Once Upon A Nightmare

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his darkest story

I cry out, taking his face in my hands. "Armand?" I manage. "Oh god—Armand—please don't be you." My gut was right—it was him all along. And instead, I listened to Alexander. I swear softly. I'm going to kill him for lying, for abandoning his brother like this. To do it to me is one thing, but to someone as undeserving as Armand, it's unforgivable.

Armand tries to shake his head. "No." Which is of course what he would say.

"We have to get him my tent. Now." Lana's voice is hoarse. "Listen." She drops to a knee, her expression bleak. "Donovan trusts me. I think we can get him out of here. At least . . . buy some time."

I stiffen. Why would she . . .? She glances once at Armand, her expression conflicted. Her fingers drift absently to his arm, but she draws back with a snap before they make contact. She was with him all that time in the tent. Did they talk? Does she have feelings for him? It makes me want to punch her, sort of, but I swallow the feeling. "Okay. Anything. Please."

"Help me move him," Lana instructs. "All right, Armand—I knew you weren't Alexander, you self-righteous bastard. You've got to stand. The human and I can't lift you off the ground."

"My name's Violet," I snap, but I still help on Armand's other side, getting him to his feet. With some serious maneuvering, we manage to walk him into Lana's tent. She leaves as I try to make him comfortable on her cot.

Once he's situated, I kneel at his side. His eyes are closed, but by the tension in his mouth, I think he's conscious. I feel so helpless. I'm covered in blood—both his and Gloom's. It disappeared off the ground, but for some reason stuck on me. "Why did you do this?"

Lana comes through the tent flap, bandages in her arms. She goes to Armand and I back up to let her work. Her face is like stone as she takes a small dagger and rips enough of his shirt off to give her easy access. When she carefully peels back the fabric stuck to his wound, he hisses.

"Sorry," she mutters.

Armand exhales. "Sure you are."

At the sight of the jagged, oozing hole, I cover my mouth and turn. It's worse than I thought. Lana applies a bandage and the fabric is soaked in seconds. After she finishes tying the dressing in place, her fingers pause over her work. Then she sighs and sits on the other side of the tent.

"That's all I can do," she says. I almost don't hear her.

"Is he . . .?"

She just shakes her head. His white face and neck glisten with sweat.

"Don't die, please don't die." I kneel beside him, brushing soaked strands of hair off his forehead. His breathing sounds like his lungs are sucking air through a coffee straw.

If he dies, too, I'm going to lose it. I'll throw myself at Donovan's feet, begging for the bullet. Or go somewhere by myself and wait for my father to pull the plug on my comatose body.

A warm pulsing in my pocket pulls me from my thoughts. Frowning, I dig out the small ball of Gloom's power. One of the last times he spoke to me was to tell me what the love of gothic literature allowed him to do.

I can see anyone's darkest story.

The purple smoke swirls nearly out of control, thumping like a miniature heartbeat between my fingers. I catch my breath and a vision enters my head, tinted in lilac hues.

A woman gasps inside a doorway. She's in Chimera's castle, looking out into the yard. "Jack, I—I think it's . . . a Night Terror." She's very beautiful, the woman. Her dress is clearly expensive—and huge, one of those hoop-skirt contraptions.

Her husband arrives beside her, out of breath. He isn't bad looking, exactly, but his rugged demeanor and plain, disheveled clothing stand in sharp contrast to his wife's flawless appearance.

"What?" He frowns. It's Jack. I recognize him, even though he seems younger—despite his Nightmaric immortality. Perhaps it's his expression, less burdened than when I first met him.

They're looking at a struggling form beneath one of the trees. It hit a fountain on the way down and is lying among broken marble. It is a Night Terror, but it's very small. Its wing is bleeding and twisted.

Jack glances at his wife. "Should we kill it?"

"Well, yes, but—oh, Jack wait." Her hand on his shoulder, though light, immediately stops him from advancing. "Do you think it's . . . a baby?"

"I don't know. I've never seen a baby Night Terror. If they exist."

She puts a finger to her full lips. Finally, she sighs and rolls her eyes. "Damn. I'm so nice. Okay—here's what we'll do. Let's take it inside, try and stop the bleeding, and then make Vince take it back to the Eye of the World Mountains."

Jack's lips twitch as he tries not to smile. "Yes. You're the picture of charity. I'm sure Vince will appreciate it."

She answers him, her own mouth going into a smirk, but the words are blurred as they become insignificant to the story being told. The scene shifts.

Jack and his wife are in a hallway alone—I recognize it as one inside the castle. Unlike Alexander's dream memories, Gloom's power seems to grant access to the whole story, even parts that the person whose story it belongs to wouldn't know.

