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December 20 2018 

Claremont Academy 

 

It was December 20 and Watchdog was distracted. Ashley was thinking of the game schedule for the coming week and which ones she'd be able to check out from her favorite DC bars, and of seeing her mom and her actual sisters again (not that she didn't care for her charge, poor kid, but she wasn't actually her sister) - and also the common room was overrun with preteens with superpowers. It was the sort of situation to put any bodyguard on edge. It didn't help that Judy turned out to be great with little kids, having admitted privately to her sister that she'd always wished that she'd had more younger siblings. The youngest group of Nicholson students, a half-dozen or so kindergarten age kids, had been following her around all day, in the company of their teacher, a thick-glassed and big-haired young woman named Jessie Lupine who practically smelled of granola. Ms. Lupine had been content to let Judy stay close to her charges, though she was patiently watching as Judy led the kids in another round of Itsy-Bitsy-Spider. 

 

All around the common room, Nicholson kids were hanging out with Claremont students, the oldest of the latter on the anxious edge of teen, the youngest rambunctious gradeschool kids running around and giggling with the energy of small children when it was late at night. There were adults here too, Nicholson teachers watching their students, Claremont teachers watching both, but for the most part it was "Christmas Big Sibling Camp!" all the way. She caught sight of the Blue Team; a girl in a Disney dress chatting with Pan, a boy with electricity sparking in his eyes sitting next to Adam on the couch, a scaly child of indeterminate gender in Leroy's company, and a girl in forest brown discoursing with Arctos in Russian by the sleeping bags. 

That was the other great thing about tonight - the last night before Watchdog and Pulse went off for "special training". 

 

It was a sleepover. 

 

So freaking great. 

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Forever Boy

 

Oh, this was just grand! More friends, short as they may be! Pan absolutely loved kids. They were so much fun! Full of life and energy and imagination and with stars in their eyes! More than a few of them had taken a shine to him, after all, this was Peter Pan! Larger than life and twice as bright! Who among them had not heard about him? He had been leading groups of them around, telling tales and crafting images. One particular boy had been going on and on about wanting Pan to create bigger and better images and forms, from ships, to robots, to super heroes. Pan had of course complied!

 

Now, things were winding down a bit, and Pan had found himself chatting with a girl in a very pretty Disney dress. He was sitting on the air, listening to anything and everything she had to tell him or ask him, a huge grin on his lips.

 

And that wasn't even the best part!

 

It was a sleepover!

 

Absolutely brilliant!

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Posted (edited)

Sun Dragon

 

For his part, Leroy had been doing remarkably little of the talking since meeting Mardo. He'd taken up a reclining position, sprawling across the floor as he leaned on one powerful arm and listened intently to the Nicholson student. Swathed in a white robe belted loosely at the waist with a red sash, Leroy had been caught entirely off-guard at Judy's gentle reminder not everyone was simply untouched by the icy chill of an Eastern US winter. Mardo, on the other hand, had bundled up even inside. Scattered around them was a sizable slice of the Academy library, all books about dimensional studies and comparative religion.

 

"...but, if that's how your Mama treats all of 'em, what's the reason to join? Just 'cause she's more powerful?" Their slender tail flicked quickly back and forth, whispering as the scales scraped the hardwood, their slitted eyes hooded by a deep and earnest frown of concentration. "What's in it for the lwa? They're not just spirits of the world, they're spirits of us, too. Does Mama say stuff like "you can't talk to this person" or "you can't pray to them about this"? Does she think she's God?"

 

"Yes." Leroy watched the younger child's face, his own softened a little by a small, warm smile. "I believe she deserves to be. She grants the prayers truly asked by all: keep me safe, feed me, soothe my fears, take my pain, find me love. In a phrase, 'help me'. All she asks is the help of others in return, to bring more within her reach or knowledge. It is the same with the lwa of this world, Mardo, she desires only their cooperation, to do what they already do yet on a truly grand scale." 

 

The swishing tail slowed, paused. "What if they don't wanna cooperate?"

 

Leroy's smiled dimmed. His golden eyes dropped to the floor.

 

 "I...I do not know. If any have refused my Mother, I was never informed of such opposition to her will. She is not shy to speak of such, as you might imagine. However, they are not servants." Leroy had come aglow again, eyes lighting up as they raised to the ceiling. "They are allies, partners, as are all who dwell on Earth-2. Amatuken would have all match her nearly-limitless power, Mardo, an absolute equality of outcome. My sisters already begin to match and their children, even their followers and students, are hot on Mother's heels!"

