Erika sprinted through a prehistoric jungle. Enormous leaves slapped her in the face, and more than once she stumbled over an exposed tree root or mossy stone. Her long black hair billowed behind her with twigs and bits of foliage jutting from it in all directions. She gasped for air hoping to quell the sharp pain that had developed in her side, but she dared not stop. Hungry jaws snapped at her heels and at her animal hide skirt’s frayed ends.
Erika’s brown “clothing” seamlessly blended with her rich skin color. A single-strap top made from the same material as her skirt lay draped over her chest, and an intricate crown of vines, leaves, and flowers pushed her hair back into place but also bore responsibility for its sticky mess. In her right hand, Erika clutched a long wooden spear tipped with a sharpened stone. As she struggled through the dense trees and shrubbery, which were larger than anything she’d ever seen, she glanced to her left and right to make sure Gaze and Phoenix still ran alongside her.
Gaze’s primitive attire was similar to Erika’s, but rather than a skirt, Gaze sported little more than a loin cloth around her hips and a large drape of intertwined leaves over her chest. Attached to her waist, Gaze wore a pouch filled with clacking stones; in her hand, she wielded a simple sling. Phoenix wore a loin cloth as well, but unlike the two girls running next to him, he wore nothing else. In his hands, he carried a pair of stone axes. They looked far more like Tomahawks than anything from the stone age, but Erika was learning that dreams rarely followed rules.
“Dinosaurs?!” Phoenix suddenly shouted after swallowing a gulp of air. “Who dreams about freakin’ dinosaurs?!” Jaws nipping at the backs of Erika’s legs parted to release ear-piercing screeches as though in response to Phoenix’s question.
Erika fought back the urge to shield her ears against the painful noise; she couldn’t afford to slow her run. “Just keep… running!” she shouted. “If we stop… we’re history!”
Gaze snapped back as though she’d been waiting for the chance. “Don’t you mean… prehistory?”
Erika groaned; the three of them burst through the jungle’s tree line into the middle of a small clearing. On its far side, the ground sloped up sharply, and vine-covered rocks varying in size from boulders to pebbles dotted the landscape. The slope continued up a small mountain, and when the clearing gave way to more jungle, the rocks and boulders added a gray splash to the trees.
In the clearing, the sun beat down on Erika and her two friends. The heavy scent of dirt mixed with the faint aroma of flowers permeated the air; if not for the threat of death at the hands of prehistoric fauna, Erika would have admired the way dreams seemed to affect all the senses. It was hard for her to convince herself that she was inside another person’s head. She even felt the tiny stones in the clearing pressing into the tender bottoms of her feet, but all those sensations meant little once the creatures pursuing them emerged from the jungle.
The ten creatures stood about three feet tall. Their small arms reached forward and were tipped with dangerous claws, and a flap of feathered skin stretched from their arms to the sides of their bodies. The animals’ features were as much lizard as bird; inky feathers decorated certain parts of their scaly hides. Their long maws lined with razor-sharp teeth resembled beaks, and their large nostrils flared when they snorted. From head to toe, the animals were jet-black save two red slits for eyes, and black smoke drifted off their bodies like inky tendrils. When they entered the clearing, the creatures fanned out like some kind of predatory attack squadron.
“What are… these things, anyway?!” Gaze asked as she backed away from the animals and struggled to catch her breath.
Phoenix slowly paced backward to keep the creatures in his field of vision. “Raptors,” he breathed.
Gaze screwed up her face. “Listen, it may be… an older movie, but I’ve seen Jurassic Park. These are… not raptors.”
Erika shook her head. “That movie took some… creative liberties, Gaze. Trust us, these are raptors.”
Gaze gasped. “My childhood…”
“I don’t really… think this is the time!” Erika panted.
As if on cue, the raptors lowered their heads, extended their claws, and charged with deafening shrieks. Erika thrust her spear into the first raptor that leapt at her. The spear pierced the creature’s chest, and it exploded in a plume of black. Two other raptors used that moment to jump at her right and left sides; Erika panicked. She didn’t know which direction to defend, but after that split-second hesitation, she struck the raptor to her right and it vanished. Then, Erika squeezed her eyes shut to brace for the other raptor’s attack; instead, she heard a pained screech and whirled around to see nothing but a cloud of black mist where the raptor had been.