Jack crosses his arms. "The creature was very . . . gentle. Didn't even struggle while I did up the wound."

"Did you leave it alone?"

"It can't do anything. And really, Pia, you should have seen the way it was acting, I—"

Pia puts a hand on his mouth, her head tilted to the side. "Do you hear that?"

He blinks. "Hear what? I don't hear anything." Then his face snaps. "I don't hear anything," he repeats. "Ah, Nyx . . ."

They realize at the same time what the silence means—and it isn't good. They turn in unison and run down the hall.

"There's no way," Jack is saying as they run. "He's two—"

Pia growls. "It is your sperm that spawned that devil child, I swear—"

"He was in your stomach for nine months—"

They burst into the room and seated on the floor, facing each other, are two identical black-haired toddlers. It's a small room, one of the spares; nothing inside but extra furniture and a single window with dusty curtains. Black blood stains a dresser where Jack stitched up the Night Terror's wound.

The first toddler giggles. "Papa," he says.

The second blows a snotty raspberry and hiccups a laugh. "Mama."

Pia looks between them both, a hand on her chest. "Which one is our son?"

"Um . . ." Jack seems equally confused.

And then the second boy bolts to his wobbly feet and careens around the room, tripping, somersaulting and getting back up again. He shoots sporadic fireballs into the air which light the curtains on fire.

Jack sighs. "That's Alexander."

The other toddler watches his destructive look alike for a moment, and then follows behind. But instead of adding to the wave of destruction, he tempers the fires Alexander starts—almost like he's cleaning up after him.

Alexander trips and lands flat on his face. He blinks, stunned, and starts to cry. His newly adopted twin waddles over and wraps his arm around him, clumsily stroking the mess of black hair. Alexander sniffs and gradually quiets. He watches his comforter with curiosity, then pushes him hard, giggling harshly when the Night Terror tumbles backward. Despite landing mostly on his head, he doesn't cry, just lies there, frowning as if processing what happened.

Alexander squats next to the lookalike's head. "Okay?" he asks.

His modified twin nods.

Alexander thinks. "Sorry?"

"Okay," comes the answer.

"Sorry?" Pia whispers, looking at Jack. Her disbelief is evident.

She goes into the room, her large dress skirts sweeping behind her. She scoops up the little Night Terror, disguised as her own son. As hair-pulling as Alexander is, she can't look at that face and not feel a strain of love. Her gaze softens.

The Night Terror baby stares up at her and suddenly smiles. His eyes flutter and turn the same shade of icy blue as hers.

"Jack." She turns toward the door. "I can't, not like this . . ."

"Pia." Jack's expression is soft, but firm. "He won't stay like this. He'll change back. He'll grow. And then what?"

"But . . ."

"Hey." Alexander frowns, tugging on his mother's dress. He reaches both arms up. "Mine."

Pia raises an eyebrow. "Alexander wants to keep him, too." She sets the blue-eyed boy down and Alexander pulls him back to play. For a moment, Jack and Pia watch them. Alexander jumps ahead, and almost clotheslines himself with the bottom of a chair, but the other boy grabs him just in time to stop him.

"You have to admit," Pia says. "He's the best babysitter we've ever had for Alexander. He even got him to apologize."

"He's a baby," Jack says in exasperation.

Calmly, the Night Terror stops playing and walks over to Jack, who stiffens—not in fear, but as if he's worried he'll fall into the same trap as his wife.

"Sorry," the Night Terror boy says, mimicking Alexander's earlier word. He points to his arm. Frowning, Jack kneels and gently pushes aside the boy's shirt sleeve to find a red gash on his skin—the wound Jack already stitched.

"Oh." Unable to help himself, Jack strokes the boy's hair. It's what he does to comfort Alexander, and this boy looks just like his son. "It hurts?"

The boy nods.

Pia sits next to him, her skirt billowing out like mushroom. "Come here, sweetheart." She places a soft kiss on the wound. "How does that feel?"

His entire face glows with pleasure. Delighted, he repeats the action and kisses Pia's cheek several times.

"You are adorable," she murmurs, and kisses him back on the nose.

Alexander comes over and lays his cheek on Jack's knee. He stares up at his father and blows a long, aggravated raspberry. Jack laughs. "That's what I say."

All at once, it feels perfect—the four of them sitting there. "Okay," Jack says, quietly. "He can stay until his wound heals. But if he hurts someone . . ."

Pia nods. "I know."

