Two rules I live by: Never admit to being a shapeshifter on a first, second, or third date with a human. And never, ever bring along a zombie apprentice wannabe on a demon kill.
Lately, given my lack of a social life and my kinda-sorta relationship with a workaholic werewolf lawyer, Rule Number One hadn’t presented much of a problem. At the moment, it was Rule Number Two that was giving me trouble. Of course, I’d only formulated Rule Number Two about thirty seconds ago, but I intended to uphold it for the rest of my life—assuming that I’d make it out of here and have a rest of my life to live.
Rule Number Two was thanks to Tina, who—against my orders—had followed me into my client’s dream. I was here to exterminate a pod of dream-demons, and the last thing I needed was a teenage zombie in a pink miniskirt.
“Hi, Vicky. I thought you might need this.” Tina waved my flamethrower, then looked around. “Whoa. It’s weird in here.”
Weird didn’t half describe it. We stood in the middle of a huge circus tent, the top stretching up and up until it disappeared somewhere in the stratosphere. Eerie music from an out-of-tune calliope swirled through the air. All around us loomed dozens of crate-sized boxes, painted crayon-bright red, blue, and yellow. Suddenly, a box to my right flipped open. With an earsplitting screech an evil-faced clown sprang out, jack-in-the-box style. I raised my pistol, aimed, and squeezed the trigger. The bronze bullet nailed the demon-clown right between its eyes. It shrieked, bobbing around on its spring, then dissolved into a puff of sulfurous mist.
“Cool!” Tina brandished the flamethrower. “Let me do the next one.”
“Uh-uh. You’re getting out of here. Now. Before the client wakes up.” I went over and nudged her toward the dream portal, but she shook me off and walked away.
“Don’t worry. Georgie-poo’s sleeping like a newborn baby.”
“Mr. Funderburk to you.”
“Whatever. Anyway, how can he wake up? That was, like, an industrial-strength sleeping pill you gave him. I want to look around. I’ve never been inside somebody’s dreams before.” Her mascaraed eyelashes fluttered against her spongy, gray-green skin. “Well, once, when I was alive, Joey Tomasino told me he had this dream and I was in it.” She sighed. “But I didn’t know I was in it, you know?”
I made a snatch for the flamethrower, but Tina spun around and danced out of reach. As she did, the ground rolled under our feet, sending up puffs of sawdust and making Tina stagger.
“What was that?” she asked.
“A bad sign.” The ground shook again, ominous, like the shudder that runs up your spine before something really, really awful happens. “You’re trespassing in Mr. Funderburk’s dreamscape. You’ve gotta go.”
She laughed. “I bet the earth moved more than that in Joey Tomasino’s dream.”
I grabbed her arm and tried to drag her toward the dream portal, but she dug in her heels. I’m stronger than a human, but zombies have incredible strength—something happened to their muscles between death and reanimation. I couldn’t budge her.
The ground was rippling in steady waves now, making it hard to stay upright. “This is bad,” I said, shaking Tina’s arm. “If the client wakes up, we’ll both fade into dream limbo. You want to be stuck in here forever?”
Tina yanked herself away and strolled across the bucking ground, her arms out like those of a tightrope walker. She stopped beside a box and knocked on its lid. “Yoo-hoo. Any demons in there?”
The box flew open and a figure emerged. Tina stumbled backward and hoisted the flamethrower.
“Don’t!” I shouted.
Too late. A blast of fire roared from the weapon, incinerating the figure and shooting past it to burn a hole in the wall of the circus tent. Tina fell, landing on her butt and dropping the flamethrower. The jet of fire whipped back and forth like an angry snake, igniting more jack-in-the-box boxes, the calliope, the Eiffel Tower—who knows how that got in here, but it was blazing now. I ran over and picked up the weapon, snapping the safety on before the whole damn place went up in flames.
Tina stared at the ashes of the box she’d blasted. “That wasn’t a clown.”
“No, it wasn’t even a Drude.” Drudes are dream-demons, the kind I’d been hired to exterminate. “You just torched Mr. Funderburk’s mother.” No question about it; I’d seen her photo on George’s nightstand.
A howling began in the distance, from somewhere outside the dream. The noise got louder and louder, and the dreamscape bounced around like an earthquake redefining the Richter scale. The howling shaped itself into a word: “Mama! Mamaaaa!” Outside, George was moaning and shaking his head—signs he was waking up. If that happened, Tina and I would be trapped forever inside this freak-show circus or, worse, locked in the basement that stored the symbols and themes of George Funderburk’s subconscious. I’d seen enough topside to know that was not a place I wanted to be.
