Before they can reach a dreamer, a vitalian must cross their own nightmare. During the crossing, they must summon every iota of nerve to persevere. They must steel themselves to their fear because, unlike a dreamer's, a vitalian's nightmare can't be slain. An unavoidable test of resolve, the crossing is also steeped in the traditions of Vitalia. Veteran slayers teach apprentices that the crossing is a reminder both of the slayer's purpose in the dreamscape and of the damage a dreamer will face should the slayer fail. Efficiency is paramount. To falter is to prolong a dreamer's torment.

Akki's nightmare changed over the years. When she was a child, the dream was a race to keep up with her peers, but in it she'd lag, her spiritual tether a worsening ache, unable to overcome the inherited genetic deformity that was disintegrating her astral self. When she reached early adolescence, after her father died and when the communal shunning became relentless, her nightmare morphed into a weighted heart of loneliness. Once she met that with fortitude, it developed into being about failure. She went through all those painful experiences and never knew her deepest horror until she met Milli, the girl who controls the dragonflies.

Now the nightmare begins with a giggle. A girlish one that sounds playful, innocent.

Caution swells in Akki, throbbing her tattered spiritual tether in a way that puts tension at the top of her throat. In the waking world where her physical body rests, the choker must be tightening. A necessary annoyance in the physical realm, but it impedes her movement in the dreamscape. The nightmare plants itself in that caution and spreads its roots. She can feel them worming out from the seed of her spirit, reaching for sustenance in her own ripples of consciousness. She opens her eyes and finds the usual flora. A swamp without sky, trees stinking of mildew. As she wades through the murky water, algae and moss thicken against her strides.

The giggling returns louder, twinkling from every direction as if circling the swamp. Two silver dragonflies flit above the water, weave around dangling tree limbs and bob into her path. The giggles are coming from them. Thanks to her vitalian sight, she sees each insect has an intact spiritual tether, shimmery and thin as spider silk, which leads up and away into the canopy. She knows what's on the other end of those tethers, knows Milli won't give her much time. Organic slime at the swamp bed mires Akki's footing.

Her palm finds the hilt of her sword. She's stuck where she is, breathing slowly to quell the panic, and it won't be long until the true threat appears. The water is up to her thighs. The ends of her hair float on the stagnant surface, blonde strands turning greenish in saturation.

"Slowpoke," says one dragonfly in the voice of a little girl. Milli's voice.

"Slowpoke," echoes the other. They both enter another giggle fit.

Ignoring the taunts, Akki draws her sword. She's tall but nonetheless must bend her elbow to keep the tip dry. Anticipating what's to come, she braces herself.

From behind, Milli's girlish voice shrills anew into Akki's right ear. "SLOWPOKE!"

Akki stifles her jolt but can't keep the wince off her face. Ears ringing, the tension travels down from her throat and coils itself around the rest of her. She takes a breath into her nose and out again. When the alarm recedes, its replacement is impatience. There are dreamers waiting, dreamers who need her. She can hear them crying out across the dreamscape, screams and screeches and muted sobs she feels in her chest as if she's the one making them. In this moment, she wishes—never vocalizes but yearns it deep in her core—wishes she could slay her own nightmare. But here the fight is futile. Besides, it isn't Milli or the dragonflies she fears, and it isn't fear that grips her now.

It's fury.

Akki takes that fury, channels it into her blade and rends the reeds, clearing a way. The sword delights itself with each swing and urges her to turn around, to sink its black claw into the one who dares provoke them. She pivots her feet, unsticking her boots, and instead continues onward, parting the less obstructive flora and slicing the stubborn remainder. She carves a trail past the dragonflies.

The giggling lapses into a contemptuous silence.

Akki marches, the strain increasing with every step. On the far side of her nightmare's willowy vegetation is a soggy, oxidized bank. Beyond that gleams the luminous gossamer nexus where dreamers' tethers knot and their voices collide in cacophonies of fright.

"You really think you can just walk away?" asks Milli.

Akki doesn't turn back.

"Really think it'll be that easy?" asks one dragonfly. They've followed Akki and hover around her head, twitching in tandem this way and that.

"After everything?" asks the other.

"Or maybe you're just hoping to ignore the implication," says Milli snidely. "It is your nightmare, after all."

Akki hesitates, frustrated the words have sunk teeth into her, agitated with the pain of thinking what she might become. She's never known how far ahead for her that future lies in wait, but she witnessed its ruthlessness when the deformity unraveled her father's tether. She watched him become a nightmare, witnessed the King of Vitalia reduced to a subliminal beast soon slayed by his own heirloom. She doesn't know when the deformity will tear apart her own tether's final frays. All her life, that uncertainty has filled her with a mixture of fear and preemptive guilt. Even so, it never influenced her dreamscape until her father's death, and only after meeting Milli and finding friends did her nightmare's imagery become this complex.

The more she matures, the more labyrinthine her dreamscape becomes. Already it's a challenge not to lose herself during the crossing. How long until even this is too much for me? How long did it take to untether my father?

The atmosphere depresses with sickly moisture. Her lungs sink like humid stones. Mossy vines swoop down from the trees and blockade the nexus then the bank in a creaking of pained organic limbs. They crisscross over each other, layer after layer, and grow and envelop and grow. She understands what she's afraid of but doesn't know its name. There isn't a single word that encompasses the dread.

The heirloom, her single inheritance, King Vitalia's dragon claw sword, resonates with ire. Her wrist clenches.

Enough.

What do nightmares know of dignity?

