Kendra squirmed under the werewolf's crushing weight. Its original form had already been enormous, at over seven feet of muscle, fur, and gnashing teeth. Now that it had torn itself inside out to reveal a bigger wolfman underneath, it had to be at least ten feet tall. Kendra couldn't even start to guess at its full weight. With its right forearm and elbow alone, the werewolf had her pressed tight to the grassy surface of the picnic area.
Reminding herself that she was dreaming hadn't worked so far, but Kendra tried it again anyhow. Maybe it would help to focus on the details. Being pinned under a monster in a dream -- she knew what this was. Sleep paralysis, it was called, or hypnogogic or hypnopompic something or other. She'd read about this in a magazine article when she was a kid. It was a moment of terror where you're partially awake but the body can't move yet, so you hallucinate up an explanation and conclude that your chest's being sat on by a night hag or immobilized by the raygun of a UFO alien. Any second now, she'd wake up in her bed, wrapped in the sheets, scared out of her mind.
Except she wasn't waking up.
And normally when you're suffering sleep paralysis, you don't have time to recall the details of magazine articles about sleep paralysis.
"Don't wake up," the werewolf said.
The ground shook. Rockets screamed overhead, their volume quickly accelerating. The werewolf looked up. Following his eyeline, Kendra saw a speck circling overhead. The shape grew larger, spiraling down toward them. The lycanthrope muttered a curse word under his breath. Although it was one of Kendra's own personal favorites, she was surprised to hear it coming from the monster's mouth.
The wolfman leapt off her, his huge paw encircling her wrist. He pulled her to her feet and tried to sweep her into his arms. Kendra resisted, her legs windmilling furiously. The wolf caught her throat in the crook of his arm. "Hold on," he growled. Opting for compliance over strangulation, she let the tension fall from her body. In great lupine hops, he hauled her up the brush-covered embankment onto the roadway above. He easily hurdled the guardrail to step onto the empty highway Kendra had seen on her way into the campground.
Many of the derelict stores and gas stations she'd noted before were now nowhere in sight. A bizarre cloverleaf towered over the desolate roadway like a forbidding concrete temple. Kendra took these spatial alterations in stride. Some portions of this weird dream world seemed fixed; others transmuted themselves whenever you looked away from them. Across the street, however, one building still stood. A sprawling, low-slung prefab structure sat dwarfed under its own titanic sign, which proclaimed it as CHANG HO'S FURNITURE BARN.
Tightening his grip on her, the werewolf bounded across the four-lane highway toward it. As it jumped over the median, he glanced up into the sky behind it. Kendra thought she detected a worried expression on his canine face. He cleared the roadway and skittered across the gravel parking lot.
He was within twenty yards of the furniture store's double wooden doors when the sign flew to splinters, accompanied by the high-pitched whine of revving engines. An airborne human figure, encased in peculiar plastic armor, blasted through the remnants of the shattered sign. The werewolf spun around; shards of wood rained down on his back. He yelped as they pierced him, then turned again, hunkered down, and made a dash for the doorway. Kendra and the wolf went sprawling into the furniture showroom, with its aisle upon aisle of couches, chairs, and chests of drawers. She'd seen all of them before. Chang Ho's Furniture Barn housed all the furniture of her every childhood home, of every friend and relative's house she could remember.
Freed from the werewolf's grasp, she scrambled for safety, diving behind a couch. It was her grandmother's overstuffed chesterfield, upholstered in nubbly fabric, in a shade of dusty blue you never see any more.
"Kendra!" the werewolf growled.
The doors blew open. Kendra peeked up from behind the chesterfield to see the armored figure striding into the store. He looked a like a boy's action figure sprung to full-sized life. Armor pieces of orange and green polymer, their surfaces decorated with sculpted dials, cables, and other techno-doodads, covered him from his blocky boots to his helmeted head. A man's face, blond-haired and lantern-jawed, was partially visible through the headpiece's blue, semitranslucent faceplate. "She's not yours, wolfman," he said, his voice a clarion of confidence.
"We'll see about that, Provider," replied the lycanthrope, his feet nervously pawing the warehouse's concrete floor.
"This won't turn out well for you," said the Provider. "I'm a dream lord. You're only a resident."
"You think I'll just walk away from here?"
"No," said the Provider. "I guess not." He reached behind him and grabbed a large chainsaw that had been strapped to his back. Although it was cast in plastic, like the rest of him, it came to whirring life when he pulled its cord. The chain spun around the blade, throwing droplets of grease across the showroom. The drops landed on the concrete floor, spattering up to coalesce into humanoid figures. These became a trio of hunters, dressed in deerskin and wielding axes made of stone and bone. Slung across their backs were a selection of bone tools and human skulls. Raised cicatrices squiggled across the flesh of their well-muscled arms. A damp, loamy rainforest smell wafted from them.
Shouting indecipherable battle cries, they charged the werewolf all at once. He elbowed one in the head and smacked another in the face with the side of his own weapon. The third landed a solid blow on his shoulder. The wolfman grabbed a free-standing torchére light fixture and used it to push them back. With mighty swings, he knocked out each hunter in turn.
