And that was number six. Progression was going quite smoothly now. As she hovered in the midst of a storm Akeya considered her approach. So far the nightmares all had a single clear origin. A fear of plants. A fear of hopelessness. A fear of loss. A fear of madness. A fear of loneliness. A fear of failure. Were all dreams going to be straightforward? Would a future dream catch her off-guard, force her to spend more time figuring out what the exact cause was and how she was supposed to treat it? It was definitely possible. One thing she'd noticed that in every dream it hadn't taken very long for her to find the dreamer. Maybe that was just the nature of dreams. They centred around the dreamer, so once you were inside you couldn't escape them. If that was true then that definitely would make things easier for Akeya, as at least it meant that she wouldn't have to hunt the dreamer down.
Although of course it was possible that the dreamer didn't appear as who they were in the waking world: in your dreams and nightmares you could be something completely different. As she'd already wondered before, it was possible for the dreamer to technically be dead, but for their consciousness to still be present. Other changes were also definitely possible. A different hair colour. A different gender. A different species, even. Given that she herself was already capable of altering her shape her dreams didn't bother much with changing her appearance: if she wished to look different she'd just make it so. But every single person she'd encountered so far had appeared to be human. More or less. Humans often were stuck with the form they were born with and grew up in, so for them shapeshifting might be intriguing enough an idea that it would show up in their dreams.
Well, even if they ended up having odd shapes Akeya could hone in on their magic and emotions, so it shouldn't be too much of a problem. The only issue would be if somehow their consciousness got altered... or was already unusual to begin with. A consciousness that spread out over a large area rather than focusing on a single location? That could be a challenge.
The dragoness shook her head as she flew back towards her mountain peak. She'd picked it at random at first, but by this point she could remember it accurately enough that she could return to it every time. As a base of operations it was quite the excellent choice: it was far away from everything else so she wouldn't be bothered by any dreamers or spirits, and it gave her a good overlook on the world of dreams. It may not allow her to see everything but something was still better than nothing.
Balancing on top of the peak, two clawed feet firmly holding onto the rocks, Akeya closed her eyes as she once again searched through that familiar web of nightmares. They were clearly getting weaker, the amount of stars decreasing. There were still a few strong ones about, but she had to spend more time looking for them... Her work was bearing fruit. If she kept this up it might only require a few strong nightmares before she'd be able to locate the core of the corruption. Once she had that knowledge she could abandon all this therapy nonsense and go take care of the problem at the source. While it hadn't been as unpleasant as she'd been fearing it still wasn't her idea of a good time. People problems just weren't her thing. It mattered little to her if someone was afraid of losing their loved ones, or whatever the hell was on their mind. But here she was, practically forced to act like she cared, present to them answers to their fears as if they mattered to her. She'd get angry over it if the anger wouldn't be pointless, and if it wasn't for the fact that so far things had been going quite nicely.
Locating a nightmare star of sufficient strength Akeya spent some time studying it closely. She no longer felt like the corruption was strong enough to be a genuine threat to her own psyche, so she could afford to be a bit more thorough with her search. Like the other nightmares she'd visited the fear was strong here, but there was also a sensation of shame. Deep shame. A nightmare about embarrassment? Compared to what she'd come across so far that actually sounded rather tame. Was this really the strongest nightmare she could find? Maybe she should search a bit further so she didn't waste time on some insignificant dreamer who just was worried about being naked in public or something ridiculous like that.
Increasing the scope of her survey Akeya went from one nightmare star to another, studying the emotions that she felt radiating off of them. Fear was the one permanent factor. Other common emotions were anger, sadness, grief, loneliness (she finally figured that one out, after having been stumped by Daniel's dream before), embarrassment, panic, frustration... It was a gathering of negative emotions, with the worst one appearing the most often. Which made sense, given that people feared the worst things, and the worst things evoked the worst emotions.
Eventually she settled for a nightmare star which had a rather... interesting composition. Like the first star there was a sense of embarrassment to it, but it had a different undertone to it. The fear was also a lot sharper, if not quite as deep. The nightmare almost felt like it was panicked. Rather than dread it was something fierce, intense, but also short-lived. It might be easier to resolve such a nightmare than one which was based on a much more complicated fear.
