Dreams could be very… interesting. Take this one, for instance. A moment ago, Julia had been riding in a hot-air balloon, and now the balloon was a giant nectarine. Or maybe it was a clementine. Those smaller orange-wannabees were always hard to tell apart.
Regardless, the nectarine/clementine didn’t seem concerned with its real-world counterpart’s inability to fly, and continued floating gracefully downward. Julia leaned out over the basket, watching with apprehension as her balloon/fruit mode of transportation moved her closer and closer to the giant blue horny toad waiting on the platform below.
“About time you got here,” the giant blue horny toad said, scratching his head with a webby foot like a dog with an itch. Julia climbed out of the basket, which was now a clothes hamper. She was nearly dwarfed by the amphibian – until she wasn’t, and he sat on her shoulder.
“Well, excuse me for having trouble falling asleep,” she retorted, rubbing her arms. You couldn’t always feel things in dreams, but this one had a frosty bite in the air. Ironic, considering the platform sat in the middle of an active volcano. “What’s the situation, Karl?”
Karl sprouted feathery wings and flapped into the air, pointing a toe towards the mountain looming over them. “Wild Figments from Zone 3. They broke into Zone 7 and are harassing the Daydreams. Governess wants us to investigate.”
Julia sighed a sigh of longsuffering, fingering the bracelet around her wrist. Today, it looked like a tiny, rainbow-feathered bird wearing a party hat. Last time, it had resembled a tuxedo jacket with the sleeves wrapped around her arm. The day before that, it had been a rock wrapped in a living vine. She kind of missed the rock. That had been a fairly uneventful dream. With a snap of her fingers, Julia activated the Guardian bracelet, and it flashed off her wrist and reappeared as a sword in her hand. She felt the cotton-candy hilt, reservedly pleased. “Looks like we get some real action today, Karl. Let’s get to it!”
Karl flared his wings, now in the form of a glimmering, opalescent pegasus, and Julia vaulted into the saddle on his back. As they flapped away, an old thought entered her head, and now seemed as good a time to ask it as any. The girl leaned towards his flicking ear. “Does it feel strange always having to change shape like that?” she asked conversationally over the sound of a hurricane in the distance.
Karl snorted and tossed his mane. “Does it feel boring to always stay the same?”
“Fair point,” Julia conceded. It was best to just concede to things in the Dream Realm. Nothing would follow your expectations, anyway, so it saved a lot of headaches to accept them as they came. As if to prove her point, Karl became a two-headed eagle briefly, and Julia spent a few moments in flight holding onto his feet with irritated resignation. He soon turned back into a horse, albeit one without wings, and galloped the last few steps on air to land calmly on the currently-grass-covered epicenter of Zone 7, which sat nestled in a valley at the top of the mountain.
Zones were the only designation that had any consistency in the ever-changing Dream Realm, and they were really just defined by the different dream beings who populated them. Zone 7 was Daydream territory, and a tiny, wispy creature immediately raced by Karl’s hooves as they touched down, squealing like a pig. Julia leaped down, squinting after it. Yes, it was a pig, but its form wavered like smoke on the breeze. Not a good sign; Daydreams tended to have less solid forms than other dream beings, being linked to people’s waking minds rather than their less distracted sleeping ones, but they shouldn’t be so panicked that they would dissolve like that. Julia looked around, and quickly saw the source – or rather, it saw her, in the form of a very large bipedal lion holding a machine gun.
As soon as the Figment met her eyes, he turned, roared, and fired.
Karl leapt into the air in the form of a swarm of bees as Julia ducked and rolled under the wave of needle-sharp bullets that ripped through the air – literally, in one case, as a bullet tore its way out of Zone 7, creating a miniature portal to one of the other Zones. Julia hoped there wasn’t collateral damage, or the Governess would never let her hear the end of it. “You didn’t tell me they had weapons!” she hollered.
“Excuse me for not being a Vision!” Karl buzzed back at her, his swarm body coalescing into a ninja just in time to deliver a solid kick to the lion Figment’s head. The Figment howled angrily and shifted forms at the same time as the landscape – not as quickly or completely as Karl, but it was beefier now, with huge saber fangs in its maw as it stomped through a field of rocky candy. Julia smiled as an idea came to mind. Touching her cotton candy sword to the ground, she summoned every pebble and boulder of the crystalline candy scattered across the ground and shoved it upwards, battering the Figment in a reverse landslide.
