Dreaming dangerous, p.1
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       Dreaming Dangerous, p.1
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           Lauren DeStefano
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Dreaming Dangerous


  Also by Lauren DeStefano

  A Curious Tale of the In-Between

  The Peculiar Night of the Blue Heart

  The Girl with the Ghost Machine

  CONTENTS

  Prologue

  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  Chapter Twelve

  Chapter Thirteen

  Chapter Fourteen

  Chapter Fifteen

  Chapter Sixteen

  Chapter Seventeen

  Chapter Eighteen

  Chapter Nineteen

  Chapter Twenty

  Epilogue

  PROLOGUE

  Off of Highway 305, between the winding loops and swirls of road and the sparkling city lights, there lies a forest. The forest is dark and thick—even in the winter, when most ordinary trees would be bare and dead.

  Many years ago, a wealthy businessman by the name of Bartholomew Bartlesworth had planned to raze the forest and turn it into a super mall. For months there had been signs advertising it. The Greatest Mall Known to Man, the signs all read, accompanied by a drawing of a building so high that it disappeared into the clouds.

  But before Bartholomew Bartlesworth could chop down even a single tree, he disappeared. Some say that he ran out of money. Some say he changed his mind. But most say that the forest ate him like a slice of delicious cake.

  It wouldn’t be the first time. Before Bartholomew Bartlesworth, the city zoning committee had attempted to build a bicycle path and a hiking trail, only to have the machines disappear by morning. It was a strange forest, and anyone with any sense would be wise to avoid it.

  Some have said that the forest is filled with monsters. Others say the forest is the monster. But the truth, which very few people will ever know, is that the forest is protecting an important secret, and it does not take kindly to anyone who comes too close to discovering it.

  CHAPTER 1

  Brassmere Academy for the Extraordinary was surrounded by a tall iron fence whose poles were adorned with spikes. The fence had only one set of doors, which was guarded on either side by two stone gargoyles with twelve-inch fangs and gleaming silver talons. It was rumored that the gargoyles were alive, and that they would attack if they smelled blood they deemed suspicious.

  The students at Brassmere always stayed inside the fence. There was no reason not to. The space inside the iron fence was the size of a small city. It had brick roads that all led back to Brassmere. There were lakes and waterfalls and hills, cafés, an arcade, and a library with a massive spiral staircase that went seven stories underground.

  The only visitors came on every third Wednesday. Men and women in pink suits with white-and-brown-striped ties. They looked like walking, talking candy, the students thought. And sometimes they even brought some, if the students didn’t complain or cry about having their blood drawn or their heartbeat recorded.

  Plum had never cried—not even once in her twelve years. If the men and women in pink were to ask the students who among them was the bravest (and they sometimes did), the students who were being honest would say that it was Plum. She was also the fastest, and the highest climber, and the smoothest reader. And because of these attributes, some students adored Plum, while others had come to hate her.

  When the men and women in pink arrived that Wednesday afternoon, it was raining heavily.

  There were two hundred students exactly, all sitting in a row on a bench in a hallway that seemed to stretch on forever.

  The students were talking quietly as they waited for their names to be called, their reports resting on their laps in white folders with the school’s twin gargoyles emblazoned on the front in gold. Each time a student entered the closed door where the pink suits were waiting, the remaining students shuffled to the right, closing the empty space.

  Plum was not nervous. She never was. Her dark hair was pulled into twin braids woven with shiny green ribbons. Normally she despised ribbons, but on report day she made an effort to be pristine.

  To her left, Artem was fidgeting with his report, while beside him, Vien sat with perfect poise. Vien was the best at looking calm, whether or not he really was.

  “They’re taking a long time with Gwendle,” Artem said.

  Plum looked at the clock above the closed door. The hands were made of lacquered wood, carved into long, thin owls with menacing eyes. “It’s only been five minutes,” she said. “She’ll have a lot to report. Our dreams have been much more dangerous lately.”