They keep him outside, in the shed with the carriages and other vehicles. Jack makes a nice bed near the door and leaves him. The Night Terror sits on the blankets and watches, unperturbed, as Jack closes the door.

Jack looks at his wife. She doesn't say anything, but he knows what she's thinking, because he's thinking it too. "It's only hard because he looks like Alexander. In the morning, he'll have changed back."

But when Pia checks on him in the morning, he isn't changed. He's still Alexander's blue-eyed twin. He's on his back, the blankets wrapped around him as he stares calmly at the ceiling.

"Hi," Pia says.

His smile is so immediate and so sincere as he sees her, Pia feels almost ashamed. "Hi," he answers.

Holding his hand, she takes him inside to feed him. This is the real test. The fear, if nothing else, will call out his animalistic instincts and he'll shift out of her son's form. Inside the sitting room, he sits on her lap and absorbs the fear as easily as any other Nightmare. He stares at her, waiting. He's so serious, Pia thinks.

Then Alexander waddles into the room. Pia put him in his playpen, but since she and Jack have yet to find one that's fireproof, it's not really a surprise to see him.

Alexander's face lights up. "Hey! Wow!" He races over to his mother and pulls at his playmate from the day before, yanking him right onto the ground. "Wow!" he repeats and, to Pia's surprise, wraps his arms around his dazed twin in a hug.

The scene ends with Pia's frown and blurs into the next.

Almost a week later, Jack walks in on Alexander and the little Night Terror playing. Pia watches from her chair, which surprises him. She loves Alexander, but she isn't the type to spend unnecessary hours cooing over him.

She looks up as he enters. As if she can read his thoughts, she explains, "Armand is so funny with Alexander. I just like to watch."

"Armand?"

"Yes. That's what I'm naming him."

"Armand is French."

"Your point?"

"We're not French!"

"Julien is French, and I want—"

Alexander lets out an outraged noise, interrupting them. Armand has taken his toy. Alexander's face screws up in anger and the toy erupts in a ball of flame. Armand drops it with open mouth alarm, but before he can find his voice, Alexander completes his tantrum by pushing the still burning flames to drive Armand back.

Jack tenses, ready to spring between the two boys to defend Alexander. At such a direct attack, he expects Armand's blue eyes to turn black and for him to unleash some of his own power in retaliation. But to his surprise, Armand stumbles and then runs, trembling, behind Jack's leg and starts to cry.

The words are out of Jack's mouth before he can stop them. "Alexander—look what you did to your brother!"

That night, they let Armand sleep in the house for the first time, but in a different room than Alexander. In the morning, Pia finds Alexander has crawled in beside Armand on his new bed. They face each other with their hands curled by their cheeks in the exact same way.

After that, they always sleep together until they grow too big to share a bed.

When the scene changes again, the story is still in the castle, but a different room. A fourteen-year-old boy sits at a grand black piano, his elbow resting on the keys.

Jack comes in and pauses seeing Armand slumped like that.

He's remembering, shaking his head at the irony of thinking they should keep Armand away from Alexander—for Alexander's protection. Armand's the only one who persistently forgives and tolerates Alexander, keeping him safe, making sure he doesn't do something stupid.

"Hey." Jack sits next to him on the piano bench.

"Hello."

Armand's hair is chin length, tucked behind his ears. He's skinnier than Alexander, more frail. He plunks one finger over the same key.

"What's wrong?" Jack asks, even though he knows. It's hard for a young boy to watch his exceptionally powerful brother bringing home truckloads of fear when only by accepting extra from his family can he even survive.

"Do you think it will come later?" Armand stops his playing, looking up.

Jack's heart breaks to see the hope creeping into his son's blue eyes. It won't come later—and if it does, they might lose him forever. The worst part is, Armand's so smart. His self discipline is incredible, given his age, and he's always so kind and patient. But all Armand sees is his lack of power.

"I brought something for you." Jack was going to wait, but now seems a good time. He leaves and returns moments later carrying a bow in his hands. The weapon is huge, a little taller than Armand himself. When Jack hands it over, Armand's eyes are round.

"This was my father's," Jack says. "Your grandfather's. I think you can find a pretty decent power in it."

The door opens and in waltzes a flaming silhouette of a well-proportioned woman. Her fiery figure sashays over to Armand. A smoke thought bubble appears over her head. Hey stud, the smoke writes. Want me to make a man out of you? She blows Armand a kiss.

Armand's fists clench and a rush of red strikes across his cheeks and upper nose. "Leave me alone, Alexander!"

Alexander sticks his head in, laughing. "Touch-ee. Oh, hey Dad. Um—just to warn you, I think Genn might have trashed our best carriage. Just so you don't, you know, go to use it and be surprised."