She might not be able to permanently slay hers, but the fact it's impeding her this much makes catharsis viable.

Akki turns to face Milli. As expected, Milli's representation in the nightmare floats dry above the water. It looks like her physical self. The same bare, dirty feet. The same billowing triple-tiered blue sundress covering the small-boned proportions of a child. Milli's green eyes spark with mischief. Her golden hair tussles with a breeze Akki can't touch but can see in astral wisps around her floating form. The dragonflies thread down their tethers to Milli and settle in the place they usually take in the waking world, wriggling opposite ends of her bangs out of her face.

The trail Akki cut through the swamp has already regrown. In reaction to this growth, the water sloshes higher. It's as if they're in a basket woven so tightly as to be waterproof, the dreamscape contained within its wood-stitched hems. Fear might not hold its shape but anger does.

Milli grins.

Rage spurs Akki to action. She warps the terrain aside. All it takes is nerve and want. The water parts, a curtain split, and the snaggles at its bottom flatten. She sprints to Milli, finding footholds of friction in the slick. In the final step, she launches, flies.

Milli vanishes.

From the canopy, interim slash and vanish, dew descends.

Akki's blade splits the droplet.

A tickle in her hair alerts her to one dragonfly. She rounds on it, slicing upward. Eager is the claw, and Akki's form precise, but they miss. The sword dragon-screams disapproval, but combat is no time to lapse their grace. They must rely on instinct, move as one. Reacting is too slow. They must predict. Akki locks her sight on the dragonfly's tether.

It twists.

This is her dreamscape. No matter what form it takes, she'll know its layout. The only requirement is attention. It's easy to foresee the logical conclusion of that tether's loop. Back to basics. She sinks into stance, centering her gravity with one knee bent and the other extended, sword held tucked onehanded. Her free hand tenses into the gesture of a claw. She is the embodiment of tradition.

Milli's giggling resounds from three directions. The trees loom and groan and growl. A thin layer of water slides through the exposed root system down into the swamp basin and resettles. The rest of the moisture remains suspended, pressed up along braided trunks.

The tethers swivel.

Akki times the movement and springs into an upward pierce. So fast it could be an extension of the same strike, she alters her stance, arches her back and whirls the blade in a complete arc. In the nanosecond her head is leaned back, the choker bites into her neck. She closes her eyes against the pain and finishes the move blind.

The slash connects, a smooth slice that sings through the blade, and Akki's tight control of her breathing lapses into the tiniest of sighs, sprung from satisfaction. She allows herself momentary celebration. Nothing this dragon claw tears remains long in any dreamscape. Solace flavors the victory.

In a reversal of rain, water lifts off the basin. Its pressure is like a waterfall. Even with closed eyes, it's impossible to ignore the sense of rising. It swoops the ends of her hair upward. The pain from the choker recedes, only just.

She stands taller and opens her eyes, which sharply widen.

It's not Milli or a dragonfly the blade struck. It's Kits, an ally turned friend turned lover, another of Milli's wishers—as she and her dragonflies would say—and as Akki trembles with acute regret, Kits stares down at the gash in her chest. Kits' blood runs red, a contrast to the blue of her skin. The crimson color matches her irises, dims the purple of her hair and emphasizes her worsening pallor. The sight on its own is grotesque, made worse by being Akki's fault.

"Ow," says Kits. She does that nervous laugh of hers and spurts more blood. "Ahaha, um. Did I do something wrong?" In her expression, there's hurt of all kinds and blame Akki knows Kits is directing at herself instead of the one who harmed her.

Channel the blame where it belongs, Kits. At me.

Kits falls to her knees, clutching the wound. Her eyes are shut.

I've become a nightmare.

Akki's heart feels like it's grown needles, squeezing sharper with every pulse.

This, this is fear. Milli and her dragonflies could never compare to this.

Thoughts echo, and the suspended water garbles. Clumps of moisture churn midair.

Was father frightened? When mother cut his tether, was he aware enough to know? Was he already gone, or did she forsake him? She told me he was gone.

Time lulls and with it the water.

What if she lied?

Rain. Torrents turn the ground sodden. As the basin refills, Kits sinks to her haunches, head dipped low. Mud rises, suctioning with the greed of a sinkhole.

I'm not gone. Whose duty is it to slay me? I don't want to be slain. I want to be with Kits.

How can I think that when I'm the one who hurt her?

But I do want it. I do want to be with her.

Akki's neck itches.

Where's my choker? I need my choker. I can't feel my tether. Has it snapped? Have I?

Kits, I'm sorry.

I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm—

"Is this a wise use of your time?" asks Kits. It's a phrasing she wouldn't use, enunciated in a way that isn't hers.

The giggles return.

"Ignore them." Kits stands, still oozing blood, and fixes Akki with a stare reminiscent of a mirror. "Focus on your duty."

"I am."

"You are?"

"I am."

"To yourself or to the dreamers?"

"At the moment," says Akki. "I am a dreamer."

"You are vitalian," says Kits. "To be distracted by your own nightmare is disgrace. It costs time. Remember your responsibility." She stands there, dignified, and bleeds. Expectantly.

The glimmer of the gossamer nexus peeks through cracks that suddenly form in the swampland's flora.

Akki realizes Kits' inflection is her own. Ah. A scolding from myself.

"Yes," answers Kits, who is in truth Akki—a higher version, a deeper version, the one that's ingrained. "For a reason."