 

"But you're not, Mr. Ransome? Not as powerful as her other kids, I mean? How's that work?"

 

The Dragon Prince laughed heartily. "You have me there, Sepan! Now, would you point me where we left off? I believe it was somewhere in this passage on visits to Guinea..."

 

 

Edited by Ari

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Having done so well with one group song, Judy automatically moved on to another one she knew well. 

 

"Jesus loves me yes I know, for the Bible tells me so!" 

 

While some of the kids started singing in various degrees of on-tune, a serious-faced young girl with dark lines around her eyes raised her hand and said loudly, "My parents said Jesus is a false prophet and that only Mighty Ra is real!" 

 

Judy blinked, looked at the little dark-haired girl with a briefly stunned expression, then said with a smile, "...well that's okay, you don't have to love Him back for Him to love you!." 

 

It was about that time that Miss Lupine intervened, smiling professionally, to get the kids to go brush their teeth and put on their pajamas - depending on their sleeping habits. At that juncture, Ashley and Judy joined in with making sure sleeping bags were unrolled, cots laid out, and thermal heating pads in place for the various kids with various needs. Nicholson was a little different than Claremont, much less residential than the boarding school, but many of the children here were going to go right back to their school for Christmas. Even Ashley had to admit it was a pretty raw deal. 

 

With the return of the kids, Judy and Ashley bunked down on the east side of the room where most of the girls would be sleeping, while the boys took up their positions on the other side. Even at a school like Nicholson, where the kids could fly and shoot lasers from their hands, girls and boys didn't bunk down in exactly the same space! The next little while was the usual muffled noise of elementary-age kids having a sleepover, giggling whispered conversations, the occasional smuggled flashlight, and a few urgent needs to go potty. But under the watchful eyes of the Claremont kids and their adult supervisors, the room gradually got quiet. 

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"Mr. Pan, do you know Elsa an' Anna? Have you ever met Aladdin? Oh, oh, what about Ariel!? Or Moana! Is Tinkerbell nice? How's it feel to fly? Is Captain Hook scary up close?" Victoria was all but jumping up and down as she asked her questions, wanting to know everything she could. After all, this was Peter Pan in front of her, was it not? She had to know everything, she wanted to know all that he knew! 

 

Pan chuckled, weaving images of everyone that he knew. He had heard of a Queen Elsa, way up North, but he had never visited. Maybe he should, if he ever made it back to Neverworld! Ariel he had met, one of the many mermaid princesses! She was one the red hair, almost like fire under the water! He had never heard about either Aladdin or Moana, but of course, they might be out there! He drew images on the very air around them, as Victoria's questions continued in an endless stream. The only thing he didn't comment on was "Captain Hook". The Hooked Man was not something he wished to share with children. Oh, he liked little Victoria. She had a spark! A spark of imagination and pure wonder! She would make a wonderful adventurer one day, he was sure!

 

As Miss Lupine called the kids to brush their teeth, Pan waved happily after Victory. He was only happy to spend the night with the kids, but sadly, he had been placed with the boys. These were small children, of course they would not bunk up, but they were close by. Victoria waved a few times from their end of the room, and Pan waved back.

 

But sleeping like this, that was boring! He could not have that, could he now? He sent a glimmering ship sailing through the room, from the boys to the girls, carrying a crew of Disney princesses and heroes. It sailed through the room, at least until Miss Lupine told him to knock it off!

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Eventually, the room went to sleep. 

 

And dreamed. 

 

 

Ashley opened her eyes with her face pressed against carpet - and then cursed, sitting faster. "J-Judy?" She was sitting on some sort of rug, a soft brightly-colored one with a map of the world emblazoned on it, and she was surrounded by low shelves and desks that looked more suited to midgets than high school students. She wasn't alone on the rug, either - Forever Boy, Dio, and Sun Dragon were all stirring from their own rests nearby. Luckily Judy was close at hand, curled up next to her sister as if they'd fallen asleep there. "Ashley?" They embraced, very briefly. And they weren't alone, either. 

 

Curled up in a ball in the middle of the rug,  Miss Jessie Lupine was crying hysterically. "Oh no! Oh no! They're gone and I've lost them all!" 

 

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Sun Dragon

 

"Mmm...good morning..."