“Mama!” George’s heartbeat thundered through the dreamscape. Sleeping pill or no sleeping pill, he was working himself into a state that would catapult him out of his dream—the way it happens when you wake up suddenly, your heart pounding and a scream dying on your lips. We had ten, maybe fifteen seconds left. I shoved Tina, hard.
“Get through the portal! No more screwing around!”
This time, Tina listened. She scrambled, half-crawling, to the dream portal, a doorway of shimmering, multicolored light, then jumped into the beam. Immediately she bounced backward, like she’d tried to hurl herself through a trampoline.
All around us, the circus tent was going up in flames, roaring and popping, throwing lights and shadows across Tina’s terrified face. George was screaming now; in here, it sounded like a million fingernails screeching down a million blackboards. Tina put her hands over her ears and again tried to shoulder her way into the portal.
“Vicky! I can’t get through!”
I caught up with her. “There’s an exit password. Keeps the Drudes in.” I mouthed the secret word and shoved Tina into the portal. Her body shimmered for a second, dissolving into a Tina-shaped outline of sparkling colors. Then she disappeared, sucked back into the real world.
Damn, how I wanted to follow her. But I couldn’t. Not until I’d finished the job.
With Tina gone, the place was shaking a little less, so maybe George was settling back down and I could—
An explosion ripped through the air, knocking me to the ground in a shower of sparks and hot ash. I scrambled for cover, then checked out the situation from behind an abandoned clown car. Fire raged through the big top as, one by one, the boxes blew up. That would get rid of some Drudes—and God knew what other dream figures were hiding in there—but I couldn’t let the flames destroy George’s whole dreamscape. If that happened, he’d never dream again, and that meant a one-way ticket to insanity. Not to mention the fact that I’d burn to cinders along with everything else.
Think, Vicky, think. Dreams don’t follow the same rules as reality. I had to use dream logic to put out the fire, then try to repair the dreamscape—if the chaos in here didn’t jolt George into waking up first. It was a plan, or the closest I could come to one at the moment.
I tried wishing the fire away. Sometimes that works in dreams. Closing my eyes, I pictured a bright, happy circus scene: a bright, happy tent (flame-retardant) filled with bright, happy people. “Make it real,” I whispered. “When I open my eyes, this is what I’ll see.” Taking a deep breath, I opened my eyes.
The ringmaster ran past me, screaming, his top hat on fire. To my right, a snack cart exploded, showering flaming cotton candy over the stands as spectators trampled each other while trying to find an exit. So much for bright and happy.
Time for dream logic, take two. I tried free association. Fire. Out. Water. Lots of water. As soon as I thought water, I thought of elephants—don’t ask me why. It made perfect sense at the time. A line of elephants pedaled into the ring, each on its own tricycle, trumpeting sirenlike wails. It sounded a little bit like a brigade of off-key fire engines, and I crossed my fingers. The elephants triked over to the pool at the foot of the high-dive platform, then stopped. Each elephant rolled off its tricycle, did a ballerina-style pirouette, then began using its trunk to siphon up water and spray it on the flames. Sizzling sounds hissed through the air. Within seconds, the fire was out.
“Thanks, guys,” I called, waving as the elephants floated skyward, then disappeared. Their trikes turned around and pedaled themselves out of the ring. Everything was back to normal, or as normal as it gets in a dream.
Except that all around me, everywhere I looked, George Funderburk’s dreamscape lay in ruins. Steam rose from piles of wet, stinking ashes. The circus tent was three quarters gone; here and there, a few singed ribbons drooped. Beyond them, a charred, dreary landscape stretched out in all directions, the kind of dreamscape that brought depression and despair to waking life. Gray, gray, and more gray—the fire had burned out all the colors. Don’t let anyone tell you that people dream in black and white; that’s a severely damaged dreamscape. Dreams are supposed to be in hi-def, razor-sharp color. No way could I leave the place like this—the poor guy would be worse off than before he hired me.
Years ago during my training I learned a technique for rebooting a person’s dreamscape, but I’d never actually tried it in the field. Today would be my chance—if I could remember what to do. It was the only hope I had of putting things right.
First things first, though. I couldn’t attempt a reboot until I’d flushed out all the demons. Otherwise, they’d reinfest the place and we’d be back to square one. So before I did anything else, I’d finish the job I’d been hired to do. I pulled out the InDetect I wear on a cord around my neck and turned it on. It hummed to life, then was silent. Turning in a slow circle, I held it at arm’s length and listened. After a quarter turn it clicked, softly at first, but as I took a few steps, sweeping the InDetect back and forth, the volume and the speed of the clicking picked up. Drude, dead ahead.