  Artem opened his mouth to say something, but the doorknob turned.

  Gwendle stepped out into the hallway, the folder in her hand now empty after turning in her report. She gave Plum, Artem, and Vien a brief smile before she made the long walk down the hall.

  A woman in pink came to the door and said, “Plum—yes, there you are. Hello.”

  Plum stood, adjusting the pleats of her maroon skirt.

  The room at the end of the hall was always closed, except on the third Wednesday of each month, when the men and women in pink came to visit. Plum thought this was a shame, as it was such a pretty room, with oak chairs and plush white cushions, and a crystal chandelier that made the walls look like the reflection of water. There was a fireplace carved to look like the yawning mouth of a giant jungle cat whose tongue was made of flame and whose tail crept halfway up the wall.

  There were only two pinks today, a man seated at one end of a grand table that could have seated every student at Brassmere, and the woman who’d greeted her at the door.

  A pile of student reports were on the table as well.

  “Please have a seat, Plum,” the pink who’d greeted her at the door said. Plum sat at the head of the table, as was custom, and began rolling up the sleeve of her silver-and-white-striped blouse. They’d want to draw her blood. Blood always came first.

  “How have you been since the last time I saw you, Plum?” asked the pink who was preparing the syringe. He had a kind face and warm brown eyes. Plum was glad he’d come this month; sometimes the pinks who drew blood were rough and impatient and left her with a bruise, but not this one. She hated when the syringes hurt, but more for Artem’s sake than her own. He was especially sensitive to pain, and she didn’t like it when any of her friends were upset.

  “I’ve been well,” Plum said. She watched as the needle sank into the vein in her forearm and the vial began filling with her blood.

  The pink man smiled at her. “I’m sure you were very thorough in your report. We’ve just spoken to Gwendle, and she tells us you’ve been having dreams that are more disturbing than usual.”

  Plum considered this. “The monsters have been harder to kill,” she said. After the syringe was withdrawn and a white bandage was placed on her arm, her wrist was fitted with a cuff that monitored her pulse. There was a wire leading from the cuff to a briefcase laid out on the table, filled with gears and circuits.

  “Have you experienced anything strange upon waking up?” the pink woman asked.

  “No,” Plum said. She knew that concise answers were preferred. This was especially difficult for Artem, who rambled when he was nervous. The pinks always made him nervous.

  “You’re still close with your classmates Gwendle, Artem, and Vien, yes?” the pink woman asked. “Have you talked about anything unusual lately?”

  “No,” Plum said. This was a standard question, although she couldn’t imagine what would be considered unusual. She had been dreaming in tandem with Gwendle, Artem, and Vien for as long as she could remem
ber. Their entire friendship was centered around this unique bond the four of them shared. To someone on the outside of that bond, Plum supposed everything about them was unusual.

  “Do you have many other friends, Plum?”

  “Yes.”

  “Any enemies?”

  Plum blinked. “Enemies?”

  “Rivals.” The pink woman tried that word instead.

  “Jeremy can run nearly as fast as I can. Sometimes we make a game of competing. Vien keeps time for us.”

  “Would you say that Vien is your favorite friend?” the pink woman asked.

  “Favorite?” Plum had never been asked such a thing. “No.”

  “And Artem? Gwendle? Are either of them your favorite?”

  “I don’t have a favorite,” Plum said. She knew it was best not to give too much thought to these answers. Overthinking could change her pulse, and her pulse needed to be steady, so that the pinks would know that she was healthy.

  “That will be all.” The pink woman smiled. “Go on and enjoy your day, Plum. I look forward to reading your report.”

  When Plum stepped out of the room, Artem was watching her. She smiled at him, and he seemed relieved. He did not like report day. He had a head for numbers and shapes and chemical reactions, but he struggled when it came to words. Reading them, but especially writing them. And reports were confidential, which meant that he couldn’t ask Plum to read it back for errors.

