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Chapter 1

Pausing to tear a shuddering yet strangely silent breath from her uncooperative lungs, she glanced hurriedly at the hazy outlines of her surroundings. No longer did she retain any sense of direction, and from the first she had lacked any concept of how she had found herself darting through this maze of buildings that rose above her and pressed in from all sides. There was no trail of bread crumbs or even tears to lead her back through the twists and turns of this night, but for all her inability to retrace a single step or to work her way free to the end of this labyrinth, she knew exactly where she was. She was trapped in the murky pathways of a nightmare, and the route she had wound through the suffocating dark was oddly familiar, as was the oppressive sensation of pursuit that had clung to her heels from the moment her feet had wrenched her unwillingly from the safety of her home and out into a dream world where she somehow still felt fully and undeniably awake.

Whimpering soundlessly she plunged forward once more, her limbs heavy as if they had been exchanged for the leaden arms and legs of a massive corpse and now wanted to return to their quiet grave. She struggled against this dead deadweight, dragging it through a landscape that was itself as chilling and close as a tomb. The back of her neck prickled and sharp jabs of pain streaked down her spine, so she knew that her pursuers were directly behind her now, and that her strangely thick and unresponsive body would never outrun them. She hurled herself at a nearby door, pounding furiously at its rough wood face, but the sound was immediately swallowed as if it had been some tasty morsel that must be guzzled whole. Truly frightened now, she opened her mouth to scream, but the dry crackle that surfaced was sucked away by the swelling silence even before the feeble sound could reach her ears. Panting noiselessly, she turned back toward the night, but the path had closed before her as if the buildings had all stepped forward to witness what would happen next. As in so many dreams that had haunted her life, there was nothing she could do, nowhere she could run, and nowhere to hide from whatever menace stalked her.

The scrape of a foot on pavement finally sundered the silence that had enclosed her, and then she could hear the harsh rasp of voices. With a sense of futility that she had known in countless dreams, she pressed her back against the unyielding door and tried to lose herself in its shadow. As she huddled in the meager darkness, the grate of footsteps and voices grew louder, echoing back and forth off of walls that leaned dangerously forward in their eagerness to watch what transpired on the ground far below. From the swirling gray fog that was the eternal landscape of nightmares, two figures emerged, looming both monstrous and indistinct.

The squeal of teeth grinding against teeth pierced her eardrums, and she winced at the abrasive sound. From a profile that momentarily boasted a snout above a fang-filled, jutting jaw, a voice rasped, "Why the sudden orders to actually catch this one? She seems no different from the others." As he spoke, the snout faded into a large but otherwise human nose, and the fangs and jaw both melted as if into a mist.

The hunched and shaggy form shambling beside the other raised a hulking head, and an unexpected and inexplicable shaft of light reflected off eyes that glowed yellow, but as she watched from her precarious hiding place, the form of this pursuer also wavered, appearing human one second and monstrous the next, and then once again human, or maybe something in between. "I don't know," his voice grumbled, "but he must sense something unusual in this one, or he wouldn't have sent us for the kill."

A wave of dizziness struck her, almost knocking her from her feet and pulling her into the dark, airless depths that surged around her, but her eyes clung stubbornly to the wavering forms of her stalkers as if seeing them clearly was the only thing that could save her from drowning, the only thing that could somehow keep her from herself being seen. The two had passed her now, but had yet to turn their faces in the direction of the shallow recess where she stood unmoving, eyes stinging as the beasts floated in and out of her vision. On they walked, away from her, as if they truly couldn't see her where she stood so near, as if her silent plea for invisibility wouldn't let them. Yet that was impossible; such a thing only happened in her dreams, and whatever nightmare held her, she still couldn't believe that this was one of her dreams. Another dizzying wave swelled around her, and this time she was afraid that nothing could stop her from being swept away, not even seeing the beasts clearly, for suddenly it seemed that seeing them would be the surest way to reveal herself.

Abruptly the beast with the vacillating form of a snout stopped and turned, and she could hear the whistling sound of air sucked into his grotesquely wide nostrils. "Do you smell that?" he asked brusquely.

