“CODE NIGHTMARE REGENT RED. Sounds like an energy drink or something,” Halcyon remarked as she examined the unfamiliar product through the glaring plexiglass of the vending machine. The machine itself was also new and almost as strange. It was one of several similar units that now lined the outside of the Elderberry Crescent Recreation Center, which had recently reopened for outdoor activities. All the machines bore the name ‘Talk & Tap’, advertising that customers made their choices via voice interface and paid with a chip card or phone app to minimize contact. Sure enough, as soon as Halcyon spoke the words ‘CODE NIGHTMARE REGENT RED’ a product profile appeared on the screen, listing the price as $2.75. “Cool!”
“Yeah, ‘cool’. This thing’s basically a giant Alexa, recording everything in earshot,” her friend Emma opined, scowling at the bank of surveillance devices that had invaded the newly reopened Rec Center.
“Well, they can’t rely on facial recognition as much as they used to, so they’re expanding audio surveillance. ‘Adapt. Improvise. Overcome.’,” Halcyon smirked.
“It’s bullshit. They’re going to be collecting market data on everyone who comes through here, selling it, and they’re still charging nearly three dollars for a twelve-ounce energy drink,” Emma objected. “That’s probably why this thing is only carrying products we’ve never heard of; market research.”
“Yeah, they’re crafty,” Halcyon said disinterestedly, her attention dedicated to reading the product profile. “This sounds pretty good actually. It’s made with cherries, cranberries, pomegranates, plus it’s got B6, B12, and herbal extracts. I think I’m going to try it.”
Emma leaned in to get a better view of the can in question. It was covered in crimson and scarlet flames, with a silhouette of a muscular, cackling demon in the middle. Beneath him was the product’s slogan ‘Who Needs Sleep Anyway?’.
“It’s ridiculously macho,” Emma rolled her eyes, before moving her face to what she assumed was the machine’s microphone. “Did you guys hear that? If you’re going to make your products pointlessly gendered then I’ll gladly do you the courtesy of not buying it.”
“It’s not macho, it’s badass. And I’m a badass chick,” Halcyon boasted, patting her bared abdominal muscles with an equally toned arm. Emma mimed the Neil De Grasse Tyson ‘We’ve got a badass over here’ meme in response. “I’m getting it. Do you want anything?”
“No, thank you. We shouldn’t pay for the privilege of being Guinea pigs. If they want a focus group, they should be the ones paying us,” Emma retorted. Halcyon gave a half-hearted nod, but still pulled out her phone and tapped on the Google Pay app.
“Payment accepted. Thank-you! Please retrieve your purchase from the receptacle, and have a nice day,” the vending machine spoke in the typical cheery, monotone female voice most digital assistants spoke with. The can was pushed onto a movable conveyor belt, which then deposited it into the waist-high receptacle.
Halcyon reached in and grabbed it, casually examining it before she popped it open. The aluminum was pleasantly cool in her hand, already sparkling with drops of condensation. The dark shades of red had a faint iridescence to them, and the eyes of the shadow demon were gleaming red rubies, like the embers of a dying fire smouldering amidst a plume of black smoke. She also noted that while the product’s name, logo, and nutritional information were all in English, the top and bottom of the can were encircled with a script that was clearly outside the Indo-European language family. It was so small and so unfamiliar that she wasn’t even certain it was writing at all, and so dismissed it as a mere decorative feature.
She popped the tab, revealing a bubbly, dark red fluid within. Its pungent, fruity fragrance wafted up towards her almost immediately.
“Smells good,” she remarked before raising it to her lips. She took a small sip first to test it, and once it passed that she began chugging it down.
"Good?" Emma asked with an arched eyebrow. After several gulps, Halcyon lowered the can to let out a loud and shameless burp.
“Yeah, it’s like cherry coke almost. It’s delicious” she nodded approvingly. “Sure you don’t want some?”
“I’m sure,” Emma replied, impatiently tossing her soccer ball up and down. “Can we play now? The boys have already started without us.”
