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“Em, it’s Halloween; what better night to finally face your fears?” Halcyon asked with a devilish smile to match her Halloween costume.

Emma, who had decided on an angel costume solely to pair with Halcyon’s, stared uneasily at the unlit house before them.

“You’re sure they’re in there? The monster rats that nearly killed us last year?” she asked incredulously.

“They’re called Tantibus Rats, and of course I’m sure!” Halcyon assured her. “I’ve seen them. Ruck brought them here after he helped us escape. He’s tamed them, and I think it will be good for you to see them like that.”

“And Ruck’s in there too?” Emma asked, slightly confused. “But Ruck is –”

“My boyfriend,” Halcyon finished her sentence. “He’s the one who introduced me to lucid dreaming and showed me what nightmares are for; confronting the most dangerous and horrifying situations you can imagine in a safe and controlled environment so that you’re better able to face challenges in the waking world. Em, since the Rats and the incident in your cellar, you’ve been…”

Halcyon struggled to find the most tactful words, but Emma saved her the trouble and just nodded.

“I know, Halcy. I know,” she admitted as she dejectedly hung her head, her tinsel halo nearly falling off.

“And I really think that Ruck can help you with that, like he helped me,” Halcyon offered her. “All I’m asking is that you come in with me, meet Ruck, see what he’s done with the Rats, and consider accepting him into your mind as a dream guide. You remember what he looks like, right? I know you only saw him for a few seconds before.”

“Yeah, I remember what he looks like,” she replied with a shudder. “But he’s not dangerous, though?”

“No. He’s scary, because he uses fear to help you grow, but he’s not dangerous,” Halcyon swore. “You trust me, don’t you Em? I wouldn’t be asking you to do this if I didn’t think it was something that would be good for you.”

“I trust you, Halcy,” Emma said with a stalwart nod. “Alright. Lead the way. Let’s get this over with.”

Smiling with excitement, Halcyon grabbed Emma by the hand and led her into the darkened house.

It was an older house, not quite Victorian but definitely at least a hundred years old. It had been made from sturdy brick and had weathered the passage of time well. Though it had been purchased over a year ago, no one who lived nearby had met or even seen their new neighbour yet. Vacant houses or homes inhabited by recluses were not so rare in Sombermorey as to warrant discussion, and if anyone had taken notice of Halcyon on one of her visits there, they had spoken of it to no one of any importance.

If someone else had attempted to gain admittance, they would have found the door both unsurprisingly locked and surprisingly resistant to forced entry, but it opened for Halcyon without even the need for a key. She pulled Emma through before she could attempt to renege on their agreement and swiftly shut the door behind them. Emma immediately cast her flashlight around the room, searching for anything that could be a potential threat.

While the house was sparsely furnished with whatever the previous owners had left behind, it wasn’t in a state of neglect either. Were it not for the fact the windows were all shuttered and blocking off any hint of the outside world, it likely wouldn’t have been all that unsettling of a place to be in.

“Ruck? Ruck, you here dude? I brought Emma with me to see the Rats,” Halcyon called out as she giddily made her way to the back of the house. She sang out his summoning invocation in case he wasn’t there, but also because she had just grown fond of it. “Red Ruck, run amok, crowned the Regent Red. Eyes aflame, soul untamed, come join me in my bed!

The floorboards creaked and groaned with every footfall, broadcasting their position to anyone or anything that might be lurking in the shadows. Emma kept her flashlight focused primarily on the floor, expecting to see the red-eyed black Rats coming skittering toward them at any moment. It wasn’t until she spun around to check behind her that the light’s beam was absorbed into the inky black form of a tall and muscular demon, who had managed to silently sneak up on her in spite of his size. His red eyes shone like blazing embers against the dark as he opened his mouth in a wide, toothy grin.

Emma naturally screamed and stumbled backwards before she managed to catch herself.

“Your imaginary boyfriend’s a real asshole!” she screamed at Halcyon, tremors of terror still cascading through her body.

