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  • The Parliament House

READ THE FIRST TWO CHAPTERS: Dark Consort, By Amber R. Duell


*A warning before proceeding...there are spoilers afoot. READ BOOK 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.