The invisible dome that encased the Dream Realm burned blue beneath my gloved hand. My magic ached to be released from its rigid confinement—to return to the spiritual place deep in my chest, where it could fuel dreams once again—but this barrier was the only thing standing between me and the Nightmare Realm. Or, more specifically, from the things lurking there. Grotesque or beautiful, animalistic or humanoid, it didn’t matter. Each and every nightmare held their own special brand of terror waiting to ensnare an unsuspecting Dreamer.
From this close to the wall, I could easily see into the Weaver’s realm. Rolling hills stretched into the distance, and a small stream snaked through the low plains, which were colored in muted greens and blues. The knee-high grass tinkled an eerie, hushed melody as the breeze rippled across it. Hooked barbs, hard as steel and sharp as razors, grew along each blade, invisible to the naked eye. Beyond the hills lay an endless array of landscapes with their own vicious traps.
None of the Weaver’s creatures roamed among the swaying grass tonight—at least none I could see. Still, something felt different. A layer of anxiety prowling beneath the calm.
I ignored it the best I could and continued my nightly security inspection—if not to protect the Dream Keeper, then to protect her world. Although, if I were being honest with myself, it was no longer the Day World I was concerned with saving from legions of deadly nightmares.
It was the Dream Keeper herself—Nora.
Nora, who would be hunted for the dream I’d placed inside her five years ago—the exact contents unknown even to me. She held the end of an invisible leash keeping the nightmares in the Night World, and the Weaver wouldn’t hesitate to regain control of it. Even if that meant helping the creatures slip their collars entirely.
I rolled my shoulders and turned my attention back to the barrier. The worry I carried was ridiculous, a waste of time better spent elsewhere. Nothing more than paranoia. The shields were secure, the Weaver still bound to his realm, and the key to unraveling it all was safely hidden in Nora’s mind.
Even still, my magic knotted inside me. Wrong, wrong, wrong, it seemed to whisper, insistently. Tendrils of it slid down my arms, flowing from my fingertips. The glimmering beach vibrated beneath my feet, and thousands of pieces of sand floated into the air. Two feet. Three feet. Four. Until the air was filled with sparkling flecks. With a deep breath, I flung my arms out wide, fingers splayed to propel a fresh layer of my magic into the existing barrier. It shot outward, clinging to the dome, and strengthened it in a flash of blue.
With the beach undoubtedly safe for Nora, I looked inward. The cords connecting me to each Dreamer that knew the legend of the Sandman spanned out like a million silver harp strings. Some connections glowed bright, their owner already asleep. Others idled, dull and dreamless, while the person on the other end remained awake.
I knew exactly where to find the cord that led to Nora. Even if I hadn’t found it every night since we met, the dream I gave her was made of my magic, and it begged to return home. I tugged off my gloves and reached out as if to touch her cord—as if it were a tangible thing, instead of something spiritual. The silver and navy flecks covering my pale hands shimmered brilliantly.
Unlike Nora’s cord.
“What’s taking you so long?” I whispered to myself. She was never awake this late. We met in the same place on the other side of the realm like clockwork.
Suddenly, a shadow raced toward me in a blur of black and yellow fur, and I froze. Baku was my only ally in the Night World, even if it was by default. “Enemy of my enemy” and what not. But he knew the rules. He wasn’t supposed to be here when I was expecting Nora to arrive. If she ever discovered there were darker things outside of these walls, it would invite trouble.
The chimera dug his tiger paws into the sand, skidding to a halt before me. Baku snorted through the elephant trunk situated between his ivory tusks. Large ears flapped twice on either side of his brindle face, and his cow-like tail snapped back and forth behind him.
I stopped breathing the moment I met the worried gleam in his eyes.
“Something’s going on in the Nightmare Realm.”
It wasn’t a question. Baku spent most of his time on the other side of the barrier which meant he had a front row seat to whatever had happened and there was no reason to challenge his judgment. “Wh—”
The Weaver’s maniacal joy shot through me, snaking around my fear, strangling it, and I staggered back a step. I hadn’t been able to feel the Weaver since the binding. His magic was always traceable, but never his emotions. Dread pooled in my gut. I tried to shove the other sensation out, to pull instead on his location, but his magic registered in every direction. It was like trying to pinpoint the dream cord of an insomniac.
A streak of gold shot across the sky. It splintered its way through the stars, spreading, thinning, and fading. Magic thrummed through my veins, frantic to escape. To rise and protect. To defend. Baku pranced nervously at my side.
“Sandman.” A gentle voice traveled down the cord. “Help me sleep.”
“Nora.” Her name fell from my lips as a single, strangled breath. I clenched the leather gloves in my hands. She hadn’t asked for my help in years. Years. I gaped at the barrier in awe, utterly perplexed. Checking on the Weaver was important, but so was aiding Nora. If one was safe, they both were. I swallowed hard and drew a leather pouch from my belt loop.
“Find the Weaver,” I told Baku. I tugged my gloves on again and snapped the hood of my tunic up over my brown curls. “I’ll be right behind you.”
Baku gave a curt nod and rushed back through the barrier without pause. Even if he had his hands—rather, paws—full, trying to devour a thousand nightmares tonight, Baku would help me find answers.
The cord between Nora and I grew taut as I careened along it to her bedside. Despite my best efforts not to, my breath still hitched when I caught sight of her platinum hair against the dark sheets. I reached a gloved hand out to brush a few strands from her temple but curled my fingers at the last moment. You shouldn’t, I admonished myself. This is off limits.
I didn’t creep around in bedrooms, and I certainly didn’t touch anyone without their knowledge. Not even Nora. Especially not Nora—even if my chest did ache for the smallest hint of physical contact. It was my own fault we never touched, never high-fived or hugged or held hands. It was one of my rules, my lies, to keep distance between us. A lot of good they did. My body still jolted every night at the first glimpse of her and the adrenaline coursed through me long after she woke every morning. I’d spent an eternity watching people dream of love, but I never understood the appeal until Nora. None had come before her and I knew with absolute certainty that none would come after.
“I don’t know why you needed to call me tonight,” I said, keeping my voice low. Though she could neither hear nor see me, I fumbled for the edge of my hood, retreating into its shadow.
“But, my magic will take you to the beach. You’ll be safe there.” Please be safe there. “I’m sorry, Nora. But I’ll see you soon.” Reaching into the ever-present pouch, I pinched a bit of sand between my fingers. “Remember to keep a true heart and a true mind, and that the power of the dream is yours.”
Then, I promptly sprinkled the glimmering flecks over her eyes and whispered, “Sleep.”
My throat seized, and I choked back the awful truth of what she was, of what I made her, and what consequences we might be facing for it now. After escorting Nora’s consciousness to the beach, and once I’d ensured that she was safely inside the barrier, I slipped through the surrounding shield into the perilous terrain of the Nightmare Realm. I flew through the tall grass toward the center of the Nightmare World amid a chorus of harsh metal clinks. The tiny barbs stabbed through my pant legs and pricked against my leather boots. Each cut into my skin was like a slap with a hot poker, but it was a small price to pay for a chance at reaching the Weaver’s Keep in time to stop whatever was happening. The scent of burning wool ravaged my senses. His magic. Strong and undeniable. A sure sign that his binding must have worn thin—too thin, given how little time had passed.
The Day World was still warded against the Weaver’s power and would remain so. That is, as long as he didn’t find Nora. However, just because he couldn’t open the doors without prying the information from the Dream Keeper’s mind, that didn’t mean he couldn’t knock.
© Amber R. Duell