“Yeah, but he’s my asshole,” Halcyon said proudly as she slid into his arms and stood up on her tiptoes to kiss him. “And he’s not ‘imaginary’. The term is thoughtform, or Tulpa.”

“Egregore, actually, since I was created and sustained by the thoughts of more than one being, though I admit that is a bit of a mouthful,” Ruck clarified. “It’s a delight to finally meet you properly, Emma, and I’ll take no offence if you don’t feel the same way. It takes courage to knowingly walk into a den of living nightmares; courage that I respect.”

“Thank – thank you,” Emma stammered, not knowing what else to say. “But… that’s what you are though, a living nightmare? You’re not like an actual, biblical demon, right?”

“I think she just asked if it hurt when you fell from Heaven, big guy,” Halcyon said with a flirtatious smile, eliciting a hardy laugh from Ruck.

“No Emma, I’m not a fallen angel, and I serve no master but myself, Satanic or otherwise,” he assured her. “As Halcy said, I’m a thoughtform; an imaginary friend who outgrew their creator rather than the other way around.”

“And, the Rats? What are they?” Emma asked.

“The creation of the mad scientist Erich Thorne. You’ve heard of him, yes?” Ruck asked. Emma nodded thoughtfully in response.

“He owns Thorne Tech, the local tech company,” she said.

“The Tantibus Rats escaped from his lab at some point, I’ve yet to uncover precisely when or how, and you and Halcy happened to stumble upon their hiding place before he could find them,” he explained.

“But he is looking for them though so you can’t say a word about this to anyone,” Halcyon informed her. Emma gave a quick nod of agreement.

“I won’t say anything about any of this. People would think I’m insane,” she huffed. “Or maybe they wouldn’t. I know that Sombermorey and Harrowick County have more than the usual amount of urban legends. I didn’t use to take them seriously, but then Halcy and I ran into some kind of brain monster in the tunnels under my house. Less than a year later, we found those damn Rats in the old Zellers store. Maybe I could have convinced myself that just one of those incidents had been a hallucination or psychotic breakdown or something, but not both. I know there’s paranormal stuff going on around here, and I’ve read so many crazy stories on about Thorne Tech, and Seneca Chamberlin and an undead brain in a jar, and the Witch who lives out in Harrowick Woods, and a magic snake cult, and cannibal twins, and the old guy who owns the oddity shop, and for some reason, freaky lesbian Clowns and I don’t know what’s real! I’m… I’m scared, Ruck, and that’s why I’m here. Halcy’s not afraid of anything, and I don’t think she’s ever really been afraid of anything, but she says that her lucid dreams with you have really helped to prepare her for real danger, like when she saved me from the Rats, and that in a town full of monsters, you’re her monster. I… I want that, too. I want to learn how to defend myself from all the paranormal shit that goes on around here, and I want a monster on my side.”

She sniffled, and realized that at some point during her rambling she had begun to cry. Inhaling deeply, she wiped the tears with her sleeve. Halcyon smiled sympathetically at her friend, and Ruck gave her an approving nod.

“Follow me then, Emma, and you’ll see what’s become of the last monsters you faced,” he offered.

Halcyon bounded ahead of him and opened up what looked to be a coat closet at the rear of the house, pulling on a false panel to reveal a set of stairs.

“Oh good, another secret cellar,” Emma said sarcastically. Halcyon leaned forward and reassuringly grabbed her hand.

“Everything will be fine this time; I promise,” she swore.

Gingerly leading her friend down the short flight of stairs, they stepped into a windowless, underground room lit by a single antique lamp, the stained-glass lampshade bathing the room in a slightly reddish haze. The table that held the lamp was also laden with a generous amount of store-bought rodent pet food, bedding, and related paraphernalia. The majority of the room was taken up by a large pen of four-and-a-half-foot-tall wooden panels.

Halcyon wasted no time in rushing over to the pen and peering over the top, eagerly waving Emma over to join her. Taking a deep breath, Emma slowly crept up beside Halcyon and timidly peeked into the pen, and saw that it was filled with dozens of black Rats. The lower three feet of the walls were lined with nesting boxes, walkways, and wire mesh to allow them to climb. Water bottles and feeding troughs lined the perimeter, hamster tubes and diagonal ladders crisscrossed the interior, and the floor was littered with rodent wheels and other suitable toys.

