“Why are we here, Barnabus?” Montrose slipped into the bedroom just behind his friend. It was a mess: Clothes piled everywhere posters hanging lazily from the wall, and the smell of old food. He climbed the nightstand to see a sleeping teenager. Turning to glance over the room and the state of entropy made better sense.
“It is a bit whiffy, that is true, but this one dreams darkly often enough, but just short of nightmares. We can use her dreams to travel. I need answers.”
Montrose shrugged, hopping down to the floor. The bears had been looking for a strong dream connection or an active nightmare. Somehow Barnabus could sniff his way through the dream world and something had been creating more powerful nightmares such as the Chatterlings that the pair had recently fought and, more recently, assisting Marley and her companions with an ancient bogeyman. Montrose was young, although his appearance as a teddy bear looked aged, dressed with a certain dignity.
While Montrose ruminated, Barnabus was searching the room. The light glinted on his red boots, which matched his cap and untucked shirt. Jeans and a tweed coat completed his outfit. The bear was as eclectic as his clothing.
Exasperated, Montrose said, “What are you looking for?”
“There must be something here with a dream connection. She rarely has nightmares, so it wouldn’t be the closet or under the bed.” He continued to poke around the room, digging into heaps of unwashed clothing. Barnabus rarely explains what he is doing, so his explanation was a shock to Montrose. He leaned against a bedpost and watched the other bear continue to search.
“Found it!” Barnabus held up A reeking shirt with some band name. “She wears this often and it frequently shows up in her dreams. Let’s put it in her bed and see if she dreams of it.”
Shrugging, Montrose followed him up onto the bed. Barnabus placed the shirt in the girl’s hands, which she promptly began to cuddle. The bears closed their eyes and saw a way into her dreams.
Their eyes opened at the rush of air and the sensation of falling from a great height.
Nothing was visible below them but clouds, the rush of wind ruffling their fur. The wind was strong enough to stop Montrose from screaming in shock. He could just hear Barnabus say: “This hasn’t happened in a long time. Get comfortable. This could take a while.”
Montrose looked at the bear, his eyes wild. Nothing he said could be heard, though. He was further shocked to see Barnabus cross his arms and go to sleep!
After a while, Montrose calmed down. He wasn’t certain how long they had been falling and wondered how long it would last. Eventually he could see the ground and his anxiety increased. Barnabus woke up at that point.
“Finally. Have you enjoyed yourself, Montrose?”
The bear glared at him and yelled what they should do now.
“Imagine landing on your feet. We aren’t as affected as though experiencing this in their minds.” Montrose focused as he was told and a moment later they were strolling easily along a field of bright grass and rolling hills.
“The purpose of that trip would be…”
“We just traveled between multiple dreams of falling. That’s why it took so long.”
“So who’s dreams are we in now?”
“I’m not sure and we shouldn’t spend the time finding out. Since falling tends to be a type of nightmare, we should be able to find a way into others.”
As they walked, the background would shift and Montrose realized they were moving faster as the scenery suddenly shifted past them.
“Yes, I see it,” Barnabus said before his friend could comment. “The landscape is shifting past us. I’m doing that to speed us along.”
Montrose said nothing further and they continued in silence. Eventually they reached a door standing in the field. Barnabus said nothing, opened it, and disappeared inside. Montrose gave up on asking and followed him through.
They emerged into a strange town apparently held within an immense cavern. The scene held a claustrophobic appearance, with the second stories hanging out over the crowded streets. Thick smoke billowed out of the chimneys, leaving black streaks over everything. The people themselves appeared to mostly be human, but there were a variety of other shapes. There were other animated stuffed animals. A rocking horse shuffled past them, and there were other, more exotic, denizens.
“Where are we,” Montrose breathed. “What is this place?”
“The Crossroads. We can use this place to reach other realms of existence, particularly nightmares. Cmon, we need to find someone.” Barnabus set off down a seemingly random street.
As they progressed, Montrose realized that the humans were dressed in all manner of clothing, ranging from modern to ancient.
“Barnabus, what is the story behind the diversity of clothing.”
“People are dressed appropriate to where they are from. Some have been here for a long time, but others are just passing through. Stop staring.”
Montrose stared at the back of Barnabus’ head and followed in his wake. He did notice that the crowd parted for the bears, but felt it prudent to stop questioning his companion for now.
