Amber R. Duell

AWARD-WINNING YA AUTHOR

 

 

AVAILABLE OCTOBER 29, 2019

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CHAPTER ONE
The Sandman

Somewhere, a Dreamer screamed.

It was the type of scream that quickened the blood and curdled the stomach. I’d heard the same cry over and over from different mouths since I’d reopened the barrier keeping Dreamers from the Nightmare Realm. Baku was right to scoff at my plan to keep it intact until Nora returned to claim her title as Lady of Nightmares. Five months of pent up energy had the nightmares tearing themselves apart; if I hadn’t let Dreamers trickle back in to appease the ravenous creatures, there might be nothing left to claim.

Not that I would mind a major culling of nightmares, but Nora needed them. Rowan was gathering nightmares to her side from the safety of the Keep in a bid to become the next Weaver. To do that, she would have to kill Nora. Ideally, Rowan would first have to go through thousands of nightmares pledging loyalty to Nora. Unfortunately, this wasn’t a battle I could win on Nora’s behalf—not if she wanted to earn the respect of her subjects. So there I was: constantly chasing down Dreamers in the Nightmare Realm before they died both here and in the Day World.

Shame tightened my chest as the scream cut through the air again. Baku and I froze and listened. This landscape was particularly fearsome, composed of roughly fifty acres of steep, sudden valleys and hills, as if an enormous creature had dragged its claws repeatedly across the ground. It threw sound in whatever direction it felt like. The scream came again from just below our current position only to bounce somewhere to the north. Finally. The source was close enough to catch the cry before it was carried away.

I threw my hood up, feeling the hum of my sand at my hip. “Ready?”

Baku flicked his elephant ears once in response.

White sound waves spiraled silently up the grassy hill toward us, the rings widening the closer they got. I pulled sand from my satchel to form a barrier against the unseen nightmare’s attack, but before I could give it shape, the force of a coil whipped it from my palm. Not good. Without sand, there was little I could do to defend myself, let alone the Dreamer. The closest known shelter was nearly four hundred yards away, but we’d never make it to the small, rundown shack in time.

I dug my boots into the dirt and looked straight into the tunnel of sound waves. “This is going to hurt,” I said through clenched teeth.

Baku widened his stance, the black and yellow brindle fur on the back of his neck rising in anticipation.

The waves slammed into us, and a high-pitched whine pierced my eardrums. My bones rattled. Baku lowered his head and pressed forward. His ears laid flat against the side of his head, and his tiger paws clawed up patches of grass with each step. The hunger I was so accustomed to seeing in his eyes had faded and was replaced with anger. At me. At the nightmares. He didn’t speak, so I had no true way of knowing without reading his dreams, but he was a loyal friend, even after everything. Of course, I often left a trail of dead nightmares in my wake. Hunting them down was a thrill for Baku, but having his meals handed to him didn’t hurt either.

The Dreamer bellowed again, his low tones a clear contrast to the nightmare’s, and I shuddered. Movement caught my eye ahead. A young man in a white t-shirt and plaid boxers climbed from one of the deep gouges and scrambled toward the shack at the edge of the forest.

“No!” I shouted, but the landscape carried my voice off. We had to get to that shelter before the Dreamer did. There was no telling what sort of nightmare waited inside, but there was undoubtedly something there. There always was. I veered toward the man, but moving sideways through the rings was harder than heading straight toward them, and I slipped in my rush. My ribs banged into a rock jutting from the ground. Baku lunged after me, struggling not to be swept away himself.

A puff of black fur, no larger than a hedgehog, rolled up the hill. The nightmare had no visible legs, no eyes or mouth, but the sound waves twisting off its back moved to follow the Dreamer. I braced myself against the shifting noise as it proceeded with clear purpose.

The moment the waves released us, I was on my feet, gripping a handful of sand. I barreled forward while forming the sand into two ski poles. There was only one path that would let me reach the Dreamer in time. Without thinking, I took a deep breath and leapt back into the waves. My eyes instantly watered as the noise filled my head, but I pressed on, the dirt giving way beneath the pointed poles.

The puff of fur froze, and the sound waves slowed. I knew in that moment that it could see, with or without eyes. I felt its invisible gaze pierce me as hard as the rings beat my eardrums, but I kept moving. There was no other choice.

Then the sound cut off.

I blinked, too stunned to take another step, but Baku wasted no time sprinting toward the small creature. Saliva dripped from the base of his tusks. The puff let out a single small chirp, and the ground rumbled. I wasn’t about to stay to find out why. I hurried after the Dreamer, catching up to him just before he reached the shelter. “Wake up,” I snapped, ripping him back by the neck of his shirt. “You’re having a nightmare. Wake up.”

My hood had fallen back, and the man met my eyes for the briefest of moments. He relaxed for half a second, and I thought he would take my advice. Instead, he shoved me away with a punch to my chest. “Stay back,” he demanded.

I raised my hands between us and tilted my head sideways to check on Baku. He was nearly at the puff now, but the ground trembled so hard the rickety shack behind the Dreamer swayed in time with the earth’s movements. “Listen to me,” I said slowly. “This isn’t real.”

He bent and snagged a fist-sized rock from the ground. “Stay back.”

I blew out a breath. Whose idea was it to let the Dreamers back in again? Right. I scowled. Mine. And now I had the privilege of traipsing all over the Nightmare Realm saving them when I should’ve been training Nora to do it herself—as useless as that had proven so far.

“Just wake up,” I grumbled as I tossed a pinch of sand in his face.

