Nightmare by Camille Peters

Chapter 1

Dreams were far less interesting when I had to deliberately steal them.

Not that they were ever uninteresting. As a magical being, I was drawn to all things magical, and dreams were the most magical of all—entire worlds contained in a story carefully woven for Mortals while they slept, fantastic visions of wonder and mystery I used to never tire of.

Although I’d been exploring dreams my entire life, it had lost its appeal ever since the realm responsible for creating them had stolen my powers and banished me from my home based on false conclusions. Now I needed more magic, and I only knew of one way to acquire it: stealing. For whenever I captured a dream, the power used to create it would be taken from its creator and become mine.

That’s what had brought me to Earth night after night, why I was here now. I fiddled with my dream locket, nearly empty save for a single ounce of magic borrowed from Mother, just enough to steal more—but I couldn’t seem to make myself use it for its intended purpose. While I’d captured and bottled dozens of dreams in my old home in the Dream Realm, at the time I hadn’t known I was stealing magic with each acquisition to my vast collection.

I did now.

Stardust—my best friend and loyal cloud who took me everywhere—refused to bring me to Earth to knowingly commit such a devious crime. After all, she had a detective reputation to uphold. But her lack of cooperation never spared me from her usual lecture.

“Only Nightmares conduct such criminal activity,” she’d once more briskly pointed out before I’d left tonight.

“Exactly, and I’m a Nightmare.” Even though I’d been saying the words for several months now, they still knotted my stomach with unease. But like all flickers of emotion, I shoved it away; I’d long since convinced myself it was better to feel nothing.

“No, you’re not,” Stardust said. “Case in point: I hate all Nightmares but I love you. The only logical explanation is that you’re not a Nightmare at all. Even an amateur investigator could deduce such a solid conclusion.”

I bit my lip to prevent myself from pointing out that Stardust’s deductions weren’t always solid; she was my only friend from my old life—my only friend at all—and one I very much wanted to keep. Thankfully, Stardust’s loyalty proved unwavering; instead of turning me in, she became uncannily unobservant whenever it was time for my usual dream-stealing exhibitions, becoming determinedly engaged in one of her coloring books whenever it was time for me to leave.

Since Stardust refused to be my mode of transportation for my attempted-thievery exploits, I’d been borrowing my Uncle Blaze’s cloud, Sparks, which he let me use grudgingly at Mother’s insistence. His cloud had obediently flown me to Earth every night for the past three months and passed the time waiting for me by building a strange contraption made from a bundle of freshly carved lightning bolts he’d taken from Blaze at the Weather Shaping Studio.

I always chose the same sleepy village where my old Mortal, Maci, lived. I hovered outside her cottage, staying hidden in the shadow of its crooked chimney while I waited for the Weaving to end. For if I had to steal—and I’d long since made it my decision to do so—I wanted it to be from only one individual.

I peered through the slit in Maci’s bedroom curtains, secretly hoping for a glimpse of the Nightmare I’d been trying—and failing—to forget. As usual, my heart lurched when I saw him, even as both burning anger and fierce longing battled within me.

No, I didn’t long for him. He was a betrayer. It pleased me to see how unhappy he seemed; in all my evenings spying on his Weavings, I hadn’t glimpsed his smile once. After what he’d done to me he deserved to be miserable—at least that’s what I tried to convince myself of, but there were brief moments when...

I stiffened and quickly locked that dangerous emotion back in my hardened heart where it belonged. It was better not to feel.

I watched him unpack his bag and arrange the pattern for tonight’s nightmare while his new partner watched with a frown. I didn’t know her name. I didn’t care. I hated her. She’d stolen Maci from me, and for that there was no forgiveness.

Envious loathing burned through me that I was forced to watch someone else weave for my Mortal. Not only had she stolen something infinitely precious from me, but this Dreamer didn’t even deserve Maci. Despite her experience, she’d failed to win a single Weaving in the three months since she’d been assigned. Inexcusable.