Following the clicking, I pulled out my pistol. I’d gone forward about a dozen feet when a demon leaped in front of me, gnashing its teeth and snarling. No more evil clowns. This one was in typical demon guise: long, pointed tongue and cloven hooves, bristling with sharp things—horns, fangs, claws—and spewing bad breath. It howled—whoa, make that really bad breath—then charged. I shot. One bronze bullet from my pistol, and the thing dissolved into a murky cloud and a whiff of rotten eggs.
I scoped out the rest of the dreamscape and blasted three more Drudes back into the ether. When the InDetect didn’t pick up any more, I holstered my pistol, put my hands on my hips, and tried to remember the reboot technique. If I did it right, George would wake up demon free, with a vague memory of pleasant dreams. Tina’s trespassing, Mama’s live cremation, the trashing of his dreamscape—all of that would be gone. Overwritten. Not even a trace lingering downstairs in his subconscious.
If I did it right.
This much I remembered: to reboot somebody’s dreams, you had to use the dream portal as a conduit to import, from the real world outside, the raw materials to rebuild the ruined dreamscape. Essences, not actual objects. I didn’t want to pull in the bedroom dresser or, God forbid, Tina. Instead, I needed colors, emotions, thoughts, memories—the ingredients we all use in an infinite variety of recipes to cook up our dreams.
There was a spell to pull in those essences. A word, a phrase maybe, that summoned the raw materials of dreams. What was it? Aunt Mab made me memorize it when she taught me how to use the dream portal, but damned if I could remember it now. I tried essence in English, then in Welsh. The dream portal sat there, empty, doing nothing but sparkling in shades of white and gray in this colorless world. Raw materials—I was sure the spell had something to do with that, So I tried all the synonyms I could think of: ingredients, core, infrastructure, primary elements, source. I also tried the Welsh equivalent when I knew it. I thought I’d had it when I tried dream-stuff, but nothing happened. Nothing worked.
Beneath my feet, the ground trembled and shifted. A sigh blew through the dreamscape like a gust of wind. George was stirring. I checked my watch, then shook it. The damn thing said it was 4:37 on Wednesday, February 1, 1792. The guy who’d sold it to me said it would work in here, and, like an idiot, I’d believed him. Time has no meaning in dreams, even though it keeps ticking away relentlessly in the real world. I must’ve been in here for hours by now; George’s sleeping pill would wear off soon.
“Work, damn you!” I shouted at the portal, kicking it and causing a shower of sparks. My voice echoed, and the trembling intensified.
What was the magic phrase? I needed Aunt Mab’s help. I’d have to try calling her on the dream phone. The Cerddorion, the race of Welsh shapeshifters to which I belong, have a psychic link to others of their kind that they can use while sleeping. All you have to do is concentrate on the person you want to connect with, and you open the connection. In your dream, the air begins to swirl and shimmer with that person’s colors—all souls have their own colors—and, if they’re willing to talk to you, you can have a conversation. Sometimes it worked when you called from inside another person’s dreams. And Mab was powerful enough to answer even if she was awake.
I pictured her, a straight-backed, iron-haired woman sitting in the library of her house in North Wales. Like an out-of-focus black-and-white photo, the scene was blurred and Mab’s usually sharp features were indistinct. I concentrated harder, envisioning her baggy cardigan, her long black dress, her sensible lace-up shoes. Her face was set in its familiar, you-can-do-better scowl. I watched for her colors, blue and silver, to emerge. Nothing. Just flat, blurry gray. And then I realized—I was in a place where there were no colors.
Now what? If Mab’s colors couldn’t get through, was I cut off from Mab? I had no clue. It had never been an issue before.
Mostly because I couldn’t think of a plan B, I kept picturing my aunt. I took concentration to a whole new level, squeezing my eyes shut and scrunching up my forehead. I tried adding other senses: her sharp voice that contrasted so strangely with the softness of her accent, her scent of lavender water and mothballs. Gradually the image sharpened, like a figure emerging from the fog. Mab sat in her favorite wing chair by the fireplace, a book open on her lap.
“Mab, thank God you’re there! I need to reboot this dreamscape, now.”
Her mouth moved, but there was no sound. Damn. Bad connection. No wonder, since I was calling from someone else’s damaged dreamscape. But I didn’t have time to try again. Next time, the connection might be even worse.
She seemed to be able to hear me, so I asked, “What’s the magic word?” She smiled, closed her book, and turned it so I could read the cover. The Tempest, by William Shakespeare. Something literary. It figured.