 

Leroy woke languidly, stretching and rolling like some sort of golden flower as he got to his feet. He curled to a stand, legs planting and torso swinging upward with a grace that somewhat defied gravity. Looking about at the new world Blue Squad had found itself in, he glanced reflexively at Pan with a glint of suspicion in his lion's eyes. It passed in a moment, however, as the Nicholson guardian's wailing registered.

 

Leroy's head snapped about to stare at Jessie, his face blank and disbelieving as she cried on the rug. Tentatively, he crossed the distance between them with a ginger step and knelt beside her, putting a comforting arm around her shoulders. He paused again, his brow furrowing deeply as he looked around the room, as if trying to find some answer. At last he resorted to a gentle pat on Mrs. Lupine's back, his melodious voice saying, not unkindly "Action is called for, miss. We shall recover the children and all will be well. If any oppose us, I shall crush them to a pash and my dragon will throw their souls to unending torment..." he paused, having caught said giant reptile's chilly eye "...if it should prove impossible not to."

 

He nodded to Ashley "What is your will, Commander? This place is strange, but seems harmless enough. Shall we proceed as a group, in pairs, singly?"

Edited by Ari

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Pan stirred. Something was wrong. He could feel it, even before he opened his eyes. A prickling sensation at the back of his neck, like a shiver running down his spine. He snapped up, flying straight up, as far as he could go. If there were open sky, high above. If not, then to the ceiling. His first immediate reaction, get in the air, find out where they were, find out what he could do. He could see Judy, Ashley, Leroy, Dio and Miss Lupine. They were somewhere new, somewhere different. Not where they had gone to sleep. Small desks, small shelves. Children sized. A rug that held a map of the world under their feet. What was around them besides that? He looked around, seeing whatever he could see, then he would land again.

 

He took it all in. Miss Lupine was crying, saying they were lost. She had lost the children? Yes, yes, they were all alone here. Joining the others, he offered his own words of encouragement. "What is lost can be found, Miss Lupine. We will find them." His tone was different from what Miss Lupine had heard earlier. Focus, a lack of humor.

 

So. Watchdog, Pulse, Sun Dragon, Dio and Forever Boy. Not quite all the members of the Blue Squad, but a formidable group in their own right. If he had been able to go high, Pan would share all that he had seen. If not, he waited for Ashley. She was the natural leader of the group, it seemed, and he saw no reason to challenge that. But what could he do? How could he help now? He paused. He could listen. If the children were nearby, if there were any sounds they made... He would find them. This was children. Young children. They were all alone. If they were here, then they would be crying, or they would be making some kind of noise, if they could. 

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Dio

 

"Don't get carried away. None of us know where we are or what we're up against." The dragon had rolled and struggled quickly back to his feet, hampered by how many of them there were, and now stalked a rough perimeter around the other sleepers. His wings were held close, angled up, to serve as shields or allow instant takeoff. His eyes were, in the gloom, wide and disconcertingly human-like. Every other time any of the students had seen him, even in battle or lost on wholly imaginary worlds, he'd maintained a detached and even(as Pan could attest) lofty or arrogant kind of self-assurance. Now his long legs bent him low to the ground, his tail swept rhythmically to deter attacks from the rear, and his tongue snaked out with increasing speed and force.

 

Dio paced and prowled, head swinging this way and that to keep his side-set eyes trained at every corner. Hissing suspiciously at the carpet, he passed by the other members of Blue Squad on his agitated patrol. "I've something to report: there's a block on my senses. Ordinarily I could tell the location and guess at the emotional state of anyone in this room...but I can't. Can't see your heat either. I'm a magical creature, so I'd guess we're somewhere unfriendly to my kind."

 

He quirked an eye at Pan "Forever Boy, are you affected? And where in the mantle is Arctos?"

Edited by Ari

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"They're all gone and it's all my fault, w-wait," Miss Lupine was asking, looking up from her tear-streaked face at the heroes as they tried to comfort her. She had stopped weeping with Sun Dragon and Forever Boy comforting her, "how can you be here?" 

 

"Not )$_@ing again!" cursed Ashley. Having pulled one of her laser blasters out from her belt, she was scanning the room with gun drawn, interposing herself between Judy and the rest of the room. "Hello? Hello?" she shouted into her bracelet communicator. There was no response. She wanted to tell Leroy where to stick his questions but she needed the dragon-controlling teen if she was going to get Judy out of wherever it was they were. "Scout the perimeter," she barked automatically. "Stay where we can see you." 

