It was dream logic. But the thing about dream logic is you never know that's what it is until you're awake. Or lucid. Malina was neither.
Because she was being chased, she ran. The entity chasing her wasn't one she'd yet seen, only felt. It might not have been there at all except for intimate dream-knowledge that told Malina it was there and was hunting her, getting closer with every breath. There was nothing to do but flee or die trying. In an abyss populated by herself and countless trembling, handless fingers, Malina heard the hollow plod of her own footfalls as if she were running across the stretched leather surface of a drum. She wasn't on fire but felt the heat in her veins, superfast searing pulses to match her heartbeat as the thing chasing her hastened its pursuit. It was fast, faster than her and she knew it. She felt it getting bigger behind her the closer it rushed, and with that dream-knowledge came a cognitive impression of its maw gone wide, eager to engulf.
They say if you die in a dream you wake up in the real world, but that's not the sort of thing a nightmare allows you to remember. In dreams, all is real. That's the true threat of nightmares. They rob the dreamers of their sanity. Malina had no way of remembering she wasn't in physical danger—setting all spiritual dangers aside—and in her terror, the dreamscape morphed from one kind of scenery to the next to the next in a haphazard conglomeration of memory and metaphor.
The sides of the abyss grew into crimson trees, the trembling fingers along the path congealing into fleshy brambles that tangled underfoot. The nails scraped Malina's ankles, clumsy as they drained her blood. She tripped but kept her feet, fighting an urge to glance behind her to see the thing chasing her for what it was. The trees' sap turned to blood and their bark morphed into her red high school locker hallway, more fingers waggling out at her—longer now, with nails sharp as talons—from the slats below each number, so it seemed there might be people trapped inside, forever cramped between the rusty metal, shoved there by some bully or another, never to escape. A lurch of her own heart took her to the sticky, gummed-up hallway floor. Like most schools, the end of the hall ended in a double door. It banged three times then burst open, the thing that chased her slamming through, but Malina couldn't bear to see what the chaser was. Dream logic told her it was dangerous to look, so she scrambled away, climbing the dreamscape that had once again transformed. The lockers and their fingers tilted and grew tall, as if made of putty that someone had begun to stretch. This lengthening molded itself into a new shape, which she ran along but couldn't place as anything coherent. Mostly, it was tight and full of embers.
Abruptly, but inexplicably expectedly, she gained a companion, a blue lady who appeared in that way of dreams as if the change, once changed, had always been there. Reason didn't bother interrupting. In dreams, there's no reason except the spontaneous familiar. Besides blue skin, this new dream lady had purple hair and crimson eyes, and she jogged out of sync with Malina as if caught in a time bubble of her own, waggling her fingers in a friendly but unsettling approximation of the previous finger laden scenery. She appeared unbothered that Malina was running for her life. With the cheerful way this blue lady kept up, maybe she wasn't running the same track as Malina in more than just the temporal sense. The blue lady didn't seem bothered by anything.
"Y'know," said the blue lady. "Times like these it's good to call for help."
"Help," panted Malina.
"My bad, not from me. Akki's better at helping dreamers. Just gotta scream loud enough for her to hear. Call her name three times oughtta work. Crystal once told me there's power in the number three."
Malina had been running so long and so hard she felt rubbery and warbled, as if she were the dying note of a pitchy song played through a discorded instrument. She clung onto the thinnest final thread of her sanity as dread shimmied between the discs of her spine, but something about Akki's name resonated with her, ignited a second wind she was sure wouldn't come until the moment it rose up from within. Call for Akki. Worth a shot. At this point, anything was worth a shot if it got the chaser to stop hunting her. If it got her out of here, wherever here was. All that was around were dwindling fires. Ash and cracked wood underfoot. Dream-knowledge corrected her. Not cracked wood. Singed finger bones.
"Deep breath!" The blue lady pumped a fist in the air, slow from the time distortion even though her voice was the right pace, practically cheering her words. "Fill your lungs!"
Malina wheezed as much air as she could. It hurt.
"Now scream so loud it crosses through dreams!"
"Akki!" Malina screamed, and it was the scream of the truly desperate, that full body lung burning pitch high in the chest that boils the throat. "Akki! Akki!" The sound crossed the dreamscape, past the fingers through the abyss beyond the chaser over the murk, where it found its recipient: a fair woman with long, billowing hair and a marred neck that wove into view as she spun to face the scream. She smiled through the distance at Malina, who up until that point hadn't questioned how she'd seen where her voice went instead of heard it, nor why the mysterious (but friendly!) blue lady had made an appearance inside the intimate space of what Malina now understood was her own dream. The image of the blonde woman faded, and Malina was back to her retreat through the embers.