The dragonfly Dreamer—as I’d taken to calling her based on her style—went through the weaving motions without any real enthusiasm, spending more time fiddling with the dragonflies residing in her hair than focusing on constructing a dream for Maci. She’d made a greater effort in the early days of her new assignment but had long since given up; he was far too talented for her. As a result, Maci had been plagued with nightmares every night since I’d left her. Even though she always forgot them by morning they still affected her: she was now referred to by her exhausted Mother as a colicky baby prone to night terrors.

I repeatedly tried to remind myself that this was a good thing, for each nightmare a Mortal viewed granted my new home the power it deserved. But then why did I feel an ache in my cold heart whenever I watched Maci sleep restlessly night after night, Darius’s recent nightmare—plump and juicy with her fear—floating above her?

Darius had changed from the partner I’d known. Unlike when he’d frequently beaten me, his current unbreakable dominance didn’t seem to concern him in the slightest. He didn’t bother to wait, offer assistance, or do anything to level out the competition; he didn’t even look at his partner, much less talk to her. He usually completed his nightmare and gave it to Maci before she even unpacked her bag. She didn’t seem overly bothered by this. As she’d relentlessly complained to an unresponding Darius, Maci was the third Mortal she wove for each night, one whom she had no connection to considering she hadn’t been magically chosen for her.

Even though she’d already spouted this tirade countless times tonight, she felt inclined to bring it up again. While Darius mechanically wove, the dragonfly Dreamer half-heartedly removed her weaving supplies, taking an abhorrently long time to do so.

“I don’t know why I bothered accepting an assignment that’s proven to be nothing but a monumental waste of time,” she said. “I waste precious dream dust on this Mortal totally unsuited to me, only to get nothing in return.”

Darius didn’t even warrant her a glance. Unbothered by his usual lack of response, the Dreamer continued.

“I wish I could just terminate this assignment and let someone else get slaughtered by you every night. No matter whom you partner with, they’d inevitably lose.”

Darius still didn’t spare her a glance; the Dreamer might as well have been talking to herself.

“I suppose it’s not too late to go to the Council and resign. It wouldn’t matter to Maci either way; I’m not the Dream Weaver the Universe originally chose for her.”

Darius paused to lift up his already impressive nightmare quilt to study the pattern before seamlessly stitching in another detail with his usual rapid, fluid movements while the Dreamer watched with a frown.

“How ironic the only Dream Weaver suited to the task turned out to be nothing more than a Nightmare in disguise who possessed dark magic that resulted in her suspension. The fool.”

Darius stiffened and I caught the briefest flicker of something in his otherwise emotionless expression. He slowly raised his darkened gaze. “Don’t ever bring her up again.”

It was the first time I’d heard him speak in weeks, and his voice did strange things to my heart before I once more forced the feeling away.

The Dreamer smirked. “Why shouldn’t I? It’s her fault the Council forced her Mortal on me. If she hadn’t been nothing more than a thief with abnormal powers—”

Shut up!” His fists clenched as he glared at his partner. “You know nothing about what you speak of, nor do you even know her, so stop berating her.”

His defense surprised me, considering what had happened to me had been his fault. Perhaps his reaction only stemmed from guilt that he’d put his duties above whatever feelings he’d thought he had for me. Pain I wasn’t strong enough to feel pierced my hardened heart. Having him betray me despite what he might have felt towards me was infinitely worse than if he’d feigned his feelings all along.

Unfazed by Darius’s rage, the Dreamer continued to study him, her head tilted thoughtfully. “You seem to harbor a soft spot for your former partner. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of such loyalty between weaving partners. Perhaps the explanation for such an anomaly is that your old partner turned out to be a Nightmare much like yourself.”

Darius’s jaw tightened as he returned to his weaving. “Stop stalling and begin weaving; it’s not in my nature to wait.”

The Dreamer rolled her eyes. “So I’ve noticed. It wouldn’t even matter if you did; I’d lose anyway.”

“That’s because you’re not even trying,” Darius snapped. “Shall I inform the Council you’re inadequate for this task? Because believe me, I will.”

The dragonfly Dreamer’s white-knuckled grip tightened on her weaving needle. “You wouldn’t.”

