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

The Illusionist’s Nightmare – Part 4 by Mike Rousseau

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 4, written by Mike Rousseau, the author of Scarlet and Sunder.

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 end!

Meet the Author
Mike Rousseau

Mike Rousseau is an author, video game designer, and swordsman based in the Pacific Northwest. He hopes to pilot a giant robot in his lifetime.

Connect with Mike Rousseau
The Illusionist's Nightmare

Part 4

When midday came and went with no sign of Bacchus, Ezri chided herself for rising early to tidy and prepare for his arrival. Though it hadn’t taken her long to clear enough space for three to sit comfortably on the brightly colored cushions she had arranged on the floor of her tent, she expected him to come to claim his commission as soon as dawn cracked over the hills.

That he had passed up an opportunity to surprise her, perhaps catching her in the process of desperately trying to finish her work, had given her pause. It also gave her time to think; the more she did, the more things started to make sense. 

She could say a lot of things about her client—most of them unflattering–but he was as professional a man as she had ever met. Bacchus didn’t spend silver frivolously. Proving her to be inferior to him wasn’t the cake. It was icing. And he had been willing to part with three extra silver for his dessert. Whatever his reasons for wanting a nightmare brought into the waking world, they mattered more than his pettiness. That meant Ezri’s work held value for him. 

As for his delayed arrival, that much seemed obvious. Nightmares were best viewed at night, when their forms were half-hidden by the shadows that forced the mind to fill in the blanks. But as a dreamer often contracted by an illusionist, Ezri had learned to question the obvious. 

Ezri smiled to herself as she sat on her too-thin cushion and stared at the simple black drape covering her perfect creation. A master illusionist like Bacchus could have made it night any time he wished. Making her wait only served to demonstrate a lack of immediate need for his nightmare, which only served to prove the opposite.

Ezri yawned. When she opened her eyes, a fluttering of sparks in the corner of the tent signaled the illusionist’s arrival. This night, he had come as a man in his 20s, blonde and slender but not wisp-thin, wearing a black suit with a matching top hat that reached just high enough to draw the eye upward. His soft features and carefully sculpted goatee would have made him devilishly handsome if not for the quirked brow and sneer that every one of his forms sported.

“What shall I call you tonight?” Ezri said, matching his curled grin.

He tapped an ornate wooden cane as he strode her way with the poise of a prowling cat. “Azrael, if you like.” When his gaze flicked to the draped form sitting on the cushion to Ezri’s left, noting the rise and fall of its shoulders that came with each breath, his eyes widened, betraying him for just a moment. “Is that my nightmare?” he asked.

“You bet it is,” Ezri replied. She motioned to the empty cushion on her right. “Have a seat.”

When Azrael had lowered onto the cushion, Ezri leaned forward, balancing her chin on her knuckle. “Before I reveal my finest work, I have to ask: what do you need a nightmare for, anyway?”

A flash of disgust crossed his face. “My reasons are my own, dreamer. Perhaps this was a mistake. I should stick to dealing with masters. They would never ask such a thing.”

From her pocket, Ezri drew one of the remaining pieces of silver Azrael had given her as advance pay and flicked it with her thumb, forcing him to react to catch the glinting coin. “Consider this payment for the inconvenience. Now, then: why do you need a nightmare made flesh?”

One might think that the coin weighed a ton by the way Azrael’s hand was shaking as he slipped it into his coat pocket. Parting with so much money made the pit of Ezri’s stomach drop. Seeing that even a master illusionist could be bought more than made up for how hungry she would be tomorrow. 

“Here’s a lesson for you, little Ezri,” Azrael said, his voice hissing like acid touching bare metal. “An illusionist’s job is to sell lies. You may yet be too young to realize this, but the best lies often have an element of truth in them. Simply put, a touch of the tangible can make the intangible that much more potent. Show me what I’ve paid for.”

“Of course,” Ezri said, forcing her expression into a beaming, fake smile. “One breathing, intelligent nightmare worth noticing, coming right up.”

She reached over and pulled the drape from her creation, revealing a rather plain-looking man wearing simple gray trousers  and a cream-colored shirt, with cropped brown hair and nothing remotely in the neighborhood of a single distinguishing feature about him. 

“What is this?” Azrael growled. “I paid for a nightmare. Something that will haunt an observer, sewing increasing dread as it works its way into their minds. Instead, you give me this…this…”

“Very average man,” Ezri finished. “Not ugly. Not handsome. Just, a man, like any other. One you would have a hard time picking out of a crowd. And he’s exactly what you wanted. Go on. Try him out.” 

With some reluctance, Azrael fixed his iron gaze on Ezri’s creation. “What are you?”

The nightmare stared back. His lips quirked into a familiar grin. “A man,” he said, his voice as devoid of color and life as his attire.

“Yes, obviously,” Azrael countered. “But what do you do?”

“I don’t know.” The nightmare cleared its throat. “I don’t think I do anything. Or at least, that’s what it feels like.”

