To Be Continued... SPFBO 9 Edition: The Illusionist's Nightmare

The Illusionist’s Nightmare – Part 3 by Ryan Kirk

For SPFBO 9 I’m returning to my old tradition, where I offer to the authors in our batch a spotlight on Queen’s Book Asylum. While in previous years I created a new feature, this year I let them choose between all of my available ones: What the Hungarian?!Tales from the AsylumStuck in the PagesParty with the StarsTo Be Continued…, as well as the regular author spotlight options of an interview, and a guest post.

To my delight, several of the authors wanted to take part in To Be Continued… So much so, that we don’t have one, but two stories for you, each consisting of 4 parts! Story 2 is titled The Illusionist’s Nightmare. It’s time for part 3, written by Ryan Kirk, the author of The Last Fang of God.

If you are new to the To Be Continued… feature, here is how it works:
  • the authors taking part have to write a short story based on my prompt, which for this SPFBO 9 Special Edition is illusion and dream in a carnival setting
  • the authors taking part don’t know about each other
  • each author has 2 weeks to write their part (after receiving the previous one(s))
  • each part is somewhere around 1500 words, although some tend to be longer

Fun fact: I based this prompt on two Poets of the Fall songs, Illusion and Dream and Carnival of Rust (which happens to be one of my favorite songs). I was super curious about what the authors will make of this prompt. The Illusionist’s Nightmare has a different approach to this prompt, one that’s closer to what I originally envisioned for myself. So, let the story continue!

Meet the Author
Ryan Kirk

Ryan Kirk is the author of over 30 novels, including the bestselling Nightblade and Last Sword in the West series. When his fingers aren’t glued to the keyboard, he enjoys long hikes and bike rides.

Connect with Ryan Kirk
The Illusionist's Nightmare

Part 3

As soon as the inspiration struck, Ezri knew she would follow no other path. The art of dreaming was as much intuition as observation, and though she lacked Bacchus’s proficiency in the mystical arts, she was experienced enough to have developed a refined sense of rightness. That sense was a prerequisite in her art.

After all, not even the master dreamers imagined every vein and hair of their creations. Dreamers brought form to the void, and the dream filled in the details, guided by the dreamer’s sense of rightness.

Ezri had found that the same intuition served her as well in life as in the dream. When the idea of dreaming the master illusionist occurred to her, it felt right, as though she couldn’t do anything else.

It didn’t matter it was the most difficult creation she’d ever attempted. She’d denied her intuition plenty in the past, and now she fighting off drunks in the back corner of a traveling carnival that wouldn’t notice if she wasn’t there.

She scooped one silver coin into her pocket and searched for a meal. The illusionist’s task would take the rest of the day and most of the night, assuming it worked at all. She’d need the sustenance to carry her through the long hours of the night, when even her traveling companions had drifted into the fringes of the dream. Though she grimaced at the exorbitance of the expense, she spent most of the silver on food, stuffing her stomach until she could eat no more.

Ezri returned to her tent. She put up the sign that indicated she was closed, though it wasn’t as though visitors were clamoring for her return, then sealed the tent behind her. She lit her incense, brewed a pot of tea, and sat cross-legged on her cushions.

First, she fixed the image of the illusionist in her mind’s eye. Not the various disguises he wore when he visited, but the things about him she knew to be true. The condescending smirk. The warmth of his hand. His steady pulse. When she had all that she trusted, she slipped into the dream.

It was nothing like the normals imagined. When they heard she was a dreamer, they thought of their own nightly dreams and terrors. But those were nothing more than the chaotic outskirts of the dream. Ezri compared it to being offered a king’s treasure and settling for a single copper.

The true dream was more akin to the physical world than a normal’s fantasies. Stepping into the dream was like taking a single step out of your body and seeing the world from a slightly different perspective. Like turning your head a fraction of a degree and going about your daily tasks.

Sometimes, she worried that life and the dream weren’t actually distinct. That maybe, instead, they were two perspectives on something deeper than either.

She got to work, forming the illusionist from her memories and fears. She began with what she knew to be true, then shaped the form further, guided by her internal sense of correctness.

Time lost meaning in the dream, but it was a slow and laborious process. A feature might look right, but felt wrong. She couldn’t trust appearances and would wipe her work clean and start over. She twisted and pulled, grew and trimmed, always chasing perfection.

Ezri took breaks when needed, holding onto the form while she briefly stepped outside the dream. She stretched tired legs, poured and consumed fresh cups of tea, and lit new sticks of incense.

The breaks never lasted long. She couldn’t hold a form in her mind long before it began fading, so it required constant care and attention.

After her fourth break, she decided she’d shaped the form as well as she could. A master could have effortlessly done more, but she was close enough.

It only needed an essence.

But what was the illusionist’s essence? He wanted a nightmare, something innocuous but terrifying. This form was right, but animating it with the proper essence was essential.

What frightened her so much about a man who’d never raised a finger to harm her?

She didn’t know, so she asked.

The form spoke. “Do you believe I would harm you?”

She thought out loud. “Not without reason. It isn’t your capability for violence that frightens me. I’ve known many capable of harm, but none frighten me the way you do.”

“Is it something I’ve done to you?” it asked.

She shook her head. 

“Is it because I’ve never come to you in the same guise twice?”

That wasn’t it either, but there was something there. It felt the same as when she had found the correct form for some aspect of the dream, like she had uncovered what had always been there.

The form went silent, then spoke with her voice, echoing thoughts she never dared speak aloud.

“You don’t fear me. You fear what I represent. The truth you are too afraid to acknowledge: that reality isn’t as solid and predictable as you want to believe.”

Ezri’s heart thudded in her chest. “That’s not it.”

The form stood and shifted, becoming the shape of Bacchus. “Oh, but it is. You’re on the cusp of realizing what the masters already know. But you refuse to peer deeper.”

She scrambled away, though it hadn’t taken a step toward her. “No!”

“Open your eyes!” it shouted.

There was no denying the dream. She stared into the abyss, the knowledge she’d danced around for years, and she understood.

When the illusionist visited, she never knew what was real, and what wasn’t. She didn’t trust the air she breathed. And when he wasn’t around? She couldn’t be sure, either, because there was no way of knowing if he was near. With every step she took, a hole could open up beneath her, and she wouldn’t know.

The dream was no different. What was real? Her dreamed eye worked as well as the original, but it hadn’t existed when she was thirteen.

She stared into the abyss, and for the first time in her life, she didn’t blink. She couldn’t look for long, but it was a step toward mastery. Perhaps it was the step toward mastery.

She seized her fear like it was something physical and shoved it into the form. It accepted the essence without complaint.

When she left the dream, the illusionist was sitting in front of her, that familiar smirk on his face.

It was her greatest work. Nothing else came close, and she’d achieved it on her first attempt.

Outside, the sun rose on a new day. The day where she finally confronted the master illusionist.

To Be Continued…

In Part 4 by Mike Rousseau!


Ryan Kirk‘s SPFBO 9 entry is The Last Fang of God. Make sure to check it out!

The Last Fang of God by Ryan Kirk

For more SPFBO 9 content, please check out our SPFBO 9 page!

For more To Be Continued… stories, check out this page!

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