"Stop playing with your food." An adolescent girl—maybe thirteen or fourteen—reaches over and swats a boy's hand. Tendrils of light, like glowing pieces of wind, swirl on the plate in front of him. Her bright pink hair is thrown back in a high ponytail. The boy sticks out his tongue. His black hair and wide dark eyes tell me this is Jack, a very young Jack. Maybe five years old.
I'm guessing the girl is Hina. She rolls her eyes. "Why do I always have to babysit you?"
Jack slumps his chin on his fist, staring sullenly at the table. Hina pretends to ignore him, but watches him from the corner of her eye. Finally, she sighs.
"Okay." She takes the abandoned swirls of joy from his plate and sucks then in rapidly through her nose, releasing them out her mouth in a sparkly belch.
Jack squeals with delight.
"That's disgusting," she reminds him, though she's fighting a smile. "I only do it because your immature sensibilities require it."
"When's Mom coming home?"
"She said she won't be back until later tomorrow."
She tucks him into bed, leaving a soft-hued lamp on which Jack immediately shuts off after she leaves. He draws the curtains on his window closed so his room is completely dark. Then he sighs happily. He feels better in the darkness.
He wakes before Hina and slips out the door without her noticing. It's morning, and the sun shines brightly as it peaks in the east. The farther horizon is light purple, almost lavender. Jack catches his breath. Every morning in Merrymount is beautiful. He knows this, because his mother tells him. Look what a pretty day it is, she would say. But the sun makes Jack uncomfortable. Whenever his mother catches him hiding in the shadows, her face lines with worry and she drags him out, saying something like, You look like a Nightmare in the dark, Jack, or Even I'm scared of you like that, and I'm your mother.
If Ren saw him, he'd say, You're a natural.
And that makes Jack feel good, though he's not sure what he's so natural at.
They live on the outskirts of Merrymount, away from the city. Jack heads toward the woods and stops partway down the hill their little cottage is on. At the bottom of the hill, Jack sees Ren. He wears his white cloak, the one that means he's on official business. When he wears the white cloak, he doesn't say anything to Jack. He doesn't smile when he visits them. He makes notes and watches Jack as he eats the joy his mother got for him.
Without the cloak, he teaches Jack scare tactics when his mother isn't looking—and kisses his mother when Jack isn't looking.
Other Dreams surround Ren, dressed in similar white cloaks.
Then someone shifts positions and Jack sees his mother kneeling in the middle of their white circle—kneeling in front of Ren. Her hair is loose. Even from this distance, tears are visible on her cheeks, reflecting the light of the rising sun.
An awful, clawing feeling enters Jack's stomach. Something bad is happening. He rushes down the hill, but trips. When he pushes himself back up, Ren is looking at him, panic on his face. Ren shakes his head in warning, but Jack doesn't stop.
"You know the law," one of the white cloaks says. Jack is still too far to reach them, but the words are easily heard in the still air.
"He isn't a Nightmare," Jack hears his mother's small, pleading voice. "I've only fed him joy, I promise."
"He is a stain on our race."
"Don't touch my son." Her voice changes, losing its pleading quality. Even with its firmness, a trace of desperation gives her words an unstable edge.
"If you attempt to stop the action of the council, it will be considered an act of treason and is punishable by death."
"Genevieve, please." Ren speaks.
"Mom!" Jack shouts, barreling closer.
The council parts; Jack sees his mother's wide eyes as they go flat. "Jack . . ."
"Kill him. Now."
The order is directed to Ren, who is one of three council members with a bow across his chest. He startles, casts a wild look at Genevieve.
A second Dream positions his bow. "I'll do it." He strings an arrow.
"No!" Genevieve screams.
The Dream releases his arrow, but Ren is quicker. Ren's arrow catches the bottom of Jack's pants, tripping him just in time for the second arrow to whizz harmlessly in the air above his head.
"Mom!" Jack's scream is the high-pitched animal sound of a panicked child.
Genevieve fights against the council as they try and keep her from reaching Jack. "Don't touch him—Jack, run!"
"Treason!" The council tears at her, throws her back as if she is no longer a person, but disobedient livestock.