The other turned, his face pointed directly toward where she cowered against the door, hopelessly begging for invisibility. She could discern no features other than the gleaming yellow eyes that swept over her without the least glimmer of recognition. "I smell nothing," he growled. "You're the hound. What do you think you smell?"

Again the first one sniffed loudly, his face still lost from view except for the twitching of the flaring snout and the glint of saliva dripping from fangs as yellow as his companion's eyes. "Fear," he rumbled. "Sweat. Tears. Dreamer."

"She must have just passed this way. I see nothing," was the curt reply.

"The smell is strong. Getting stronger," the first one whined, his voice both shrill and guttural, and she was reminded briefly of a dog thrashing at the end of a leash.

"Very well," muttered the voice attached to the eyes, and as one the two massive shapes stepped a single step in her direction, their nightmare faces coming sharply into view, their eyes finally meeting hers.

Seeing her death in their eyes, she jerked backward, desperately willing the wood of the door to absorb her as effortlessly as it had earlier absorbed the sound of her panicked knock, and then she found herself suddenly and miraculously on the other side of the door. For a moment too brief to measure, she stared at the blank back of the door, and then as a gruff shout sounded from the other side, she turned and scurried away into the waiting darkness. She was not, as she would have expected, inside a house with ill-lit hallways and gloomy landings, but still outside in the corridors of night. She once more ran through the eerie and blurred landscape of a nightmare, but this time there was one crucial difference. She had finally been released from the heavy encumbrance of a bad dream. Her limbs were no longer weighed down as if by premature death, but were once more her own limbs, tired but tenacious, and prepared to race through the dark with renewed determination.

Yet despite the resurrection of her strength and energy, her situation had only grown more perilous. As she gained speed, so did her stalkers, until she could hear the pounding of their feet as one with the pounding of her heart. They were closer now than they had been since the beginning of this strange chase, and growing closer with each surge of her pulse, so close that it seemed as if their eager grunts were inside her very head. She was clearly running out of time, and unlike the many occasions she had been here before, she was certain that the death that pursued her was real and could not be evaded by forcing her eyes to open on her bedroom walls.

Before her a towering fence sprouted from the ground, and with the abrupt thrust of its appearance she once again had nowhere left to run. Directly behind her a howl of triumph ripped through the fabric of the illusory night, but she refused to turn and submissively face her mortality. There was so much in this frenzied chase through the dark that seemed stolen from some vivid dream, from threats like the beasts that hunted her to marvels like the closed door she had seeped through like water through a sponge, that when faced with no better options, she would throw herself into the arms of the seeming hallucination and hope for the best. It no longer mattered whose dream enclosed her; she would make it her own. There were limits that often bound her in her dreams, but there were also freedoms she could never possess in real life: she could render herself invisible, she could fight with the fury of a hero in some exploitation action movie, and she could fly. In dreams she could lift herself off of the ground in an illogical defiance of gravity and soar over obstacles in her path, and with the shadowy fence looming before her, she fervently wished her feet away from the indistinct earth that held them.

For a brief moment it felt as if two hands with flaming claws had exploded from the soil to grasp her ankles, but with the same burst of will she sometimes wielded in dreams, she broke free and began to rise slowly through the air. Ponderously she rose with that heart-stopping sluggishness that too could only exist in a dream, until she was hovering a few feet above the swirling gray ground. It was too slow, she knew it was too slow, and although she willed herself to rise faster, she continued to inch upward so slowly, so painfully slowly. And it was too slow, far too slow, for suddenly the gray was broken by two glowing yellow eyes, and then two dripping fangs were ripping through the calf of one dangling leg. A bubble of pain ruptured within her, and at long last a scream broke free, the type of scream that only came with the terror of being fully awake. The scream leapt higher than the fence, vaulting toward the black sky where hazy stars vaguely twinkled like luminescent fish feeding just beneath the surface of a scum-choked pond. And attached to her scream like one of those fish hooked on a line, she was reeled into the dense heavens, torn free from the familiar pull of gravity and cast farther than the worst nightmare had ever carried her before.


