Once Upon A Nightmare

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hail the king of nightmares

A blinding light explodes around us. I see Alexander knocked back before I have to shut my eyes against the brightness. A loud boom—a sound that reverberates deep in my chest—follows the explosion of light. And then silence.

I slowly open my eyes, blinking twice.

A pile of shattered glass is all that remains of Hina's prison. The Queen herself is gone. So is Jack. I'm expecting one or both of them to drop from the sky—a little winded, but fine. They can't just be . . . gone. But then I think of how quickly Gloom disappeared, his existence erased so thoroughly, and suddenly feel out of breath.

Alexander is still on his side. His emotions are open and accessible, but he feels like white static, as if he's too numb to process anything else.

Underneath me, the path crumbles away. The yarn and leather turns black with decay. Too late, I realize it's falling out from under us. Alexander grips my upper arm and yanks me to my feet. We barrel down the path as fast as we can, our feet stumbling over the different stitching just as they turn to stone. The entire thing gives a mighty groan and caves in on itself. I yelp when a pair of claws latches to my arm. As I lift off the ground just before we sink into the collapse, I look up and see the underside of a Night Terror. Beside me, Alexander squirms in the grasp of its claws.

"Armand!" I say. A final, tremendous jolt shoots us forward. Armand hurls us from his grip and we land in the Grave of Lilies, rolling in the flowers. Donovan, wings unfurled, blasts through right behind us and hits the ground.

Genn is beside Alexander and me in an instant. "What happened?" she asks. I can't answer her. I sit up, but the Stitch of Time is invisible, the barrier Jack put in place blocking it once more. I don't see Armand anywhere.

Donovan groans, his wings pathetically crumpled. I think I hear him say Hina's name as his hands clench the life out of the lilies within his reach.

"Alexander?" Genn asks, pleading.

Alexander pushes himself up to his knees, shaking his head. "He's gone," he says in a hollow voice.

"W-who? What?" When Genn catches her breath, she meets Alexander's raised gaze and sees the truth. Finally, she chokes and he catches her as she flings herself at him. With her face pressed into his chest, he stares ahead at nothing, his jaw rigid. He breathes hard, shoulders trembling, and only as I see the glisten of tears on his cheeks do I realize he's sobbing.

Flowers die at a rapid pace around us, turning to ash. I feel separate from the grief, like Lana staring wide-eyed at the edge of the clearing. All I can think about is Armand, wondering if he's trapped. I reach over to Alexander to get his attention, and three figures appear where the ash-ridden flowers stop, in front of the once-Stitch of Time.

The three gods.

Morpheus is in the front. His forest-colored hair, so dark it's nearly black, is styled in a high mohawk. He wears a black turtleneck. Beside him, Hypnos looks a little how Gloom used to, except shorter and more pudgy. Nyx is . . . Sweeney.

I squint, thinking I'm imagining it. But no.

The fear of the unknown, the goddess Nyx, is Gloom's neighbor.

Morpheus extends a fist in front of him and opens his hand. The Jewel of Imagination drops out, catching on a chain around his wrist.

"It has come to our attention that the previous guardian of the Jewel of Imagination has passed. It falls, of course, to the next ruler whom I believe—" He steps forward, holding the pendant out to Alexander, "—is you."

Abruptly, Alexander comes to himself. Our link zips closed and he looks up at Morpheus, who continues to dangle the Jewel of Imagination before him. After a long moment, Alexander stands, setting Genn gently aside. He takes the chain in his fingers.

Morpheus smiles. Glancing over our little group, his gaze lingers on me before returning to Alexander. "Enjoy. I'd wait until you were alone the first time you use it," he warns with an almost cheery tone. "It has a bit of a kick." Stepping back, he joins the other two gods and all three disappear as seamlessly as they arrived.

Alexander slips the pendant over his neck. The shock of the moment is dissipating. Genn is still shaking, but she wipes her tears as she comes to her feet. Next to her, I stand and brush ash off my hands, looking up at the mountaintops, looking for Armand. Lana approaches Donovan, whispering something in his ear. Donovan shudders, jerking away with a soft cry when she grabs his arm, but she yanks him back. When she doesn't let go, holding onto him with both hands, he shudders again and allows her to guide him away from the Grave of Lilies.