The man swung out with the rock, nearly colliding with the side of my head before he vanished. The rock crashed to the ground, then bounced back up as a chorus of chirps raked the air. I winced, knowing without looking that there would be more screeching puffs behind me, and sprinted to Baku’s side.

Nothing could’ve prepared me for what the nightmares were doing. Thousands of them scurried up to the first nightmare, creating a sea of black. Then, one-by-one, their fur fused together. They formed paws as big as Baku, legs wider than I was tall. Their creation grew quickly—too quickly. More puffs raced up the legs to form an elongated body, and my stomach dropped.

“We should go,” I suggested.

Baku pranced closer to me but continued to eye the growing nightmare with a predatory gaze.

The body rounded, a tail stretching out behind it, and its head morphed with three rows of pointed teeth. A massive fisher cat stared down at us as the last few puffs rolled into place.

“Now.” I stepped back. “We should go now.”

Baku shook his head.

There was little I wanted less than to fight this thing. It was mindless, driven by instinct, and would align itself with whomever exerted dominance. It was no threat to Nora if she didn’t allow it to be one, and I hated to kill a potential ally. She would need everyone she could get when the time came.

“Baku, we can’t—”

He charged the nightmare, mouth curled in a wicked smile.

I hesitated. Maybe the nightmare would run when we proved we weren’t an easy target, or maybe Baku would give up when he realized I wasn’t helping. Or not. Because Baku could handle himself. I groaned and reluctantly followed him.

When the nightmare saw Baku coming, it lunged toward him. I moved swiftly, throwing sand-made blades through the air. They glinted, their path true, and a single puff of fur fell with each slash. My jaw tightened. Seriously, Baku… I didn’t have enough sand to take each one out individually.

The nightmare lifted a massive paw, and Baku slid beneath it on his side. Once under the beast, he climbed its hind leg as easily as a cat climbed a tree. His sharp claws shredded through the puffs, and they fell one after another. The fisher cat rose onto its back legs and threw itself over. My breath stuck in my throat. I rushed forward, sand at the ready. The fallen puffs popped like balloons beneath my boots. “Baku!”

The fisher cat lifted itself back onto all fours and swung its head in my direction. A collective hush from the puffs chilled my body. Then each one bellowed, sending countless sound waves in every direction. They knocked me flat on my back, and I struggled to breathe. My sand would only be swept away again if I tried to use it. Where had I put those ski poles?

An orange and black blur shot across the nightmare’s snout and dove between its teeth. “Baku, you idiot,” I hissed. I was nearly back on my feet when the sound came to a sudden stop. The smaller balls tumbled down on each other in one giant mound with Baku sitting at the top, shoveling them into his mouth with his trunk. The chorus of chirps sounded across the landscape, both far and near, as they began to reform. I took a heaping mound of sand from my satchel and flung it at the base of the pile. Baku leapt out of the way and circled to my side. The fisher cat was forming yet again when I called on the sand’s magic to mimic the puffs’ own cry. I compressed the sound into one wave that blasted through the entire mass.

Black fur wove gently back and forth in the air around us and settled in the creases of my clothing, my hair, my bag. My head rang. I rubbed the soft spot in front of my raw ears and my fingertips came away sticky with blood. “That was unnecessary.” I could barely hear my own voice. My shoulders hunched, and I squeezed my eyes shut for a moment. “They could’ve proved useful to Nora.”

Baku lifted a flattened puff with his trunk and stuck it slowly, defiantly, into his mouth.

“Fine,” I said with a sigh. “I’m going home. Are you coming with me?”

He scooped up another trunk-full of dead puffs, slid them into my open satchel, and nodded with an amused glint in his eyes.

“Baku!” I stared at the half-deflated nightmares, my mouth open. “You’re finishing these before we get back to the beach.”

His only answer was a swish of his cow tail as he walked away.

I chuckled and followed him, ignoring the heat leeching through my satchel. Baku reached in and grabbed one after another as we made our way through the Nightmare Realm, and I tried not to shudder.

The only cries we heard on the way back to the Dream Realm were inhuman. At one point, something resembling a giant cabbage bounced past us, followed by what looked like a radioactive rabbit, but neither entity spared us a glance. Baku watched them, popping another puff as if it was popcorn.

“Please tell me they’re almost gone.” I peeked inside my bag to find it empty. Thank the stars. Baku’s ears perked up and the fur rose on the back of his neck. “Relax. I’m sure you’ll find something else to—”

My magic snapped against my chest like a rubber band, reaching out for sand I didn’t have. Something was wrong. Very wrong. I raced to the barrier of the Dream Realm with Baku at my side. Barbed grass bit at my boots and pants, but Baku didn’t seem to notice it beneath his tiger paws. What I saw waiting for me turned me to ice.

A half-emaciated giant stood at the edge of the Dream Realm wearing nothing but black pants with thick chains wrapped around his torso. Pieces of orange flesh had rotted away, leaving putrid wounds and exposed bones. He hoisted a five-foot sledgehammer, nearly half his size, over his bald head and swung.

“No!” I screamed as it sailed toward the barrier.

How did he know it was there? Intelligent nightmares had ways of tracking the Dream Realm even though it reflected the surrounding nightmare landscape, and sure, some of the others stumbled upon it occasionally, but giants were far from smart.

The hammer smashed into the barrier. Blue light burst at the impact and webbed over the dome.

“You will pay,” came a tiny voice. Then another and another. Hundreds of them, saying the same thing, their voices overlapping until I could barely make out individual words. “Leave us be.”

