He visits me every night. Sometimes in dreams...
...and sometimes in nightmares.
Some nights, I endure horrors that you couldn't imagine: bleeding skies, boiling oceans, vengeful apparitions. Malevolent shadows pull me into the concrete and hooded figures steal my voice from my chest.
But amid all of this, he is there. Albeit a little late sometimes, he always appears to save me from the horrors of my mind. He's put his own life on the line to protect mine countless times, though before that one fateful December night, I never quite understood why he bothered; after all, I'm only dreaming. Still, having someone to help me confront my fears has always been nice. In the past, I thought he was just a figment of my imagination, but...
That night changed everything.
I was running.
Though I had no idea what was chasing me, I was too frightened to look back. My heart was nearly beating out of my chest, and my feet felt like lead as they pounded against the dirt. Everything was utterly silent, and dim lights cast misshapen shadows on the bleak white walls on either side of me.
That's when he showed up, running beside me as if he had always been there. "This is a bad one," he remarked, shattering the preceding silence. He always could break the rules like that.
I blinked. "Oh! You're here. This is...just a nightmare."
"Yep," he assured me, glancing over his shoulder. "You know we have to turn and fight that thing, right, Alice?"
"Can't we keep running?" I begged, my pale green eyes widening.
"Push away the fear," he reminded me. "It's part of the dream. It's just a trick."
"Just a trick," I repeated, my voice barely a whisper. "Remember Jupiter."
"That's right, just like I taught you," he encouraged. "Remember Jupiter." He shot another glance over his shoulder, slinging his messy auburn hair out of his one functional eye. "Remember Jupiter. This corridor is about to end."
"Otto, don't!" I protested frantically, but even as the words left my lips, the horizon disappeared into a plain white wall that matched the ones on the left and the right. I skidded to a halt, and before I lost my momentum, Otto swung me around to face my pursuer.
My blood ran cold in my veins as my eyes locked onto the phantom's. Though ragged black robes concealed his limber frame, they could not—perhaps intentionally did not—hide his face from me.
"Edgar?" I asked in the smallest of voices. A sword materialized in my hand (Otto's doing), but I didn't feel it until later.
Otto's light grey eye narrowed as the gears turned in his head. "Wait. You...you know him?"
"What is Jupiter?" asked the figure, his green eyes vacant. His voice was not the one I remembered; it sounded like thirty voices all speaking at once, like a mechanical orchestra of emotionless computers.
Though I felt a lone tear stream down my face, I said nothing. I knew it was only a dream, but he looked so...real. He seemed as exhausted and as sickly as the last day I ever saw him; his eyes were dull and red and sunken into his pale, ashen face.
In the corner of my vision, Otto frowned, looking from him to me and back again. "Jupiter?" he repeated. "What would he want with..." His eye widened. "Oh, hekk."
"What is Jupiter?" inquired the figure again. He had failed to blink even once since I had first turned around.
I opened my mouth, but Otto jerked me back by my wrist. "Don't answer them!" he shouted, placing himself slightly in front of me.
Glaring sharply at him, the phantom emitted an inhuman hiss. "Give us Jupiter, and no one will be harmed," he directed at me.
I swallowed, feeling my blood solidify into ice.
"Listen, Alice, I don't know who you think you see, but it's not really him," Otto whispered, quietly tapping my sword with his. "We need to take him down."
I looked down at my sword, noticing it for the first time. "Otto, I can't," I whispered in response, my eyes pleading with him. "I can't kill Edgar."
"Thatis not Edgar," Otto promised, fear contorting his features and resonating through his hushed voice. I'd never seen him like this; of all the horrors my mind could conjure, none had ever shaken Otto.
The phantom took a step forward, causing both Otto and I to jump. "Give us Jupiter!" he demanded, his thirty voices rising with impatience.
Otto reared his double-bladed sword. "Stay back! This dreamer is under my protection."
Seeming to ignore him completely, the figure stared through him and directly into my soul. "We will let your catcher live if you surrender Jupiter."
"My what?" I murmured, looking to Otto for answers; he offered none, continuing to stare at the hostile ghoul, who took another step forward. His familiar face faltered momentarily, as if that single step was excruciating.
"Try it!" yelled Otto through clenched teeth. He, too, looked strained, as if he was pouring all of his energy into maintaining some invisible defense.
Hissing in frustration, pain, or some combination thereof, the cloaked figure stumbled backwards a few steps and gripped at his dark hair, letting out a wail. Suddenly, he erupted into what I can only describe as an infinity of darkness before vanishing altogether, emitting a blast of force that threw Otto and I like paper planes.
When I opened my eyes, everything was still spiraling. With a gasp, I flailed a little before collapsing back onto the oddly shaped ground.
The ground groaned. "Get off of me. We need to go."
"What is going on?" I cried in dismay, my voice cracking as I managed to scramble off of my companion.