"Stop!"

The voice startles me. It's Alexander's voice, but supplemented with echoing, unfamiliar timbers. Power crackles around him like sparks of electricity and the Jewel of Imagination glows and fades against his chest, like a sputtering light bulb. Likewise, Alexander's eyes flash with abrupt inner light, then sink into their usual, smoldering orange.

"Alexander," I say cautiously. "Maybe you should just let—"

"No," he says.

And with that word, the pendant brightens with life. A tornado of energy whirls around him, made visible by gathered dust, sparking with traces of every fear and joy that had protected the Jewel of Imagination before him. The force of it pushes all of us back a few steps.

"Alexander?" I try to see him through the storm. The high-powered gales immediately swallow my voice.

Alexander advances on Donovan and Lana slowly, his eyes white and soulless, almost possessed. The tornado around him shoots out balls of power—lightning, sizzling fireballs, twisting coils of sucking shadows. They're sporadic, uncontrolled.

Genn shrieks and I turn in time to see her jump to the side before a blast of fire hits the spot where she was standing. A stabbing emotion grips my heart. I look at Alexander. Pain surges through the link between us.

I can barely feel him in his own mind; he's smothered by a hundred other personalities. What I can sense seems dazed. His rage is a dull throb. I stay where I am, no long pushed back by his wild destruction. His attacks fly harmlessly around me, the wind on my skin like the brush of a feather. Somewhere, beneath the Jewel of Imagination, even beneath Alexander himself, our bind is keeping me safe.

"Alexander!" I try again, now that our link is open.

For a moment, he pauses in his advance toward the Dreams, glancing over to meet my eyes. The glow fades and I know he sees me clearly. Then he's gone again, as is our connection. I turn away to ward off what I'd seen in his eyes. They were worse than shocked, worse than stricken with grief. They were insane.

He's going to kill them, I think, and probably himself.

Before I let myself contemplate consequences, I run to him. The closer I get, the thicker his barrier becomes, but the whips of power continue to glance off me as if I'm surrounded by a protective bubble. His burning gaze turns to me and he frowns.

"Stay back," he and the guardians warn in one voice.

I don't listen. I grit my teeth and fly into him, throwing my arms around his neck. He steps back to balance himself. He's almost too hot to touch, but I only hold tighter. "Stop, Alexander," I say into his ear. "You have to stop. Come back." I'm not sure he can hear anything—my desperate cries or the sound of burning ruin or his own heartbeat beneath the Jewel of Imagination. The grip of his hands on my waist is painful, and I think he's going to throw me off him.

But then he gasps and the tornado sucks into him as if pulled by a vacuum. He releases my waist to wrap his arms around me like I'm the anchor keeping him from succumbing to a black hole. I press him close, feeling his labored breath against my neck. The silence around us is grating. Finally, his breath and heartbeat settle. When he pulls back, his face is lined with tears.

He doesn't look at me, but past me, his expression fierce despite the wet tracks on his cheeks. "Go," he tells the Dreams in his normal voice—only it isn't his normal voice, not quite. He sounds older.

"Alexander . . ." I begin.

"Please." He removes my hands from him. I step away, wanting to cry at the accusation in his eyes—directed at me. "Leave me alone," he whispers. His clenched jaw trembles. Worse is the hint of pleading that seeps into his expression as he swallows. "I'm begging you."

I feel dizzy. Hugging my arms around my stomach, I move out of his reach. Already acting as if I no longer exist to him, Alexander extends a hand to his sister. "Come on, Genn."

"But . . ." She looks at me. Alexander's raised hand quivers—barely, but Genn notices. Her eyes soften and she takes his hand. I wonder if she realized, as I did in that moment, that she's the last blood Ira after Alexander, and his last support. She's never looked so brave, squeezing his hand.

With Genn holding onto him, Alexander remains tempered and rooted in the present, but his grieving anger continues to simmer right on the surface. "You have a minute to get out of my sight," he growls to Donovan and Lana, "and then I change my mind."

I don't realize Lana's beside me until her hand is on my shoulder. "Come on, human. I have a feeling you should come with us."