Ren turns and positions another arrow. Genevieve meets his eye. Please, she mouths. I sense she isn't pleading for her life, but for him to do what he promised to do, in a conversation too outside of the story for me to reach. Ren's eyes close and the arrow lands in her throat.
Jack, too busy tearing his pants from the lodged arrow, never sees. But I recognize the weapon that kills Jack's mother as the bow Armand uses. Jack breaks through the first white cloak. His shriek of agony fades as the scene jolts forward and another scream replaces his.
Skin flushed and literally lit up with anger, Hina tries to get at Jack, but Ren holds him out of reach. "Hina—stop it," Ren commands.
"I hate him! He's a monster! He killed my mother!" Her eyes are red. Her face shines with sweat and tears and mucus; her chin trembles.
"No, no, no, no." Jack sobs on Ren's shoulder. He's disoriented, trying to get away from both Ren and Hina at the same time, but Ren holds him fast.
"Yes, you did—" A guttural sound of rage crawls out Hina's throat and she lunges, trying to grab Jack. "I'll tell the Council, I hope they kill him. You should have died—you're a Nightmare, you're a killer!"
The scene changes again: Ren carrying Jack through the streets of Chimera. The story doesn't show them leaving Merrymount, but I know this isn't the Isle of Morpheus I'm familiar with. The two realms don't exist on one island together; they're separate. Jack is passed out from exhaustion, his arms limp, but the noise of the city wakes him up.
"Where am I?" he mumbles. When he sees Ren, his memory returns and he tries to fight, but soon gives up the effort. He's too tired and Ren is too strong.
"Jack," Ren says. "We're in Chimera."
"No—no!" Jack renews his struggle. Chimera is the Nightmare city. He's heard Dreams talk about it. Black streets filled with Nightmares sucking each other's blood, beating each other with dismembered limbs, sucking eyeballs. His breaths come in short, hard gasps.
The Nightmares will kill him. This is how he's going to die. Instead of shooting him with an arrow like they did to Jack's mother, Ren is going to leave him in the city of Nightmares and the monsters will eat him.
"Is he okay?"
Jack jumps at a woman's voice.
A pretty Nightmare with short, spiky red hair smiles at him. Her teeth look normal. He doesn't see any blood.
"He's just tired," Ren explains softly.
"Here, sweetheart." She hands him a candy skull on a stick. "They're fear dipped," she says to Ren, "but just a little anxiety, nothing strong that will spoil his appetite."
"Thank you," Ren says and the woman leaves after winking at Jack.
Jack fiddles with the candy. The skull is smiling and he doesn't think it looks too scary, though he knows skulls are Nightmare things. He takes off the wrapper and tentatively touches his tongue against one of the eye sockets. A hint of pleasure spreads down his throat.
He rams the candy into his mouth. He tastes something—something wonderful—that fills up a part of his belly he didn't know was hungry because it had always been there.
Then he notices.
The sun is gone. It's light enough to see, but as he searches the sky, he doesn't find a sun.
It feels nice.
He watches Nightmares walking up and down the streets. They laugh with each other—actually, they laugh more than Dreams. He's confused. They look . . . normal.
Ren takes him to an old building. The sign on the outside says Crazyworld. Jack stays stiff and silent in Ren's arms. A young girl sitting behind a desk glances up as Ren enters.
"Can I help you?" she asks.
"He's free. Second floor. Room seven. Try not to startle him."
Jack doesn't dare ask where Ren is taking him, or who Simon is. He almost clutches Ren's neck for support, but resists the urge and crosses his arms over his stomach, feeling vaguely sick. Ren is the only parental figure he has left, but he didn't stop the Dreams from killing his mother.
Ren goes up a flight of stairs and down the left hallway. He knocks on a door, and without waiting for a response, steps inside.
A Nightmare sits on a bed. He tenses as Ren enters and a rainbow of colors washes over his hair, eyes and clothes. He clenches both fists against his legs and exhales. Then his hair returns white, his eyes blank, pupil-less slates. A faint silver line traces where his irises would be.
"Ren Ira," the Nightmare says. His voice is as plain as his face. "It's been almost ten years."
"How do you like Merrymount?"
