Once Upon A Nightmare

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to the eye of the world mountains

I run toward the Woodland townhouse, Donovan's last words an echo in my head, repeating in the rhythm of my pounding footsteps:

"Violence is the language they understand—the only one."

The building is in flames; a crowd is gathered around the burning timber. I see a few Nightmares, coughing and soot-covered, among them.

Enna's in there.

Everything else—politics, motives, repercussions—flees from my mind. I race inside, searching for her. The scorching heat whets my skin like oxygen. My lungs, built for the brimstone of hell, breathe fine.

Where is she?

A Nightmare lies beaten on the ground. He's already dead. I'm too late. Those who could have escaped are gone. I'm suddenly desperate not to find her, but I will scour every inch of blackened framework until I'm sure. I whisper our poem like a sick war chant; the one I always used outside her window when I wanted her to know I was there. She tried to get me to love nursery rhymes, and I quoted Poe back to her.

But our love it was stronger by far than the loveOf those who were older than we-Of many far wiser than we-

The fire started near the podium—and it's there, beneath the weight of a collapsed ceiling, that I see a hand. The flames stretch high on the stage, but I walk through them like they're nothing but soft wind. I yank the debris off a curled, fallen body.

Her dress—once pale green and covered in yellow ribbon—is mostly burned away. Her eyes are open and her flesh is red and blackened on one side. I see bone through her corroded cheek. But she is still unbearably familiar. I kneel, breathless, and gather her burning body into my arms. Oh, Ennabelle . . .

And neither the angels in heaven above,Nor the demons down under the sea,Can ever dissever my soul from the soulOf the beautiful Annabel Lee.

Holding her as the fire around us continues to eat away at her lifeless form, the heat weaves into my agony, and I think I know what hell feels like—and why someone would fear it.

And then it stops; a torrent of rain washes over the townhouse. A Nightmare with weather powers must have come. Water leaks through holes in the ceiling and wall. Ash and steam create a foggy, gray slush around us. They will find her body like this, deformed and unrecognizable.

For the moon never beams without bringing me dreamsOf the beautiful Annabel Lee

With a pained cry that crawls out of my throat and into her neck where I've buried my head, I release the flames that destroy what's left of her. The moisture in the air smears her remains over my fingers like striped war paint. Goodbye, I think, clenching my fists. I love you so much.

And the stars never rise but I feel the bright eyesOf the beautiful Annabel Lee

I stand and walk slowly out.

Zizzy is on the street. Her raised hands drop when she sees me. She called the thunderstorm that put out the fire. Whatever she observes on my face, it causes her to pale.

I look past her where Donovan is already rallying the gathered Dreams to anger against the Nightmares. This will be seen as the first attack, no matter what we do to deny our involvement. Donovan needed it for his war. Of course the Nightmares struck first—that's what they'll say—like ticking time bombs now that the human pill is beginning to take its toll.

But the Nightmares here only came to protest the complete segregation of the Woodland wares. Enna went to add her testimony. I'm shaking as I recall a young Nightmare boy, holding his brain-crusted truffles. "If they'd just try our candy, they'd have to like it."

Prone to violence? Unlikely. Dead? Probably.

Did Donovan care about the Dreams caught in his attack? Did he know Enna would be there? He sees me and his face darkens. "The fear of hell," he says, as if I'm a displayed object on a pedestal—evidence.

He's going to blame this on me?

So be it.

Zizzy says, behind me, "Alexander—no—"

And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the sideOf my darling- my darling- my life and my bride,In the sepulcher . . .

of my beautiful . . . Ennabelle Lee.

I concentrate my pain, so it becomes something I can grab and control. What surges out of my arm is more than fire—it's black, molten, sparking like a demon. It hits Donovan and he falls back, clutching at his face. His screams are otherworldly. The sound soothes me.

Someone is shaking my shoulder; I jerk awake, gasping. Donovan's eyes are so close to mine. I cry out and turn my head. My face is wet with tears and I scrub my arms uselessly over my cheeks. Now I know why Alexander never, never let me bring up Edgar Allan Poe in my dreams.

