Authors: Kit Alloway
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For Mom and Dad,
who makes a joyful noise
Josh Weaver (Joshlyn Dustine Hazel Weavaros)
Deloise Weaver: Josh's younger sister
Lauren Weaver (Laurentius Weavaros): Josh and Deloise's father
Jona Weaver: Josh and Deloise's mother (deceased)
Kerstel Weaver: Lauren's wife, Josh and Deloise's stepmother
Dustine Borgenicht: Josh and Deloise's grandmother, Peregrine's estranged wife
Peregrine Borgenicht: Josh and Deloise's grandfather, Dustine's estranged husband
Winsor Avish: Josh's best friend
Whim Avish: Winsor's older brother
Saidy and Alex Avish: Whim and Winsor's parents
Haley McKarr (Micharainosa): Ian's twin brother
Ian McKarr (Hianselian Micharainosa): Haley's twin brother
Davita Bach: the local government representative
Young Ben Sounclouse: the local seer
Schaffer Sounclouse: Young Ben's great-grandson
Will Kansas: Josh's apprentice
The sewer wasn't
the worst place for a nightmare, Josh Weaver admitted to herself as she fumbled with the boxy, rose-gold lighter in her hand. But it was hardly a warm afternoon in the park, either.
She stood knee-deep in very cold water that smelled of rotting fast food and gave off fumes like fresh asphalt. Her jeans were soakedâshe'd slipped and fallen twiceâand her black shirt was too thin to keep her warm. Around her legs, oily patterns floated on the surface of stagnant, brackish water as it flowed down the cramped concrete sewer tunnel and into the darkness.
Josh moved her lighter in a wide arc, which brought back the sharp pain in her right elbow where she'd slammed it against a ladder climbing down here. The ladder had been behind her a moment before; now it was gone. Like so many things in the Dream, it had vanished without reason.
When the lighter grew hot in her hand, she let the cap close with a click. The darkness was absoluteâ
it seemed to sayâand while Josh had been in dark places lots of times, there was a bad vibe down here; it drove the adrenaline that made her hands want to grab a weapon and her legs ache to run. The feeling might just have been instinct, but Josh knew better than to ignore it. Instinct had saved her life too many times.
For a moment she hesitated, rubbing her numb fingertips against the warm metal lighter. Then she closed her eyes against the dark and broke Stellanor's First Rule of dream walking:
Never let the dreamer's fear become your own.
Usually when Josh was inside the Dream universe, she kept the image of stone walls in the back of her mind. The wallsâthick and high and impenetrableâprotected her from the dreamers' emotions and made it possible for her to focus and not become paralyzed by terror or anxiety. But now Josh imagined a tiny hole in one wall, a well-worn hole the size of her pinky finger where a cork usually fit, and when she pulled the cork out, a slither of blue smoke came through.
A man in an old-fashioned coat. A gas can. A mask. A little boy wearing the gas mask, his face turning white, then blue, the mask pulling at his skin, sucking, suckingÂ â¦
And something else, a hint of primal fear, like a match held to the woman's anxiety and ready to set it alight:
Josh jammed the cork back in the wall before the dreamfire could overwhelm her. She opened her eyes and flicked the lighter again.
So there's a bad guy down here somewhere,
A sloshing noise came from one end of the tunnel, and Josh saw the dreamer come runningâa woman in her early forties, nice-looking in a middle-class, soccer-mom kind of way.
“They're coming!” the woman warned Josh, stopping a few feet away. “I got them away from the children, but they're coming.”
“Who's coming?” Josh asked.
“The men, with the gas masks. They put a mask on Paul and he turned all blue.”
“You're dreaming,” Josh calmly told the soccer mom. “You need to wake up.”
Sometimes the best way to deal with dreamers was to point out that they were dreaming. Some would realize the truth of the statement and wake up, while an interesting few would gain conscious control over their own nightmare.
Soccer mom did neither.
” the woman repeated, her eyes staring into the darkness. Josh felt the dreamfire flickering against the walls in her mind, like flames burning just outside her field of vision.
this lady is not hearing me. We need an out.
Unfortunately, there was no immediately apparent way to escape the dream. Josh needed a doorway, a manhole, an iron gate. Any kind of porthole, anything that would move them both to a different place.
