Norseton, New Mexico
Undisciplined psychic that she was, Mallory Petersen was used to having some seriously fucked up dreams. By the time she’d turned eighteen, she’d become an expert at rousing herself from them at the first sign that her brain was veering toward the deranged and disturbed.
Sometimes, though, they went morbid and surreal too quickly for her to react, and her waking mechanism experienced critical failure.
She lay in her bed, trapped in a sleep-paralyzed body, dreaming with her eyes wide open. The scene playing out in her head wouldn’t end. The past had taught her that the images wouldn’t fade until the story reached a conclusion. Drawing in a deep breath, she closed her eyes, and allowed her consciousness to slide fully into the dream.
The sooner I do, the sooner it’ll be over.
In the eerie scene, the dreamscape version of Mallory held her hand out to the manicurist across from her who assessed her fingertips in silence. As she squinted at Mallory’s nails, her lips turned down into a perfect U of a scowl. Tutting, she reached for a bottle of polish.
Dream-Mallory tried to pull her hand away. She didn’t need her nails painted, just filed and perhaps buffed. No matter what kind of lacquer that lady painted on, it was only going to peel off within a couple of days. The constant hand-washing necessary for her nursing job was hard on her nails. “Thank you, but I don’t need polish,” Mallory told her.
The ghostly manicurist pinned Mallory’s hand down and grunted. She opened the bottle of siren-red polish with her molars and pulled out the brush. She muttered quietly to herself, drawing tidy stripes onto alternating fingernails while Mallory squirmed in her seat.
All of a sudden, she seemed to be glued to the hard plastic salon chair, but upon realizing that, it was no longer a chair, but a tree stump, and she was no longer in a salon.
The woods sprang up around her and, in a warranted state of panic, she looked at the manicurist to see if she noticed it as well.
But the manicurist had no eyes.
There were no eyes in her fucking head, and yet there she was, painting red strokes onto Mallory’s nails—three on one hand, two on the other.
Suddenly she stood, but before Mallory could think to flee, another woman took her place. She had eyes, but no mouth, and she was shaking a bottle of silver lacquer.
Just let it end. Just let it end.
Mallory could sort out the oddness of the imagery once she was awake and had the lights turned on. She needed to keep her heart rate down and to not let her brain meander to darker and more surreal places. Muriel would sense her alarm and would swoop in and try to psychically massage Mallory back into a more level state. Mallory would have rather have streaked through the village in nothing but a thong and a Viking helmet at midday than to have Muriel paying that much attention to her.
As doting and kind as the former clan queen was, Mallory’s survival instinct said that she should avoid psychic entanglements of any sort with any descendants of the ancient witch Ótama. That meant Muriel, her son Joe, and her four grandchildren—Keith, Jody, Tess, and Nadia. They played their cards close to their chests and few people in the isolated New Mexican village of Norseton really knew what they were capable of.
That was bad news for Mallory since she was employed as Keith’s nurse by the Hall family.
Really, she just wanted to do her job, keep her head down, and not make any waves while she adjusted to her new life. She’d uprooted her kids from Tallahassee less than six months ago to integrate into the ancestral clan of Viking-descended telepaths she hadn’t even known existed, but not without some bumps.
It was her father’s clan.
He didn’t want her or her sister Marty there. After all, they were bastards and he lived there with his wife.
Queen Tess had insisted that they belonged there, anyway. She made them feel welcome. Afótama people thrived better within their community, and Mallory had always had a yearning for “home” that she didn’t really understand until her arrival in Norseton.
But the problem with being looped into the community and woven into its psychic web was that dreams often became contaminated by the thoughts and fears of neighbors, and Mallory couldn’t always tell when that was happening. It was possible that Mallory was processing someone else’s psychic trauma. She’d been negligent in doing the mental exercises that would have strengthened her mind against the barrage. Having the bulk of her days devoted to caring for a paraplegic clan prince, she hadn’t had the time.
Make the damn time, chick. This is ridiculous.
Silver, red, silver, red.
Eyes twinkling with mirth, the second manicurist held up Mallory’s hand in a Do you like it? gesture.
Mallory nodded on a delay. She was ambivalent about the nails, but afraid to escalate the mess. She still couldn’t wake. Still couldn’t move away from that uncomfortable tree stump.
More women swarmed around, all deformed in some way. They were missing eyes, mouths, noses, ears. Some lacked one hand or both. Some moved as though they lacked muscle and bone.
They were incomplete impersonations of women, she realized. Not quite congealed—just enough to get the point across.
But Mallory still wasn’t quite sure what the point was.
“What do you want from me?” she asked, for this wasn’t a dream. She suddenly understood that.
Dreams let go. Psychic disturbances didn’t.
“What do you want?”
No response, except a lot of stares. A lot of wordless chittering and vocalizations.
“What do you want?” she repeated again and again until finally one of the women took her right hand and held it in front of Mallory’s face. She pointed to all the nails, one after the other.
“I don’t understand.”
She pointed again. Red, silver, red, silver, red.
“I don’t understand!” she shouted, and they all faded away, staring at her as they did. At least, the ones who had eyes stared.
She emerged from the vision sweating and panting, and with her right hand throbbing from being squeezed in a wicked restraint.
Her eyes were slow in adjusting to the light, but she could clearly see there was no one in her bedroom with her. Swallowing hard, she shook the cramp from her hand and moved to the edge of her bed.
“Damn,” she whispered.
Somehow, she’d have to get back to sleep. She was supposed to be on the clock at seven, tending to Keith Dahl and pretending that her job was anything more than well-paid babysitting.
Keith Dahl didn’t want a nurse. He wanted someone to yell at. He wanted someone to feel worse than he did, and Mallory was convenient.
She sighed and picked up her phone. Her friend Asher always had a new suggestion to help her get back to sleep. She called them “fairy magic tricks,” but he insisted it was just logic.
Can’t sleep, she texted. Having some kind of psychic meltdown. Wired now.
Of course, he responded quickly. Asher slept lightly and evidently didn’t need much rest—a perk of being fae, apparently. Okay. Try this one. Mentally sort the names of everyone you know into alphabetical order.
She snorted and settled back down onto her pillow. It had already gone cold.
That’s a lot of people, Asher.
Good problem to have! Until I was ten, I could count everyone I knew on one hand.
Mallory grimaced and checked her phone alarm before setting the device on the nightstand. Asher had a way of making her remember that no matter how stressful her problems were, there were some people who had things worse. People might have side-eyed her for showing up out of the blue looking too much like her philandering father, but at least she had her three gorgeous children, her mother, and her sister in Norseton, putting on a united front because they belonged there as much as anyone else descended from the passengers of Ótama’s long-ago voyage.
Asher didn’t have anyone anymore.
She closed her eyes, visualized her family and friends in the community, and started to sort names.
Asher was first on the list. That made her smile.