Tethers in the dreamers' nexus become beacons of urgency. The rain lessens to slippery mist. Kits lifts her chin and points at the cracks, the widening gaps in the bark, the mud, the water. The swamp is parting. The end of Akki's dream surges into view. The mineral stink of the bank opens toward them in a swell of finality.

Akki nods. She's remembered her purpose, and her sword shrieks in approval. She sprints for the nexus, making her footfalls light over the bed with willpower, bending the dreamscape to her bidding, propelling herself onward with vigor.

No more rain.

Now the nightmare ends with a giggle. A girlish one that sounds playful, innocent.

The scenario repeats. With one difference.

This time, Akki concentrates only on the nexus. She crosses her own nightmare with minimal hindrance, ignoring Milli, swatting past the dragonflies, carving deliberately through everything else, even—though it pains her so much she might weep—the image of Kits. Past the reeds and roots and water, beyond the mucky bank, Akki reaches the end of her dreamscape and gasps. Her throat and neck are so sore she can feel them throbbing out of sync with each other, and her fatigue goes so far it sinks into her spirit thanks to the effort put forth in the crossing. But she did cross! She stretches into the nexus, gropes and grasps those shimmery threads until a tether magnetizes to her touch.

It's strange this time she doesn't hear a scream.

The tether takes hold and tightens, wrapping her fingers then wrist then arm. It slithers up the rest of her body and warps her form into intangibility, a welcome sensation, familiar to Akki whenever she answers a call. The tether sends her formless self at the speed of thought into the dreamer's nightmare. The transit is flight and freedom and wingbeat heart beats, the tether-light so bright and wondrously blinding, a rush of invigoration that rekindles her, and then Akki is standing not in her own dreamscape but another's.

The dreamer is a little girl wearing overalls, and her age and appearance resemble Milli's. She's turned away so Akki can't see her face, and the dreamscape itself is a flower field. Even after overcoming the ordeal of the crossing, Akki falters. She steps over the edge of the nightmare with caution instead of the bold confidence of noble rescuer she usually adopts. In a magnetic pull, the same pull that brought Akki's hand to the little girl's tether in the first place, the air pressurizes. It isn't the kind of sensory input normally exuded by a nightmare. It's too constant, too neutral. As the density of the atmosphere weighs against Akki from all directions, the pull culminates, resonates with her sword and spirit. The vibration of the magnetism sings, a low tone within and throughout, like the heavy hum heard after a great bell has rung.

It's the resonance that reminds her. Akki has felt this before. It happens when a dreamer who isn't vitalian has potential in dreamwalking.

A girl like Milli who might already have the ability to influence others' dreamscapes. Akki's chest tightens in trepidation, and the throbbing soreness in her tether is intimate. It's an acute, breathless vulnerability that always comes when she meets a being who can do more than agitate the psyche of a dreamer. To approach this little girl in a flower field of her own creation might even be a step of danger above a recurrent, which is a nightmare as relentless on the dreamer every sleep cycle (and subsequently on their Slayer) as its namesake. Or worse, a terror, the kind that mars its dreamer so terribly they awake screaming, half their mind in the waking world and the remainder of their spirit anchored in the nightmare. A dreamwalker could create any number of these, or find them in another's dream without much effort. Plus, often a source of more immanency, dreamwalkers sometimes don't know the scope of their own power, especially if it buds young.

But sometimes they do, and sometimes they enjoy channeling it in ways negligent of morality.

In the time before Akki knew her true nature, Milli seemed as innocent as this little girl's pleasant dreamscape.

The little girl bends down to sniff a flower.

How ruthless is she? How horrifying might this dreamer be?

The sword has a different perspective.

Let's test her mettle.

So be it.

Besides, as intimidated as Akki might be, she did learn from her crossing. Her duty remains to the dreamer. She steels herself and approaches the little girl.

The sky isn't sky. It's a roof, oversized wooden boards sloped upward into infinity. No other surroundings but the expanse of space, plenty of room to maneuver if conflict arises. Nothing frames the carpet of flowers. They bloom all the way to the dreamscape's dark edges. If there is a nightmare here, either it has yet to manifest or is something less concrete than a literal monster.

Akki wonders what scares this little girl, because she doesn't seem frightened at all, crouched inside the flowerbeds, humming. Blooms and stems obscure her overalls in washes of wild color and green. Three strides from the dreamer, Akki softly clears her throat. The soreness there swells.

The magnetism switches polarities, now push rather than pull, and Akki clenches every muscle in her body to remain standing. The sword's resonance becomes embittered. Even inside the sheath, Akki can feel its sharpness carve at the dreamscape's atmosphere and warp it with resolve as the claw marks its territory against the magnetic influence. It never did like its aura being threatened.

When the little girl turns, it's dark eyes—not green—that meet Akki's.

The polarity reverses back, once again a pull.

Lessons from the crossing still fresh, Akki kneels to meet the little girl at eye level and smiles. She also, however, stays out of immediate reach.

The magnetism halts.

"Hello, little one."

"I'm lost," says the little girl, a direct echo of the very first phrase Milli told Akki in the waking world.

Akki stiffens and asks the same thing she asked back then. "Do you know where you need to be?"

"No."

"Then maybe that's a place to start."

"Um."

"Hmm?" Akki contorts her face into a hopefully less discomfited expression, tilting her head as she's seen Kits do from time to time. It always seems to endear Kits to whomever she's speaking.

The little girl hesitates, staring at Akki's neck.