“It… it looks like…” Emma muttered, straining her memory to recall where she had seen this setup before.

“Universe 25,” Ruck told her as he took his place next to Halcyon. “John Calhoun’s infamous ‘mouse utopia’ experiment. It was a deliberate aesthetic choice on my part, but only that. I assure you that I’m quite committed to their well-being.”

“We both are,” Halcyon added. “I’m the one who’s been getting and bringing in supplies for them.”

“You paid for this?” Emma asked with a bemused grimace.

“No, Ruck did. He gave me his credit card,” Halcyon smirked, quickly flashing a shiny black credit card from her pocket.

“Credit card? He’s not real!” Emma balked.

“Well, neither is money, strictly speaking. It’s as much an Egregore as I am,” Ruck claimed. “But if you must know, my activity in the Nightmare Realm has netted me the occasional windfall of worldly currency. Having little need of it, I’m mostly content to let it sit and compound interest until I find a use for it.”

Emma shook her head slightly, and decided the issue wasn’t worth pursuing. Her attention instead returned to the Rats running around in the pen beneath her.

“But these Rats are real? They aren’t Tulpas or whatever?” she asked.

“They’re completely real, biologically immortal and extremely resistant to physical harm,” Ruck answered. “When threatened, they’re able to telepathically induce nightmarish hallucinations, as you and Halcy experienced firsthand. Such waking nightmares are beyond my abilities, so I was curious to see if I could train these creatures to serve as my envoys in the waking world.”

“Halcy said that you only found seven Rats, and that you’ve been breeding them,” Emma said. “I would have expected more after so long. Rats breed like rabbits, don’t they?”

“I’ve been selectively breeding them,” Ruck clarified. “The original Tantibus Rats were all males, so I had to breed them with carefully chosen but still perfectly mundane female rats. While Thorne’s modifications were not genetic, they fortunately proved to be hereditary nonetheless – with a little supernatural coaxing on my part, at least. The first generation’s abilities were the weakest, but by breeding only the strongest of the offspring, their powers are now almost as potent as their forefathers.”

“And… what is it you’re planning to do with them?” Emma asked hesitantly.

“Like you said, Em; in a town full of monsters, it’s good to have some monsters on your side,” Halcyon reminded her.

“There’s another reason I’ve been keeping a low profile for so long, aside from the time it’s taken to breed the rats,” Ruck said. “Two years ago this very night, a being called Emrys was unleashed, and he’s been going around devouring Egregores like myself to increase his own power. And if that wasn’t bad enough, one of my other ‘clients’ – who incidentally is far less appreciative of my services than brave Halcy here – has decided that deliberately offering me to Emrys as a sacrifice is the best way to kill two birds with one stone. He thinks that I don’t know what he’s plotting, but I do. These Rats here are my insurance policy in case Emrys decides to stop by for a bite.”

Ruck materialized a bone flute out of the nether and began to play. The Rats immediately took notice, stopping whatever they were doing to gaze up at him in spellbound wonder. Halcy reached out her arm to the Rat nearest her, and it happily climbed up it and perched upon her shoulder.

“See, Em? He’s tamed them,” she said with a broad smile. “Go on and pet it. I was still afraid of them too at first, but it’s so cathartic to have them under control like this.”

The Rat stared quizzically at her with its crimson eyes, and she wondered if it remembered her. She had no way of knowing if it was one of the original Tantibus Rats or not. Tentatively, she reached out a hand and lightly brushed the creature’s fur, flinching as it leaned in to receive more affection. As the seconds ticked past and the creature didn’t lash out at her, she slowly began to feel her anxiety ease.

“That’s it, nice and easy. If you don’t scare them, they don’t scare you,” Halcyon told her. “When they sleep, they go into the Nightmare Realm too. That’s where Ruck and I train them. If you let Ruck inside your head, you can come into the Nightmare Realm tonight and we’ll put on a show for you in our Coliseum. Everything the Rats can do in there, they can do out here too. What they did to us last year, they’ll do for us, to anyone and anything we want. You learn how to command them, like I can command them, and you won’t need to be afraid of anything again, Em.”

