Once Upon A Nightmare

By mickeyjohn All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Romance

the grave of lilies

When I glance over and see not Armand by my side, but Donovan, I almost scream. The hand in mine hasn't changed, so I keep the scream in, but only just, my tongue hitting my clenched teeth like a car braking. "Don't do that," I hiss.

He raises an innocent eyebrow at me. What? Without Donovan's icky, hateful soul shaping his expressions, I'm reminded once again that the Dream used to be handsome.

We weave through the camp unnoticed. Armand favors his weak side. I hope Lana will stay true to her word and not alert Donovan once she realizes we're gone, but I don't think her grudging respect for Armand will carry her past her loyalty to Donovan.

I feel it the moment we cross into the mountain's boundary. I'm suddenly more tired, more fearful. The atmosphere has the opposite effect on Armand. His step gains energy and he doesn't wince even when his torso twists as he surveys our surroundings. Though we move out of sight from the camp, Armand waits until he finds a small enclave before transforming back to himself. Except he gives himself a shirt that wasn't there before (unfortunately).

He keeps his eyes on the tops of the cliffs, searching, no doubt, for more of our friends. His long hair is loose, shifting occasionally with the slight traces of breeze, one black strand sweeping over his face. I'm not sure he notices the difference, but here in the mountains, his eyes are nearly black.

With that reminder, my anxiety fades. This is his territory. But my heart clenches thinking what a dark, sad place it is to possess.

"I'm sorry," he says softly. "About the Dream. Gloom was his name?"

"Yes," I whisper.

He raises his hands, like an offering, then lets them fall back. "I haven't known what I am a week, and already I've—"

"Stop," I interrupt him. My tears are quick to rise to the surface, but I press my lips together, pushing the emotion down. Gloom's death is a raw wound; the smallest reminders sting. I step closer to him, enough that I can put my hands on his arms, look up at his face. "It's not your fault. You were trying to save us, which you wouldn't have had to do if it wasn't for me." I lean my forehead on his chest. "It was you all along—at the marketplace." The disappointment in his eyes when he realized I was helping the Dreams is much worse to bear now. It's too easy to imagine him thinking of a way to save me, just as it dawns on him that I've betrayed his brother. Instead of leaving me to my fate, he stepped in to protect Alexander, and then Genn, and then me.

"I have an idea," he says, touching the top of my head, running his fingers through my short hair. It feels so good I almost start crying again, this time for another reason entirely.

"What's that?" I tilt my chin up. My unshed tears rim my eyes without falling out.

"Instead of blaming ourselves—let's just blame everything on Alexander."

I laugh loudly—it feels so good to laugh. "Fine by me."

"He'll probably take care of the Dream camp for us soon," Armand adds.

"I don't think so. He knows we're here—or at least that I am. He helped me get Genn back." I don't say the other half of that statement—the 'but-not-me' part.

I admit, I'm expecting just a smidge of outrage in my behalf from Armand. A little anger at the unbelievable breadth of Alexander's selfishness. Instead, he only looks thoughtful.

"I wonder what he's planning . . ." he mutters.

"Planning?" Now I'm angry. "He isn't planning anything! He just hates me and wants to get rid of me while not dooming himself because of the curse—" I stop, abruptly. I'm not sure Armand knows about the binding of my soul to Alexander's.

Armand remains shrewd and unruffled—what a shock. "He's not trying to finish you off, Violet. And if he hates you, he loves you too."

Something inside me snaps, like a bomb letting loose. I'm not sure if this is good or bad reaction. All my limbs go stiff and my skin ripples first with heat, then goose bumps. It takes me less than a second to realize it's a lie, that Alexander has somehow duped his brother, but my reaction is still embarrassing.

"Armand," I say quietly, hoping he can hear my resignation. I accept it, and it's okay with me. "He hates me—and that's it."

"One doesn't cancel out the other," he says. "To quote him—exactly—" And before my eyes his hair shrinks to the cropped mess on Alexander's head, his eyes turning the color of fire. The frustrated expression on his face is so perfectly mimicked, I can almost believe they actually swapped places. "I hate her, then I love her," Alexander says to someone, not to me. He tugs a hand through his hair, making it even more unmanageable. "I want to throw her off a cliff, then rush to the bottom and catch her."

Alexander fades into Armand, who watches me again, his face unreadable.

