Writing Prompt: Nightmares
The outsider arrived on an overcast day in shelter season, wrapped in furs of black and brown. A mask of blood-stained wood obscured her face, a demon visage with leering eyes and bared teeth. Metal rods ending in small balls jutted from her boot tips, thumping the ground with each measured step.
From the moment she entered Papa’s smoke-filled tavern, I couldn’t stop staring at her. She journeyed freely without servants or a husband or anyone, really, a life I’d live if not for Papa’s condition. The common room grew silent save for the woman’s boot tip rods thumping the wooden floor. A sword remained sheathed on her back.
The leering eyes on her demon mask passed over my sullen patrons, the sad fire sputtering in my hearth, and fixed on me, standing behind the beaten bar. Excitement filled me that I’d not felt for almost a year, since the last outsider arrived. That same excitement faded once he fled, babbling, down the mountain.
“My name is Kinto Kusaragi,” the woman told me, “and I’m here to kill your Nightmare Man.”
I looked to Papa, staring at nothing, and then at Will, my towheaded younger brother. Will nodded, face solemn. He could handle things while I was away. He could handle Papa if the necessity arose.
I prepared myself for another long trek up the lonely mountain, another day of listening to boasts and threats. Another bitter disappointment. “Very well then. Let me get my coat.”
* * *
There was no delay once Kinto Kusaragi stated her purpose – this was not, I suspected, a woman who tolerated delay – so we set out together despite the overcast sky. For those who still lived in Stone Hamlet, a blizzard was the least of our worries. We had thick furs, sturdy homes, and sturdy hearths, and enough salted meat and porridge to last through the winter. What we did not have is sleep.
Our waking lives were repetitive, exhausting slogs through necessities and chores. We put off sleep for as long as we could, fighting exhaustion until we couldn’t. Some of us, like my poor Papa, had lost themselves entirely in the visions that raced down the mountain every night.
It was the Nightmare Man who shoved those horrors into our heads, who sent the things that drove us awake, screaming, and suckled on our fear. Worse yet, once you’d suffered through enough gifts from the Nightmare Man, waking just continued the dream. That was why Papa stared.
“Tell me of your village,” Kinto said, as she followed me up a narrow mountain path of packed dirt bordered by rocks and scrub. “Tell me of your life here, before and after. I wish to know everything.” The bulk of the lonely mountain towered over us, jagged edges and snow-capped peaks.
The last outsider to answer Mayor Rollin’s plea for aid, a big dark-skinned man with his huge axe and clinking mail, had asked nothing as I led him up the path. He had called himself Rourke the Crusher, a hero of great importance, and a lonely tavern keeper like me was beneath him.
Kinto was different, interested, so I told her of how things had been before the Nightmare Man came. Of the festivals and dances we used to hold during Harvest Months, the chalk art my mother made before she died. I told her how the nightmares drove Mayor Rollin insane, how Lady Rollin grew mad with grief and fear and ended her children before ending herself. I told her the names of those who fled or died.
I told Kinto of my Papa before he lost his mind to fear, the way he could stop a brewing fight with a stern glare and set a room to laughing with a single bawdy joke. The way he treated me and Will the same, always. None dared question a woman working behind a bar, not in front of it, while Papa watched.
Papa protected me until he couldn’t, and I was determined to protect him too. That’s why I remained in Stone Hamlet despite the horrors that ripped me apart in nightmares every night. That’s why I risked my sanity and safety despite my urgent desire to do anything but run a tavern and tend a bar.
As we ascended Kinto mirrored my every step, metal bars thumping, along with her boots, into the snowy imprints of mine. Odd behavior, but I put it off to paranoia about traps. Perhaps I was not so friendly as I claimed, or in league with the Nightmare Man. A woman who fought demons would not survive without being cautious.
We found the Nightmare Man’s two-story cabin at the end of the mountain path, the one so many of my people trudged up and down every day. The smell of bags of rotting fruit was awful, gifts our sheltered tormentor ignored as he often ignored us. Bribes and pleas.