Emma took a moment to consider what she was getting into. Saying yes would mean going deeper into the occult underworld that so terrified her, but it would also mean learning more about it and having the means to defend herself from it. Ruck still seemed like a monster, but that had been what she had come looking for. The Rats still seemed like monsters, but they were monsters who were amicable to ear scritches. She stared at the Rat on Halcyon’s shoulder, then at the rest in the pen below. She remembered the first time she had seen them, their seven pairs of red eyes glowing in the dark, their monstrous dream-forms swiftly overpowering and subduing her, chanting around her as she lay helpless and terrified upon the floor.

She technically wouldn’t have been in that situation if it hadn’t been for Halcyon, but she also never would have gotten out of it without her either. Halcyon’s bravery certainly bordered on recklessness at times, but it hadn’t let either of them down yet. If that same reckless bravery had led Halcyon to throw her lot in with a Dream Demon and his army of Tantibus Rats, then that was good enough for Emma.

“All right Ruck, I’m in,” she said with a reticent sigh. He promptly ceased blowing on his flute and looked up at her with a curious glance. “So, how… how does this work?”

“That depends. Halcyon first accepted me into her mind willingly yet subconsciously when she first beheld my visage upon the can of CODE NIGHTMARE REGENT RED,” Ruck explained, walking over to the table and pulling out a small glass phial of red sand. “She later accepted me both willingly and consciously, but I sense that you are still reluctant. I therefore offer you this totem of sleeping sand to put you at ease. I will only ever enter your dreams when you place it under your pillow, and they will always be fully lucid dreams so that you can wake up at will. How does that sound, Emma?”

He held out the phial of sand to her, and she accepted it gently, holding it up to the dim light to better inspect it.

“A better deal than I was expecting, to be honest,” she said, clutching her fist tightly around the phial. “Thank you. Both of you; thank you. I’ll put it under my pillow tonight.”

“You’re going to love being a dream walker, Em,” Halcyon beamed at her, taking the Rat off her shoulder and placing it in the palm of her hand. She held it out towards Emma, and seemingly at her command, it took on a dream-form of a small octopus. “Ruck and I will see to it.”


It was a little after midnight, and Emma was back in her own home and nestled snuggly in her bed. She held up the phial of sleeping sand to the dim light as she silently debated with herself whether or not to go through with it. She had said that she would, and while Halcyon may have understood if she decided to back out of it, Emma knew she would still be disappointed, and perhaps even insulted. She really had risked a lot in revealing the Rats to her, something she had done because she trusted her. If Emma backed out, what other conclusion could she expect Halcyon to draw other than that she did not trust her the same?

“You wanted this. You wanted this!” she reminded herself in a harsh whisper. “Just do it. What was the incantation Halcy used? Ah… Red Ruck, run amok, crowned the Regent Red. Eyes aflame, soul untamed, come join me in my bed!

She hastily tossed the phial under her pillow and then laid down with her eyes cinched shut, commanding herself to sleep.

Normally, that’s the worst possible way anyone could ever try to fall asleep, but fortunately for her, Ruck’s sleeping sand did the trick.

The next thing she knew, she was standing in the Emperor’s Box of a Coliseum made from bloodred sandstone. The vast pit in the middle was filled with the same scarlet sleeping sand that Ruck had gifted her, and the crimson clouds overhead looked like they could start pouring blood at any moment.

Seated – no, growing out of the bleachers were cancerous black masses. It seemed that they had all strived towards a humanoid form, but only a few had actually succeeded.

An anachronistic jumbotron hovered above the ancient arena, massive enough that it would have crushed any competitors beneath it should whatever fancy that was holding it aloft suddenly fail.

Emma shrieked and cowered as a titanic demon flew over the top of the Coliseum, but the cancerous crowd simply cheered its arrival with uproarious excitement.

