Jackle leaned back in the throne with a happy sigh. Ever since Reala's oh so unfortunate demise, he had considered himself the ruler of the Dream Realm, even though nobody else thought he was qualified for the job. So far he had managed to keep the other First Level Nightmaren from taking the position he himself had taken, but things were always in a state of flux here in Nightmare...
“And what gives YOU the right to sit there?” Puffy demanded in her deep operatic voice.
Jackal let out a high-pitched cackle. “C’mon, Puff-Ball, I've told you before...with Wiseman gone and Reala out of the picture, I’m number one Maren around here.” He smiled wickedly. “It’s my turn to rule!”
“Jackle…” A soft voice boomed, seeming to echo off the furthest reaches of Nightmare. “You couldn’t rule a straight line with a set square.”
“Who dares mock the great Jackle?” The caped Maren growled.
“I do!” The statement was made with such force that it threw Jackle back into his seat.
Jackle looked up, and if he had possessed a face behind his smile it would have paled as he took in the imposing form of his Lord and Master.
“Wiseman?” He squeaked. “I…ah…I was just keeping the seat warm for ya, Boss…” He leapt up and began dusting the cushions with his cape, all the time smiling timidly at the towering being before him.
Wiseman simply swatted him aside and retook his throne. “Now then…” he addressed his gathered Nightmaren. “What has happened in my absence?” He turned his attention directly towards Jackle. “And how exactly did Reala come to be…out of the picture?”
“NiGHTS and those two kids took him down, big time!” Jackle informed him, making a thumbs down gesture with both of his disembodied hands to emphasis his point. “Stripes ain’t been heard from since.”
Wiseman drummed the fingers of one of his massive hands on the arm of his throne. “Hmmmm…pity…but, no point crying over him…I’m sure he wouldn’t do so for any of you…And what of the renegade…NiGHTS?”
“He’s still a pain in the patolla, Boss.” Jackle piped up. “Been runnin’ hits on us…taking out some of our smaller Maren…”
“And what have you been doing in your efforts to stop him?”
“Well…uh…we…that is…” Jackle stammered.
“Nothing…” Wiseman finished for the rather meek looking Maren. “I’m not surprised…you never were much of a thinker…but tell me…what is NiGHTS weakness…?”
“Uh…” Jackle thought. “That stupid looking hat?”
“No you idiot!” Wiseman roared. “The fool cares! He cares for those blasted dreamers…put them in danger, and he’ll come to us like a lamb to the slaughter…”
One of his hands drifted in between its owner and his minions. The image in the eye at its centre changed to show the face of a pretty young girl…one of the perfect dreamers…Claris Sinclair…
“We will strike at his weakest link…” Wiseman smiled.
“What makes her the weakest?” Puffy huffed. Why did males always consider females to be weaker?
“NiGHTS always was a sucker for a pretty face.”
Claris nodded over her chemistry book. Studying for her finals sure was a pain, especially when it was for something as boring as chemistry.
Now music…she’d aced that without even opening a book.
‘Maybe if I just close my eyes for a little bit…’ she reasoned as her head hit the desk.
She never realised just what a mistake she was making.
The first thing Roger Wilkeau noticed as he walked into the food court at Twin Seeds Mall was Elliot Edwards…seating quietly, his back towards him. There was a time, not so long ago, that Roger wouldn’t have been able to resist his rival in such a vulnerable position. But that was before his run-in with the inhabitants of Nightmare…and one inhabitant in particular…
Afterwards, he had become friends with Elliot and his ‘girlfriend’, Claris. So he approached with a friendly attitude, sliding into the seat opposite with a big grin.
“How ya doing, Smelliot?”
Well, he hadn’t changed that much…
The grin faded as Elliot surveyed him with sorrow-filled eyes.
“Jeez, what happened? You lose your best friend or something?”
“Claris is in a coma.” He said it a flat emotionless voice.
Roger frowned with concern. “What happened?”
“That’s just the thing,” Elliot sighed. “Nothing happened to her…it’s like she went to sleep…and can’t remember how to wake up…”
Roger raised a brow. “You think old chalk-face is behind it?” He asked quietly.