Akki makes no attempt to cover the rotted flesh because there's nothing to be done. A vitalian's soul in astral form appears as it is, unfiltered. She can't hide her deformity no matter how badly she might want to. Regardless of wishes.

"What's wrong with your, um, um."

"Nothing that can hurt you. My name is Akki."

"Rosetta."

"Hello, Rosetta."

"Rosie for short."

"Rosie."

"How come you're here? You're not someone I know when I'm awake."

"Then you're aware this isn't the waking world?" Akki rescinds the idea of Rosie being a current threat but knows she might become one in the future. Rosie's talent must be assessed. The more capable a dreamwalker, the more dangerous it is for them to encounter a nightmare, as a matter of scope. If a soul is damaged in the dreamscape, those wounds manifest in the waking world. The more grievous the blights on the dreamer's astral self, the more physical power a nightmare has. Over a dreamer's body or mind, over a place of slumber, over those in proximity while the dreamer dreams. The more imagination the dreamer has, the more territory the nightmare can claim. If a nightmare were to slay even an ordinary dreamer, that dreamer would become the embodiment of that nightmare in the waking world. The entity would then go on to infect all that's nearby with its noxious aura. The dreamer's body might survive but the soul and its tether would darken, replaced by an inclination to warp every perspective toward detriment. That effect festers. It spreads. Because dreamwalkers can manipulate not only their own but also the dreamscapes of others, as well as access the nexus of tethers, their nightmares can affect the entire astral realm, meaning there's more than a single fixed location in the waking world at risk. To encounter a dreamwalker is a delicate situation in the best of times, direr if they happen to be under the influence of a nightmare. Or worse, manifesting a nightmare themselves. Akki must handle this interaction gingerly, so as not to provoke ill emotions that could draw a nightmare to—or from—Rosie. "You know this is your dream?"

"Duh! But when I'm dreaming I never meet someone I don't know from when I'm awake. Unless I do know you and forgot… or maybe you don't look like your awake self. I dunno. Sleep sometimes makes memories fuzzy." Rosie ponders, her small fist placed over her lips in a posture of contemplation. "I've never heard the awake world called the waking world before. How come you call it that? Is that what it's supposed to be called? The friends in my dreams never know they're asleep, but you're different."

The magnetic force returns, a slight subtle semblance of the power it held before.

"We call it the waking world because there's a difference between the awake world and the world that's awakening. A difference of astral state."

Rosie blinks. The force pauses. Both emit a sense of bewilderment.

"You know how it feels different when you've just awoken as opposed to when you've been awake for a while?"

Rosie nods in wonderment, enraptured by Akki's words. The polarity swirls slowly, a balletic undulation from push to pull to push, smooth as waves on water.

"That's the difference between awake and waking."

"Ooh."

The resonant force becomes rhythmic with thought patterns as Rosie's young mind sorts the information. To prevent luring a nightmare of confusion, Akki waits until after the magnetism settles on a wavelength of understanding before she answers Rosie's other question.

"As for me," says Akki. "You're correct that I'm different. I was born in a place called Vitalia, a kingdom which resides in the astral realm between wake and sleep. My home was rooted in the dreamscape, so in a way you could say I'm more from here than anywhere."

"You're a dream person?"

"In essence. We call ourselves vitalians. Do you know what a vitalian does?"

"Nu-uh."

"We slay nightmares." Or become them.

"Ooh. Well, I'm not having a nightmare. I'm just here with the flowers."

"They're lovely."

"I know! I grew them myself with my brain. See?" Rosie plucks a rose as it sprouts spontaneously under her fingertips. The magnetism folds in on itself inside the space where the rose grew, then implodes. "This one's me." The rose blooms, petals spreading open in a fractal of synchronized curls. Each unfurling releases a small magnetic charge. She tosses the flower aside, giggles and materialize-picks another. This time it's a yellow core of tinier flowers inside a larger white petaled array. "This one's my sister, Daisy."

"Your sister is very pretty."

"Not as pretty as me though."

"I wouldn't dare compare." Akki allows herself to relax. Here there's peace. The sweet winds are the creation of an innocent's imagination. If Rosie were like Milli, she couldn't have created a place this wonderful. In her relief, Akki discovers the rich companionship of serenity.

Then comes the nightmare. An acrid breeze wafts over them, turning the soft floral scents putrid.

Rosie's brown eyes widen under the dawn of fear.

In a tumult of cyclonic desaturation, the hues surrounding them fade until all that's left in color are Akki, her sword glittering so silvery black that no one would dare call it colorless, Rosie, and the daisy. Rosie, trembling, clenches the daisy over her heart. Without awareness or intent, she crumples the symbolic representation of her sister.

Her talent forges itself a double-edge. The magnetism contorts with painful, stretchy gravity as opposing forces battle for dominion over the dreamscape. Now without pigment, the vibrancy of emotion actualizes via the value scale from shade to light. Illusory shapes emerge in shadow and transform into trueness by their auric impression. Negative space retreats. The darkening encroaches.

Akki shields Rosie from the most silhouetted division of flowers, ready to do away with this nightmare once it completes its arrival. What scared her? Did I misspeak? Did I somehow invoke this reaction?

The sword yearns to fight. It lurches into guard, and Akki allows the claw to yank her arm into an aggressive posture. They're ready. Their collective aura banishes any semblance of interruption Rosie's power might find to impede their movement. It's a reclamation of space by determination. If nothing else is learned in vitalian trials, it's that in astral realms valor wins. Rosie might be talented, but she's underdeveloped, inexperienced. Most likely, she's never had to hone her fervor. She slinks behind Akki and whimpers.