“Good evening, Nightmare fans, and welcome to a very special All Hallow's Eve at the Red Regent Coliseum!” a female announcer’s voice boomed out from the jumbotron. “As always, I’m your host, Zephyria Zazz, and tonight we have a fan favourite returning to the arena to see if she and her army of trained rodents can survive another three rounds against the worst imaginary enemies that the Regent Red can dream up. Let’s make some noise for the gladiatrix Halcyon and her Tantibus Rats!”

A ring of red fire ignited at one end of the arena, with Halcyon and the Rats immediately materializing within it. Of the dozens of Rats that had been kept in the pen, Halcyon had chosen only thirteen of the best to accompany her into combat. In the Nightmare Realm, they were the size of German Shepherds, and seemed to display a much more dog-like form of pack mentality as well.

Halcyon’s dream-form was a somewhat idealized version of her actual body. Her tanned skin was darker, with her blonde hair fairer and her blue eyes brighter to contrast even more strikingly against it. She was taller and more muscular as well, clad in obsidian black gladiator armour and wielding a sword and shield. The armour was highly stylized, arguably to the point of being impractical since it left about half her body uncovered, far more like something one would find in a fantasy series or video game than actual history. Emma noted that she was barefoot as well, but recalled that that was how gladiators fought so that they could better grip the sand.

“Well, at least she’s not in a chainmail bikini,” she said to herself.

“Emma! Hey, Emma!” Halcyon shouted to her, excitedly waving her sword at the Emperor’s Box.

“That’s right folks, we have some special guests here tonight,” Zephyria announced. “Kindly extend a warm welcome to Miss Emma Xiang, a personal friend of tonight’s champion who’s here with us for the very first time.”

The black mounds of amorphous, overgrown flesh quivered and cooed in greeting to her, and she politely raised her right hand and gave a little queenly wave.

“And sharing the Emperor’s Box with her tonight is our old friend Mr. Solomon Strange, a representative of tonight’s sponsor, The Dire Insomnium. Sleep soundly knowing the Sleepless are always keeping their eye on you.”

Emma looked behind her, and saw a tall man in a shabby brown suit and a large, round head sitting with his legs crossed and his hands folded in his lap. Every time she tried to look at his face, she found herself unable to focus on it, rendering it a jumbled mess.

“Congratulations and/or condolences, young lady/old girl,” the Strange Man nodded at her, his voice possessing a distorted cadence like an audio recording played backwards.

“And now, Nightmare fans, scream as loud as you can for our patron, our overlord, the Regent Red himself; Red Ruck!”

Emma jumped back as the space between her and the Strange Man was engulfed by an enormous plum of crimson fire, leaving Ruck standing proudly with his wings unfurled as his carbuncular citizenry went crazy at his arrival.

“A spectacle and/or fire hazard as always, your Regency,” the Strange Man said with a calm nod, indifferent and possibly unaware of the fact that his pant leg had caught fire.

“Emma; a pleasure to have you with us tonight,” Ruck smiled, extending his hand out towards her. “Please, come stand by my side. I want to see what you think of our arena here.”

Reluctantly, Emma accepted his hand and walked with him towards the edge of the Emperor’s Box.

“What about him?” she asked, gesturing back to the Strange Man.

“He’s fine,” Ruck assured her.

“Yes. I am fine. I am doing a meme, like the children do on the internet,” the Strange Man said as the fire rapidly spread from his pants to the rest of his body. “This is fine.”

“My fellow phantoms of this foul phantasmagoria, before you stands our arena champion, a fearless soul in a realm made of nightmares!” Ruck shouted, his booming voice requiring no electronic amplification to be heard by all. “Time and time again now I have thrown my most terrible creations at her, and not once has she yielded, not once has she succumbed to fear! The Tantibus Rats that once tormented her she has subdued, and now fight on her behalf! Seldom have I met anyone as brave or as skilled in dream walking as our young Halcyon, and tonight you will once more bear witness to her bravery and skill! Rejoice and behold the grand spectacle of unfettered combat between our fearless Halcyon and the most fearsome foes that the Nightmare Realm has to unleash!”