“Open your eyes, babe!” Phoenix shouted from Erika’s right; he pulled his axe back into position after dealing with Erika’s attacker and jumped at two more of the creatures directly in front of him.
To Erika’s left, Gaze moved like water. She dodged past the small dinosaurs’ attacks by a hairs-breadth, and in the same motion she launched a stone from her sling. She timed it so a single stone shot through two of the creatures’ tiny bodies at once; both of them rocketed back into a nearby boulder and exploded. Next to Gaze and Phoenix, Erika felt the weight of her inexperience. She couldn’t fathom how they seemed to know exactly how to move to deal with attackers from multiple angles, let alone the foresight Gaze showed by destroying two terrors with a single shot!
The raptors left Erika little time to admire her friends; the last two creatures in front of her dashed forward with claws extended. They cut through the air like real raptors; each used its arms like gliders to accelerate and execute sharp turns. The terrors bobbed and weaved between each other as they closed in on Erika’s position. When the two raptors dug their clawed toes into the earth in preparation to leap, Erika’s first instinct was to squeeze her eyes shut again, but Phoenix’s words echoed in her mind.
Despite her fear, Erika forced her eyes open wide, and when the two creatures jumped, she moved to evade their attacks. In that moment, Erika thrust her spear straight into the first raptor’s body. It dissipated, but its partner swiped its claws across Erika’s stomach. With a triumphant screech, the raptor clung to Erika’s body and climbed around her side to her back. It tore into her exposed skin, and Erika screamed in pain. Her body moved on instinct. She rammed her back into a nearby tree, and the creature snorted as the impact knocked it off her back. Erika quickly spun and stabbed the creature. It dissipated into a cloud of smoke, but for some reason she wasn’t satisfied. The fire that raced up her sides and back infuriated her, and Erika repeatedly stabbed the ground where the creature died.
Phoenix gently grabbed Erika’s wrist. She angrily snapped her gaze up at him fully prepared to push him away and go right back to stabbing the dirt, but his expression stayed her hand. With his crystal blue eyes glistening with concern, Phoenix stared at the gashes in her body. It was as though he wished he could heal them merely by looking at them, and the feeling radiated from him so powerfully that Erika even thought she felt a bit better. She relaxed her wrist in his grip and took a few deep breaths.
“Whoa, is she okay?” Gaze rushed up and craned her neck alongside Phoenix; then, she placed a hand on Erika’s shoulder. “Are you okay?”
“I’m all right.” Erika flexed and flashed them a toothy grin. “When you’re fighting terrors, injury is bound to come with the territory sometimes, right?”
“Haha! I swear I love this girl more and more every day!… Er, night?” Gaze laughed and patted Erika’s shoulder a few times.
After doting over Erika’s wounds, Phoenix lifted his eyes to her and flashed her a dazzling smile. “Tough as nails! I like it! Beauty, brains, and brawn! Plus, believe it or not, you did awesome there! I can’t even tell this is only your second time kickin’ these monsters’ butts!”
An unfamiliar heat raced up Erika’s cheeks. For some reason, looking into Phoenix’s eyes twisted her insides in knots. When she couldn’t bare it any longer, she cast her eyes to the ground and started toward the mountain.
Gaze laughed. “You say that, Phoenix, but that’s only because you were awful at it for so long.”
“Bite me, Gaze!” Phoenix said.
“Do I look like a not-real-I-don’t-care-what-you-say raptor to you?”
“Do you really want me to answer that?”
“Oh, no you didn’t. Maybe I will bite you!”
While Gaze and Phoenix bantered behind Erika, she lifted her eyes to the mountain’s peak. The jungle thinned toward the top, and Erika marveled at the mountain’s rocky plateaus and cliffs. As she stared, the same sensation tugged on her chest that she felt during Rick’s nightmare; that tug had ultimately led her and the group to the bizarre, dream-world Elbow Room. She placed her hand against her heart. When she concentrated, Erika heard a woman’s voice.
I never even got to say goodbye… The last things I said to him were so cruel… How am I supposed to go through with this? Even if I could finish my degree, how can I go through with it?… He never approved…
The voice persisted, as did the sobs. Erika knit her brows together and turned back toward Phoenix and Gaze. “We have to climb this mountain. The dreamer’s up there; I can feel it.”
Phoenix put Gaze in a headlock, and Gaze bit Phoenix’s nipple. When the two heard Erika’s words, they both froze and lifted their eyes to her.
