The Nightmare Dilemma (Excerpt)

Check out The Nightmare Dilemma, the second novel in Mindee Arnett’s Arkwell Academy series, available March 4th from Tor Teen!

Dusty Everhart might be able to predict the future through the dreams of her crush, Eli Booker, but that doesn’t make her life even remotely easy. When one of her mermaid friends is viciously assaulted and left for dead, and the school’s jokester, Lance Rathbone, is accused of the crime, Dusty’s as shocked as everybody else. Lance needs Dusty to prove his innocence by finding the real attacker, but that’s easier asked than done. Eli’s dreams are no help, more nightmares than prophecies.

To make matters worse, Dusty’s ex-boyfriend has just been acquitted of conspiracy and is now back at school, reminding Dusty of why she fell for him in the first place. The Magi Senate needs Dusty to get close to him, to discover his real motives. But this order infuriates Eli, who has started his own campaign for Dusty’s heart.

As Dusty takes on both cases, she begins to suspect they’re connected to something bigger. And there’s something very wrong with Eli’s dreams, signs that point to a darker plot than they could have ever imagined.

 

 

 

1
Where No Nightmare Has Gone Before

 

The mermaid was lying on the hospital bed, looking distinctly un-mermaidish. And not just because she was in her human form. Britney Shell looked more like a zombie with her skin the color of cigar ash and ghoulish lines of black stitches across her forehead, cheeks, and neck.

I turned to face the only other person in the room, the woman who’d summoned me out of my dorm in the middle of the night to the school’s infirmary for a reason I was sure I didn’t want to know. Lady Elaine stood near the foot of the bed, her pale, cloudy eyes fixed on Britney. She was an old woman, and tiny, hardly bigger than a kid. But that didn’t make her any less intimidating. As a chief advisor to the Magi Senate, her presence at Arkwell Academy meant trouble.

“What happened to her?” I said.

A grimace crossed Lady Elaine’s thin face, turning the wrinkles into deep crevices. “We don’t know. That’s why you’re here. To help us find out.”

“Me? What can I do?”

“You’re a Nightmare.”

I frowned. Not because this was an insult or anything. It was true. I am a Nightmare, or at least a half one. My mom’s a full Nightmare, but my dad’s an ordinary human. Not that you can tell by looking at me. For the most part, Nightmares look like ordinaries, but we’re magical beings who feed on human dreams.

“You want me to dream-feed on her?”

“Precisely,” Lady Elaine said, clanking her teeth.

I didn’t know why I was surprised. There wasn’t any other reason a person as important as Lady Elaine would want someone like me here. Britney and I were friends, but given the number of magickind police officers waiting out in the hallway, I didn’t think this was a bedside vigil.

I shifted my weight from one foot to the other. “How’s that supposed to help? Dream-feeding doesn’t heal people, right? I mean, if it does, then calling my kind Nightmares is like false advertisement.”

Lady Elaine scowled. “Now’s not the time for cheek, Destiny Everhart.”

“It’s Dusty,” I mumbled, looking back at Britney. Guilt made my skin prickle. Lady Elaine was right. Now wasn’t the time for smart-ass remarks, but I couldn’t help it. Seeing Britney like this freaked me out, an event that never failed to make my mouth run away with me.

Lady Elaine let out an exaggerated sigh. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched her turn and sit down in a chair on the other side of the bed. Like everything else in the room, the chair was the mottled gray color of cinder blocks. Lady Elaine’s feet dangled two inches above the ground. “You’re here because you might be able to identify Britney’s attacker by what you see in her dream.”

More confused than ever, I swung toward her. It wasn’t the first time I’d been asked to identify a bad guy through someone’s dream. A few months ago I discovered I was a dream-seer, that I could see the future in certain dreams. But…

“I thought my dream-seer skills only work in Eli’s dreams.”

Lady Elaine waved a hand at me. “I’m not asking you to predict the future but to read the past.”

“Huh?”

She sighed again, clearly at the end of her patience. Not that this was anything new. She crossed one leg over the other, feet swinging. “Whoever attacked Britney did so less than an hour ago. And as far as we can tell, she’s been in a constant dreamstate ever since. If she saw the person, there’s a good chance his image has left a residue on her dream.”

