I couldn’t run. There was nowhere to go. In the presence of the Nightmare Queen even the idea that I could escape seemed impossible. She stood just a little over five feet tall but her jet black hair seemed to fill the room with shadows and glimpses of endless oblivion.
“Why is Nan afraid of you?” Penny asked. Her voice was calm and even, but I could see the tension that turned her spine into a board.
There are dangers that people miss because the peril is too well hidden. There are dangers that people miss seeing because the peril appears as something harmless or trustworthy. In one sense, the Nightmare Queen was both of those.
She wasn’t physically imposing. She didn’t make threatening gestures. Even her voice was light and pleasant, with no growly or inhuman undertones. So she seemed harmless. The true depths of her power were likewise unobservable. So she was well hidden. No one ever made the mistake though of thinking she wasn’t supremely dangerous. Not unless she wanted them too. On some primal level, anyone who looked at her gained a bone-deep awareness of the fathomless, unknowable darkness that she reigned over. Those she shielded from that awareness were either lovingly protected or in a great deal of trouble.
“Nan has been a bad Nightmare,” the Nightmare Queen said. “And I’m often called on to punish bad nightmares.”
“I didn’t do anything wrong though,” I said, finding my voice only because of how scared I was. There were no legends of the Nightmare Queen’s punishments because no one had ever returned from one.
“It’s not what you’ve done that’s cause for concern,” the Nightmare Queen said. “It’s what you are and what you might become.”
She didn’t move, but I had the memory of her gliding across the floor like a feather in a gentle breeze as I noticed she was at my side, peering at me like a cat might peer at a particularly clever mouse. She didn’t reach out to touch me, she only peered into my eyes. Given that I was formed from nothing except shadows, that was an impressive feat by itself. What terrified me though was how she looked into the dark pools I called eyes and not only saw through them but also showed me the infinitely deeper pools that lurked in hers.
“Nan doesn’t want to be a Nightmare,” Penny said. She was young enough to still possess the combination of bravery and stupidity that allowed her to talk to someone like the Nightmare Queen without falling apart completely.
“So I heard,” the Nightmare Queen said. “Many times, from many Nightmares, unfortunately.”
“I just don’t want to fade away again,” I said. “I’m not going to hurt anyone.”
“I know,” the Nightmare Queen said. “Most Nightmares that sneak into the waking world say the same thing. Most of them don’t think too long though on what they’d be willing to do to avoid fading again, or how much they’re pain they’re willing to inflict if they don’t see an alternative.”
“They’re not all the same though, are they?” Penny asked. “Nightmares, I mean, some of them aren’t bad.”
I heard something in Penny’s voice that I’d never imagined I’d hear. Belief in me. She’d known me for less than ten minutes and yet she still saw something in me that she was willing to fight for. That was something no dream had ever shown me.
“No, they’re not all the same,” the Nightmare Queen said. “Some are better and some are worse. The hard part is finding out which one you are.”
She reached into her robe and drew a necklace out. It was made from a softly gleaming silver substance with a dark, teardrop shaped, purple gem in the center. She offered it to me wordlessly.
“What is that,” I asked, hesitating to take it.
“It’s how we find out what kind of Nightmare you are,” the Nightmare Queen said.
“What’s it going to do?” I asked. I had almost nothing, just the shadows I’d stolen to make my body, so I didn’t have a lot to lose. Only everything I was.
“It will give you a choice,” she said. “You’re in the waking world. You’ve got a name. You’re not fully real yet, but you’re not quite a dream anymore either. With this you can change that. It will take away everything real and let you step back into dreams. You’ll be the Nightmare that you once were.”
“I don’t want that,” I said. “I want to stay like am I now.”
“That’s not possible for anyone,” the Nightmare Queen said. “This won’t force you to change though, it will only do its work if you ask it to.”
“And if I don’t ask it to do anything?” I took the necklace from her and weighed in my hands. For something that held the power of life and death over me it was unbelievably light.
“Then you’ll remain here in the waking world,” the Nightmare Queen said. “Or wherever you chose to travel.”
“So you’re not going to do anything to to me?” I asked.
“It’s too soon for me to say that. I might do all kinds of things to you. For the moment though, I’ll just be watching. I want to see what sort of choices you make.”
“What happens if I make bad ones?” I asked.
“It depends on how bad they are,” she said. “Good or bad though, there will be consequences. There are always consequences.”
“Do those consequences involve me being destroyed again?” I asked.
“Yes. Some of them,” she said. “Don’t live in fear of those though. You’re less likely to run into them than you are to use that necklace.”
“Okay,” I said, breathing a sigh of relief with lips that held no substance and a body that couldn’t breathe in any air.
“There are some things you should be warned about however,” the Nightmare Queen said. “You hail from nightmares, that will influence you and it will influence the people around you. You’re inherently magical and that will make you a target. Lastly, and most importantly, you were formed from the dreams of a sleeper, but you’re still a new being. You’re going to make all sorts of new, fledgling mistakes. Those are the ones you may regret the most.”
“Thank you,” I said. Despite the fact that the necklace could destroy me, it felt like the greatest gift I could have been given.
“Don’t thank me yet,” the Nightmare Queen said. “I may still be the ending of you.”