Then I saw them. Hundreds of spotted red mushrooms with knobby arms and legs scurried through the tall grass at my feet. The grass parted for them, keeping its razor-sharp barbs from impaling the small nightmares. Beyond them, the giant lifted his hammer again.

Absolutely not.

I would not allow these creatures to destroy my realm. My home. What I was doing wasn’t an act of war—it was an act of preservation for everyone involved. They needed the Dreamers’ fear, but I needed the Dreamers to stay alive. And Nora needed a realm that wasn’t imploding. There would be no fight between her nightmares and myself.

But that was the problem—they weren’t Nora’s yet. Right now, they were Rowan’s. And Rowan… She did mean war, though this was the first time she took an offensive position against me.

I called on the sand within the barrier. It burst from within, using the place weakened by the giant’s attack, and formed a spear the second it was clear. The tip pierced the giant between the eyes, and he fell backward, landing with a resounding boom.

The mushrooms fell silent at the sight of their dead comrade, and I flicked a look at Baku to see if he wanted the kill, but his intense gaze was fixed on the giant. So I let the sand rain down. Tiny squeals mixed with the clink of metallic barbs as the grass sought to protect itself from the acidic raindrops. The attack didn’t stop until every blade of grass before me fizzled away.

I walked further down to where the grass was still alive, happy to leave the steaming pile of liquefied nightmares behind. Baku trotted over to the giant’s corpse like it was a Thanksgiving feast. I shook my head and crossed back into the Dream Realm. With a flick of my hand, I sent sand in every direction to make sure nothing got inside, then set to work repairing the gaping hole in the ceiling.

The longer I wove my magic, the more my hands shook. It wasn’t exhaustion—I had more than enough power now—but fury. And fear. What would Nora be walking into in three weeks? How many more attacks would Rowan send to my doorstep before then? Rowan had used Nora to kill the Weaver; now all she had to do was use her growing number of followers to bring Nora to her doorstep, and the realm would be hers. Rowan had to know the time for Nora’s return was close. Things were only going to get worse from here, but I had no idea how to tell Nora that.

Baku waltzed through the barrier with a piece of the giant dangling from his mouth. As he chewed, he dipped his trunk down and wrote in the sand. When he was finished, he shoved a glob of muscle between his lips and sauntered away.

Six.

