Amber R. Duell's third installment in the riveting Dark Dreamer Trilogy brings us back to Nora—now, the Lady of Nightmares—who must team up with the Sandman to thwart the insidious forces threatening the Nightmare Realm...
Rule by fear.
Nightmares respected a ruthless, vicious, unforgiving leader, and it was easy enough to wear those traits as armor. Too easy, perhaps. No one knew my decisions were made by asking myself: what would the Weaver do? Nor did they know I got the answer right from the horse’s mouth.
Rule by fear, I told myself again. If the nightmares didn’t fear me, they were going to make certain I feared them. Whatever initial notion I had of making the Nightmare Realm a better place was now a distant memory. Maybe one worth revisiting down the road—one small change at a time—but first, I had to bring each and every living thing to heel.
“Nora,” Kail said from the corner of his mouth. He stood on my right, arms crossed, gaze ever vigilant. “Sometime today?”
I took a deep breath from where I stood atop the half- completed palace roof. The building was supposed to be finished within a month, not a month and three days. There had to be repercussions. Already, the last two days were more productive thanks to my new form of motivation. It didn’t bother me, what I was doing, but it bothered me that it didn’t. Killing should never be effortless.
“The palace still isn’t finished. You know what that means,” I called to the nightmares below in my most authoritative voice. It was stern and unyielding, making me feel every bit the villain.
The nightmares building the palace filled the lawn, stretching out in every direction. They were big brutes, mainly. Trolls who doubled as security, a couple giants with ladders grown into their lumpy, jaundiced skin, and a pack of garden gnomes that worked as well and as hard as any colony of ants. Wyverns were outfitted with ropes to carry materials back and forth from wherever they were mined, the digging done by lanky, alien-esque creatures with extendable arms that ended in curved paddles. A smattering of nondescript nightmares helped in whatJ ever way they could, but mostly, they just got in the way.
Yesterday, it was one of those that suffered the conseJ quences.
A medium-sized nightmare with black fur, run through with pink scars, hunched and crooked, murdered with a single bullet from my stepfather’s liberated gun. The day before, it was a gnome in a red hat, and a giant the morning before that. The choices weren’t intentional. I simply held the firearm up and sighted the first forehead that came into view. My aim was far from perfect, but the bullets never missed. Not when I wove them on the Weaver’s loom to be sure of it.
I didn’t bother explaining what would happen next. They knew. All of them knew. I lifted my arm, aimed at the first thing I saw, and squeezed the trigger. A troll flew backward from the impact, blood spraying his neighbors. No one moved. Their eyes were trained on me, sharp as daggers.
“Tomorrow, it will be two of you,” I promised before I passed the gun to Kail and turned from the crowd.
“Two, huh?” he asked. I leapt through a hole in the roof and into an empty room with him close on my heels. “At this rate, you won’t have anyone left to finish the palace.”
I leveled a stare at him. His eyes flickered almost lazily, color after color, as he looked at me from beneath his lashes. The white curved beak of his half-mask brushed his chest. A sarcastic smile lifted my lips. “Then I’ll make more.”
That’s my girl, the Weaver cooed inside my head. I blanched at the sound. It was a near-constant thing that sponged away my patience and my sanity. Talking, warning, tormenting. Sometimes I woke to him chanting eerie rhymes, old songs, twisted and darkened. Other times, it was flashes of emotion that cut through me like a sword, though I didn’t think those were intentional. My days were full of commentary. Criticism. Praise. Praise that I considered criticism. Having my life narrated by the man who ruined it was a special kind of hell.“Feeling alright, Lady?” Kail asked. His words dripped with something like concern, something like accusation.
I waved a hand at the construction overhead, focusing my anger on that—that, I could change. “I will be when there isn’t a giant hole over my head big enough for anything or anyone to creep through.”
“Yes.” Kail pursed his lips and turned his gaze upward. “It’s certainly a security risk.”