The Figment roared with the stentorian bellow of a wounded tiger and fired its gun at her again. Julia’s eyes narrowed as she dodged; the gun hadn’t changed shape yet. “Great,” she muttered. “Someone’s handing out Guardian weapons.” As if in response, the cotton candy sword she held jerked her hand up, deflecting one of the bullets at the last second.
Karl rolled towards her in the form of a bull-sized armadillo, his armor making soft tinging noises as bullets bounced off. “At least it’s just one,” he rumbled cheerfully, sliding from balled armadillo to dragon-scaled pangolin with a smirk. “Should be easy to handle.”
Julia opened her mouth to retort, but another thought distracted her. “I thought the Governess told you there were ‘Figments’ – as in plural.”
She barely had time to finish the sentence before two shapes fell at them from a passing cloud house. More Daydreams screamed and smoked in alarm as a masked steampunk cowboy and a whirling UFO hit the sandy ground where Julia and Karl had just been, their faces (well, one face, the UFO just blinked) sneering at the Guardian and her companion. As another Daydream skittered out from under a rock, squeaking and fluctuating madly between various fruit shapes, the steampunk cowboy laughed and tried to stomp on it.
Julia’s blood rose. Bullies. I hate bullies. The pink sword glowed in response to her outrage. A quick glance at Karl caused him to morph into a field mouse and duck under a beach bucket; years of close partnership and communication at work. Before the cowboy and the UFO could finish gathering themselves to attack, Julia went up on one toe, sword high, and pirouetted like a mad ballerina. Her Guardian sword responded with manifested waves of rainbow taffy that shot over the field like arcs of sticky destruction.
A few of the Daydreams were caught up in the web, squealing their dismay, but she didn’t have time to be neat. They’ll be fine. With cries of rage and alarm, the two Figments in front of her slammed backwards into the brick wall of a dental shop a dozen yards away, and hung there, dazed and sticky. The third one, the one with the Guardian gun, managed to roll mostly out of the way, but his feline foot was caught, sticking him fast to the mossy stones beneath his feet. He snarled through a face now more tiger than lion and raised his weapon, ready to fire.
“Now everybody just hold it!” Julia snapped, leveling her sword towards the gun-wielding Figment. Nothing came out of it, but the gesture had the intended effect; the Figment froze, eyeing her with suspicion and a little bit of fear. Good. He’s not completely dense, she thought wryly. A familiar chuckle from behind told her that Karl had arrived to watch her back; he was in giant wolf form now, sporting a very fashionable pair of scars across his eyes. Karl generally preferred animal forms; he said humans felt too unimaginative. There was a busload of irony to be had in that statement.
Finally, everyone was still, with only the steampunk cowboy and Karl breathed heavily. Probably more out of habit than anything.
“You’re the Dream Guardian,” the UFO beeped in digital tones of dismay.
“Of course she’s the Dream Guardian!” the first Figment snarled. He seemed to be fighting a transformation that would take him into four-legged form, which would ruin his gun-holding advantage. Figments had notorious trouble staying in specific shapes, one of the reasons they served mainly as background characters in dreams. He waved his gun, eyes wild. “But we have a weapon like hers! I can take her!”
Julia took a breath, schooling her features as she faced the two stuck to the post office. She kept her sword pointed at the gun-wielder, though. “Yes, I am the Dream Guardian. The Governess sent me to clear out some Figments who were making trouble for the Daydreams. And I’m free to use whatever force I deem necessary.” That hadn’t actually been stated in the order, but it was generally understood that the Governess didn’t care how she did her work. The Figments flinched, their forms shifting more rapidly until the UFO resembled a robot and the gun-wielding Figment was a professional wrestler with cat ears. Julia held up a finger to forestall their panic, her mouth quirking up on one side. “But! I prefer reasonable conversation to violence, so what do you say we try and talk this out first?” To demonstrate her good intentions, she lowered her sword and took on a relaxed stance. “Come on, now. What’s your problem? You know you belong in Zone 3.”
The first Figment growled, becoming an orc in full battle-armor. Julia made a mental note of just how cool a fantasy orc wielding a machine gun could look. Aggressive, this one. “We want out. We’re tired of being in the background!” he snarled, and his Guardian gun twitched at his side as if eager for action.
Julia shook her head. She might have known; it was usually something like this with the Figments. “Guys, guys, guys. We’ve been over this time and time again: every dream being is important. You fill dreams with all of the interesting side characters and give people ideas for when they wake up!” With practiced nonchalance, she tugged a wad of cotton candy from her blade and sucked on it. The empty spot quickly refilled. “Seriously, can you imagine how boring it would be if everyone was a Face? Or a Guide?” the girl laughed.