"Get up," Donovan says gruffly, but it's clear my reaction disturbs him. He pulls me to my feet, avoiding eye contact.

Our trip into the Eye of the World Mountains has evidently not been delayed, despite what happened last night. Moe sticks his head in the tent. "'ey boss—did you order a new recruit?"

Donovan's brows lower in a frown. "No."

"Eh—well, you 'ave one."

I follow Donovan outside and if it's morning, I can't tell. The atmosphere hangs perpetually on about-to-storm, the black clouds low and suffocating above us.

Todd Florence Scrubb lingers, tall and gangly, among the Dream renegades. He's dressed again like an old-time adventurer. I'm not sure I've ever been so glad to see anyone in my life. "I want to join the cause," Gloom says, sticking out his chest. When he sees me standing next to Donovan, he loses a bit of his pretended pomp, but only a little. He recovers and meets Donovan's stare. "I want to find the Dream Queen," he adds.

Find the Dream Queen?

I give Donovan a careful look out of the corner of my eye. Is that why he wants to find the Stitch in Time—to find her? Maybe that's why Alexander was trying to warn me about her in his memories.

"You look like a Nightmare," Donovan says, giving Gloom an up and down inspection that gives me the shivers, and I'm only on the perimeter of his gaze.

"I know." Gloom laughs tiredly. "I am the love of gothic literature." He gives a small bow.

"Fine," Donovan says. "If you're so eager—we're going into the mountains now."

Gloom swallows. "I desire nothing but to be at your side."

Donovan accepts this by ignoring him, moving to the prisoner tent. When I'm relatively sure of Donovan's disinterest, I walk with as much restraint as I can over to Gloom. I don't tackle him in a tearful hug like I want to, but I get close enough he can hear my lowered voice. "What are you doing here?"

"I came to find you after I heard what the princess said outside my bookshop."

"But how?"

"I used the Reality Skipper they left. Your subconscious is the most familiar place in the world to me. It's what I imagined."

I knew I saw him through Alexander's mind, in the shadow of Crooked Books'n'Nooks. Alexander—who also had a Reality Skipper for his use, who's also frighteningly familiar with my subconscious, and who isn't here. I'm not as angry as I would have been, after reliving Enna's death with him. I felt what he felt when he lost the girl he loved and it was soul shattering. Now, instead of anger, I pity him.

"What should we do?" Gloom whispers. He's looking past me, toward the mountains; it's evident he doesn't want to go in there.

My shoulders go back. I'm steeling myself for battle almost involuntarily, refreshed by Gloom's presence. Maybe everything's not over. Maybe I can still find the Stitch in Time. Even with a fake prince who has no clue where it is, I might as well look while we're in there. "This is my only chance," I say softly. "If I can't find the Stitch in Time, I'm as good as dead anyway. Go back to Chimera, I don't mind."

"And leave you alone?"

I don't tell him that now that I'm not alone, I want him to stay, but I can't bring myself to ask. A part of me fears a repeat of Alexander's indifferent rejection; Gloom's already given me more than I deserve.

"The one thing no one understands about gothic literature," Gloom murmurs seriously, bending down so I can hear him, "is that there's still a happy ending. The foes that make the stories so horrible are vanquished."

"That's what I'm always saying," I say, surprised, then I grin.

Before Gloom can respond, Donovan reemerges with the imposter Alexander at his hip. Gloom and I exchange a glance and move less suspiciously away from each other.

"That's not him," I whisper.

"Let's go," Lana says, right behind them.

"Onward," Gloom agrees, nodding with finality.

. . . . . . .

The trail we follow isn't so much a trail, as a gorge with black, lifeless cliffs on either side that give us no choice but to move forward. I wonder how we'll find our way out of the craggy maze—ifDonovan intends for us to return at all. He leads our group with fake Alexander at his shoulder—who I've decided to call Alex in my head. His likeness to Alexander is uncanny, and yet, he's also a lesser version—simpler, in a way. Hence, Alex instead of Alexander. Aside from Alex's bound wrists in front of his waist, he has no other bindings except my previous verbal command. To Donovan's surprise, I was eager and specific in my instructions for Alex to stay near Donovan, withhold any attack, and go where instructed.