Heat seeped through her lids and she opened her eyes to see specks of golden light swirling like fragments of dust in the cool morning air. Shuddering slightly, she lifted a hand to her head, shielding her eyes against the intrusion of the sun. Never since she had been a child had she had a nightmare so real, so uncanny, and yet so persistent. It had seemed so believable, the overriding urge to escape the smothering walls of her apartment, the sensation of almost immediate pursuit, the emergence of strange and murky streets to block the path back to safety. Even her stalkers, shading from beast to man and back again, had seemed as substantial as the bed in which she once again found herself. It had all been so vivid, and the fear and pain so intense, that despite all the trademarks that clearly marked it as nothing but another bad dream, the experience felt impossible to shake, more impossible than even the worst of her previous nightmares. Only moments before she had plunged through a black sky, past dimly flashing stars, with a foreign landscape laid out beneath her like an unfinished jigsaw puzzle. Now she was herself laid out beneath the bright morning light, feeling as if more than a few of her pieces were also missing.

With a groan, she stretched her aching muscles, but as she shifted her left leg, a searing pain seized her from heel to knee, and she sat up abruptly, eyes on the offending calf. Two ragged gashes marred the smooth surface of her leg, oozing with a strange greenish fluid as well as with the bright red of her blood. She blinked in momentary confusion, for not only was her leg sluggishly bleeding, but she was also and most definitely not at home within the sheltering walls of her room. She was outside, surrounded by stunted, gnarled trees and cushioned by a thick mattress of grass.

"Just great," griped a voice from nearby. "It looks like we've got another one. I don't know what in their world is going on, but that's the eighth one this month."

Her head jerked up and her eyes focused on a scowling face with golden brown eyes and a disheveled head of rusty hair that shimmered in the sunlight like a heat mirage.

Another voice laughed, and then remarked teasingly, "I don't know why you're complaining. It's not as if they've been difficult to return. In fact, just the opposite. This one's probably no different, and we'll have her back home before she can blink." A richly golden head and sparkling blue eyes joined the glowering man, and the young woman attached to these features dropped a smile as light as the man's frown was heavy.

"Where am I, and who are you?" she croaked from where she still hunched in the grass.

"Oh, so you can talk, can you?" responded the woman, her eyes widening in surprise. "Well, that doesn't happen often, but it will certainly make things more interesting for my bored friend here."

"You're not answering my questions," she snapped irritably, fingers fisting the grass as she frowned at the faces hovering above her.

In response the woman's sunny expression was eclipsed by an uncertain frown, and she turned her eyes to the man beside her. His eyes, however, stayed firmly fixed on the face glaring up at him from the ground. "Her eyes are unnaturally focused, especially for a Dreamer," he observed, his voice impassive but his eyes a bit wild.

"That's because I'm not dreaming, at least not at this moment," she snarled from her place on the ground.

"Of course you are," responded the man, "or you wouldn't be here at all. You must just be a far more lucid Dreamer than most." He reached out a golden arm, offering her his hand. "Here, let me help you up," he ordered in a voice that precluded any possible objection. Still frowning, she slipped her fingers into his, and his hand closed over hers with a jolt of electricity, as if they both had been rubbing stockinged feet on carpeting. Without the slightest change in expression, he hauled her to her feet, but he pulled his fingers away from hers so quickly that for a fleeting second she wondered if she had somehow burned him. Then her injured leg was buckling beneath her, and all she could wonder was why the ground was rising toward her so slowly.

Two hands quickly caught her beneath her armpits as she toppled over, and she was trapped in the snare of golden brown eyes. From somewhere below her, the woman's voice gasped, and then as if from an insurmountable distance, announced, "She's hurt. Her leg is bleeding. I think . . ."

"What?" demanded the man.

The woman's voice scampered out in a breathless rush. "I think she's been bitten. By a Figment."

"Impossible!" thundered the man. "No one can sleep through a Figment bite!"

"See for yourself," the woman replied, her voice shaking as fiercely as the wounded leg she was probing.

There was an explosion of light in the eyes that held her, and then suddenly she was on her stomach, with two sets of fingers prodding the festering gashes on her leg. Just as she had when the fangs had first raked her, she screamed in a release of unbearable pain. Almost immediately the prying hands pulled away, and then cutting through the lingering echoes of her scream, she could hear the voices of the rusty-haired man and the fair young woman.

"She screamed," whispered the woman.