"Who is that?" The white eyes fall on Jack.
Jack tries to become as small as possible.
"This is Jack."
"Is he a Dream?"
"He's half Dream. Half Nightmare."
"That isn't possible. He can only be the fear of something. Or the love of something."
"He is both the fear and the love of darkness."
"At the same time?"
"As far as I've gathered."
A faint smile appears on Simon's mouth. "He looks more like a Nightmare."
"I do not!" Jack snaps.
Simon laughs. His hair explodes with yellow; his eyes the shade of sunflower petals. His mirth is blatant and unfettered. Then it stops abruptly and Simon turns white again. "Sorry." He glances at Ren. "What do you want from me? I'm not a babysitter."
"Just watch him for a few days. Please. I'm registering him as a patient. I only want you to keep an eye on him."
Simon sighs. "Very well."
"You've got to be kidding me."
Jerked back to the present, I see Lana glaring at something behind us. I turn the rest of the way and choke with surprise. Alexander walks toward us; Genn behind him, wearing, for the first time ever, a pair of pants.
"Where's Donovan?" is his sterling opening line, spoken with all the hate in which Donovan had said his name. Before, the Eye of the World Mountains had put a static damper on our link, but now that we're both here, our soul connection rears to life with painful force.
"Ah, the real crown prince." Lana doesn't hide her distaste.
Alexander's sparking gaze zeroes in on her. "Ah, another traitor to the crown—" There's no fear in him, as usual. Talking to him is like standing in front of an incoming train. He lifts his hand. I'm not sure what he's planning on doing with it, so I act before anyone has to find out.
"Don't touch her, Alexander," I say.
His hand falls. A muscle in his jaw jumps, but then he looks away, nothing but placid boredom on his face. "Try and keep the uninformed commandments to a minimum, won't you?" His tone is polite; the undercurrent of anger beneath the words is not.
"Violet!" Genn hits me from the side, her embrace shockingly strong and nearly suffocating. "I'm so glad you're okay. We went to the Dream camp and you weren't there, so we didn't know . . ."
"What's going on?" I ask as she lets go. "Why are you here?"
Alexander takes in the Grave of the Lilies and sees the open path to the Stitch of Time. When he finally looks at me, there's no recognition of what's happened, no knowledge that anything, really, has transpired between us. We're like strangers. "Did my dad go in there with Donovan alone?"
"With Armand," I correct.
He relaxes by a fraction of an inch. Only then does he deem to answer my questions. "My dad was supposed to lead Donovan here. Then I was going to get you out of the Dream camp."
"With my help," Genn adds. "He wasn't going to take me, but they didn't save me—you did, and I just—I wanted to do the same for you."
I meet Lana's eye and I know we're thinking the same thing. We assumed they were following our trail, but maybe it hadn't been so lucky after all. Jack wanted them to find the Stitch in Time, had expected their arrival. Armand and I were the only surprise.
"But no one was there," Genn adds. "Except a handful of clueless Dreams. So we came here."
"Thanks Genn," I mutter distractedly. Alexander lets out a low breath. Now that Armand and I have been accounted for, there's an air of resignation between us. Through our link, Alexander gets a peek at the dark story I've been trying to decipher. He glances at me, nodding slightly.
I rub the ball of Gloom's power. Hurry, I think.
I press the story forward, zipping through the allotted scenes in blurred acceleration. An imaginary pause button slows on an adult Jack standing next to Simon. He's extending a hand toward Vince, the mummy I've seen in the castle. "What I'm proposing," Jack says with a quick grin, "is a temporary partnership."
I see Jack and Pia collide in one of the castle hallways. Her hoop skirt snaps and they topple to the floor, Pia on top of Jack.
"You?" she manages. They're nose to nose. "Are you stalking me?"
"Don't flatter yourself, Your Highness," he says. "I'm robbing you."
This isn't what I'm looking for, even if it contributes to Jack's darkest story. I hurry the passing scenes along.
A different castle—a palace, made of gems and glittering marble. Hina sits on a throne that reaches nearly to the ceiling.
"I suppose you heard," she says quietly. "Jack is the king."
Ren stands to the side in his white cloak, his face blank.