“Hey,” Karl snorted, pawing at ground that had turned to checkered tile.
“Oh, hush,” Julia whispered with a smirk. “You know I love you.” The purple cheetah with winged feet preened.
The robotic Figment whirred and clicked in agitation, struggling against its taffy bonds. “It is inglorious! The Faces receive all the credit, just because they can imitate figures from humans’ memories. And we never get to see the conclusion to the adventures!”
Julia tilted her head, genuinely puzzled. “But there usually isn’t a conclusion,” she pointed out. “Most dreams flow into each other one after the other until the person wakes up.”
“So ya say,” the steampunk cowboy drawled, his eyes gleaming from behind green-tinted alchemist goggles. Julia felt a flicker of admiration for how long this one was maintaining his same form. He had to be strong. “But we heard different. We also heard tell the Daydreams can enter the Wakin’ World through their Zone. If’n they can visit the other side, us Figments oughta be allowed, too!” A chorus of cheers from his compatriots backed him up.
Uneasiness stirred in the pit of Julia’s stomach. “That’s completely ridiculous. Who in the Zones gave you that idea?” she asked warily. Her eyes locked on the gun in the space-orc’s hand, and narrowed. “Was it the same person who gave you that?”
The Figment smiled nastily, standing tall and proud despite his stuck foot. “Maybe. Not that you’ll find out!” And before anyone could react, he tilted the gun up and fired one last bullet at her face.
Julia saw the bullet approaching in slow-motion, as if the Matrix had come to life. Not impossible in a place like this, she thought idly. With battle-hardened grace, the teenaged girl twisted into a backwards “C.” Karl was mid-transformation between a cow and a velociraptor – it was a good look, actually – and as the single bullet ripped a tear through the fabric of the dream-scape over his partner’s face, he back-kicked it with a thunder-clap. The bullet shattered into a billion tiny fragments of light, which quickly transformed into fireflies and flitted away.
All things considered, that was much cooler than what Julia did. She merely flipped back upright, somersaulted forward, and kicked the gun-wielding Figment in the chest. As he wobbled off-balance, the girl plunged her cotton candy sword into the ground at his feet, turning it into jello that the Figment sank into up to his neck with an undignified yelp.
Julia regained her balance, looking down at the roaring dragon-man with a mixture of disgust and pity. She had no choice now. “You have broken sacred Dream Realm law,” she intoned over the protests and curses of the three Figments. “By attacking your fellow dream beings and defying the Dream Guardian, your punishment is sure. May you find redemption and come back to the light one day,” she added quietly. That was her own addition to the official recitation, but she always prayed it would prove true someday.
With a small sigh, Julia walked up to the taffy-stuck Figments first. They cursed and screamed and brayed at her as she took her Guardian sword and, with careful precision, swung it through their chests. The Figments evaporated like the smoke of a Daydream, still raging unrepentantly.
As Julia returned to the leader and collected his illegal Guardian weapon, the Figment snarled and struggled. She studied him for a moment longer before asking in a hard voice, “Are you going to tell me where you got this? At least go to the Dark Zone in peace.”
“You won’t be Guardian much longer, Wake-Sider,” the Figment rasped, trying in vain to wriggle loose of the pink quartz that now encased him from the waist down. “He has told us so. We’ll be able to do whatever we want when you’re gone!”
“Dream on.” And with that snappy pun in play, Julia slashed the cotton candy blade across the Figment, dissolving him into smoke. The hole where the Figment had been lingered for a moment, before filling in with chicken noodle soup.
It was over. It took a few minutes to coax the skittish Daydreams back out of their hiding places, but soon the wispy little creatures were cavorting around their saviors, singing praises and morphing into little fireworks and dancing creatures. It took some time and diplomacy to extract herself and Karl from the celebratory crowd without hurting anyone’s feelings. But finally, they stood back over the active volcano, which had begun to cool and sprout waterfalls of spring flowers. Julia breathed a sigh, grateful for the quiet.
“You know, I’ve always said I did quite an excellent job choosing you.” Karl rubbed against her left side, his grizzly bear head wreathed in a self-satisfied smile.
Julia rolled her eyes, reflexively reaching out to stroke her friend’s head. “What, no regrets after all these years?”
The Dream Guide’s eyes twinkled, and he placed a paw on her wrist, right where the bracelet he had given her in a dream so long ago always rested. “Never for a moment, my dear.”
