When Jessica Drake learned that her DNA didn’t match that of her parents, she had no idea that investigating her true heritage would put her family’s lives in danger, and ultimately force her to cross into another world.
There, in an alternate Earth dominated by individuals with frightening mental powers called Gifts, Jessica learned of a curse within her blood, one so terrifying that all who possessed it were destroyed on sight. For she is a Dreamwalker, and the same dark Gift that allows her to enter the dreams of others will eventually destroy her mind and spread insanity to all around her.
Now the deadly wraiths known as reapers, created to hunt down the last Dreamwalkers, are starting to target her family. In order to destroy them she must seek out a mysterious shapeshifting tower where the secret of the reapers’ creation—and her own Dreamwalker heritage—can be found. Joining forces once more with the ex-Shadow Isaac and loremaster Sebastian, she travels to the Badlands, a region on the alternate Earth from which no traveler has ever returned.
But her efforts to unlock the secrets of the past will soon ignite the flames of an ancient war, as the deadand the undead gather to fight their final battle against the Dreamwalkers—with Jessica and Isaac on the front lines, and the fate of her entire homeworld at stake.
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On the world that has no name,
Atop a mountain of black stone,
The skeleton waits.
Its bones are granite and mortar, scoured clean by the wind and sun. Its ribs are tall, vaulted windows, their glass long gone, their peaked arches crumbling. Amidst the ruins a single narrow tower stands, rising from the black earth as if the arm of some long- buried creature is struggling to reach the sun. Its turrets are jagged and broken, and where there are breaches in the walls one can see that the interior is streaked with soot from an ancient fire.
Surrounding the ruins is a field of tall crimson grass, and beyond that a thick black hedge twice as tall as a man, whose branches are so closely intertwined that not even light can pass between them. There are animals present: one can hear predators moving through the grass in search of prey and catch a glimpse of birds amidst the tangled branches, dodging thorns as long as a man’s hand. But there is little life on the black mountain itself. A few patches of moss cling to the base of the broken walls. A single foolhardy vine has managed to climb halfway up the tower, and its leaves stir in the breeze, giving the tower the illusion of breath. As if the ancient fortress that once stood here is just asleep, rather than dead.
A shadow passes in front of the sun.
A three- headed dog looks up from its hiding place in the tall grass, suddenly alert. A lizard with the wings of a bat crawls out upon a thorned branch so it can see well. A cluster of rats with tails knotted together peers out from a burrow, a hundred eyes moving in unison as they nervously scan the sky.
The shadow is growing larger now, though there are no clouds in the sky to explain its existence. The leaves of the ivy curl in upon themselves, as if trying to draw away from it. The surrounding sky begins to lose its color, fading from bright blue to a more muted shade.
One of the dog’s three heads whimpers.
The shadow starts to coalesce over the tower, taking on the shape of a man. Its body is not made of flesh, but of a darkness so absolute that all light and heat from the surrounding landscape are sucked into it. The sky surrounding it turns grey. The leaves of the ivy begin to fall. Frost forms along the ancient turrets.
The winged lizard hisses in terror and disappears into the hollow of a tree. The rats dart back into their burrow, tripping over each other in their flight.
Another shadow begins to take form, identical to the first. It is followed by another. Seven wraiths appear in all, their substance darker than the blackest night, and the tower grows dim as they circle it restlessly, as if searching for something. Then the first one begins to howl. It is a cry of anguish and fury commingled, and one by one the other shadowy wraiths join in. The unnatural sound resonates across the landscape, awakening memories of loss in all who hear it. The three- headed dog remembers the mournful night its mate was killed. The lizard relives that terrible day when it returned to its nest to find that its eggs had been devoured. The king rat recalls what it was like to run free in the fields, alone and unencumbered, and whimpers.
And then, as suddenly as it began, the unnatural howling ceases. The shadows circle a few minutes longer in silence, then begin to dissipate. One after another they fade into the greyness of the sky, until they can no longer be seen. The first to arrive is the last to leave.
Not until the last one is completely gone does color return to the world.
The sound of someone screaming woke me up.
For a moment I had no clue where I was. I just lay there staring at an unfamiliar ceiling, struggling to get my bearings. Then, slowly, the memories associated with my new home situation sank in. I remembered how we’d moved back to Manassas so Mom could return to work, which required renting an apartment that was way too small for our family. It was the best we could do on a monthly lease, Mom said; she didn’t want to commit to more than that while the insurance for our fire- ravaged family home was still being settled. Having only two bedrooms meant that someone would have to share sleeping accommodations, and Tommy and I had agreed that Mom needed her privacy, so we’d worked out a time-sharing arrangement for the second bedroom. During the day either of us could use the room, but at night Tommy bunked on the fold- out couch in the living room. Hopefully, we’d soon be moving to a place where such a complicated dance wasn’t necessary.
All of which was no help at all in figuring out where the scream came from. I strained my senses to the utmost, listening for any more disturbances but heard only the dim murmur of neighbors through the paper-thin walls, arguing or making love or watching TV.
Then I heard another cry—lower than the first, more of a moan this time—and realized it was coming from Mom’s room. She wasn’t in the habit of screaming in her sleep, so I threw off my blanket as quickly as I could and sprinted across the room, nearly tripping over one of Tommy’s board games along the way. As I ran out into the claustrophobically narrow hallway I saw Tommy stirring on the couch—though whether he’d heard Mom’s cry, or I’d woken him up when the bedroom door slammed open, was anyone’s guess.
I found Mom huddled on her bed, her arms wrapped tightly around her knees, staring into the darkness with fearful eyes. I looked around the room for any sign of immediate danger, but didn’t see anything. That meant little, of course. There were creatures in the universe that could move unseen through the night, and some of them knew my name.