  She wanted to tell him not to worry, but speaking in the hallway after finishing a report meeting wasn’t allowed.

  She met Gwendle at the end of the long hallway, in the lobby away from the bench of students. Gwendle was sitting on the wide ledge of the massive stained-glass window, swinging her feet. Her yellow hair reflected the gray gloom of the rainy day. “So?” she said when Plum hopped up beside her. “How was it? Did they ask you about our dreams?”

  “Not very much,” Plum said.

  “My report was a wild one this time, that’s for sure,” Gwendle said. “Half of it was about the Red Dragon. The one that tore Artem’s arm off.”

  That dream had felt especially real. For days after, Artem rubbed at his arm as though it really had been torn off by the teeth of a murderous dragon and then stitched back on.

  “I wrote about it, too,” Plum said. Now that their reports were turned in, there was no harm talking about them. “And the river castle that had no doors.”

  “I hope we dream that one again,” Gwendle said. “I’d like to find a way inside.”

  Plum laughed. “Don’t let Artem hear you say that. He thinks it’s full of bees.”

  “He is such a scaredy-cat,” Gwendle said. “It’s only a dream. Even if there were bees, they can’t really hurt us.”

  By the time Artem and Vien were through handing in their reports, the rain had turned into a light drizzle.

  “I’m starved,” Gwendle said. “Lunch?”

  “Definitely,” Vien said.

  They each grabbed a silver umbrella from the collection of them hanging along the foyer like sleeping bats, and they headed to their favorite café, #3.

  Their untroubled expressions made Plum think they hadn’t been asked anything strange. Was she the only one who had been asked if she had a favorite? It seemed like an absurd idea. She had known the three of them for as long as she could remember. They were friends, but something even stronger than ordinary friends, because they shared everything—even their dreams.

  Everyone at Brassmere could do something extraordinary. Melinda, Trina, James, and Clayton could bend and move metal if they concentrated. Blare and Hutch could charm animals. The triplets, Sadie, Selene, and Sasha, could communicate with their thoughts; they were also Brassmere’s only siblings and absolutely identical, which was enough to make them fascinating even among the exceptional.

  The list of talents went on and on: breathing underwater, levitating, learning an entire language after hearing just one word of it.

  The students at Brassmere understood that ordinary people did not have talents, but with the exception of their teachers and servers and the men and women in pink, they had no idea what an ordinary person would be like. To them, extraordinary was ordinary.

  Sometimes, Plum wondered if her parents had been ordinary. Wondering about her parents was the only secret she kept from her friends and the only thing she never included in her reports. None of the students at Brassmere had parents. In addition to being extraordinary children, they were also orphaned, or abandoned. Sole survivors of accidents or illnesses, or found as crying infants on church steps and in alleyways.

  The world outside Brassmere was a very dangerous place from what Plum had been told.

  In her lessons, Plum had learned that the world was very big and filled with people. But so few of them were extraordinary, and those were the ones that Dr. Abarrane had rescued and brought here. They were lucky. Chosen by hand.

  Over sandwiches and fizzing sodas topped with globs of whipped cream, Plum, Artem, Gwendle, and Vien talked about the Red Dragon. Artem began rubbing at his shoulder.

  “It’s been in four dreams, and we still haven’t killed it,” Plum said.

  “It keeps killing us,” Vien said.

  Plum took a sip from her soda straw, watching him, considering the pink woman’s question about Vien being her favorite. “That was a strange thing to ask,” Plum thought. She was not one to dwell on things, but just this once, she couldn’t help it. Vien was more in focus today, as though someone had shone a spotlight over him, rendering the world around him dull.

  He had straight hair just long enough to tuck behind his ears. At a glance it was black, but when Plum stared at it, she could see hints of blue and gray where the light hit it. His eyes matched; on bright days, his black eyes turned warm brown in beams of sunlight. There was a divot between his eyebrows that deepened when he was thinking.