Halcyon finished off the can in one gulp and then crushed it in her fist, tossing it into the nearby recycling.
“Totally. They’re getting creamed today. I can already tell that stuff’s going to have me jacked,” she bragged playfully as she snatched up her bag and sprinted off towards the field, a mildly exasperated Emma hot on her heels.
The hour drew close to Midnight, and yet Halcyon remained unable to fall asleep. Insomnia wasn’t a problem she normally had, and she could think of only one reason why tonight would be any different.
“God damn that fucking energy drink,” she muttered to herself. Not only had it failed to assure her victory in two-on-two soccer, but it had also now been over nine hours since she had drunk it. How had it not worn off by now? If it was an all-day energy drink, then why the hell wouldn’t they market it that way and tell people to only drink it in the morning? Maybe the company really was in desperate need of market research. She resolved to go back to the vending machine the next day and make sure they received her ‘feedback’, but at the moment, falling asleep was the primary objective.
She mulled over the possibility of going down to the fridge and pinching one of her parent’s beers. They were usually pretty lenient about her drinking small amounts of beer or wine on occasion, but taking a beer without their permission might be pushing it.
But she was chemically overstimulated. She needed something to balance it out. It was medicinal. They’d understand.
As this was quite possibly the most valid excuse to drink she had ever come up with, she was soon out of bed and bounding down the stairs to the kitchen. After first scrawling ‘Had too much energy drink – needed a beer to help me sleep’ on the whiteboard, she grabbed a bottled pint of local craft beer and slipped out to the back patio to enjoy her pilfered brew. She made herself comfy on a padded lawn chair, gazing up at the dim stars as she sipped her stout ale, and soon a combination of the alcohol and night air had her feeling drowsy. She yawned, and debated on whether or not to make the trek back up to her room. It wasn’t like it was dangerous to sleep in her yard; she and Emma had camped out there dozens of times. It was enclosed with both a tall fence and taller cedars, and Elderberry Crescent was one of the safest neighborhoods in Sombermorey.
Halcyon sighed contently at her reasoning, settling comfortably in the lawn chair and allowing herself to drift off to sleep.
She was lethargically but abruptly roused awake again by what her groggy mind initially mistook for thunder.
“Figures,” she muttered, begrudgingly opening her eyes.
She shot straight up when she saw that she was no longer in her backyard. She was instead lying upon a rocky outcropping that struck her as some sort of sacrificial altar, surrounded by tall, skinny trees that had long ago been charred black by some forgotten blaze. The ground beneath them was cold and barren, and the dead forest was saturated with a crimson fog whose wispy vapours snaked surreptitiously through the woods as if they were alive.
Halcyon’s reflexive panic gave way to confusion, and then to slow realization.
"This isn't real; I'm dreaming," she deduced. The only other explanation was that she had been kidnapped and abandoned somewhere which - as far as she knew - was nowhere near home, just as a freak natural disaster set in, all without waking her up. She smiled then, despite her morbid surroundings, as she had never had a lucid dream before. She wondered if perhaps it might be a side effect of the energy drink, or maybe from mixing it with alcohol. It was definitely something she would have to experiment with in the future. She set a bare foot down upon the deep red earth, and instantly drew it back when worms surfaced in a mad frenzy at the warmth of her foot.
“Gross. This dream sucks,” she complained. She lamented that she didn’t know more about lucid dreaming. She knew it was possible to control, at least to an extent, the nature of the dream, but she didn’t know how. Speaking her desires aloud seemed as good as a place to start as any, and it also seemed prudent not to waste what might be a once in a lifetime opportunity. “Can I get some boys, please? Hot, hung, naked, bisexual boys; horny but fully willing to respect my boundaries, and not better at soccer than I am, and maybe something softer than this rock to screw on?”
Much to her disappointment, the glade remained unaltered.