Maybe there was a fear of clowns in there.
Keeping that nightmare in mind Akeya stepped forward, opening her eyes to find herself standing in an open field. It was... positively idyllic: the sky was bright blue, the sun was shining, there were only a few white clouds drifting about innocently. In the distance to her right there was a forest, to the left and in front of her the field expanded into farmlands. Behind her there was a ravine, but it was only two meters deep and you could easily climb out of it if you happened to fall in. It looked like a river had once been there before it dried up or got diverted. She could practically hear the birds singing in such a paradise-like setting.
Not Akeya's preferred scene. Not that it was horrible, mind you, but beyond a certain point her flowers-and-rainbows tolerance hit its limit. It might just be that she was too used to things being a bit more morally grey to appreciate what was essentially the landscape variant of pure goodness. Why, she wouldn't have been surprised if there were children frolicking about in the fields-"AAAAAAAAH!!"
...Well, that was probably the dreamer. It wouldn't be a proper nightmare if everything was nice and peaceful, after all."MAKE WAY! MAKE WAY!"
That certainly sounded a bit more forceful than the fear of abandonment. Akeya turned towards the forest, from which the screaming was coming. The voice sounded vaguely familiar, although she hadn't heard it that often. Folding her arms she tapped her foot as she waited for the dreamer to show up, her tail slowly moving from side to side behind her. Just how hard was that man screaming if she could hear him clearly but it took him so long to-
Out from the forest a man ran that Akeya... somewhat recognized. She was pretty sure that he'd been part of Onyx Moon, same as Ada, but she didn't know him well enough to identify him by appearance alone. Especially since she didn't think he looked quite the way he did back then: the horns definitely were new to her. She watched as the man, completely clad in black, ran as if his life depended on it. His speed was actually quite impressive for someone who wasn't using magic to enhance it. Magic seemed to be difficult for dreamers to use: maybe humans had trouble subconsciously registering their magic as an extension of their own selves?
Thankfully Akeya didn't have to wait too long to figure out what it was that the man was running away from. Unfortunately what it was that made him run away got her staring with open surprise and confusion, both eyebrows raised as... giant apples burst out of the treeline, chasing their prey in a manner which could only be described as very aggressive bouncing. Akeya was pretty sure apples didn't bounce like that. Of course apples also weren't two meters in diameter so maybe she was choosing the wrong thing to complain about.
Oh, and the big apples were accompanied by smaller apples. Some of the bounced, others rolled, all of them were apparently hell bent on chasing the black-clad man down. It would be terrifying, watching them pursue with such vigour, if it wasn't completely ridiculous.
The man, in the meantime, had managed to reach Akeya and had run straight past her. She actually wasn't entirely sure whether he'd even noticed her or if he'd been too focused on running for his life. Looking back at the giant apples she saw that they had strange, maw-like holes, their outer layer forming rows of jagged teeth. She didn't see anything like a digestive tract behind the mouth, so she wasn't entirely sure how they were supposed to use their mouths... but, once again, she was probably focusing on the wrong thing to complain about."...I don't think I want to stay in this dream too long."
She could handle horror, tragedy, and thriller, but silliness never really parsed well for her.
Reaching out with her hands she formed threads of dark that shot out and wrapped around the applies. Whipping them back she launched the applies high up in the air, then let go of the threads and released a barrage of light spears that launched the homicidal apples far, far away. She used enough force that they disappeared from sight before they even hit the ground. She'd hoped to perforate them, but apparently those apples were on the list of things she couldn't just destroy inside the dream. Which she wasn't very happy about, since that meant that she might have to spend more time in the dream.
Reaching behind her she grabbed the man with another dark thread and reeled him in, throwing him onto the ground before dispersing the thread and folding her arms again to look down at the man. "...Apples? Really?"
The man was breathing heavily, but his eyes widened a little when he saw Akeya. Apparently he really hadn't noticed her the first time he passed her. "Oh. Hey... Akeya, right?"