  He was thinking now, as he tried to come up with an answer for the Red Dragon’s behavior. Plum didn’t hear whatever it was he said.

  “Hey.” Gwendle’s bubbly voice snapped Plum out of her thoughts. “Are you okay?”

  “Hm?” Plum blinked. “Oh. Yes.” Her cheeks felt strangely warm.

  Artem looked concerned. “Did the pinks take too much blood from you?”

  “That’s never happened,” Plum said. Left unchecked, Artem would spiral into worries about things that would not—that could not—ever happen. It was best to correct him before his imagination went too far. She took a bite from her sandwich, as though to emphasize her point. Blackberry jam bled out between the crusts. “The pinks always know what they’re doing.”

  “Maybe not always,” Vien said. His voice was low, and he twirled his straw between his thumb and index finger.

  Gwendle’s eyes were wide. “What do you mean?” she whispered.

  Artem shifted uncomfortably in his chair. Questioning the pinks was insubordination. Any student who questioned a figure of authority at Brassmere was dealt with privately by Dr. Abarrane. It was the duty of any student who witnessed a student being insubordinate to report it. But the bond that Plum, Gwendle, Artem, and Vien shared defied that. It was unspoken, and yet they all knew that they existed in a world of their own, with its own rules, its own loyalties.

  “Haven’t you noticed?” Vien met Plum’s eyes and held her gaze for a moment before he looked to the others. “Haven’t the questions lately been strange for all of you, too?”

  “Not for me,” Gwendle said.

  “I don’t think so,” Artem said.

  But Plum didn’t answer, and she felt three pairs of eyes studying her, waiting. She looked at Vien. In the gloomy rainy light that came through the windows, his eyes were black and deep.

  He always seemed to know what she was thinking, Plum thought. Maybe she didn’t have to give him an answer. Maybe he already knew what the pinks had asked her. Maybe he already knew that she was starting to wonder if she had lied when she gave her answer.

  She was grateful that th
e pinks were not here now to monitor her pulse. There were no machines to betray the sincerity of her words.

  Still, she chose her words carefully. There were students all around them, and it was impossible to know who might be listening.

  “We aren’t little kids anymore,” Plum said. “Our instructors did tell us the questions would change as we got older.” Their class was the oldest of all the students at Brassmere. They charted the path for the younger students, and there were no older students to tell them what to expect.

  “We’ve already experienced things changing, haven’t we?” Plum went on. “Our dreams are stronger. We die more often because we’re still not as strong as the things we’re fighting.”

  “Maybe.” Vien’s voice trailed. He didn’t sound convinced, and Plum had a sinking feeling in her stomach that she had let him down. She wanted to ask him what the pinks had said during his meeting. She wanted to say, “Yes, things are strange. Maybe the pinks don’t know everything.” But she said nothing of the sort. Of course she didn’t.

  There were some things best left unsaid.

  The rain turned to thunder. The loud, roaring sort of thunder that shook the ground and seemed to rattle the tree branches.

  They ran from the café and down the cobblestoned path, and Artem was the one to pull them toward the arcade, which was much closer than the dormitories and would offer shelter from the rain.

  “You hate the arcade,” Gwendle said, once they’d stepped inside. “You say it’s too loud.” She wrung the water from her hair.

  “I don’t care to be struck by lightning, either,” Artem said. “That takes precedence.” “Precedence” was one of his favorite words ever since he’d learned it last year. He always said it with a confident air, as though he felt brilliant to know such an important word.

  “Oh, come on.” Gwendle clapped a hand to his shoulder. “The odds of being hit by lightning are nearly impossible.”

  Normally Artem would have an argument for this, but today he just shrugged and walked on ahead.

  The arcade was four stories high, and as Artem often lamented, it was quite noisy. It was meant to be a reward for students who worked hard and excelled in their academics. Only students whose grades and fitness performance were floundering were denied access until they improved, as a means to motivate them.

 
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