Renaissance Of Fear
rating: +15+x

Previous: Sweet Dreams Are Made Of These

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The King of Nightmare sat on his throne, absentmindedly twisting one of the nails that held his crown to his head. For the umpteenth time, he held a small scrap of paper in a wizened claw close to the dark pits in his face. To anyone else who read it, it was just a list of names, each with a tragedy beside them. They would read the list, think "Oh, how awful," maybe wonder why such a list was made, and then go on with their business.

To the King, it was a menu.

A delectable buffet of vulnerable minds, just waiting for him. And with such a feast, would come power. Power to regain his strength, to restore his kingdom, to rise from the ashes of his former glory. His parched skin crackled as he rose, joints protesting loudly, insisting on just another five minutes of rest. Never mind the fact that he had only moved from the throne once in the past year and a half, it wasn't as if he had had anything else to do. Age is just a state of mind in the dreamworld, but nevertheless it was one he had been stuck in ever since his downfall.

The King shook his head and thumped the nail back into place with the heel of his hand, dislodging several cobwebs.

You're no proper monarch without a kingdom, without the armies that once razed the land at your call. You had searing blades that sought out enemies, and subjects that worshipped the footprints you left in the blood you spilled. But you lost it. Unforgivable.

He walked to one of the many doors lining the great hall, and pushed against it. It didn't budge. The King sighed, before ramming his shoulder up against it, surely causing a fracture in either the frame or his body as the heavy wooden door swung inward, dislodging dust in a huge plume. Frustration gave way to mad determination.

Definitely unforgivable. An act of highest treason. Against me, the Tyrant of Dreamland, the Noble Bogeyman, his majesty Fear. Even the idea of such a slight is unacceptable. To cause my kingdom to falter, my loyal subjects to suffer.

Find the one who did it. And make an example of them that would cause the devil himself to drown in fear.

To do so, preparations needed to be made.

The King thought little of modern fears ever since civilization progressed beyond the feudal system. Complicated machines, and even more complicated politics. The system he had worked well enough. No matter how far they advanced, humans would always carry the same primal fears, which could be plucked at with ease. But he saw where that had gotten him. Seeing "Children lost in car crash" at the top of the list was enough to send him into a sulk, annoyed at having to delve back into the same world that dared to wound him.

A horse was far more terrifying, with violent snorting breath and thundering hooves, not to mention whatever menace was riding upon it, he thought.

Surely seeing children crushed underneath that would be more traumatic than an automobile, built to be comfortable and obnoxiously safe.

However, he would trust his niece. Nevermind what happened the last time he trusted family. He would be vigilant against betrayal, and it's not as if he had more promising options at the moment. The only problem was materials. There were many half-finished or abandoned dreams lying in rooms around the castle, all of which could be scrapped for the necessary materials to build a new nightmare. It would be quite costly building a modern dream, and likely not worth the payoff.

But it was all he could do.

And he'd be damned if he couldn't craft terror better than anyone else in the land of dreams. He was king, after all. He stopped his hand from again wandering to the nail jutting from his forehead, a habit that he had never really been able to kick, and if the situation was right a secret weapon. It was time to live up to his title.

Sandra lay on her side, scrolling through her phone one last time before going to sleep. She was calmer now than she had been in a long time, the online therapy group had done wonders. Ever since the accident, she hadn't been able to open up. But when she finally did so, things started to get better. Sure, she was still a nervous wreck, but for the first time it looked like she wouldn't always need to be that way.

Life goes on, even after death and disaster. There were certainly people out there who had been through worse, as tragic as her circumstances were. And if they held out, so could she, especially with the boons of professional therapy and modern medicine. She closed her eyes, ready to drift off to sleep.

When she opened them again, hell was there waiting for her.

It was that day all over again, everything dragged right back in front of her. The burning car, smoke swirling overhead and choking out everything. She could feel the agonizing pain where her leg used to be, the wound reopened and her prosthetic gone. A wall of smog dotted with dancing, cackling flames surrounded the entire scene, erasing hopes of escape or rescue in one fell swoop. The wreck of the car heaved and lurched, looking for all the world like a dying animal as the screech of tearing metal invaded her ears.

Barely distinguishable from the droning metallic wail rose two other screams, rising and falling discordantly as each desperately tried to be heard over the other. The acrid smell of burning smoke and melting tires parted for a second, as the distance between Sandra and the car seemed to lengthen, yet she could see every detail all too clearly as two burning shapes began to crawl out from under the car. Tiny hands dragged the immolated bodies forwards even as the fat burned away, leaving a sickening trail of melted flesh.

"Help us"

"It hurts"

"Mommy, help us"

It didn't matter if they were speaking out loud or directly into her head, she couldn't have heard their cries any louder as the two agonized zombies reached upwards as they approached her remaining leg, their grotesque visages twisting vividly as reality broke down in the face of terror and grief. Sobbing deliriously, Sandra reached out towards the effigies of her children, desperate to fix them, to let them know that she would save them, that she loved them. As soon as her fingers brushed their bubbling skin however, the twins erupted into gouts of flame, their final screams carried away on the flames. Their diminutive blackened skeletons kept moving, sinking their sharp baby teeth into her flesh, dragging her back into the fire with them.

The last thing Sandra saw before her eyes boiled out of their sockets was the withered man standing atop the wreckage, head thrown back in a roar of gleeful laughter as a viscous black substance poured out of the air and swirled around him, seeping into his flaming body.

If anyone had been able to look in on the massive palace residing in a particularly unpleasant corner of the vast plane of dreams, they would have been greeted to an unusual sight. A walking corpse in red robes and a crown, dancing around and leaping off of furniture while laughing like the apparent madman he was.

Gods, I missed this, the King thought to himself.