These desperate attempts by the people of Stone Hamlet’s to purchase even one night’s uninterrupted sleep were as unimportant to the Nightmare Man as we were. Our screams and our terror kept him fed, not these rotting sacks of fruit, and he took that gift whenever he wished. What need had he of fruit?
“Close your eyes, child,” Kinto said softly, and I complied. The way she called me child was not dismissive – it felt protective, even – and I had no desire to witness the horrors that sent Rourke the Crusher fleeing down the mountain. I was willful, but I was no trained fighter. I could only get in her way.
“Palor Sellius!” Kinto’s voice thundered up the path. “Your time here is at an end! Leave, or die!”
Nothing from the cabin. Nothing but silence on the wind. Then the sound of the Nightmare Man’s mad laughter, echoing off the rising walls of the mountain path and digging into my ears. His laughter was the worst of it – the glee he took in driving us slowly insane – and I bared my teeth and clenched my fists. Yet despite my closed eyes, my endless shudders, I would not turn and run. Not until Kinto ran too.
“Leave!” Kinto thundered. “Or die!” And though my eyes were closed, the ring of her sword leaving its sheath came so clearly I could practically see the blade glistening in the fading sun. Red as blood.
“Fool of a woman.” I heard a door open and the Nightmare Man’s heavy footfalls as he stumbled out. I pictured a wheezing man grown fat on the nectar of our nightmares, and what bribes he deigned to eat. “You really wish to lose your mind?” And with that, a monstrous scream chilled my blood.
“Pathetic,” Kinto replied, and I heard those metal bars clanging forward. “Anything else?”
For the first time in a long time, I dared hope. I did not know what had produced that roar – I dared not look, for fear of losing my sanity – but that roar had driven Rourke the Crusher back down the mountain, hollering at the top of his lungs. Evidently, Kinto Kusaragi was made of sterner stuff.
“Unexpected,” the Nightmare Man whispered, excitement twisting his words. “Face this!”
A mournful keening set my muscles rigid and brought sweat to my sides. Yet Kinto strode on, metal balls thunking in the dirt, and I heard his wooden stoop creak as the Nightmare Man stepped back.
“Impossible,” he said, and I heard the first hint of real fear. I wondered if he had forgotten what fear was like as he lived in his cabin all these years, ruthlessly inflicting terrors on my people. “No! Get back!”
A roar arose that stole my ability to think. I could not imagine what sort of horror had made it, what sort of horror Kinto Kusaragi must be confronting with her glistening sword, but I did not hear her run.
“You cannot frighten me, Sellius,” Kinto told him, and then I heard a meaty thunk and the Nightmare Man’s gurgling. “Go in peace.”
I opened my eyes – I had no choice but to open my eyes, hearing those impossible words – and found Kinto withdrawing her bloody blade from the middle of the Nightmare Man’s chest. He collapsed, eyes wide and words slurred, as blood spread around him like a stuck pig. His nightmare power was broken.
I stared at the man dying on his stoop. “How?” I stared at the woman who ignored a horde of horrors to murder him. “How did he not terrify you?”
One of Kinto’s hands rose to her wooden demon mask. She removed it to reveal the weathered, golden face of a woman about Papa’s age, a woman whose milky white eyes stared at nothing. She was as blind as I was when I squeezed my eyes shut, guided only by her metal rods and her sharp ears.
“We all have our gifts,” Kinto said, a satisfied smile spreading across her face. “Mine is killing rogue illusionists.”
About the Story:
This contest’s theme, “Nightmares”, obviously lends itself to stories with a darker bent, and initially, I pondered going right down the horror route. However, while brainstorming ideas, I ended up randomly coming up with the idea of a “Nightmare Man”, which then sent me down all sort of thought experiments as to what a Nightmare Man would be.
This story flowed naturally from there, coming together very quickly.
photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/25045966@N05/2381835393″>Kabuki Mask – Noh , Oni(Hannya)</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>(license)</a>