The man answered dryly, "I noticed."

Clutching back the blanket of nausea that threatened to smother her, she pulled herself to her knees and scrambled around to face the two who had found her. "And I'll scream again if you jab your fingers into my leg," she informed them hoarsely.

Golden brown eyes ensnared hers once again. "What happened to your leg?" demanded the man, his snarl more pronounced than it had been when he had first stumbled upon her.

"I'll answer your questions when you answer mine," she responded defiantly. "Where am I and who are you?"

The two before her exchanged a silent glance, and some indecipherable message seemed to pass between them. Then the man gave an almost imperceptible shrug of his shoulders, and in response the fair woman turned to where the other knelt on the ground, glaring back at the two who had found her with eyes as shockingly clear as a shallow mountain stream rushing over the submerged pebbles of her pain and fear.

"We'll tell you because it really doesn't matter what we say; you'll either completely forget it, or just think it was part of your dream anyway," the woman remarked.

"So then tell me, and we'll see whether or not I remember," was the terse reply. "Let's start with who you are."

"I'm Mischa, and this is Gyfree. We're guards and guides between your world and our own. For some reason our two worlds are unusually close to each other, and the partitions dividing them are not exactly foolproof, specifically in those places where people from your world enter the realm of dreams. So sometimes when someone like you is journeying through your dream universe, you accidentally slip through the partition, and your mind ends up here, instead of back in your own world, where your body is tucked snugly into bed. When this happens it is our job to return you to where you belong. In a sense, we guide you safely through the rest of your dream, which just happens to take place in our world, so that you can finally wake up back in your own bed, happily unaware that you've ever been gone."

Her eyes had widened with the other's words. "Are you telling me that my dreams are more than imaginary experiences inside my head? That a dream can actually carry me somewhere else? Somewhere other than the world I know when I'm awake?"

Mischa smiled crookedly, her eyes twinkling as if there was a humor hidden in this exchange that only she could appreciate. "That's what I'm telling you, more or less. Your mind is here, and since your mind is still connected to your body, you are here, body and mind. But since you are actually asleep in your own world, you are also back there at the same time, body and mind. You see, a powerful dream can create a second reality, and it is that second reality that can, among other things, transport a Dreamer into another world like ours. The more powerful the dream, the more powerful the presence of the Dreamer in our world."

"Wait a second. You're asking me to believe that someone from my world, supposedly still dreaming securely in bed, can also physically end up somewhere else? I don't care how you explain it; I just don't see how that could be possible."

"Call it sleepwalking on a grand scale," Gyfree interjected impatiently. "Now your turn. What happened to your leg, and how much of the dream that has brought you here do you still remember?"

"I remember everything. That is everything except ever going to bed or falling asleep."

"Then tell us what happened," drawled Gyfree, his eyes sparkling dangerously.

Shrugging her shoulders, she complied. "I felt an urgent need to be outside. Almost immediately I could sense that I was being followed, but suddenly the streets around me were not the familiar streets I walk every day, but the sort of streets that always spring up around me in a nightmare. So I ran, and when I could run no more, I hid in the shadow of a door. It was there I saw my pursuers, saw their forms waver back and forth between beasts and ordinary men. I ran again until a giant fence sprang up before me. I tried to fly over the fence, but as my body slowly rose off the ground, one of the beasts sank his fangs into the back of my leg. I screamed, something I've never been able to do before in a dream, and the scream sent me plunging into the sky and all the way here." A grim smile cracked her face. "And by the way, my name is Drew."

There was no answering smile from either Mischa or Gyfree. Instead, the two turned troubled eyes to each other, and Gyfree growled. "I still say it's impossible. The first touch of a Figment should have brought more than enough pain to snap her awake. Any Figment able to hold her long enough to actually draw blood would have also had ample strength and opportunity to kill her."

"What if she wasn't asleep when she was bitten?" Mischa demanded.

"That still wouldn't explain either how she escaped the Figment, assuming there even was a Figment, or more importantly, how she ended up here," retorted Gyfree.

With a shrug of her shoulders that clearly indicated she had no answer, Mischa turned back toward Drew and asked, "You don't really think you're dreaming now, do you?"