 

Pan was not immediately familiar with the room he was looking at, though it did vaguely resemble the classrooms he'd seen in his studies of children in this dimension - the smaller ones, anyway. In fact, this was probably the sort of room Miss Lupine taught in. But this was no normal place; casting out his senses gave him strange echoes and weird, whispery noises, just like the time the Hooked Man trapped him in that illusion of his parents coming to take him away. One thing he couldn't see was outside - the 'classroom' doors were all closed and the glass in them was opaqued. 

 

"What do you mean?" asked Judy, who hadn't gotten up off the floor; at Ashley's direction, she was sheltering behind a row of surrounding cubbies with Miss Lupine. 

 

"How can you be here - in my - in my dream!" Miss Lupine sat bolt upright. "In my dream!" She put her hand to her mouth. "I know what's happening - one of our students, that little girl, Victoria, you remember her?" she asked. "She's a psychic whose powers are active when she's in a state of REM sleep. She can create a psychic field that blends REM states into one whole..." She was supposed to take her pill tonight but I must have forgotten to make sure she did, oh no! It _is_ all my fault!" she said, and suddenly began weeping again - the sort of raw, unrestrained emotion that seemed unusual in a kindergarten teacher but weren't that surprising inside someone's head. 


"We're dreaming. We're dreaming inside a nightmare version of Nicholson." Ashley said a word that was not appropriate for kindergarten. 

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Sun Dragon & Dio

 

"At once, Ashley." As Miss Lupine cried helplessly, Leroy shot a look of utter bewilderment at Dio. 

 

The dragon caught his eye, opened his jaws, then slammed them shut them with an audible KLAK.

 

Leroy winced, gulped and made the shadow of a nod, gently helping the Nicholson teacher to her feet. "Is there somewhere Vrick...Victoria would feel safe, or especially unsafe, at your academy? If we venture there, perhaps we could find the psionist and wake her up." he looked around at the out-of-scale recreation "Regrettably, despite several of my family members being psychics, I know next to nothing about this." Nodding briefly to Pan, Sun Dragon let go of Miss Lupine as his skin was covered by a black shell of frozen light, his powers over gravity creating faint ripples in the air.

 

"Likewise. Could do something in a pinch, but this is as far outside my expertise as you can get." said the dragon. At Watchdog's order, he'd started ranging a little further from the group, somehow looking even tenser and more agitated than before. His sinuous belly nearly brushed the oversized fibers underfoot, and little tufts of smoke and fire left his mouth at every frustratingly thin taste of the air.

 

With a bound Leroy took up position opposite Dio's, floating slightly into the air as he circled the group, looking out into the off-kilter dreamscape. "Although, this is a very sedate-"

 

"No. No jinxing it.

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"Victoria did this?" Pan's shock was genuine. She had been so sweet, so curious, and she held powers great enough to bind their dreams together? He would never have guessed! He winced at the thought of her powers being kept medically in check, but if this was what happened when they were not, then it made sense. Still, the poor girl. She must be somewhere here, absolutely terrified. 

 

"I tried listening," he added to the conversation of what to do, "There were some strange whispery voices, but nothing that sounded like any of the children. Only noise. I'm not sure if it could help or not, but it was there." He knew little of psychics, mind readers, soul divers or whatever you might have, but dreams was another thing entirely. 

 

Leroy had a good point. Where would Victoria feel safe or unsafe? He was itching to just fly off, find Victoria and the other children, but he needed a plan first. Somewhere to go, somewhere to search for. If it was a dream, shared or not, then logic meant little, but symbolism would probably mean a lot. "I agree with Leroy. Victoria is bright, either she has gone where she feel safest, if she has that much control." Intelligence first, then. "What else do you know of Victoria's powers, Miss Lupine? Do she have any conscious control? Is it of the "get hurt in the dream, get hurt in real life" variety? How many can she have drawn in with us? Could the other children be here as well?" He was going a million miles a minute now, but he kept going with the questions. He liked Victoria. He did not want to leave her in here a second longer than necessary.

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Through sniffles (which she obviously found very embarrassing, leading to more sniffles), Miss Lupine gave them the rundown on Victoria's powers - when uncontrolled, they linked together the minds of people she'd been speaking to before bed, and sometimes the people they'd been speaking to as well. "As you can imagine, Victoria had a...troubled childhood before she was adopted and her new parents came with her to Nicholson. That's why she likes the princess dresses, and Disney cartoons, and anything that lets her imagine better things. She loves to go to the library, and she spends most of her unsupervised time looking at books. But even as happy as she was today, being in an unfamiliar place is a potential nightmare trigger for children." 