"He said that?" I ask finally.

"The more we understand someone, the more we love them like ourselves—with impatience and loathing, but also unconditionally. And no one understands you more than Alexander."

I cover my face with my hands. I don't cry, but I want to shield myself, somehow, from Armand's penetrating stare. Sighing deeply, I find some last scrap of courage and look up.

"I know he's a pain." Armand smiles a little. "But he's smart—in an unpredictable, fearless way. He isn't planning on leaving you here. I don't know what he's doing, but it isn't that."

I laugh, despite myself, and shake my head. Reclosing the distance between us, I fist my hands in his shirt so he can't get away. "Why are you sticking up for him anyway? I thought we agreed to blame all our problems on him."

"We can still do that."

I smile. I want him to kiss me again, but as if he reads my intent in my eyes, he glances to the side and steps back. For now, I let him get away with avoiding me. "You never did tell me the plan," I say after a moment. "Why, exactly, are we in the mountains again?"

"Well, for one, no one has a chance of stopping us here. The mountains . . . whisper to me. Tell me everything that passes through its shadows. The Night Terrors guard against intruders—which I am not."

"And I'm with you. You told them that, right?" I'm trying to joke, but the small twitch of his lips is more courteous than actual amusement.

"I didn't know if you needed . . ." He hesitates, then meets my eyes. "Why were you helping James Donovan find Queen Hina?"

"I wasn't," I say, confused. "I mean, I guess by default I was, but I was just trying to find the Stitch of Time."

"The Dream Queen is imprisoned in the Stitch of Time," Armand says; there's a touch of doubt in his voice.

I shrug. "Then, yes—technically. But I don't care about the Queen."

The doubt has changed to full on puzzlement. "Then why do you need the Stitch in Time?"

I stare at him. He thinks the only motivation I had for coming here was retaliating against Alexander? That Donovan asked for my help and I said yes because he's Alexander's enemy and I'm just the kind of scummy person who would do something like that? He must have, and yet, he still risked everything to try and save me. Even now, he isn't judging me.

My cheeks flood with heat—but I can't tell if it's from anger or embarrassment.

"Because it's my best chance of getting home," I say. "My body's in a coma, rotting without me. The doctors are already halfway to convincing my dad to pull the plug. I could be dead in the next second for all I know." I take a breath. "I'm sorry I listened to Donovan, I am. He's clearly a horrible person, but I just—I thought this was my only chance, and I thought he'd use Alexander to tell him where the Stitch of Time was, I didn't know he'd as soon kill everyone before—"

Armand's hand comes over my mouth, stopping my speech. I blink at him. His eyes are now fully black and he's terrifying. Far more so than Alexander's ever been. I feel my human body reacting to the Night Terror in him, urging me to either run or collapse in hysterical, fear-induced tears.

"Does Alexander know this?" he asks quietly. Slowly, his hand lowers from my mouth.

"He was with me when I found about the coma thing. I don't know if he knows the Stitch of Time can maybe get me home, but he does have access to all my thoughts, and I kind of mentioned it to him." For all my blather before, I'm hesitant to incriminate Alexander. Looking at Armand, I'm half scared he's going to go after his brother, Night Terror-style, if I say much more.

Armand groans, breaking away from me. He presses his steepled hands against the bridge of his nose. "I don't believe this . . ."

"So now you don't think he's coming to the rescue?"

"Oh, he's coming. I'm sure he's not twiddling his thumbs. But he's putting you at direct risk, whatever he's doing. I think he has an agenda and saving you is at the bottom of the list." He's furious, his entire body rigid.

Not that I want to defend Alexander, but I don't like causing a chip in the brothers loyalty to each other. Plus, finding out that Alexander doesn't wholly hate me has softened my perspective. "Try and see it from his side," I say with a helpless shrug. "His pride is what makes him who he is—and suddenly, he's completely subject to me. At the end of the day, he's the servant, I'm the master—and that kills him, you know it does. It's just the way he is."

"That's not an excuse." Armand looks at me blackly.

"It's part of the unpredictable, fearless package."

Finally, some of Armand's anger simmers out. He sighs. Runs a hand through his hair. "Fine. Morpheus—I'm still standing up for him. Okay, here's the newplan."

I raise both brows, waiting.

"We're going to the Stitch in Time and we're getting you home."