After Akeya nodded her head he pushed himself up into a sitting position, one leg stretched out and the other pulled in so he could rest an arm on the knee while he regained his breath. "Haven't seen you in a while. Actually, don't think we ever officially met.""I recognize you vaguely but I can't recall your name. I believe you were part of Onyx Moon.""The West Fiore Trading Company, at the very least. And my name is Jaeger."
The man didn't appear to be offended by Akeya not having remembered his name, instead just grinning at her. "So, how have you been handsome?""I'd rather you answered my question Jaeger."
Akeya replied, a little bit coolly. She wasn't here to make him feel bad about himself, but if she had to deal with homicidal apples because of him she wasn't in a mood to be nice.
Jaeger for his part made a face, a combination of frustration and embarrassment. "It's not my fault! I was just strolling through the woods and suddenly those apples came at me! You should have seen them!""I did see them. I got rid of them. They're far enough away now that we should be done here before they return."
Akeya narrowed her eyes. "But that's not the point of my question. My question is why, of all things on this magical planet, you'd be afraid of apples. Apples that, apparently were trying to eat you. Without having a stomach to digest you. At least Ada's dream-""Hold on, can you explain to me what you're going on about? Because I only caught half of that."
Jaeger interrupted her as he pushed himself up, standing up straight. He was the tallest of the people Akeya had helped so far, although he still came up short as he looked her in the eyes. "What was that about a dream?"
Akeya paused for a moment, then facepalmed. Launching the apples meant that Jaeger now had the peace of mind to ask her about the dream. Well, might as well explain it to him and see if he actually understood it. "This isn't Earthland. We're in the world of dreams, where a corruption is trapping people in nightmares. I'm on a job to-""Wait, the Dream Realm? Are you serious?"
Akeya blinked as suddenly Jaeger looked very enthusiastic. The dragoness stared at him for several seconds before replying. "...Yes. You know of it?""Of course I do! I mean I've heard about how beyond personal dreams there's an entire realm which can only be accessed through dreams. Are you saying this is also a dream?"
The black-clad man looked around, whistling as he saw the idyllic landscape around him. "My dream is quite nifty, huh?""It's a nightmare. You're currently stuck in it. And given that this place is practically a paradise apparently your fear of those apples is strong enough to be equivalent to someone drowning in an ocean of blood with the hands of those who killed them dragging them down under."
Akeya stated all of this flatly, without emotion. Her expression was also completely flat, although the way she looked at Jaeger made the man shuffle his feet a little."..."
Scratching the back of his head Jaeger looked away. "Look, don't judge a man for his phobias. I know it's silly but... Actually just don't tell anyone.""I can assure you that I've got no interest in talking about this. Quite frankly I'm already glad that at least one of you understands that you're trapped in a nightmare."
Akeya replied. Jaeger nodded gratefully, then placed his hands on his hips and blew out air between his front teeth. "So, if I'm trapped in here, do you have a way to get me out?""Not an easy method, unfortunately. I have to find a way to make you either overcome or forget about the fear that spawned this nightmare. So I either have to convince you that your fear of apples is completely ridiculous, or I have to make you forget about apples entirely. And given the fact that you're already aware your phobia makes no sense...""I thought we agreed not to judge me for my phobia. Way to kick a man while he's down."
Jaeger frowned at Akeya, but then dismissed it as he instead scratched his chin. "But if I'm understanding this correctly your task is to solve the nightmare. The easiest way is to make me overcome my fears... Which isn't going to work well since I already know it's an irrational fear.""Worse than that is the possibility that your awareness that this is a dream will complicate matters. All the others I've helped so far never realized that they were inside their own nightmare, so I could guide them through it. With you, however...""I'll be aware that everything you say and do is about trying to break the nightmare. Which makes me think about the nightmare and my fears."
Jaeger finished Akeya's train of thought. It wasn't exactly what the dragoness had been thinking, but it boiled down to the same thing. "As interesting as this is I'll admit that it might have been better if I wasn't aware of this.""It's not unusual that someone realizes they're in a dream but then forgets it again. With some luck the same happens for you."