 

"Du ma may!" declared Ashley, the swearing in Vietnamese not something any of them had seen from her before. "You people just brought a potential hivemind into Claremont?! What the hell were you thinking?" 


"Ashley, that is not nice," said Judy, whose firmness as she whirled on her sister was unusual too. "We can be angry at each other later, right now the wise thing is to try and find a way out of here." She moved protectively between her sister and the teacher. "Now can you answer our questions?" 

Miss Lupine explained that there were probably no more than a dozen or so people inside the "linked nightmare", and that they couldn't actually be hurt by anything that happened in there, but anything that happened would feel real. "I should know, I was in the last one, before one of our PTA members came in and got me out..." She flushed in her cheeks at the memory. "The children aren't in any physical danger, and we'll all wake up in the morning - but there could be half a dozen children scattered around this place, going through the worst nightmare they've ever had, all night." 

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Pan found himself drawn out of his focus for a moment as he heard Ashley swearing. It was really not a nice thing she was stating, even if she did have a point, he supposed. "Such language!" he declared in a faux haughty voice. What kind of language was it that she was speaking? It was not English, of that he was sure, but what then? He had little experience with languages from this world. Maybe he should look into that. On the other hand, she did just call Victoria a potential hivemind. And he didn't like that either. "Victoria is a good girl, Ashley." There was a firmness rarely heard in his voice. "Is the purpose of her learning, her visit, and Miss Lupine's care, not to make sure that she will learn the control necessary of her abilities that she do not become a hivemind, as you put it?" He had not really challenged Ashley like this before. He did not normally feel a need to do so. But he liked Victoria. Even if Ashley was his friend too, and she had a point, she could have put it nicer.

 

But no! Not now! Victoria and the other children were in danger. And even if they could not be actually hurt, then the children were most likely scattered all around, and scared out of their minds, and would feel hurt. That could be just as bad, in its own way. 

 

"There is little question about our next action, is there?" He looked around at the others. His voice still held the firmness from before. "We find the children and protect them from their nightmares, until we can find a way to wake them up. We can always wonder about blame and and guilt later, if it becomes necessary. For now, the children should be our only priority."

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Meanwhile, at the fringes of the darkness , Dio had stopped flicking his tongue out. It was dry as a bone and hurt. Which made no sense, even for a dream. This was nothing, after all, compared to tracking Leroy by his scent in this hamlet of noxious misery. Or even making his way by the tang of sulfur being heavier or lighter in a given direction, groping through sunless subterranean vaults that could have fit a thousand of his race. Full-growns, and they would still have room to spare. Surely some human mis-arrangement of memories wasn't stronger than him, a disciple of the Storm Lord!

 

Growling and hissing to himself, looking every which way at once as he slunk across the carpet, Dio walked right into something with a hoarse bark of surprise. Recoiling, the dragon blinked at the motionless form of Leroy. He was standing, no longer flying, and staring out into the darkness. 

 

Dio followed the stare, hidden though it was by the boy's featureless black helmet. "I see nothing, prince," he ventured at last "you know I'm not at one hundred percent, mind letting me in on what's going on?"

 

"This is hopeless." The voice that came from the helmet was familiar enough, but the words were a configuration so uncharacteristic Dio reached out a claw, then quickly drew back. His huge gold eyes peered down at the human, with a look uncannily similar to the one Leroy had given Mrs. Lupine minutes earlier. 

 

"What?"

 

"It is. They do not know what to do. I do not know. We are lost." The helmet shattered, and the boy was looking straight at Dio, his eyes wide and trembling.

 

Dio settled gently down. "Leroy, she explained all this, this is just imagination, it can't hurt you-"

 

"The mission is a failure."

 

"We're not just aban-"

 

"I want to go home."

 

"Leroy, get re-!"

 

"I want my mo-mph!"

 

Dio had lashed out with a foreclaw, slamming Leroy to the floor with a bone-jarring THUD. For a long moment he held the boy there, staring down at him. There was no reason to hurry up and let go, Leroy could survive indefinitely without air after all. The prince grabbed the claw, struggling to lift it off his face, which brought another claw crashing down on top of him. There was a short intermission as Leroy struggled to get free, the dragon silently thanking his lucky stars he managed to avoid covering the prince's eyes. That would have been the final straw, and then he'd have to deal with a panicky, jittery ghost that hit like a freight train.

