READ THE FIRST TWO CHAPTERS: Dark Consort, By Amber R. Duell
*A warning before proceeding...there are spoilers afoot. READ BOOK ONE!
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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 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.”
“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.”
“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.