"That idiotic Queen they had, she's gone." She isn't talking for Ren's sake. Her fingers brush the white pendant on her neck. Finally glancing over, she asks, "Which do you think is stronger, Ren? The power of human imagination to create something they love? Or human imagination driven by fear, uncontrolled, to create?"
Ren closes his eyes. For several minutes, he doesn't answer. "Hina. Leave your brother alone."
"He is not," she hisses, "my brother. And I'm not stupid. I have ears in Chimera, just as you do. He forced Queen Atropia off her throne. She hates him. It wasn't love driving their elopement—he wanted to be king so he would have the Jewel, and he wanted the Jewel to use it against me."
"You're mirroring your obsession onto him. That isn't why he wanted the Jewel of Imagination."
Hina blinks in shock. Ren never speaks against her. Her cheeks flush, but someone else enters the throne hall and she turns, a picture of poise and composure.
"Ah." She smiles. "James."
Donovan bows. His huge wings rest folded against his back. He straightens and raises an eyebrow, glancing once at Ren.
"Excuse me," Hina says, noticing the look. "Captain Donovan, I meant. Ren—if you don't mind?"
"Of course." Ren bows and leaves, though the look he spares Donovan is less than complimentary.
Hina rises and takes Donovan's chin in her hands. "A true guardian angel. You look rather dashing in soldier's attire, Captain . . ."
The rest of their conversation fades into irrelevance.
The next thing I see is Ren's broken body falling to the grass; almost like a dance, with the sun shining and birds chirping. Jack catches him, but Ren's outstretched hand isn't reaching for Jack, as if he senses his son isn't the one in the most need of his support. He's grasping for Hina. A gasp escapes beneath his quickly shortening breath, a name no one can hear.
Jack's eyes are wide. "Why did you do that?" he asks, uncomprehending—panicked.
The story won't show me what happened. It's the result that matters, not what preceded it. Ren tries to smirk. "Trying to stop my children from murdering each other."
"You are not my father." Hina doesn't get any closer, standing apart from them, her arms unnaturally still at her sides. Her face is colorless. She can't take her eyes off Ren as his life leaks out of him.
"Leave." Jack's voice is a dark growl.
She tears her gaze from Ren. She swallows. "Let me be here. Let me be with him."
Darkness explodes from where Jack sits. It casts over the brilliantly green grass like a wave, nearly enveloping Hina. She curls into herself, flinching. She backs away, one forced, quivering footstep a time. Jack watches her and his darkness shrinks as she distances herself.
"Don't," Ren whispers.
"You have no right to tell me to do anything," Jack says, his hold on his father tightening. "And how dare you do this—dying—you coward."
"Don't kill her."
Jack gives a snort of derision, but it sounds more like he's choking back a sob.
"I'd like you . . . to promise."
"It will never leave you. Please."
But Jack is promising; Ren sees it in his son's eyes. He starts to smile, then his face shifts. "Genn," he whispers, still staring at Jack.
Jack lays him on the ground after he dies and rises slowly to his feet.
"Remember you wanted it!" he shouts.
Hina stops, turning slowly. Ren's body has already dematerialized, his fear—a pretty light blue color—rising into the atmosphere and vanishing.
Jack advances on her, darkness licking at his heels. The black pendant he wears pulses. The white duplicate on Hina's neck glows in response.
Her eyes narrow. "Wanted what?"
"Your war," Jack says. "You win. I've had enough. You're going to suffer as I'm suffering now."
The corner of her mouth curls. "I am suffering, Jack. Every moment you're still alive."
"Violet," Alexander interrupts me with a hand on my arm.
I stiffen reflexively and blink at him.
His eyes pulse with worry. He's seeing everything I am. "We need to go in there," I say, swallowing.
He doesn't object to the 'we.' "Come on," he says softly, and takes my hand.
"Where are you going?" Genn calls as we hurry to the foot of the stitched path.