 

 Once Leroy stopped trying to escape, Dio let him up. To the dragon's credit, he didn't look smug. Or wise. Or jolly about all this,

 

"They have no plan, Dio," the prince whimpered, looking dejectedly at the others, so far away from the wall of darkness. his voice having dropped to a low murmur. "If...if we split up, I will merely disappoint someone counting on me. If we stick together, I am painfully redundant. Why, why Dio?" Leroy slumped to the floor, tears boiling and steaming down his face "Why did she have me? I...nobody else, in all of Ife, is as weak and helpless and useless as I am!"

 

Dio stifled a contemptuous snicker. It was partially stopped by the sudden realization, he couldn't even small the salt of the tears.

 

Leroy wiped his face, sniffling, and looked forlornly at his dragon. He jumped a little, edging backwards as he stared. Very softly, he whispered "Dio, what...why does your claw look like that?"

 

Dio raised his foreleg, staring at it in bewilderment. Then he saw it, and his heart stopped dead. Where should have been claws were five dainty, human fingers.

 

A horrific shriek rent the dream's air as the green dragon, for seemingly no reason that the people in the cluster could see, took to his wings and raced off into the night, wailing and roaring as he went!

 

"Dio! No! Wait!" Forgetting himself, Leroy rematerialized his helmet, took a hop, skip and a jump, and launched in after him! There was the brief echo of his voice before that too was swallowed up.

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"Leroy! No!" yelled Judy as her sort-of boyfriend disappeared into the darkness of the nightmare elementary school. Ashley swore again, this time in French, and Pan was pretty sure the act she described wasn't anatomically possible for either dragon or teenager. Judy whirled on Ashley and said, "We have to help them! Who knows what could happen to them out there!" Her accent was thicker here, a drawl that sounded right out of the South. 


"...no we don't," said Ashley flatly. She was doing something to her gun, taking something from her belt that looked like the head of a megaphone and screwing it in place around the barrel. "We're not just rushing off after anything. Forever Boy is right. He and I need to go rescue those children first. Those two can't have gotten far, not if the psychic space here is as small as Ms. Lupine says it is. We'll find them while we're on the hunt. As for you, you need to stay here with Ms-" 

 

"I am _not_ staying here," interrupted the kindergarten teacher, who was on her feet, tears still standing out on her cheeks but her voice clear. "I know Victoria and all these children, and I know Nicholson. I'm the only one who can tell you where to go." 

 

"And I can't leave Judy alone...fine," finished Ashley. She dressed as she spoke, all the way, seeming to pull Watchdog's armor and helmet out of nothing. "Let's go," she growled. "All right, line order is that I'm in front, Judy behind me, Ms. Lupine behind her; Forever Boy, you're our rear guard. Time to go kill some nightmares.

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Pan frowned as Dio and Leroy disappeared into the darkness. His first instinct was to go after them, but his thoughst immediately went to the children. Leroy and Dio were big boys, tehy could handle themselves, he hoped. He had to admit, anatomically possible or not, he found himself agreeing with Ashley. Normally he would be the one to rush off first and disappear. "Well, this is new." Staying together would have been best, but it could not be helped, it appeared. 

 

"Sorry Judy, but I agree with your sister. Whatever happened, splitting up will just cause even more trouble, and Leroy and Dio are together, at least. And one of them is a dragon. I am quite sure that they can take care of themselves far better than any of the children. They need us. I am sure we will find our teammates on the way." He floated by Judy, holding a hand out as he spoke, while Ashley was dressing in her armor. Curious, how she could pull it from the thin air. Part of her imagination? Did this realm respond to their imagination, then? He conjured his costume in a whirl of Pixie Dust. Red and green, standing out perfectly in the darkness so that they children could see him.

 

He flew by Ashley, following her command. "While your strategy is reasonable, I have a single thought to keep in mind: If this is a dream world, and it is indeed controlled by Victoria, I might have a certain advantage. After all, to her, and most children, I appear to be the star of a quite popular story, which most know. I am aware it might be simple guesswork on my behalf, but something to keep in mind." Floating in the air, he bowed to Ashley, Judy and Miss Lupine, before flying to the rear. "Now, lead on! Let us slay some frights!"

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"Maybe so," conceded Watchdog, "but taking hits is what I'm here for.

 

The team moved out, down a dark, deserted corridor towards the sound of a crying baby. "That's the nursery," commented Miss Lupine nervously as they headed past physically and spiritually warped children's pictures with unreadable labels and class pictures distorted to look like something demonic. "It shouldn't have anyone in it at this time of night...but of course that doesn't matter now," she added, her voice a soft whisper. 

