The Chronicles of Nerissette
By Andria Buchanan, Libby Murphy, Danielle Poiesz
Entangled Publishing, LLC Copyright © 2013 Andria M. Buchanan
All rights reserved.
As it always did, my dream started with an inky blackness that I couldn't see through. The world began and ended in a darkness that stood like walls a thousand feet high around me.
The sound of my voice never went farther than my lips before it stuttered and died, a victim of the monster that haunted the emptiness around me.
"Hello?" I said, louder this time.
I sank to the floor, slowly, looking around to try to see if there was anything I could recognize — something that would tell me where I was.
I turned my head toward the sound, listening, trying not to breathe. Waiting for the monster to move again.
Click. Scritch. Click-clack. The clipped sounds of something sharp against the solid stones, invisible beneath my feet because of the dark.
I brought my hands up to cover my nose and mouth, desperate to hide from whatever was making the noise, whatever was hunting me.
"You can't escape me, Princess," a slick, serpentine voice said, hissing the last word.
A male dragon stepped out of the darkness, his scales as red as blood and eyes like glowing emeralds. A long, black forked tongue snaked out of his snout, like he was searching for a scent.
"You ..." I sidled away from him, my hands out in front of me. "You're not real. This is a dream, and you're not real."
"Am I not?" he asked. "Isn't this real?"
He opened his mouth and I pressed farther back, trembling at the sight of rows of razor-sharp teeth. He lifted his head and flames poured from his mouth, setting the air above our heads ablaze. "Are the flames not real, Your Highness? Do they not burn?"
"This is a dream." My eyes darted around the room, trying to find a way to escape.
"This isn't real. This is a dream, and you're nothing but a dragon from a book of fairy tales my mother used to read to me. You're Kuolema, one of the great dragons of the Bleak. You haunt the world of dreams with your brothers, tormenting those too cowardly to stand and meet their fate."
"Very good." The dragon's tongue flicked out again in front of my nose. "Very clever, Princess. Now continue with the story. Finish it."
"The brothers — Death, Fear, Hatred, and Despair, the last of the great dragon lords — were sentenced to the Bleak at the will of the stars, eating the bones of those who commit unforgivable crimes."
"How well do you know your stories?" he asked. "What types of criminals do we hunt?"
"You hunt those who let others die in their place, who are too scared to go up against a greater evil. Mom pounded that into my brain so I'd never forget it. You're the monsters sent to destroy the selfish. To punish them for their greediness. But you're a story. A stupid story from a stupid book that used to give me nightmares. You're not real!"
"Am I not?" The dragon's tongue curled along the length of my neck, flicking once behind my left ear as he kept his eyes fixed on mine.
"You're not real," I whispered. My shoulders began to shake as I tried to keep from cringing away from the beast that still stared deep into my eyes.
"Soon you'll see, little Princess," the dragon said, his voice nothing but a breeze. "Soon you'll see just how real I am. Fate is coming, in her cloak of broken promises, and she will bring destruction in her wake. We will bathe in the blood and the tears that she rains upon your face. We will dance to the music of your screams."
"No." I shook my head. "Fate isn't real, and even if she were, what would she want with me? I'm no one. I'm just a girl."
"Fate is coming for you, Princess." The dragon brought his snout closer.
I could smell the stench of rotting meat on his breath and tried not to gag.
"Fate is coming with her terrible swords and her cloak and her fire, and when you fail her I will burn you alive, and my brothers and I will feast upon your bones."
The dragon lifted his head again and roared, the sound echoing around me as the world burst into a brilliant white. The darkness vanished as the blinding light replaced it, banishing the blackness from every corner.
An instant later it was gone. The light. The black. The world around me was only gray. Stones boxing me in. A prison with no windows or doors. Another picture from the same book. Kiirastuli, the Place of Waiting, where souls whose great deeds had not yet come were trapped.
"This isn't real." I rubbed my hands up and down my arms. "None of this is real."
"It's coming," a sharper, female voice said. It startled me and I jumped, surveying the empty room as terror licked down the length of my spine.
"What's coming?" I asked no one.
"The time has come, and Fate demands her payment. Her debt must be paid."
"Where are you?" I asked. "Who are you?"
"I'm so sorry," the voice said again from behind me. I spun around to find myself face-to-face with a hazy, washed-out vision of a large black cat. A large, black, talking cat ...
"Six thousand days seemed like such a long time when I agreed to it. Such a very, very long time. A lifetime."
"Six thousand days for what?"
"Fate is coming, and with her, the souls of a million realities, the lives of a hundred worlds."
"I don't understand. What do you mean —"
"Beep." The cat crossed her eyes and then shook her head. "Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep."
I jerked upright, my heart pounding, gasping for breath, and looked around my tiny bedroom. Beep. Beep. My alarm.
