Welcome. Have a seat. The wolves will wait. Let us tell you a story. But be warned. Nightmareland isn't just any tale. This is a Scary Tale.
Meet Aaron Wheeler, who just got a strange, new video game. A game that sucks Aaron right in. All alone, caught in a snowstorm, a howl comes from the nearby woods. And there is no way out….
Prepare yourself for the next installment of James Preller's heart-poundingly scary chapter book series filled with dark and creepy illustrations from acclaimed artist Iacopo Bruno.
About the Author
James Preller is the author of Six Innings, Bystander, and the Jigsaw Jones series. He lives in Delmar, New York, with his wife, three kids, two black cats, and a not-so-scary dog.
Iacopo Bruno is a graphic artist and illustrator who lives in Italy.
Read an Excerpt
By James Preller, Iacopo Bruno
Feiwel and FriendsCopyright © 2014 James Preller
All rights reserved.
ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK
Aaron flipped through the bargain rack in the back of the video store. He paused to read the title on a video game case: NIGHTMARELAND.
He picked it up. The lettering looked fierce, but it was the cover picture that captured Aaron's attention — two sinister, bloodshot eyes peered out from under a bed. No matter how he held the video game, the eyes followed Aaron. He moved the case from side to side, up and down. Still, the eyes stared directly at him. Almost ... directly into him.
Pretty creepy, Aaron thought. But then again, he liked creepy stuff.
Everything in the cover illustration was dark, except for a splash of bright red blood on the floor.
Aaron glanced around. A few scruffy guys in saggy pants wandered around the store. Hardcore gamers, obviously. They looked older than Aaron, who was nearly ten. Two other teenaged boys stood by a rack of comic books, leafing through the pages, cracking jokes. Aaron missed his sister, Addy, who chose to wait in the car — music blaring, no doubt. She had told him, "Ten minutes, Aaron. That's it."
He'd already been in there for fifteen.
Aaron flipped over the game case.
Five words ran across the top like yellow tape at a crime scene:
ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK!
He read the game description.
"Be warned: NIGHTMARELAND is more than a game. Much more. It is the wind in the graveyard, it is the whisper in the keyhole, the claw across the windowpane. It is the knife, the fang, and the razor. It is the deep, dark corners of your own imagination — where your secret fears become real. Where you become the hunted one."
Okaaaaay, Aaron thought. He dropped the case back into the bin. It was on sale and cheap, only $10.95. Which was good, because that was about all he had in his jeans pocket, gift money from old, sweet Grams, who still thought a pair of Abraham Lincolns could buy something in this world.
Aaron had never heard of the game, and he knew all of the popular ones. His friends in school talked video games nonstop, and everybody bought the same ones. If NIGHTMARELAND was any good, Aaron should have heard about it. But maybe for that very reason, Aaron reached out and picked up the box again. He was definitely curious. It might be the only copy in the universe, he told himself. Or at least, the only one in Dublin, Ohio.
A black-haired girl with dark eye makeup sat at the counter. She hunched forward with her feet tucked under her chair, reading from an old paperback called The Sirens of Titan.
"Is this game any good?" Aaron asked. "I never heard of it."
The girl wore clunky bracelets and silver rings on most of her fingers. She glanced at Aaron and shrugged. "Sorry, I just work here. Those games are all the same to me."
He turned at the sound of his sister's voice. "Aaron, are you coming or what?"
Addy stood at the entrance door, trying to look angry. It didn't fit her. She was too nice.
"I'm almost done." Aaron uncrumpled twelve dollars and handed them to the cashier.
"Oh. Hi, Addy!" one of the skinny, high school-aged guys called to his sister. He had freckles and red, corkscrew hair. "Are you here to get the new DEMONS OF DARKNESS video game? It was just released today and —"
"No, Freddy, I'm here to pick up my little brother," she said. "I don't play video games."
"Too bad, man," Freddy snorted. "You're missing out on some cool times."
Addy didn't reply. She didn't want to hurt poor Freddy's feelings.
Aaron received his change and headed out the door.
"Hey, yo, Addy's little bro," Freddy called. "Whatcha get?"
Aaron held up the box.