I didn't expect him to voluntarily obey, since his soul, whoever's it is, is definitely not bound to mine. Weirder still is his claim that he knows where the Stitch of Time is. Now that his sister is gone, he's experienced a change of heart and is willing to divulge its secret location.

Right.

Lana's in charge of me, but I'm not any harder to control than Alex. Her fingers are almost soft against the skin of my arm. Three other Dreams came with us: the china-doll girl, Mo, and Gloom. The latter holds a sword as he gives our surroundings a miserable look, the weapon awkward in his grip.

The farther we go into the mountains, the easier it is to summon dark thoughts. The air is like a sift, drawing them out from deep inside me to the surface. The effort of keeping Alexander's memories at bay is a battle of aerobic proportions, but I force myself to feed the hope Gloom inspired. Maybe the fake Alexander really does know where the Stitch in Time is. I could be home before I go asleep again.

Though, if that's true, I'll never see Alexander again—or Genn or Armand or Sweeney. My flame is barely alive inside me; I hardly feel Alexander at all. Not that I'd bother telling him goodbye, at this point. But I do wish I could see Armand and Genn. Releasing a half sigh, I tilt my head up. The sky looks like a black ocean just before a storm. Not that I've seen the ocean, but that's what I imagine, reading my books. My dad painted the ocean once—an odd variation from his desert landscapes—but his was red and a kind of teal-blue. Not like this.

I suck in a breath to break my thoughts, but regret it when my lungs fill with so much of this empty, life-draining atmosphere. Glancing sideways at Alex, I envy the furnace he carries inside him—or I assume he does, since he's managed to control fire the same way as the real Alexander. His mimicry of Alexander's way of moving is dead-on. His natural posture is exposed, unconcerned by onlookers or physical threat. His movements flow unrestricted.

As if he feels my gaze, Alex meets my eyes. He doesn't look drawn, like the Dreams around him. His eyes appear almost black, but lit, somehow, from the inside.

I look away. The sky shifts and a hard wind blows over us. As it dies, singing echoes off the slick mountainsides. At least—I think that's what the sound is. It's pretty and low, nearly vibrating. I seem to hear it inside me.

Lana's grip on my arm tightens. "Night Terrors?" She glances at Donovan.

Donovan's eyes are up, searching. White tendrils of fog curl around the cliff tops, moving forward, then just out of sight, like some type of cloud-creature desperately trying not to fall off the other side.

"They're not Night Terrors," Alex says with impressive calm. "They're Mirages."

As soon as he says the word, a head appears over the top of a nearby rock. I know it's a head only because of the two glowing-yellow eyes looking at us. The rest of its features are undefined, almost transparent in their constant shifting.

"What's a Mirage?" I ask.

The Mirage floats higher, as if to sit on the rock. In the moments where it briefly solidifies, its form is womanly.

"The Dream version of a Night Terror," Alex answers me, apparently the only one interested in my ignorance. "They give humans hallucinations. Most of their victims are mentally insane. But blissfully happy."

Gloom shudders.

Donovan, bizarrely unconcerned, holsters his gun. "Keep moving."

Still pretending like he has to listen to Donovan's orders, Alex goes first. A few other Mirages appear above us, watching as we file past them, their bright eyes blinking slowly.

I should keep my eyes forward. I mean, how many gothic novels have I read to know exactly what happens when someone gets curious about the vague, creepy thing? But as I walk under that first Mirage, I can't help it—I look up. As soon as we make eye contact, its head tilts—so far it would have twisted off on a normal body. And then it zooms off the cliff, streaking down like a vaporous lightning bolt, until it's in front of me.

"Human?" it whispers in this childish, lovely voice.