The ring of fire holding Halcyon and the Rats instantly dissipated, replaced by one high above them which regurgitated a host of winged creatures that looked like tumour-ridden pterodactyls that had been dragged through an oil spill. Most of them remained airborne, but the largest of them, a Quetzalcoatlus-looking behemoth, crashed straight down.

“For the first round, it looks like Ruck’s mixing together the two primordial fears of giant reptiles and disease with the modern fears of oil dependence and environmental destruction,” Zephyria announced. “A swarm of these winged wonders can easily impale you a dozen times over and rip out your organs from the inside, and yet pollution from the very fossil fuels they’ll one day become are responsible for their high cancer rates and loss of habit. Tragic.”

Halcyon and the Rats had to scatter to avoid being crushed by the falling Quetzalcoatlus, making them easy picking for the flying creatures. The Rats all shifted their dream-forms into horned, draconian theropods, large enough for Halcyon to ride. Leaping onto one’s back, she transformed her sword and shield into a bow and arrow and began to fire off shots. The Rats began exhaling great streams of fire at their aerial assailants, their slick coats of oil rendering them highly flammable.

Unfortunately, this didn’t seem to stop them or even slow them down. If anything, it made them more dangerous, as Nightmare Fire hurt just as much as the real thing, and could burn for far longer.

As the Rats zoomed around the arena, ducking attacks from both the smaller pterosaurs and the great Quetzalcoatlus, Halcyon fired arrow after arrow from an inexhaustible quiver.

“It’s a good thing you can’t run out of ammo in a dream, Nightmare Fans. This chick has the accuracy of an Imperial Stormtrooper,” Zephyria commented. Halcyon pointed her bow and shot an arrow directly at the lofty announcer’s box beneath the floating jumbotron. Emma strained to see if it had hit anything, but she was sure she heard glass shatter. “Ruck, come on! Are you going to let her get away with that? That’s got to violate some sort of rule!”

Ruck just chuckled, and made no pretext of trying to discipline his champion.

While Halcyon was certainly firing more misses than hits, the hits she landed were successful in skewering the burning pterosaurs right through their hearts. They fell to the ground as near-lifeless clumps, twitching slightly as they were scooped up into the jaws of the Rats, armoured palettes protecting them from the flames as they crushed bones between their teeth, snuffing them out until the burnt carcasses were safe to swallow.

Soon only the Quetzalcoatlus was left, its hide pinged with many arrows that seem to do it no harm. The Rats formed a perimeter around it and blasted it with fire, but even as it burned it dragged itself through the sand towards Halcyon, snapping its crooked beak at her as it swatted away the Rats with the remnants of its wings. One well-placed swiped knocked Halcyon off her steed and sent her tumbling. Before she could get up, the Quetzalcoatlus had her pinned, looming over her with its beak agape as it roared triumphantly.

Wasting not even a second, Halcyon imagined an explosive arrow from her quiver and fired it down the behemoth’s throat while she had the chance. As the Quetzalcoatlus bore down to devour her, its torso exploded, sending flaming chunks of tetratomic flesh splattering all over the arena.

All the spectators burst into wild applause at their champion’s victory, including Emma.

“Holy shit!” she cheered, awestruck by the bizarre performance that had unfolded before her. “Halcy, you’re amazing!”

“And round one goes to Halcyon. Hardly surprising, but I really thought the big one might have had her there for a minute,” Zephyria said. “Well folks, if I know Ruck, round two’s going to be a bit of a breather before we get to what he’s saving up for the finale, so let’s not drag this out too much, shall we? What do you have for round two there, Ruck?”

Eight vertical rings of fire appeared around the perimeter of the arena, each one producing an enormous black lycanthrope stooped down on all fours. Halcyon remounted one of the Rats and rallied them to the center of the arena, the remaining twelve forming a defensive barrier around her and her steed. The Lycans prowled around the group cautiously to evade their fire breath, snarling to intimidate them and waiting for any opportunity to attack.