“Mom? You okay?” I moved to the edge of the bed and sat down, reaching out to put a hand on her arm. She was shaking like a leaf. “What happened?”
“I saw it,” she whispered. “In my dream. It...it attacked me.”
“All darkness and cold. What did you call it? A reaper.” Her voice was hoarse with fear. “It sucked in all the color...just like you described. Devouring everything. Then it saw me. It had no eyes, but I knew somehow that it was looking at me.” She drew in a shaky breath. “I started to run. It followed me, and I couldn’t run fast enough to get away.”
“Shit,” Tommy muttered from behind my right shoulder. I hadn’t heard him come in, so his sudden voice made me jump.
I squeezed Mom’s arm reassuringly, but inside I was anything but calm. Of all the things that Tommy and I had feared might happen after I came home, a reaper attacking Mom wasn’t even on the list. She wasn’t a Dreamwalker, so why would one of them go after her?
“I had no idea that I was dreaming at first,” Mom went on. “It all seemed so real.” She looked at me. “But then I remembered our talk, and what you said about them, and suddenly I understood what was really happening and was able to wake myself up.”
“I don’t get it,” Tommy began. “Why would a reaper—”
I elbowed him in his side to shut him up. “You’ll be fine,” I told my mother. “What Tommy’s trying to say is, the reapers have no reason to hurt you. They were created to hunt Dreamwalkers, and you’re not one. So it must have been some kind of mistake. Identity confusion.”
I shot Tommy a look that I hoped would drive home how important it was for us to focus on calming Mom down, and discuss the larger implications of this later. He nodded his understanding but didn’t look happy about it. He’d been there back when I woke up from my first confrontation with a reaper, and he was probably thinking about the bloody gash it had given me, that was still on my arm in the waking world. I could remember the horror of that discovery as if it had just happened, and I could see in his eyes that he did, too. If a reaper attacked Mom in a dream, did that mean it could hurt her in the same way?
I’d never told my mother about that wound, though with summer clothing it had taken some effort to keep it covered. It had seemed the right choice to make, giving her less to worry about. But now? If reapers were starting to show up in her dreams, maybe she should know the full measure of their power.
But that still left the question of why one of them had attacked her in the first place. Back when Isaac had researched them in the Shadowlords’ archives, he’d discovered they were created during an ancient war between the Shadowlords and the Dreamwalkers, and were trained to sniff out and destroy anyone who possessed the dreamer’s Gift. So every time I entered another person’s dream there was a chance the reapers would find me. But Mom wasn’t a Dreamwalker, so why on earth would a reaper attack her? Isaac might be able to answer that, or at least point me in the right direction to find answers on my own, but we were on different worlds now, and the only way I could contact him was to use the same power that would draw the reapers to me. Catch 22.
There was always a chance that Mom’s assailant wasn’t real. Tommy and I had told her about the reapers less than a week ago, so that conversation was still fresh in her memory; maybe my description had taken root in her mind and prompted a normal—albeit terrifying—nightmare. God, how I wanted to believe that! But the screaming suggested otherwise. Mom didn’t do that with regular nightmares.
She brushed a hand across her face, wiping tears from her eyes. Then she mumbled something about freshening up, and I gave her room to slide off the bed. She seemed to be pulling herself together. As she walked to the apartment’s one bathroom I felt a sense of relief that Tommy and I would have a few minutes alone to process all this.
Mom never told us exactly what she’d experienced when the Fleshcrafter repaired her brain after my last return from Terra Prime, but we soon figured out that she hadn’t just been asleep during all that. Did she spend the time dreaming of other worlds, witnessing shadows of the truth? Or was she physically frozen but awake, conscious enough to sense what was being done to her, and to hear what we were saying? In the days following she never volunteered any information about that night, and Tommy and I respected her desire not to talk about it. But now and then I would catch her staring at herself in the mirror in a disturbing way, studying her face as if its shape was unfamiliar. And when Tommy and I finally decided to tell her the truth about our recent travels, she didn’t discount our story like Dr. Tilford had, coming up with theories about false memories or shared delusions, but instead took it all in with an eerie calm. Like she’d known for some time that there were alien forces at work in our family, and had just lacked the details needed to give them a name. I knew in that moment that whatever she had experienced during her fleshcrafting, she understood on a visceral level that the Gift that was used on her was not of this world.
I’d warned her about the reapers so that if I ever wanted to visit her dreams I could do so safely, because she would know to wake herself up if one appeared. Thank God I’d done that. Tonight she had learned why I was so afraid to use the Gift that was in my blood.
“You’re going to have to deal with them,” Tommy muttered.
Through the window I could see the streets of Manassas, maybe not the exact location where I’d grown up, but close enough that I felt like I belonged there. Sometimes at night I would lay awake, staring into the Manassas darkness, breathing in the Manassas air, thinking about how our house was being rebuilt, how soon I would be back with old friends and familiar teachers, painting art that no one understood, doing normal teenage stuff. The concept was appealing.
Never mind that it was all a lie. Never mind that I’d been born on another world and possessed a Gift—or perhaps a curse—that might, in time, drive me insane. Never mind that I was being hunted by fearsome wraiths created by undead necromancers and that the odds of my returning to school in September like a normal kid were only slightly lower than being hit by lightning. Now reapers were showing up in the dreams of people I loved. What the hell did that mean?
Tomorrow. That was what I told myself each morning when I woke up. Tomorrow I would deal with the Gift that threatened to destroy my sanity. Tomorrow I would find a way to escape the reapers. Tomorrow I would seek a way to free myself from the frightening path I’d been sucked into, in which every possible choice seemed to lead to more fear, more destruction.
In the distance I could hear my mother washing up, calming down. Normal. So normal.
“Yeah,” I whispered to Tommy. “I know.”
I had run out of tomorrows.