author's note: SEQUEL TIME! Oh my goodness, I'm kind of excited for this. A few things before you we get started: I'm hopefully going to be posting on a weekly schedule, every Friday. I realize this is not as fast as Once Upon a Nightmare was posted, but this is necessarily slower, as I have not finished writing it. On that note, please review and tell me what you think, as you, fine readers, help me shape the story into what it needs to be.
A few thank yous: Thank you, readers and reviewers, for every time you've let me know you enjoyed the story. I wish I could give each of you a creepily awkward hug in gratitude. And also thank you to my beta, Mia, who has already done such a great job, I have no idea how I ever functioned without her.
It's a little creepy, as far as swings go—but I suppose that's to be expected, since I made it and I'm a Nightmare. The seat is hard and flat, splintered like an ashy slab of wood, but it's bone. Bolted to each end is an extraordinarily long piece of rusted chain, parallel braids of iron anchored somewhere in the sky that overlooks the Isle of Morpheus. Of course, sky is a rather loose term. We're not a planet, just an abstract blip in between dreams and reality. Our "sky" is filled with everything the human mind can envision—storms, moons, glaring suns, all manner of precipitation, and star patterns change every night.
I can't see what's holding my precious swing up—like a cloud spit it out and now it hangs like an errant string of drool—but when I press my hand on the seat, nothing gives. Cautiously, I sit down. When it continues to hold me up, I allow myself to feel tired. The swing, as anyone looking at it might surmise, is no ordinary swing. It's a vehicle of transportation, and I, in my fledgling monarchical status, am still half-expecting it to fail to take me where I want to go.
As with anything in this realm, it was created by imagination; how many children in the world have envisioned their playground swing as something more? Thousands of budding minds have launched into space, time-traveled, flown like fairies, leapt into distant realms, all by the seat of a swing. So, except for the slightly dark final product, it's not such an odd choice.
Perhaps a yard in front of my feet is the end of a cliff. The jagged lip drops suddenly in front of shifting, mist-like grayness. To my right, the grayness grows sharper the farther it extends, until it builds into something resembling cascading electricity. The Edge—the portal into the realm of human subconscious. On my left, the grayness slows until it turns to slate—the unforgiving hardness of the Eye of the World Mountains, the cesspool of human subconscious.
My swing faces the point between these two important landscapes in the Isle of Morpheus, and on the outset, gives the appearance of swinging right over a cliff into nothing. But it isn't nothing—at least, I hope to Morpheus that it isn't nothing. For the equivalent of nearly three mortal years, three of her years, I've been testing, failing, agonizing. I've probed and hunted every inch of this realm for the perfect spot to create a gate between our worlds, and I figure the Edge is as close to we get to the human realm and the Eye of the World Mountains bends the rules of subconscious limitation. If it's not going to happen here, it won't happen anywhere.
I rock back a little. The swing moves with me.
I dig my heels in and grind to an immediate halt, pushing a slow, trembling breath out my lips. Looks like it works. Nothing left to do except try it out. Closing my eyes, I access the power of the Jewel of Imagination hanging around my neck. The clear pendant buzzes pleasantly against my chest. Hundreds of ancient fears and joys share my body with me. They're not happy.
This has never been done.
You purposely lead the Isle of Morpheus to ruin.
The conscious realm could kill you.
"We don't have a choice," I murmur. My voice echoes with theirs, a thousand synced into one. "We're dying. And they kill us while they're awake, not while they sleep."
Not for the first time, I wish my father's voice was one of the many in my head. But though I've secluded and examined the fear of darkness, my father isn't attached to it. He was not the fear of darkness, merely its host. Just as I am not the fear of hell, but its physical embodiment.
I wonder if he had to put up with all the doubting crap I've had to. The realms have never been combined, they probably complained. Dreams and Nightmares cannot coexist! It could kill you!
Incidentally, combining the realms did kill him. Eventually. And it's true this might also, eventually, kill me. But my father did what needed to be done, and he was the only one who could do it, being equal parts Dream and Nightmare, equally reliant on fear and joy.