Something was wrong, though. With only eight adversaries, Halcyon could easily dispatch one Rat per Lycan and still be left with four to defend her and her mount. Even for a relatively easy middle round, Ruck would never make things that easy. Suspecting a trap, she commanded the Rats to tighten the perimeter around her even more, transforming her bow into a long, silver-tipped pike to impale her enemies from a safe distance.

The crowd began to grow impatient with the lack of action, booing and even throwing rotten vegetables into the arena.

“Since our fearless champion has decided to coward behind her pet rodents, now seems like a good time to plug tonight’s sponsor,” Zephyria announced. “As I mentioned earlier, tonight’s blood bath has been brought to you by The Dire Insomnium. Tired of letting your dreams go to waste? With over three hundred years of experience harnessing dream energy, The Dire Insomnium can help. Their expert dream masons will painlessly install a conceptual wind farm inside your subconscious mind, exporting 90 percent of the captured energy to help those so unjustly cursed with eternal sleeplessness. The remaining ten percent will be put to work improving your own mind however you wish. It's really a win-win for everyone, I don’t even know why you need me to sell you on it. For more information or to see if you qualify, just reach out to our special guest Solomon Strange after the show. Solomon would also like me to remind you that dream energy is one hundred percent sustainable and emissions-free, so why not do your part for the environment and reach out to The Dire Insomnium today?”

“You will never sleep more soundly than when you are perpetually watched by those who shall never sleep again!” the Strange Man shouted, still steadily burning away without any concern.

“And now back to the fight… is what I would say, if our champion would get her ass in gear and do something!”

“What is she waiting for?” Emma whispered to Ruck.

“For the Lycans to make the first mistake,” Ruck said proudly.

Sure enough, the Alpha Lycan had grown impatient, and charged towards its prey with a ferocious hunger in its red eyes. It didn’t even make it half the distance before stepping on a land mine that had been activated especially for that round, blowing it to pieces. The rest of its pack began yelping in confusion, but Halcyon sighed in relief upon realizing what had happened.

“Mines!” she cried, knowing that had she sent her Rats out to fight the Lycans, they most likely wouldn’t even have made it to the perimeter. Or at least, not in their Raptor forms. She shifted seven of their forms into small, fleetfooted rabbits; hopefully light enough to avoid triggering the mines, and small enough to have less of a chance of hitting one even if they weren’t.

The seven Rats sprinted off out into the arena, and the Lycans immediately gave into instinct and broke into pursuit. The Rats zigged and zagged to cover as much area as possible, and within seconds all but one of them had led their pursuing Lycan over a mine, utterly incinerating them.

The final Lycan, perhaps the smartest of them with some inkling as to what was going on, abandoned its rodent quarry and leapt straight towards Halcyon, overtop of the mined sand as well as her draconian guard. Unfortunately for it, Halcyon still had the pike well in hand, and with a single strong thrust, she let it impale itself upon it.

“And round two goes to the rascally rabbits. A bit slow to start, but an impressive use of environmental hazards, I’ll give her that,” Zephyria conceded. “But now, Nightmare fans, it's what you’ve all been waiting for, the third and final round; The Sand Kraken!”

The sand in the arena became unusually fluid, and began to swirl around and around in a mighty vortex. Halcyon and her Rats all raced to the edge where the sand was slowest and highest, furthest away from the deep maelstrom that was forming in the middle. From the eye in the center of the sandstorm erupted a massive black beak, accompanied by numerous wraith-like tentacles that reached so high and so far that not even the spectators were safe.

Emma shrieked and attempted to retreat to safety, but Ruck held her in place.

“Halcy would be very disappointed if you weren’t here to witness her greatest victory,” he said to her.

The Sand Kraken screeched so loudly that the entire Coliseum shook. It whipped its tentacles around wildly, thrashing at the crowd and sending them flying in random directions. The Rats all resumed their default forms and each leapt onto a tentacle at the first opportunity, grasping into the cephalopod flesh with their claws and holding on for dear life as they began to gnaw through them. The Kraken screamed as it tried to shake them loose or knock them off, but they proved to be as tenacious as their mistress.