“How dreadful.” Azrael’s tone dripped contempt. “I’m hardly feeling a cold sweat over here, young Ezri. Care to explain why you chose this dull, uninteresting creature as the form of the nightmare I ordered you to create?”

“Because,” Ezri said, “he represents your worst fear. You’ll probably figure it out later, when he’s stuck in your thoughts, and you take some time to reflect on exactly why he’s so off-putting. Let me speed things up for you.”

She took a deep breath, noting the complete lack of scent coming from her perfect nightmare. “You never appear to me in the same form twice. I don’t think that’s an accident. You said that an illusionist’s job is to sell lies. Really, the biggest lie is you. Look, I’m sure you’re not that bad looking. You would always make yourself look handsome, if that was the case.” Ezri wagged a finger at him. “But even when you’re not handsome, you always look memorable. You draw the eye. And that’s the point.”

“I don’t follow,” Azrael said.

“You want everyone to know you’re an illusionist! It’s all there is to you. Or at least, that’s what you fear. I saw it, in my dream, without the noise of the world and your tricks getting in the way. This is what you fear. What so many men fear. You worry, deep down, that if you didn’t have this skill of yours, and your title, and your funny little names and disguises, that you would be just like everyone else. Normal. Not remarkable at all.”

With a growl, Azrael rose to his feet, holding his cane in a white-knuckle grip. “The sheer audacity. I’ve never been so…” he seemed to catch himself, pinching the bridge of his nose and letting out a deep sigh. His face flickered. Ezri had never gotten him so riled up before, enough that his illusion had slipped for the briefest moment.

A few seconds later, when he seemed to have calmed himself, he spoke in a much softer tone. “You’ve caught yourself in a trap. We both know that the most potent dreamer constructs are fueled by fear. If this thing is an accurate depiction of my fear, as you claim, then it’s a fear you share as well, Ezri.”

“Oh, absolutely,” Ezri said, delighting in the surprise painted on Azrael’s face. He had been expecting an argument, clearly. “That’s what’s bothered me so much about you all this time. At first, I thought it was your skill. I thought you were my competition. We mostly do the same thing, after all. You make things appear as they aren’t. I make things appear that aren’t. I thought, with you skulking around the carnival, showing off, that nobody would give me a second glance. Last night, I saw the truth. The one I think we’ve both been hiding from for a long, long time.”

“Fine, I’ll bite. What did you see in this dream of yours?” Azrael said.

Ezri smiled, noting the way he was side eyeing the nightmare. He couldn’t take his focus from it. “I realized,” Ezri began, “that our talents are meaningless because everyone can do what we do. Look at the ringmaster of this carnival. He took an idea for a business—a dream—and made it real. And he dressed it up the way he did, with all of us weird folk with our mystic talents and our strange wares, to make it appear more magical than it really is. Everyone has that capability. There are no ‘normals.’ Not really. We’re all magic, Azrael. We’re just too scared to admit it.”

She took another deep breath. “That’s why I’m still at this little carnival after all this time, making what little coin I can. Here, I stand out, just a little. Out there, with all the master dreamers and illusionists like you, I’m nothing. Except, I’m not nothing. I’m Ezri, who lost an eye to a bear and dreamed it back. Ezri, who’s worth a second glance, even when I’m not turning fears into reality. And, most of all, I’m Ezri, who delivered exactly the kind of long-lasting, unsettling, persisting nightmare you wanted. It’s time she got paid.”

Brazenly, Ezri stood, thrust out her hand, closed her eyes, and waited. She expected the silence in her tiny tent to be broken by the conjured roar of a bear, set upon her in one last act of defiance, or the sound of fine boots marching over carpet-covered gravel and out the door. Instead, a heavy weight pressed into her palm, clinking as she snapped her eyes open and moved to catch it as it slipped from her grasp.

She hefted the bag of coins, unable to hide her surprise. “Thank you for your patronage,” Ezri said, in as light a voice as she could muster.

That quirked eyebrow and curled smirk returned to Azrael’s face. That was the real illusion; once he had it set in place, he fell back into his old demeanor. “You did what was asked of you. The nightmare is vaguely unsettling. I’ll give you that. The failure is mine for not being more explicit in my instructions. Next time, I expect a discount, and for my specifications to be adhered to precisely.”

Ezri wanted to tell him that there would be no next time. Instead, she nodded in agreement. With a gesture of his cane, Azrael bade the nightmare to rise and follow him. “Do you have a name?” he asked.

“No,” the nightmare replied. “Do you?”

She caught the edge of Azrael’s bristling sneer as he left her tent, throwing the flap shut behind him. The second he left her booth, Ezri found paper and ink and penned a quick letter to the ringmaster informing him of her decision to leave the carnival behind. She had been hiding in an illusion for too long, one of her own design. 

It was time, at long last, for the dreamer to awaken.

The End

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Mike Rousseau‘s SPFBO 9 entry is Scarlet and Sunder. Make sure to check it out!

Scarlet & Sunder by Mike Rousseau

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

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