“A residue?”

“Yes, a magical residue,” said Lady Elaine. “She was hit by a powerful curse. One we haven’t been able to identify yet. But all magic leaves traces of the person who wielded it, and only a very few magickind would be skilled enough to remove those traces.”

I considered the idea, pushing back strands of my curly red hair that had escaped my haphazard ponytail. “So it’s kind of like a fingerprint or DNA.”

Lady Elaine gave me a blank stare.

I crossed my arms, wishing I’d worn something more substantial than a hoodie, hastily donned over my pink-and-redstriped pajamas. The mid-April rain outside tapped against the windowpane, putting a damp chill in the air. “You know, like forensic science stuff. How ordinary cops figure out who the bad guy is.”

Lady Elaine’s stare deepened toward incredulity.

I couldn’t figure out what her deal was. Most magickind were junkies for ordinary pop culture. “Don’t you watch TV?”

She looked taken aback by the question, but recovered quickly. “Not those kinds of shows.”

I raised an eyebrow, wondering what kinds of shows she did watch.

“But I suppose your interpretation is correct,” said Lady Elaine. “It is something like magical DNA.”

Which made me the scientist in this scenario. What a joke.

Still, I didn’t protest as I turned my gaze back to Britney. If she’d been hit by a curse, then it was my fault. I might not have done the actual cursing, but I’d played a big part in making it possible for magickind to use combative spells whenever they wanted. It used to be that such magic was prohibited by The Will, a massive spell designed to keep magickind in line. But I inadvertently helped destroy The Will a couple of months ago. At least I’d been fighting an evil warlock at the time, one with Hitlerish ideas about world domination.

Small comfort now.

And no comfort at all to Britney. She looked miserable, her expression pained even in sleep. Her eyelids quivered as her eyes pulsed back and forth beneath them.

Even though I knew I was responsible, I didn’t want to dreamfeed on her. What if I messed up? I might miss something important.

I cleared my throat. “Isn’t there some other Nightmare better qualified?”

“No,” Lady Elaine said, a pointed edge to her voice. “Well, yes, there are certainly others more qualified, but none available tonight. Someone else was supposed to be here, but they’ve been delayed, Bethany Grey is still imprisoned, and your mother is still out of town. Which leaves only you.”

I swallowed hard, my stomach twisting into a knot. The pathetically small number of Nightmares in existence wasn’t something I wanted to think about right now. This attack on Britney was just another in a string of magickind-on-magickind violence that had been happening since The Will broke. The same kind of violence responsible for my lack of Nightmare relatives.

Screwing up my courage, I said, “So you want me to figure out who she’s dreaming about.”

Lady Elaine gave me a tight-lipped smile. “Yes. Just observe and report.”

Sounded simple enough, although in my experience nothing to do with magic was ever simple.

I drew a breath. “Okay, but tell me more first. Who found her? Where was she?”

Lady Elaine frowned. “There’s no time for details. She might stop dreaming any moment, and the longer we wait the fainter the residue becomes.”

“I get it, but her dreams aren’t going to be all clear like Eli’s. If I’ve any hope of spotting the person, I need to know more about what to look for.”

This sounded mostly true, even to my ears, but secretly I was thinking about how if Eli were here he would demand to know more. Ever since we defeated the evil warlock, Marrow, he’d had his heart set on starting an amateur student detective agency. We’d worked one minor “case” involving a stolen necklace, but this was the first hard-core mystery. He would want to investigate. As always, thoughts of Eli made me feel both flustered and comforted at the same time, a result of our morethan-friends-but-not-really status.

“Fine.” Lady Elaine stood up, her heels giving a little click as her feet touched the floor. She marched past me out the door. I heard a murmur of voices, and then she reentered the room, followed by a tall, hairy-looking man in a dark blue policeman’s uniform.

Sheriff Brackenberry fixed an irritated look at me. It was the same look he’d given me when I arrived a few minutes ago and Lady Elaine had asked him to wait out in the hall. I couldn’t decide if his irritation was strictly for me or just a side effect of being bossed around by a little old lady. Probably both. I smiled sheepishly back at him, trying to win him over. Not only was he the magickind sheriff, he was also head werewolf, which made him only slightly less scary than Lady Elaine.