Unfortunately, tenacity didn’t seem to be enough, as they failed to make much progress at chewing through the beast's many arms. Halcyon, now wielding a large battle axe, attempted to hack through them as she deftly evaded their pummeling and erratic blows, but even this proved too ineffective to work.

But when she saw the red lightning flicker across the sky, she realized what she needed to do.

With a sharp whistle, she commanded the Rats to change tactics. Each ceased their gnawing and climbed as far along their tentacle as they could, abandoning it for the jumbotron at the first opportunity. As more and more of the Rats made it up there, the more the Kraken focused its attacks upon it, and Halcyon was soon able to climb one of its tentacles like a beanstalk and reach the jumbotron herself.

“What the hell are you doing? I told you, the announcer box is off-limits!” Zephyria protested.

Halcyon paid her no heed, instead climbing to the very top of the floating jumbotron, leading the grasping tentacles after her. Once she reached the roof, she used the pointed end of her battle axe to impale one of the tentacles and pin it to the jumbotron. Before it had a chance to break free, she transfigured the axe into a towering lightning rod, one so heavy that the jumbotron tilted with the weight of it. Almost immediately, the air around it began to tingle, foretelling the imminent lightning strike.

“Jump!” Halcyon shouted as she leapt from the jumbotron, with all thirteen of her rats immediately following in her wake. Before any of them could hit the ground, both the Kraken and the jumbotron were struck by a blinding bolt of scarlet lightning. All the screens on the jumbotron went dead, and the Kraken dangled limply from its one pinned tentacle, moaning weakly as if it still had some life left in it.

If it did, it was quickly snuffed out by the jumbotron following from the air and crushing the Kraken beneath it, both of them getting swept up in the turbulent sand below.

Halcyon and her Rats ducked and ran frantically as they evaded the shrapnel and Kraken guts being tossed out by the maelstrom, but the sand quickly lost inertia and began to settle, leaving a shredded carcass and the strewn debris of the jumbotron scattered across the arena.

Emma saw a female dream demon who she assumed must have been Zephyria dig herself out of the rubble, and for a moment she feared the fight wasn’t over. Fortunately, however, Zephyria seemed more exasperated than enraged and just stumbled out of the arena while giving middle fingers to both Halcyon and Ruck.

“And that’s round!” Ruck announced, stepping in for the now absent Zephyria. “I present to you, winner and still champion, Halcyon and the Tantibus Rats!”

Halcyon fished her polymorphic weapon out of the debris and held it triumphantly over her head as the entire crowd cheered wildly for her, Emma loudest of all.

“You’re impressed, then?” Ruck asked with a smug smile. “Everything she did with those Rats here, she could do out in the waking world. More than ample protection for any real threat you could conceivably encounter, wouldn’t you agree? The only difference is that here, the only consequence of failure is humiliation. Here, you can learn how to master the Rats against a legion of my nightmarish creations without fear of death or injury, fail as many times as you need to until you are as invincible as Halcy here. Does that interest you?”

“Absolutely!” Emma nodded eagerly, her dream-form donning the same armour as Halcyon as an outward reflection of her newfound certainty. “Train me! Train me like you’ve trained Halcy! Now! Er, please?”

Ruck laughed, and waved his hand dismissively at the gathered crowd.

“Show’s over folks. Please clear the Coliseum. I’ve got a new fighter to train,” he ordered. Without complaint, all his subjects evaporated into a black mist and were blown out of the arena by a sudden gust of wind.

“Ah,” Emma said, gesturing to the still-flaming figure of the Strange Man.

“Yes, sorry. He’s not one of my subjects,” Ruck explained. He waited a moment to see if the Strange Man would leave of his own accord, but he showed no indication that he would. “Go home, Solomon!”

“This is fine,” the Strange Man nodded, unfolding his legs and rising from his seat, casually strolling towards the nearest exit as if he hadn’t been on fire for the last half an hour.

“Now then,” Ruck said, turning his full attention back towards Emma. “Let’s get to work. With enough practice and dedication, you and Halcy should make for quite the formidable team.”

Written by The Vesper's Bell
Content is available under CC BY-SA