Episode 002: The Mind of an Artist, Part 4

Part Four – New Alliances

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Trigger Warning: Dismemberment and animated body parts.

 

The second level of Basheer’s house shed more light – both into the nightmare and into the artist’s life itself. Streaks of dust-strobed light peeked through the shadows. As if she were a noble fly drawn to a pile of glistening treasure, Avi forged towards the source, with the rest of us chasing. Rushing from our stairway, we passed by another couple of doors before we found ourselves catching our breaths, but also feeling a lot lighter, the warmth of the sun beating against our skin.

      We were out.

      “That’s it?” Sunset asked.

      “I don’t think so,” Avi said, “This is probably just his balcony. And there’s more energy like the nightmare’s coming from there.”

      She pointed towards a larger building behind Basheer’s house – a nondescript structure of matted earths and rocky colours. If one squinted a little further, one could see the bustle of activity through the slatted windows. With the proximity of the buildings within this area, the lines between the nightmares were starting to encroach on each other – their blurring would be an understatement.

      “That’s the Market?” Birdsong asked.

      “We’ll probably need to head there soon,” Avi looked over, “But after this.”

      A whirr drilled through the air. Then a muffled scream.

      All of us turned towards the inside of the house, then back to each other. Leaving a nightmare without its anchor and returning back into the darkness was known to have consequences, dependent on the duration of our exit. The scream started again. Our brows furrowed, almost in harmony.

      “Then let’s finish,” I said, making a beeline to return.

#

From the balcony exit, we turned our attention to the first door on our left, with Avi taking the lead once again. Clover, in all her confidence and familiarity, though, stayed that few steps behind even as we advanced.

      The door creaked open, allowing the smell of charred flesh and candle scents that won’t be out of place in a witchcraft circle, hit us in the face.

      Though obscured by the dark aura, the room we entered was likely Basheer’s master suite – the four-poster frame barely visible through the darkness, highlighted by what looked to be an altar set up on the far side from where we stood. Inching closer, we could see faint glowing from a ritual drawing carved onto the floor, a pair of candles in front of what seemed to be an old mirror, and in the middle of the drawn circle, two severed heads lying on their side.

      Clover looked away immediately, not even realizing the stack of letters that were hanging out of her bag.

      With both a mixture of curiosity and the want to go through this house quickly, Avi and Birdsong advanced first, hands hovering over the altar.

      Until what looked to be the female head rolled over and opened its mouth.

      “Clover, Clover is that you?”

      The line between our split group formed a thin path leading straight to our newest group member, now looking over her shoulder, tears welling in her eyes. Her mouth said something along the lines of, “Tzarina.”

      She took a step forward.

      “Wait,” Avi said, “Who is this?”

      The head turned to our rogue, trying to muster some kind of forced smile, and said, “You’re a clever one, aren’t you?”

      Almost immediately, Clover turned back again.

      “Who is this?!” Avi asked.

      The head smirks – or at least tries to conduct some semblance of it – and replied, “I believe you lot know me as Grandmother. I bring greetings from the Market, and I believe you’ve cast eyes on the building where I current dwell just a few minutes ago.”

      “What do you want?”

      “All of you have been put here because you need to acquire something. I have been informed that there is an… artifact for the taking here as well.”

      Avi’s brows furrowed, she stepped closer, towering over the head.

      “What do you mean for the taking?”

      “My young ladies,” the head continued, “While all of you have been known to be fighters, scholars, and people of interest in your own groups, I am, what some of you might call, a businesswoman and collector.”

      “We don’t have anything for you.”

      “Oh yes, my young Avisha,” the head continued, “You do.”

      Inch-by-inch, it turned towards the mirror laid out in front of the altar as she continued, “People come to me for help for things the human realm has no control over. While some realize that my price is too high for them, some have gotten this idea of trying to outfox me.”

      As we all turned to the mirror, some of us caught a glimpse of a flicker of the black candles on the floor, with the male head now twitching.