“We need to hurry this up,” said Brackenberry. “Britney here is due to be transferred to Vejovis Hospital as soon as you’re done.”

The knot in my stomach twisted harder. Her injuries must be pretty bad if they were sending her there. I opened my mouth to tell him no need to bother with the details, but he started speaking before I got the chance.

“She was discovered at approximately eleven forty-five p.m. by Ms. Hardwick in one of the alcoves of the tunnel between the library and Flint Hall,” said Brackenberry.

I grimaced at this news. Ms. Hardwick was the school janitor and resident hag. Definitely not the kind of person I wanted to meet inside a dream. Especially one other than Eli’s. With any luck, she hadn’t been involved, although I wouldn’t put it past her.

“There was no apparent sign of a struggle,” Brackenberry went on. “But Britney was lying half in, half out of the water, which suggests she might’ve been trying to flee her attacker. It appears Ms. Hardwick arrived only minutes afterward, but she didn’t see anyone else.” Brackenberry’s tone turned scornful. “Is that enough information for you?”

I gulped. “I think I can make do with it.”

“Well, go on then.” He shooed at me.

I bit my lip. “Would you, um, mind leaving again?” Dreamfeeding was kind of personal, and the last thing I wanted was a male audience.

If I’d been a bowl of ice cream I might have melted on the spot from the hot intensity of his stare. I glanced at Lady Elaine, hoping for some support, but she looked as impatient as the sheriff.

Resigning myself to the inevitable, I walked around to the side of the bed. I was just about to climb onto it and resume the proper Nightmare position, when I remembered a mere touch would do. I closed my eyes and reached my hands toward Britney’s forehead.

“What are you doing?” Lady Elaine said.

I looked over my shoulder. “Checking her temperature.” She stomped her foot. “Not like that. This is too important, Dusty. You need to be in the traditional position to get the deepest connection to her dreams.”

It was my turn to scowl as I climbed onto the bed. I hadn’t dream-fed on anyone besides Eli in a long while. And feeding on a girl, especially one my age, just felt weird. There was nothing sexual about dream-feeding, but the pose was a bit on the lewd side.

I swung one foot over Britney’s middle. Then I squatted down onto her chest, doing my best to keep as much weight off her as I could. I wasn’t that heavy, but Britney was smaller than me, and I didn’t want to hurt her.

As always, the moment I was in place, instinct took over. Britney was dreaming, all right. The stuff of those dreams, the fictus, made something deep inside me burn with a terrible thirst. A thirst for magic.

Closing my eyes, I stretched my hands toward her temple. When my skin touched hers, I felt my consciousness slip from my body and slide down, down, down into the world of Britney’s dream.

A swirl of colors—a chaotic mixture of blues, purples, and greens—enveloped me like some kind of living light, warm and pulsating with energy. It lasted a long time before the chaos settled, and I found myself in a dark, damp cave. A single torch hung nearby, its light making the wet walls around it glisten and reflecting in the water from the canal that ran parallel to the walkway I stood on. To my left and right, the canal and walkway disappeared into the blackness of a long tunnel. Across from me, the canal widened into a small, circular pool, one of the many alcoves in Arkwell’s tunnel system.

The clarity of my surroundings surprised me. Most dreams, aside from Eli’s, were confused, disorienting things, usually black and white, but this place was so real for a moment I thought I’d been transported here in the waking world.

The illusion broke almost at once. The walls began to lean inward, as if the tunnel were being drawn in on itself. The natural orange glow of the torch turned a molten red. And the water began to bubble and spurt in a rapid boil.

A scream rang out even louder than the raging water. I looked down to see Britney’s head break the surface of the alcove’s pool. I’d never seen her in her natural mermaid form, but I knew her skin should be pale, almost translucent, not the angry red color it was now. Blisters popped up on her skin. She was being cooked alive.

No, this wasn’t real. This wasn’t even a dream.

It was a nightmare.

My first instinct was to change the dream, manipulate the setting to somewhere safe and calm, but I resisted. Watch and observe, Lady Elaine had said.

