In the dream, Lucas was old. He was old, and he'd wasted his life. He knew that he'd wasted his life by what he saw in the mirror, and in the logic of a dream, he didn't need to be told the connection between these two things. He simply knew that the time he'd had was wasted, and that the opportunity to undo his mistakes has long since passed. He was old and he was empty, and he was just waiting for the clock to run ouot.
He was standing in the nightmare room at the old folks' home - the room he would inevitably die in after an unfulfilling life. He hadn't really been conscious of its appearance in all the previous nightmares; there had just been the general sense of dread and despair of a wasted life in a room meant to amplify those feelings. Now that he could take the time to inspect it, he realized he wasn't sure exactly where it had come from - he'd visited four different grandparents at various different care homes over the course of his life, and each of them had been unpleasant in their own special way, but none of them had looked exactly like this. In fact, this one seemed to be specifically constructed by his psyche to incorporate all the worst features he'd seen in each of them.
All the decor was in a sort of 1950s pastel drab that seemed to hate any shade of colour that occurred naturally, leaving even the most human elements of the room bleak and alienating. The walls were painted in a flat, faded yellow-green that was gently peeling where it met with the off-white ceiling, and clashed terribly with the gaudy floral print curtains that somehow managed - despite literally displaying plants - to not incorporate any shade of green at all. All the furniture was ratty and dilapidated, as if it had seen a dozen folks pass through and die. The room was somehow cramped and empty at the same time, monotonous and brutally overstimulating. It felt like hell, and everywhere Lucas looked he found something new to hate. But most of all was the reflection in the mirror.
Wrinkled, spotted, decrepit, teeth mostly gone, hair all gone, and somehow despite his pale skin having gone an ugly, blotchy purple in places, there was still that awful grey shadow where his facial hair grew just enough to be seen underneath, but not enough to actually form any kind of beard or moustache that could be shaped or trimmed or made respectable. The absolute wreckage of a human being that had wasted all its years. This was the thing Lucas woke up every day dreading he'd see when he looked in an actual mirror.
"I think I get why you don't like sleeping."
The old man startled so hard he was pretty sure the only reason he didn't wake up was because he was literally too exhausted to open his eyes. He whipped around in a way someone of his advanced age definitely shouldn't have been able to.
Sitting in the room's most repulsive chair was a creature that seemed to be from a totally different kind of nightmare. Even sitting down and hunched over, Lucas could tell it must be seven or eight feet tall, at least. It had a vaguely humanoid frame, but it didn't look at all human. It was a hulking wall of shaggy tan fur, dotted here and there with coffee-coloured spots, each the size of a fifty-pence coin. Its head was animalistic, vaguely canine, with a blunt, dark snout and large, rounded ears, all framing a pair of piercing brown eyes and crowned by a shaggy, mohawk-style mane that was dyed a bright, lurid pink. It was wearing a black leather jacket and jeans that were struggling to contain its bulging muscles, despite being appropriately sized for something so tall and well-built.
The old man felt screaming was the appropriate response, so he screamed.
The creature in the chair grimaced awkwardly, flashing a maw full of very sharp teeth as it did so, and help up its hands. "It's okay! It's okay! It's me!"
Having no useful context for who "me" was, the old man simply dropped onto the floor and cowered next to the radiator. Somehow, the background knowledge that this was a dream didn't help, since he couldn't bring himself to wake up. His body felt frozen, as if he couldn't will his limbs to move.
There was a gentle thump as one of the creature's feet - paws? - planted itself next to him, each digit tipped with a wicked claw. "Okay, right, memory. People don't tend to wind up in dreams with all their memories." The voice got lower, but also closer, as the creature knelt down and placed it's snout close to the old man's ear. "Just try and focus on my voice. You're not an old man in a care home, but you don't remember that right now, so let's walk you through a few things. Okay, what themes are we working with here? Themes, themes, themes... come on, themes... okay! Let's try this!"
The old man felt himself hauled to his feet by a pair of strong hands roughly the size of dinner plates. His liver-spotted fingers were prised open - not exactly difficult, given the decayed muscles - and a metal cane was placed into his palm. He felt his fingers being closed around it.
"You went out to London today. You travelled up there on a train. Do you remember? Think of the train. You were standing up, and holding the handrail."
Slowly, the cane the old man was feebly clutching at turned into one of the handrails on the London Express. Those massive hands started to ever-so-gently rock him back and forth, and he felt a weight against his frail body.