"We'll be right back," I say over my shoulder. Using Alexander for balance, I step on the first foot-thick thread. Between the bands and stitches, I see the source of the glowing. Pure white light shoots up as we pass. It's blinding and hot, like lightning. Absently, I think it would've been nice to have Jack's darkness to fight it back, but as it is, we play a sort of hop-scotch game, climbing up as fast we're able. Alexander's hand in mine is firm and we don't falter. Without thinking, we move in sync. Whether it's familiarity or a side-effect of our link, we can predict how the other will move, matching ourselves not with identical steps, but complementing ones, like puzzle pieces.
As I step over thick yarn, shiny thread, and belted leather, I can't help but wonder what a loose thread even looks like, and how we'll find one when this is all over. Ahead of us, the path suddenly stops. I can see Jack, Armand and Donovan. Above them, like a crystal web between the two black cliffs, a prison has formed, suspending a woman in the air with sparkling white rock that grows around her like a cocoon. By her pink hair, fanned gracefully around her head, I know she's the Queen of Dreams. Or was, anyway.
She gasps as if taking the first breath of life and opens her eyes. Her gaze immediately finds Jack, who smirks. "You," she hisses. The glass around her lights up, shooting prisms of color and blinding glares across the Stitch of Time. Jack shields his eyes with one hand. It takes her a minute to realize where she is, but eventually she stops, breathing hard. "Ah, yes," she says, voice coated with bitterness. "Tell me, brother . . ." The bitterness shifts to honey. "To what do I owe the pleasure?"
Ignoring her question, Jack approaches, head tilted back to look her in the eyes. "Dad?" Armand asks. Jack spares a glance at his son—and for a moment his eyes brim with pain—then he grabs Armand with a ferocity that startles me, holding him close and whispering something in his ear.
"We have to get closer," Alexander murmurs. They haven't noticed us, to this point. "Was there any more to the story?"
I clench the ball in my hand and close my eyes. "Don't let me fall."
I dive back into the story and see Hina laughing. Blood runs down her face.
"He made you promise, didn't he?" Her smile remains, though the laughter dies. "Oh, Jack. Just do it. I would kill you." In the end, it's only the two of them. The war is over, but here they are, at the bridge between their worlds. The Eye of the World Mountains. Jack considers killing her. He considers killing himself.
But Genn's face appears in his mind and he can't. Daddy, where are you going? She popped her hands on her hips and lifted an eyebrow—she looked just like Pia.
He has to return. So they'll both live, at least for today.
He taps into the powers of the Jewel of Imagination, closing his eyes. His energy reaches around them, latching onto Hina. Sucking in a breath, he wavers, suddenly weak as power leaves him.
Hina is suspended, frozen. Not dead. He kept his promise.
On the ground, between where he stands and Hina's newly formed prison, a white pendant waits, untouched. Jack kneels, picking it up in one hand. With the other hand, he removes the black pendant from his neck.
A presence appears at his side.
Without looking up, Jack says, "Hello, Hypnos."
"Your Majesty," Hypnos replies.
I feel Jack's impatience. The gods stayed out of the Great War and their indifference has soured Jack's opinion of them.
"That is yours, you know," Hypnos continues. "You have the ability to use either one, since you're half Dream."
"And?" Jack asks, even though he already knows. He stands, looks Hypnos in the eyes. Of the three gods, Hypnos is the least imposing. His hair is thinning and he has a long, light brown beard. One monocle over his left eye.
"You're aware of Morpheus's opinion on the matter." Hypnos shrugs. "You're the only one who could do it. But it's your choice. You're the king."
Jack stares at the mismatching Jewels in his hand. Each contains the same power, but for different realms. One to be used for Nightmares, the other for Dreams. Without warning, he slams the two pendants together. They rumble against each other like thunder, resisting. Jack clenches his teeth and pushes harder. His eyes glow white as he taps into the powers of every ruler before him, including his sister.
Hypnos's eyes widen. "Now? Jack—this is an enormous change. You're far too weak. This needs to—" He cuts off as the ground shakes beneath him. Color drains from his rosy face. "Oh gods—it's working. I can feel the realms combining."
The two pendants are sinking into each other, becoming one. Jack wavers. His eyes flutter and he tips, but another god appears at his side holding him up. Morpheus supports Jack, reaching over to keep Jack's hands around the pendants. "Don't just stand there like an idiot, Hypnos—help me."
