It was the end. I’d messed up. The Nightmare Queen had given me a chance and I’d blown it. I clutched the necklace I’d hung onto since I last saw her, clinging to it as though it was a lifeline rather than something that was created to allow me to destroy myself.
“Haven’t seen you in a while,” Grandma Apples said, as she put away one of the plates of pastries.
“You haven’t needed to,” the Nightmare Queen said. The look that passed between them wasn’t adversarial, but it wasn’t precisely friendly either. I couldn’t imagine someone being on Nightmare Queen’s bad side and still existing in any sort of meaningful form. Grandma Apples had an odd strength of her own though.
“Do I need to now?” she asked, glancing at me.
“Not directly,” the Nightmare said. “No one here is Errant.”
She said the word as though Grandma Apples would know it’s meaning. I didn’t. From context and tone though it didn’t sound like something I’d want to be.
“It’s not like you to show up for breakfast tea,” Grandma Apples said.
“I’m not here to impose on your hospitality,” the Nightmare Queen said. “You have one of mine as a guest though and the time has come for them to make their choice.”
“What do I have to choose?” I asked, knowing it wouldn’t be an easy one.
“Yourself,” the Nightmare Queen said. Seeing my look of blank confusion she continued. “You belong in my realm. You have had a chance to experience the waking world, to feel its joy and pain. You can make an informed decision now, to either remain here, or to return to my service.”
“I can go back to what I was before?” I asked.
“No, you will always be more than who you used to be,” she said. “You’ve changed already and if you return with me, you will become more than you can imagine now. Everything you could want to be and more. The Dreamlit World will be your home and you will, in time, be able to walk from the sharp edge of reality to the hazy shores of Oblivion. From the person you’ve become you could draw forth whole new cosmoses, as kind, as terrible, or as rich as you wish them to be.”
That didn’t seem like it could be real, and I suppose in a sense it wasn’t. Dreams, by their definition, are not real. But the Dreamlit World could get awfully close to real sometimes.
“And if I choose to stay here?” I asked.
“Then my realm will be closed to you,” the Nightmare Queen said. “You will visit it only as anyone else in this waking world can. You will live among them, as one of them, and you will suffer both the pains and the joys this world has to offer.”
“I’d be real?” I asked. “Like really real?”
“You have been real since you chose to remain behind when the dream portal closed,” the Nightmare Queen said.
“But I was changing uncontrollably before,” I said. “I felt like I was being torn apart.”
“You had no grounding.”
“Like the soil from the Dry River?”
“No, that was not a part of you. Understanding that, choosing to be who you are, that is what gave you the bedrock you were lacking.”
“But the Fisherman? I thought he took away the changing part of me?”
“He stole pieces of you, but you are far more than the sum of your parts,” the Nightmare Queen said.
“What would happen if I got those pieces back?” I asked.
“You would remember more of who you were,” she said. “You would have an easier time being more of a Nightmare and a harder time being more of a human, but neither would be impossible for you, as neither is impossible for you now.”
“And if I don’t want to be a Nightmare at all anymore?” I asked.
“Then return my necklace to me,” she said. “Who you are will always be informed by who you were, but informed is not the same as defined. Even if you cast off every bit of your supernatural self, you will always be capable of changing.”
“If I try to get them back, my missing pieces, will you have to kill me?” I asked.
“No, I won’t kill you. I don’t have to,” the Nightmare Queen said. “If you take back the bits of dreaming that are missing from you and try to plunge this cosmos into chaos or oblivion, killing you wouldn’t help matters at all. I would simply bring you into my estate and repair the world as though you had never existed in it at all.”
“You would unmake Nan?” Penny asked.
“Only from the perspective of your reality,” the Nightmare Queen said. “But I don’t believe it will ever come to that. I can’t trust people easily where dreams and reality mix, but I can give them the chance they deserve.”
“I think that’s what I want,” I said. “I want to be me. All of me. Nightmare and human. Real and dream. I don’t think I can give up either one.”
And the Nightmare Queen smiled.
It wasn’t a cold smile, or a calculating one. It didn’t have any of the air of mystery and menace that wrapped her like a cloak. The sparkle in her eyes and the dimples on her cheeks made me see her as someone who’d once been in a situation like mine and had made a very similar choice.
“Then so let it be,” she said.
She opened her had to show me a lustrous pearl that glowed with a gently pulsing inner light.
“For your necklace,” she said.
“What will it do?” I asked.
“The necklace carries the bulk of your dreaming essence. If you’d destroyed it, you would have become your full Nightmare self again. This pearl symbolizes your human half. Together, they stand for the balance you’ve found.”
“What happens if I break this though? Or it gets stolen?” I asked.
“This is a gift from me. It is as real as I decide it to be, and therefor it will only break if you chose to break yourself, and no one will ever be able to take it from you, unless you give yourself to them.”
Crying may not have been the right response there but when your life is acknowledged as tangibly as that it’s hard to hold back the waterworks.
“What about the Fisherman?” Penny asked. “What if he comes after Nan again?”
“Oh, I don’t think we’re going to be hearing from him again,” Grandma Apples said. “In fact I’m guessing when our guest here leaves we’re not going to remember him at all.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“He held your power,” the Nightmare Queen said. “Your power which I had touched and marked. I’ve been searching for him for a little while now. Happily, I am searching for him no longer.”
“What happened to him?” I asked.
“He’s settling into his room in my estate,” the Nightmare Queen said. “And as Grandma said, once I leave and take my realm with me, he will be completely removed from your reality.”
“Will that bring back my missing pieces?” I asked.
“Some of them,” she said. “Others will have been carved off by different people. Real people. You can chose to seek them out, and deal with them as you wish. If I can offer any consul though; mercy is not a weakness and cruelty isn’t strength.”
“How can I thank you?” I asked.
“Thank me for what?” she asked. “This is your life, you made it, you get the credit and the blame for it.”
And with that, she faded away, and the rest of my life began.