"The carriage swayed. People were crowded in around you. Do you remember the sound of the wheels?"
He was surrounded by people, or at least, the impressions of people. They didn't have faces, exactly - more like the approximation of faces, shapes that just about matched where the important features of a face should go, with no particular distinction between them. There was the gentle sway and judder of the train as it moved, and the sound of wheels grinding on track. Something like the station announcer could be heard; it was gibberish, syllables mashed together in no real order, but it was close enough that it didn't feel out of place.
In fact, the only thing that felt out-of-place on the train was the eight-foot monster bent almost double under the carriage's low ceiling. "Okay, somewhere even more cramped than the old folks' home, but progress, progress. Do you remember why you came out to London?"
Lucas, whose hand was no longer withered and skeletal, looked up at the strange creature. "I was... angry. And I decided to... travel? I wanted to stay awake."
"Right, good. Good." The creature cast around itself for a moment, pushed the near-faceless crowd out of the way like they were a handful of dolls, before lifting a seated passenger out of their chair and tossing them into the crowd behind them. "Sit down, please?"
Lucas didn't really feel the need to question what he had just seen, and simply strolled over to the offered seat and planted himself down on it. The creature's giant hands encircled his head, covering his eyes, only allowing a little light in. "You also came back on a train. It was night. The sun had gone down. You were tired, and you were arguing with the weird voice in your head again. And then the voice told you..."
The colourless sunlight and vague city shapes outside the window melted away, replaced with inky darkness broken up by occasional, distant squares of pale amber light passing by. They were probably supposed to look like the lit windows of houses and shops, but they were a poor impression, not all moving at the same speed or in precisely the same direction. The train was lit by overhead lights now, just like it had been today. This evening. When the voice in Lucas' head told him...
"You're a person who walks in dreams."
The creature sat down across from him, its massive frame looking ridiculous in the cramped little train seat. "Yeah. That's me. Hi. I'm Myrrah." It offered one of its gigantic hands.
Gingerly, Lucas reached out for it. "Lucas."
Myrrah nodded. "Oh, I... yeah, I already knew that, but I was waiting for you to introduce yourself. Seemed polite."
"You're a hyena," Lucas stated, and immediately felt like the tone of voice was too flat to convey just how weird he found it.
"Yeah! Yeah, I'm a hyena," Myrrah replied, letting go of his hand and leaning back. "Sorry about giving you a fright."
Lucas opened his mouth, and wanted to say something clever, but all that came out was "you didn't look like a hyena in your pictures."
"Well, yeah, unfortunately I can't decide exactly how I look in the real world. But here in the dream, I can be whatever I want to be and there are no rules!" Myrrah spread her arms wide, letting out an odd whooping noise. "Why would I stay chained to the real? Hell yeah, I'm a fuckin' nasty hyena bitch! Beats being a human!" She paused, glancing back at Lucas. "Uh, no offence."
"None... taken? By the way, how did you get us here?" Lucas gestured to the train carriage. "Like, how did you do all of that, just changing the scene up like that? I've never been able to shake myself out of bad dreams like that."
"Oh, theme-linking? Yeah, that's one of the first things I learned. Okay, so dreamspaces don't have rules like the real world has rules - physics, chemistry, architecture, none of that matters here. Everything is based on perception. Things can, uh, how to explain it? You can flow from one thing to another because they feel similar. Like the way the cane from the old folks' home felt like the handrail on a train, and the way one train you were on once can just be any train you were on at any time in your life if you think about it the right way. Honestly, kind of impressed I got you here in just two jumps. Sometimes it can take six or seven to make someone remember they're in a dream."
Lucas scratched his head, although he didn't really feel it. "That... somehow, that all makes sense? So you just sort of associate things until you hit the right memory?"
The hyena nodded enthusiastically. "Basically. I think the kids would call it 'vibes-based?' Yeah, I navigate by vibes."
"This is... this is all actually happening right? This is... I don't know, real?" Lucas swallowed, or did something that felt like it. He wasn't sure if he actually had a throat.
"Well, it's all in your head, but yeah," Myrrah affirmed, flicking the glass of the window with one of her claws. "I'm here, and you're talking to me."
"I'm not going crazy." The statement was as much an affirmation as it was a question.
Myrrah cackled to herself. "Well, if you are, you're having pretty rad delusions."