He had no idea this new age wrought such potent fear! It was downright intoxicating, well worth the cost of harvesting it several times over. If only he had tapped it sooner! As liquid fear saturated his body, the King could feel his muscles grow and sizzle with the energy of his youth and his beard fray out in all directions as it became about three times less sparse, now a brilliant white shock barely concealing the rictus grin he displayed.

It did make sense though. While it was true that the wonders of the modern world made it far safer than the times when death and hardship lurked around every corner, that was precisely what made it so fearsome. In a world of pain, you expect pain and grow accustomed to it. In a world of safety, terror stands out all the more. And so many new ways to suffer, so many new threats to sow the seeds of nightmares! The King couldn't contain himself any longer. He threw his arms up over his head, and morphed into a giant gaunt shadow plastered against the wall, before swooping down into a skulking shape under the bed that reached up and grabbed your toes. He stretched and warped a few more times, before settling down again, panting with exhilaration.

More.

He was refreshed now, but his kingdom was still barren, barely fitting for someone of his stature. There were certainly still some storehouses of materials left somewhere, and likely a few shadowy serfs as well. But that would take time, and he had put off reclaiming his birthright long enough. With more of these wonderful dreams, he would soon be able to jump-start the process, maybe even bend a few knights to his will. If he regained enough strength, he could even take a visit to that old dungeon…

But first, he had a score to settle.

The King grunted with a mixture of effort and displeasure as he pulled his other leg out of the corpse's skull, stepping onto solid ground. It was fortunate that those meddlers had tried more experiments with the dreamers he had harvested in the past; it left him a few more footholds into the waking world. While he was here, he should probably make a more permanent entrance. However, that could wait. Picking bits of grey matter off of his sleeves to nibble on, the regal horror turned his attention to the lights of the small town in the distance. He knew the way, it wasn't the first time he had been here. He still felt the last time.

Eventually he reached the house he was looking for, feeling a slight twinge of the unease that he had sown in so many others.

Facing your fears is the best way to overcome them, he told himself. It's almost effective against even me.

Taking a deep breath that lasted long enough to make a low howling whistle in the wind, he began to tap rhythmically on the glass pane of a window. The pattern was just distinct enough to stand out from the branches rattling against the house in the wind, while still being masked by them. It was a skill he had both invented and perfected, designed to slowly rouse prey into a sense of paranoia and uncertainty. The tactic also had the added benefit of causing them to imagine things that might be there, to distract from the thing that very definitely was.

This is risky, I could be set back to square one for a second time, and such a crime cannot be allowed to happen twice. There's still time to turn back, he thought as the staccato rhythm of his fingers grew louder.

But the King did not turn back.

Eventually, the man sleeping inside grew restless due to the tapping-and the less physical effects of the King's approach-and began to sit up. He turned to the window, and the King saw his eyes widen as he recognized the grim specter in the window.

Now or never.

Flat as a shadow, gaunt fingers slipped under the windowframe and pushed it open as the attached body flowed into the room. The King kept his head eerily still even as the rest of his mass silently shifted forwards, locked in eye contact with the man as he fumbled for the rifle by his nightstand.

Stay calm, this time you have a plan. You have strength. You won't feel that pain again.

Despite his self-reassurances, memories of the gunshots ringing out and bullets tearing into him bubbled to the surface of his mind. And hopefully to the mind of his foe as well. The King took his gamble, hoping that he could call forth the specific fear he needed. The man before him had shot him to death before, yet here he was standing before him again. Any reasonable person would come to the same conclusion.

"Bullets don't work, knave," the King croaked aloud.

He felt the tiny drip of uncertainty and fear enter the man's mind, and he poured everything he had into it as the gun fired. He felt the fear wrap around himself like a comforting cloak. He felt the bullet puncture skin and tear through muscle. He felt the burn of pain as it passed through crude mockups of organs and bathed itself in filthy black blood, finally lodging itself in the roiling mass of darkness deep within him. He felt the same wound that killed him before appear on his body.

And he felt it to be insignificant.

The King lunged forwards, hands wrapping around the perfect picture of terror on the man's face, any of the confidence and faith he had in his weapon torn away by the nightmare's ploy. An inhuman howl of victory echoed throughout the sleeping psyches of the town as he pulled his head back, preparing to strike. Action, movement and sound blended together as violence began in earnest.

Head hits head.

Back hits ground.

Fist hammers down.

Keep going.

Punch. Punch. Punch. Punch.

Yes.

Punch. Punch. Punch. Crush.

Grab.

YES.

Rip.

Splat.

The King stood over his fallen quarry, panting from both exertion and excitement.

His plan had worked, but only just in time. If he hadn't planted the seed of doubt before the human fired his weapon, it would have turned out exactly the same as last time. Even now, he could feel the barrier of fear fading. This same trick wouldn't work again, it was far too costly to sacrifice himself to set it up. To think that a monarch such as himself should have to be wounded for victory was unacceptable.

He didn't have much time now, soon the gunshot wound would be more than just a mild annoyance. Gritting his teeth, the King reached to his brow and with a painful slurp wrenched one of the nails free from his crown. Ignoring his dizziness as an unidentifiable black substance floated and squirmed out into the air from the wound, he knelt down and rammed the old nail into the floor. As the nightmarish relic sank down, piercing far more than just wood, sparks of dream and fire hissed off the rusted surface. An anchor between the waking and dreaming, pinning them together like bedsheets.

And with that, the tyrant of dreamland slipped back into his kingdom, leaving the growing pain of bullets behind. As he walked past the windows of his hall, bathed in the orange glow, he took out the list again. So many new possibilities. "Ex-soldier", "abused by parents", "disfigured by botched operation"… He didn't know where to start.

It was a renaissance of fear.

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