Of course Akeya actually was happier having someone who was up to speed on things, but if that got in the way of solving the nightmare she might have to hope for Jaeger to forget everything again. "For now we would be better served on finding other ways to resolve the nightmare. Making you face your fears... Unfortunately an aspect of this world of dreams is that you can't actually damage anyone, so you wouldn't be able to go and destroy the apples. At least, not as long as you see them as creatures rather than, you know, food.""That's... definitely annoying. So we can't beat them... I mean I wouldn't want to fight them anyway, but it does mean we have to think of something else."
True to his word, Jaeger did not look like he was particularly upset that fighting the apples was off the table. "I'm going to guess you've already tried pinching people awake.""I sliced someone's throat and they immediately healed."
There weren't many people who could make that particular sentence sound as nonchalant and mundane as Akeya. She might as well have said "I went for a stroll in the park and fed some ducks.""...Yeah... let's not try that one again then. So you can't pinch someone awake, I can't face my fear of apples because we can't damage them... Maybe we could bring the nightmare to a conclusion?""What kind of conclusion?""Even if we can't kill-""Destroy.""Destroy the apples, yes, we could make them go away so they're no longer a part of the dream. Given that I'm aware it's a dream I should have some control over it, even if it's a nightmare.""Maybe. How familiar are you with lucid dreaming?""Not terribly. I've experienced it a couple of times but it's always accidental and often I can't do much with it. It's not often I have this level of clarity though, so I should be able to do something as long as it's not too far-fetched."
Akeya considered this. On one hand, there was no guarantee that it would work. On the other, it was the best plan they had right now. The dragoness slowly nodded. "All right, so our plan is to get rid of the apples so the fear of apples no longer anchors the nightmare. From what we saw just now I can't injure the apples but they are still affected by kinetic forces, so they can be displaced if you exert force. The easiest approach would be to put them somewhere where they can't cause any trouble.""If we launched them all into space that'd get rid of them.""I was thinking in the other direction, actually."
Akeya pointed towards the ground, her tail tapping the grass for emphasis. "How deep a hole do you think you can make?"
Jaeger followed her gaze towards the ground, then frowned and thought about her idea. "That might work. And I can make a pretty deep hole if I've got time. And given how far you launched those apples we should have more than enough time. Thanks for that, by the way.""You're welcome. Now get to digging.""Jeez, what a slavedriver..."
Jaeger commented as he stretched his arms and focused. Akeya stepped away, giving the man space to work while she kept an eye out for any malicious, ravenous, rotten, despicable, homicidal apples. The fact that apples were now something she had to watch out for really got on her nerves, but there was nothing she could do about it.
Behind her Nekros began digging a large hole, tree roots ripping chunks of dirt out of the ground and tossing them to the side. While he seemed to have trouble getting started at first he quickly sped up, a glance over her shoulder telling Akeya that he was making good progress. Within minutes the hole was deep enough that only someone with the right type of magic or serious excavation equipment would be able to climb out. "This good enough?""As deep as you can make it."
Jaeger nodded as he kept digging, more and more dirt forming mounds around the hole, the mounds turning into hills. Thankfully one of the advantages of the world of dreams was that exhaustion wasn't an issue, so Jaeger tirelessly kept going as the dirt piled up and the hole became deeper and deeper.
It was at least an hour later when Akeya began to see signs of apples on the horizon. "All right, I hope you're ready because here they come again."
Jaeger looked up in abject panic, dropping the last clod of dirt and letting it fall back into the hole. "Oh. Well, I guess the hole is deep enough so if you'll excuse me I'll let you take care of this while I go and-"
Before the man could get away Akeya used a dark thread to grab him again, lifting him into the air as she walked to the other side of the hole. "Hey! What are you doing!""Insurance."