A question struck Lucas. "How did you get here, though? Like in my head."
"Oh, that." Her ears folded backwards. Was she embarrassed? It was difficult to read her expressions. "I was, um, free-associating."
Myrrah tapped the glass repeatedly, like a nervous tic. "So dream-hopping was a skill I kind of... learnt through trial and error? I guess on some level it was kind of instinctual. I used to think I could only dream-hop into people who were close to me in some way, people I was related to or close friends, and later people I'd prepared for it through hypnosis. You could theme-link into different parts of their mind, but it was always just their dreams that I was touching. That was until I learnt that dreamspace is way, way weirder and bigger than I thought it was, and I could theme-link from one person's dream into another person's dream about the same thing. That was a fuckin' head trip, let me fuckin' tell you."
Lucas rubbed his forehead. "So you could just... walk between people's dreams because they were dreaming about the same things?"
"You know that dream you have where you're at school but you're naked? Well, I could travel from that dream to another dream that someone else was having about a surprise exam they didn't study for. The linking theme here being "schools." Make sense?"
"Yeah, I think," Lucas replied. "So that's how you ended up in my... old person nightmare, I guess?"
"Kind of?" The claw tapping on the glass sped up. "Look, I'd love to keep explaining this, but I actually need to get home. I wish I could stay and talk longer, you seem like a nice enough guy, but I've been asleep at least... god, gotta be at least twenty hours now, and I'm gonna start getting dehydrated if I don't wake the fuck up and take care of myself."
There was an awkward silence, before Lucas finally managed to get over the pit in his imaginary stomach. "Yeah. Yeah, I understand. Sorry, it's just... this is the most interesting thing that's happened to me in forever."
A giant, furry hand clutched his shoulder. "Look, you, um. I don't usually make this offer, but I feel like you get special treatment. If you need to talk, you can message me on Tumult, any time, no charge. Least I can do for accidentally being an intrusive thought. But I really do need to get going now."
"You said," Lucas mumbled, trying to stop himself from choking up, "you said you could give me a better dream than... what you found me in. Before you left."
Myrrah perked up, nodding enthusiastically. "Yeah, I did! Okay, you up to try a little lucid dreaming? I think we can decide this train is going somewhere nice." She crackled her knuckles meaningfully. "Okay. I want you to think of a real nice memory. Not the best memory of your life, we don't want to go too high-stakes here, just something real nice. Got something for me?"
Even in the dream, depression weighed heavily on Lucas, and it took more time than either of them would've liked to find one. Eventually, however, he hit upon a memory from half his life ago - the last time he'd been to the forest holiday park his family used to stay at during the summer.
"Okay, we're going on vacation? This is great, this is easy!" Myrrah clapped her hands together. "Okay, okay. Now, I want you to think about the way the village looked, the trees, the place you stayed. Can you get a picture of them in your mind?"
As it happened, images of things that actually happened were just about the only thing Lucas could picture in his mind. "Yeah. Yeah, I remember. The big dome over the swimming pool."
The hyena nodded. "We're on a train, and it's dark, but it's not night! We're going through a tunnel! And when the doors open, that picture you see in your head is where the train's gonna stop! Can you do that for me?"
Lucas took a deep breath - for what reason, he wasn't sure, he wasn't breathing real air - and focused very hard on the idea that the train was going to emerge from a tunnel in that old holiday park, with the domed central plaza and its gigantic swimming pool. There wasn't a train station anywhere close to it, he knew this, but it didn't matter; the situation was already surreal enough. Light poured from the train's windows as it came out of the tunnel, slowing to a graceful halt at a platform that had no real-world counterpart.
Myrrah gestured out the window, grinning. "Now arriving at happy teenage memory. Have fun!"
Lucas got up, got all the way to the doors of the train, which opened for him as he approached, and looked back. "You're not getting off here too?"
Myrrah kicked her feet up and laid them on the seat Lucas had just occupied. "Nah, how do you think I'm getting hope? You don't need this train anymore, so I'm takin' it all the way home!" Her arm, in the bizarre forced perspective of a dream, telescoped out to push Lucas all the way off the train. "Oh, and message me! You're gonna want some confirmation this all actually happened, because you're not gonna believe it otherwise!"
With a loud whoop from its new owner, the train began to move again, leaving a bewildered Lucas standing on the platform of a train station that couldn't possibly exist, about to relive some of the happiest memories in his late childhood.