Thresholds of the Roaming Nightmare


Not many sixth graders go to school knowing what a good number of their classmates' dreams are like, but Sonia Obata did. During the day she led a more-or-less ordinary life. She went to class, hung out with friends, watched TV with her dad and his girlfriend. This morning she stood at the bus stop along with other kids from her apartment complex, as she always did.

But whenever she went to sleep, she had access to the Baku's Fang, which enabled her to leave her own dream and travel to others. Most of the time, she passed through unnoticed. The rest of the time, people tended to see her pixie cut hairdo and mistake her for a boy… but that was their problem, not hers.

Even now, at the bus stop, she was standing next to an eighth-grader she'd just bumped into about three weeks ago, as he was giving an oral report to a classroom full of beetles. She'd used his dream as a shortcut through town while searching for a nightmare that had gotten loose and invaded other dreams. Part of her was still waiting for him to recognize her and bring it up somehow, but so far nothing. Just as well. That wasn't the conversation she'd want to have first thing in the morning with some dude she barely even knew.

The bus arrived, and Sonia got on, and as usual, sat next to Rebecca… who was looking a lot more bleary than usual. "You okay?" Sonia said. She checked a few rows back, where Rebecca's twin brother Isaac was yukking it up with his buddies. And hopefully not up to anything.

"Yeah, yeah, fine," Rebecca said, fiddling with her braid. "Just had the worst dream last night. Woke up at 5 AM, and couldn't get back to sleep."

"Aw, no, that's awful. Wanna tell me what happened?"

"You think you can help?" Rebecca knew all about Sonia's abilities. Sometimes Sonia brought her along into the dream world to have some fun together. "I don't remember everything."

"Anything at all." Sonia never did find that one nightmare. But surely it wouldn't have run into Rebecca, would it?

Rebecca bundled up her jacket and hunched her head over. "I was at some kind of carnival… I was supposed to go to a piano recital, but I couldn't find the booth. But then this really awful… thing… came out. It was a spider, but instead of a regular spider head, it—"

"Had three horse heads? And they all had sharp teeth?"

Rebecca stared at her.

Sonia said, "That's the loose nightmare I've been looking for the last few weeks. Rebecca, I'm sorry. I should have killed that thing by now."

"It's not your fault. I mean, didn't you say it was really fast?"

"Yeah, and it keeps disappearing on me. I thought I had it cornered at the dam last night, but then I just… lost it. That must have been right before it found your dream."

"You think it'll still be there tonight?"

"I doubt it," Sonia said. "Nightmares like that always escape before the dream ends." And now it had wrecked one of her friends' dreams. "You wanna help me try to catch it?"

Rebecca leaned back and gazed out the window. "I guess it has been a while since we had an adventure together."

The bus dropped them off at Baker Middle School, and Sonia and Rebecca met up with Erin in the cafeteria. Erin scowled at Isaac—he knew what he did—but with Sonia and Rebecca was nothing but sunbeams. "Hey, you guys! How's it going?"

"Going just fine," Sonia said.

Erin looked at Rebecca's drooping eyelids. "You sure? You don't need to see the nurse, do you, Rebecca?"

"No, I'm fine. But listen, there's some dream crap going on, and Sonia needs our help."

"Ooh, a mission." Erin grinned with shining eyes. Sonia sometimes brought her along to other dreams as well, and Erin especially enjoyed them. "What kind?"

They gathered at a table. Sonia filled her in.

"Problem is, I have no idea where it'll go next. It's moving around constantly, and I don't have a way to detect it long-distance. If I could set a trap for it… but how?"

Erin had been deep in thought while she listened. "Is there any kinda pattern for all the places you found it?"

"No, and I could hardly tell which dreams it was going to until it got to Rebecca. The only way I have to look for it is the cloud of dreamstuff it gives off when it's outside, or hope Firecracker can catch its scent."

"Maybe if we fan out over the city," Erin said. "Whenever one of us finds that cloud, we can regroup and gang up on it."

"I like that idea," Rebecca said, resting her head on the tabletop. "Maybe Isaac can help."

"Nope. No way," Erin said.

"Only if we need to," Sonia said.

"Oh well," Rebecca said. "I hope we find it. I like being able to punch my nightmares."

"I can't wait to get my hands on it myself," Sonia said. Normally she didn't like acting out of anger—she had too much of a history with that. But if this nightmare kept running around too long, it could turn truly monstrous and start seriously screwing around with people's minds, maybe even the whole city. She had been given the Baku's Fang specifically to prevent things like that from happening.

It had already gotten on her last nerve.