"Morpheus!" That's Lana, cursing next to me. "Donovan—"

"Oh, honey." My dad is before me, his eyes glossy with tears behind his glasses. "I finally found you." Everything is right—his voice, the way his shirt is unevenly buttoned.

"Move her!" Donovan's gritty voice sounds distant, as if coming from a low-volume television set.

"It's not real," Lana hisses at me, and yanks me forward.

The Mirage breaks apart as I ram through it. I shudder, breathing heavily—but it works. As authentic as he looked, I know my dad could never be in the Isle of Morpheus. That made it easier to pull free.

"I'm okay," I say—but the Mirage comes again. This time as Alexander.

Before he—it—can say a word, Lana and I are already moving. Neither of us can suspend disbelief with an already potent look-alike standing just ahead. The hallucination we plow through is barely a mist. I don't like how the Mirage seems to know what forms would affect me most, real or not.

Then the third attempt appears. Lana loses her hold on me as she surges forward and I hit something solid. It's Armand, blue eyes sharp with concern. His hands, as they come up to cup my face, feel very real. I'm aware of each fingertip against my skin. I was right—it was him, he's here. My skin glows with joy just seeing him.

"I came," he says softly, "to rescue you."

I lean toward him. He's sucking me in like a vacuum. A touch of alarm flits between my hazy thoughts. His pull is like quick sand—I can't move. But the worry is so tiny, I forget it almost immediately.

I quietly accept my surrender of self and something yanks us apart. I fall onto my back. I blink, disoriented, and watch as the Mirage shrieks and writhes in front of me. Alexander is between us. Only as he speaks—with that dark Night Terror dialect—do I remember he isn't Alexander, just a copy.

The Mirage shrinks, and then lunges a final time to scream at him, revealing a row of pointy teeth to rival any Night Terror's. Alex doesn't flinch, his own teeth flashing in a low hiss. The Mirage whips around and flees up the mountain, out of sight. Alex's shoulders slump.

Lana runs over, eyes wide. She doesn't even glance at me. "Are you all right?" she asks Alex. The rope is gone from his wrists, but I doubt Donovan took the time to cut them. Sure—now he's okay disobeying my orders.

Lana jerks as if just realizing she expressed concern over their prisoner. Her face goes rigid and she turns away. Gloom is at my side, helping me up.

"They're gone," Donovan remarks, looking up. Alex dutifully holds out his wrists, his eyes tired. Lana stares at him in baffled anger. After a moment, Donovan turns without rebinding him. "Move, Your Highness."

Alex's hands drop and he steps forward, but Lana presses her palm to his chest to stop him. "Who are you?" she whispers—not loud enough for Donovan to hear. Alex frowns and brushes her hand off him without a word.

"That's not the prince, right?" Gloom whispers in my ear as I find my feet.

I shake my head. "No, but . . ."

Uh-oh. Now I see why the Mirages fled.

It wasn't the impressive force of the not-quite-fear-of-hell that chased them off. Night Terrors are perched on the edges of the mountainsides like waiting vultures. Their black eyes watch us. Remembering what Alexander said about the fear-mist already rising off me, I try and reverse the natural instinct to sink into terror. Don't be afraid, I tell myself, don't be afraid.

The one nearest to us throws its head back and releases a piercing cry. It swoops down and catches Donovan in its talon-equipped claws, slamming the Dream into the side of a sloping cliff. His hat flies off. Night Terror holds him in place and rips a chunk out of his arm with its pointed teeth. Donovan groans, but doesn't cry out.

Lana races toward him. "Donovan!"

The Night Terror drops him, circling back to the ground where we stand. I don't think twice. "Gloom—run!"

I don't wonder how far we'll actually make it—I just run, Gloom outpacing me in seconds. Even in this awful, draining atmosphere, and even though I haven't eaten a real meal in almost a day, adrenaline powers through me like a rocket booster and I don't slow down.

Ahead of us on the stone ground, a shadowy outline of wings open in front of our feet. My next step slows—a defeated stumble.