Freddy shook his thick, curly mane and said, "Never heard of it, kid. Guess it stinks to be you."CHAPTER 2
THE HOODED FIGURE
Aaron climbed into the passenger seat. It felt strange to drive with Addy, who had finally gotten her license after failing her first driving test. Talk about scary. Aaron made sure to buckle up.
"Mom's at some big conference in Columbus tonight. She won't be back until late," Addy said. "I'm your babysitter."
"I don't need a babysitter," Aaron replied.
"Well, tough. You're nine years old — someone has to watch over you," Addy countered.
"Does she pay you?"
"Oh, please." Addy tightened her grip on the steering wheel.
"I'm almost ten," Aaron said. "I don't need —"
"I know, Aaron," Addy interrupted. "Just chill, okay? You know it's been tough for Mom."
Aaron watched the houses slide past outside the car window. His father had moved out six months ago. Just like that, he was gone. Aaron didn't know exactly what happened. Nobody told him much. But he could see the hurt in his mother's eyes. The way she sometimes drifted through the house like a ghost. He wondered if his mother could keep it together to still pay the bills, or if maybe they'd have to move to a smaller house. Maybe a different town.
Would she be okay?
Would they be okay?
Aaron wasn't sure.
"Tell you what," Addy chirped, "I've got to study for a massive economics test. If you aren't a pain, I'll let you stay up extra late."
"Cool," Aaron agreed. "I'll play Xbox. Can we order pizza?"
All in all, it wasn't a bad deal. Aaron had a new video game, no homework, and no one to tell him to limit his screen time. He didn't like turning off the television.
Aaron was the kind of kid who could get lost in a video game. The world faded to gray. Friends, family, even food — nothing else mattered to Aaron when he plugged into a game. These days, with so much unhappiness at home, Aaron spent lots of time lost in video games.
He walked into the TV room. Large bay windows gave a view of their spacious backyard and swimming pool, covered over now with a tarp because of winter. There were no nearby neighbors, just the yard, the woods, and the municipal golf course beyond that, called "Muni" for short. It was only 4:30 and already nearly dusk. Winter in Ohio.
He slid the game disk into the slot and pushed PLAY. The scene opened with a hooded figure standing alone in a snowy field. Something about the hooded figure felt familiar to Aaron — maybe it was the shape of his body.
Aaron pushed the left analog stick and the figure trudged through the shin-deep snow until he came to a large iron gate. It towered at least twelve feet high. Aaron pushed a blue button — the figure's hands grabbed the gate. Strange. Aaron's fingers suddenly felt cold, as if he could imagine exactly what the game character was feeling. He toggled the right analog stick and the gate shook. The muscles in Aaron's arms tightened. He relaxed his fingers, and the figure in the video game allowed his hands to drop.
Usually with a new game it took a few minutes to figure out how the controller worked, which button did what. Every game was a little different. Yet with this one, Aaron didn't have to think. It all came naturally. He pushed buttons and the figure did exactly what Aaron desired. It was as if Aaron simply had to think it and the figure responded.
The boy — for some reason, Aaron thought of the figure as a boy, not a man — peered through the gate. Ancient tombstones stood and leaned in uneven rows. It began to snow. Fat white flakes drifted down, slowly covering the hooded figure's head and shoulders.
Aaron took the controller, pushed a few buttons, toggled forward — and the gate opened with a low groan. He stepped forward, shivering, and entered the graveyard.CHAPTER 3
FANGS GLEAMING IN THE MOONLIGHT
"Aaron? I'm talking to you."
Aaron blinked, looked up, and saw Addy beside him. He pulled the headset off his head.
"I'm going upstairs. Do you need anything before I disappear into my textbook?"
He shook his head.
"Are you okay?" Addy asked. "You seem a little out of it."
Aaron kept his eyes fixed on the television screen. A part of him felt like it was still in that graveyard.
"Maybe you should take a break," Addy suggested. "Go outside, get some fresh air?"
"No, I want to do this."
That was the end of the conversation.
Aaron felt a powerful connection to the figure in the video game as he moved through the desolate graveyard. It was as if Aaron could imagine exactly what it felt like to be in that place.