The nightmare forms its body in degrees. It travels in gray clumps as it slides to impose its presence from another angle.

"It's blurry," says Rosie.

Unlike Rosie's, Akki's vision reveals all. Even a dreamwalker's sight can't compare to a vitalian's. Though Rosie can't, Akki sees when the nightmare changes direction. It lashes for them in a twist of confused grasses and torn petals.

Akki intervenes.

It scatters. Reassembling, it whirls the atmosphere with agitation.

Akki stands her ground.

It rushes them again.

Akki deflects.

It regroups.

Rosie remains close. Akki senses her in the resonance even when they aren't touching, but the more the nightmare startles Rosie the more her presence dwindles. She's cowering. Akki defends with diligence but finds herself glancing down to be sure Rosie is near. Dreamwalker talent aside, youth amplifies spiritual vulnerability. A child's tether is malleable. That's why nightmares often leave greater impressions on the young. It's also why, whenever possible, they use them as means into the waking world. Akki must stop both fates from befalling Rosie. If necessary, Akki will chase the nightmare beyond the dreamscape, but doing so would strain her own tether. Best to keep the conflict here where she's most powerful.

The nightmare roars its gray breath into angry gusts.

Slaying this would be easier if I knew what sprung it forth.

It careens at them.

Akki roots herself and counters.

The nightmare recoils and doubles its efforts.

Rosie squeaks in fright.

Until more is understood, there's nothing to be done but defend. Akki works in a violent martial rhythm, keeping the blurred shadows from engulfing herself and Rosie. The color of the nightmare's onslaught changes, oxidizes at its center, and something fluttery glances against Akki's blade from deep within the burbling chromatic bursts.

With every parry, the sword growls in impatience. It wants to destroy their enemy in one fell swoop.

We don't yet know if that's wise.

Rosie clamps onto Akki's leg, and Akki almost twitches away. A reflex from Milli, who ensnares those she touches. But Rosie isn't Milli, so Akki stills the urge.

"Where am I?" asks Rosie. "Where are we?"

"In your dream." Akki fends off another attack.

With noise like rustling paper, the nightmare lurches out of reach. The sword darts forward, pulling Akki into a thrust.

"But where in my dream?"

"Where do you think we are?" Akki is stretched thin. Her deformity fatigues her spirit, but she shouldn't let that show in front of Rosie, who for now needs a mentor that inspires confidence. The sword covers Akki's slack, and she allows it. In a façade of stubborn, immobile offence, she points its tip at the roiling nightmare. "Don't let this distract you. Consult your inner self."

"But I'm not myself when I'm scare—" Midsentence, Rosie shrieks in alarm.

Akki pivots.

An unseen force hurtles Rosie backward, past the safety of Akki's sword range then beyond the flower fields into sudden woods that spring up afar. What pulls her is imageless. It's pure, heedless emotion, all sweaty anxiety and thunder-pressurized heartbeats, sensations without iconography besides their effect. Lacking corporeality makes it an amplified creature of fright.

As any nonlucid dreamer would, Rosie wails and screams. Either she's forgotten her power here or doesn't understand its scope.

Off her own shoulder, Akki senses the original nightmare change. A flicker of silver coupled with a faint giggle drives her toward Rosie.

I crossed my nightmare. I crossed it, and the real Milli can't enter minds.

Rosie matters more than a half-formed memory. Akki hastens, but the terrain impedes her way. Pine trails erupt from the woods and crawl through the flowers, crushing petals, stabbing the ground with tawny needles that in nature would lay flat but here stand up like so many pins. The option to run vanishes.

Akki's sword was once a dragon. Once one, always one. It initiates the solution. Phantom leathered wings glimmer into existence in Akki's peripheral vision. Heat—reminiscent of Kits' magic—swells at her back, and a transparent great claw clamps around her middle, delicately enough to keep from slicing into her.

The ground descends.

They fly.

Enter the woods, and as they stream past trees, the bark textures speed-blend smooth. Under mighty draconic flaps, branches snap to make way. Nearing a denser area, Akki tucks herself tightly and relishes the vertigo when her dragon spins not around but through the obstructions. They burst into open sky and share a suspended, blissful moment midair. Then in a vigorous motion, Akki untucks herself, spreading her limbs synchronically with her dragon's as it reopens its wings to full span. Their simultaneous extension ushers a gust that bends the treetops bordering the clearing's opposite side.

The glade's grasses are upturned needles, not pine but compass. Rosie crouches in a vacant patch of earth between them, scratches appearing on her arms. Her talent has turned against her. There among the red and silver protrusions, Akki spots the nightmare.

Attacking from cardinal directions, it torments Rosie, passing through her in smudgy blurs. Each blur rends flesh, slicing outward from within, carving shallow cuts that multiply. A meager torture by degrees, it's an accumulation of tiny slivers greater than any individual would-be scar.

Akki and her dragon together swoop behind the nightmare and hamstring it.

Rosie screams. A fresh cut, deeper than the others, appears on the back of her leg.

Akki's heart jolts. She hesitates the killing strike.

Heedless of Akki's halting, her dragon keeps the advance.

The nightmare flops along the ground. Silver-red needles warp beneath its laborious blurs.

In every sob, Rosie keens. She curls into a facedown ball, tears soddening the dreamscape's dirt. Like Kits in Akki's nightmare, she bleeds.

The dragon roars. Wings out, free arm lifting, it lusts to bestow the nightmare's end.