"Stop blaming things on your sister." Jack forces himself not to lose his temper. "Can we talk about this later, Armand?"

"Sure." He plonks out more keys.

Once in the hall, Jack says, "Keep it up, and you're nevergetting that motorcycle you want."

"C'mon, Dad."

The story jolts ahead to the day after the Masquerade. Armand goes with his father to make sure the Night Terrors haven't hurt anyone else; that they stayed in the Eye of the World Mountains.

Jack watches his son from the corner of his eye as they scout the mountainous landscape. The Jewel of Imagination glows faintly against his chest, trying to keep him alert. But he's distracted. What happened at the Masquerade that made Armand want to go with him here?

Most Dreams and Nightmares feel weakened by the charge in the Eye of the World Mountains. Its elements go beyond that of simple fear and joy, extending to realms of mental collapse in mortals. But Armand almost gains strength from it. Jack sees it in the gait of his walk, the brightness of his eyes. Does he notice?

He's no longer the frail foil to Alexander's unpredictable combustion. Without a given power, Armand directed his remarkable self-discipline to training—making his physical body its own power. The harder Armand pushed himself, the more Jack expected his true nature to burst free. But it never did. And now Armand is a formidable Nightmare, his strength forged by nothing but will, and he hasn't even brushed against his true potential.

Jack sighs, rubbing a finger along the stone of the Jewel of Imagination. The Dream attacks are becoming more violent. They targeted the castle directly. If things escalate further, a civil war could break out. The Dreams will seek a leader; they'll look to release Hina. Half a century later, his rivalry with her continues to poison the Isle of Morpheus. He knows what needs to be done, what he must give up, but . . .

He has no idea what will happen if a Night Terror gains possession over the Jewel of Imagination. He can't give it to Armand, even though he'd make a great ruler.

"There." Armand looks ahead, notching an arrow to his long bow. The same bow his grandfather used. His hair is long—grown out because Alexander keeps his short. Jack turns and sees a nest of Night Terrors—ten of them, maybe, clustered together and sprawled on the rocks as if sleeping.

They watch Jack and Armand with disinterest.

"Why aren't they moving?" Armand asks.

They aren't attacking me, Jack thinks, because I'm their king. They aren't attacking you because you're their brother.

Then we're in Jack's study. I've been here before—through Alexander's mind.

Alexander looks completely shell-shocked. "I'm sorry, what?"

Armand's eyebrows rise. He almost wants to laugh at Alexander's face. His poor brother looks terrified. But if he'd ever take himself seriously, Alexander would see he's a good leader. He's forthright and brave—and judges people by their actions, not their station. True, Armand didn't expect their father to trust Alexander with this—even if Alexander could be trusted—but he doesn't feel robbed of anything.

"I want you to succeed me," Jack repeats, not looking at him. "You'll get the Jewel of Imagination, and I've already shown you where the Stitch in Time is."

Armand's chest tightens at Jack's avoidance. His father expects him to be upset. The precarious teeter-totter of indecision in his mind comes crashing violently down on one side. He isn't giving me the Jewel of Imagination because of what I am, Armand thinks. It has to be why.

"Why not me?" he snaps—hoping, pleading that he isn't right.

"I just explained." Jack explained nothing. He knows it; Armand can see the guilt in his eyes.

Alexander frowns. "I don't want it. I mean—come on. Even I know it's a bad idea. Just give it to Armand." His frown breaks into a grimace and he rubs his chest. Anger flashes briefly over his face, then he shakes his head. "I have to go. I have to . . . get Violet to the Edge."

"Alexander," Jack begins.

"Yeah, I know. Okay. I'll do it, whatever." He opens the door and glances at Armand, his expression clearly indicating he only agreed because he's counting on his brother to bail him out—like always.

The door shuts and Armand turns on Jack, no longer hiding his anger. "What am I?"

Jack closes his eyes and Armand lets out a snarl of impatience. "Tell me the truth," he says, low and dangerous.

"You're still my son," Jack answers eventually.

Armand groans, covering his face with his hands. He backs up until he hits a wall. Even with everything he's felt—all his suspicions—he never fully believed until his father agreed, didn't deny it.

"It was before the war started. A group of Night Terrors circled the castle all night after one of Hina's more devastating attacks. You were hurt. You crashed into the castle garden."

Armand emits a strangled sound of pain. "And you kept me? Like a pet?"

"Of course not." Jack actually looks angry at the suggestion. "We were going to help you back, but your mother . . . she loved you. Right at the beginning."