The bell rang, and everybody scattered to their classrooms. Sonia was glad for the help, but wished she'd asked sooner. Erin and Rebecca had helped out with plenty of dream problems already, including loose nightmares, but Sonia had thought at first that this nightmare would be simple. After all, originally it was just a spider. She'd been stubborn enough to think it wasn't getting out of hand. Now she couldn't deny it.

What would that thing turn into next?


Sonia kept her home dream in the main office of her apartment complex. When she stepped out into the night, glowing lines cross-crossed over the parking lot in bright colors. The circles marked the thresholds—the entryways into other dreams. The fringes—the outer boundaries—spread out and shifted slowly over each other. Up in the sky, beams of colored light pointed to the locations of dreams on the ground. Every dream had a real-world location, invisible when awake. Only someone with Sonia's abilities could exit their own dream and see them.

The Baku's Fang hung from her neck, shaped like an upside-down teardrop, glowing with a bright blue. Sonia raised it and spoke into it like a microphone: "Firecracker!"

Her baku appeared in front of her, wiggling his trunk, thrashing his tail, his mane shimmering with many colors. She gave him a quick rub on the forehead and hopped on his back. "Okay, who's first?" she muttered. "Rebecca or Erin?"

She closed her eyes and slowed her breathing. Focusing her mind let her draw on the Fang's powers, and right now she used them to feel around the city for Rebecca and Erin's dreams, wherever they might be. Normally it was difficult. One time she gained the ability to do virtually anything, even detect any dream she wanted, in an instant. But that wore off quickly, and now she'd have to meditate like a monk all night to find an isolated dream like that.

Fortunately she knew a workaround. She'd figured it out a month ago, and it really opened things up for her.

Finding a physical location in the real world was easy—one of the first skills she'd learned, in fact. She knew where Rebecca and Erin lived, and now felt a path through town to each of them. By detecting Rebecca and Erin’s real-life locations, she could focus just a little further, and follow the energy of their thoughts to wherever they were sending their dreams. She even found an unrelated dream that could give her a shortcut to Erin's.

After a few minutes of concentration, she knew exactly where to find her friends' dream selves.

Rebecca was close—her dream was down the highway, next to a car dealership. Sonia rode Firecracker down there in less than a minute. The threshold took up the right lane in front of the Toyota lot. Firecracker walked over it, and the threshold flashed, and the baku faded from beneath her. He couldn't survive within a dream, so he'd wait outside.

Sonia's feet touched soft, less-than-stable ground.

She was standing on a cloud, and in front of her stood a colossal tree, with the ground miles underneath. Rebecca was hanging on to the trunk, pulling herself up to the next vine.

Sonia ran down the cloud as well as it would let her until she was right behind Rebecca. "Hey Rebecca, I made it!"

Rebecca looked over her shoulder. "Oh, hey. Right—I thought we had something to do tonight. Um." She looked down. "Little help?"

"I gotcha." Sonia crouched and laid her hands on the ground and focused. Energy from the Fang flowed through her into the cloud. It shifted from a soft powder into a glassy clay—the original dreamstuff the cloud was made of. Now that it was unshaped, Sonia extended it toward the trunk, under Rebecca's feet, then turned it back into cloud. Rebecca stepped off and joined Sonia on the cloud. Sonia did the same thing on the other side to get to the fringe and leave the dream.

Firecracker reappeared beneath Sonia, as if she'd never stopped riding him.

"So I guess we're looking for Erin next?" Rebecca said as Sonia helped her onto Firecracker's back.

"Yup. She's over on the other side of the ridge. Here we go!"

In the path Sonia had felt, there was a dream on Highway 58 she could use as a shortcut. Space within dreams is often distorted, so sometimes she could take a few steps inside, and when she left, wind up halfway across town. This dream put them—minus Firecracker, of course—outside an ancient Aztec temple. Sonia and Rebecca only had to run from one side to the other to find the fringe. It let them out on top of a hospital building on the west side of Missionary Ridge, just minutes from Erin's dream. Rebecca had to climb back onto Firecracker again before they rode off.

They found the threshold on the roof of a small theater. It must have been pretty artsy, because Sonia couldn't think of any other reason for the mannequin legs sticking out of the front wall. But she'd have to figure that out later. As soon as Firecracker even got close to that building, he started acting antsy. He climbed to the top, growling the entire way, waving his trunk everywhere.

"What's wrong, boy?" Sonia said. "You smell something?" If he'd picked up a scent, then… No! "Not here! It can't be!"

"So the nightmare's close?" Rebecca said, hopping off of Firecracker's back. "He doesn't think it's…" She nodded toward the threshold of Erin's dream.