The word stared up at me. Six. The number of months I promised before Nora returned from the Day World, and time was nearly up. I ran the toe of my boot through Baku’s note. I didn’t need the reminder. Every time I saw Nora with her golden eyes and stained hands, it was glaringly obvious I was on the cusp of losing her.

~~~

CHAPTER TWO
Nora

Once a week I was trapped in a light blue room, suffocating from the scent of eucalyptus-mint. The candle in my therapist’s office was supposed to relieve stress, as was the rest of the décor: a brown, buttery leather sofa, ceiling-high windows that let in just the right amount of sunlight, and a barely audible soundtrack of crashing waves to top it all off. None of it negated the fact that I couldn’t leave until the minute hand hit twelve.

That was my life now. Waiting. Waiting and suffering. I had to run mental rings around everyone in my life, and my body was absolutely finished with the Day World. But just like I was stuck in therapy for an hour, I was stuck in this world for another three weeks.

I glanced at my watch, the silver band stark against the black stain of the Weaver’s magic on my skin. My magic. Of course, the therapist couldn’t see the glove-like markings creeping toward my elbows, the golden veins throbbing beneath, or the gold that swallowed the green in my irises. Not that she would know what to make of it if she could.

Colleen sat in a matching chair, quietly tapping her pen against her knee. “Nora,” she said gently. Always gently. Always kind. “You’ve been coming to see me for a little over five months now, and you’ve barely said two words.”

I slid my sunglasses up my nose, the smallest bit of light too much for my new eyes to handle, and crossed my arms. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to talk about what happened, but how could I? Well, you see, Colleen, the Nightmare Lord killed my friends because the Sandman stashed a secret in my dreams. Then I killed him, which means I get to spend the rest of eternity weaving horrible new creatures into existence in his place. Really, it’s all Rowan’s fault though. She’s a nightmare with branch-like wings and a crown of raven beaks that can zap you into oblivion with a single touch. Or, as I like to think of her, she’s a double-crossing demon with an army of moaning heathens and an angry, pointy-beaked sidekick, Kail. Anyway, they set me up with this magical knife… Ugh. It sounded crazy even to me.

So, though I had a lot to say, sweet Colleen with her perfectly curled grey hair and grandma sweaters wouldn’t get a single secret from me. This, the coming here, it was for my mother. Because no matter how strained our relationship became, the least I could do was try until the day I returned to the Nightmare Realm.

“This won’t work if you aren’t willing to talk to me,” Colleen said.

I shrugged one shoulder and glanced at my watch again. Five more minutes.

She sighed and shut her notebook. “Will you at least remove the sunglasses?”

“Why?” I asked, my voice dripping with suspicion. Wearing the glasses got me a few too many strange looks, so I tried not to wear them, but some days I couldn’t help it. It just so happened that driving twenty minutes to the therapist’s office in the middle of the afternoon exceeded my limits, especially with the pain getting worse each day.

“You’ve worn them for our last three meetings, and I want to make sure you’re all right.”

All right. When was the last time I had been all right? Before the Weaver went on a crazed killing spree? Before I met the Sandman? Did a time even exist before him? It felt like another lifetime, like I was another person. I shifted uncomfortably on the couch. I was a different person.

“I’m not hiding black eyes or anything, if that’s what you’re worried about.” It certainly felt like I took a couple punches straight to the orbital area though. Actually, that would have been preferable, since that pain would only be temporary.

“I didn’t mean to imply that you were.” Colleen scooted forward in her chair and leaned toward me, smelling of peppermint. “Have you been crying?”

I laughed, the sound hollow and bitter. I hadn’t cried since that day in the hospital.

“Did you have a fight with your boyfriend?” she further pried.

I took a deep breath and sat up straighter, removing the dark glasses. The sunlight immediately dried my eyes and each blink felt like sandpaper, but I refused to let myself shrink away from the growing discomfort of the Day World. Even the air hurt. It felt too dense against my skin and the universe itself seemed to shove and tug simultaneously in an attempt to be rid of me. My body had grown accustomed to the sharp pain of it all, leaving me with a constant dull ache.

“Ben and I are fine,” I assured her.

She set her fingertips on my kneecap, and I fought the urge to slap them away. The pressure felt as if it would crush my leg, though I knew she was barely making contact. “Nora, a lot happened this summer.”

“I’m aware.” I scratched at the back of my hand, but of course the black stain didn’t budge. “I was there.”

“I want to help you,” she said, almost pleading.

A soft click sounded from the timer on her desk. I forced a smile and settled the glasses back on my face. “Time’s up, Colleen. Maybe next week.”

“Actually, Nora, I think this will be our last session.”

“What?” I froze, halfway off the sofa. “But I—”

“You don’t want to be here.” She stood and adjusted her cardigan. “I can give your hour to someone who does.”

“My mother—”

She raised her hands in surrender. “If you need me to tell her, I will. She can call me tomorrow.”

“No, no. Listen, just give me two more appointments, okay? That’s it.” I held two fingers up. “Two tiny little hours.”

“Why two?” she asked with a hint of curiosity.

Because after that I’ll be gone. “Let me get through Thanksgiving without letting her down. You can ruin Christmas instead.”

“Not coming to therapy isn’t going to ruin anything, Nora.” Her expression softened. “It’s not for everyone, and that’s perfectly okay.”

Yes, it was okay, but the problem wasn’t that therapy wasn’t for me. Someone like Colleen would’ve been a great help if my problem five years ago had truly been my parents’ divorce. I stood and slung my bag over my shoulder. “If I promise to talk next Friday, will you let me come back?”

Colleen studied me for a moment, and just when I expected her to say no, she nodded. I let out a breath and grabbed a peppermint candy from the bowl on her desk. Anything to temporarily mask the permanent taste of sulfur that now lived in the back of my throat.

“Thanks. See you then,” I called and bolted for the exit.

Outside, the sun was warm, the air cool, and I shivered against the extra jolt of pain the small breeze inflicted. I gave the street a quick visual sweep to ease my paranoia. All day, it felt like someone was watching me, but I was ninety percent convinced the feeling was only caused by my ever-growing magic. Either way, the quiet, residential street seemed safe enough. Nothing rustled in the neighbors’ hedges or peeked up from cement storm drains.

Not that I needed to worry when the Dream Lord had my back.

The Sandman leaned against the carved stone railing outside Colleen’s home office. My heart attempted to spring from my chest as it did every week, every day, every minute that I saw him. His dark t-shirt pulled against his lean muscles, and the midnight blue and silver flecks tattooed on his arms shone weakly in the sunlight. He turned at the sound of the shutting door, and a smile lit his entire face. My pain faded away, all the tension pouring from my limbs. I took the steps two at a time and flung my arms around his neck. He felt warm and sure against me. The scent of lilacs and something distinctly him was intoxicating. I closed my eyes and leaned into his embrace.

“Hi,” he said. His breath was warm on my ear.

I smiled into the crook of his neck. “Hi.”

“Ready to go?”

“More than ready.” I tugged him toward my car, parked on the side of the road, but he didn’t budge. “Aren’t you coming?”

His violet eyes roamed my face as if he were seeing me for the first time. Or the last. It shook me to the core right there on the sidewalk. A couple walking their dog skirted around us, the woman accidentally nudging me with her shoulder, but I stood firm. I’d learned his expressions quickly over the last few months, but this one was the worst because I still wasn’t sure what it meant.

“What’s wrong?” I asked in a hoarse whisper. My mind raced over all the problems in the Nightmare Realm he’d brought up recently. We’d agreed on solutions. Did they not work? Was it something new? Something big? It had to be big—the look he gave me almost guaranteed it.

The Sandman’s hand came up to cup my face, his thumb skimming my bottom lip. “Maybe we should take the day off from training and do something together.”

“Skip training?” I jerked my head back. Sometimes I wondered who pushed harder for training, me or him. He knew the true situation in the Nightmare Realm. Not only knew. He saw it while I’d only heard second-hand. New ruler or not, the nightmares would eat me alive over there. Probably literally. “I don’t understand,” I continued. “Did something happen?”

His eyes flickered with concern, and he pulled me closer, leaning down. Our lips met. The kiss was soft, though anything but careful. It was a kiss of reverence and passion. Sweet. Desperate. I lost myself in the taste of him for the briefest of moments. In the feel of him, of being far away from all life’s problems. Right then, it was just me and the Sandman. Like it used to be. But it was a lie—things would never again be like before.

I sighed, easing away so our lips were an inch apart, and tugged at one of his soft brown curls. “You’re not telling me something.”

“I’m just glad to see you.” He nudged my nose with his. “And we’ve been working so hard.”

“Mhm.” I didn’t believe that for a minute. Our training had turned into make-out sessions more than once, but we’d never skipped one in favor of the other. I really wanted to take him up on it, but time was short, and I wasn’t where I needed to be as a fighter yet. “I have to be home for dinner, so we should probably get going.”