It was as if ...
No, it couldn't be.
He was at home. Safe and sound. Sitting in the corner of an L-shaped couch. Snug as a bug. A bowl of cereal at his side. Dry, no milk, no spoon, the way he liked it.
Aaron touched the tip of his nose. It was damp and cold. He glanced at the end of his finger. He watched a solitary snowflake melt away.
HOW COULD THAT BE POSSIBLE?
* * *
With the controller in his hands, Aaron became the figure in the snow.
Walking in the graveyard, he shivered. Aaron blew warm air on his cold fingers. It didn't help. His legs felt heavy pushing through the thick snowfall. He continued on toward pale, yellow lights in the far distance. An old castle, perhaps. Not too far. He'd arrive in ten minutes, cold but happy, grateful for a warm fire. Ready for the next test in his adventure.
Tall trees moaned in Aaron's ears. Wind whistled through bare branches. The long limbs swayed like the arms of a great and groaning creature. The snow fell harder now, heavier.
He pulled the thick robe tight around his shoulders. Aaron focused on the lights ahead of him. He'd played enough video games to know that's where he needed to be.
Aaron had to find shelter, fast.
He became aware of movement amidst the trees. A dance of shadows. Black shapes shivered in the silence, loping from dark to dark, obscured by the swirling snow, hidden by tree trunks and shadows. The cold leaked into Aaron's bones. His toes hurt. The dry snow crunched beneath his feet and he walked to that rhythm.
Aaron knew he was being watched. He felt the pressure of eyes, like icy hands on his back. There was something out there. A threat. He felt vulnerable in the graveyard. Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. Now the clouds shifted and moonlight shined full upon the frozen ground. Aaron could make out names on the tombstones. Barrett, Shaw, Glassman. It comforted him to read the names. But in the dark woods to Aaron's left and right, everything remained unknown — shades of gray, shadows of black. The trees formed tall, dark, vertical lines. The rest was nothingness, as empty as an abandoned warehouse.
He glimpsed the shadows that moved soundlessly amidst the trees, melting into the dark.
They loped on four paws.
Aaron saw their eyes, silver slivers of light, staring at him, waiting.
He saw small clouds of their hot breath appear and disappear among the trees. How many wolves were there? he wondered. He imagined that he could smell the foul stench of their mouths, crushed bones, and rotted flesh. What did they eat? he wondered.
When he moved — slowly, cautiously — the eyes of the wolves moved with him. They meant him great harm. He knew it in his bones.
Wolves hunted in packs. Aaron had learned that in school. The media specialist, Mrs. Grabbe, had made him do a project about endangered species. Aaron had picked wolves. Last year, Aaron even dreamed of wolves. Horrible, vivid nightmares. When wolves attacked their prey, the lead wolf often leaped for the neck, clamping down with powerful jaws. The others in the pack would snap at the prey's legs, each tooth like a knife digging into its flesh. Then the pack would pull the hunted animal to the ground, and it was soon over. The wolves would bite into the victim's soft belly. They would howl in triumph, then dip their muzzles to lick warm blood.
Aaron knew that the wolves meant to follow him and then ... they would attack as a pack from all sides.
He slipped and fell. Aaron quickly rose, steadying himself. He spun around fearfully, hands lifted in defense.
There was nothing there.
Aaron was alone in the clearing of a valley, surrounded by woods.
Just a boy in the snow.
Except he was being hunted by wolves.
* * *
It felt so real, so real.
Aaron put down the handset, rubbed his eyes. He grabbed a fistful of dry cereal. The house was silent, his sister upstairs in her room. It was dark outside, night had fallen without his notice. And with it, snowfall. He returned to the video game.
And that's when Aaron first understood that he wasn't playing a game anymore. It was more like ... the game was playing him. Aaron was inside the world of NIGHTMARELAND, inside the fantasy within the television set.
He was no longer sitting on a big, comfy couch. Oh, his body was still there. The shell, the husk. A big sack of water, as Addy, the future scientist, had once explained. But the real Aaron — the person inside the body, the brain and the heart — had traveled somewhere else.
Somewhere outside his body.
Aaron had merged with the figure in the graveyard.