 

They opened the swinging, hospital-style double doors to the nursery, and walked into a scene of horror. The bassinetts were empty, all of them, but soaked with blood and gore. Empty or not the sound of screaming babies assaulted them as they headed inside, and as they watched something small, scaly, and toothed shuffled its way slowly towards the last occupied bassinette, where a familiar form was trapped. 

 

"Oh Jesus!" screamed Judy, stepping back and covering her eyes, while Ashley coldly and expressionessly leveled her gun. 

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"How about we do not do that." Pan offered to Ashley as he stepped forward, putting his hand on her gun and lowering it. Oh, he was aware that he was being a pain here, and Ashley would probably be more than a little annoyed, but, this was a dream. The entire thing here was horrible, blood and gore. And something small and scaly with a lot of teeth were making its way towards the last bassinet. 

 

So. A frightened child, trapped in a nightmare. He might not seem like it, but Pan paid attention, and he remembered a scaly child that had talked to Leroy. Mardo was her name, he believed? Maybe there was more to this scene than first appeared? At any rate, Ashley might have been able to imagine her weapons and armor. Pan could do so much more.

 

"Come now children, there's no reason for all of this, is there?" He flew forward, his glitter illuminating the room a bit. Blood and gore all around him. It was horrible. But... Pan smiled at the form in the crib, and at the scaly being that was all teeths and shuffling. He smiled widely, despite the situation. And poof, the entire area around them changed. No more gore, no more blood. They seemed to be in the middle of an enchanted village, like something out of a children's cartoon. "See? There's nothing to be scared about, is there?"

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The lizard-boy turned to the group, his mouth bloody and eyes full of anatomically impossible tears. "But I'm a bad monster!" Mardo's exaggerated teeth, much larger than when he was awake, were dripping blood. "I'm gonna hurt people just like I hurt my brother!" He cried, hot tears, and all but collapsed into Forever Boy's arms. But Pan could feel the nightmare around them fading beneath his illusory display, the horrific scene giving way to the pastoral display he was putting on, and gradually the little boy's tears and snuffles began to fade. 

 

Miss Lupine was right by Pan's side, patting Mardo on the back. "It's okay, Mardo, everything's going to be all right. Your brother loves you and he knows you love him too. Remember the picture he drew of the two of you playing?" Mardo nodded against Pan's shoulder. "Think of that picture, and the two of you opening presents together..." Gradually, the nightmare around them faded, faded, and so did Mardo, smiling, with a softly voiced "Thank youuuu..." 

 

With the bassinette gone and the illusion faded, Leroy realized he was not a weak, helpless, useless baby about to be eaten by a monster. Judy, sympathetically, was bent over where he was at ground level, pulling the bonnet off his head and wrapping her sensible denim jacket around him. "Are you okay?" she asked him. "Is Dio here too?" 

 

Ashley put her gun away and nodded in satisfaction, getting the 'rules' of where they were from the scene. Without a trace of her usual hostility, she put her hand on Pan's shoulder and said sincerely, "Nice work." 

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"Are you okay?" she asked him. "Is Dio here too?"

"That would be a 'no' on both counts, dearest caryatid of unflinching valour." Leroy sat a little slowly and awkwardly, leaning on the shorter girl for support as he got his legs arranged. It was his voice, though shaky and harsher than his normal melodious accent, and his body, but it was starkly changed. Where used to burn his lion's-gold eyes, two so dark brown they were almost black stared out into the enshrouding fictional night. His face was wholly smooth, bereft of the broad scars he'd explained as the mark of his family, and his grip lacked the usual hesitation of enormous power held in check. As he re-arranged his robe, which had fallen open at the chest, it became obvious that even the tattoos were gone.

 

"In this nightmare everything I dread comes true. Dio, had I to guess, will be somewhere further in. Down. Wherever the center of a dream is. As outsiders to the Dream Dimension, his powers might expel human minds, even that of the dreamer."

 

Struggling with the too-close-too-far distance between the floor and the bassinet, Leroy eventually had to simply roll up and out, landing hard on one knee.

 

Standing with a wince, the boy looked shamefacedly back to Pulse. "Sorry you have to see me like this, Judy, thank you for not abandoning me."

 

"And Pan." He caught Forever Boy's eye "Thank you for helping Mardo. I could not have reached him." He looked expectantly at Watchdog and Mrs. Lupine. "Where next?"

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"No, you are not a bad monster. Not at all. You have been very, very brave." 