He winced, and I instantly wished I’d agreed instead. Maybe he really did want to spend time together without all… this. I glanced at the black staining my arms, the gold veins throbbing beneath the skin, and heat crept over my face. Deep down, I wanted a day of normalcy too.

But before I could say so, the Sandman walked around my car and opened the door for me.

***

The hour-long drive out of downtown Cedarbrook was a silent one. The Sandman chewed the inside of his cheek instead of briefing me on the Nightmare Realm, which only made me more curious. I knew whatever was on his mind would come out when he was ready, but that didn’t make the wait any easier. Especially when I had a sinking feeling it involved nightmares.

We’d already agreed to let the Dreamers back in despite the risks of me not being there to keep the peace. If it wasn’t enough, what else could we do, short of my going back early? Not that three weeks was going to do much good. I scowled out the windshield and cranked the radio to fill the booming silence as we followed the now-familiar roads far away from my mother’s network of spies.

Nora skipped therapy today.

Nora jaywalked.

Nora did this. Nora did that.

I tightened my grip on the steering wheel. Leaving my family on a good note was easier said than done, but spending time with the Sandman helped. Going on a date with Ben gave my mother the impression I was trying to move forward, which cut her constant complaints about not having my GED in half. Sure, I promised I would get it, but only to earn her forgiveness for dropping out of high school. That and the therapy. I had read through a study guide, which apparently didn’t count, but I doubted nightmares cared about their Lady’s formal education. All they cared about was fear. Theirs. Mine. Dreamers’. Who had the most and who had the least.

I eased the car into the small dirt parking lot near a walking trail and cut the engine. The Sandman stared, unseeing, out the window.

“We can go back,” I offered. “Maybe see a movie?”

He pressed his eyes shut and shook his head. “No. You were right. We only have a few more weeks.”

“Let’s make a deal.” I grinned. “If I knock you off your feet first, we leave and do something fun.”

Amusement glimmered in his starlit eyes, though not quite as brightly as I’d hoped. “And if I knock you down first?”

I leaned across the car to whisper in his ear. “Winner’s choice.”

I stole a quick peck on his mouth and darted from the car. The swell of his laughter brushed through my mind but quickly disappeared. Still, that his emotional control slipped even for a second widened my smile. I raced up the trail, jumping over branches, stones, and mud. I didn’t have to look to know he was behind me. That’s where he stayed until we reached our usual training spot.

At least one good thing came from our training: I could now run and run without getting breathless. I was fast too. Everything else on the other hand… I slowed to a stop in the middle of our clearing. Thick pines circled the oblong patch of overgrown grass, shielding us from the eyes of anyone hiking nearby. Our own little oasis, where I got my butt kicked over and over and over. The Sandman might’ve taught me how to throw a knife and dodge a punch, but I would never be good enough to beat nightmares like Rowan and Kail if I didn’t learn how to use the magic foisted onto me. Magic the Sandman admittedly had no idea how to harness.

“Do you want to warm up first?” the Sandman asked.

It was doubtful any nightmare would give me the chance to stretch, so instead of answering, I bent and swung my leg out to knock the backs of his knees. Despite the lack of warning, he was ready for me and jumped aside. I leapt toward him. He swung out. The moves felt mechanical, rehearsed. Because they were. The same drill on repeat for five months, and I still couldn’t figure out how to change it. To be better. To spot an opening and know how to take it in the blink of an eye.

I ducked beneath the Sandman’s arm, pivoted, and shoved my palms against his chest. He flew to the ground, his head smacking against the dirt. I blinked down at him in shock. When I suggested knocking him down first, I hadn’t believed I would win. I never won. It was an unspoken rule that he never went easy on me, no matter how much it hurt—the nightmares certainly wouldn’t. And that was most definitely not him letting me get one over on him.

“What’s going on with you?” I asked.

He sat up and rubbed the back of his head. “I suppose I’m feeling a little guilty today.”

Uh-oh. “Guilty about what?”

The Sandman leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. “Baku and I destroyed a nightmare that could’ve been useful to you.”

“So?” This again? I wiped the sweat from my forehead. “They aren’t exactly in short supply, and I’m sure you had a good reason. I can make more in a few weeks anyway.”

“I think—” He winced.

I tensed at the realization of where this was all headed. “If you’re going to say a few weeks isn’t long enough, the answer is no. We aren’t delaying anything.”

“It’s chaos there, Nora. Anarchy. And Rowan—”

“I don’t care,” I shouted, then reigned my anger in. “The only thing keeping me together right now is that this is almost over. The physical pain, dealing with my family, all of it. I’m tired of standing at the edge of goodbye. The bandage needs to be ripped off so I can learn to be whatever it is I need to be.”

He raked a hand through his hair, and a spark of dread flickered inside me. His dread. I hated him for it. For letting me know exactly how afraid he was when I was already terrified enough. And I hated that I couldn’t hide my feelings. No matter how much I practiced, it was never enough to keep him from knowing everything through our emotional connection as Night World rulers.

“I know,” he said quietly. “Don’t be angry. I’m just worried about you.”

“Then get up and fight me,” I growled. Before he had the chance, pain flared in my back, and I let out a soft cry. It felt as if two daggers scraped against my spine. Hateful eyes, hungry and dangerous, tore into me like I was nothing more than fog.

“What is it?” The Sandman was on his feet, his hands on my arms. I couldn’t answer. “Nora? What happened?”

“You don’t feel it?” I asked, the words barely a breath.

His brow furrowed. “I feel you.”

“I think someone’s watching us.”

He removed the pouch of sand from beneath his shirt and turned it upside down while his eyes narrowed, glancing at the edges of the clearing. The sand spread all around us and shot straight out at the trees. A moment later, he let out a breath. “There’s nothing here that shouldn’t be.”

I rolled my shoulders, and the pain lessened. “The stress must be getting to me,” I lied. I felt it. Something was out there.

“Hang on a little longer, okay?” He kissed my forehead. “Come on. Let’s get out of here.”

“But—”

“You won,” he said with an encouraging smile.

My phone rang, and I jumped straight into the air. “Sorry. One second.” I skipped to my bag, hanging from a low branch, and dug the cell out with shaking hands. Mom. My nose wrinkled in disgust. What did she want?

“Hello?” I answered.

“Nora, where are you?” Someone laughed in the background. “Are you on your way home?”

“Not yet.” I put my free hand on my hip and stretched my side.

“Well, you need to be.”

“Why?”

“I expect you back in half an hour,” she said and hung up before I could argue.

I squeezed the phone hard to keep myself from chucking it into the woods. A half hour. It was impossible. Now I would have to hear about being late all night. The sinister grin lurking inside me surfaced, a darkness clouding my mind, as it had nearly every day since I woke up in the hospital. Every time my reactions were a little less Nora and a little more angry and irrational—a little more… something else. It lured me toward an edge that I wasn’t sure was possible to come back from. I pushed back at it, clawing desperately for my normal. It was like standing on ice, hearing it crack, watching the pieces around me splinter, and knowing that one wrong breath was all it would take to plunge me to my death. So I held my breath and waited for the grin to go away, for winter to refreeze the ground beneath my feet. I closed my eyes and searched for bright white snow, but inside my head, it all seemed dark. So, so dark.

The Sandman brushed the hair from the back of my neck and placed a soft kiss on the skin there. “You’re okay, Nora.”

“Okay?” The word came out strained, and the ice gave out. I shoved the phone back in my purse and wrapped the strap around my hand. “Sure. I’m okay. I only have to learn how to keep myself alive in three weeks when the last five months have proved I’m incapable. It’ll be fine. I’ll just be the Lady of Nightmares who relies on the Lord of Dreams for the rest of eternity. The nightmares will love that.”

“I didn’t mean—”

“And stop reading my emotions,” I snapped.

His jaw muscle twitched. “You know I can’t help it.”

“Whatever.” I stormed back down the path to the parking lot.

“Nora, wait,” the Sandman called. “I’m sorry.”

I waved a hand through the air without turning around or breaking stride. He was sorry. Sorry, sorry, sorry. I’d heard it from him a million times, but it didn’t change anything. Just like my being sorry wouldn’t turn back time and make me listen to his warning about the balance between our worlds being maintained. I wrenched the car door open and hurled my bag into the passenger seat. Sorry was a hollow word, and regrets helped no one. I threw myself behind the wheel, pounded my palms on the steering wheel, and screamed.

The grin darkened, showing its cutting edges.

I jerked back and took a breath. Then another and another until my heart settled in my chest. The cloud lifted but the grin remained, a watermark on my vision, a living scar. It stayed longer and longer these days. My body trembled. Go away. Please, please, go away. But it didn’t. I jammed the keys into the ignition and peeled out of the small parking lot for home.


