that formed under Peri’s bed. It was something that he would do naturally. Of the various denizens of the Unreal, his type wasn’t an exceptionally harmful one. He could be dangerous – Bedlam showed that – but by nature what he desired was simply a place to call home and a little bit of stability to cling to. In exchange he offered the realm he was attached to the added security of an additional barrier against the unreal. It meant that the rift could exist without the danger of unraveling what it meant to be “real”.
In the case of a world like Earth Glass, there Dreamlit World around it was very thin. The things that could be real were sharply delineated from the things that could not be and (in Earth Glasses case) reality had a very hard time reconciling when those two got mixed up. The Dreamlit World around my Earth was much “thicker” but even so having a whole additional realm where things could be “sort of true” was an extra layer of insurance against problems forming.
The catch was, the stability that RG desired is a difficult thing to come by, most especially in the Dreamlit world, whose nature was to be ever (and easily) changing. That meant he needed a conduit to reality, some trick that would keep my world from rejecting him. That’s where Peri came in. If she believed in him, even just in her dreams, she’d be his foothold into the real world. Through her he’d be able to become a little bit real, so that he could hold together and not be lost back into the sea of “might have beens” and “could be”s.
So if he needed her, why did RG make Bedlam into a realm that would terrify Peri? Because he didn’t need her to like the place (or him), he needed her to believe in it. When Peri looked under her bed she saw a dark scary place. That Bedlam was dark and scary fit her preconceptions and so she could buy into it without any trouble at all.
It would seem like the obvious answer, if I wanted to get Peri to abandon Bedlam, to turn it into a place of sweetness and light so she could forget about it. Unfortunately the obvious answer was wrong. That might have worked if I’d gotten to it before Peri had seen Bedlam (though in that case I could have ensured she never made it there in the first place). As it was, if I replaced Bedlam with Sugar Gum Drop Land, Peri would remember the scary version of Bedlam and know that it was out there somewhere, waiting for her.
She might enjoy being in a sparkling fun world, but she wouldn’t forget Bedlam because we tend to hold on to our fears fears with all of our strength. It’s a survival trait, but it also limits us. We tend to believe in our fears far more than is warranted. That was the same reason that I couldn’t make the world too tame or easy for her. She’d seen the real version of Bedlam, if all the monsters in it were replaced by stuffed versions of themselves that were cuddly rather than scary she’d know she was being tricked.
My game plan was to work things so that Peri would believe in Bedlam enough that when she “beat it” by getting Belle back, she’d also overcome her fear of “the monster under the bed”. That was the key to getting her to leave it behind. The trick was doing it without hurting her in the process.
Watching the tiny flying carriage careen through the skies with lightning flashing all around it and giants battling to destroy it, I knew I wouldn’t be able to do that. Not perfectly at any rate. In convincing her that Bedlam was as scary as she imagined, she was probably going to get a little scuffed up. I could set boundaries on that (permanent damage and serious injuries were right out, both physical and mental), but if I prevented all of the consequences of her choices from coming home to roost she wouldn’t have anything real to feel proud of overcoming.
“This is crazy! I’m taking us down!” RG yelled to the other two.
“No!!” Peri yelled. “Go up! Go up!”
She pulled back on the roots that Stumpy had wrapped around RG like they were reins and RG’s ghostly body angled upwards.
I could see why Peri wanted to rise over the aerial battlefield – the lightning bolts the giants were throwing were falling primarily onto the ground below. RG knew the land and would have been able to find them a cave to shelter in. Peri didn’t know that though so all she could see was RG trying to lead them to the place where all the lightning was going.
As it turned out, “up” was the right direction to pick. The storm giants, being a surly and unpleasant lot, were more than happy to keep shooting at each other rather than waste their energy on the tiny flying carriage that was soon far above them.
On top of the clouds, even Bedlam was a lovely place. The full moon shown in brilliant silver and set the clouds below them aglow. The one piece of the tableau that stuck out was the ominous spire that throbbed with veins of purple light.
“It’s pretty!” Peri said, looking at the clouds then the mountain caught her attention.
“What’s that?” she asked.
“That is the Mountain of Despair, atop of which sits the Castle of Final Peril.” RG said sounding proud of his work in creating it.
“I don’t like it.” Peri said and curled up, tucking herself into a corner of the chair Stumpy had made for the carriage and wrapping her arms around her body defensively.
“It does look a little unfriendly.” Stumpy said.
“There’s still time to turn back. You don’t have to go there. You can still call this whole thing off and go right back home.” RG said.
Peri looked at him warily.
“I can take you back to the beginning of the forest in a flash.” RG said.
Peri continued to stare at him. She was frowning and angry and probably more afraid than she’d ever been before.
“No.” she said without uncurling.
“Don’t you want to go home?” RG asked.
“No.” she said. My heart skipped a beat at that one, worries that I’d already lost her flooding my mind.
“You’re going to stay here?” RG asked.
“No.” she said. “The puppy needs me. She might be scared.”
“I’m sure she’ll be fine.” RG said.
Arguing with a four year old tended to go like that. No lengthy explanation. No debating. Peri would take her position and then neither hell nor high water would budge her from it. RG figured that out at last and sighed.
“Onwards to the Castle of Final Peril then.” he said and off they flew.