 

Pan held the little boy close. He could feel the scaly structure on his skin, but he did not let go. The child needed him, what else could he do? And then, as Miss Lupine helped, Mardo faded away, leaving Pan with empty hands. He looked down at his hands. How curious. And then Ashley of all people complimented him. Now, this was surprising. Still, not an unwelcome feeling. "Thank you, Ashley." 

 

Standing up, he walked over to Judy and Leroy. "Ah, it was you, Leroy. I must admit it, I did not recognize you at first." He smiled, making a show out of looking Leroy over. "Did you do something new with your hair?" If the rules of this dream world made your worst nightmares true, then some levity might help, after all. "Well, if it is just your fear, then we should be fine! After all, I am the Forever Boy, and I have yet to meet something to fear!" He flashed his brilliant smile, putting up a brave front. He could only hope that his own fears would not come true in here.

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Of course, they now were left with the thorny problem of where exactly to go. With Victoria their only certain case of a student inside the nightmare, they decided to head for her favorite part of Nicholson - the generously-appointed facility library. Watchdog kept up their marching order as they went, this time putting the 'injured' Leroy back with Judy. If Judy was angry at Leroy for running off, she didn't show it, instead clinging close to the boy with her hand on his back. "Ah don't like this place one bit," she commented, "but A guess nightmares aren't supposed to be nice places." Shifting uncomfortably, she was wiping the sweat from her brow by the time they reached the closed, darkened library doors. "Why is it so hot in here?" she asked as the cool night air inside the imaginary school clung to everybody. 

 

Watchdog, Miss Lupine, and Forever Boy were working on the library doors. "These aren't supposed to be locked," said Miss Lupine doubtfully, the wooden doors rattling against their hinges, "but it looks like the fire doors haven't been deployed. If either of you have the power, breaking them down might get us inside..." 

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"Why is it so hot in here?" she asked as the cool night air inside the imaginary school clung to everybody. 

One of the advantages of being so tall was you could look down at people and not have to worry about them noticing right away. Leroy's head jerking suddenly around would have been pretty hard to miss otherwise, his now-dark eyes wide with alarm. Ever since their return from the literary world Leroy had taken just a little extra care with Judy, now he and the rest of the team knew she was extra-sensitive to and dependent somehow on electromagnetic radiation. He recovered quickly, however,  putting an arm around her waist. "A garbled memory or imagining, Dee. No match for you." 

 

"I wonder." He turned to the doors, eyeing them thoughtfully. "Victoria sets the stages but needs us to play along, to accept these phantoms as more than lightning in a chemical bath." With a reassuring squeeze of Judy's shoulder, Leroy withdrew and approached the doors the others of the party were straining to open. "If you please, Pan, Mrs. Lupine? Would you step back five paces? I would like to try." Widening his stance, arms loose at his sides the muscular boy took a long, slow breath. Then exhaled. In. Out.

 

He clenched his fists and began to whisper, eyes shut. "This door is a lie." He took a step closer, raising his arms. "False as my skin. True as my fear." Another step, his voice stronger, louder. "The mind makes all...and I make you not!"

 

Swinging his arms wide apart before bringing them back together with a clap like thunder, Leroy let loose a blasting wave of concentrated gravity, not just on the door or the walls, but at the very idea of barriers between them and their ultimate destination! The dream's air thrummed and warbled, and for a moment gold dragons shone through Leroy's skin and liquid fire raged in his eyes, his cheeks rending bloodily as claw-like gouges scored them, his own roar almost lost in the howling of his unleashed power!

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It was hot. From his position at the rear, Pan kept a lookout, watching and listening intently. On guard for any sound that might catch his attention, be it a child crying or the flap of Dio's wings. Sound might be weird in this nightmare, but it was worth a try, at least.

 

At Ashley's request, Pan tried helping with the doors, but they were indeed locked tight. He was not the physically strongest at Claremont, but even then, the door simply did not budge, even with their combined might. Something had to be done differently if they were to breach the door and reach the library. He smiled at Leroy's suggestion, bowing and gesturing towards the door. "By all means, my friend!"

 

Leroy had the right idea, as far as Pan was concerned. This was a dream, not the real world, and they had to treat it as such. The rules were different in dreams, after all, and it seemed that Leroy was embracing that idea. Pan could only watch in awe as Leroy roared at the door, a golden dragon shining through his skin. Would it be enough? Would it meet the rules that Victoria had unknowingly set, or... would it simply terrify the poor girl to suddenly see a great dragon?

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