Once Upon A Nightmare

By mickeyjohn All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Romance

blame it on blue eyes

I slowly edge myself into the hallway, wishing I could enjoy this more. Living inside an enormous dark castle is one of my dreams. But I don't know where Alexander went, I'm worried about him despite myself, and in the meantime I need to find the King of Nightmares and convince him to tell me where the Stitch in Time is.

I make it one step before a bright voice says, "Good morning!"

I turn and see the princess giving me a familiar smile as if it's already a normal habit of ours to meet in the morning. Given her expectant stance right outside Alexander's room, I have to wonder if she's been assigned to babysit me. "Hi. Um, Genevieve right?" Her beauty is a little less in-your-face now that she's wearing a soft, summer dress and her dark hair is in a low ponytail, but still—it's shocking. Up close, it's very hard not to stare at her.

"Genn is . . . fine." Her eyes widen. "Oh dear."

"What?" I ask, glancing self-consciously over my shoulder.

She approaches me and takes both my hands in hers. "Honey," she says softly and swallows. "I mean this nicely, but . . . you look like a homeless person."

"I do?" I touch my hair. I haven't combed it since . . . well. At all. What was I supposed to do? Gloom didn't have a lot of hair products at his place. That—and Sweeney's dress has now endured a Masquerade, an ambush, and a night of restless sleeping.

"In here," she says and ushers me into what I assume is her bedroom. I see it for maybe a second before she pushes me into the bathroom. It's enormous and filled with ivory and gold lining. She's taking off Sweeney's old dress before I can begin to ask for some privacy.

"Excuse me," I begin.

"Shower's there." She pushes me inside and a blast of steamy, scented water hits my bare skin.

"I'll be right back with some clothes," she calls.

She isn't kidding. I've barely found what I hope is shampoo and scrubbed out my hair before she's rapping on the glass. "Are you finished?"

"Basically—"

The water shuts off and she's there, rubbing me down with a huge fluffy towel. She fits me into a simple, knee-length black dress and sits me on a stool in front of her vanity. The sheer volume of make-up, hair brushes and other beauty supplies ranks in the top five of scariest things I've seen since stepping into the city of Nightmares. It's only a little behind Night Terrors.

"I don't usually wear make up," I say.

"I can tell," she answers. "Don't worry, I'm not doing anything drastic."

A hair dryer revs to life beside my ear. It only takes moments to dry my short locks and in the princess's hands, it doesn't look like a giant cat threw up a hairball on my head like it usually does. She gratefully doesn't use any make up, but puts a cream over my face to give me 'a light glow.'

At last she finishes and spins me toward her. "There we go. Nice and simple. And clean. I threw your other dress in the fireplace. I would apologize if I was sorry."

I smile. I can't help it. She's just so . . . I don't know. Something. Maybe it's her quick confidence so like Alexander's that's hard not to like. And I have to admit, it does feel nice to be clean and groomed.

"Violet, right?" she asks.

"Yes," I say softly. "Violet Darcey." I tug at the fabric of the dress. Genn is a little curvier than me, but it fits well enough. "Thanks."

She studies me, hand on hip, and reaches up to tuck a chunk of hair behind my ear. "Don't be afraid, sweetheart. Everything's going to be fine."

I've never been told not to be afraid so many times as I have from people who feed off fear.

We reach the double staircase and I lean over the railing. The ballroom looks three times as big without the decorations and dancing Nightmares; it makes me sad. The magic is gone, replaced by scattered debris, burn marks and tattered fabric. A crowd of Nightmares has already gathered, beginning the process of cleaning up.

The werewolf looks up as we enter and beams at Genn. "Genevieve, my radiant flower." He takes her hand, kissing her wrist and up her forearm. She giggles. "You look as beautiful as a cemetery sunrise."

"You keep your flirting to a minimum," she warns, but the light in her blue eyes doesn't seem very serious in the threat. "Or I'll tell Daddy."

With a grin, Johnny glances at me. "Violet. Sleep well?"

I think of Alexander and his dreams. "I slept okay."

"An impressive feat, in a castle of Nightmares."

"Come on." Genn tugs on my arm. "We have work to do."

. . . . . . .

Fifteen minutes later, my cheeks sting where Genn pinched them.

"Just smile and laugh at whatever they say," she says and adjusts my hair again.