I said nothing. It was easier that way. All the things I couldn’t say, the things I wasn’t ready to tell, would feel smaller as soon as I reached the art room. With a pencil in my hand and a blank page before me, things felt right again. Normal. A lie, but one I clung to. Because eventuJ ally, I would have to tell Kail about the voice in my head. The Sandman too—the Sandman first. But not yet. Not until he came with news of Mara. I would let myself pretend there was a possibility of getting rid of the Weaver until the very moment one of them told me otherwise.
“Would you like to go out today?” Kail asked. “Explore? Create? Maim? Anything, really, that doesn’t involve you holed up in the Keep again.”
All excellent ideas. If only leaving didn’t make the Weaver more active. “My strength is my thread.” The existing coil of black thread, flecked with gold, tightened affectionately around my arm. “If we’re going to take down Mara, I’ll need as much of it as I can get.”
Kail sighed, defeated, and held out Paul’s gun. “Where do you want this thing?”
I looked down at the Day World weapon, and someJ thing inside me wriggled uncomfortably. If the threads were my strength, I should be showing them off. Embracing the power of the Nightmare Realm instead of leaning on what I knew from my old life. “I don’t need it anymore,” I said carefully. It was time I killed more creatively.
Kail’s eyes flicked faster in response. Rule by fear.
I was fear. A Lady made from it as much as controlled by it.My heart thudded heavily. I hadn’t realized before now that acting as the cruel, unmerciful lady would slowly stain my heart. It would burn the edges black, leaving the smallest sliver of red beating at its center. There, Nora lived. There, I cared. I loved. In that tiny pocket, I felt pain and regret and even the occasional joy. Mostly, I feared. Feared that one day, I would feel nothing at all.
You will always feel, the Weaver said in a smug voice. One day, you will feel as I have felt. Then you will understand me as I now understand you.
New terror seized me. Maybe he was right, and one day I would wake up very much the monster he was, because when I killed those nightmares outside, I felt nothing. No regret, no shame. No anything. How long until I was like him? Truly like him—the Nightmare Lord that killed my friends and family. No. I would never allow myself to be that savage. I was the Lady of Nightmares, but I was also human.
Humanity in an inhumane world, the Weaver mused. I tried that as well.
Not hard enough, I thought back, my teeth bared. Kail waved a hand in front of my face. He tilted his head and eyed me suspiciously. “Is there a problem?”
“No.” I jumped away from him, walking quickly into the nearest room. “You’re dismissed.”
I slammed the door shut in his face and slumped against the heavy wood. Wyverns soared over the open courtyard on the way to pick up their first load of the day. The Keep stood before me, surrounded by a wide circle of grass. I had planted tall, neon-colored flowers around its base to brighten the courtyard, but the fact that they shot poison darts didn’t hurt, either. If anyone other than Kail and Halven made it into my private sanctuary, it would be the last thing they did.
Rule by fear, I promised myself again and again. Fear would keep my body alive. The rest, I needed to protect another way. Bottle it up and keep it safe. You’re wrong, the Weaver said wistfully. “Shut up,” I snarled. I tried, he said simply. For him, I did. “I will dig you out of there with my bare hands,” I threatened. Empty words, we both knew, because I wasn’t even able to block him out.
My hands twitched, eager for the relief drawing would bring. I closed my eyes for a moment to center myself. Everything would be fine. Soon, the Sandman would come back, and we would make everything right again. I nodded to myself, and with a deep breath, strode straight for the Keep.
Everything would be fine. It would. It won’t. Deep down, I knew my last thought was the most probable.
ONE MONTH LATER
Time was strange.
A second could feel like a lifetime. A lifetime could feel like a second. The quiet made it feel as if everything was peaceful and calm in the Dream Realm, when that was the furthest thing from the truth. My magic vibrated mercilessly beneath the domed barrier that kept the nightmares out. I felt it in my bones. My breastbone hummed constantly beneath the tattoo of a crescent moon. The navy blue and silver flecks rising from its center flowed down my arms. They had multiplied, become denser, and moved along my skin with an almost frantic edge. It made me want to scream to break the tense silence, but I didn’t. Instead, I shoved down the anxiety prowling inside me like a caged beast, so I could channel it later.