Darius cocked a single eyebrow. “You doubt me? That would be extremely foolish considering I’m not to be trifled with. If you fail to improve your performance, I’ll inform the Council of your lack of ability. Believe me when I say that you won’t only lose Maci; the Council will likely find you unsuitable for your other Mortals as well.”

“But I win the majority of Weavings for my other Mortals,” the Dreamer hissed. “I only do poorly with this surrogate assignment because she wasn’t chosen for me in the weaving pool like my others.”

“Nor was she chosen for me,” Darius said. “I did the unthinkable and requested her before the weaving pool could choose a Nightmare Weaver for her, but you don’t see me losing every single night, do you?”

He smirked before returning to his weaving, his movements stiff and rigid. The Dreamer scowled as she yanked two dream flowers from her bag and frantically began weaving them together, all the while muttering darkly under her breath.

I couldn’t watch anymore. I pulled away from the curtain and settled myself more comfortably on the slated roof to lean against the chimney. Emotions swirled within me, emotions I didn’t want to feel. I commenced my usual nightly battle against these unwanted feelings until I’d once more succeeded in smothering them.

I peered into Maci’s bedroom to check on the Weaving’s progress in time to see heaps of dream dust soar into Darius’s spiderweb-shaped dream locket. He clicked it shut and glared at his partner. “You’ll never be half the Weaver she was.” And with a deafening crack he disappeared.

The Dreamer glared after him before hopping onto her cloud, who’d passed the Weaving perusing a newspaper. I shrank into the shadows as they flew past me into the starlit sky, off to their other Weavings. After my suspension, Darius had returned to weaving for the Mortal he’d given up to weave for Maci. Even after they were out of sight, I waited several minutes more, time I needed to shove my unwanted emotions back into my locked heart where they belonged.

I crept across the slates and slipped inside the bedroom, which felt empty without the Weavers. I floated down until I hovered only a few feet above Maci’s crib. The moonlight illuminated seven-month-old Maci, her brow crinkled in distress, tears trapped in the creases of her eyes.

I felt the strangest urge to float closer in order to stroke her hair and wipe the agitated lines crinkling her forehead, or even to use my few remaining dream flowers from my old life to weave a pleasant dream for her, but I resisted both of these impulses. Those were thoughts a Dreamer would have, and I wasn’t a Dreamer any longer. Apparently I never had been.

I spent several unpleasant moments watching Maci toss and turn before turning my attention to the nightmare responsible for her restless night. I followed its movement as it slunk around the room, keeping my eyes narrowed to avoid tumbling inside; I only viewed Darius’s nightmares on nights I wanted to feel frightened, a state often better than feeling numb. That night was not tonight.

Like most of Darius’s nightmares, it was plump and olive green, though this one was unusually big even for Darius’s skills, which meant tonight’s win had earned him a lot of dream dust. If I captured this nightmare all of that magic would become mine. My powers curled against my palm. It would be so easy...but like every night, something kept me from stealing his dream, despite my anger being the perfect motivation.

His earlier words returned uninvited to my mind: You’ll never be half the Weaver she was. I pressed my hand to my heart as the feelings I constantly fought returned full force, filling me with a warmth and an aching longing I could never completely suppress.

With all Darius had done to me, why wouldn’t these feelings leave? How I wished they would.

There was only one way I could think of to get rid of them: I had to make him hurt, cause him just as much pain as he’d given me, and to do that I’d need to take from him. That was why I came down here every night, because if I had to steal from anyone I knew it would be from him.

I held the empty jar in my lap, the magic I’d borrowed from Mother brimming in my hand, ready for me to send towards Darius’s nightmare and pull it into its glass prison in order to claim its magic.

Do it, Eden. Do it now. But like every other night I couldn’t actually make myself steal from him. Instead, I sat rigidly as I watched Maci sleep restlessly and Darius’s nightmare float around the room as it shrunk smaller and smaller until it was entirely forgotten. When dawn tinted the sky I finally left, having passed another long night without doing what I’d been sent down here to do.

Dreams were far less interesting when I had to deliberately steal them.