Akki plants her feet and regrips the hilt. She yanks the sword skyward and backward, lowering her stance as the blade arcs overhead. The effort makes her throat burn. In the waking world, the choker must've tightened. Straining her tether against the might of a dragon's will do that.

The dragon fights for control. It screeches inside her mind volcanic words that echo. It wants the blood it needs the kill let it murder—

Akki shrills a response in the dragon's own tongue, "TEMPER YOURSELF!"

Rosie shudders.

The dragon becomes Akki's once more and crouches low, calmer but rumbling with growls. It shields them reluctantly with its wings.

The nightmare attempts to retreat in a crumpled tumble. Unlike Rosie or Kits, it has no blood. Its damage instead adopts the impression of something torn, and the sound it makes whenever it moves resembles rustling paper.

This imagery is beyond recognition. What is it Rosie fears?

Akki's dragon calls her a blind-souled coward.

She ignores that comment. Beneath the cradle of wings, she begins to weave a bandage from the atmosphere, to morph the dreamscape to the task. Halfway through the reimagining, her airway constricts. The scrap she's created reweaves itself and becomes gone. Pain swells everywhere in throbs, and her vision withers. Her lungs won't breathe. Her attention shrinks to the need for air. Her center plummets.

"I'm scared," says Rosie.

Akki turns her pain into focus. She's fallen but not ungripped her sword. Her pulse crashes against the hilt. She counts the beats and inhales, exhales to regain her senses. It's hot. It's unclear if the heat is from herself, her dragon, or Rosie's nightmare.

"I'm scared," repeats Rosie.

"I'm here." Akki crawls closer and scoops up Rosie but can do nothing more than hold her. No. There must be something. You are vitalian. Know the nightmare. Find the fear. "Rosie, tell me of what. Scared of what?"

"I don't know where I am."

"No one knows where they are all the time."

"I'm lost."

Rosie's words remove from the nightmare a sheen. Beyond the transparent wings of Akki's dragon, the smudgy blur shocks into focus. An unhindered view of its absolute form is revealed.

It's a conglomeration of maps and compasses, crisscrossed and overlapped so no sane mind could make sense of which cardinal directions belong where. The many map key's sharp marks of forests and wandering rivulet rivers bleed into each other on faded, feather-sheared pages that then flap into scales of macabre origami. Papercut slices are the nightmare's clutches, and glass from broken compass faces cling to its extremities, sharpening each edge. Its dreadful aura dwarfs the glade's, puts the cracked-symbol foliage to shame.

With the nightmare now clear before them, its stench wafts stronger, and Akki can place the pungence. It's of old paper, worn yellowing, multiplied by the multitude of maps arranged in its composition.

The nightmare crinkles whence it crawled to avoid Akki and her dragon's wrath. Its pages shift, sending sounds of its shredded form hissing, scurrying past the gaps in the dragon's wings. In the way of dreams, which are tied to memory and thus always close in the ear, the noise is much louder than it would be in the waking world.

Rosie's resonance rises and builds. It overtakes Akki, buzzes the hearing out of her ears, blinds her. Bracing, she waits for the fit to pass. When her vision returns, her dragon has crouched more deeply to lend her and Rosie the bulk of its cover. The nightmare is stationary. Rosie's wounds remain.

Softer to Akki than before but nonetheless heard, her dragon's voice, a wisp in her inner ear: Understand.

Akki understands.

When Rosie was yanked away, hurtled beyond reach, when Akki's first instinct was to turn her back on the half-formed nightmare already at her blade's tip and chase after what threatened Rosie, she told herself it was to save the dreamer, not to escape her own discomfort.

Now she understands the truth, the real reason for the strength of Rosie's resonance with her.

No wonder I turned away. It's instinct to avoid your own fear.

In the wake of her father's destruction, wherein Vitalia decided by unconscious consensus the same fate would likely also befall his heir, Akki assumed her people treated her not with cruelty but in a way that was perversely kind.

No use befriending a lost cause.

Viewed through that lens, blunting the shunning's pain became easier. Just as her fellow vitalians shunned her, so too did Akki shun her fear by disregarding it until that part of herself became unrecognizable. Her dragon's insult had been insight.

I was wrong back then. What they showed me wasn't kindness. It was cowardice.

In front of her, the sole reflection on their black blade, Akki's dragon digs its ethereal claws into the dirt. Its chest expands in a bellow, the primal sound of reminding.

Rosie's weight, cradled in Akki's arm, becomes heavier.

Those cowards birthed a fool. My haste has harmed the dreamer.

The fabric on Akki's knee saturates with Rosie's hamstrung blood. Worse every instant, Rosie's aura and power wane and drain along with her color. The magnetism nauseates, swirling, as she heaves with breathy sobs. Her eyes are wide in sclera-shown terror. She's hurt all over, but the worst wound is the one Akki herself inflicted. Guilt worries at Akki's spirit.

The nightmare's myriad cuts and shredded inks mirror Rosie's condition. It shivers out of reach.

"Y'know," Kaia, Kits' kindred, once said offhandedly to Akki in the waking world. "You kinda can't slay yourself out of being lost. I mean that's the whole point of having a map."

"What map?" Kits had rebutted at the time. "Do you see a map? I don't see a map."

"That's not the point," said Kaia.

"Then what is the point?"

The point is, Akki realizes, here it's different.

Rosie has a map.

Hers is a nightmare created from her of her. Not all are in that category, but hers is, which is why it mimics her state. As a potential dreamwalker, her talent amplified the effect. She must've twisted the dream against herself subconsciously.