OWWWWWWL, HOWWWWWWWL! The wolves cried, one after another. Then he heard them, padding through the snow, moving faster, coming at him from out of the darkness.
White teeth gleaming in the pretty moonlight.CHAPTER 4
Aaron had to think fast.
He searched his mind for an answer. Aaron had spent hours each day playing video games. He knew how they worked. He reviewed the situation: He was alone in a graveyard with a pack of wolves. It was a puzzle to solve, that's all.
What he needed now, he thought, was a weapon.
A shield, a club, a —
A thick stick poked out of the snow. Aaron grasped it, sniffed. One end smelled of kerosene. Was it a torch?
He felt something in the deep pocket of his cloak. It was a splinter of wood about the length of his pinky. He recognized it as an old-fashioned match. Aaron had seen waterproof matches like this one before — his father always brought them on family camping trips.
Back when they used to be a family, Aaron thought.
Five wolves arrayed themselves behind Aaron in a loose semi-circle. He saw that the wolves were thin and ragged, with ribs showing through. They held their ground, waiting for something. A signal? Or a show of weakness? Aaron knew there must be another wolf — the leader of the pack — circling beyond his field of vision. That's how the attack would start. A leap from the dark. Claws out, teeth bared.
Aaron struck the match against the dry fabric of his jeans. It sparked. He held the match to the end of the torch and WHOOSH, it burst into flame. A flume of black smoke billowed up to the sky. Aaron waved the torch in a fiery circle.
The wolves yipped and backed away, ears dropped down close to their skulls.
Aaron twirled again and saw one old, black wolf, much larger than the others. Its eyes were yellow, its muzzle gone gray. An ugly scar zigzagged across its face. The great beast inched forward, a low growl rumbling in its throat.
"Aaaah!" Aaron shouted. He lunged forward and jabbed the torch at the wolf, nearly striking it on the snout. A spark landed on the beast's coat — the wolf gave a sudden cry — and rolled in the snow to kill the flame.
Feeling new courage, Aaron screamed at the other wolves, waving the torch like a madman. The wolves scampered to a safe distance from him, confused and wary. Yet they did not retreat fully into the woods. Hunger kept them close. Empty bellies made them brave.
"That's right, you nasty dogs! I am Aaron — and I have fire now!" He looked back over his shoulder. The old castle was near. But between the castle and Aaron stood a barrier: a tall, iron fence. There was no opening to slip through. No gate, even. Aaron did not think he could climb up fast enough before the wolves would jump and snap at his legs. No, that would not work. He turned again. The pack inched closer.
At that instant, Aaron understood that expression "wolfish grin."
They seemed to be smiling.
Long tongues licked hungry lips.
He was trapped.
Then he felt it, the strangest sensation of all: Someone else was watching him, too.CHAPTER 5
AND THEN ADDY SCREAMED
The doorbell sounded through the house.
"Aaron? It's the pizza guy. Get the door," Addy called from her upstairs bedroom.
DING-DONG, DING-DONG. The delivery boy with red, corkscrew hair pushed impatiently on the doorbell.
"Aaron?" Addy called.
No answer all over again.
Addy pushed aside the stack of index cards she used for studying. Lazy little brother, won't even get the door, she thought.
KNOCK-KNOCK-KNOCK! A fist rapped on the door. "I got a pepperoni pizza out here!" a male voice called.
Addy opened the front door. She recognized the delivery boy, it was Freddy Prosser. She'd seen him earlier that day in the video store. Who could forget that ridiculous red mop on top of his head?
Excerpted from Nightmareland by James Preller, Iacopo Bruno. Copyright © 2014 James Preller. Excerpted by permission of Feiwel and Friends.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1. Enter at Your Own Risk,
2. The Hooded Figure,
3. Fangs Gleaming in the Moonlight,
4. Fire Boy,
5. And Then Addy Screamed,
6. The Boy Who Wasn't There,
7. A Great Leap,
8. Snow Guards of the Castle,
9. The Attack,
10. No Worries,
11. Prisoner in the Turret,
12. The Final Task,
13. A Window Between Two Worlds,
Preview: ONE-EYED DOLL,