And I'm the only one who can do this—since I am, so far as I know, the only king to have my soul tethered directly and irreversibly to the mortal realm.
Right. I'm stalling by getting nostalgic and introspective. Time to try this bad boy out.
Using my heels as a brace, I back up a few steps and then raise my feet, letting the swing rock forward. I pump hard and only gain a little momentum as a result. The Jewel of Imagination glows bright as I exert myself.
Stop, stupid, unprecedented—the fears and joys growl in unison.
Shut up, I think. Get out of my head unless you're going to help me. Twisting around, I push a hand behind me and give myself a booster in the form of a column of fire. I nearly fall off as I pitch forward. I swing up, casually, perilously over the cliff. Not far enough yet. I push another burst of flame in front of me and go whooshing back.
Back and forth one more time, picking up speed, wind in my ears. The second time, my foot pushes against it—the door, carved painstakingly against a barrier that was never, ever meant to be breached. I drop back, my stomach clenching. My pendulum-like motion swings me up again and I know. This is it. The Jewel of Imagination burns so hot against my chest even my fire-kissed skin can feel the difference. When I pass over the edge of the cliff a final time, there's more than the fury of hell pushing at my back. A chorus of snapping powers swells beneath me, carrying me higher. At the last possible moment, I throw myself off the swing.
Going through the door feels like coming out of water—bright, disorienting, dry. I land on something, so that's a relief—considering I launched myself off a cliff. Actually land is sort of a generous description. My surroundings blur in front of my eyes, my feet hit something solid, and I tumble forward in an ungracious crash to the ground.
And yes, ow.
On my back, I blink open my eyes, and immediately clench them shut with a hiss. My senses are assaulted by the sharpness of this world. Even without my vision, I feel pricks of dry grass on the back of my neck. They exist solidly, regardless of my focus on them, each one a life onto itself. Bracing myself, I try again, pushing myself upright on my elbows.
The swing isn't attached to the sky anymore, not in this realm. Also, it no longer looks like a demonic plaything. The fraying, would-be-harmless rope is tied onto a thick, gnarled branch of a cottonwood tree. The seat is a worn out tire. I wonder if it's visible to the human eye. Surely it isn't any more real than I am here. Either way—there it is, my portal, alive and well on the other side.
I turn and realize I'm in a backyard. For a moment, I'm panicked—unsure how I'll explain myself if there happens to be some baffled human staring out the window—and then it dawns on me that I know this house. Big—wooden siding with peeling white paint. Shuttered windows and a curled-shingle roof that comes to five different points.
This is Violet's home. I know it like my own—perhaps even more intimately than that. Violet has lived here her whole life and this house, along with the area of her small hometown, is the default landscape of her subconscious. Yes—there, the shack where her father paints. The sliding glass door on the back porch; it leads to the kitchen.
A laugh born of hysteria and triumph bubbles out of me. I did it.
I did it! Suck on that, ancient rulers.
I get to my feet and instantly wobble. Whoa. I'm . . . not as heavy as I used to be. I feel uneasily like a hard wind could pick me up and blow me away. Bringing my hands up, I turn them over in front of my face and notice a shimmering outline on the edge of my fingers. I'm not insubstantial—I'm just not real.
No, I am. A dream is as real as anything. But I'm not quite reality. I'm imagined—no better than an extremely vivid hallucination, no better than the Isle of Morpheus's sky. For all my planning, I'm not sure how much of an effect I'll have on things around me, if I'm even visible.
I look up at a second story window, partially blocked by tree branches. Violet's room. I thought I would land somewhere close to her—I mean, I tried to put it where she would be anyway, but I knew our link would ultimately be the factor that let me come through. I put a hand on my chest, just under where my heart would be. So why do I feel so empty?
Her soul feels like a night sparkler—fizzing, hot and cold at the same time, like a piece of galaxy has been dropped in my chest. Lately there is barely a sputter. Enough to know that our bond isn't broken, but a reminder that it can't fully cross the bridge between our worlds.