Before I can look up, Donovan drops in front of us. I skid to a halt, nearly losing my balance. Enormous, feathered wings spread from his back. They're white, so luminous they're practically glowing. Angelic. But the rest of him looks like it crawled out of hell, his upper arm bloody and ravaged.

He steps toward us, murder in his eyes, and the wings fold onto his back and slowly disappear. Another Night Terror lands between us, swiveling its head to stare at me and Gloom. Its appearance hinders Donovan, at least, who takes a wary step back. Another Night Terror latches onto the rock above us, swaying on its feet, waiting for the moment to pounce. I'm drawing them like a magnet.

Gloom's hand rises to stroke my hair. I almost snap at him—infuriated by his calm—but as my body reacts to his familiarity and his essence, I realize what he's doing. I breathe deeper, letting my fear shrink.

But it's too late. More Night Terrors appear, crawling along the rocks like scaly cockroaches. There's at least four now, counting the one on the ground by us. They're all looking at me. I move away from Gloom, my eyes snapping wildly from one beast to the next. I've all but concluded my death when the Night Terror between us and Donovan starts snarling, his soulless shrieks painful against my ears. The other three stop and shift their attention to Donovan, then Lana inching in from the side. I don't know where Alex is—or Mo and the china doll.

Donovan runs and the Night Terror in front of us chases, trailing him and Lana, who rushes to her leader's aid. If nothing else, I'm really starting to admire the girl's guts. I tug Gloom forward, hoping we can get by the other side unnoticed, but a Night Terror swoops into our path. It clacks its teeth, its forked tongue lashing around its face. My heart clenches in exhaustion and despair. We don't have a chance against it. I hear a shot and another Night Terror's muted cry of pain.

I squeeze Gloom's hand and sprint to the side, letting my fear trail behind me like an enticing scent. It's the only thing I can think to do. It will follow me; he can get away.

But the Night Terror doesn't follow.

I turn, realizing I'm escaping unhindered, and see the Night Terror zero in on Gloom.

The Dreams, I realize too late.They're going after the Dreams.

"Gloom—no!" My scream shatters the lifeless landscape, causing three separate fissures to crack in the surrounding mountainsides.

The Night Terror's head lowers onto Gloom's neck, tearing at the flesh there. A second Night Terror rams into the side of Gloom's attacker, knocking him away. They twist in the air, slashing and hissing at each other. I'm at Gloom's side in an instant—I don't even remember running.

"Gloom," I whisper. I'm trying not to cry because the tears are blurring my view of him, and I want to see clearly, in case I don't get another chance. His eyes are wide and rolling. God—his neck is a mess. His chest convulses and blood splashes my arms and hands like warm, erratic rain.

The Night Terrors are leaving—I don't know why. They shriek at each other as they go. The weight lifts off my heart in their absence.

"No, no, no, nonono . . ." I stroke Gloom's face, his hair, his ripped waistcoat, trying to call him back. His eyes are half-closed. Then—he dies. I see it go out of him. One moment his eyes are glazed and unfocused, but real, and the next they're nothing but glassy shells. He didn't see me, didn't even know I was there.

His last breath leaves his mouth, dark purple, swirling into the air like enchanted smoke.

"His joy," Lana whispers, kneeling at his other side.

His joy?

The love of gothic literature.

The thought of it leaving to occupy another Dream is unbearable. My hands spring forward, as if I can somehow catch it between my fingers. I expect it to slip away. But when I turn over my hand, a tiny clear ball rests in my palm, the size of a small marble. The joy swirls inside, making it look like a purple, thriving planet.

Gloom's body dematerializes, each cell illuminating and shrinking until he fades, then disappears entirely. I gasp, finding it suddenly difficult to breathe.

"Violet."

I jerk at the unexpected voice, filled with pain. Alexander—fake Alexander?—is at my side.

"I'm sorry," he whispers. "I'm so sorry, Violet. I didn't mean—"

"You're—" I don't finish my sentence, but stare open-mouthed at his bleeding side. It's not his only wound—I count several more on his arms and chest—but this one . . .

Scarlet blood leaks through his white fingers where he clutches the torn flesh, staining his skin like spilled paint.