I slammed my hand down on the black plastic alarm clock and sucked in a lungful of air. I ran a shaky hand through my hair and tried to breathe evenly. The dreams were getting worse. This time I'd actually smelled the dragon's breath and felt the flames. And the cat. Where the heck had she come from? She'd never been in my dreams before.
"Allie?" Gran Mosely called from downstairs, her voice echoing in the narrow stairwell outside my bedroom door. "Allie, are you awake?"
"Yeah," I said, my voice quivering. "I'm awake, Gran."
"Good. Hurry up and come down. Your friends are here, and I'm making breakfast."
I scrambled out of bed, pulling off my oversize nightshirt as I went, and grabbed a pair of black sweatpants. I froze.
Today was Saturday. Time to work on my English Literature group project at the library. With Winston Carruthers — the most gorgeous guy in school — who also happened to be one of my closest friends and usually told people I'm "just like one of the guys."
Even though I'd been completely friend-zoned by him, there was no way I was going to spend the entire day with him in a pair of ratty sweatpants looking like I'd just rolled out of bed.
"Allie?" Gran called up the stairs again.
"Coming!" I looked at the sweatpants in my hand and then at my closet. Did I have time for a shower? I checked the clock: 9:30 a.m. We were supposed to be there at ten. No time.
"It's not a big deal," I said to myself. Nothing to freak out about. Nothing at all. "He probably won't even notice."
"Allie, eggs are done," my best friend, Mercedes, yelled up the stairs. "Come down now or I'm eating your share."
"Be right there!" I hurried over to the closet and grabbed a pair of jeans and a long, forest-green henley that sort of brought out the red highlights in my mousy brown hair. Or at least that's what Gran had said when we bought it. Even if Winston didn't notice, I'd still look somewhat okay.
I tugged my clothes on and then pulled my hair up into a loose ponytail. Did I have time for makeup? Lip gloss, maybe? 9:33. It was twelve blocks to the library. Definitely no time for lip gloss.
"Your eggs are on my plate," Mercedes voice rang out in the stairwell. "I'm going to munch down their runny, over-easy goodness. Yummy, yummy eggs for me."
I snatched my worn, purple book bag off the back of my desk chair and jerked the door to my bedroom open before pounding down the stairs. I jumped from the third stair into the tiny, yellow-and-white kitchen, and my bare feet slid a little on the worn linoleum.
"Nice," Mercedes said. I glanced up quickly to see her sitting with Winston at the kitchen table, eating my eggs, with an empty plate beside her.
"That was my —" I stopped and stared at her. Thick black glasses, old-school video-gamer T-shirt. Chubby cheeks. Holy smokes. "What did you do to your hair?"
"An unfortunate chemical accident with Clairol." She patted her formerly raven and now mint-green hair and grinned. "I was trying for platinum."
"It didn't work," Winston said. He shoved an entire piece of bacon into his mouth and then winked a twinkling, chocolate-colored eye at me, his coffee-colored skin even darker than normal against Gran Mosely's bright-yellow tablecloth.
My breath caught as I gawked at him, and I tried to remind myself that we were most definitely just friends.
"I, um, I can see that." I snagged a piece of buttered toast off the chipped plate in the center of the table and took a bite, trying to pass off my moment of idiocy by focusing on the food.
"Mom says I have to live with it until I can afford to pay for a pro to color it — or it grows out," Mercedes said.
"And?" I asked through a mouthful of toast.
"I'm thinking I could rock a crew cut."
"No, you couldn't." Winston rubbed his own close-cropped black curls. "The itch of it growing back in would drive you nuts. Besides, you're better as a leprechaun."
"Shut up." She narrowed her eyes at him. "Or I'll tell everyone about how you once told me you wished —"
"So," Gran Mosely said, interrupting their usual bickering. "Mercedes said you're all spending the day at the library. The fairy-tale project. How's that going?"
"Yeah." I took another bite and purposely didn't meet her eyes. "It's going good."
"We're working with Jesse and Heidi, or as I like to call them, the zombie twins, and they're slowing us down." Winston scraped his fork across his plate, scooping up the last bit of egg yolk.
"Zombie twins?" Gran Mosely asked.
"Desperately in need of brains," Mercedes explained.
"But you will be home in time to visit your mother this afternoon. Right?"
Mom. Crap. Third Saturday of the month. Nursing home day. The absolute low point of my social life.
It's not that I don't love my mom — I do. I really, really do. We were peanut butter and jelly. Ice cream and caramel sauce. More like best friends than mother and daughter.
We were gypsies roaming the wide plains of America in a station wagon, going wherever Mom had a singing gig. Or at least that was what we had done. Before the car accident that left her in a coma and me in the foster care system, living with Gran Mosely.