“You can feel it?” Phoenix lifted a brow. “Ya know, that’s not the first time you’ve said something weird like this.”
Gaze pulled herself out of Phoenix’s hold. “Phoenix, you don’t think that’s…”
“It’d be wild. It’d be way too wild. Plus, there’s no way, I don’t even have mine yet.”
Gaze shrugged. “Different strokes for different folks.”
“I guess. Still say no way,” Phoenix said. “We should pro~obably wait for Maja before we run off, though. She shouldn’t be too far behind.”
“Ugh, I hate waiting,” Gaze groaned.
“You could always use those sparkly eyes of yours to find her,” Phoenix said with a smirk.
“You know what? You taste bad and you should feel bad.” Gaze pulled one of her eyelids down and stuck out her tongue. The action fully exposed her glowing green eye, and the brilliant flecks of red danced inside it like fireflies on a summer night. “But it’s actually not a bad idea, slick,” she said afterward with a grin.
Gaze turned back toward the jungle, and a small flock of raptors exploded from the trees. One jumped at Gaze’s face as soon as it entered the clearing. Erika’s perception of time slowed; Gaze’s features twisted in horror, but Phoenix’s axe cut through the air before the raptor’s claws reached her. The creature exploded into smoke, and Gaze stumbled back a few steps.
“Phoenix… Thanks, I…” In a rare moment, Gaze gulped back her sense of humor and looked at her savior.
“Later!” Phoenix shouted and turned toward the remaining raptors.
The creatures sank low; Erika, Gaze, and Phoenix prepared their weapons and took up formation near one another. The raptors narrowed their glowing eyes, hissed, and extended their claws, but before they vaulted into action, the ground quaked. It was distant but strong enough to disrupt the creatures’ charge. The terrors twitched their heads in all directions as though looking for an explanation, but the tremors only intensified without offering one.
Gaze stared intently at the tree line. After a few moments, she widened her eyes and dove off to the left. As she did, she shouted back at Phoenix and Erika. “Look out! It’s a horned one!”
Rather than keep his eyes on the trees, Phoenix watched Gaze roll across the clearing. “You mean a trike?” No sooner had he finished his question than a raspy bellow shook the boulders and trees. A colossal triceratops barreled from the jungle; bits of rock and splinters shot in every direction like shrapnel as the giant charged through tree trunks like they were paper. Like the raptors, the triceratops’ scaly hide was dark black. Only its eyes and the tips of its horns glowed a terror’s ethereal red.
The triceratops trampled the smaller raptors underfoot; each of them tried in vain to escape the beast’s war path only to burst into black smoke clouds. More surprising than the creature’s appearance or its apparent disregard for the other terrors, however, was the person attached to its face. Maja gripped the long horn growing from the triceratops’ snout; as the creature charged, it pushed her across the clearing. Tiny fissures formed beneath her as she drove her feet into the ground in an attempt to stop the terror’s rampage.
Erika’s body once again acted on its own. Seeing Phoenix distracted by Gaze’s comment, Erika tackled him as hard as her tiny frame allowed. The two of them careened away from the terror’s destructive path, and when they hit the ground, they tumbled into a nearby thicket. Erika, laying on her stomach and covered in grass and sticks, bolted into an upright seated position and locked her eyes on Maja.
Maja’s hair fanned wildly around her in the wake of the triceratops’ charge. Rather than a loin cloth like Gaze or a hide skirt like Erika, Maja’s attire consisted of two long fur flaps that covered her front and rear and dangled between her legs near her calves. Two thin strips of cloth on her hips connected the two flaps into a single piece, and a cropped fur top barely contained her large breasts. As usual, she fought with her bare hands, but even from Erika’s position in the thicket, she could see the strain on Maja’s features as she struggled against the triceratops’ strength.
Finally, the terror pushed Maja into a boulder it couldn’t trample. When Maja’s back struck the stone, the heavy thud sounded like a gunshot; she ground her teeth together and pushed back against the rock for leverage. With a determined roar, she tightened her core and twisted the creature’s head to one side. The beast released another deep bellow as Maja forced its flank into the ground and exposed its soft underbelly. In one motion, she reached behind her, ripped the boulder out of the earth, and beat the triceratops with it. After the third or fourth blow, the boulder shattered and the mangled creature dissipated.