I shift my grip on the tray of drinks I hold. Lemonade spiked with anxiety. My throat itches a little looking at them, reminding me again I haven't had breakfast today. Despite declining participation in this activity several times, I'm still here, wondering how I might have prevented it.

"Follow me!" Genn chirps, picking up her own tray.

I trail behind her into the ballroom and we weave through ladders, working Nightmares and separate piles of both new supplies and gathered debris. Ahead of me, Genn is charming and lovely in her white chiffon dress as she passes out lemonade. I'm less so, to say the least, and I catch the look of disappointment on the first Nightmare's face as I hand him a glass of lemonade.

I almost feel bad for him. "If you drink it all," I say, "I'm sure she'll come back with refills."

He brightens at this and downs the entire glass in three seconds. "Thanks," he mutters and wipes his mouth, looking to the side to watch Genn with a dreamy look on his face.

I roll my eyes and move on to the next Nightmare. Even with the quick lesson Genn gave me, I don't say more than a few words to anyone. I really am the fear of socializing. Or awkwardness. Or complete human failure.

When my tray is empty, I set it on a pile of supplies. Like the first time I met Armand, the Nightmares clean with efficiency and the attitude of having done this before, though there is an edge of bitterness to their half-joking Dream insults. Johnny spends more time harassing the female workers than actually helping, but he's in charge and easy to hear as he gives orders to individual groups. Genn still darts around, flirting and encouraging. I can't be annoyed with her—she really is boosting spirits. I can, however, be annoyed with myself and my general uselessness. Plenty of other girl Nightmares work at fixing the gaping holes and shattered windows, but unlike them, I'm not equipped with immortal, fear-inducing powers.

Genn comes over to check on me, retying her ponytail. "How'd it go?"

Miserable. "Not bad," I reply. "It looks like a lot of people came to help."

"Yes. It was personal this time, you know?" She says it like I'm already a native and will understand the severity of the affront. "The castle is as old as anything—the Edge, the Jewel of Imagination. That's why the Night Terrors came. They're brothers with the castle, or like—something. I don't know."

An expectant suitor-to-be waves her over and with an apologetic grin, Genn leaves me.

Sighing, I walk over to a corner and pick up two halves of a broken skull, partially hidden by dust. It was part of the Masquerade's decorations, its expression over exaggerated and howling. I piece it together the best I can and hold it up to my face. It makes me sad to think of the Nightmares going home in the aftermath, their favorite holiday ruined.

In my hands, the skull melds together and fixes itself. Surprised, I bring it closer, turning it left and right, but there's no incision or crack.

Suddenly, I smile. Even with my craptastic flirting skills, I can help.

Interrupting Johnny's hands on inspection with the same girl I saw throw a lightning bolt last night, I tap him on the shoulder and he turns.

He smiles when he sees me. "Violet," he says. "My flower. What can I do for you?"

"I think I know a way I can help," I say. "Is there any way I can get up one of the ladders to a broken window?" A row of five stain glass windows have been blasted, if not directly, then cracked and shattered in the aftermath. The arched, stone frames reach almost to the ceiling—what's left of it, anyway.

"Well." He turns and studies the Nightmares working at the window bases. "I suppose."

We walk to the bottom of a ladder at the first window, the one that had taken a direct hit from a light bomb. No one is up there, yet—it's the biggest and last to be tackled. "Do you need anything?" Johnny asks. "I'm afraid to give you anything heavier than a small hammer in case you fall over."

"I don't need anything," I reply and climb the ladder.

At the top, I put my hands on the base of what once was a giant window. The space is tall, but only about six feet wide. The bomb knocked out the wall on either side of the window frame, and only a few jagged pieces of colored glass remain near my hands.

I run my fingers over the stone, remembering how beautiful the castle looked last night and the Night Terrors, terrible as they were, arriving to protect it. "Hello," I say after a minute. "My name is Violet and I want to help fix you." I feel like I'm petting a giant, wounded dragon.

I breathe deeply and recall how the window looked before the attacks. I close my eyes and think, Please work, please work. Emotion triggered it with the broken skull, and I try to let the castle know how much I love it and how I want it to be beautiful again. Fix, I tell the window.

I hear a crinkling noise and open my eyes. The window materializes before me like someone hit a rewind button, the stain glass piecing itself back together. The wall repairs and in seconds, the whole area looks like new.