"Right now?"

He nods. "That's why I led us into the mountains first—on the chance there was a reason you personally needed to find it. I just assumed it had something to do with the Dream Queen."

"Why does Donovan want to find her?"

"I can't read his mind, but I can make estimations."

Armand's insightful estimations tend to border along the truth. "And?" I ask.

He says, "Donovan wants to get rid of the Nightmares. He has even before the famine, he just used that as a catalyst to get things moving. Queen Hina is one of the only Dreams capable of contending with my fa—with Jack. But I think it's personal, too. Donovan fought in the first Great War with her. Given the level of his current devotion, I'd say there's more emotion than simple vengeance guiding him."

My nose wrinkles. "I prefer to think of him as not having a heart at all." I look around, taking in the desolate landscape. My feet feel heavy with reluctance. I shouldn't feel sad—the other option is death—but I can't help it. "There's not exactly a way for me to get back."

"I know."

I frown. "Well, hold the goodbye party, why don't you."

He smiles sadly and brushes my cheek. "Since you apparently need the reminder, in your world, you're supposed to run from soulless, immortal monsters that feed on the terror of small children."

"I like kissing them better."

"Maybe they don't like kissing you." But despite his words, he's moved closer, not farther away. He was sitting on a cot the last time we kissed. I'll have to stand on my tiptoes if I want to accomplish it again.

I say, "Well it wasn't me who started the last one."

"That was a mistake," he murmurs. "Won't happen again."

But it does happen again, and I don't need my tiptoes, because he lifts me up and holds me against him. For a moment, I'm thinking I can spend the rest of my probably-short life kissing Armand and I prefer it to living a long life and never feeling his lips again, but all too soon he sets me down and takes a pointed step back.

I see it in his face: we're going to the Stitch in Time. And in spite of how much I hate the thought of leaving, it's the right thing to do.

"Okay," he says. "Before you change my mind."

"Do you know where it is?" I ask.

He tilts his head. "As I said, the mountains give up their secrets to me—to all the Night Terrors. There's just never been one civil enough to ask." When he smiles, his teeth are a little sharper. "We'll find it."

Before I can ask how long it will take us on foot, he transforms. His body lengthens, his skin darkens, and there's a Night Terror in front of me. Instinct rears up, but I push down the fear, reaching out a hand to touch his long neck. The scales are freezing cold beneath my fingertips, yet burning, like dry ice. His eyes are deep, bottomless black—without even the smallest reflection of light.

His wings ripple. Black veins are clearly visible beneath the membrane. Each part of him seems mismatched, grotesque or macabre, but I lean forward and plant a kiss on his dragon like head. He shivers. "You are not a monster," I tell him.

I climb onto his back with as much grace as I do anything, which is none at all, and he launches into the air. I lay down and throw my arms around his neck. From above, the Eye of the World Mountains don't look any more inviting than at floor level—an endless expanse of spiky black rock. No trees—barely even any dirt. Armand doesn't go higher than he needs to, weaving through the pointy mountaintops like it's a game. My knees dig into his back and I almost laugh. It's thrilling up here. There are ways to fly in the real world, but not on something as alive and mindful as Armand is beneath me.

This could be my last memory of the Isle of Morpheus. I savor it as much as I can. The only way it might have been better is if we were in Chimera, but this will have to do. I lean down and say, "It's kind of fun being a Night Terror."

In response, he whips suddenly to the side and we barrel roll. I let out a shriek of laughter. With a stifled giggle, I shout, "Impressive, but I've been hanging around Nightmares for the past week—you'll have to do better than that if you want to scare me."

I should have known he'd rise to the challenge. We're sliding on the castle banister again—only in overdrive. He flips and dives and rolls, and it's a while before I notice we've been joined by several other Night Terrors. My stomach twists in an instinctual reaction, but they're not trying to hurt us. They're flying with us. When Armand swoops and curls, they follow him, clumsily bumping into each other as if they've never done it before.

Armand's teaching them to play.

And why not? Armand's capable of every human emotion, why shouldn't they be? I lean down again. "Armand—I have an idea."

After I tell him what I want to try, he hesitates, but then veers to the left. We approach the closest Night Terror and Armand whacks it in the chest with his tail. At first, the Night Terror snarls and draws back, but then Armand speaks with it—the same language, yet calm and unaggressive.