Erika breathed a relieved sigh.
“Um…” Phoenix cleared his throat. “I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t definitely diggin’ this, but…”
Erika suddenly became very aware of Phoenix’s rigid, warm body beneath her. She straddled him; her palms rested on his pectorals which she used to keep her body erect. When she finally looked down at their positions, heat crept up her face unlike any she’d experienced before. Her mouth dropped open, and she froze. Phoenix slowly reached up toward her face, and she all but leapt off his torso and scooted back across the ground until she collided with a nearby tree.
Erika stuttered. “I didn’t mean to… I would never. Well, I mean I wouldn’t not ever. I think you’re very… but what I mean is…”
Phoenix’s cheeks glowed their own rosy sheen. Maybe some of the sticks and vines scratched up his face during their tumble, or maybe she only imagined his blush to make her feel better about hers. As Erika wrestled with her thoughts, Phoenix stood and approached her. Erika’s heart jumped into her throat, and it pounded so fast and so loud that she was certain he heard it. When he finally neared her, Phoenix reached for her face, again.
Erika shut her eyes; she didn’t know how to react. In the darkest parts of her heart, she knew she was a boy in the waking world. She knew something like this shouldn’t have made her feel anything, but it did. A convoluted mix of anticipation and fear seized hold of her and wrenched her guts into knots. Her shoulders shivered even though she wasn’t cold, and as much as she wanted to open her eyes, she just couldn’t bring herself to look at Phoenix.
“Your headband’s crooked,” Phoenix said softly. He adjusted the grassy accessory and extended his hand toward Erika. When she finally opened her eyes, the sight of his dazzling smile greeted her. All her fear and tension melted away, and an indescribable warmth turned her tightened insides into bits of cloud that fluttered around inside her. Her face still glowed, but it was more like a comforting warmth than an inferno. She reached up and took Phoenix’s hand.
“Right,” Erika said and returned his smile. “Thanks.”
Phoenix pulled Erika to her feet and plucked a few twigs from her hair. “Hey, you’re the one who kept me from getting skewered. You deserve the ‘thank you,’ here. So thanks, beautiful.”
Maja walked into the clearing’s center; she rotated her shoulders as though working out some stiffness from a morning exercise routine. Gaze, Erika, and Phoenix returned to the clearing and Maja’s side. Maja examined each of them. When her eyes fell upon Erika’s wounds, she snapped her gaze toward Phoenix and Gaze. “What happened?”
“Raptors, apparently. Little turkey ones.” Gaze scrunched her nose.
“You were supposed to keep an eye on her, Gaze,” Maja barked.
“What?! Hey, I did the best I could! I can’t be everywhere at–”
“You’re the most experienced terror hunter besides me. No excuses!”
“Maja, I’m fine!” Erika interrupted. She hated hearing Maja put Gaze through the ringer for her sake.
Maja stopped chastising Gaze and returned her attention to Erika. For a long moment all she did was stare at her with a blank expression; then, she knelt down in front of Erika and began examining the claw marks. Gaze turned her eyes from the two of them and stared at the ground a few moments before clicking her tongue and walking toward the mountain.
Without even looking up from her examination, Maja addressed Gaze in a stern voice. “Where are you going?”
“Rookie says we need to head up the mountain. Unless you think the hike’s too hard for her? Should I carry her?”
Maja’s face was unreadable stone. “Is that true, Erika?” Maja completed her exam and stood.
“Yeah. At least… I think so,” Erika said. “I think the dreamer’s up there.”
Maja stared at Erika. Her expression didn’t change, but the slight glint in her eyes spoke volumes that her face did not. “You’ve said something similar before.”
“And it proved right, didn’t it?” Phoenix stepped next to Erika and folded his arms. “I say we give it a shot. I’d rather not make this another multi-night excursion. Those are not cool.”
“And what do you think, Gaze?” Maja asked.
“Don’t look at me. Seeing that far through trees is one thing, but adding in the cliffs interferes with my vision too much. Besides, my job’s just to keep tabs on the rookie, right?”
“Don’t pout, Gaze.” Maja shook her head.
Gaze sighed before starting up the mountain’s slope. “I’m with Phoenix. We don’t have much to lose, and if it proves right, all the better. Let’s just get this over with before I find out that pterodactyls are like penguins and can’t fly.”