"Did Rosie twist it or did you?" It's Milli's snide voice in Akki's mind but the taunt is ignored because guilt won't fix this at its roots.

This isn't a nightmare to be slain. It's one that must be mended.

Rosie has power. All she needs is the fortitude to find it.

In cases like these, the nightmare isn't even the vitalian's duty to fix. It's the dreamer's. Overtaxed by tether strain, technically an intruder here, Akki's singular option is to help Rosie help herself.

My duty is still to her. Direct or not, I'll assist. There's always something I can do. Always.

The directions are all there, tattered before them, awaiting repair.

Rosie's eyes are unfocused.

How do I dispel the wounds of confusion?

An image of Kits enters Akki's mind. A memory from the waking world at the lip of an active volcano, Kits licks ice cream that, thanks to her soul's control over temperature, isn't melting. She sits with her svelte blue legs bare and crossed at the ankles, her free hand propping her up from behind. That hand happens to be sunk to the wrist in a stream of oozing lava. Kits, unbothered, grins. She offers Akki the ice cream. "Want some? The humans say it takes their minds off the heat."

Ah.

Distraction is the bane of fear.

What serves as good distraction?

Memory-Kits waggles the ice cream.

"Rosie." Akki, in a fit of fatigue-fire, feels her voice turn wan. She rearticulates. "Have you ever had ice cream?"

"What?" Rosie's left eye refocuses. Her voice is small but curious. Her attention has been redirected.

"Ice cream." Akki breathes to calm her shaking limbs and swallows the pain that her constricting tether has sent searing through her throat to the rest of her. "The dessert."

"Everyone's had ice cream." Rosie's right eye becomes clear as well.

"Do you like ice cream?"

"Everyone likes ice cream."

"I'm inclined to believe that's true."

"Duh!" The scratches on Rosie's arms fade, one by one, with every word. "I've never met anyone who doesn't like ice cream."

"Do you have a favorite flavor?"

"Green minty flavor."

A portion of Rosie's nightmare spins its own vortex, pulls from within itself and unfolds the greater map outward. One little river becomes readably brighter. That river bleeds into other bodies of water. Turquoise blue merges with itself and grows, forming a pathway through the map's mountains, cities, towns, fields, forests. The waters' pattern gives the impression of fractal flowers. The compass shards that the pathway crosses extricate themselves from the paper and fall upon the dry dirt of Rosie's dreamscape, forgotten. Not even a clink as they land.

Success so far.

"I've never had Green Minty Flavor." Akki moves to sheathe her sword. Gingerly, with Rosie still cradled in her free arm, Akki shifts her weight and slides the black blade back into its scabbard. Her dragon's head moves along with the motion, a smooth swiveling that's synchronized with Akki's graceful form. "Could you describe it for me?"

"It's milky cold like all ice cream and it's got chocolate chips that aren't shaped like tiny kisses but are still good. And the green flavor is really bright. Not like any other green I've tasted. It's good by itself but waffle cones with sprinkles make it even better."

"It sounds wonderful."

"It is wonderful! The green isn't grass color either. Maybe it's the color of mint. I never had a mint plant, just daisies."

The turquoise luminescence of the map's rivers which became a flower saturates golden. The fractal patterns dance into a finer form of petals, glowing white around a yellowing iris. A daisy. Its stem extends into the ground, nourished by river runoff as the cracked faces and glass shards of the compass constructions continue to tumble toward the now soggy dirt. The red needles that stab the surrounding terrain warp and sway. In the mud they descend deeper, soak up map-water pools, and grow a lively green.

Warm, damp air and a velvety petal scent caress through Akki's dragon's defenses. Inhaling the aroma, Akki's throat suddenly constricts. The pain is an enflamed noose made of knives coiling tighter. She winces and exhales through her nose. The hurt worsens. Subtle degradation climbs her esophagus, an echo of her tether, and gets stuck above her heart. Now that the danger's immediacy is gone, Akki realizes the severity of her fatigue. Breathing makes her shake and agitation makes her sweat. The pressure on her psyche incites aggravation about her own condition. However, these emotions are hers, not Rosie's. They must be controlled. By focusing on supporting Rosie's weight, Akki re-centers herself.

The aromatic breeze softens, its parfum of summer's cusp.

Akki's dragon stands like stone. All it moves is breath. Glass and white compass needles stick up sharp among the grass. Rosie's overalls are slick where Akki sliced her nightmare, but otherwise have stitched themselves together. The recovery seems seamless.

Until Rosie recoils. She frowns, and the magnetism between them pulls on Akki's spirit with intangible threads of thick, sticky tar. They tug on awareness, siphoning and viscous, a rotten net finding crevices in the crown of the mind. Rosie turns her head.

"Oh Daisy," says Rosie. "A daisy for Daisy." Above the daisy, the dreamscape's sky rends itself then reweaves into a brown astral boot. The boot hovers there in tattered space, suspended, then stomps. Soundlessly, blood appears on the metal toe. No more daisy. "If he didn't mean it, then why'd he do it? He crushed her. He crushed my Daisy!"

Akki's pain halts. Fury doesn't rise in her. It becomes her. Cold, hard, inert readiness. How her sword is, the way of her dragon. She understands what she's seeing and understands why Rosie doesn't. Rosie is young. Akki isn't. In the blood on that boot is a mirror of her own failure. Even worse, there's nothing to do with the anger. Violent direction of it would exacerbate the problem.