"I don't think so, but everything continues to be so strange, maybe I am. It wouldn't be the first time in my life when I've thought myself awake while dreaming. It may not happen to me often anymore, but it was fairly common when I was a child."

"What were your dreams like as a child?" Mischa questioned quickly.

"Almost inseparable from my waking. Sometimes when I think back, I'm not sure which memories are dreams, and which are real."

"This is ridiculous," snapped Gyfree. "She has to be dreaming, because she couldn't be here otherwise."

"What about her leg?" Mischa demanded.

"Probably some injury she suffered before her dream, and she's simply incorporated it into the dream itself."

"But it shows all the signs of a Figment bite. There's even evidence of Figment saliva."

"It's just a normal infection," Gyfree stubbornly disagreed.

"What makes you so sure? She's clearly not a normal Dreamer. She can even talk, and coherently at that."

"Talking is rare, but not unheard of," Gyfree insisted.

"Dreaming or not," Drew drawled, "I am still here, and I don't appreciate being talked about as if I'm not. Would someone please explain to me what a Figment is?"

"No more explanations," Gyfree returned. "This is a dream, as far as you're concerned. You are a Dreamer, and Dreamers don't ask questions, and they certainly don't get answers. They do as they're told, and that's what you're going to do. Exactly what you're told."

Drew's eyes narrowed menacingly. "I'll do as I'm told when I understand what I'm being told, and why. If you want cooperation, you will have to gain it first."

Gyfree turned away, ignoring the undeniable challenge in both Drew's expression and pronouncement. "She must have come through around here. It should only take a moment to find the exact spot and send her back," he observed.

"You felt her break through only moments before we got here. Considering how little time has passed since then, not to mention the condition of her leg, I would say she came through right here. But I think you're wasting your time. Her presence here is too strong. I think she needs to be taken to the Source."

Without warning, Gyfree lifted Drew into his arms and turned her around to face a bright blue sky that seemed to spring high overhead directly from the ground itself. Then stepping forward, he pressed her up against the surprisingly slick surface of the sky, and without pausing, slid her sideways across its curved surface.

"What are you doing?" Drew demanded in a muffled voice, her face crushed against the seeming sky.

Rather than respond, Gyfree slid her back in the other direction.

"What are you doing?" demanded Mischa. "If she could pass through, she would already have done it easily, and without you shoving her against the Barrier face first. What has gotten into you?"

Even from behind, Drew could feel Gyfree's shoulders slump, and then she was sliding to the ground as he once more turned away to address Mischa. "You'll be in charge here while I take her to the Source," he instructed. "If any other Dreamers come through, let the better students deal with them. And keep an extra close watch on this section of the Barrier while I'm gone. Considering the way things have been going lately, I want to make sure nothing unusual slips through." He returned his attention to Drew. Sharp points of light darting from his eyes once again pinned her in place. "Up on your feet," he told her. "You're coming with me."

"No," Drew resisted.

Gyfree reached out and ruthlessly hauled her to her feet. "You're a Dreamer, and Dreamers never refuse to do as they're told. And I'm telling you to come with me."

Pain again clawed its way up Drew's calf with long ragged fingers and she gasped as her leg inevitably crumpled beneath her.

"Gyfree, you idiot," Mischa scolded. "She's not going anywhere on that leg unless you do something to help her. Whether or not you're willing to admit she has a Figment bite, she still can't walk with blood and whatever else leaking from those gashes."

"She's dreaming," Gyfree stubbornly insisted, "so she shouldn't really be able to feel any pain. If she did, it would wake her up, and if she was awake, she couldn't be here."

Mischa shook her head. "You have always been the most obstinate man. There may be no easy answers to explain what's happening, but that doesn't matter. The only thing that matters is that you clearly must take her to the Source, and you'll never get her there if she can't walk. So stop fretting about whether or not she should feel pain, and simply fix her leg!"

Gyfree shifted his glare to Mischa, who first winked, then smiled sweetly in return. Without warning, and with even less ceremony, he then threw Drew over his shoulder and stomped off with her through the stunted trees, where she was sure she could see, in the gray wrinkled bark, hidden faces grimacing in either fear or amusement, or perhaps somehow an equal dose of both.