It was hard, especially as Britney swam toward the edge of the pool, struggling to pull herself out of the water. I wanted to help her, but I couldn’t, not here. Any physical contact with my dream-subject and I would be kicked out.

I closed my eyes, unable to watch any longer. I was about to cover my ears when everything went silent. I opened my eyes again, relieved to see the scene had shifted on its own. The tunnel had given way to a strange, small room with bright, colorful walls. I felt oddly weightless, and as strands of my red hair swam into my vision, I realized I was under water. As soon as I thought it, I became aware of the wetness and a sudden need to breathe.

Britney floated a few feet away from me in her mermaid form, her long tail a strawberry pink color that matched her hair. I focused my imagination on copying her form, and a moment later my body had transformed into a mermaid and my panic subsided.

I looked around at what I guessed was her bedroom. No furniture decorated the place, unless you counted the gigantic sea anemone growing along one side of the room that looked big enough to sleep in. But there was something personal and bedroom-ish about the trinkets set on the floor-to-ceiling shelves built in to the coral walls.

Before I could examine the items, an odd, garbled, shrieking sound drew my attention. It seemed to be coming from Britney, who had her back to me. I swam to the left to see around her. Another mermaid floated in a small opening into the room. She had the same strawberry pink-colored hair, and I guessed it was Britney’s mother. They were arguing. Loudly. But in mermench.

Even though I couldn’t understand them, there was no mistaking the animosity. Fury seemed to emanate out from both, but when I caught a sideways glance at Britney, she looked frightened, too.

The scene changed once more, the colors melting and bleeding together before righting again. This time Britney and I stood in the middle of a forest full of dead, deteriorated trees like hundreds of brittle finger bones sticking up from the earth. A stream full of glowing green water ran sluggishly through the trees. Garbage lined its banks. A terrible chemical smell hung in the air, burning my nose. The stench of rotting fish blended in with it. Several animals moved among the trees, all of them looking as sick and listless as the water in the stream. A deer hobbled past me on three legs, scorch marks on its body.

The scene shifted again. We were back in the tunnel, but the water no longer boiled. This time Britney stood beside the alcove’s pool in her human form, her hair more blond than pink, her skin fair but not covered in translucent scales. A dark figure stood a few feet down the tunnel across from her, face hidden in shadows.

The residue. I moved toward the figure, eager to see his face and leave this dream behind. But the scene shifted again, back to the underwater bedroom. The change was so abrupt, I fought back dizziness. Pinwheeling my arms through the water, I focused on Britney still caught up in the argument with her mother.

A moment later, we were back in the forest. But as with the tunnel scene, we were no longer alone. Britney was arguing with a guy, one whose face made my heartbeat double and all the air vanish from my lungs. Paul Foster Kirkwood, my ex-boyfriend. What was he doing in Britney’s dream? For a moment, I thought he must be her attacker, until I remembered that Paul was in jail, awaiting trial for his involvement with Marrow’s scheme to overthrow the magickind government.

I took a step toward him and realized it wasn’t Paul, not exactly, but close, as if Britney had seen the real Paul but her dreaming mind had forgotten the details.

The scene shifted again, back to the tunnel. After that, the changes started happening so quickly, my vision blurred as if I were riding an ultrafast merry-go-round. I tried to close my eyes, but couldn’t. I kept catching glimpses of the almost-Paul and Britney’s mother, even Britney herself, crying out in pain.

Finally, when I didn’t think I could stand it any longer, I reached out with my Nightmare magic and willed the dream to stop its chaotic swirl. At once, everything went still.

The scene before me was the strangest yet. It seemed to be a mash-up of the three scenes, blended into one. I stood in the tunnel again, but the walls were now made up of those spindly, dead trees. The canal water glowed the same sickly green of the stream. It wasn’t boiling. In fact it wasn’t moving at all, but looked as if it had been frozen in place.

Glancing around, I realized that everything was frozen, including Britney, who hung suspended mid-jump into the pool. A look of terror darkened her features. Behind her, I saw the shadowed figure again, frozen as well, but in an attack position, one arm stretched out in front of him as if he were hurling a knife at Britney’s back.

