Clawz knew he was being watched.

Normally, when he detected the presence of an intruder in his realm, especially when it was smaller than him, he pounced on it and ate it first and asked questions later. The fact that he hadn't done so was in itself an indication that something was wrong about these intruders. They were moving too fast to be lost Nightopians, too deliberately and without any of the jerky hopping movements of something that could fly but only just. They were too small to be any of his fellow Second Class Nightmaren, whom he wasn't allowed to eat unless they tried to eat him first, or even a stray Third Class, which he was allowed to eat if it wandered into his domain but wasn't allowed to actively hunt down. (Acceptable food sources included Nightopians, door-to-door salespeople, investigate reporters and NiGHTs.)

He wondered how an intruder could even get in. He remembered Wizeman telling him earlier that the doors to his domain would be locked to make extra sure that he couldn't sneak into Gulpo's domain and try to eat him again. Many large sectors of the Nightmare Realm were to be locked down today. The entire Realm was on heightened security because of some important visitors or something. He assumed it was politics, something boring and needlessly complicated, so he didn't enquire very closely. Only the First Class Nightmaren were allowed to attend whatever was happening. The lesser Nightmaren were expected to be on standby at all times in case there was a security breach. Clawz had been resetting his exploding clockwork mouse trap when he first noticed the intruders. Reala had been kind enough to leave him a box of fresh mice before locking the doors, so he could screw them in place of the ones that had exploded already, then wind them up by inserting his claw into the hole in the gearbox and twisting. All he could do after that was curl up into a deceptively relaxed-looking ball of striped fur in the middle of his circle of exploding mice and wait for something edible to turn up.

He smelled them before he caught a glimpse of them. That was the first indication that something was odd about them. They smelled almost like himself. Tiny, scuttling versions of himself whose glowing green eyes watched him back, rarely blinking, from somewhere deep within the shadows.

He stared at them, counting how many there were, trying to judge how fast they could move, how patiently they could wait. Occasionally he let out a low feline growl that steadily rose in pitch and volume to communicate that he wasn't afraid of them, that he always had his eye on them and that he was dangerously angry at their existence.

He didn't quite realise in time that he was completely surrounded.


I look like a ridiculous fop, thought Reala as he reluctantly tried on the new outfit he was expected to wear.

The red and black gold-trimmed ceremonial armour wasn't so bad. At least it was in his favourite colour scheme, it matched his head-dress and boots and it was vaguely martial. He doubted it could actually stop any kind of attack more forceful than a thrown harsh word. Not that he even had any reason to wear armour, relying as he did entirely on speed, acrobatic skill and the advantages of free flight. Armour would weigh him down in a real battle more than it would aid him. Still, this was not a battle but a diplomatic meeting with his new allies, freshly created Nightmaren who had been assigned to the newly conquered regions of the Dreamscape, who were as unquestioningly loyal to Lord Wizeman as himself, if not as experienced and not as familiar with the politics of the Nightmare Realm. For now, at least, he would not need to unsheathe his claws.

Heavier armour was befitting for his new status as General of the entire Nightmaren Army, which was about to become considerably larger now that their territory spanned a whole six new dreamscapes. He was no longer to stay in his home realm of Stick Canyon, but was to govern the affairs of all the Second Class Nightmaren in both regions directly, second in command only to Lord Wizeman himself. Although he had been designed by Lord Wizeman to lead the others, and to be stronger, more capable and more ambitious than them, he had never officially been given a higher status until now, partly because the army wasn't large enough and partly because of concerns that he would become another NiGHTs. Lord Wizeman had judged that it had been long enough since the incident without any sign that Reala also had the capacity to betray him. Clearly, NiGHTs had been a solitary glitch in the system.

The gold-rimmed ballroom mask had at least been explained to him. It was part of a new system that Lord Wizeman was experimenting with, involving the use of common dream personae to make the first-class Nightmaren able to transform their identities and adapt to different scenarios in battle. He failed to see why the jewel inside it had to be bright pink, or why he had to wear a matching jewel, larger and also pink, around his neck. Some jewels were good foci for magic, he supposed, and Lord Wizeman's plan probably involved a great deal of magic.

The pink and purple scarf, however, was unacceptable. The only possible merit of wearing such an accessory if he wanted to be taken seriously as the General of an army of Nightmare Beings of Pure Terror was that it was terrifyingly gaudy. It's in the same colour scheme that NiGHTs wears. What is Lord Wizeman thinking?

There was a harsh knock on the door and he flinched, almost dropping the scarf, when he realised that he had been thinking seditious thoughts about a master who could read his mind without effort and could well be monitoring him right now without him ever realising it. He would be severely punished for doubting Lord Wizeman in even such a petty matter as fashion sense. First-Class Nightmaren were tools created for a purpose, their very souls crafted by Lord Wizeman, and even the slightest capacity for disobedience was a critical flaw. He was not a faulty machine. I will not turn into my brother...

He quickly wrapped the scarf around his neck and opened the door. He let himself relax; it was only a messenger Hollow.

"The visitors have arrived and are being escorted to the Grand Chamber, Sir," squawked the Hollow, fluttering its feathers nervously; it was probably as afraid of the First-Class Nightmaren as Reala was afraid of Wizeman, "The Great One has instructed you to be present and ready at the Hall before their arrival."

"Inform Lord Wizeman that I have received the message and have already set off," Reala told the bird. He checked the clasp of his necklace one last time, then slammed the door behind him with more force than strictly necessary and flew down the corridor.

All the doors to the Second Class Nightmaren lairs were still locked. They were to be released only when the visitors had settled down and everyone could be formally (and safely) introduced. None of them had found a way to escape yet. This worried Reala. He had known his subordinates long enough to know that there was no way to keep them securely locked up. They were nightmares; you couldn't escape them and you couldn't keep them at bay forever.

It was only when he spotted Clawz bolting down the adjoining corridor, screeching and hissing and spitting, covered in a cloud of spiteful, malicious fluffy black kittens, that he felt secure in his reality. The few kittens that he had managed to shake off scampered down the corridor after him. One of them stopped to glare at Reala. He grabbed it by the scruff of its neck and inspected it thoughtfully as it struggled to free itself from his grasp and/or claw his hand off. He wondered whether Bomamba had an infinite supply of the things or whether she would still be out looking for them when he arrived.