Even they were uneasy coming into his presence. They knew their own value, and their skills were rarely questioned, yet still they were uneasy. And for once they had a reason, for he had given them a task they should have easily accomplished, and for the first time in their experience, they had failed. So they were uneasy, as they were always uneasy, but now they were also afraid, for he was not a forgiving man. In fact, he was not even a man, or at least not exactly, but then of course, neither were they.

On their knees they approached, for even from them, his most effective tools, he demanded no less. From others he actually demanded more, but they had a position of stature in his eyes that they would kill, and had killed often, to preserve. With heads low and eyes on the swirling gray ground, they groveled before him, trying to hide, although from him it was impossible to hide, the shaking in their limbs. He would not only know that they were shaking; he would already know the reason.

"Well?" His voice exploded above them, and as always the sound was like burning shrapnel ripping into their ears and through their skulls.

"We found her," answered one, his monstrous snout emerging into sharp focus, quivering nervously and dripping a thin stream of blood.

"We followed her," the other added, his yellow eyes squeezed tightly shut as if the lids had been weighed down by the heavy silence following his partner's words. "It was easy to herd her into the trap you had set."

"Well?" he persisted blandly, although even this sound was like white-hot nails driving through their brains.

"She had powers," the first one tried to explain, sniveling loudly, the nostrils of his large but human nose flaring wildly then constricting to tiny pinpoints.

"Well?" he whispered, and now the sound was like a splinter of fiery steel scraping along their spines, lacerating nerves until they collapsed, whimpering in their agony.

"She escaped," the second one gasped, bloodred tears leaking from beneath his clenched lids.

A ragged claw lifted the second one's bowed head by the chin, forcing it back until it could go no further without snapping his neck. Then the claw stabbed through the bottom of his jaw, slicing through the leathery tissue until his mouth was filled with the acrid taste of his blood.

"How is that possible?" demanded the voice, its razor sharpness flooding the punctured mouth with more blood than the claw had drawn. Another clawed hand snaked out, seizing a fistful of the first one's hair and wrenching up his head until more blood trickled down his forehead than from his nose, and he was forced to meet the slitted eyes in his master's writhing face. "Well?" gouged the voice.

The snout convulsed, dark blood now streaming down the quaking chin beneath, then words poured from the first one's mouth more thickly than the gushing blood. "She could do things she should never have been able to do. She slipped through a door as if she knew it truly wasn't there. She ran, and ran so quickly we could hardly keep up, when the climate of the dream should have weighed her down so she couldn't run at all. And she flew, just as if she was the one dreaming, as if the dream was hers and hers alone. But we did catch up with her as she rose off the ground. I bit her, ripping her leg open from just below the knee all the way down to her ankle. That should have brought her down so we could kill her. But it didn't, because she screamed. She shouldn't have been able to scream, but she did. And that scream tore her out of my grasp and sent her soaring right through the Barrier."

"It must have been her," gurgled the second through a mouth dripping blood, yellow eyes full of not just fear, but also sudden wonder.

"That is no excuse," hissed the voice, the sound so sharp that more blood filled the second one's mouth, and trickled from the corners of his eyes. "She gave up her hold on you years ago." The clawed hands withdrew, and the two minions collapsed, sides heaving as they sprawled on the ground and struggled for breath. In time they grappled back up to their knees, but as soon as they had regained some small measure of composure, the voice detonated, shattering the very air and sending them reeling back to the ground, facedown in the puddles of blood each had left. "You will find her!" the voice howled, so that new blood gushed from their ears, from their noses, and from their mouths. "You will find her wherever she may be, and this time you will either kill her or suffer the consequences. If you fail, you will wish for death, but death is a gift I will never grant. Now go!"

Yellow eyes snapped open. "Through the Barrier?" the second one gurgled through a mouth filled with blood.

"Through the Barrier and beyond if necessary!" blasted the voice. "Now go, unless you'd rather stay and deal with me!"

Their heads lifted, expressions awash with horror, and then their features wavered, and once again they simply appeared to be two men with blood-streaked faces and eyes full of fear. Without another word they backed away on their knees, across a path suddenly strewn with jagged fragments of burning glass and through air that dripped acid, until blood seeped from every pore on their hands and legs and the flesh peeled from their backs and skulls like bark shucked from a dead tree. When they were finally engulfed by a wave of black, they cried out in gratitude.