That was the only thing Akeya said as she stood there, waiting for the apples to arrive. Jaeger struggled and cursed, but the dark thread kept him in place and nothing he threw at it managed to break it. When he tried to grab Akeya with a tree branch the dragoness glared at him with such intensity that he stopped his struggling, resigning himself to his fate. With heavy eyes he watched as in the distance the apples quickly closed the distance, their jagged maws chomping and spraying apple juice everywhere. To Akeya this was by far the silliest nightmare she'd come across so far, but for Jaeger this was terrifying. Here he was, stuck in place and unable to do anything, and there in the distance the apples came closer and closer... he could feel their malice, their desire to gobble him up. He began to wonder if Akeya was maybe a part of the nightmare, here to give him false hope and then sacrifice him to the apples. Maybe she'd been lying all along...
When the apples got close enough they all jumped over the hole, all of their hunger focused on Jaeger, Akeya completely forgotten. The hole was big enough that they needed quite a running start to cross it, but they'd been doing nothing but running and bouncing. Jaeger closed his eyes at that point, tears forming in the corners of his eyes...
And while all of that happened Akeya slammed all the apples into the hole with a hammer of solid light, straight from the sun itself. In a flash all of them were falling into the depths of the earth unable to do anything about it as Jaeger's nightmare hadn't actually given them arms or legs. They couldn't grab onto the walls of the hole, they couldn't halt their descend, they could do nothing but make strange sounds, as if pieces of apples being crunched together, as they kept falling until they faded out of sight.
Akeya waited until the last one was gone before she put Jaeger down. "Now close the hole."
Jaeger opened his eyes, clearly expecting himself to be chewed on by apples. Instead he found that the apples were nowhere to be seen, and Akeya had returned his freedom to him. "Wait. Where...""In the hole. As we planned. Now close it."
Akeya pointed towards the hole, her tail tapping the ground behind her. Jaeger looked at her, then at the hole, then nodded and quickly slammed his hands against the ground. Large tree roots burst from the walls of the pit, each of them embedding themselves in the opposite side. All of them together then pulled the hole shut, leaving nothing but smooth grassy fields. Without the apples the place was once again as idyllic as before, a paradise for people who liked things sugar-sweet. Jaeger for his part scratched his head, then looked at Akeya. "That was... rather cruel.""Yes, but now you've at least faced your fear, even if you didn't actually overcome it. And the nightmare is over and done with."
Akeya nodded towards Jaeger as he was enveloped by light. "That's the way out.""Oh. Okay then. Thanks for the help... I guess? Next time try to be a bit nicer about it though.""If your next nightmare is about something a bit more serious than apples I might consider it.""...Fair enough."
With that Jaeger was gone. Akeya watched the spot where he'd been standing for a little bit longer, then turned around and stepped back towards her mountain peak. From there she looked out over the landscape once more. The forest of water and ice had disappeared, and instead there was the traditional land of candy and snacks. In the distance a large volcano was erupting, throwing black obsidian in every direction. However where the lave hit rather than melting everything around it the land turned a sickly green, and every living thing that came into contact with it mutated and transformed.
Peering into another direction Akeya thought she could see a snowy landscape, a mighty blizzard raging about, forming claws of ice to scrape out large chunks of the ground. Beyond that there were ships flying through the air, traditional wooden ships with bold emblems on their sails.
In another direction there was a city of such size that it was a nation in and of itself, tens of thousand streams of smoke polluting the air. The city was made of metal tubes and cubes, with windows guarded by rails and little in the form of either colour or life. With her sharp eyes Akeya could see figures moving about in the streets and inside the buildings, but they were formed of metal and wire rather than flesh and blood, oil making their joints glisten. Akeya couldn't tell if that was a dream or whether those were spirits which had taken an unusual form. Thinking about it she hadn't encountered any spirits yet. Only dreamers and their nightmares. If this world was inhabited by spirits she was quite sure she'd encounter some of them before the end of this journey.
The world of dreams was a strange place, where one's imagination became rule. There appeared to be some underlying rules, but beyond those rules the dominating force wasn't gravity, or space, or anything rigid like the rules of physics that the waking world was subjected to. Even magic wasn't the dominant power here. It was all in the mind. And despite all of that what came to Akeya's mind at that moment was a single line:"He should be glad I didn't stab him a couple of times for making me put up with that."
TWC: 11,098/11,000 (Completed)
Excess WC: 98