 ~~~

CHAPTER THREE
Nora

“Nora!” My mother bounced off the couch the moment I stepped through the door. She’d gained weight recently, her cheeks fuller from all the stress-eating, and her hair seemed to be a little greyer every day. “What took you so long? You were supposed to be back a half-hour ago.”

I set my purse down on the console table just inside the door and took a deep breath. Be calm, I reminded myself. Be nice. “Ben and I were halfway up a mountain when you called,” I said as neutrally as possible.

Her eyes narrowed. “I’m not sure how I feel about you disappearing like that with a boy you won’t invite over to meet your family.”

“You’ve met him.”

“We say hello to each other when he comes knocking on the door, Nora. I hardly think that counts.”

“Colleen thinks it’s a good idea,” I lied with a shrug.

My mother grunted, clearly unhappy, but unwilling to go against my therapist. “Tell someone next time you decide to go hiking. I want the name of the trail and the time you think you’ll be home in case anything happens to you.”

Hello to you too, Mother. I chewed the corner of my lip and nodded. I wasn’t going to truthfully divulge my entire itinerary, but I wasn’t going to argue with her either. “So why did I have to rush home?”

As if on cue, the back-patio door slid open. “You’re back!” Katie rushed in from the backyard and maneuvered around the counter. “I thought I heard a car pull up.”

My sister’s hair was still dyed darker than her natural color, her blond roots barely visible. Instead of the heavy makeup she wore before the Weaver tortured her or the bare face she wore after, her eyes were carefully lined, accented with perfectly blended shadow, and her lips coated in a nude gloss. She looked amazing and so unlike herself that I found myself unable to return her smile.

I cleared my throat. “Yep.”

“Took you long enough.” She gave me a quick hug that I didn’t return. And was that…? Pot. She reeked of it. How did our mother not notice? Sure, my sister was hiding it behind a picture-perfect exterior, but I was about to get high just standing next to her. We sat through roughly twenty million no recreational drug use speeches, yet this was suddenly fine? But when I didn’t mention the Sandman for years, I was still treated like a grenade.