The knowledge that this was a dream banished some of the fear, but not all of it. Malina didn't know how to control what was happening or wake herself up, and the panic was too visceral for a single image to vanquish.
Seeming to sense her role in this was over, the blue lady smiled wide—her teeth were sharper than a human's but white and well cared for, which Malina didn't know how she felt about—and wished Malina good luck, then vanished as if she'd never been there. Somehow, her exit left the impression of a dragonfly. Dream nonsense.
Everything twisted. The embers died. Dream-knowledge informed Malina that knowing this was a dream didn't make it a safer place. It made it more dangerous. More real. The chaser raced at her faster, as if it were now on a time crunch, as if its previous pursuit had been a stroll for leisure. Malina didn't want to know what it might do if it caught her, so she kept on running. Exhaustedly.
It was going to catch her it was catching her it was right there reaching for her shoulder she could feel its hollow presence brush her spine—
The blonde woman ran beside her in the same manner the blue lady had before. Abruptly there. This close, shoulder to shoulder and with the exaggerated focus of the mind in a dream, Malina got a better look at her. She was tall and carried a sword at her hip in a straight, simple sheath. The hilt of the sword seemed to Malina as if it were the wrist attached to a dragon's claw. Though, with dreams being what they were, who knew where that imagery came from? The hilt appeared otherwise ordinary. The woman's hair was absurdly long, flowing out behind her, and not so much blonde now as wispy in the way it caught the ever-changing light of the dreamscape. Unlike the blue lady, this woman matched Malina's temporal pace with graceful strides. Her being there blocked the chaser.
Malina didn't know if that effect would be temporary. Residually afraid, she sprinted to widen the distance between them and the chaser. The woman kept up and never seemed to tire.
Past the dead embers, the dream had become another chasm. It was darker now, and the bleeding shadows wrapped around the woman's throat in an ephemeral lattice pattern, as if her flesh were being eaten away in a ring. It gave the illusion—or maybe not an illusion at all—that her head was being separated from her body one strip of muscle at a time. The woman's eyes were a complete, mirrored silver. She had no whites and barely the impression of a pupil. It was like staring into a pool, a silvery alien pool with a single dot of dark life there in the depths, lying in wait and unreadable. The paleness of her skin and hair made the dark of her neck and the shimmer of her eyes more pronounced.
"Greetings." The woman's soft voice echoed through the dream as Malina's scream had done before. "I am Akki, Slayer of Nightmares. Where is your nightmare?"
"Ah." Akki glanced back, the movement so fluid it was impossible to look anywhere else. "Being chased. A common nightmare. Is it recurrent?"
Fatigue washed over Malina. Dizzy, she dropped to all fours, chest pinching with every gasp. She was back where the dream started. A patch of fingers wrapped tenderly around her joints, worming their way across her flesh. She and Akki had run in a circle. What if the whole dream was a circle? What if there was no way out?
We're in my dream, right? No matter where you are, you can't escape yourself.
Akki faced the chaser. Angry red light washed past her and cast Malina in throes of retreating shadow. Under the flickering light, the fingers took on a sickly pinkish hue, the unready, yellowy color of skin that a scab reveals when it's picked too early.
There was a need, an urgency to get back up and run, but no energy to perform it.
"May I ask a personal question?" asked Akki pleasantly. She stood in a warrior's stance between Malina and the nightmare and drew her sword.
The blade was black. As it slipped from its sheath, eagerness rippled out from the edge, a craving for the elegant motion of slashes through threats. It didn't so much want to protect its wielder as murder whatever malignance crossed her path. Malina didn't know how she knew this, but she knew it in her core, the same way she knew the sky was blue or that stars were bright. It wasn't dream-knowledge because it wasn't the kind of knowledge that came from one singular person. I was right. It is a dragon's claw. From an actual dragon! "Q-question?"
"My question is this." Akki's hair flowed to the side to reveal a knot of flesh keeping her head attached to the rest of her. A literal knot. With a grotesque, rotten bow. "In the waking world, do you run from or toward?"
"From or toward what?"
"This nightmare arises when a person's focus is split between past and future."