“I don’t know…” Elliot frowned. “You know him better than me…”
“Oh, great, bring that up…” Roger mumbled. He considered things for a while. “No…” he said finally. “It’s not his style…he’s not so…sneaky…”
“Besides…” Elliot added. “I think he’s dead…or as dead as a Nightmaren can get…”
“Guess we’ll take it up with the harlequin tonight…”
It never took Elliot very long to locate NiGHTS once he fell asleep. The renegade Nightmaren had taken a real shine to him, and to Claris…appointing himself their guardian whenever they entered the land of dreams. Though, in truth, NiGHTS wasn’t technically a ‘him’, or a ‘her’ for that matter, Elliot just found it easier to assign the sleek creature a gender.
“Elliot!” A voice cried happily. It wasn’t NiGHTS, but Elliot thought, it was still good to see his Nightopian friend.
“How ya doin’, Snuze?” Elliot smiled as the Pian began circling his head.
“Not so good, Bud.” The angel-like creature admitted. “There’s some major rumblings over in Nightmare…NiGHTS and Napp have gone to check it out…”
“Rumblings?” Elliot echoed. “What kind of rumblings?”
“The worst kind, I am afraid…” A light voice called from above. The pair looked up as the afore mentioned NiGHTS and his Mepian companion descended from the clear blue sky.
NiGHTS wide violet eyes were full of unspoken dread as he informed them…
“Wiseman has returned.”
“Are you sure?” Elliot questioned, feeling his own trepidation beginning to rise.
“Saw him with our own four eyes…” Napp said.
NiGHTS frowned, or as close to a frown as he could manage. “Is something amiss, Elliot?”
“Claris is really sick…and now…with Wiseman’s return…I think he may be responsible.”
“Then let us find out.” NiGHTS said, offering Elliot his hand.
“How.” Elliot asked as he felt the familiar swirl of energy that preceded his merger with the strange dream creature.
“We will go and ask him…”
Snuze and Napp exchanged a glance as NiGHTS/Elliot took to the sky, then quickly followed.
“WISEMAN!” NiGHTS bellowed as he tore into his former master’s throne room.
“Oh, don’t bother asking for an audience, NiGHTS…” Wiseman drolled. “After all, we’re such GOOD friends.”
“Can it creep.” Elliot’s voice hissed through NiGHTS’ mouth. “What have you done with her?”
Wiseman smiled as he brought his hands closer around the violet clad Nightmaren. NiGHTS’ eyes flicked quickly left and right, making note of all possible escape vectors.
“Wouldn’t you like to know…?” Jackle cackled as he moved in.
“If you’ve hurt her…” Elliot snarled.
“My dear boy…” Wiseman smiled. “I haven’t laid a finger on her…though I can’t vouch for the beings in…well…where she is…”
NiGHTS stiffened. “What have you done with her?” He demanded.
“I knew it would bring you to me.” Wiseman gloated, ignoring NiGHTS’ demand. “You see, I have an offer for you…”
NiGHTS glowered at him. “What kind of…offer?”
“Well it seems Reala’s gone and gotten himself lost…truth is, we don’t know where he is…” Wiseman gestured to his side, where his right-hand-henchbeing usually stood. “I need a replacement.”
“You’re out of your mind…” Elliot’s voice growled. “If you think…”
Wiseman held up a finger to silence him. “In return…I will tell you where the girl is…”
Wiseman chuckled at the look on NiGHTS’ face. “Oh, you don’t have to make your decision right now…she’s safe for the moment…but…for how long…think about it…” He waved them off. “Jackle…show our…GUEST…out…”
“Sure thing, Boss.”
“Still licking boots, huh, Jack-Ass?” Elliot smirked as the caped Nightmaren fell into step beside them.
“You wouldn’t be so smug if you weren’t hidin’ inside old fancy pants here…”
“You can’t let Wiseman get his claws into you again.” Snuze said.
“But I cannot sacrifice Claris…” NiGHTS moaned. “I do not know what to do…”
“Have you guys got any ideas where she might be?” Elliot looked to his small friends. “Has he got her holed up in Nightmare somewhere?”
“No.” NiGHTS shook his head. “I can sense when you are near…I cannot sense her at all…”
“Maybe he’s bluffing?” Elliot suggested.
“Wiseman does not bluff.” NiGHTS said quietly. “Besides, you have already said that she is ill. She is in trouble…and it seems that this is our only option.”
“It’s almost time for me to wake up…” Elliot sighed as he looked at his watch. “Don’t do anything crazy before I get back.”
NiGHTS looked at him with wide eyes.
“Promise me!” Elliot demanded.
