Page 15 of Court of Nightmares

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Death is surprisingly boring.

Serene but boring.

Or maybe I am not fully dead yet and I linger between.

Fog crowds around me, obscuring the landscape, and my feet are glued to the spot, but the best part? I feel no pain, hunger, or madness. I am as I once was, strong and peaceful.

It’s a miracle.

I don’t know how much time passes before my mother steps through a shroud of light. At first, I don’t believe it, but it’s her. Her soft smile is just as I’ve seen it a thousand times in pictures and dreams. Her hair is the exact same as mine, and her eyes, so filled with love, crinkle at each corner.

It’s her, and she is beautiful.

“Mum?” I whisper.I truly am dead.

“It’s me, my love,” she assures me, taking my hands. “Look how beautiful you grew up to be.”

A sob catches in my throat as I throw myself at her, and she rubs my back, soothing me in a way only a mother can.

“Shush now, my girl, everything is okay.”

“I missed you so much,” I whisper.

“I missed you too.” She pulls away. “But now isn’t your time.” She glances over her shoulder and frowns before she looks back at me. “Or so I saw, but it is your choice, Althea. It always has been.”

“My choice for what, Mum? I don’t understand. We are together again, and I’m free.”

She smiles sadly at me as she grips my hands. “I will always be here, waiting for you, but you have such incredible things to do back down there. Stop reaching for death when you were destined to live.”

“But, Mum—”

“I know it hurts, and I know you have suffered so much already, and you will suffer much worse if you go back—”

“Mum, I’m dead! I can’t go back!” I argue. This is not how I was expecting this to go.

“You are in between, my love. Not quite dead and not quite alive. They haven’t burned your heart or body yet, so there is still time, but not much. I cannot give you the answers you wish to know, but know this, Althea—I knew you were destined for a great many things, and none of them included running into death’s arms to escape pain. You are stronger than that, stronger than anyone even knows. You are the very best of us.”

“I’m the worst,” I hiss.

“No, my love. Nightmares and darkness are not evil, but they are as necessary as the light. So much sin has been committed in the name of righteousness, and it must be undone. Do you understand me? I bore my death with pride, knowing it left you to complete your destiny. The world needs you, Althea, and I do as well, but I can wait. I’m not going anywhere, but know this—if you go back, it will hurt worse than anything you’ve ever experienced because what you must face will leave even the most hardened warrior scarred, so I understand if you want to stay. I will fade with you, and we will be together again.”

“I-I’m so very tired of being alone and scared,” I tell her.

“I know, my girl, but in the end, everyone is alone. All that waits for us is our loved ones and our deeds. Can you truly tell me if this is the end, and that if this is your last day, you are happy with how you left it? Althea, you have such a big heart, someone . . . or several someones should feel that. You should love brilliantly and greatly, you should fight until you cannot fight anymore, and above all, you should be who you were always supposed to be. Embrace it, love it, and wield it. You, Althea, were always destined to be the death of others and be one in the dark protecting innocents. It is your destiny, just as being your mum was mine.”

“You told me I would die.”

“I did, and you have.” She grins. “And I said no more. I kept those prophecies to myself to allow you to grow up without that pressure so you could choose. I will love you either way.”

“If I go back, will I still be . . . that way? Corrupted from the rejected mating?”

A flash of anger crosses her face before it clears. “No. When you died, the soul bond to him died too, so you will be free once more.” Squeezing my hand, she looks back again. “We must hurry, Althea. I promise that whatever you choose, I love you and I’m proud of you. All I ever wanted was to see you one last time, and now I have.”

“But you think I should go back.”

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