What else can I do? I give in the pressure on my shoulder and turn with her. Not daring a backward glance, I follow Lana as she stalwartly drags Donovan and I away from the Grave of Lilies. "Don't worry," I can't help but say. "I won't be alive much longer anyway." Donovan can barely move himself, let alone us, but somehow Lana manages to get us out of the valley. Thunder cracks above us and the rain that pelts down stings my skin like acid.

"Luck!" Lana snaps to no one in particular. "You call this luck?"

But what should appear on our left but a small, convenient cave? Lana hustles us inside. Donovan slumps against the back wall and drapes both of his damp wings in front of him like a soggy privacy curtain. I stay by the mouth of the cave and watch as the rain turns into a downpour that I'm pretty sure would melt my skin off if I stepped into it. "Do you think they're all right?" I ask.

Lana comes to stand next to me, shaking out her hair. "Let's get one thing straight. I could care less if both the prince and princess meet their untimely end in the mountains, but in case you didn't notice, Alexander is the new King of Nightmares. He has the Jewel of Imagination. That makes him the singularly most powerful person, outside of the gods, in this entire realm. Trust me when I say they'll be just fine."

That eases some of my worry, but not all. I haven't yet entertained the thought that Armand might be gone in a more permanent sense. For now, I force myself to believe he isn't, and that the rain won't bother him because he's made for this environment. I retreat farther into the cave and sit down. A moment later, Lana does the same. We're quite the triangle of despair, the three of us. It's going to be night soon.

"Will he be all right?" I ask, nodding at Donovan, who hasn't moved from his slumped, hidden position.

When Lana looks at him, it's like she can see his face, behind the wings and behind the bandanna. "I don't know," she admits quietly. "Whatever was keeping him in place—and I'm not even sure what that was—it snapped loose with Hina's death. His world doesn't have any gravity anymore."

For the first time, I feel like I understand Donovan. My little flame flickers feebly inside me. I rest my elbows on my knees, pressing my eyes against my palms, and start to laugh. Nothing can destroy that stupid flame. It's indestructible, like relationship torture. And I don't know why it's funny, but it is.

I laugh until I start crying.

"I'm sorry, but—seriously. You are the weirdest human ever."

I raise my head. "So they tell me."

For awhile, she doesn't speak, but I don't begrudge her comment. Finally, she asks, "So why won't you be alive much longer?"

"I'm separated from my body and I can't live without it. Eventually it will deteriorate, or they'll take me off life support." I have, by complete accident, missed my own life. And though I silently mourn all the moments I chose to skip, the tears I didn't shed, the laughing I didn't do, it's not even the reason I was crying.

She nods. I appreciate the lack of sympathy or pity on her face. "Do you have, I don't know, a family? Most humans do, right? Or friends?"

"I have . . . a father." I rub my arm, trying not to think about what will happen to him when I die. "Do you? Have a family, I mean."

"Nope. I'm born straight from the human psyche. I'm Lady Luck. The female dream of good luck. The concept didn't really come around, at least my version of it, until the turn of the 19th century—your time."

"So, were you here when the Great War . . .?"

"The tail end of it, yeah."

"Is that how you met Donovan?" I'm not sure why we both suddenly feel so comfortable talking to each other, but I suspect it's the obvious unlikelihood of our futures interweaving in any capacity.

"No. It was after. I gamble a lot—you can imagine. But as you can also imagine, the best gambling happens in Chimera, not Merrymount. And after the war, it wasn't so bad, you know. Neither side particularly cared for the other, but there weren't any attacks. Not yet.

"Anyway. This one time, I was playing poker with some pretty rough Nightmares. They accused me of cheating." Her face darkens, noticeable even in the shadow of the cave. Her arms cross protectively over her chest. "They took me outside—five of them, at least. They were going to—they started—But there was this whistle. And there he was, out of nowhere, like the devil had cracked open hell and spit him out as a last resort."

"Donovan?"

She nods. "Shot all five of them, not that I cared. At first I assumed he was a Nightmare. When I found out he wasn't, I almost laughed. A guardian angel shows up just in time. How lucky is that?"

"The wings . . ."

"Lots of humans dream of guardian angels. That's his joy."

"Hard to imagine him in that capacity," I admit.