I took a step toward the figure, and pictured a flashlight in my hand. It appeared there at once. I switched it on and shone it at the person. He carried a wand, held out in front of him like a gun. I raised the light to his face and let out an involuntary gasp of alarm. It wasn’t Paul as I’d expected. It wasn’t even Britney’s mother.

It was Eli Booker.

 

 

2
Dream a Little Dream

 

Dreams are symbolic, not literal. Dreams are symbolic, not literal. I told myself this over and over as I walked back to my dorm room, escorted by a silent, lumbering werewolf policeman. It was a futile attempt to staunch the guilt bubbling up inside me with every step. I hadn’t told Lady Elaine about Eli. I just couldn’t. It seemed too much like a betrayal. Eli was my… friend? Partner?

Soul mate.

No, we weren’t even together. But there was definitely something between us. It had been there since the night we defeated Marrow. Since the night he kissed me.

The policeman left me at the bottom of the stairs leading up to Riker Hall. I climbed them slowly, my mind full of the images from Britney’s dreams. Seeing Paul in there was almost as troublesome as seeing Eli. I couldn’t think of any reason why Britney would dream about Paul. As far as I knew, they’d never met. Paul was a senior, two grades above Britney and me. Sure, everybody knew who he was now because of all the press about his involvement with Marrow. But that didn’t seem a strong enough reason for his presence. He was more likely to haunt my nightmares than Britney’s.

Still, when I mentioned him, Lady Elaine had dismissed it. Paul was in jail. There was no way it could’ve been him. Then she pointed out that Britney wasn’t a dream-seer, which meant her dream was just a dream and nothing more.

When I emerged into the foyer, I gave a half-hearted wave to Frank and Igor, Riker Hall’s resident suits-of-armor and security guards. Frank bowed his head in my direction. The knights used to ignore my greetings, but lately they seemed to be developing more prominent personalities from the animation effect of magic and electricity. It wasn’t surprising, honestly. Since The Will broke, the amount of magic usage on campus had gone up a thousand percent.

I went faster up the three flights of steps to my floor, eager to talk to my roommate. Selene hadn’t woken up when the policemen knocked on our door an hour ago to fetch me down to the infirmary, but I would wake her now. I needed her to validate my reasons for not telling Lady Elaine the whole truth of Britney’s dream. The idea of Eli being the attacker was absurd. He couldn’t even do magic. He was an ordinary, just like my dad and all my old friends at my old ordinary high school. The only reason why he attended Arkwell now was because of the dreamseer stuff.

Feeling better already, I pushed open the door to my dorm and let it swing closed harder than normal. I glanced expectantly at the doorway from the living area into the bedroom, but nothing seemed to be moving in there.

Stifling yet more guilt at the idea of disturbing Selene’s sleep, I walked into the bedroom and approached her bed on the far wall, opposite mine. The light from the living area illuminated just enough that I could see Selene’s massive poster of a teenaged Bob Dylan hung over the foot of the bed. Even though Dylan was an ordinary, he was Selene’s favorite musician. She believed he possessed some diluted strain of siren blood. I doubted it, but Selene insisted no ordinary could be that good without some kind of magic. Me, I thought it was more a matter of opinion.

I stopped and looked down at the bed, my brain slowly processing what my eyes had been telling me for the last thirty seconds. Selene was gone. I touched the mattress, confirming it.

Where was she? It didn’t make sense. There was nowhere else for her to be but here. It was a Monday night and well past curfew. I thought back to those few seconds it had taken me to climb out of bed and answer the door when the werewolf policemen had come knocking. Had she been there then? I thought so, but I hadn’t actually checked. Come to think of it, it was a little weird that she hadn’t woken up, too. She was a light sleeper, normally.

I walked over to my nightstand and picked up my cell phone. As usual, it had taken the liberty to shut itself off during the night, its surly personality a result of the animation effect. I pressed the on button and waited impatiently for it to boot up.

No messages. No missed calls.

I dialed Selene’s number and let it ring until her voice mail picked up. Then I texted her and waited for a response. Fifteen minutes later I was still waiting. I checked the desk and the nightstand to see if she’d left her cell phone but didn’t find it. A cursory glance at her shoes lined up neatly on the floor of her closet showed me her black boots were missing. Wherever she was, she’d gone deliberately. Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t have been too worried, but considering what had happened to Britney, I couldn’t help feeling a little concerned.