Julia blushed, and for a moment the two old friends chuckled together. But more pressing matters pulled her attention and her mood back down. “Three more perfectly good dream beings banished to the Dark Zone. Why is it always the Figments?”
Karl hopped to her shoulder in the form of a fuzzy chinchilla with unrealistically expressive features, snuggling up against her chin. “Because the Governess doesn’t pay as much attention to their work as she should, I say. But, we all make the bed we lie in.”
“Ha ha. Sleep puns.” Julia rubbed his unbelievably soft fur. Her Guardian weapon, sensing that the danger was past, vanished and reappeared on her wrist as a colorful ice cream cone bracelet. “This is more of Night Terror’s work. He’s planning something again. But where did he get a Guardian weapon?”
The snake curling comfortably around her neck hissed disapprovingly at the gun as she held it up for inspection. “I don’t know. Only Guides should be able to activate them, and only Wake-Siders should be able to use them. We’ll need to look into this.”
It was always something these days, with Night Terror up to his tricks. What she wouldn’t give for the days when being a Guardian consisted of patrolling the Zones and having silly adventures with her Dream Realm friends. A sudden wave of undreamlike tiredness hit her, and Julia sat on a large mushroom conveniently formed into the shape of a seat. “I’m getting too old for this, Karl,” she sighed, staring wistfully out over the beautiful transforming landscape. Right now, it was a stunning mountain vista, with crystal waterfalls and thunderclouds in the distance. A few Stray Thoughts flicked by in the form of leaves, then birds, then butterflies. It wasn’t always this beautiful, but the Dream Realm never ceased to amaze her.
“Nonsense, my dear,” Karl tutted. The Guide hopped down from her shoulder, and the ground beneath Julia’s feet rippled like moss floating on a lake, bumping her back up out of her mushroom seat. She wondered if he’d done that on purpose. “Now, shall we head off to conquer the forces of night’s deepest terrors?” he asked blithely, thumping his rabbit foot in a stiff tattoo on the ground.
Julia grinned. Karl always knew just how to cheer her up. “Sure. First we should…” She trailed off, sensing a soft ringing in the distance. A quick glance at her arm confirmed her suspicions: she was starting to disappear. “Looks like we’ll have to put this on hold for now. I’ve got to get up.”
Karl blew a sigh from his twitching nose as Julia’s dream form faded and her consciousness zoomed back to the Waking World. The last of his words came as a faint whisper to her ears. “You humans, always bouncing in and out. It’s a wonder such unchangeable creatures can’t seem to stay in one place for very long.”
Julia Tenaple opened her eyes, and reached an unsteady hand towards the beeping alarm clock. Her joints always ached in the morning. After a few unsuccessful attempts, she managed to hit the snooze, and slowly pulled herself up to sit on the bed.
Sweet little Lynn rushed in, her child eyes wide and frantic. She sagged against the bedposts at the sight of Julia already sitting up. “Aww, sorry, Gammie. I forgot to reset the alarm so you could sleep in.”
“It’s alright, Sweetie,” Julia said, stretching. Something popped in her back, making her grimace. “Help me up, will you?”
The little girl eagerly ran to grab Julia’s hand. As the two worked together to seesaw her onto her feet, Julia shot a quick glance at her mirror. It always helped to reassure her that she was awake for certain, especially these days. Sure enough, there was the same wrinkled face, the same white hair, the same cloudy eyes and liver spots that could only be her face in the Waking World.
“Well, I’m definitely awake,” she said with a dry chuckle. Lynn tilted her head like a curious robin, which always made Julia grin. She patted the child’s golden hair. “Try not to grow old too fast, dear, it’s no fun.”
But Lynn was already bouncing in excitement, her green eyes glowing. “So did you have any cool dreams last night? Come on, tell me, tell me!”
“Once I get dressed,” Julia laughed, sending up a grateful prayer for the child’s innocent interest.
“Once I get dressed,” Julia laughed, sending up a grateful prayer for the child’s innocent interest. She shooed her granddaughter out the door and then braced herself for the exhausting work of getting dressed.
Growing old certainly was no fun. But as the elderly woman shuffled into her clothes, she affectionately rubbed the simple golden bracelet that hadn’t left her wrist since childhood, and smiled.
At least she would never grow old in her dreams.
(You can read all of my posted short stories by clicking “Writing Shorts” in the top Menu. Thanks for reading! – Jenn H.)