      “Through this mirror is a gateway to another world,” Grandmother continued, “There is something in there that I want. Bring it to me, and I will do what I can to help you.”

      “What is this thing? Valuables?”

      The head chuckled.

      “What are valuables than items we assign value to?” she said, “No, Grandmother deals with items humans may not be so willing to part with, but not your earthly gold and jewels. Find the painter, and you’ll know what to do. I’ll be waiting.”

      Tsarina’s head, once a vessel for the Grandmother, fell to the side, as lifeless as it was when we found it.

      Before any of us could make a move, both heads sprang up and the candles lit up. Clover, at this point, was already looking away fully. The mirror flickered, our reflections going from misty outlines to distorted images, twisting and mixing with the silver surface of the mirror.

      Until a circular portal whirred to life, creating a darkened pathway to somewhere unknown.

      Avi led the beeline to the portal, but before we could step in, a curious-looking silver being poked their head out.

      “Friends?” it smiled.

      “Yes, friends!” Avi replied – her go-to response.

      “Friends! Friends!” the silver creature exclaimed. Devoid of humanoid features, this creature resembled a tree covered in chrome, with branches for fingers and twigs for crown-like tines on their heads. Similar to the mythical ents we can only read about.

      Despite the obscured view of their world, the sounds of crackling lightning, booming thunder, and battle cries came through enough for us to deduce the state of this creature’s being.

      “So friend,” Avi continued, “Who are you and how can we help?”

      The single silver ent reached into its pack and handed Avi a blue-white dagger, still smoking in our humid environment. Avi’s fingers flinched at first, before she inhaled and wrapped her fingers around its handle.

      Birdsong leaned closer.

      “It’s cold,” Avi warned, “But nothing we can’t handle. These creatures seem to need help.”

      We all gestured for Avi to take the lead.

#

The land of these silver creatures was not that far off from what we’re used to in our desert city – vast open lands with buildings that reminded me of the Grecian-Roman white buildings I’ve read about. The only difference was the piercing shrieks across the indigo sky, echoing such that we couldn’t tell where the crux of the fighting came from.

      They brought us across a field and into one of those buildings, a cylindrical structure with columns that the common Nethian could only see from a distance – where the nobles lived. Our escort excused themselves after letting us into a room where a few other individuals were standing around an older-looking silver ent-like individual, who stood up with the help of a large staff, inching towards us.

      “I see our scouts have brought new allies,” said they, “The Silver Elves welcome you, though there’s not much to welcome.”

      “Your scout says you need help,” Avi started.

      They nodded, another screech pierced the air.

      “Our enemies came from other galaxies,” they said, “They’ve come to us to take over our world with their lightning and tyranny. Can you help us?”

      “Who threatens you?”

      The sage waved a few of their comrades, who presented a set of ice knives to all of us. My fingers hesitant, it took me a couple of seconds before I was able to wrap them around the somewhat insulated handle.

      Unlike the lightning orb I got from the kitchen, this weapon felt lighter, despite the creeping frigidity from its handle’s edges.

      “The dragonflies don’t like the cold,” the sage explained, “These will help.”

      Another shriek.

      This time, the elves ran out, the rest of us joining in the foray, just in time for us to bear witness to another shriek and the majesty of a giant dragonfly – not unlike the one we saw at Sakinah’s nightmare – soaring across the sky. While silver elf innocents cowered with hands over their heads, we saw the dragonfly stop at a distant building for a bit, before flying off again.

      The sage shook their head.

      “Those structures are the creation of those creatures,” the sage said, “They seem to draw their powers from there, and we’re losing our numbers because of these… outposts.”

      Trying to get a closer look at the outpost, Avi’s eagle eyes caught sight of a possible power source and cage in the nearest building. Signalling for us to stay still, she waited until the giant dragonfly was well out of sight before she turned to the sage.

      “Has anyone tried to take down those outposts?” Avi asked.