I sat down on my bed and sent Selene another text. It took me the better part of five minutes to type it, as my cell kept shutting off, making obnoxious twittering sounds as it did so. It was supposed to be a smart phone—oh, the irony.

I was just about to hurl the damn thing across the room, when the door into the dorm opened and a disheveled-looking Selene stepped inside. She was indeed wearing her black boots as well as camo jacket and matching camo ball cap and black pants. Her outfit wasn’t particularly suspicious—Selene had been rocking the tomboy look for more than a year now—but the telltale wetness on her hair told me she’d been outside.

I just stared at her for a moment. She stared back, her mouth dropping open as if I had taken her by surprise rather than the other way around.

I stood up, narrowing my eyes at her. “Where the hell have you been?”

Right away I knew I’d struck the wrong tone as Selene’s surprised expression turned stormy. Never mind that my harsh tone stemmed from fear rather than anger. She put a hand on her narrow waist and flung her black hair over her shoulder. “What’s it to you?”

I gaped. “What do you mean? You were gone. You snuck out in the middle of the night. Without me.”

Selene’s nostrils flared. “It might come as a surprise, Dusty, but my life doesn’t end and begin with you.”

I took an involuntary step back. She might as well have slapped me. Selene never acted like this. Not toward me.

She bit her lip, a stricken expression crossing her face. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to snap. It’s just… I didn’t think you’d be awake.”

I crossed my arms, her apology having little effect on my tumultuous emotions. Anger and hurt were stubborn that way, quick to come and long to leave.

When I didn’t answer, Selene unzipped her coat and flung it over the nearby sofa. “So why are you awake?”

I fought back the automatic instinct to answer her. We were best friends. We shared everything—or so I thought. I opened my mouth to demand she tell me what she’d been doing first, but I closed it at once, certain she would refuse. I didn’t think I could handle that kind of rejection right now.

I shook my head. “No reason.” I turned and headed back into the bedroom, switching off the light as I went.

Then I lay down and closed my eyes, all the things I’d needed to talk about like caged, restless animals inside of me, pacing back and forth, pawing at the door. It took me a long, long time to finally fall asleep.

 

The nightmare was my own, the same one I’d been having for weeks now. I stood on the top of a tall stone tower. Wind buffeted my body, ripping my hair from its ponytail. The force of it pushed me backward until my back hit the hard edge of the parapet. Pain arced down my spine. I lurched forward, struggling against the wind as a terrible, all-consuming need drove me forward. Ahead, a stone square block sat dead center of the tower. I had to reach the plinth.

I didn’t know why I needed to get there, and I didn’t care. The need was too great for thought. My life depended on it. The world depended on it. At first, nothing happened as I moved my arms and legs. It was as if a cruel puppeteer held me back with invisible strings attached to my body.

Then finally, slowly, I began to make forward progress. Each step was like trying to swim through wet concrete. By the end of it, I crawled on my hands and knees. But that was okay. I needed to be on the ground. I needed to read the word etched into the side of the plinth. I pulled myself up to a kneeling position before it. If I could have stood, the plinth would’ve reached my knees, but now its top was level with my eyes. The wind continued its assault on my body. Tears streamed from my eyes as I forced them open against it.

I stared at the letters, but I couldn’t make them out. The impressions were too faint. I stretched my hands toward them. If I tried hard enough, I might be able to read it like Braille. The plinth felt as hard and rough as uncut diamonds beneath my fingers. An idea rose up in my mind: if I could break through that hard surface then I could read the letters. I began to scratch at it, a frenzy coming over me.

Scratch, scratch, scratch. My nails broke off one by one. My fingertips began to bleed. I balled my hands into fists, scraping away with my knuckles, oblivious to the pain. My skin ripped to shreds, but still I persisted. A part of me, the part of my brain that remained tethered to the waking world, even in dreams, knew that I should stop. That this was madness. Even worse, that it wasn’t real.

But I couldn’t stop. The part of me that existed only in dreams knew I had to read those letters. That part held sway here.

I would succeed or die trying.

 


The Nightmare Dilemma © Mindee Arnett, 2014

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