Page 40 of Court of Nightmares

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Inadequate?I don’t know who the laughing voice in my head belongs to, but pictures suddenly assault me.

Of me waking up after they killed me.

Of me sitting in the kitchen, laughing.

Of me sleeping curled around them.

Of me feeding from Nathair.

In every single image, one thing is clear—their emotions.

They feel awe, and they think of me as the bravest thing they have ever seen. It’s not the images of myself that have me smiling, but their feelings.

“The floor is cold. You shouldn’t stay here all night,” Osis murmurs.

“I won’t move him,” I reply softly. “Not while he’s sleeping. I’ll be fine. I’ve had much worse.”

“Not now, not ever again,” Conall retorts, his shadows gathering.

With a soft sigh, Lycus gently picks us both up.

I look down in worry, but Azul doesn’t move as Lycus brings us to my room before laying us down. Azul sighs, and Reve tucks us both in, his concern showing on his face as he looks at Azul.

Not one of them leaves. Instead, they all find places in the room to sit or lie to stay with us.

“Will he be okay?” I ask.

“I think he truly will,” Nathair murmurs. “For the first time ever.” It’s clear he means because of me, but I don’t respond, unsure what to say.

“Sleep if you need to. We will watch over you,” Zale offers kindly.

“I’m good.” I pull Azul close. “But maybe while we wait, you could tell me more about this place?” I request quietly, not wanting to disturb Azul. “I keep meaning to ask, but . . .”

Nathair stiffens, and although it’s barely noticeable, I’m so tuned into them that I see it.

“You don’t have to,” I tell him, sensing his reluctance.

“No, you deserve to know. I mentioned some, but I wasn’t a good man back then. None of us were, I guess, hence the death penalty.” He laughs without amusement, staring into the fire. “I was greedy and lost in the need for power. My father was the same way, and it drove him mad. He was a cruel king. Many died, and our court was scared, so I killed my father and took the throne by force. I declared myself king, and people were relieved, thinking I would be better. I hoped I would be, but the power . . . it was too much for any one man.” He smiles bitterly. “We were great once and named after the darkness itself, for we hosted the creatures of it. Shifters, animators . . . you name it, we had it. We were once the strongest court of all, but it warped me. I had become worse than my father. The bones of those who once trusted me were stacked at the base of my throne in my thirst for power, for dominion, over everyone and everything.”

“Nathair,” I whisper, tasting the agony in his voice. I can almost feel the bones brushing my fingers as he speaks.

“No, it is okay, Althea. I know what an evil man I was. I am ashamed, of course, and I have spent my new life making up for it, but truth be told, when the end came, I fought it, not wanting to die. I thought I deserved life more than any other I killed. When I was judged by the gods and given a choice, it was like a curse was lifted. The thirst for more was just gone. I could finally breathe again, but the full force of the things I had done threatened to drown me. For years after I came back, I wandered through this place, just remembering their screams and pleas.”

He became silent for a moment. “Sometimes I still do.” He looks at me. “Some left, choosing to exile themselves rather than stay with a mad king, while others blindly followed me, allowing me to kill thousands—humans, vampyrs, anyone who got in my way. I tortured, killed, ate, and stole power. I was the worst king I could have ever been, and now they call me king once more, and sometimes I hate the title, but other times it reminds me of my duty so another king like me never rises. Then the others started to come, turned into masters of the night and born with new powers. Hence the Court of Nightmares. I could not bear to call it Nox anymore. That place is long since dead, as are its people, and in its place are . . .”

“Nightmares,” I murmur.

He nods, smiling sadly. “I wish you could have seen it before my father’s madness, when I was just a boy. It was such a sight to see. Laughter filled the halls, and there were more children than you could count. People were happy and prospering. It was a good, strong court. Our powers were legendary, and our people were destined for great things.”

“So what happened? Why did your father change so much?” I ask, confused.

“I do not know. Some said it might be a curse, while others thought he had simply gone mad and our blood was tainted. I do not believe I will ever find out. I cannot change what was done, Althea, but I can change the future. I can make the courts a better place, and I can make our future better. Now, together with you, we stand a chance to be better. Maybe your god was right, and we are destined for death. Maybe it calls to us from beyond the grave, I do not know, but we have to change it. We cannot have another Nox Court. Our race couldn’t survive it.”

“What about your mother?” I ask sometime later, debating what he said.

“My father killed her,” he answers calmly. “He’d already broken her heart, and I think she was dying from that anyway, but then he ripped it out. Ironic, really, since it had always been his. That is what finally made me step up. I was angry, so angry, so I gave into the darkness inside. Maybe they are right about our bloodline, for after I challenged and killed him, I was never the same.”

“But you are now, Nathair. I feel the goodness in you. Whatever happened, you have paid for it, and you clearly regret it.”