“This dream sucks,” she repeated. She was startled by the sound she had first mistaken for thunder, which now felt closer than it had been before. It was loud, loud enough that nothing less than mile-wide storm clouds should have been able to conjure it, and yet there was undeniably something bestial to it. It sounded like the roar of some impossibly colossal predator, and one that was headed her way.
“It’s okay. It’s just a dream. It’s not real,” she assured herself. The thunderous roar cried again, this time so close it stung her ears and shook the trees. She couldn’t see far in the mist, but the distant noise of tree trunks snapping like toothpicks was unmistakable. A gust of warm wind swept through the glade and churned the fog as the creature flew overhead, the ground shaking and wood splintering as it landed some distance away. Halcyon’s eyes grew wide as she was just able to make out the titanic silhouette in the fog, recognizing it as the demon from the energy drink. It was several stories tall at least, and its ruby red eyes were searching the forsaken forest for anything that didn’t belong there.
The assurance of unreality was no longer any comfort to Halcyon. She immediately ran in the opposite direction, unheeding of the oozing worms spawning at her feet. As she sped through the lifeless trees, the demon flapped its enormous wings, creating a ferocious wind that was accompanied by an almost pleasant clanking noise. Halcyon noticed for the first time that every branch of every tree was decorated with wind chimes fashioned from bones. Who had crafted them? Surely not that massive demon. Did that mean there were people here somewhere, or had been at some point?
No. It was a dream, it was a nightmare, it didn't need to follow any logic. She didn't need to worry about running into any hostile natives. She just needed to elude whatever that thing was until she woke up. At the moment, she wasn't sure if it was actively hunting her or even knew she was there. The blood-red fog, as disturbing as it was, seemed to actually be working to her advantage. She hoped it would grant her enough cover for long enough that she could find a more suitable place to wait out the night.
She ran in a perfectly straight line, as nothing prompted her to make any change in course. The landscape was so monotonous that it could have very well been the same small patch just repeating over and over again like a background in a Hanna Barbara cartoon. Only the roars of the beast, growing fainter each time they shook the dark forest, gave her any assurance that she was in fact moving away from it.
While her dream body seemed no less athletic than her waking one, there was something caustic to the red fog she was breathing. It stung her lungs and eyes, and even her skin was starting to get irritated. She was close to doubling over in pain when her ears picked up a new sound, that of running water. Hopeful for some relief, she veered towards it and found herself at the bank of a wide, deep river.
Her hopes of reprieve were dashed though when she saw that it was blood red. At least it was on theme.
Halcyon wasn’t overly eager to test the sanguine waters, but its opaque surface did at least give her somewhere to hide should the demon come her way again. Of course, those same dark waters that would hide her could also be hiding any manner of dangerous creatures, but she would cross that bridge if and when she came to it.
As soon as the idea of a bridge entered her mind, the sound of a sad flute started wafting through the scarlet miasma. She turned towards it, and as she did the mists parted slightly to reveal a bridge arching across the river. It was made entirely of human bones, with the skulls all deliberately placed so that they were leering outwards at anyone who dared to look upon them. Sitting upon the bridge’s ledge was the energy drink demon, except this time only slightly bigger than man-sized. He innocently played a bone flute, nothing in his demeanor suggesting hostility at all.
A roar in the distance indicated that the titanic demon was still at large, which meant that the bridge demon was a separate entity altogether. Halcyon paused to consider her options. She couldn't keep running forever, or even for much longer. If she just kept going until she collapsed, she’d be easy prey for the titan demon or any other monsters that might live in this forest. The bridge demon, while potentially quite dangerous, was the closest thing she had come across to another person, and he didn’t seem to regard her as prey just yet. Perhaps it would be worth the risk to see if he would be willing to provide her with any useful information about the forest.
Slowly and cautiously, she made her way to the bridge, the bones quivering slightly as she did so as if they were not quite dead yet. She made a deliberate effort to avoid the skulls, lest they bite off her toes.