But now, if she was here, wouldn't I feel it?
I walk to the back porch and open the sliding door. It's unlocked, as I knew it would be. Her house is dim, quiet. What time is it? Late afternoon, I think? I go through the kitchen, my footsteps tracing the familiar path to the wooden stairs from Violet's memory. If it wasn't for the mess, the dirty dishes, and cluttered, chipped furniture, I'd be afraid they didn't live here anymore.
The door to Violet's room is closed. I hesitate, then open it. She's not in there. I know I would feel it if she was. Like I predicted, the room is empty, but it's not abandoned. Her bed is made, her desk tidied and cleared off. I smile at the wall-to-wall bookshelf on the far side.
I don't know if it smells like her. Her physical presence is all but unknown to me. But I'm well-versed in the atmosphere of her spirit, and that's here too. I freeze as I notice a framed photograph on her nightstand. The picture is of Violet and another girl, posed on a bridge. I pick the photo up to examine it closer and wonder (not for the first time) what it is about her that makes me want to simultaneously devote my life to her and get as far away from her as I can possibly get. She looks . . . different. Obviously, not so different I can't recognize her. She still has the same owlishly big dark eyes. Same upturned nose, same round mouth. She hasn't grown much, height-wise. But before, all these features combined to make this odd, half-child imp creature, who you sort of wanted to flick off your shoulder in annoyance.
Now she's—well, I don't know. Older, I guess? Her hair is still short, but instead of a fuzzy mess on her head, it's styled, a little aggressive. Her inherent smallness has shape and tiny, unexpected curves. Her outfit is bold and deliberate, though clearly handmade. She looks like a mosaic. Mostly though, it's her expression. Elusive, happy, and hiding just a hint of interesting darkness.
And that's the thing, the reason I can't look away. I don't recognize this girl, or anyway, the soul of this girl. Seeing this new version of her, I can't help but think: her mind is not the same mind I knew so well. I'm not sure why this is upsetting to me except to say that I'm sure of very few things in my life, and my intimate knowledge of Violet Darcey has always been one of the things I could trust.
I whip around. Violet's father—Robert Darcey—steps into the door just as I throw up an illusion. I have no idea if it will work here. In a dream, it's practically second nature to manipulate a mortal's perception. It's a bit like singing; the skill of the execution depends on the Dream or Nightmare, but any of us can open our mouths and belt it out, so to speak. That's what a dream is—guided perception.
I hold my breath, hand outstretched, as Robert Darcey looks around the room. He glances right over me—twice. "Why is this door opened?" he mutters and closes it behind him. I exhale and slowly drop the raised illusion.
Well that is extremely good news. I won't be totally helpless here. Of course, if Robert had walked into the room and physically touched me, who knows if he would have felt something. If I had burned him, I could have told his mind nothing was happening, but in the morning, would there be a mark on his skin, regardless of memory?
Also, I'm incredibly relieved that Violet's father is here. He's my best bet of finding out where she is. Giving myself a cautionary shield of invisibility, I creep down the stairs and out the front door. Too late, I remember it creaks and sticks on the hinges, but I finagle my way out before drawing unnecessary attention.
I raise my hand to knock, then pause.
On second thought, I probably shouldn't introduce myself as . . . well, myself. Hi there, King of Nightmares, fear of hell. Nice to meet you. I can be a bit much, as far as first impressions go. I ring the bell and arrange myself to look a little more normal. Nice, average face—hair decidedly tamer than it usually is. Neat, indistinct clothes—not the black ensemble I'm currently sporting.
Robert Darcey opens the door. He looks mildly suspicious, perhaps confused, but not alarmed, so it must be working. "Yes?" he asks.
"Hi. Are you Violet's father?"
"My name is Alexan—Alex. I'm just wondering how I might get in contact with her . . ."
His eyes narrow. "Who are you? Does she know you?"
"I should hope so." I put on my best, charming smile. "I like to think of myself as your daughter's soulmate."