The Night Terror blinks and flaps its wings once in bewilderment. It's almost cute. Then it lunges at us—but Armand, prepared, gets away, and the chase is on. It takes a few minutes before the rest of the Night Terrors figure out what's going on, but soon we're zipping through the cliffs, hiding and chasing, engaging in a full-blown game of tag. Between my laughter and the whip of the high-speed wind, tears wet my temples.

Eventually, Armand stops, above the rest of the Night Terrors, and issues a deep cry that sends them away. They fly off—appearing a little sulky, if I'm any judge. We don't have time to waste and I assume that's why Armand has ended the game, but then he goes lower and a flash of white appears below us. I realize he's discovered—or he was told—where the Stitch of Time is.

We get closer and the white expands, growing more visible into a blanket of flowers covering the ground, surrounding the first and only tree we've seen. Armand dives, without warning, and I squeal, scrambling to keep my hold. Just as he's about to hit the ground, he twists, throwing me off. A pair of more human-like arms catch me. My legs are shaky as he sets me down.

"Not even Nightmares would think to play a game of tag with a pack of Night Terrors," Armand says. "But you . . ."

The fondness in his eyes is heartbreaking. "I'm a strange human," I say.

"You are."

"Armand?"

We both jump at the voice.

A huge white flower blows against my shin. Armand steps forward, searching for the voice, and I follow him. The flowers—lilies, I think—increase in volume until I'm nearly ankle deep in them. The enormous petals are wilted and curl in the dirt. Ahead of us, a tree seems to be giving birth to the influx of dying flora. Its black trunk twists up and explodes in hundreds of tiny branches. A few flowers sprout and immediately fall to the ground. The lilies are thickest by the roots of the tree, then gradually thin out. It's a strangely beautiful sight—and random, like a tiny oasis trapped in this enclosed valley of black space.

From behind the tree, Jack steps out, his hands in his pockets.

Armand's eyes widen. Whatever he was expecting, it wasn't this. I'm surprised too. Jack's appearance is a hundred times more random than an oasis of dying flowers. But then . . . maybe not. If Armand is right, this could be a part of Alexander's supposed plans, whatever they are. Given his blessed "unpredictable and fearless" nature, I don't even try to guess what they might be. Alexander isn't here; I would feel him.

"What are you doing here?" Armand asks his father.

Jack opens his mouth to answer, but his face abruptly goes hard—as does Armand beside me. They both turn, drawn by something I can't hear.

The valley is shielded on nearly every side by cliffs, but from around the far corner, Lana emerges and looks particularly unhappy to see us. Donovan follows at her side, out of breath and armed. Jack sends Armand a slow, narrow-eyed glance. He doesn't seem particularly perturbed—just inconvenienced.

"We didn't lead them here," Armand says, frowning. He's not worried either.

"Oh yes you did," Lana says. "Maybe someone else couldn't track you, but I'm the Dream of good luck. Every time we had to guess where you went, we guessed right."

"This is my fault," I mutter. Even if luck was on their side, and clearly it was if Lana's telling the truth, I kept the Night Terrors from noticing anyone was following us with the stupid game of tag. All for the sake of my "last memory" in the Isle of Morpheus.

Armand touches my arm. "They can't do anything to us," he says. "And they won't get to the Queen with my dad here."

I look back to Lana and Donovan. Do they realize how outnumbered they are? Lana, I think, does. She's not interested in us, the lilies, or the tree. Her attention orbits around Donovan, with an occasional flicked glance to the unexpected presence of King Jack. Considering Donovan's an awful spawn of human nature, I don't know where her loyalty comes from, but I hope Donovan realizes how lucky he is to have the Dream of luck with him. Looking at him, I'm thinking not. He has eyes only for Jack.

"Where are you keeping Hina?" he growls. His pistol goes up, aimed at Jack—who, for his part, only raises an eyebrow.

"Donovan, stop—" Lana tries. "Not like this."

He doesn't hear her. The Jewel of Imagination around Jack's neck starts to glow.

The gun in Donovan's hand trembles. His eyes beneath his hat are hollow with desperation. Lana's stares at him with dawning comprehension, then jumps forward, latching onto his wrist. With some muttered threats, she forces his gun down.

"Please," she gasps, turning to Jack. Her hold on Donovan doesn't loosen. "Just let us go. Please."