      The sage shook their head and pointed to what seemed like the centre of the building.

      “Something there keeps the outposts running,” they said, “And the place is protected by the enemy’s magic. We cannot get anywhere near it.”

      “Good,” Avi said, before taking off, leaving us to trail her.

      Our surroundings grew disturbingly bright the closer we got to the outpost. At the same time, it was also then when we realized that the shrieks weren’t necessarily from the dragonflies and distant battles.

      “That’s a familiar sight,” Clover commented – her first since we entered the nightmare.

      The gazebo pulsed with electrical power not too different from the orb I obtained from the house’s kitchen-lab. In the middle of the illuminated building, was the source of the shrieks and moans, strung up and stretched out, the skin and seemingly, the still-living being of Basheer al-Bharati.

      “What the…” I mouthed.

      “When this man came through the portal,” one of the Silver Elves who followed us explained, “Those dragonflies were quick to snatch him up.”

      The moans continued like the uneasy churning of a person’s indigestion.

      ‘I deal with a different kind of currency.’

      Grandmother’s voice sounded in my head. By the look of the rest of the team, it was likely she did a psychic broadcast.

      “How do you want to do this?” Birdsong turned to Avi. They turned to me. More specifically, they turned to my supposed new toy. I don’t remember the last time I let out such a loud, exasperated sigh.

      The gazebo itself was not attached to any kind of apparatus, serving only as a containment structure for the electrical machinery planted in the middle of the building. In a bid to ignore the increasingly spine-chilling moans from what I could only assume to be an animated, skin-only version of Basheer, I turned my focus to a probable control panel directly behind where the artist was strung up.

      Insulating my hands, I reached for the panel’s handle and opened it, revealing similar switches to the ones I saw on my lightning orb. Taking another breath, I turned the most familiar-looking knob in the same direction as I did with the lightning orb.

      The crackling electricity stopped.

      Which only meant that Basheer’s moaning was only going to get louder.

      “We need to leave!” our Silver Elf escort darted their head over their shoulders, weapons up at the ready.

      We wasted no time in dismantling the machinery. The only regret I could foresee was how the rest of the party was going to want to sell the parts for cyphers before I could even get to studying it properly.

      And then there was the issue of transporting the skin of the artist.

      Already bogged down by most of the machine parts, Sunset turned to the rest of us.

      “This, I can’t help this time,” she gestured towards Basheer.

      “Wait,” Avi said, “Your rug from the market.”

      “Really?!”

      “No one is going to hold a man-sized piece of skin without a container,” Avi said, “Plus, a rolled up rug is going to invite fewer questions.”

      Leaning her head back as far as it could go, Sunset sighed before signalling us to relieve her of her newly-acquired rug. Within minutes, we were all on the way back to the portal, which was now half its size.

      “Why is it shrinking?!” Birdsong exclaimed.

      “Basheer’s being at the gazebo must’ve been some kind of anchor for the portal,” Clover panted, “Now that we have the machine, it’s closing in on itself!”

      Talking was not going to speed things up, so with a quick wave back to the Silver Elves, all of us made a break for the portal – throwing the machinery through first before diving through ourselves.

      And watching as the portal closed behind the last person who made it through.

      “Everyone here?” Avi asked before proceeding to take mental attendance of the rest of us. Sunset gathered the rest of the machine together, Clover stared warily at the rug, rolled up with Basheer’s moaning still coming through, and Birdsong just wanted to get out of the room as fast as possible, seeing how she probably landed next to one of the severed heads.

      That was when another voice came from upstairs. A woman’s.

      The rest of them didn’t catch that voice, but I did.

      “Help Me!”

#

Author’s Note: The significance of the creatures and scenarios in the nightmare dungeons are explained more in-depth in The Nightmares Underneath by Johnstone Metzger. You can create your own scenarios and stories in this world by getting the hardcover here, or trying out the game first with the free version here.