"We can't talk here. You need to wake up," Otto insisted, stumbling to his feet. He offered his sword, willing it into a staff so I could grab it and pull myself up.
"Not until you give me answers," I protested weakly as the staff dissolved into nothingness.
"I know I owe you some," he assured me, sighing as if coming to an inevitable, but undesired, conclusion. Without warning, he wrapped his arms around me tightly and winced as if bracing himself. "Alright, do it. Make yourself wake up, like I taught you."
"What are you doing?" I questioned, still emotionally confused.
"Holding on for dear life," he responded. "Now do it, before they come back in a different form!"
I took a deep, shaky breath and closed my eyes. Remember Jupiter, I reminded myself. One, two...Three!
I inhaled violently, shooting up in my bed; rather, I would have shot up in my bed, had Otto not been on top of me. He moaned, struggling into a sitting position, and I might have shoved him if his nose hadn't started bleeding. "Whoa. Are you okay?"
Otto shuddered. "I...don't do well in the waking world." Thankfully, he removed himself from me and stood on shaky legs, leaning against the wall for support.
Before I could voice a question about his explanation, my tabby cat launched into my lap, meowing pitifully. "Why hello, there, Jupiter," I greeted, petting him soothingly. "Did you have nightmares, too?"
"Jupiter," muttered Otto, wiping blood from under his nose. "Come on, Alice. Let's go for a walk."
"It's the middle of the night, I'm scared out of my wits, I'm underdressed, and I thought you were a figment of my imagination!" I pointed out, my voice contorting with hysteria. "Why should we go for a walk?"
"If we sit still for too long, I'll either fade or start throwing up blood," Otto explained, peering out the window. "It's winter? Yeah, you should probably put on some pants. Please hurry."
Setting Jupiter aside, I grabbed a pair of fuzzy pants from next to my bed and pulled them on over my shorts. As Otto opened the window, I slid on my shoes and pulled a blanket over my shoulders, following him out into the quiet December night.
Despite the questions racing through my mind and Otto's previous sense of urgency, we walked for several minutes in an inexplicably calm silence. As we passed under streetlight after streetlight, I thought about him, and about Jupiter, and about Edgar.
"Brother?" Otto asked finally, ever the one to disrupt silences.
"Yeah," I murmured. "He was only nineteen."
Otto nodded, choosing not to press the topic further. "I'm sorry you had to see what you did."
I sighed, watching my breath form and dissipate in the freezing air. "Why was he...why?"
It was Otto's turn to sigh. "Can we start with a simpler question?"
"What are you?" I suggested. "That thing called you a...a watcher?"
"A catcher," he corrected, rubbing his blind eye. "Like dreamcatcher?"
I quirked my head, pausing out of habit to look both ways before crossing the desolate street. Otto, of course, had already made it to the other side. "Interesting. So you 'catch' nightmares, then?"
"Well, that's the idea behind the name, I guess," he supposed, "though it's quite a bit more complicated than that. The nightmares of a dreamer—your nightmares, Alice—aren't regular nightmares." He hesitated, looking at me as if searching for something. "I know I never told you this, but any injury you sustain in them carries over to your waking life."
I abruptly stopped walking as every horrifying, bloodthirsty entity I'd ever confronted flashed through my mind. "Oh."
He scratched the back of his head. "Yeah, sorry about that. I would have warned you, but the more you know, the more danger you're in."
I shook my head in wonder, gingerly taking another step forwards as if my flesh could combust at any moment, and all of those nightmares would finally catch up to me. At such thoughts, I pulled my blanket a little tighter around my shoulders.
"So a catcher is assigned to a dreamer, to keep him or her alive and ignorant," he further explained. "But what happened tonight..." He trailed off, staring into the distance for several seconds. "You're much, much stronger than the average dreamer."
"Oh?" I asserted, still blinking away shock. My dream had felt more real than this conversation did.
"They're after you," he murmured cryptically, shivering slightly. Noticing this, I unraveled my blanket and pulled some of it around his shoulders as well.
"But who are they?" I asked, staring at him as if he contained every piece of information I'd ever desired to know. "What do they want with my cat?"
Otto chuckled slightly, graciously accepting half of the blanket. "Jupiter has power in your dreams, and they know that. You know how you always use him to calm yourself down?"
"You taught me to do that," I pointed out.
"Yes, and it apparently works," he remarked. "Everything that you do is way stronger than I thought it was, Alice. When you say or do something that influences the dream or the dreamer, it's...it's like 'magic', I guess. It's the same force that I can use to break 'the rules' of the dream."
I contemplated that for a moment. "So when I remember Jupiter, I'm drawing on that memory like...a power source?"
"Yes!" he affirmed enthusiastically, apparently pleased that I grasped the concept so easily. Immediately after his burst of excitement, he stopped, groaning and pinching the bridge of his nose as another spurt of blood poured out, painting the snow in front of his feet bright red.