He stood where they had left him, motionless in the center of a fiery maelstrom, sparking sheets of wind whipping around his silent hub, the skin writhing across his face a sure sign that there was no calm in the eye of this storm. The winds about him thrashed and screamed in ever-increasing fury until the world in which he stood must surely be eradicated. Nothing and no one could survive the rage that radiated outward to burn everything in its path. Yet within the whirling chaos, a calm form coalesced, silver flecks merging together like iron filaments beneath a magnet to slowly but inexorably shape an inhumanly beautiful face, and then a woman stepped out of the tempest to meet him.

"If you're serious about killing her, you will probably have to send me," she murmured, and her voice was capable of gripping even his spine with icy fingers.

He glowered at her exquisite face, but the winds encasing him subsided as quickly as they had arisen. "I don't trust you," he snapped. "And I will never pay whatever price you demand."

Her laughter tinkled, but he heard the crack of ice streaking like lightning across a frozen lake, and he could briefly feel the suddenly frigid surface beneath his feet shift away from him, leaving him stranded and adrift. "Yet I would ask nothing of you that you wouldn't be more than willing to do. Nothing you haven't done many times before."

"What I do, I do only because I choose. Never because I'm asked. I will never be obligated to another being, especially not to you."

"So you think you can kill this Dreamer without my help?" she asked, a fine sheet of frost billowing from her lips until her entire form wavered beneath a veil of ice.

The slits in his eyes narrowed, cleaving his red irises with a razor-thin line. His smile was as cruel and biting as the one beneath the ice. "So where is the Dreamer who created you?" he asked suddenly.

She sighed, and the icy fog of her breath further obscured her face. "Dead, long dead," she answered.

"How did you manage to get close enough for the kill?" he demanded, unable to disguise the feverish urgency in his question.

She laughed again, and again the world beneath his feet shifted. "So that's your problem, is it?" Her face and body dimmed beneath the thickening layer of ice that enveloped her. "She was more clever than she knew when she dreamt you. Well, I can assure you, if you ever send me, I will have no problem getting very, very close." The surface of the ice trembled, and a delicate mist rose like drops of mercury floating in space. When the mist cleared, a man even more breathtaking than the woman stood in the exact same spot in the storm-lashed void. "Death is a simple thing to achieve when your victim isn't trying to run, but is instead eager to feel your embrace," remarked the alluring vision. "Which is a satisfaction, I'm sorry to say, you'll never know as long as you reject my offer."

"This time my minions won't fail."

"Well, if they do, you know how to call me. I'll be expecting to hear from you." With a final chilling laugh, the ravishing face rippled and dissolved into swirling silver flecks that slowly dissipated in the heavy gloom.

Alone in the gulf between dreams and waking, he stood, blood-red skin blazing over the sharply protruding bones of his face, his demonic features the only fixed and unalterable realities in this vast place where he reigned supreme.


They floated in the blackness, freed from all sensation, released from the overwhelming pain. Here the skin readhered to their skulls and spines, and the gashes riddling their arms and legs shrank back into their mottled skin. The shards of their master's voice that had lodged in their brains were extracted one by one, as if by a loving hand, although neither had ever known the touch of any hand that did not stab holes through their jaws or rip the hair from their heads. Immersed in the darkness they again found themselves, and in repose their features vacillated slowly from man to beast and back again. If possible they would have remained suspended here forever, cradled by eternal night, but the choice was no more theirs than the night was real. Even the welcoming dark was a cruel trick of their master's, a trick that lulled them, that made them forget what pain he could inflict so that they could feel its full intensity when he brought them to its brink again. Even now they were at the mercy of their master's whims, and too soon for their comfort they could feel his red glare slicing through the blackness and pinning them like wriggling insects to a felt board, the sharp needles of his attention rendering them incapable of serving any purpose other than the one he intended. There in the dark he pulled them apart, ripping away their limbs, tearing out their hearts and lungs, subjecting them to the smallest sample of what he could do if they failed him this time; then as they hung to themselves by the most tenuous of threads, he rebuilt them, stronger, more lethal, more suited to the task he had allotted them. Finished with his reconstruction, he wrapped his clawed hands around his finely honed weapons, and wresting them from the sheath of the dark, hurled them in the direction of their unsuspecting target.