My fingers tingle and my face feels flushed. I grin down at Johnny and he looks back at me with a mixture of horror and amazement. I climb down and see the source of his horror. Several Nightmares stare at me in suspicion and wonderment.

I clear my throat. "I'm the fear of home repair," I improvise.

"The picture is different now," Johnny says to me.

"What, really?" I look up. Crap. So close, I wasn't able to see it, but it's a Night Terror. A gothic, stunning Night Terror, glittering in shades of blue.

"You're the strangest human I know," he adds like a vague afterthought.

He's not the first to think so. I say, "I can help with the rest."

He scratches the scruff on his chin. At last he shrugs. "You might as well."

We work for the rest of the morning and repairing the damaged ballroom gets harder. To my surprise, it's not just the effort of concentration that starts to wear on me—physically, it takes a lot of energy to get the fallen bricks to do what I want. I'm dizzy with lack of food.

I'm rubbing my aching head, sort of listening to Genn prattle on about the drapery curtain I just mended near the side bay, when Armand approaches, giving the ballroom a dumbfounded once over. I startle a little at his sudden appearance. He looks like he spent every minute since he left the Masquerade getting dragged through the dirt by a truck, or something equally horrific. His eyes are bruised and exhausted, his mouth gaunt and in a frown.

Genn notices him too. "Armand! What happened—did the Night Terrors attack you?"

"Not exactly," he said dryly. "How did you do so much work so fast?" Then he sees the window I did, the one with the newly minted Night Terror, and he recoils as if someone slapped him in the face.

"That's the handiwork of our resident mortal." Johnny comes up to us. Jack is with him, looking similarly tired, but not near as bad as Armand.

Jack looks at the windows, tilting his head. "I noticed things seemed a little . . . off in here."

"Sorry," I mutter. "I was trying to—"

"I like it," he interrupts. "It's fine. It's done, that's the point. And it looks new."

Maybe now is a good time to bring up the Stitch in Time, in the aftermath of his praise. But before I can oh-so-casually mention it, Genn hugs him.

"What a long day. How was your trip, Daddy?"

"Interesting," he says, his bland tone anything but.

"Did you see all the great stuff Violet did?"

"I did."

"It's amazing. I wish we could keep her." She gives her father an imploring look.

"We'll see," he replies, but his gaze has moved on to his son. "Armand—"

"I'm going to bed," Armand says shortly. "Genn, make sure you give Violet something to eat. She looks like she's going to pass out."

"Oh, right." She gives me an apologetic grimace.

. . . . . . .

Once Genn has made me a very creative lunch, she announces it's time for her afternoon beauty nap. I agree that sounds like a nice plan, but as soon as she's closed her door and I've pretended to retreat into Alexander's room, I go into the hall. I'm tired, but there's no way I'm going to sleep—not with a Nightmare castle open for exploring. I feel the gravitational pull of the little kid I once was and in some unswept corner of my soul always will be. Of Alexander's relatives, really only the mummy scares me, so I'm not too nervous as I begin my study, tilting my head to take everything in.

Like the rest of Chimera, the castle is an interesting combination of modern and old-fashioned. The architecture is Gothic, the decor Medieval, the furniture Victorian, and the appliances 21st Century. Some floors are wood, others cold stone, and others, like the bedroom and surrounding hallways, are carpet.

The castle is alive in more ways than figuratively. Something guides me along, opening doors at just the right moment and allowing breezes to push against my bare shins in the intended direction. When I stumble in a particularly dark hallway and curse the lack of light, a row of torches magically ignite themselves, providing a fire's glow to illuminate my way. I almost say thank you.

And then I find the library.

It's sort of hidden at the end of a long corridor and the door is heavy, but as I tug, the castle's unseen life force comes to my aid and the door swings open, nearly clipping my nose.

Inside is like the ultimate book-heaven I didn't know existed. Bookshelves cover every inch of every wall, rows sweeping higher than my house. Cobwebs decorate the corners and a chandelier hangs from the ceiling. Two large desks sit at opposite sides of the room, facing each other, and an array of leather couches gather around an ancient fireplace opposite the door.

I almost back out when I see Armand sitting at the desk on the left side, maps and books fanned out haphazardly around him. He was clearly lying about going to sleep, though he still looks like he needs it. His lips are pressed together in concentration, a little line between his brows. The sight of Alexander's face etched into such an expression of seriousness is almost laughable. He glances up and then returns to the thick books, unperturbed. "Don't let me bother you," he mutters, already scribbling again on the paper in front of him.