For the first time, Armand looks up.

"That's why you have her eyes." Jack's voice is thick.

"I don't understand."

"Night Terrors can imitate Nightmares and Dreams. Usually, just their power—but you . . ."

Any remaining anger floods out of Armand; he feels half-dead. "This isn't my face. It's not me at all. It's Alexander." He sucks in a hard breath, running harsh fingers through hair that he suddenly has an urge to rip out. His jaw is hard. "Why didn't you tell me?"

"Because . . . I didn't want you to think . . ."

"That I'm a monster?"

"I don't know why you are the way you are." Jack dares to step forward. He raises as a hand as if he wants to touch Armand, but finally lets his hand fall. "But you're not a monster, Armand."

"Then why are you scared to give me the Jewel of Imagination?"

He pushes by Jack out of the room, slamming the door in his wake.

The final scene—the climax of his darkest story—is in the gorge. It's happening before I can stop it. I don't want to see it—not again, not so soon. Somehow, I manage to drop the ball containing Gloom's power and the vision ends. The ball rolls by my knees on the ground. I wait until the purple mists inside slow and fade before picking it up and shoving into my pocket.

Armand is unconscious—but still alive. I feel his heart feebly trying beneath my hand as I press it over his bare chest. "It wasn't your fault," I whisper.

I understand. He didn't mean to hurt Gloom. Even if Armand told the other Night Terrors to attack the Dreams, he was trying to save us. And how can I condemn him for his mistake, when it was my mistake that brought Gloom to the Eye of the World Mountains in the first place? All of this is my own, stupid fault. Not Alexander's, mine. And I don't want Armand to live just because of what it means to me, but simply because he deserves to have a life—a good one.

My restless stomach roils with anxiety as I slump against the cot Armand lies on. I close my eyes, my thoughts a steady mantra of: don't die, don't die . . .

My eyes fly open as Armand touches my face. I jolt upright, grasping at the sensation, scared I'm only dreaming. My hand traps his fingers against my cheek.

"You're alive!"

He half-smiles. "I think so."

"He's alive?" I turn to Lana, making sure she's seeing the same thing I am. She's faced sideways, one knee drawn up as a rest for her arm.

She gives Armand a brief look, then picks at a thread on her shirt. "Either that, or we're all dead."

He's colorless and weak—but not half as bad as it was. I touch his side and gingerly removed the blood-soaked bandage, holding my breath. A crimson gash lines his side, but it's smaller than I remember and beginning to scab over.

Armand looks too, letting out a soft laugh. It turns into a cough and my hand flies to his chest. He exhales a shuddery breath. "Impressive. For a human."

I'm impressed with myself too—if I really did this. Considering how weak I felt and my less-than-functioning state of mind, healing a fatal wound wasn't something I would've thought possible.

"It must be because I . . . like you so much. Or something." I blush, feeling oddly intimate with him now that I know his darkest story.

His face closes in, as if my words pulled a trigger simply by being kind. "Violet—I'm so sorry. I never thought Gloom was the Dream who . . . That was me. I'm a . . ." He swallows, struggling to say the word. He tries again, but this time I stop him, pressing my lips against his.

I pull back at once—not far, but enough to see his surprise. I hope I kissed him right. I've only kissed Alexander before—just once—and that was so fast, I barely remember it.

"I know," I say. "I know what you are, Armand. And you're not a monster."

I am, maybe. And Donovan. Probably Alexander, too. All of us, monsters, tearing away at each other. But not Armand. My eyes well up for no specific reason, my heart simply raw after Gloom's death. I look down and then Armand is kissing me.

And it lasts more than two seconds and it's sooo . . .

Good, I think, is the word. His hands hold either side of my face, his touch gentle. And his lips are patient and accepting, just like he is. When he draws away, I'm tingling all over—and warm, for the first time since I arrived at the Eye of the World Mountains.

"You wanted to kiss me." I say it like it's a revelation.

He smiles. "You wanted to kiss me first."

"Yes, yes I did."

"Okay, break it up." Lana stands. "You're not going to be able use this camp as your make-out spot. I'll make sure Donovan's otherwise engaged, then you need to get in a Reality Skipper and leave as fast as you can."

As soon as she's out of sight, Armand takes my hand and pulls me up with him. Despite his injury, he's back to his old ways fast, as controlled and graceful as a panther as he leads me to the back of the tent.

"Where are we going?" I whisper—not that anyone can hear us.

"We're not leaving in a Reality Skipper," he says. With his free hand, he lifts up the back of the tent and we slip out. I don't dare ask where we are going, I just follow.

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