“I promise I will not do anything crazy before you return.” NiGHTS said, placing a hand over the crystal on his chest.
“And that includes excepting Wiseman’s offer…” Elliot said as his form faded from Nightopia as he returned to the waking world.
Claris hugged her knees to her chest. For weeks now she’d been in this horrible place…and she had no idea where it was…
“I wanna go home…” She sobbed to herself. “Even Nightmare would be better than this…at least there I could wake up…”
“Be careful what you wish for…Claris Sinclair.”
She looked up, frightened by the sudden voice. An amorphous being hovered before her, glowing softly with its own light. It resembled a fairy, its large gossamer wings creating a gentle breeze. Its delicate face and large dark eyes reminded her of NiGHTS. It brought her little comfort.
“Who are you?” Claris asked softly, amazed that such a beautiful creature could reside in such an awful place.
“I am Yume.” The creature smiled. “Do not be afraid. There is nothing here that will harm you.”
Claris looked around her, peering into the surrounding gloom. She found Yume’s words hard to accept.
“What IS this place?” She asked.
“Where dreams go to die.” A second voice answered.
She almost jumped. She hadn’t noticed the other being, but that could easily be forgiven. Dressed entirely in form fitting dull black armour, it blended perfectly with the darkness that surrounded it. Only a pair of softly glowing red eyes betrayed its location.
“Kuraido!” Yume scolded. “Do not mind him, child. Kuraido is not what you would call a ‘people person’…but I assure you…he is perfectly harmless…”
Kuraido let out a quick snort.
“So long as you do not cross him…” Yume said as she shot the silent creature a sharp look. “He will not harm you though, right, Kuraido?”
Kuraido stepped forward to examine Claris more closely, and in doing so gave her the opportunity to see him more clearly. He was tall and lean, with rather impressively built shoulders. A dark helmet fit snugly over his head so she couldn’t make out his features. A heavy length of loosely braided hair, also black, fell down his back. If Yume was a stereotypical fairy, then Kuraido was all but a stereotypical knight in shining armour…
Well, knight in dull black armour, anyway…
“She has nothing to fear from me.” He said softly. He turned his attention to Yume. “She has what we need…”
Claris looked up, frightened by this comment.
“Relax, child.” Yume soothed. “He only means that you have what we require to escape this place.”
“You are a perfect dreamer, are you not?” Kuraido asked.
“You need dream energy?” Claris enquired. “But I gave up the red energy to save my friend…”
“It is not courage that I require.” Kuraido interrupted her. “That I have in abundance…it is the yellow Ideya I require.”
“Yellow?” Claris echoed.
“The Ideya of hope.” Yume told her. “Kuraido has the strength, the courage and the agility to run the gauntlet…but he lost his hope an eternity ago…” Yume looked sadly at the silent Kuraido. If he reacted at all Claris couldn’t tell.
“What…gauntlet?” She asked nervously.
“We are trapped…” Yume said, “Between dream and waking…the gauntlet links this world to the dream world…which in turn is linked to the waking world…running the gauntlet is the only way to reach either one.”
“It’s our only way out?” Claris surmised.
“Yes.” Yume confirmed.
Kuraido was studying her. He walked over and presented his back to her. “Put your arms around my neck.” He commanded.
“I beg your pardon?” Claris was a little taken aback by his order.
“If I am to run the gauntlet and take you with me I must become accustomed to the extra weight.” He explained, flipping his thick braid over his should so she could get a better grip.
“Oh…” She did as she was told. Kuraido seemed to bare his burden easily, with no complaint.
“This way…” Yume said as she flittered off.
Claris screamed as Kuraido took to the air to follow her. “Just hold on.” He said.
“Sorry…” she said, a little embarrassed. “I didn’t realise that you could fly…”
“All dream creatures can fly.” Kuraido said simply.
“You’re a dream creature?”
“I was…” he admitted. “Long ago…” For the first time Claris could hear inflection in his voice…sadness and regret…
“So how did you end up here?” She asked. She could tell by the sudden tenseness in his body that she’d asked the wrong question. “I’m sorry…” she whispered. “I didn’t mean to offend you.”
“It is all right.” He said finally. “It is just not something I like to think about…”
“I can imagine…” She said.
They came to a sudden stop. Claris could feel a sudden, and very powerful wind pull at her from every direction.
“The gauntlet!” Yume announced, shouting to be heard over the howl of the wind.