Yeah right, I think, but feel even more awkward leaving, so I choose to sit at the other desk. A quill postage pen sits inside an engraved cup. Pressing a finger to my mouth, I decide to write Gloom that other letter I promised him to make myself look busy. With some more digging, I find a paper and an envelope.

Excellent. I stare for a moment at the blank paper.

I should write to Gloom, but I write something else instead.

Where are you? I'm worried. –Violet

I scrawl Alexander's name on the backside. As before, the edges of the envelope shimmer, and then it disappears. So, did it . . . work? At the moment, I'm feeling extremely doubtful. If only there was a way . . .

Reluctantly, I look across the room at Armand, still neck deep in his work, whatever it is. On another paper I write:

I like work; it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours.

Hilarious. I put quotation marks around it, and so he won't wonder at the random message, sign From, Violet at the bottom. I fold the note and slip it into the envelope. Now for the cherry. I write Armand Ira, Prince of the Isle of Morpheus across the top in big, easy-to-read letters.

Even prepared for it, my jaw drops in shock as I watch the letter reappear in the air in front of Armand. He pauses, frowning in confusion, and takes it from its hovering position. Oh no, oh no. I honestly only half-expected it to work, and now that it has, I realize I'm not funny. I'm an idiot.

He reads the note and blinks a few times, likely rereading it to be certain the weird human actually sent him such a moronic saying, and then glances up. It's too late to look away and pretend I have no idea where the note came from, sitting as I am with the pen still in my hand. I give a strained smile, wishing one of the giant bookshelves would topple over and bury me. He raises an eyebrow, and from this distance I can't tell if he's amused or annoyed.

I let out a breath of relief when he looks away, but catch it again when he pulls out his own postage pen and begins writing. I crane my neck, trying to see better, and jump when an envelope with the words Violet Darcey, Alleged Fugitive of the Isle of Morpheus appears in front of my nose.

I open it and read:

"…for when men labor they keep out of mischief. Remember the old proverb— An idle mind is the Devils workshop..."

Armand

He's good. And he writes with an elegant script more suited to ancient scrolls than passing notes in a library. The A of Armand slopes large and dominating the rest of his signature.

I write directly under his name, painfully aware of my own childish handwriting.

"If a man insisted always on being serious, and never allowed himself a bit of fun and relaxation, he would go mad or become unstable without knowing it."

Herodotus. Let's see him top an ancient Greek philosopher.

He doesn't rise to the bait, very unlike Alexander in that respect. He writes, simply:

I'm impressed.

And on the envelope, my name reads: Violet Darcey, Mortal Scholar Trapped in the Isle of Morpheus.

Embarrassed, I reply with another Herodotus quote: "Knowledge may give weight, but accomplishments give luster, and many more people see than weigh." —I read a lot. And don't do anything else.

Knowledge is an accomplishment, he returns. What do you read?

Everything. Anything. But my specialty is scary stories.

How many?

All of them.

He taps his pen on the desk and then stands, moving to the bookshelves. A few moments later he returns with a thin, blue-bound book in his hands. He sets it in front of me without a word and goes back to his own desk.

Here's one I doubt you've read.

I look at the book. Deadly Imagination, by T. H. Skinner. I've never heard of it. Curious, I read the coverlet. It's a horror story about a mortal woman who wreaks havoc and destruction on the Isle of Morpheus.

What are you trying to say?

I wasn't trying to say anything.

You'll feel bad when you're the one who gave me the idea for my rampage of death and destruction.

They'll never know it was me.

Until I ride through the bloody streets and give you the credit. 'I owe it all to you, Armand!' I'll say.

He laughs, a throaty sound that dies into a bewildered chuckle, as if he surprised himself by laughing. His head tilts to one side and his gaze grows more intense. Then the clock chimes at the hour and he glances at it. With a sigh, he closes and gathers his books. He tucks his notebooks under his arm, sparing me a brief look before he walks out the door.

I walk to his desk and look at the spines and covers of the books. They're about Night Terrors. I open the first book and turn to a page with a folded down the corner. A pencil illustration of a Night Terror in flight covers most of the page. It doesn't do the creatures I saw two nights ago justice.

Powerful in their own right, these ancient creatures have the ability to mimic other Nightmares, making their pool of potential victims virtually endless.