Mare had been quiet too. Too quiet. For nearly two weeks now. That was also a deception. She had spent the majority of the last two months waging mental warfare against
both Nora and myself. Her last act toward me was to create a straw man full of nightmare rats, which she then left at the edge of my realm on fire. Mare was fast and deadly, but she was never quiet. This long break was simply meant to heighten the anticipation while she schemed. I hated that it was working.
Fingers snapped next to my ear. “Earth to Sandy.” I blinked at the sudden noise and found Katie standing beside me. How long had I stood there, staring blankly ahead? “Sorry.” I cleared my throat. “I was...”
“Pining for Nora again?” Katie rolled her eyes. “It’s obvious. Really, you have bigger problems, don’t you think?” No. Yes. True to my word, I hadn’t stepped foot in the NightJ mare Realm since Nora defeated Rowan. It was for the best. In a short amount of time, Nora rebuilt the palace entirely, created loyal nightmares of her own, and convinced enough of the others not to cross her. From what I gathered, she was finally able to sleep with both eyes shut.
Halven, being a nightmare of few words, never offered any details when he came to deliver news. In return, I didn’t ask how Nora managed to accomplish so much, so fast. I wanted her to tell me herself when we saw each other again. Soon, I prayed to the stars. This distance made me feel like a stranger to her, despite logic telling me that was absurd.
“No,” I finally said to Katie. I hadn’t been thinking of her sister right then. “I was wondering if the proverbial dam was about to burst.”
Katie snorted and plopped down on the edge of my
pavilion like she owned the place. “Pretty sure it’s been leaking for a while now. At least, it has if your mysterious informant is telling the truth. Rumbling landscapes. Hundreds of nightmares disappearing from the grid. Sounds like time’s wearing thin.”
I said nothing. Until Halven found Mare, there was nothing to be done. She was an Ancient, and there was no rushing into this if we wanted to win. Mare had it all —strength, speed, intelligence. We needed to catch her off-guard before she found a way to open the Ever Safe, which was easier said than done, or it wouldn’t only be Mare that wanted to crush us. There were fourteen other Ancients, most of them larger, stronger, and undoubtedly more pissed off after so long in captivity. I ran my hands through my hair and blew out a slow breath.
“Bring up the map again.” Katie flicked her hand at the sand and leaned back on her elbows, only to fly up with a shriek.
Baku lifted his head from beneath the mound of pillows, blinking sleepy eyes, and I laughed.
“Oh, yeah,” Katie snapped. Baku glared at Nora’s sister and used his elephant trunk to pull the pillows close again. “So funny.”
“Didn’t you tell me you were getting used to this place?” I asked, trying not to smile too wide.
“This place. Not...” She pointed to the yawning chimera. “Is he always here?”
More often than not, these days... “Nora never got used to him either,” I said wistfully. She hadn’t gotten the chance, but I was sure they would’ve gotten along. Before she became the Lady of Nightmares and the ruler of Baku’s food supply, that is.
“Cool, cool,” Katie said. Queen of sarcasm, as always. “So, the map.”
I sighed and lifted my hands, palms up. Sand rose, a million glittering flecks forming an incomplete map of the Nightmare Realm. Every landscape I knew of was repreJ sented. The rest were filled in piece by piece when Halven checked in. The outer lines were jagged and uneven. The Dream Realm was at one end, bordered on all sides by nightmares.
“Fewer areas are glowing,” Katie contemplated aloud.
I nodded. The places we’d ruled out as Mare’s hiding place were faded, while the places she might be gave off a faint blue glow. Unfortunately, the closer to the Ever Safe the map went, the more options were left open. The Weaver wouldn’t have hidden the key to the safe that close, but—not for the first time—I wished he was here to ask where. I clasped my hands together behind my back to keep from fidgeting. Knowing the key’s location would put my mind at ease, because if Mare didn’t know where the key was, that meant she was going to have to break in. When she broke out all those years ago, Baku following, we sealed that exit with magic and buried it under an icy landscape.