"I'll try, Gran. But I promised the other girls from the swim team I'd meet them to go dress shopping for the winter formal, so I might not be able to fit Mom in today."
"So we can go tomorrow."
"Swim practice," I said.
"Then next week we'll try to work something out," she said.
"Swim meet against Peters Township."
Gran Mosely sighed. "Well, perhaps the weekend after that?"
"Winter formal," I said quickly. "And swimming practices."
"Right. Well, about the winter formal. You and Winston are going together, aren't you?"
I looked over at the boy sitting silently at Gran's table, his dark skin flushed and his head bowed. "It's a group thing, Gran," he said quietly. "Not just me and Allie. It's not like a date or anything."
Yeah, because that would have been horrible. Really.
"Well," she sighed. "At least you'll be there to keep an eye on the girls in case any boy gets too fresh."
"Okay." I tried not to roll my eyes at the idea of any guy actually bothering to "get fresh," as Gran Mosely called it. I had a better chance of growing gills than being flirted with by some random guy. "Time to go now. Off to do homework. Yay homework."
Winston stood, his eyes still not meeting mine, and picked up his and Mercedes's plates as I took another bite of toast and tried to ignore Gran Mosely's searching gaze. She'd been trying to play matchmaker between Winston and me since I'd come to live with her, and I knew I wasn't the only one who felt weird about it.
The last thing I needed was to make a fool out of myself over a guy who was almost like a brother to me. It would be an absolute disaster. I wouldn't just not get the guy — I'd lose one of my best friends as well. No. Winston was definitely out of bounds.
"We'll see you later, Gran," Mercedes said, pulling me out of my thoughts.
"Right." Gran smiled first at me and then at my friends. "Have a good time today."
"Oh, it'll be a blast," Winston said, not even bothering to hide his sarcasm.
I quickly slid on a pair of black flip-flops and tried not to think about the fact that my feet looked like the human equivalent of hooves. Not that there was anything I could do about it. Swim practice six days a week made a pedicure pretty much pointless.
"We who are about to die." Winston picked up his own beaten-up black bag and slung it over his shoulder before ushering me out the door. "You know how it goes."
"Hail Caesar," Gran said before he closed the door.
"Come on," he said. "Or we're never going to make it out of this alive."
Two hours later I was trying to figure out whether it was possible to actually use the shelves full of library books to light myself on fire. Wasn't there some kind of Chinese torture that involved a thousand paper cuts? Because I was willing to sign up for that if it just made the stupid stop.
Jesse was ... well, he was what most girls would call absolutely gorgeous, and some part of me thought that should count for something. Anything. Instead it was like looking at a very pretty building and realizing that not only were there no lights on inside, but there wasn't anything inside.
He'd spent the first half hour trying to make sense of the project — even though I'd explained it twice already — and ever since he'd been trying to convince us that we'd be better off doing our project on a story with more pictures than words. Not that I didn't like comic books, but seriously?
Now I was at the point of snapping just because of the way his lips moved when he read. Which was why Mercedes and I decided to make one last run to look for books to use. Except there wasn't much left that hadn't been dismissed by Her Royal Highness Queen Heidi with a dismissive flick of her fingers and a nose-curling sneer before she went back to her magazine.
"Hurry up already, Allie," Mercedes hissed as she elbowed me in the ribs.
"I'm looking, but we're running out of books."
"Well, hurry anyway. If we don't go back to the table with something reasonable you know Jesse is going to try pitching his whole comic books are really just fairy tales that don't suck idea again, and Winston will lose it."
I winced. "Oh, God. I can't take another argument about the merits of comic books versus novels. I just can't. My brain is already throbbing from trying to explain to him that just because The Avengers had a woman in it doesn't make it a fairy tale."
"Mine, too. So, while I'd really love to watch Winston punch him and break into an old-fashioned throwdown, Mrs. Ath will bounce us out of here. Then we'll never get this project done, and we'll fail English, and then I will have to kill you."
"It's not my fault that we can't find a fairy tale that hasn't been claimed by another group already or isn't completely stupid — at least according to Her Majesty over there." I ran my finger over the edges of the thick books on the shelf.
Mythology. Cinderella. Scandinavian folk tales. None of them made it past Heidi's eye-rolling dismissal before she sent me back to the shelves to find something else. Nothing I found was right. Everything was too much work, or too boring, or simply too uncool. But she couldn't tell me what she wanted, so we were quickly running out of options. Unless we wanted to do a project on The Avengers or a critique on the fashion choices Disney had made when outfitting its princesses. The short version? Heidi thought they needed more couture and fewer ruffles.
"What about this one on folk tales from Africa?" Mercedes pulled a red leather-bound book off the shelf. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Everlast by Andria Buchanan, Libby Murphy, Danielle Poiesz. Copyright © 2013 Andria M. Buchanan. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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