The climb up the mountain through thick jungles took its toll on Erika. By the time the group passed the mountain’s last trees, Erika’s body shined with sweat and her chest heaved with labored breaths. Throughout the journey, the voice in Erika’s head grew louder and more prominent. It repeated the same lines, but with each repetition the owner fell into deeper despair. Erika knitted her brows, and Phoenix suddenly placed a hand on her shoulder from behind.
“You okay?” He asked.
“I’m not sure,” Erika said with a frown. “Hey, about what Gaze said; could she really see the top of the mountain from the base?”
Phoenix smirked. “Nothing gets past Gaze’s eyes. It’s pretty sick some of the stuff she can do with ‘em. They got their limits, same as Maja’s strength, but even I don’t know all the details. Why?”
“It’s nothing,” Erika said. “I just keep… hearing things. I don’t know if you guys hear them too and just ignore them, or if I’m just going crazy.”
“Hearing things, huh? Can’t say about the others, but I don’t hear anything out here except bird chirps and the wind, and I bet those birds are probably terrors, too.”
Maja lifted her hand in front of the group, and they stopped. They had reached a plateau that jutted from the side of the mountain like a platform. An enormous rock extended from one side of the plateau roughly half the size of a football field and sloped up for several meters. Along its edge, a forest vastly different from the jungles at the mountain’s base cast a long shadow across the plateau. Maja, every bit as quiet as the air around them, nodded toward Gaze who studied the area.
When Gaze’s sweep reached a dark corner on the plateau, she squeezed Maja’s arm and tipped her head toward the shadows. “Rookie was right,” she whispered, “dreamer’s there.”
Maja whispered back. “It’s too quiet. Is a terror in the shadows, as well?”
Gaze shook her head.
He never approved… Told me to get my head out of the clouds… now he’s gone, and I’ll never be able to prove anything to him… I sacrificed so much time… I could have been there with him… it’s all because of my stupid pride and my stupid pipe dream…
The voice pounded in Erika’s ears. Erika knew it came from those shadows; she could almost see the air around the darkness tremble with despair.
“It’s a woman,” Erika whispered more to herself than her friends.
“Show us,” Maja whispered back. “Gaze, set up watch a bit higher up the mountain. I don’t trust that forest.”
Without a word, Gaze clambered up a slope directly to the group’s left. Phoenix and Maja stood at Erika’s left and right respectively, and together the three carefully descended a short cliff leading to the plateau. Once Erika reached the bottom of the cliff and stepped onto the plateau, she noted that it was shaped like a half-coliseum. The mountain formed a crest that circled all the way around it to the other side; the huge jutting rock finished off the side opposite the team, and the remaining edge faced the open sky. It was as though someone had taken a huge scoop out of the side of the mountain.
The group approached the dreamer’s dark corner; it didn’t take long for them to notice the human huddled against the corner where the least amount of light reached. From the few details Erika could garner, the woman couldn’t have been older than twenty. She was beautifully plump with a dark face full of freckles and wild, frizzy black hair that puffed out in every direction from under a safari hat. A pair of stylish glasses lay on the rocks next to her, and steady tears streamed from her rich brown eyes which she kept permanently fixed on the open sky. She wore a cargo vest full of pockets over a white button-up shirt, and a pair of tan slacks hugged her knees which she kept tucked tight against her chest.
Even when the group approached the dreamer, she remained completely unaware of their presence. Phoenix and Maja offered her a passing glance before they dropped into combat poses and scanned the shadows for terrors, but Erika kept her eyes on the dreamer. She watched her and listened to the despair in her voice, and an overpowering grief washed over her. Her heart dropped into her stomach, and small rivulets sprang from her eyes.
Erika sniffled. “She… lost someone. I think her father died? Maybe her grandfather? She was studying something. He never wanted her to… he must have thought it was too hard a field to break into or something.”
The dreamer’s head perked, and she looked around as though something had interrupted her grief. Erika reached toward the woman’s face. She wanted nothing more than to reach into the dreamer’s chest and pull out all the pain she felt inside her. She wanted to grab her heart and gently pull it up from her stomach right back into her chest where it belonged. She wanted to tell her that everything was going to be okay. Erika wanted to help her, but if she couldn’t, then maybe she could wipe away her tears.
That’s when Erika noticed the tears wobbling ever so slightly.
Cloud IX Volume II: Lucidity – Available Soon!