It wasn’t long before Barnabus led him into a door that looked no different from countless others. Inside was a mix of curio shop and cafe. The low-ceiling room held as much variety as the street and they made their way to a booth near the back of the shop.
“I don’t see him, so we must wait. The pear cider is quite good here.” Without waiting for a response, Barnabus held up two fingers. Within moments a clockwork figure approached with two drinks, set them down, and disappeared as quickly. Montrose did have to admit that the drink was good.
Before he could speak again, Barnabus spoke.
“Everything and everyone here is either part of a dream that escaped or are visitors such as us. It’s actually a rather calm place.”
“How do you know the difference between the dreams and travelers?”
“It’s difficult and considered rude to ask. You’ll get used to it.”
While they spoke, someone entered that drew Barnabus’ attention.
“There he is,” the bear sighed.
“Is there a problem I should know?”
“Wee Hamish is just…different.”
Montrose looked again. The figure looked like a corgi wearing the finery of a Scottish Highlander. He strode through the room with a great smile, stopping to speak with everyone he encounters.
“He is certainly jolly,” Montrose noted.
“Many plush animals in particular will take on attributes given to them by their first owner,” Barnabus said.
“So was your first owner such a bitter, sarcastic…”
Wee Hamish arrived before Montrose could finish. He jovially shoved in next to Barnabus, spilling some of his drink. The look of disappointment was almost a physical presence.
“Barnabus,” he squeaked in excitement, “you never come around here these days! What brings you to town?” He threw an arm around the bear’s shoulders. Barnabus’ discomfort was obvious to everyone but Hamish, to Montrose’s glee.
“Settle down, Hamish. I need your help,” Barnabus said. “There is a surge in dangerous nightmares. I think it is a concerted effort to poison dreams. Have you heard anything?”
The corgi’s face didn’t seem capable of anything but excessive cheer, even when contemplating something distasteful. He tilted his head in thought, sitting still for a moment before reanimating.
“Well, there’s always the Workshop. Some of those dolls they produce are upsetting.”
Before Montrose could interject, Barnabus spoke intently.
“Why would that cause you to suspect them? They pride themselves on how creepy people find their creations, but that doesn’t make it a hotspot for the severity of the nightmares we have encountered.”
“There is a puppet there that has been stirring up trouble. His name is Shankill.”
Montrose watched as Barnabus’ fingers stretched out and claws grew from there tips. His hand contracted slowly, leaving deep furrows in the table.
Hamish turned his attention to the gouges in the tabletop.
“So,” he said, still staring, “you know of him.”
“Yes,” Barnabus said through gritted teeth. “I thought he was destroyed.”
“The crafters at the Workshop can repair nearly any damage to a puppet,” Hamish said.
There was a pause in the conversation. Montrose could not contain his curiosity.
“What is the Workshop?”
Hamish looked at Barnabus and realized he wouldn’t answer, still consumed by emotion.
“Many wooden and porcelain dolls are made there. Have you ever seen a doll that made your fur stand on end? Those are real versions of the creations of the Workshop. They usually create creepy stuff, but some have inspired true nightmares. Occasionally the spirit versions are able to inhabit those physical representations. An unpleasant thing to encounter.”
Montrose shuddered at the thought of the dead eyes of innumerable dolls he had encountered.
“Who is Shankill?”
“He’s a nasty piece of work. He tries to harvest nightmares from the dolls he has control over, manipulating their strings.”
Montrose and Barnabus both started at the word harvest.
“That sounds quite familiar,” said Montrose.
Barnabus, eyes burning, said “The strings in the Garden and the wooden cupboard!”
Hamish looked back and forth between them, again tilting his head in confusion. Montrose, looking at Barnabus, gave the corgi the details of their encounter with Marley and the Bogey. He didn’t hear Hamish’s whimpering until the story ended. Then he noticed the tears.
“I’m sorry, Hamish. Certain details could have been glossed over.”
Barnabus looked over, and nudged the corgi with his shoulder. Surprisingly, Hamish put his head on the shoulder. The move shocked the bear, but he allowed it, much to Montrose’s surprise.
“Shankill created the Gardens,” Barnabus said, “and that wasn’t the first time Marley and I have encountered them.”
Montrose nodded solemnly and the three were silent for a time. They perked up when their drinks were refilled.
“The Workshop is a strange place. I’m surprised you haven’t heard of it,” Hamish said, looking at Montrose.