Claris stared wide-eyed into the gaping maw of what could be described as a tornado. Great balls of ice and fire danced in the wind currents. Colossal rocks, huge as houses were tossed about as if they were nothing.
“We’re going through THERE?!” She gasped, in genuine fear of her life.
She was startled when she heard Kuraido chuckle. “Just hang on and leave the driving to me.”
“Be careful.” Yume said as she drifted over to the pair.
“You’re not coming?” Claris asked.
“I cannot.” She smiled sadly. “I am Guardian of this place…you and Kuraido are not its only inhabitants.” She turned her attention to the dark clad creature. “Be well, Kuraido.” She said to him, her voice breaking as she wrapped her arms around him. “Heed that which you have learned.”
“I will, Yume.” He replied softly. “I will not forget you…”
“Nor I you, my child…”
Kuraido drifted towards the void’s opening. He felt Claris’ arms tighten. As an added precaution, she also wrapped her legs around his slender waist.
“It may serve you well to close your eyes.” He said as he leapt into the maw. “It is going to be a bumpy ride.”
Claris screamed and took his advice as she felt the winds howl about them. She could feel the sudden heat or cold as they passed, she assumed, closely by the fiery or icy balls. Kuraido’s quick twists and turns were threatening to make her ill.
She heard him let out a delighted laugh. He was actually enjoying it! She had to admit, it was much like a roller coaster ride. A dizzying adrenalin rush that left you reeling.
Suddenly the winds abated. Kuraido slowed to an almost complete stop. She dared open her eyes. She smiled as below them she saw the snow capped mountains of Frozen Bell.
Kuraido just let the gentle breeze carry them. She couldn’t see his face of course, but she could guess how he must be feeling.
“YAHOOOOO!!!” He suddenly cried at the top of his lungs. He went into a nosedive, heading straight for the ground.
Claris screamed anew, calming as he levelled out about a meter above the ground. He twisted slightly, grabbing a handful of snow, which he tossed into the air just to see it scatter.
He tore into the trees of Mystic Forest at full speed, weaving easily amongst the massive trunks. Nightopians scattered at his sudden intrusion, cursing in his wake.
He skimmed the water at Splash Gardens, bounced off the architecture of Soft Museum, finally coming to a gentle landing in the rolling fields of Spring Valley.
He lowered her gently, then spun wildly in a dizzying pirouette. She smiled at his obvious joy. “It is SO good to be home!” Then he picked her up again, hugging her tightly.
“Thank you. Thank You. THANK YOU!” He cried happily. “I could never have gotten back without you.”
“You’re very welcome.” She smiled. “And thank YOU…I couldn’t have gotten back without you.”
He shook her hand as he deposited her back on the ground. “Then I guess we are even.”
“I guess we are…” She looked around. “What happens now?”
“You wake up.” He shrugged. “But remember…time passes differently in the waking world…you probably have not been gone for nearly as long as you think…”
“Will…” She paused. “Will I ever see you again?”
He paused, seemingly taken aback by her question. “You…wish to?”
“Of course!” She said brightly. “The dream world can be a scary place…it never hurts to have friends.”
“No…” He nodded. “It does not…”
“And I have to introduce you to NiGHTS…he’ll be so happy to meet you…and Elliot…and Napp and Snuze…and Roger…I guess…” Kuraido seemed overwhelmed. “I guess you’ve been pretty much on your own for a while, huh? Better take it slow…”
Kuraido nodded. “Yes.” He agreed. “Slow is good…”
“Meet me here tonight?” She asked.
“If that is your wish.” He bowed gracefully as she began to fade, her body waking in the real world.
Kuraido glanced around a little nervously.
“What have I gotten myself into?” He wondered aloud.
Claris moaned and opened her eyes. She gasped when she found she wasn’t in her own bed, but in the antiseptic surrounds of Twin Seeds General Hospital.
“Mom?” She asked, turning to the woman who sat by her bedside.
“Oh, Claris!” Mrs Sinclair threw her arms around her daughter. “You had us scared to death!”
“Why am I in the hospital?” She asked nervously.
“The doctors believe you had a transient ischaemic attack…”
“It’s like a mini-stroke…there was a blockage of blood supply to your brain…but you’re going to be okay…there’s no damage…you just went to sleep for a while…”
“Can I go home now?” She asked.
“I’ll check with the doctors, sweetheart.”
“It will be so good to be home…”