"What's happening to you?" I asked concernedly as his ailment subsided and we started walking again.
"Catchers aren't meant to walk with the waking," he groaned, wiping his nose with his sleeve. "When you're awake, I go to my own dream bubble and rest there, or hang out with other catchers, or attend to other work. But anyways, back to Jupiter."
"Yes. Your memory of Jupiter is like a power source, and the stronger you become, the stronger and more volatile that power source becomes. When you draw on it, or any other source, you produce feedback. You happen to be exceptionally strong, so your feedback is way bigger and louder than the typical dreamer. Unfortunately, that has attracted their attention."
I sighed in exasperation. "For the hundredth time, who are they?"
Otto looked away. The ensuing silence lasted for so long that I began to doubt he would ever answer; we must have walked two blocks before he finally spoke again.
"When you use something as a power source, you permanently convert that thing into energy," he explained quietly. "You're like a plant, turning sunlight into food. You're the producer. And they are the consumers."
I blinked, looking out into the distance as that sank in.
"They want all of your 'power sources', as you call them," he continued gravely, "but you'll run out eventually. And when they want you to create more, they'll trap you in nightmare after nightmare, where you'll be forced to draw on new sources and generate more and more energy until so much power has coursed through you that you..." He paused, sucking in a breath. "...you burn out."
Largely unsettled by this, I swallowed my panic for a later time. "I have other questions."
"Are there a lot of other dreamers?" I began. "People like me, who don't know what's going on?"
"Oh, sure," he replied, scratching his unfailingly messy auburn mop. "About one of every ten people is a dreamer, and ninety percent of them never know it."
"And how many of those other ten percent are catchers able to save? From them?"
He shifted uncomfortably. "About half."
I nodded. "Okay. Where does your power come from?"
He squinted as if trying to comprehend the question. "Oh! Sorry, 'power' isn't really the word we usually use. But, uh, catchers just inherently generate energy. We don't need sources. But, we also can't be as powerful as dreamers can be, and we can't control the whole dream, just small parts of it. Otherwise, we'd never let nightmares exist."
"'Energy?'" I repeated. "Is that what you call it?"
"Yeah," he answered. "That's the typical term for it, anyways."
"Can I use it to fight back against...well, whatever assaults me?" I asked curiously.
"Of course you can," he promised, looking down at me. "You can use it to conjure whatever weapons and tools you want, once you train a little. Some dreamers have even used it in its raw form, which is pretty amazing. Basically, they tuned, and strengthened, and refined one of their power sources into a ticking bomb and then used it one last time to set it off."
My eyes widened. "Whoa. That sounds...impressive, but this is all a little much for me."
"You want to ask about something simpler?" he offered, though he seemed the slightest bit amused by how overwhelmed I was.
"Yeah, I have other questions," I replied. "Do you have a family?"
He laughed. "No. We're taken from our parents at a young age and raised in isolation. I have a few friends, but I'm probably closer to you."
"Really?" I questioned, as surprised as I was oddly unsurprised.
"Yep," he smiled, poking me in the side. "We're bonded, you and I. Even if you never realized it, we're even slightly emotionally linked. That, and...I'm not really good at making friends."
"I can see that," I joked. He rolled his eye, which reminded me of a darker line of questioning. "If you don't mind me asking," I began, "what happened to your other eye?"
A bit of the lightheartedness drained from his face, but he didn't seem too distraught over the query. "Line of duty. My...past charge, uh...well, there was some sort of werewolf, and it just..." He mimicked a claw scratching across his eye, tracing the scar on both sides.
"Yikes," I murmured. "Sorry." After a few more seconds, I was unable to resist my curiosity. "Did your previous charge...die dreaming?"
He sighed, as if he had always known the conversation would come to this. "No, he...fell ill. He didn't suffer much, but..." He shrugged dismissively, as if it were nothing. Still, the way he'd described our bond, losing his charge must have been very painful. I decided not to press him about it anymore.
Suddenly, he swayed a little, his eye rolling back as he fell into the snow. The alarm in my chest rose immediately, and against my will, memories of my brother flashed through my brain. I had to close my eyes for a second before even attempting to aid Otto: remember Jupiter, remember Jupiter, remember Jupiter.
After regaining my composure, I dropped to my knees, lifting my companion's feverish head from the snow. "Otto?" I said softly, brushing the hair from his eye.
"I need...to go back," he coughed, looking up at me with his eye half-lidded.
"Wait," I pleaded. "One last question." In spite of the sudden constraint on time, I sucked in a preparatory breath. "What are we going to do?"
He managed to smile slightly. "I'm going to train you to think like a catcher, Alice. I'm going to teach you everything I know, and you're going to get stronger, and stronger, until we're even more powerful than they are."
"And then?" I asked, clinging to his voice as his body began to fade.
"And then you're going to remember Jupiter."