prologue

I need human fear to survive.

We all do, but there's less and less of it to go around since humans came out with that make-me-happy pill. An average mind is only the size of a plump grapefruit, but the one I hold is abnormally precious, so I press it next to my chest with both hands, running my fingers along its soft, milky surface.

It belongs to a girl—more than that, a teenage girl in America.

This means two things. One, because different parts of the world breed different fears, the fertile ground of her subconscious has been affected by a culture and way of living that could feed any number of specific Nightmares. And two, because of this, her mind is one of the last of its kind.

Personally, I don't need her. I'm the fear of hell. My primary victims sleep in jail cells and Christian monasteries. No one's handing out dream pills to convicts. But in America, the pill is rampant, especially in youth. The fear of high school acceptance? The fear of adolescent male rejection at a dance? The fear of ugliness? They're starving, because the minds that feed their very being are forced into artificial dreams of bliss.

I can't let this mind get lost in the billions of others. But neither can I broadcast its existence. At least not yet. A stampede might overwhelm, even kill her, if we aren't careful. "Hello, sweetheart," I murmur, bringing the glowing orb close to my face, stroking the edge of its barrier with a finger. "Let me have a look at you."

Her mind expands in my practiced hands and I slip through her Circadian Clock, stepping lightly into the traffic of her organic dreams. The chaos melts into the deepest stage of sleep—my territory—as I move forward. For a moment, I wait, letting her mind work on its own. The passages of her psyche drip with sweet darkness. In her supplies of joy and happiness, I find things that would make other mortals anxious. It's not so much interesting as it is unusual.

Minds nowadays are so shallow; the influx of media and quick solutions to pain have robbed them of the ability to create. Not so with hers. If anything, she's oversaturated with imagination—it's like trying to walk through a swamp. It doesn't take her long to notice me. Her hyper-charged subconscious hones in on my presence, breathing up my neck and into my hair. The strength of her sudden focus is so strong, I take a nervous step back, and when I do, a tendril of intent reaches out and latches to my wrist. Tight, like scribbled lightning jumping up my arm.

"What the . . .?" I mutter, trying to shake it off. But another tentacle sucks onto my ankle, until soon all my limbs are incapacitated, strings of her subconscious trapping me like some kind of spider web.

I struggle to at least free my arms, but she only holds harder. "Get—" I summon the fire and brimstone of hell and releases it in a surge of desperation. "—off!"

She lets go. I breathe heavily, on my side. There's a faint smell of smoke in the air.

I sit up, and immediately see her ruined Circadian Clock. The middle is broken and charred; the hands have stopped moving.

The portal is gone.

No.

I rush over and touch the wood, trying not to panic. It can't just be . . . broken. Dread trickles down my spine. Did I do this? Or did her insane, clinging mind?

Out—

I have to get out, now.

I spin, igniting her mind into a blazing, forceful nightmare. I'm overdoing it, I know, but it has the desired effect. After only a few minutes, I'm nearly choking on her fear and her mind shakes her awake, desperate to escape the terror of the nightmare. I wait for the pull of the Circadian Clock, the portal which should send me home. She's waking up; I should have no choice.

As the girl bolts up in her bed, gasping and sweating, her subconscious shrinks as her conscious mind takes full dominance. I expect to jettison back . . . but nothing happens. I'm not used to navigating a subconscious mind when the human's awake. It feels almost like I've been locked in a dark closet.

I'm trapped.

In my new little holding space, I smolder in anger, but it does little good while she's awake.

The next night I try again, and the night after that. I assault her with nightmares. I don't care if her mind is valuable, I want out. But nothing works, and by the third night, I hate her. The interesting quirks have become condemning evidence of a deformed, possibly sadistic, mind that holds me in its trappings.

As I gather the coming nightmare in my hands, hot and ready to deliver, there's a feeling of revenge to it. A touch of vindication. I go for the snowball effect of a chase scene, this time, as a horrific, hellish beast.

Near the end, I latch onto my prey—any moment now she'll wake up. Her subconscious embodiment is gasping and struggling, for what little good it does her. Then, she squeezes her eyes closed. She whispers, "One, two . . ."

I barely notice until I feel my hold on her mind forced to loosen, as if someone—or something—is prying each of my individual fingers away. I attempt to reattach my grip, but whatever's fighting me—it's strong.

Her eyes snap open and her whole mind jerks. I have to scramble to keep the nightmare together.

"What are you doing?" I demand.

She closes her eyes again and the same prying occurs. My equilibrium is tilting. She's floating up toward consciousness and I'm headed back to my closet. "You're waking up . . ." I realize aloud.

"Three!"

When she opens her eyes a final time, she rips clean into consciousness. I slam into my confinement, mystified and unbalanced.

I am not a lightweight Nightmare. Call it arrogance, call it fact (it's both), but I'm a heavy intrusion upon a mortal mind. Humans don't wake from my nightmares with a feeling of unease—they scream awake full of terror.

And this girl just . . . pulled out of it.

On her own.

There's something truly bizarre about her mind. Not interesting bizarre, but grotesque, almost. It makes me a little afraid of her. The rule to not speak to humans directly is probably especially wise advice in this girl's case, but I can't help hoping . . . if she has the ability to trap me here, to wrench free of my nightmares, maybe she can send me back.

Her mind—still exhausted—teeters again on the precipice of sleep. I crouch, preparing, joking to myself in a strain of ill-timed humor, Prepare to meet your worst nightmare.