"No," Donovan snarls, struggling in her grip. "Kill me. I won't stop. Kill me, or—"

"What do you want, Lieutenant?" Jack asks. As he says the word Lieutenant, Gloom's power whirs hot inside my pocket and I automatically put my hand over it to still it. Whether part of Jack's darkest story or Donovan's, I don't know, but purple-tinted scenes flash in my mind. The Great War, and a scarless Donovan bowing before the Queen, taking orders from her as they fight against Nightmares.

I remove my hand and shake my head, forcing the story away. I have to stay in the present. Donovan takes his time answering, like the king is somehow tricking him and he has to step carefully to avoid falling in the trap. "What?"

Jack continues, "This is the Grave of the Lilies. It marks the entrance to the Stitch in Time." The king inclines his head toward the tree. On the other side of the snarled trunk, I see a narrow pass; the line of flowers ends abruptly in front of it, as if an invisible barrier is keeping even one flower from crossing. Jack's pointing it out for him? If it feels like a trap to me, the most intuition-less, naïve member of this ill assorted posse, Donovan is certainly thinking it too.

"I don't trust you," Donovan says; he's stalling, trying to edge Jack into an explanation. I doubt Jack is going to be edged anywhere, by any amount of force.

"There is no way to get to her prison without me. No way to open it without me. Unless you foresee a time in the future when we might get together and take this same stroll?" Jack tilts his head. His calm confidence, almost conversational, reminds me of Alexander—though it's probably Alexander who learned it from him, not the other way around.

Donovan doesn't say anything, but all at once, I know he's going to go with Jack into the Stitch of Time. His other option is prison—if they have a prison in Chimera. Whatever happens, it ends here; everything he and his little band of followers have done comes to nothing. Even Lana's loyalty has only been extended, it seems, based on her personal attachment to Donovan himself, not to his beliefs.

"Right now," Jack says. "You and I."

"What is he doing?" Armand murmurs, so quietly I almost don't hear him.

Donovan goes with Jack. When they're almost to the path, Armand takes my arm in his hand. His grip is a little too tight, but I keep my face passive. He leans down. "I don't know what he's planning," he says, "but I don't want you to miss your chance because of something that happens in there. I should follow them."

So he says, but I don't think the worry on his face is for me. Armand doesn't want to leave me alone with Lana in the Eye of the World Mountains, but he wants to be with his father. I know it as sure as I know his darkest story, but I nod like I believe he wants to follow them for my sake.

Jack crosses over the invisible barrier. A plink sound follows his step, like glass shattering. Between the two sides of the pass, a path appears, leading higher and deeper into the mountains. It looks almost like stairs, only it's made of yarn and cord and buttons—as if a giant, craft-loving hand reached down and literally tried to stitch the separate pieces together. The whole path glows.

Jack steps onto the first piece of tangled yarn, Donovan behind him.

"Go," I say softly to Armand. "I can stay here—Lana's not going to leave without Donovan." And she isn't going to hurt me. Not that we're any type of friends, but she strikes me as the kind of person who's used to doing things she maybe doesn't want to based on her own moral code. Keeping me alive until someone else can decide if I deserve to live seems to fall under that category.

Armand glances once at Lana, then nods. He moves forward, but Lana calls out to him before he reaches the Stitch of Time. "Armand—wait! I know I don't have any right to ask you this," she says, coming closer. "But just . . . don't let Jack kill him, please."

"I don't think that's his intention," Armand says in a muted voice.

Lana is statue-like, her face unresponsive, as he leaves. Then she simultaneously braces and sags, as if accepting a heavy backpack on her shoulders. She glances at her revolver on her hip, but doesn't bother taking it out of its holster. "Why is the king here?" she murmurs. I don't think she's directing the question at me, so I don't answer.

But I do know how we might find out.

Gloom's power is going crazy in my pocket. This time, I take it out, trying to focus on Jack. It's his story we need to know and his story that will answer questions. As my fingers wrap around the small ball, a barrage of purplish images attack my brain. A scene starts, then rushes away, as if there is so much darkness in Jack's history, Gloom's power is having trouble finding the true champion. I catch something that I'm sure is Jack's wife—Pia, I know from Armand's story—when she's dying. But even that is bypassed and the first scene appears.

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