Hypnos rushes to Jack's other side.
"Hang on, Jack," Morpheus says. "You're almost finished."
When Jack wakes up, he's alone and face down on the ground. He clutches a jewel in his hand. One. Sitting up, he unfurls his fingers and looks at the newly formed pendant. It's neither white nor black. It's clear. It can be used by a Dream or Nightmare, for the benefit of Dreams or Nightmares—which is convenient, since there is now only one ruler. For one realm.
At his side, the mountains have somehow folded in on themselves. The two sides are held together by nothing more than giant string and buttons and belts. Light streaks through the path, as if trying to rip it apart. Hina.
As long as she's alive, the rift will remain—the two realms never fully together.
And that's it. That's the end. I'm deliberately thrust into what's happening right now because this is the final scene to Jack's darkest story. Jack has released Armand and he places his hand on the bottom of Hina's glass prison. They crystals attach to his fingers and begin to grow up his wrist.
"If you release me," Hina promises, "I will kill you. An act of charity won't give me a change of heart."
"I know that," Jack says.
The mountains on either side of her prison tremble. "Then by all means."
I try to orient myself and figure out what to do, but before I can, I'm sucked back into my mind.
Another scene. Maybe the story isn't over after all.
I'm trying to process. I wish he'd stop staring at me, for a minute. It's not even that Armand is a Night Terror. Ridiculously—I'm almost happy for him. All this time, he's been more powerful than any of us. It's kind of funny.
I'm not panicking about that.
A better person would be more concerned about what this change means for their brother. But I'm realizing, as Dad tells me how Armand became a part of our family, that this, this is why he didn't bequeath Armand the Jewel of Imagination.
Which means he was not kidding about giving it to me.
I accepted it at the time, but I figured the next incident of "accidentally" exploding something, he'd say, "Okay, never mind. Here you go, Armand," and it'd all be very fair and right and how it should be.
I'm going to get it. The reality of having the responsibility of the stupid Jewel, of maybe becoming king, is giving me the urge to throw up. I breathe deeply, trying to ignore the pressure in my chest telling me I need to go the Eye of the World Mountains to save Violet. I'm working on it, I practically snap at the curse. Leave me alone.
"That's not why I didn't choose Armand to be the heir," Dad says.
The chugging train of incoherent thoughts in my head screeches to a halt. "What?" I ask.
"I worried about it," he continues. "But, with Armand, I don't think it would have been a problem." He smiles. "You know how he is."
Freakishly self-disciplined. Yes, I do know. I narrow my eyes. "So give it to him."
He shakes his head, his eyes gleaming with something borderline affectionate. "I wanted you to have it. You specifically."
How nice. He wants to see the kingdom crumble into disarray and chaos. I don't say this. The sarcasm springs up naturally, unbidden. But his face keeps the words in my throat.
"I once thought, when I first combined the realms, I was supposed to be the first king over both Dreams and Nightmares—since I was both, as well." He takes a breath. "I was wrong. I was meant to combine them, maybe. But I championed the Nightmares, Alexander. I fought in their behalf against Hina. And I hated Merrymount so much. It's hard to get past that."
"I hate them, too," I remind him.
He smiles. "How did you meet Enna?"
I freeze. I don't answer.
"She didn't wander into Chimera. You wandered into Merrymount. You only ever had a chance to fall in love with her because of who you are in the first place. She didn't create that in you."
Yes, she did. And Donovan destroyed what she created.
But before I can say that, Dad steps closer. "Donovan is a product of the war Hina and I started. He's proof that while she's still here, what we started is still here. I'm a product of that war too, part of the gravity keeping the war suspended over all of our heads."
His eyes are distant.
"Dad," I say cautiously. "Why are you telling me this?"
I look over and meet Alexander's eyes.
That wasn't part of Jack's story. It was Alexander's memory. Our minds work out the puzzle as a single unit. We're realizing at the same time, as we stare at each other.
Alexander's head snaps to where Jack is rooted to Hina's prison. Jack's eyes are closed. The Jewel of Imagination lights up on his chest, like a tiny sun.
"Dad—no!" Alexander rushes forward.