She continued inching her way towards the demon, ready to bolt at the first sign of hostility. When she was finally within a few strides of him, he stopped playing and lowered his flute. She froze, her legs urging her to run, but her curiosity and need for assistance kept her still until the demon made the next move.
“Well? What did you think?” he asked, turning towards her and gesturing with his flute. He spoke with a typical demon’s voice, as Halcyon had expected, but other than that he didn’t sound angry or aggressive.
“Ah… I, um – I’m sorry. I wasn’t really paying attention. I was a little distracted,” she apologized, motioning to the realm of blood and decay around them.
“Understandable. It’s a lovely day,” he said with a devilish smirk. “Would you like me to play it again?”
“…No. Thank you,” she replied, analyzing him intently for any hint of motive. “I’m sorry for intruding, I didn’t really mean to come here. I’m dreaming, I think, and I was hoping you might know how I can wake up?”
The demon chuckled at the suggestion.
“First time outside of your own head, and all you want to do is go back? How dismally typical,” he chided. “You’re not dreaming, child. I’m dreaming, and by accepting me into your mind you've come here willingly as my guest."
“Yeah, that’s sort of what I figured,” Halcyon groaned. “Jesus, what the fuck was in that energy drink?”
“Complete and utter garbage, per industry standards,” the demon grinned widely. “I assure you, the concoction itself was quite unremarkable and FDA approved. No, it's more that you accepted me on a conceptual level. You said I was badass if I'm not mistaken. You need to be careful what you put in that head, little one. You'll never get it out."
The demon raised his flute to his mouth and began playing once again. The titanic demon roared as it flew overhead, a mighty gust of fog pelting them in its wake. Halcyon ducked down as much as she could, stifling a scream lest it draw the beast down upon her.
“Please, please stop playing,” she pleaded in a soft whisper. “I don’t want that thing to find us.”
The bridge demon ceased blowing on his flute, but in a way that suggested he was more offended by the suggestion than concerned for her safety.
“I thought you said you were a badass chick, Halcy. You're not scared by an imaginary boogeyman, are you?" he mocked.
“Dude, please, how do I ‘conceptually unaccept’ you so I can wake up and never come back?” she begged him.
“For starters, you could stop cowering beneath me for protection and begging me for help,” he retorted. “If you wish to reject me, then you must have the courage to risk both my wrath and that of everything else that dwells here until you wake up. If you can do that without once pleading for my mercy, then I shan’t pester you again. Do you understand, little Halcyon?”
Halycon swallowed nervously, glancing out into the bleeding fog around her. Her eyes, nose, mouth, throat, skin, and lungs all burned with it. Pain and fear had drained her of her strength, and she doubted she could even tolerate the fog much longer, let alone fight off or outrun any monsters or predators hiding within it. The roar of the titanic demon once again shook the bones beneath her feet, reminding her of how small and helpless she was here.
But, it wasn’t real. Even if what the bridge demon had said was true and it wasn’t her dream, it was still a dream. It was just a nightmare, nothing could really hurt her, and surely one nightmare, no matter how terrible, would be worth getting an energy drink demon out of her head.
Without a word to the bridge demon, she rose to her feet and began to walk away. On her sixth step, the bridge collapsed into a pile of bones and fell into the rushing river, and her along with it. When her head bobbed up above the contaminated water again she screamed in agony as the corrosive fluid burned her inside and out. In the fleeting instants when she was able to keep her eyes open, she just barely made out the bridge demon flying away into the forest.
The bones around her began to move of their own accord, biting and grabbing and striking her wherever they could. She thrashed around in a nearly blind panic, forcing herself through the bloody waters and towards the shore. Clutching at the sloppy, insect-infested mud, she hulled herself back onto land and forced herself onto her feet, swatting off several grasping skeletal hands as she fled back into the forest.