"I think so." Sonia dropped down beside Rebecca. "But how? It would have to… But…"

Sonia broke the tip off the Fang and passed it to Rebecca. She ate it, and along with it a portion of Sonia's power. "Ready?" Sonia said.

They went into the threshold.

The sky turned blue.

"A carnival?" Sonia took a few uneasy steps ahead. A ferris wheel rolled next to a tilt-a-whirl down in the west. The building the girls were standing on became the platform for a roller coaster that ran toward the ridge. Something in the air gave off a grimy unease, like when it stops raining but the sun isn't out yet. A sure sign the nightmare was here.

"Weird, just like my dream," Rebecca said. "I don't see Erin."

"Gimme a sec." Sonia shut her eyes and focused. Soon she could feel the internal rules of the dream—and not all of it came from Erin. "This dream wasn't supposed to be a carnival. I… think it might have come with the nightmare."

"What about Erin?"

"Erin's in… let's see… coming down the road… On one of those boats. You know, the kind they ride in Venice?"

"Gondolas?" Rebecca peered over the edge of the platform. "Hey, you're right. There's a stream now. Which way's she coming from?"

"The way we just came. She's about to go under the roller coaster. But the nightmare…"

"I think that's her coming up! Pass me a Fang piece!"

Sonia broke off another piece and ran to Rebecca's side to hand it over. Crystalline water now rippled through the canal that had been a city street. There were gondolas anchored along the sidewalks, with people milling around in front of the game booths and vendors. One gondola drifted underneath the scaffolding of the roller coaster. Sonia could see the pilot with his oar, but not Erin. At least, not until two eyes peeked over the edge of the gondola.

Erin saw them and waved, but also stuck her finger up over her mouth. Sonia understood and waved back. They couldn't make too much noise. The nightmare might hear.

Sonia and Rebecca went down the steps to the sidewalk. Rebecca hopped into a parked gondola and jumped from there into Erin's, while Sonia looked around for some sign of the nightmare. She hadn't been able to feel where it could have gone. A spider with three horse heads shouldn't be this hard to miss.

Rebecca and Erin hopped back onto solid ground next to Sonia. Erin was holding a medieval battle axe. "Did you just make that?" Sonia said.

"Unshaped a chunk of the boat the second I gave her the Fang piece," Rebecca said.

"Gotta be ready," Erin said. "It's still here somewhere."

"Where's the last place you saw it?"

"Back there, by the cyclone ride. Sonia, it's even worse than you said. It's—" Erin screamed.

A hideous black shape was crawling on the roller coaster, with eight legs and three horselike heads. But now it had grown an extra set of pincers, and its bulbous spider's abdomen had changed into a sharp scorpion's tail.

The nightmare crawled down the scaffolding.

The girls ran.

People screamed as the nightmare leaped onto the ground. Some jumped into a booth or under a platform, others into the water. Sonia checked over her shoulder and saw the nightmare rampaging behind her. "Keep going!" Sonia said. "We're almost at the fringe!" The sound of the nightmare's legs tapping on the concrete made Sonia queasy. The whole creature looked like solid living death. Those teeth already made it hard enough to get a grip on it, even with a baku. Those claws might make it impossible.

Erin stopped beside Sonia and threw the axe in a perfect arc toward the nightmare, but a simple flick of a pincer swatted it away. The axe hit the water with a dull splash. "Worth a shot!"

The fringe lay across the sidewalk just before the intersection. Sonia could hear the heads hissing.

The girls jumped over the fringe, back into the night. Sonia called Firecracker back to her. "We don't have much time," she said. "Any ideas?" Firecracker ran to Sonia's side.

"Not me," Erin said. "All I had was the axe."

"I still can't figure out why it was a carnival," Rebecca said. "Or how it found both me and Erin!"

"Well don't ask me. It would've had to—"

The nightmare appeared from over the fringe. Dreamstuff wafted off of it, slowly dissolving it—too slowly to destroy it.

Sonia sprang onto Firecracker's back, and Rebecca and Erin scattered. But the nightmare only seemed interested in Sonia. It kept advancing, and she had Firecracker keep backing up. If she could only take a moment to focus. The nightmare would only need a second to sting or slash her. It couldn't kill her, but it would hurt. And if she woke up, she'd be back to square one the next night, and by then this thing could have evolved even further. It could grow wings for all she knew.

"What are you?" It couldn't be a coincidence that it found both Rebecca and Erin. The question was how? It would have had to know that Sonia knew them, and it would have needed a way to detect their dreams.