She wonders if she ever left her own nightmare.

Thinking that way won't help. Akki considers the methods she's already attempted as well as their consequences. The state both of them are in, only one thing left to do: outthink the nightmare. Rosie must rationalize it into a better dream.

How can this imagery be transformed? What way is there to heal this?

Akki extends her sword, testing her own influence over the nightmare. Her neck constricts with the effort. In the waking world, the choker must be tight enough to get in the way of her airway, but she needs to do this, so she doesn't stop. In response, the boot lifts to reveal the daisy, which is squished but not dead. The blood is only on the petals, not the roots or stem. The stem is bent but unbroken. Akki knows she's too fatigued to have moved the boot herself, and guards herself in a pose made cumbersome by Rosie being in her lap.

"You're overstraining," says Akki's dragon, who adjusts its position to account for Akki's movement. The dragon retracts one claw from the dirt and moves it slowly backward, the bond between it and the sword forcing Akki to do the same.

Rosie squints at the boot, the daisy.

"She's not dead," says Rosie. "Can I fix her?"

"This is your dream." Akki's memory of Kits from another world prompts her to quote, "Have you ever seen a plant growing out of a shoe?"

"A shoe as a flowerpot?"

"Yes."

"I never thought of that."

"Neither did I until it was mentioned to me."

"Who mentioned it?" Rosie's expression changes from curious to pondersome. An improvement, which steals Akki's time to elaborate. "But how do I do it?"

"Think it into existence," says Akki. "Concentrate."

"Hmm."

The boot wiggles. Akki feels the magnetism in waves of sway as Rosie remolds her own nightmare. The boot swings upside down, and a sock falls atop the daisy. As soon as it lands, the sock vanishes. Rosie moans and rolls over, forcing Akki to hunch as Rosie crawls off her lap to approach the daisy.

As she goes, Rosie collects one of the compass needles that previously fell to the ground. The moment Rosie touches the compass needle, the wound on her hamstring stitches itself back together.

In relief, Akki exhales, but the recovery isn't seamless. It leaves a scar.

Akki's dragon stands taller.

"I have to fix the stem." Rosie reaches the daisy and cups her hand around the stem. Gently, she squeezes until it's upright. A plant Akki has never seen before, a type of vine, slithers into existence near Rosie. Rosie picks it up and uses it, along with the compass needle, as a splint for the stem. Then she sits on her haunches and tilts her head. The boot flips over and falls to the ground, thumping as it lands. Then Rosie begins gathering dirt. She laboriously packs it into the boot and carefully replants the daisy inside the makeshift flowerpot. She wipes the bloodstain off the toe of the boot, and the blood on the petals also fades. So does the blood that dried around her own scar.

"My sister taught me to do this." Rosie continues replanting the daisy. "She loves gardening."

Because Rosie now seems to have the nightmare—no, dream under control, Akki's first instinct is to pause and appreciate the reprieve. Repose is welcome. It alleviates the guilt Akki had been carrying for harming Rosie when the nightmare began.

"Rosie." Akki is out of breath due to overexertion. She sheathes her sword and painstakingly stands, then bows so her waist is exactly perpendicular to the ground. Her dragon disappears. "My work here is done. I shall depart."

"Wait," says Rosie.

A painful pull of magnetism on her own tether causes Akki to wince and stop. Scraping sounds emit from her sheath. Her dragon is ready to continue, but Akki keeps the sword in the scabbard.

The boot has transformed into a delightful lighter colored flower-holder, and Rosie seems no longer in distress. The compass needle and vines are doing their part to keep the daisy upright. Littered on the ground, the other needles and glass that fell remain. Rosie tiptoes around them back to Akki. "I have to give you something."

"No need."

"But you helped!" Rosie indicates the fallen compass parts. "And these are all extra and now I know I can arrange them into something else if I want."

"That's correct," says Akki. "Anything in a dream can be changed if the dreamer wills it." With few exceptions.

"Well I want to give you something for helping me."

"Then I won't object." Akki bows her head and shoulders.

Rosie smiles and claps. Obviously excited, she spins back toward the dream she remade. Then she sits on her haunches, unhindered by injury, near pieces of the compass that fell away when she reshaped her nightmare. She hums in thought, then reaches for them.

The magnetism is now a calm caress, like walking through a silk curtain. When Rosie turns to face Akki, the leftover parts float to Rosie and hover a few inches over her tiny open palms. The pieces orbit each other, the silk sensation as exact as if directed by a seamstress, and form a new shape—that of an upcycled flower. A species all its own, the flower's pistil is tumbled glass, its petals alternating red and white compass needles that have softened so much they curl in the wind. A breeze of resolution emphasizes Rosie's accomplishment, and she hands Akki her invention.

"Do you like it," asks Rosie.

"I love it." Akki accepts the work of art and tucks it behind one ear. "The glass. Does it match my eyes?"

"Not really. Your eyes look like mirrors to me."

Akki smiles.

"But the flower still looks pretty there!"

"Thank you, Rosie." Akki bows deeply, keeping her hand on the stem of Rosie's piece of art so it won't fall. "But now I must really depart. You're not the only dreamer I assist tonight."

"Okay." Rosie waves goodbye and returns to her boot-cradled daisy. "I'll make sure this one grows real bright and tall."

Akki gives a curt nod and, as promised, departs. Armed with Rosie's art, Akki leaves through the nexus of tethers and encounters what she always first encounters.

The nightmare begins with a giggle, one that sounds playful, innocent.