“Halven stopped by while you were awake and cleared an entire sector,” I explained before Katie accused me of zoning out again. “The palace looks safe.” “Yes,” I agreed carefully. The building at the center of the Nightmare Realm was surrounded by devoted landJ scapes, and routinely patrolled by equally loyal nightmares.
“I want to see my sister,” Katie said abruptly. She met my gaze, her brown eyes hard and unrelenting. “Take me there.”
I barely suppressed a groan. “We’ve been over this.” “I don’t care what awful things I see,” she insisted, “and I certainly don’t care if Nora wants me there. I’m her sister. You don’t abandon family.”
“I...” I promised Nora. Not only that I would keep Katie away, but that I wouldn’t go into the Nightmare Realm until we found Mare. We went through enough, Nora and I, and we needed to heal. Not make the wounds deeper. “Please don’t ask me to break promises to your sister.”
She folded her arms. “Fine. Keep your promises, but I’m going to see her.”
“Stars.” I rubbed a hand over my face. “You’re as stubborn as she is.”
“You mean, she’s as stubborn as I am,” Katie said with a satisfied smirk. “I’m older.”
Baku groaned from within the pavilion, echoing my own sentiment. Katie had grown on me the last two months, more than I thought she would, but my penchant for humor was drained dry. First, Nora inherited the Weaver’s power when she killed him, then she snuck back into the Nightmare Realm behind my back. Those two betrayals were enough to dim even the loudest laughter, but it didn’t end there. Rowan was taken care of— reunited with her stump amid a now-wailing path of trees —but Mare was very much not. The Hours weren’t going to wait forever before making good on their threat to dethrone Nora if Mare wasn’t dealt with. They probably weren’t alone in that mindset, either. I turned my attenJ tion back to the map.
“Sandman,” said a low, rasping voice.
Katie bolted behind me, and I sighed. “Hello, Halven. I thought we agreed you wouldn’t come if a certain person was visiting.”
“I have important news.” He tilted his head, moonJ light sneaking beneath his wide hat. The bright red lips painted on his mask were curled in a permanently cold smirk, and a red scalloped design circled where the mask’s eyeholes should’ve been. “Hello,” he added to Katie, as if it would erase any sense of threat from him.
She poked my back with her finger. “Well?” “Halven is fine,” I told her, growing wearier by the second. When had I slept last?
“That has to be the creepiest mask I’ve ever seen in my life. Can he even see?” she asked as if he weren’t standing right in front of her.
Before I could remind her not to offend our ally, Halven spoke, his words forced as always. “I see many things. As for the mask, I believe that was the intent.”
“Five stars to the Weaver,” she stuttered. “What’s the news?” I asked before the conversation could sink any lower.
Halven was suddenly at the far edge of the map near the Ever Safe, pointing at a landscape full of metal globes. I tapped it with a finger, and it dimmed.
“No.” Halven’s excitement rippled around him. “She’s there.”
Baku immediately leapt from the pavilion. He barely spared Halven a glance after his first few visits. I supposed it was because Baku knew that, if the worlds ended, so would he, and that was slightly more important than a full belly. “Stay away from it,” I said calmly. “We can’t tip Mare off that we know where she is.”
“Now what happens? What do we do?” Katie asked, chewing nervously on her thumbnail.
“We don’t do anything.” I took her by the arms and looked her in the eye. “Stay put.”
“I—” “Katherine Gallagher, I swear on my power that if you try to follow us...”
“Fine.” She wrenched herself from my grip and threw herself onto the vacant pile of pillows. “I wouldn’t want to be a liability or anything. I am a weak, pitiful mortal after all.”
I raised a brow at Halven in a way that let him know that I knew she was a handful. Apparently, all of the Gallagher women were. I made for the barrier between realms, grabbing my full satchel of sand on the way and throwing its strap across my chest. “Don’t walk with me,” I said to Halven. “It’s too soon to blow your cover.”
Halven was already headed toward a different landJ scape, my magic allowing him—and only him—to pass through.