“He’s young,” Barnabus said, “so we need to fill him in.”
Barnabus’ face became stern.
“There’s an old enmity between dolls and plush creations. We supplanted them in many ways and they are resentful of it. They gain some measure of life from any intention, whether love or fear. Many of them have come to enjoy the latter. They will be resentful of us intruding on the Workshop.”
“Shankill is making it worse though,” Hanmish added, “but I’m beginning to wonder if he or someone else is taking advantage of this power they receive from negative emotions. I am not well-versed in the nature of the Gardens, but your description makes it look like someone is gathering as much as possible.”
“The details lead to Shankill, though,” Montrose said.
“Yes,” Barnabus said, “and we need to get into the Workshop and look around.”
“If they dislike us, that would be difficult,” Montrose noted.
Hamish had been quiet, and spoke softly: “I may know a way to do this. There’s a person who could make certain you would receive little attention.”
The corgi’s reticence was telling to the bears.
“What’s the problem,” Barnabus asked.
“Best to wait to find out,” Hamish said.
Hamish drained his cup and stood, walking away silently. The two bears shared a look before standing to follow. He led them through the winding streets. Eventually they arrived at a shabby building and walked down a set of nearly invisible stairs to a rotted door. Hamish knocked perfunctorily before entering. Little could be discerned in the gloom of a few candles, but bundles of plants, pots, and various detritus cluttered the place.
“Baba,” Hamish called, “I need your help again.”
A shuffling sound from the darkness revealed a robed figure that seemed to move with pain. When the figure entered the candlelight, it pulled by the hood. A woman was revealed, possibly it had been human, but one side of the face was that of an attractive woman, while the left side was shriveled up as an old woman. Both eyes were fierce and cold, seeming ancient in their gaze.
“Baba Stratha, this isMontrose and…”
“Barnabus,” she finished. “I know of this bear. Her cold gaze had not changed. Montrose realized that she was not much taller than they were, and he wondered again what she might be. She seemed to sense his thoughts, saying “Never you mind that, young bear.”
Montrose flinched when she reached toward him with the youthful right hand, but she only stroked his muzzle. A sorrowful look crossed her face, but it was so quick that he wasn’t sure if he had actually seen it. The hard expression stretched across her face.
“Why did you bring bears to my home, Hamish.” It was a statement rather than a query.
“We need to get these two into the Workshop. Can you help, Baba?”
“Why would I assist these two in risking their souls? It wouldn’t make much difference to one,” she said, looking at Barnabus. He returned her glare.
“Someone is making nightmares deadly and destroying bears and other plushes in horrific fashion, Baba,” Montrose pleaded. “We have to find out what may be seen there. This is an urgent task.”
She looked at Montrose, shrewdly. He became uncomfortable under her stare. She spoke after a length of time.
“I can disguise you to a degree, but I am certain you will not like the result.”
“Is this a permanent change,” Barnabus asked.
“No, you can cancel it at any time. If you end up in dire straits, you might want to do so. You will have enough trouble adjusting to the alteration as it is.”
“How long will this take,” Barnabus asked.
Baba Stratha reached out and placed her left palm on his chest. He quickly curled up and moaned, his fur falling out to reveal a body of wood. She cackled at him. She reached out to Montrose with her right hand again, brushing his face. Unlike Barnabus, he smoothly transitioned to a wooden bear.
Barnabus straightened up, gasping.
“Why did it not harm him?” The bear said with rising anger.
Baba grinned her strange smile.
“I don’t like you. Now get out. I detest your presence.”
The trio left, wandering the street so the bears could get used to their temporary bodies. There were some distrustful looks cast their way and others were openly hostile. Puppets were barely tolerated in the Crossroads.
“I think we need to hurry up and leave,” Montrose said. “We aren’t exactly welcome looking like this.”
Hamish nodded. “Part of that is because you look like puppet bears. It’s like you were created like a mockery of plush bears.”
He led them to a new section of town. Barnabus seemed confused.
“I’ve never been here before. Is it new?”
“Yes,” Hamish responded, “this appeared recently, but most avoid it because of the door leading to the Workshop.”
“What,” the bear exclaimed. “There’s a direct passage here?”
“Yes, but we don’t know how or why.”
They stopped in front of a finely crafted wooden door, covered in delicate designs. It was a thing of beauty created by a master craftsman.