As she ran, the fog began to lift and condense above the canopy as a turbulent, crimson storm cloud. The wind picked up, and all the chimes rattled in perfect harmony with one another in an eerie, foreboding symphony. The wind was so strong it was impossible to run against it, or even tangential to it. Staying put wasn’t an option either, as she could see the reflective eyes of predators lurking in every direction but where the wind was blowing, and she knew they’d move in on her if she gave them the chance. The only option then was to go where the wind took her, even though she knew that was exactly what the demon wanted.
Soon she found herself back in the glade where she had started from, which was when the wind finally let up. She clasped her hands to her face in horror at the sight of multiple charred corpses hanging by nooses from the tree branches. They were naked, so freshly burned they were still smouldering, and most curiously of all had horn-like growths protruding from their blackened skin.
“Per your request; boys – hot, naked, horny, hanged, and quite obviously incapable of overstepping their bounds or beating you at soccer,” the demon smirked as it perched upon a massive steaming pile of carnivore feces where the altar had once been. “You’ll have to take my word about their sexual orientation, but look; something soft to screw on. What do you say now, Halcy? Have I fulfilled your most forbidden fantasies? Are you perhaps now more tempted to stay?”
She was tempted to scream profanities at him, but held her tongue. She clearly couldn’t run or hide from this being, and fighting him was obviously right out. All she could do was wait it out.
She sat her exhausted, agonized body down upon the ground, doing her best to ignore the worms that were now crawling all over her.
“Not so bad, are they?” the demon mused. “A bit ticklish even. But what might they do next? Bite you, sting you with hemotoxic venom, inject you with their eggs that will eat you alive from the inside? Do you really want to find out?”
Halcyon remained implacable, even as the worms began wriggling over her face.
“I see. You’re onto me. It’s no fun if you don’t squirm. But fear is a very primal instinct, one not easily suppressed by the conscious mind. How much do you think you can really resist?”
The trees around her erupted into flames, the sound of a raging inferno surrounding her in an instant. Animals wailed as they burned alive, running wildly through the glade as flesh melted off their bones, brushing so close to her she could feel the fire lick her skin. She jolted as the hanged corpses began screaming as well, except that their voices were not those of young men as she had expected, but of very young boys, terrified and in unspeakable anguish. She slapped her hands over her ears in a desperate attempt to block out their heart-wrenching cries, but to no avail. When she still wouldn’t get up, the trees exploded into swarms of flaming bats, all of which immediately began swirling around her in an immense fire-tornado, constricting tighter and tighter as they threatened to engulf her entirely.
Then, finally, she heard the sound she knew was inevitable; the roar of the titanic demon. He shook the earth around her as he landed, dispersing the swarm with one flap of his mighty wings. He was even bigger than Halcyon had first thought, so gargantuan that he was just barely able to pick her up between his thumb and forefinger. He lifted her high off the ground, so high that she could see the nightmare world around her burning for miles, the clouds twisting into leering, demonic faces eager to witness her demise. The titanic demon held her above his gaping jaws, revealing an esophagus lined with long, bristling barbs, many of which still had previous victims impaled upon them – all of whom were still alive.
The bridge demon levitated in front of her, his hand courteously extended in an offer of aid. When she made no move to accept it, he let out a small, disappointed sigh.
“You’re a badass chick, Halcy,” he smiled. “Sorry to lose you.”
The Titan dropped her, and she fell screaming down into the darkness of his spear-lined throat.
She awoke with a gasp upon her lawn chair, greeted by the familiar sight of her backyard, glistening with morning dew in the dawning light. She sat upright, her legs hanging over the chair as she cradled her head and breathed as deeply as she could without hyperventilating. She had never had such a vivid dream before, a dream so real it made her question if it was a dream at all. Could a weird energy drink and one beer really explain it? Had she actually had an out of body experience, visiting some demon’s nightmare realm and narrowly avoiding becoming his plaything for the rest of her life, if not longer? The thought was as absurd as it was existentially terrifying. As her pulse and breathing began to slow, and her mind reached some semblance of calm and reason, there was only one thing she could definitely decide about the ordeal.
“That – dream – sucked.”
Written by The Vesper's Bell