“Come on,” Katie said brightly. “I want you to meet someone.”

“What are you doing home? Don’t you have classes next week?” I asked, holding my breath against the strong odor.

Katie laughed. “Is that the first thing you have to say after not seeing me for three months? A ‘Welcome home! I missed you!’ would be nice.”

“Oh, sister dearest, how I missed you,” I said in a flat voice, but her words stung. Was I turning into my mother? No. I was turning into an evil overlord. Some say potato.

She tsked and motioned for me to follow her into the backyard. I hesitated, glancing at my mother for a clue about who was out there, but she was immersed in folding a mound of laundry that had taken over our couch. So, head bent with exhaustion and an utter lack of interest, I joined Katie on the cement patio. She had practically bolted out of Cedarbrook after I was released from the hospital. I could count the number of times she called home on one hand, and now she showed up a week early with someone for us to meet? I watched her carefully. If I didn’t know better, I might think she was sleepwalking again instead of being wide awake.

Paul stood in front of the grill with a beer in one hand. He glanced up when he saw me and smiled. I was grateful my mother married him after she divorced my father, if not for how he treated me before, then definitely for how he did after. The same.

“I put a burger on for you in case you’re hungry.”

“Thanks.” I folded my arms over my aching stomach. No matter how much I ate, the hunger never left these days. “I am.”

“Nora, this is Kellan.” Katie clung to a boy with shaggy brown hair, bloodshot eyes, and a cartoon character on his t-shirt. “Kellan, Nora.”

“Hey,” he said slowly, dragging out the word. “Nice sunglasses.”

My mouth opened, but I wasn’t sure what to say so I let the sound of sizzling meat fill the silence. Katie glared at me, imploring me with wide eyes to say something, anything, but I had nothing. A girl can only process so many surprises at once.

Kellan gave a low, uncomfortable chuckle followed by a lopsided grin.

“This is Katie’s boyfriend,” Paul supplied.

“I thought you were still dating Jen,” I blurted.

Katie’s eyes shot daggers at me. “She wanted something serious. I wanted… fun. You’re only a college freshman once, right?”

Kellan laughed again. Katie and I turned to scowl at him in unison, but he was ignoring us completely in favor of his phone. I gave Katie a withering look and pointed at him. “That’s what you call fun?”

She grimaced and gripped Kellan’s arm. “Let’s go set the table.”

I gaped openly at them as they walked back to the kitchen. It was like watching a semi barrel down a one-way street at rush hour in the wrong direction, and I couldn’t look away. “Did you know she was coming home early?” I asked Paul.

He took a long swig of beer. “Last I heard, she wouldn’t be here until next weekend.”

“Did I miss the memo that she was bringing someone with her?”

“Nope.” He flipped the burgers. “But try to be nice, huh? Your sister’s dealing with things in her own way.”

I wasn’t sure she was dealing with anything. More like avoiding it. With drugs and… Kellan. I glared through the kitchen window where my mother chatted brightly with them and felt myself deflate. That’s what she wanted from me—to pretend. To go to therapy, get whatever was troubling me off my chest, and come home with an easy spirit. But I tried doing that for years, and she never talked to me like she was talking to Katie now.

“You can bring Ben over for dinner too, you know.” Paul scooped the burgers onto a plate. “We’d like to get to know him.”

“Right,” I said under my breath. Like I would bring the Sandman here after everything my mother did to make me forget him. Though I supposed if I had forgotten him, I wouldn’t be in my current predicament. The dark grin prickled inside me. Yes, you would, it seemed to say. And it was right. Even if I forgot, I still would’ve been the Dream Keeper. The Weaver still would’ve come for me. Still would’ve taken Katie, killed my boss, my friends, my father—

“Coming, kiddo?” Paul asked, sliding the back door open with his foot. I nodded and followed him into the kitchen, where he leaned over to kiss my mother on top of the head. “Everybody hungry?”

“You know it,” Kellan said, followed by another dull laugh.

The table was set with paper plates and cans of soda, a ring of condensation building on the plastic tablecloth around each one. Condiments, potato salad, and corn on the cob waited in the center of the table, while the buns and burger fixings lined the counter. Everyone except me crowded around the steaming meat. My stomach rumbled but I wasn’t going to fight my way to the food, brushing against everyone with my aching skin.

“I’m going to wash up first,” I said, though I doubted any of them were listening. I removed my sunglasses to avoid my mother’s ire. I slipped into the downstairs bathroom and splashed water on my face, careful to avoid the reflection of a girl half-there. A girl that was only half a girl at all, really. I was a creature now—one that only appeared human on the outside. Behind my now-gold eyes laid molten veins and a creeping darkness brimming with untold magic. If a nightmare managed to kill me, would I become human again? Would I regain my green eyes? Or would I rot as I was? Was the original Weaver slowly decomposing? Or was he still sprawled out on the floor of the Keep where I last saw him like some sort of blood-soaked mannequin? I retched into the sink at the thought.

“Are you pregnant?” Katie whispered from the doorway.

“What?” I snagged a washcloth from the towel rack and dried my face. “No. Are you?”

“I’m not the one puking.”

I snorted. “Right, because that’s the only reason someone would be sick.”

“Well, when you pair it with your attitude lately and—”

“My attitude? What do you know about my attitude? You haven’t talked to me since you moved out.” I forced my voice to stay low to avoid attracting the others, though I wanted to scream. “I walked through hell to save you but that wasn’t enough, was it? No. You got to come back from that cave and pretend it never happened. I had to go back and make sure the Weaver never bothered us again. Did you ever once think to ask me what I had to do to accomplish that? Do you even care?”