The Provider revved his chainsaw a second time, shedding more grease droplets. These coalesced in midair, transforming themselves into an orangutanlike figure wearing a bandolier dripping with leather pouches. The new creature dipped its long fingers into the first of these pouches, throwing a powder of crushed, dried vegetable matter at the werewolf's eyes. Kendra's kidnapper yowled, blinded, as the orangutan leapt onto him, biting his neck.
The wolfman threw his attacker into a chest of drawers, only to be assaulted by a new being summoned from the grease droplets shooting from the Provider's chainsaw. This one was half-man, half-boar. It dove onto the werewolf, goring him with yellowy tusks. The werewolf tore at its throat. The boarman tottered back, giving the orangutan-man an opening to toss another handful of powder, bright yellow this time, into the lycanthrope's eyes. The wolfman scratched feebly at his chest, yipped, and dashed for the exit. Orangutan and boarman pursued him, but vanished back into grease droplets when the Provider cut the power to his chainsaw.
The plastic-armored man walked through the aisles of remembered furniture. "Miss? Are you there?"
Kendra stayed put, her spine tight against the back of her grandmother's long-deceased chesterfield.
The Provider drew nearer. "The werewolf called you Kendra. Is that your name? Kendra?"
She thought about running, but where to? He'd driven her abductor off. She decided to trust him, but only a little. Kendra worked her way to an upright position. The Provider came over to steady her, holding out his polymer hand. "Everything's okay now. You'll be all right."
Kendra touched his glove for an instant, then balanced herself by leaning on the couch.
"Whoa," said the Provider.
"No wonder you were able to remain in the dreamscape so long with a werewolf attacking you. You've got the stuff, lady."
She walked around the couch and plopped into it. The room swam. "The stuff?"
"You ever have real vivid dreams when you were a kid?"
"Sure. Yeah. Doesn't everybody?"
"No, not at all. How about lucid dreams, where you control, like, certain aspects of the dream environment. Ever have those?"
"That confirms it then. You got the stuff. To be a dream lord, that is." He awkwardly perched on the edge of a recliner. It was her late father's TV-watching chair from their place in Boston in the early eighties. "That must have been why the monster was chasing you. Did I forget to introduce myself? I'm the Provider. Kind of a silly name, isn't it? But if you can't follow your dreams in the land of dream, where can you, huh?"
"That's supposed to be nonsense you're talking, right?"
"You said you were a dream lord. What does that mean, exactly?"
The Provider tapped the top of his helmet as if attempting to scratch his head. "Uh, well, it means I'm a real person like you, first of all. I'm asleep, dreaming this, same as you. But that's just the beginning. 'Cause there's plenty of real sleeping folk you'll bump into here in the dreamscape, alongside the purely imaginary types, the creatures and figments, and what have you. Being a dream lord means you can go one step better and learn to control the creatures to make 'em fight your enemies for you. Well, control isn't exactly the right term, but you know. One concept at a time."
"And you're telling me I'm a dream lord, too."
He laughed, then covered his faceplate in embarrassment. "Oops, sorry. Didn't mean to mock you or nothing. No, no, all I'm saying is you got the potential to become a dream lord -- if you put the work in. But it's really, really hard and takes a long time. I almost fried my brain becoming the dream lord I am now."
"And my potential to become a whatever, a dream lord -- that's why the werewolf attacked me? And the zombies before him?"
"These monsters you encounter, they're residents of the dreamscape. The collective unconscious, I've heard it called. Summoned up out of our joint fears and worries. They prey on us, because that's what we made them to do. And they especially hate dream lords, because we have the power to push back. Without the ability to instill fear, they're nothing."
Kendra sat up. "So what would have happened if he'd got me? I mean, us ordinary dreamers, can we get into trouble here? Trouble that means anything in the real world?"
He shrugged his blocky epaulettes. "Yeah, happens all the time. You can go crazy here. Even get killed in your sleep. Though that's rare."
She leaned in, trying to meet his eyes. "Listen, I'm worried for my sister. I had a dream where she got captured by a creature. A gargantuan muscle-bound thing with snake-tentacle thingies coming out of its back."
The Provider clucked. "Dreadmorph ogre. Yep, that's bad news all right. You been able to talk to her, during the day I mean?"
"No, she's gone missing. Can I find her in this so-called dreamscape? Rescue her here, before she goes crazy or whatever?"
"Could you do it for me? Perform your action figure routine and locate her for me?"
He sounded forlorn. "Finding people's not my strong point. I'm more your meat-and-potatoes fighty kind of guy."
"So let's say I want to walk this long, hard road to becoming a dream lord. What do I do?"
"Gee, I dunno."
"What do you mean, you don't know?"
"You can't really be told, you know? You have to find out by doing. It's like a quest, right? You go out, meet the creatures of dream, gain knowledge from 'em, learn how to take on their power."
Kendra checked her wounded shoulder. Maybe because she had forgotten about it, she was whole again. There would be a lot of rules to work out here. "And I suppose, seeing as this is a quest and all, this knowledge is found in a place of danger."
"I suppose you could put it that way."
She stood up. "All right, fighty guy. Take me to a place of danger."