They landed panting on the other side of the Barrier, sprawled on their hands and knees like the irreversible beasts they now were, tongues lolling and eyes scanning the line of stunted trees that stretched before them. A quivering snout was lowered to the ground, and then there was the loud sound of sniffing, followed by a piercing whine.

"Well, Hund, can you smell her?" growled the one whose intense yellow eyes continued to dart across the trees.

"Yes, Auge, her scent is strong. And there is the stench of blood as well. But she is not alone. There are Sentries," sniveled Hund.

Auge's voice rumbled ominously in his throat until Hund's ears flattened against his head and his lips curled back from his dripping fangs. "Then I will kill them all," Auge snarled, slitted yellow eyes venomous. "Just lead and when we find them, I'll rip out their throats while you watch."

"You are no more eager for the kill than I am, and no better skilled," barked Hund.

"Then stop mewling like a puppy, and we will go kill them together."

Together the two hunters loped in the direction of the shriveled trees, which seemed to shrink away from the touch of a danger far more formidable than fire.


Drew bounced on Gyfree's shoulder until her brain reeled and her stomach lurched, and the grinning face of Mischa bobbing in and out of view behind her did nothing to calm either the churning of her head or the heaving of her gut. She felt like a bag stuffed with the refuse of her own memories and beliefs, memories and beliefs that had once been familiar and meaningful to her but were no longer relevant, so had been packed up and thrown away, then picked up and jostled by an impatient garbage man. And like the trash bag crammed too full, she was ready to burst at the seams and spew her contents across the indifferent ground. When Gyfree plunged precipitously down a steep slope, jolting her carelessly against his rigid shoulder and back, the bag did indeed finally rupture, and it seemed to Drew as she watched from a detached distance that she lost not only the lining of her stomach, but all the bits and pieces of her once comprehensible life.

"Now look what you've done," Mischa snapped irritably as she caught up to the spot where Gyfree had suddenly halted to drop his retching burden to the ground. "You threw her over your shoulder as if she was a mindless bundle, and then bounced her around until you made her sick. It serves you right that she's vomited all over you." Glaring angrily at Gyfree, she knelt down beside Drew, and presented her with the open mouth of a canteen. "Rinse out your mouth and you'll feel better," she advised. When Drew silently did as she was instructed, rinsing her mouth with a swish from the canteen and then spitting into the grass, Mischa asked in a crisp voice, "So have you ever vomited during a dream before?"

Wiping her mouth with the back of a shaking hand, Drew moaned, "Never. I always wake up to vomit if I feel the need." She glanced up at Gyfree's expressionless face and added, "I'm sorry about that. Now you're going to stink as badly as I probably do." Then a weak grin abruptly lit her face. "But don't worry about it, because it's not real vomit, only dream vomit, so neither of us really stinks at all. I'm just dreaming that we do."

Mischa squealed with surprised laughter, then grinned impishly up at Gyfree. "Just a standard Dreamer, right? A Dreamer who can converse, be injured, throw up, and even joke. Just an ordinary, everyday Dreamer."

"Be quiet," Gyfree grunted, a perplexed frown darkening his expression. Turning a face as ominous as a stormy sky toward Drew, he asked, "How did you vomit?"

"The usual way, I suppose," Drew quipped. "The muscles in my esophagus contracted and brought up the rebellious contents of my stomach."

Mischa laughed again, but Gyfree's countenance suggested that the storm, and his temper, were both about to be unleashed. "That doesn't answer my question," he blazed.

"I guess you could say I'm not only a lucid Dreamer, but also a queasy Dreamer," Drew remarked blandly.

"What you are," Gyfree growled, although his eyes had mysteriously softened, "is a highly troublesome Dreamer. I should have known something like you would eventually happen to me." With those cryptic words he once more swept her into his arms, although this time he was careful to cradle her gently against his chest as he charged through a twisted forest where the wind in the leaves above strangely echoed the mocking snicker of the woman who trailed directly behind him.


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