She laughs softly, then sobers. "The point is, after that, it wasn't hard to think of Nightmares as crude, violent creatures. But now I realize that although Donovan believed that, his passion wasn't only hatred toward Nightmares, but love for the Queen. And then the stupid prince . . ."

She doesn't explain further, but I know she isn't talking about Alexander. Armand's the opposite of crude, and far from violent. He rattled her conception of Nightmares right to its core. The reminder of Armand's absence brings another chill into the cave. Both of us fall silent and eventually I turn on my side, my cheek resting on the freezing cold rock. Somehow, I still fall asleep.

"You left her there?"

Of the two of them, it's hard to say who is more surprised when Armand connects his fist to Alexander's face. Alexander reels back, attempting to stay upright, but he eventually crashes to the floor. Holding his face, he stares up at his brother in shock. The background around them is gray, fuzzy.

"You weren't there," he says finally. He gets unsteadily to his feet. "You can't know what I felt. You left me alone—"

Armand's face shifts. Alexander moves forward, but draws back abruptly and stops himself. Armand—perceptive as ever—guesses at Alexander's need and grabs his brother's shoulder, bringing him in to embrace him. Alexander clutches at Armand's back. He mumbles something I don't catch, but I hear Armand's response:

"You don't need my help."

Alexander releases him. His eyes shine. "I think I hate him, a little, for doing this."

Armand sighs—likely thinking of his own future, brought upon by the same father. "He knew you could do it."

A crooked grin appears on Alexander's face—so familiar, and yet so foreign in this moment—my throat tightens with bitter affection. "You're still my brother," he tells Armand.

"And mine!" Genn wiggles between them. "You guys always leave me out."

They respond by enveloping her in a sandwich-style hug that makes her laugh.

Her laugh turns into the laughter of a seven year old girl I recognize—myself.

I'm skipping around the armchair where my dad sits, unwrapping the Christmas present I got for him. I was so insistent on it being a surprise, so Dad dutifully gave me twenty dollars and said I could spend it however I liked.

He unveils a singular brush. "Thanks, sweetie, it's . . ."

"No! It's not over!" Seven-year-old me is frantic with excitement, making Dad dizzy trying to keep track of me as I bounce around. "Read the note!"

"This is a clue," he reads, "to find the next piece of your gift. It's where you poop, but don't eat soup, in the place where I'm not supposed to snoop." He looks over his glasses, fighting a smile. "In my bathroom?"

"You'll have to seeee . . ."But by my delighted squeal, it's clear he's guessed right. The pair of us go through the entire house, finding clues, until my dad's accumulated a small collection of brushes, cheap craft paint, pencils and erasers.

"It's for your pictures," little me says.

Dad kisses my forehead. "I love it."

Then I'm alone in the dark expanse of my mind. Plumpy and Mr. Mint chase me through the blackness until my lungs hurt. "Stop, stop!" I try what worked the first time, but they don't stop.

A giant-sized Sweeney blocks my path. She raises her scythe. "Time to die, Violet." The curved, rusty blade plunges into my stomach. When I gasp, a fountain of blood comes out my mouth.

I wake up panting.

"Were you having a nightmare?" Lana asks. I realize her shaking me is what woke me up. "Donovan just left. He thought I was asleep."

I try to concentrate on what she's saying, but I feel sick. How long has it been since I ate something, drank anything? I'm flushed; nauseous. Sadistically, I think maybe I'll die in this cave and that will take the awful anticipation out of the whole affair.

"Where's he going?" I croak. "Should we follow him?"

"How?" She gestures angrily around us. "Leaving us here, that son of a—"

"We can walk," I cut in. However, it may be wishful thinking. My skin feels like Alexander's and all I want is for the world to stop tilting so I can put my face on the cold rock again.

"What are you, stupid?On foot? Look at you. You don't know where you're going and it's still dark."

"So we should just sit here?"

"There's no we!" Her face flushes. "That's what I get for being so—" She breaks off, squinting. Her eyes widen. "Don't move," she whispers. "There's a Night Terror right outside the cave." Slowly, she pulls her gun from its holster.

"Don't shoot," I say at the same time Armand says, "It's just me," coming into the cave with both hands raised and empty.

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