Rebecca and Erin both started jumping and yelling, trying to get the nightmare's attention. But only one head looked back, and it never stopped advancing toward Sonia.

It was after Sonia all along. It wanted her to find it.

"Listen!" she shouted. "I'm the one it wants! It doesn't care about you! Let me distract it while you think of something!"

"Way ahead of you!" Rebecca called back. "Just a minute."

The nightmare snapped its pincers, almost close enough to snag Firecracker. Sonia had him skitter back. She couldn't forgive herself if she let Firecracker get hurt.

"Hey, ugly!" It wasn't a voice she was used to hearing, but it came from the sidewalk. And there Sonia was, riding her baku, several yards away from the real Sonia. "Why're you going after her? I'm right here!"

One of the heads saw her, and the nightmare stopped.

"Not her!" Another Sonia appeared on the other side of the road. "Look, you think I need a baku to take care of you? Come on, show me what you got!"

The nightmare turned toward that Sonia. Exactly what the real Sonia needed.

She had Firecracker grab its tail.

The nightmare tried to shake her off, but Firecracker bore his weight down, out of reach of barb, claw, and teeth alike, and able to keep up with its movements. Now Sonia could focus. Her energy flowed from her hands into the baku, through its arms, into the nightmare, so she could unshape it. If she could absorb some of its memory, figure out how it got here, so much the better. Things like this were big and unruly, so they could take a minute.

The tail began to smooth and glisten.

It broke off, and Firecracker gobbled it up immediately. That made one less thing it could stab her with. Still plenty of claws and teeth, though. And now the nightmare was no longer fooled by Rebecca and Erin's decoys. It wouldn't let Sonia out of its sights.

She'd felt its hatred for her, its desire to hunt the hunter, its craving for a final showdown. But it still didn't make sense how it detected her friends' dreams. Finding specific dreams wasn't easy, even when it was someone you know!

Still, she saw an opportunity. Without the tail, it was defenseless from behind. It wanted a showdown? She could give it one. She had Firecracker leap into the air, twist around, and land right on its abdomen. He dug his hind claws into the exoskeleton, and his front claws into the nightmare's shoulders. The nightmare bucked and rocked like a wild bull, but Sonia held on. It had gotten smarter, but maybe a little too smart for its own good.

Sonia focused her mind. Rebecca and Erin, back to their true forms, cleared back.

The nightmare began to slow down. Sonia tried to read as much of its memory as she could. Its origins were nothing special. Just a dream about a carousel with an unwelcome spider. Then the spider escaped. Then she started chasing after it.

Then it started sniffing after her.

The nightmare froze into solid dreamstuff. Finally. Sonia slid off Firecracker's back and let him feast.

Sonia and her friends gathered together, the others hooting and cheering. "That was amazing!" Erin said. "Rodeo Sonia, rustlin' up nightmares!"

"You really showed that thing who's boss!" Rebecca said. "Just wish I'd gotten a crack at it."

"Hey, you still got time," Sonia said. "Firecracker hasn't gotten to the faces yet."

"You're right!" Rebecca ran over to the crumbling nightmare and gave each face a solid right hook, bursting them into powder. Firecracker sucked the powder up into a glob.

"That thing had my scent," Sonia said to Erin. "Or not really mine. The Fang's scent. That's how it always got away. It was so sensitive it could react whenever I even got close." Rebecca came back with a broad grin. "But since I've shared the Fang with you two so much…"

"It sniffed that and tracked us down," Erin said.

"Funny." Rebecca held up her dusty fist. "It didn't look much like a greyhound."

"I think I read once that spiders have a strong sense of smell. Sonia, any chance you can get Firecracker to do that? Save you some time every night?"

"Nah." Sonia sat down on the curb. "Firecracker only has a nose for nightmares."

Firecracker was snuffling up the last bits of the nightmare off the road.

"I should have asked you two for help sooner," Sonia said. "There's still so much I don't know about nightmares, or the Fang. If I'd thought for a second that it could find you…"

"Well, live and learn," Erin said. "Something to keep in mind for future nightmares."

"Still… We could've stopped it before it came after you."

"Sonia, you've beaten up my brother," Rebecca said. "This is the last thing I'm going to hold against you."

Sonia's head dipped down. She hated to be reminded of that incident, but she appreciated the sentiment. At least now the nightmare was over.

"So we haven't shared powers in a while," Sonia said. "What do you wanna do now?"

Rebecca and Erin looked toward the weird artsy theater. Erin said, "That carnival should still be there. How about it?"

Sonia got up. "As long nothing makes us puke in our sleep. Let's go."