The nightmare, unable to get around Akki, took form. Malina willed herself to see it for what it was. Composed of malice and passion and red desperation, the physical traits of its form were indecipherable. Maybe it didn't have physical traits. The lack of body did nothing to alleviate Malina's disquiet of it. The cluster of fingers clamped tighter on her, catapulting her heart into triple time. Dreams aren't physical. Are they?
"What happens in the dreamscape does affect one physically," said Akki as if Malina's thoughts had been verbal. "But you're the dreamer. You have power here, just as you have power in the waking world. What scares you about being chased?"
"Everything! Everyone's afraid of being chased."
"Untrue." Akki smirked and flicked her wrist. When her blade slashed into the formless form, glee ricocheted off the edge where the nightmare met its slice. "Some enjoy the thrill."
The nightmare shrieked, growing a beak and talons, and its transformation made clear the origins of the red, wavering light. This nightmare was a phoenix, born of contempt that burned inside its hollow bones and bitterness that set aflame its feathers.
Akki pointed the blade's tip at the nightmare, never looking down on Malina, which meant never looking behind herself.
"If only," screamed the nightmare, its voice a deafening shrill, the sound of a tortured beast forever recycling itself into a new-old orbit of regrets, as it lashed with beak and talon and fiery wing. "If only I wasn't there!"
Akki parried every attack with ease, be it from talon, beak, or flame. Either she couldn't or wouldn't silence the screams.
"If only my life started better!"
Akki stood against it, blocking. She gave no ground. Her sword ate up every attack meant for Malina, even the heat. All but the words themselves.
"If only I'd been somewhere else," gibbered Malina, harmonizing with the nightmare. As the fingers wriggled, so did hers. Her lips moved by themselves, forming words with no thought but fearful compulsion. "If only I weren't me."
"If only I weren't!"
"No matter where you are," whispered Malina. "You can't escape who you are." These sentiments, now emerging from herself, tore into the dreamscape. Shattered glass breaks in the blackness pierced into painful relief in impossible spaces around her, some midair, some overlapping. More fingers curled out from each crevice. "Why didn't I have better circumstances? Why'd I get caught in such awful situations? It's not fair! Unless I'm the one who's broken. I was there for every gander, every bad turn. Every touch. Each locker. Those mistakes could've only been mine. Right?"
"You're right," said Akki. "But for the wrong reason."
Alongside the nightmare's shrieks, Malina's monologue dissipated. She realized that at some point her own voice had replaced the nightmare's. When both stopped, the fingers squirmed in silence, but the nightmare kept up its onslaught—though eerily soundless now—and Akki kept up her relentless defense, asking nothing in return.
Her blade sundered feather after feather, but they always rekindled after their demise.
Until they couldn't anymore.
Then the entire dreamscape halted, all except Akki, who finally turned to look at Malina with an expectance in her composure that both unnerved and annoyed. The fingers peeled more splinters into the edges of their cracks.
"The blue lady told me you'd help," said Malina.
"Did she?" Akki's expression warmed.
Malina became offended in a way that felt righteous, and her voice went shrill. "But you're no help at all."
Akki glanced at the suspended nightmare and sheathed her sword. "Am I not?"
"No. You're judging."
"Would you prefer I left?"
Malina dug her nails into her scalp.
"It's your choice. The choice is always the dreamer's. You have the most power here."
"You heard my unfiltered thoughts," said Malina. "I'm not the kind of person who has any power. Not even over myself."
"Everyone has power over themselves."
"Then how come no matter how far I run I end up in the same sort of place?"
"If I may?" Akki bent forward in a tiny but formal bow. "Perhaps because you never sought a different place. Rumination is its own sort of unyielding pursuit. Nightmares tend to reflect their dreamers."
Malina gulped, wrangled free of the fingers and studied the monstrosity that was her nightmare. The more she looked, the more she saw. Feathers that smoldered on matchstick, translucent bones. The phoenix was thinner than on first impression. Most of its form had been its fire. Its beak shined with scars from boring into resistant memory. Its deep-set eyes weren't hollow so much as blinded by willful distraction. This reflects me? Understanding this beast was addictively magnetic.
"I see resilience." Akki cast her gaze over the bundles of fingers. Then, as if appreciating the finer details of Malina's dreamscape, Akki twirled in a slow circle. She even glossed her hand across an empty, midair crack. "If you forget what lies behind, what might lie ahead?"
"I don't know."
Malina awoke sweaty and panting, her sheets ripped halfway off her bed in a tangle that bound her ankles, and a single thought reverberated through her mind.
Run not from, but toward.