“Shut up,” she hissed. “You sound as crazy as Mom thinks you are.”

“Maybe I am. But then so are you. You saw—”

“I didn’t see anything. It was just a dream,” she snapped.

“Keep telling yourself that.” I tossed the washcloth onto the edge of the sink and moved to push past Katie, but she stepped forward, obstructing my way. “What, Katie?”

“Stop it. You have to move forward. Dwelling on what happened won’t change anything. It’s all in the past.”

“Maybe it’s in your past.” I knew I should stop talking, should lower my voice, but the seal was broken. Each word that escaped was louder than the last. “Denying the truth will change just as much as my dwelling on it. And for the record, there is no moving on for me so why don’t you—”

“Nora!” My mother forcefully pushed her way in between us, blocking me inside the bathroom and Katie in the hall. “What’s wrong with you, talking to your sister like that?”

“Me?” I laughed bitterly. “What’s wrong with me? I don’t know, Mother. Why don’t you drag me to a few more doctors to find out? It worked so well last time.”

She gasped, eyes wide. “That’s enough.”

“No. It was enough when I was twelve.” I shoved her arm out of the way and shot a look at my sister. “I thought someone would finally have my back.”

“Go to your room.” My mother’s cheeks were a vibrant shade of red. “Now.”

A smirk not my own played on my lips. “Gladly.”

I ran to the stairs, but halfway up, Katie called out again, her voice angry yet hesitant. “Nora—”

“You’re a coward,” I said without turning around.

Kellan’s slow laugh echoed in my ears. “Your sister’s a savage.”

I whirled around mid-step and leaned over the banister looking into the kitchen. “Excuse me?”

Paul’s chair scraped the kitchen floor, and he stared at me, confused. “Go cool off.”

I bit my tongue and stormed to my room, slamming the door. The string of tiny lights above my bed swayed from the force. I reached above the headboard and ripped them down before falling face first onto the mattress. I hated those lights. Hated them for reminding me every night of the one place I longed for more than any other. For burning my eyes with their taunting glow.

“Sandman.” I sobbed angrily into the pillow. “Help me sleep.”

But I knew he couldn’t hear me. Not since I became the dark to his light.

I let out a long, hard breath and gave myself to the black place that found me every night. It pulled me under just as fast as the Sandman ever had—faster. The grin widened until it felt as if it swallowed me whole, and I opened my eyes to the dark abyss I’d grown accustomed to. At least here my body hurt less for an hour or two, until my mind jerked me awake. I closed my eyes and welcomed the oblivion.

***

I wasn’t sure how long I floated in darkness before light passed in front of my eyelids. The quiet buzz of the emptiness suddenly roared as awareness crept through me, and I cracked my eyes open. Only, I wasn’t awake, or, if I was, my body hadn’t followed. It felt like waking from anesthesia, but the process halted right before consciousness took hold. This place was nowhere—it was nothing. Nothing except for a white fissure scarring the void. I pressed my eyes shut and opened them again, expecting it to disappear, but the crack didn’t move. Nor did it bother my eyes. My body inched forward of its own accord until I stood right in front of it.

A shadow passed on the other side of the uneven opening. My breath hitched, panic bubbling beneath my skin. Maybe it was better to close my eyes and drift away again. But it seemed I was no longer in control of myself. Up close, the fissure was as wide as a window in some places, as narrow as my head in others, which I discovered when I pressed my face into the light. Grey and white layers of stone twisted and turned down a long passageway. The view moved as if I walked the path myself, but my feet were firmly planted. A ragged breath drifted from the scene, followed by a small, pained groan.

“Go,” a voice called from behind. I threw a quick glance over my shoulder, but only the nothingness greeted me. “She’s coming. We need to go.”

The familiar voice struck a chord. Sandman? What the hell was going on? The scene moved up and down, and I realized I was looking through someone else’s eyes. I held my breath, too afraid that if I blinked I would miss something important. This whole thing felt important on some instinctual level. My vision tilted and jerked as the person slammed into a wall, then slid down.

A pair of black boots shuffled forward. Knees slammed down on the hard stone. Tattooed arms reached out and shook the person. “Come on.” The Sandman tapped the side of my vision and leaned closer. His violet eyes were vivid, the pupils blown wide. Dirt was smeared across his cheeks and chin, and blood trickled from somewhere near his temple. “Stay with me.”

“I’m fine.” The words sounded anything but fine. They sounded like the man’s last. Weak. Broken.

A bloodied arm rose, trembling, to push the Sandman away, and my hands flew to my mouth. Black threads glimmering with gold shone on the man’s wrist. The Weaver. The Sandman helped him to his feet, then crouched and ran around the next bend. My view clouded, then righted itself, moving in time with the Weaver’s unsteady steps.

This was the Weaver’s point-of-view. His memory. Was the Weaver so ingrained in the magic that it remembered too? A sour, metallic taste coated my tongue. Knowing some of the things the Weaver had done, I didn’t think I could stomach seeing more. And what did it mean? The Sandman said he and the Weaver were friends once, but seeing the look of true fear on his face, the unfiltered terror that the Weaver wouldn’t make it… With their combined power, it didn’t make sense for them to run from anything.

The fissure snapped shut in my face, and I stumbled back. Icy pinpricks dotted my skin. Everything about this was wrong—the memory, what the memory held. Was it real? A fabrication? I tripped over my own feet, and the world spiraled around me.