The sideways title of the illustration reads: Night Terror feasting on its favorite meal: the unfiltered terror of mortal children. I shudder and close the book.

. . . . . . .

Okay. It's almost night again, and Alexander is still not back. I'm the only one who seems concerned and it occurs to me that until Armand spilled the beans at the Masquerade, his family didn't seem to know where he'd been while he was trapped in my mind. He's probably gone all the time, which doesn't help my anxiety at all.

A part of me hoped he'd suddenly change personalities and be the knight to my damsel-in-distress, finding out where the Stitch of Time was from his father and then leading me there, slaying any monster-Nightmares that got in our way.

But clearly, that's not happening.

Tomorrow, I'll just find Jack and ask him myself. Then Gloom and I can go. The Eye of the World Mountains are probably not as scary as Gloom made them sound. I love him, truly, but the only weapon I've seen him wield is a coat rack. I don't even know what kind of powers the love of gothic literature would have. Fast reading skills?

Besides. I'm not really that heartbroken at the delay. I kind of like it here. Not only the huge castle with a mind of its own, but Chimera too—with its monstrous citizens and creepy, gargoyle streets. I like Genn, I like Johnny. And I like Armand. In fact, I think I may especially like Armand because I get a little . . . I don't know, funny feeling, when I think about liking him.

As for Alexander, I'd be only too happy to ignore him and never see him again, but the stupid thing inside me won't leave me alone. While Alexander was around, the tiny flame etched in the hollow spot of my chest kept at a steady purr. Now it flares up and itches, looking for its other half. Where is he? it whispers sulkily and snuffs out—not before giving me a hard prick in the side.

It's better in his room, where traces of him are so evident. I haul myself upright on his bed. There's enough of twilight coming through his window I can see to make my way around, running a hand over his granite furniture. Nothing wood, I note.

He would not like this, I think, but don't stop.

I'm not snooping.

—okay, a little I am. Even though Alexander has explored every inch of my inner workings, he continues to keep his own mind carefully sealed. It's only fair to even the playing field. I examine the knick-knacks on his dresser and open the drawer of his nightstand.

I lean in closer, certain I'm imagining the bright pink flower nestled in the corner. I reach in and remove it and several papers attached to the stem flutter to the ground.

Setting the flower down, I bend and sort through the papers; a photograph, a few notes, one with a piece of candy taped to it, and a drawing. The photograph is of a girl with blond curly hair, a saucy smile, and a lot of freckles. I recognize her as the girl in Alexander's dreams. Her face is crossed in the middle by the heavy creases of an often folded keepsake.

The drawing depicts two stick figures kissing (one with a skirt, and one with spiky hair), and a lightning bolt above them about to strike. It's labeled: Sandy and Enna. One note says: Yer kind of a jerk, but please kiss me anyway. Love you, Enna. Another said, Dear Sandman, I think I like you better than lemon drops. Enna. And a lemon drop taped below her name.

He's coming, he's coming!

My flame is happy about it, I'm not. I frantically gather the papers and put them back, slamming the drawer shut. I make a beeline for the door and nearly collide with Alexander when he opens it.

"S'cuse me," I say, and try to get around him as if we're just passing in the hall, but he holds out an arm to block me.

"What were you doing?"

I have time to feel all the tenderness I've ever felt for him surge up in one concentrated instant—and to be surprised that it's still there, warm and intact beneath the blistering layer of my anger—and then he's looking past me.

I glimpse his face, and I know he knows even before I turn and see the nightstand drawer, partly ajar. I slammed it so hard, it bounced open.

He pushes by me, his face white. His breath comes thickly as he runs his trembling fingers along the loose papers in the drawer. His guard is down; I can feel his emotion leaking through our connection. The overwhelming anguish is so strong, I stagger beneath the sudden weight of it.

It's killing him. I reach out without thinking. "Alexander—"

"Shut up," he snarls. "If you say anything, I swear—"

"Alexander," I repeat helplessly, shivering at the heat in his voice. Maybe he doesn't realize I see his dreams too, when he has them. For him, this might be the first time his buried pain has seen light.

"Get out."

The door swings open on its own. Sending Alexander a final glance, I turn and run to Genn's room. I've never been that sad before, ever. I'm physically shaking from it. I can't believe anyone can feel like that for long and survive. He kept it so hidden. I don't know him at all, and this makes him more frightening than ever before.

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