“Don't worry about Paulâ” she started to say, and the woman let out an operatic scream that echoed up and down the sewer tunnel in a wicked one-woman chorus.
Josh grimaced as the dreamer took off running, splashing through the water like a duck taking flight.
Before Josh could go after her, a gust of freezing air swept the back of her neck. She spun so fast her feet lost purchase on the greasy tunnel floor and she fell on her buttâagain. The hand holding the Zippo slipped underwater.
But before the light went out, she caught a glimpse of the man who had been standing not five feet behind her.
Now she understood why the woman was so upset.
The man stood tall and wide enough to fill the tunnel. He wore a green-black leather trench coat that glistened like the shell of a beetle. Big green buttons ran down the front and a wide belt cinched the waist. On his head sat a matching felt fedora with a black band.
A gas mask covered his face, and two rubber tubes connected it to a huge canister that he wore on his back. The canister was so large that Josh could see it over his shoulder. It was made of something white and slick, like bone. The gas mask hid his face, but the two hands sticking out of the overlong sleeves were massive, and the fingers, thick as quarter rolls, were spread wide apart. Even in the meager half-second glimpse she got of him, Josh saw the muscles in the backs of his hands straining against the flesh as he forced his fingers farther away from each other. His hands must have hurt, spread so wide.
Josh sat in the water, in the dark, and listened to the gritty sound of the lighter flicking futilely. The man in the trench coat didn't make a sound, but she felt his presence somewhere nearby, like air pressure against her skin. He was closeâhow close? Which side? She hated not knowing where he was, because she was going to have to make a run for it and she needed to know which direction to run.
Some nightmares could be dealt with, resolved, like the one the week before when a man dreamt that he had started a grease fire in the kitchen while frying a couple of breaded tennis shoes. Josh had just walked in, grabbed a fire extinguisher, and put the fire out. Man relieved, nightmare over.
But this dream was too minimalist to work with; there were no possibilities for improvisation in the tunnel. The source of danger was obvious, but the means of defense were a mystery. What could she use against this canister-carrying menace?
Possibly nothing. Not all nightmares could be resolved, and if that was the case in this nightmare, Josh had only one option left.
According to what was formally known as Tao Sing's Dictum:
If you can't face a nightmare, run from it as fast as you possibly can.
The man in the trench coat still didn't make a sound. Finally, the lighter's wick dried enough that the little flame burst into action, and Josh's throat shut as if a string had been yanked tight around it.
The face of the man in the trench coat was less than a foot from her own.
All she saw during that glance were his eyes, bulging from above the rubber rim of his gas mask. They were black. The man carrying the canister had black eyes, deep and yet shiny. They had no whites. They had no irises. They had no pupils. It was as if his eyelids opened onto deep space.
He peered at her. A feeling emanated from this manâno, this
âthat made it hard for Josh to focus. Part of the feeling was intense desire, not for her but for violence, and part of it was indifference. The thing living in the trench coat wanted to kill, but it didn't care what, and this deep, unconscious need to end life was the source of the woman's dreamfire.
Only the deepest fears could awaken dreamfire, and only the strongest mental walls could stand against it. One moment of weakness would be enough to ignite a hysteria that would render Josh as powerless as the dreamer.
Josh began wondering if she'd have to kill the man.
This would hardly be her first time. But her father had once told her that even when he was in Vietnam, the killing hadn't seemed as real as Dream death did. Every sense was exaggeratedâthe sound of ribs cracking exploded in his ears, the blood was as thick as frosting, and it dried bright crimson, when it did finally dry.
And Dream death didn't always work. Once, Josh had blown a zombie's head off with a shotgun, watched it roll down a staircase, and felt his hands continue ripping her hair out. She'd had to break his body open like a lobster before he finally stopped coming at her.
The man in the trench coat struck her as the kind of guy who wasn't going to go down easily.
Then he spoke, the words muffled by the mask. No accent. No cadence. No real interest.
“You're Jona's daughter.”
Josh was so startled she forgot to kick him. He knew her
? Her mother had been dead for five years; Josh didn't bump into a lot of random people who had known her. And besides that, he was a nightmare, not a personâhe shouldn't have been able to recognize Josh.