“For heaven’s sake, Mab, I don’t have time for English class! Just tell me. Write it on a piece of paper.”
Mab tapped the side of her head, the gesture that meant, “Think, child.” Her image began to fade. The book-lined walls of the room where she sat wavered and thinned. In a moment, all that remained was the damned book, floating in the air.
I remembered when Mab had made me read that play. I hated it—the language was old and hard to understand, and the story didn’t make sense. A bunch of weird spirits and castaways running around on some island—it figured a book like that would hold the key to re-creating a dreamscape. There was something important in that play, something I needed to remember.
The ground convulsed, knocking me to my hands and knees, and a snort ricocheted around me. I was doomed. George was waking up, and Mab wanted me to read Shakespeare. Another snort, louder, knocked the book from the air. It whacked me hard on the back of the head, bounced, and landed on the ground in front of me. I sat back on my knees, rubbing my head. Jeez, if Mab could send a book through the dream phone, why couldn’t she just send herself and get me out of this mess? But that wasn’t how my aunt operated—never had been.
The book was open to a scene near the end, where the magician Prospero speaks to Ferdinand and Miranda. I scanned the words. “Our revels now are ended. These our actors,” blah blah blah. “The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,” yadda yadda yadda. I’d never find it. I kept reading, faster, skimming over the words. Suddenly, my eyes hit the brakes. A phrase glowed and lifted itself off the page. “We are such stuff as dreams are made on.” That was it. That was the spell. No wonder I’d felt close with dream-stuff.
“Such stuff as dreams are made on!” I shouted.
Immediately the portal expanded and a rainbow of colors poured in. Multihued streams of light shot around the dreamscape, touching things, washing them with color, bringing them to life. The portal widened further, and a strong wind entered, pushing me backward. Squinting through watering eyes, I peered into it. Dozens, hundreds of shadowy figures flew in, whirling through the dreamscape, breaking off into tornadoes that spun and leaped as far as I could see. Here and there, figures would jump out and strike a pose or sink down into the ground to wait their turn down cellar, in George’s subconscious.
The lights and colors intensified, growing so bright I had to close my eyes. Next, sounds blasted their way in: voices, clanging, music, drumbeats, screeches, whistles, wails, chirping, sobbing—you name it. When every sound you might ever hear in a dream lets loose all at once, the din is unbelievable. I pressed my hands over my ears and crouched beside the portal. Blinded, deafened, pinned down by gale-force winds, I was helpless until the reboot was complete. Don’t wake up now, George, I thought. Please don’t wake up now. This dreamscape wasn’t even such a great place to visit—I definitely did not want to live here.
The vortex of sounds, lights, and colors swirled and roared. Then, gradually, the chaos subsided, until a single sound emerged: thumpa thumpa thumpa. Fear tickled my spine. Was that George’s about-to-wake-up heartbeat? No, it was too even for that. More like some kind of drumbeat. A rhythm track. Cautiously, I lifted my hands from my ears. Music—it was music. Not the calliope melody of before, this was dance music—loud, insistent, pulsing with a heavy bass line. I opened my eyes, then blinked. Spots flashed by in random patterns. It took me a minute to realize that they came from a mirror ball rotating overhead. The circus tent was gone. I now stood on the dance floor of the tackiest seventies-style disco you could imagine—raised dance floor, mirrored walls, a light show to make you seasick.
Over at the bar, George’s mother waved to me. She raised her drink—something creamy and pink with skewers of fruit and a little umbrella stuck in the top—and smiled. She tossed the drink back in one gulp and wiped her mouth on her sleeve. Then she got up, tied on a frilly blue-and-white apron, and left.
Disco music is not my thing. I’ve got all the dance moves of a three-legged camel. But as soon as Mama was out the door, I felt an overwhelming compulsion to dance, to boogie, to get down and shake my groove thing. Thumpa thumpa thumpa. The beat was hypnotic; the bass line throbbed through my bones. I tossed back my long black hair—which was odd because my hair is short and strawberry blonde. But I forgot about that as the music swept over me in waves of sound and moved my hips for me in a sexy, swaying motion. Thumpa thumpa thumpa. I looked down in surprise, wondering where I’d learned to move like that.
Oh, God. My clothes were dissolving. My T-shirt, which for some reason was soaking wet, was already half transparent, and my bra was missing. Okay, pretty obvious what kind of dream this was shaping up to be. No wonder George’s mom had left. The dreamscape was rebooted and working just fine. A little too fine. And I was getting the hell out of here.
I ran for the portal, shouting the password, and dove into the beam.