Usually when I stepped into someone’s dreams just after they’d fallen asleep, I didn’t arrive in an active dream so much as in a place of significance in their subconscious. The kind of place they’d have recurring dreams about. As a lucid dreamer, I didn’t have true recurring dreams—deliberately conjuring dreams of my favourite places didn’t count. But I was familiar with the concept. Jen had told me that, usually, those dreams she remembered contained elements of her family home. Brad often dreamed of his grandparents’ house, where he’d spent a lot of time as a child.
That was why, when I appeared in a brightly lit department store, I raised my eyebrows. Huh. First job, maybe? I stood in an aisle full of bags of confectionary: liquorice sticks, mixed lollies, chocolate drops. But everything was slightly off. When I focused on a rustling purple and yellow packet, trying to make out the brand name, the logo slid away from my gaze as if it didn’t want to be nailed down. Price tags were illegible: smeared or written in gibberish characters. And when I looked between the packages I didn’t see a backboard filled with mounting holes but sheer, impenetrable darkness.
The darkness gaped back at me.
With goosebumps shivering along the length of my forearms, I took a moment to prepare myself, sparing a thought and a shred of energy to conjure a set of trusty motorcycle leathers. I didn’t have any such thing in the real world, but in dreams I’d found they served quite well as armour against the barbs on a blight’s tentacles. A clear-faced, round helmet made me feel like an idiot but protected my eyes. I didn’t know for certain that there was a blight here, but something was definitely not right. Even if it was just a creepy manifestation of Daniel’s subconscious—even if he was indeed going crazy—it paid to be careful. Ephemera could still have teeth.
I crept towards the end of the aisle, leather squeaking faintly as I listened for the telltale bubbling hiss of a blight. Peering past a stand of round-bellied plastic animals stuffed with jellybeans, I saw a row of unattended registers to my left. To my right, clothes swayed in a breeze I couldn’t feel. In front of me was the store’s main entrance: the roller shutter was down, allowing only a vague impression of a darkened mall beyond.
Deserted apartment stores were bloody creepy. Even ones with the lights on. Still, this didn’t look like a place a blight had trashed. Brad’s had shredded the surface of his dream, tearing holes in walls and coating everything with a mess that would do a slimy Ghostbusters spectre proud. This store was creepy, sure, but trashed? No.
Like my thought made it happen, a corner of the store went dark as one fluorescent light, then another, went out with a pop and a tinkle of glass on tile. “What the…?” I whispered, looking up.
That was when I spotted the blight.
It hung upside down from the ceiling, somewhere above the menswear section, like a deranged bat a few feet wide and made of smog. Its tentacles were jammed deep into the rectangular ceiling tiles; the tiles themselves were slick with an oily coating of blight ichor that dripped downwards, spattering across a garish display of novelty ties that hurt my eyes.
“Gross,” I said, my voice somewhat muffled behind the helmet’s faceplate. The blight turned, rotating slowly until its stained yellow eyes glared down at me.
“Oneeiiiiroi,” the creature hissed.