“Here it is,” Hamish said in a somber voice. “Be careful, bears. The place can be a veritable warren of rooms, much like Crossroads. Don’t get lost in case you need to make a quick exit.”
Montrose looked at him speculatively.
“Have you been there before?”
“Once, and I lost several friends on that misadventure.”
“I apologize for bringing it up, he said contritely.
Barnabus put his hand on the handle and looked at Montrose.
Montrose drew in a breath.
“Let’s do this.”
Hamish rocked back as the door was opened and Barnabus, without a word, walked through. Montrose silently followed him through.
The pair were in a corridor of polished wood, graced with delicate designs. The place was beautiful, until they looked closer at the designs. One wall was graced with a carved depiction of a Garden of Souls, the lines spread out like a spider web. Montrose shuddered.
“This looks recent,” Barnabus said. I am wondering if it is a sign of a power shift.”
They continued to walk down the hallway until they saw an open portal. Inside was an immaculate carpenter’s shop. Half-finished puppet heads sat on the bench. They all swiveled to look at the bears, some of them with empty eye sockets.
Barnabus gave Montrose a look and walked away, making a whistling sound. They continued down the passage, passing numerous workshops for a variety of tasks.
“This seems more orderly than Hamish indicated,” Montrose said.
“It may have changed significantly. The place certainly looks ordered and efficient. I find myself wondering how many dolls and puppets are created here.”
“Where is everyone,” Montrose whispered.
“Who knows? I expected it to be full of dwarves and gnomes here hard at work.”
Montrose stumbled in shock.
“Those are real? I thought they were just a myth?”
“No, and always tread cautiously around them.”
Montrose looked at him skeptically, but dropped the subject. It was some time before they found a workspace that wasn’t for carpentry. They walked in slowly, looking at the spools of familiar string. It was the same that was in the nightmare where they joined Marley. Barnabus walked forward and ran his fingers along the string.
“This is a marrionette’s string,” he said at last, looking around, “a lot of it.”
“How many marionettes could this be for,” Montrose breathed.
“No, how many Gardens could this create?” Barnabus’ face distorted in revulsion.
Montrose’s mouth dropped as he looked at the spools with new eyes.
“Could the cabinet we saw have been made here as well?”
“Possibly. Wood was once alive, so it could retain more life energy. That Garden was collecting energy. The cabinet was the battery itself.”
Montrose looked around.
“I think we have enough information. Let’s get out of here,” he said.
“We still do not know for certain that Shankill is behind all this, but I think you are correct. There must be a reason we haven’t seen anyone, so let’s make that a winning streak.”
The bears returned to the corridor, then froze. It changed while they were inside the work space.
“I don’t think the Workshop likes us,” Barnabus said.
“How could it even…” Montrose stopped, recalling what his friend had said. “It’s alive, isn’t it?”
“Yes, and it knows we shouldn’t be here. We’ve walked into a trap.”
The bears looked at each other and willed themselves to change. Their wooden disguise drifted away in sheets of sawdust to be replaced with their fur. They drew their swords, both wondering if the wooden blades could be trusted. With no other recourse, the two walked in the direction they had come from, moving quickly. Montrose looked at the walls.
“The Garden’s web! Follow it!”
Barnabus nodded in approval.
They raced along the hallway, previously straight but now twisting and curved. From behind them a voice drifted through the air. It was a grating sound that dripped with malice.
“Barnabus! Welcome, Barnabus!”
The sound crept up Montrose’s back and triggered a primal rage and fear. He knew immediately that it was the puppet Shankill. Porcelain dolls and wooden puppets began emerging from the rooms lining the corridor, as well as marionettes trailing tattered strings. All of the creatures bore hideous expressions of glee. Montrose felt the growl from Barnabus more than heard it. In a flash, he began cutting a swath through the monstrosities, filling the air with the sounds of shattered porcelain and splintering wood. Montrose’s own slender blade began singing through the air. Neither bear slowed their pace.
It seemed to Montrose that this went on for an interminable time, but it could only have been a few minutes. He felt a tug on his arm, and realized that a marionette’s string was wound around his wrist, and a sudden pressure tugged him back. In a flash, Barnabus spun, severed the cord, and resumed his assault. Montrose began to see black spots in his vision, but could not remove the cord from his wrist. Weakness began to overtake him and the last sound he heard was Barnabus yelling at him over the sounds of battle.