"So sorry," he repeats. He's barely conscious.

"What happened to you?"

He doesn't seem to hear me.

Lana inhales sharply and I know, before I turn, that Donovan is standing over us. I narrow my eyes at him. He and Lana are remarkably uninjured. My head hurts—I'm confused and dizzy—but I know, I saw, the Night Terror bite his arm. His sleeve is torn, but his muscled skin beneath it is smooth.

Gratefully, Donovan looks away as he hears Mo moaning to our side. Mo crawls closer, holding one side of his face and half choking as he tries to catch his breath. Donovan steps where Gloom's dead body was; his boot would have smeared his blood if any was left. As he walks, feathered wings emerge from his back, growing until they're full-sized, flowing and fluttering behind him. He puts his hand over Mo's trembling fingers and the Dream quiets. After Donovan removes his hand, Mo straightens and uncovers his completely healed face.

Donovan can heal people?

I look at the shaking, panting Alex at the same time Donovan does. If Donovan can heal him, it doesn't mean he will. Alex, swooning in his kneeled position, barely notices as Donovan approaches and catches his dipping shoulder.

Alex sucks in a tight breath as Donovan digs his fingers in. His smaller wounds heal—and the biggest one shrinks, but not entirely. Alex swallows, looking up at his temporary savior, his shining face confused.

"You're walking yourself back," Donovan mutters.

The small ball in my hand is slick with sweat. My breath comes through my teeth, hot and fast. I want to lunge at Donovan, kill him with my bare hands if I can. This is his fault, his fault Gloom is dead. But as soon as I think it, I know I'm wrong. It's not Donovan's fault; I took responsibility the moment I shook his hand inside Gloom's bookshop. Bile rises in my throat, stinging like poison. I have no one to blame but myself. I stuff Gloom's joy into my pocket so I don't lose it and scramble away, unwilling to defecate the area where he died.

After throwing up, half my stringy bile running down my pant leg, I heave and try to control my shaking. With several deep breaths, I'm able to walk back on my own. I stare the other way so the space where Gloom lied isn't even in my peripheral vision. Nothing remains, and I can't bear the lack of evidence of his existence. My grief is so potent, my inner flame sputters like bad static on a radio station, spurred to life even here by the strength of my emotion. I catch disjointed pieces of Alexander's real presence—pressing, wondering, asking. I don't try to answer. I shut my flame down, like two wet fingers pinching out the last spark.

"Let's go," Donovan says. His wings fold back and disappear. Lana hands him his hat. I nearly laugh at the absurdity of the gesture in this moment.

Alex struggles to his feet. No one is helping him. I catch his side, letting him lean on me.

"Don't." He groans. "Don't help me. Not after—" He breaks off in a hiss.

He has no strength to argue more and we walk back as fast as we're able. The farther we go, the weaker Alex becomes and the heavier he leans on my shoulder. When I'm sure I'm going to fall down in exhaustion, Lana appears, ducking under his other arm. She's stronger than me, even if I'd been at full strength, and for a while our pace increases.

By the time we reach the Dream's camp, I'm numb. We stop in front of the prisoner's tent. Donovan turns and without warning, drives his fist into Alex's wound. A strangled sound passes Alex's lips—his face twisting though he has no breath to yell. Lana lets out a small cry under the force of his full weight. He drops, crumpled on the ground.

"He led us into that trap," Donovan says. "Try and get the location of the Stitch in Time, then let him die."

Donovan heads toward his own tent and I kneel next to Alex. Gently, I turn him over. Lana watches, but she doesn't try to stop me. She stands, hands hanging at her sides, her face pale.

Alex coughs and blood dribbles out the side of his mouth. He blinks rapidly, and—wait. I lean closer, certain I imagined it. But then, it happens again. His eyes, as they flutter, are going from orange . . . to blue. And then, after another cough, they stay blue—if unfocused.

If I have any other doubt—his hair starts growing, the black locks lengthening over his hunched shoulders.

Armand.

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