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The Dreamer's Way [MultiFormat]
eBook by Mari Atherton

eBook Category: Science Fiction
eBook Description: Flita is alone in a hostile world. Abandoned by her mother, betrayed by her stepmother and her best friend, and sentenced to death, she is now trapped in the poisonous air outside the safe boundaries of the Protectorate. If the air doesn't kill her, the hideously deformed monsters that dwell Outside will. Her only hope is to find the Dreamer's Way that will lead her to the Golden City and safety. But the monsters have already attacked and wrapped their deadly tendrils around her. Even if she knew the location of the Dreamer's Way, she has no way to get there ... or does she?

eBook Publisher: Swimming Kangaroo Books, Published: 2006, 2006
Fictionwise Release Date: October 2007


7 Reader Ratings:
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* * * *
PROLOGUE

Alodi flinched involuntarily as the doors closed behind her with a note of finality. She had expected to find a great room behind such great doors, but the room was surprisingly small. She could have reached out and touched the throne of Vevine, the Tzeh Cher, had she wanted to, but she didn't, of course. That would be disrespectful, to say the least, possibly even considered blasphemous.

A shrill whistle sounded, and Alodi threw herself on the floor, flat out with her arms outstretched above her head, for that was how one greeted the Tzeh Cher. Alodi kept her face against the floor; only the soft tap of footsteps and the rustle of skirts let her know that Vevine had entered the room. The throne creaked and then a voice said, "Rise."

Alodi stood up and clasped her hands behind her back so the Peacer at the door could see them at all times. Her fingers clenched tightly together, and her knees trembled with fear. Why had the Tzeh Cher summoned her, a farmer's wife, for an audience?

"You are Alodi?" Vevine's voice was low and soft, but carried an unmistakable edge of authority.

"Yes, Tzeh Cher." Despite her fear, Alodi looked at Vevine with interest. She had seen her before, but never at such close range. The Tzeh Cher was a short, husky woman with white streaks in her black hair, which she wore swept up on top of her head, held in place with arrow-shaped hairpins.

Vevine returned Alodi's gaze with equal interest. "I have heard it said that you are a Dreamer."

A jolt of terror shot throughout Alodi's body. "Me?" she stammered. "Oh no, Tzeh Cher!" Who could have told Vevine such a thing? To be a Dreamer was punishable by death.

"People who know you talk of the visions which they say you create."

Alodi shook her head fiercely. "No, I don't create visions, Tzeh Cher." She forced her hands to keep from clenching behind her back.

Vevine's black eyes looked at her piercingly, and Alodi took a step backward. Her heart was pounding so hard; surely even the Peacer by the great doors could hear it.

"There were some other Dreamers found last year, not too far from my palace," Vevine mused. "A young, married couple. With a child. Like you, they refused to admit what they were."

Alodi bit her lip. She didn't think she wanted to hear the rest of this story.

Vevine's voice hardened. "Their neighbors killed her. But first, they tore out her eyes. They slit her tongue. They poured hot oil over her screaming body."

"No!" Alodi cried, closing her eyes.

"We never found the husband's body. We've no idea what happened to him. But we found their young son by his mother's body. We have no way of knowing how much he saw. But I know that I could hear her screams in my chamber."

Alodi's thoughts flew to her own family and she shuddered as a vision entered her head of her tiny daughter in the hands of such a mob. Resolutely she cleared her mind and tossed her head. "I'm not a Dreamer!"

Vevine shook her head. "You have a husband and a little girl. They could be in danger."

"No! I'm not a Dreamer!" Alodi could not hold back the tears any longer, but pride, and the presence of the Peacer, would not allow her to raise a hand to brush them away, so they rolled down her cheeks and dropped to the floor.

Vevine pursed her lips. "I have warned you. If you change your mind, come to me. I might be able to help you."

Alodi, in her terror, barely heard Vevine's last statement, "I am not a Dreamer, Tzeh Cher," she repeated firmly, wondering how many times she would have to say it.

Vevine shook her head sorrowfully as she pulled a rope that hung beside the throne. A whistle shrilled as the great doors behind Alodi opened, and she backed out of the room.

She was still trembling with fear when she got home. Alric was sitting on the floor eating his lunch, and Flita was beside him, playing with her doll. They looked so normal that Alodi almost forgot the nightmare of her audience with the Tzeh Cher. For a moment, they were just an ordinary farm family.

"What did Vevine want with you?"

Alric's words forced Alodi to remember, but she did not answer until she had swept her child up in her arms and given her a fervent hug. "There have been reports of a Dreamer living near us. She wanted to know if I knew anything about it." Alodi avoided her husband's eyes by pretending to wipe some dirt off Flita's face and changed the subject. "Was Flita a problem this morning?"

Alric, who had taken the little girl to the fields with him while Alodi was gone, shook his head. "No. Mera came over and the two of them helped me plant the seed. They were a big help."

Alodi was in a hurry for him to return to the fields, but he dawdled around, seemingly worried about her. "Will you be all right this afternoon? I could stay here if need be. You seem kind of upset."

Any other day Alodi would have loved to have her husband stay home with her, but today she wanted to be alone to think without any distractions. "No, Alric. You go. I'll be fine." She stood on her tiptoes to give him a kiss and send him on his way, finally. Now, if she could get Flita interested in some activity, she could get some things worked out in her mind. She sent the little girl out with a pail to gather berries and sat herself on the doorstep where she could keep her daughter in sight.

She would have to be more careful, but she thought she had been. Surely no one had been around when the visions came. She wasn't a Dreamer. Not really. Dreamers were dangerous. Ever since Alodi could remember, she had heard stories of the beautiful city where her people had lived until the Dreamers had come and turned them out into the poisonous air of the Outside. If the gods had not created the Protectorate, the people would have died. Even now, the gods were battling with the Dreamers, fighting to expand the boundaries of the Protectorate so the people would have more space.

Alodi knew that the war between the gods and the Dreamers was fierce, and that many times the Dreamers had actually infiltrated the Protectorate, sending dangerous visions to harm the inhabitants and forcing the Protectorate to lose ground. So it was no wonder that the Dreamers were hated by the citizens of the Protectorate. She hated them herself. There was just no way she could be a Dreamer. Sure, she had visions sometimes, but they weren't harmful; they were barely there at all. She couldn't even call them; they just came.

Alodi's eyes followed Flita, who had found some older children and was skipping merrily along after them, pretending she was included in their games.

"Alodi, come to us."

Alodi jumped and looked around, but no one was there. It was just her imagination, she decided, and leaned weakly against the side of the door. The next thing she knew, Flita was patting her face, eager to show off a full basket of berries, "I must have fallen asleep," Alodi said to herself. "Come on, Flita, we've dinner to fix."

Alric was home late that evening. "Sorry," he said lightly as he stepped inside the cottage. "I was giving Sarad a hand with his plow. It's broken again."

Alodi had just put Flita to bed. She set Alric's supper on the table and rubbed his shoulders as he sat down.

"Sarad says there must be a Dreamer around here somewhere. His wife saw a purple serpent yesterday."

"She has a forked tongue like a serpent," Alodi said sharply. She wondered if it was Sarad's wife had denounced her to the Tzeh Cher.

Alric patted her hand. "Don't worry about it, Alodi. I don't."

Impulsively Alodi kissed her husband's hair, right where it was beginning to thin. "Will you play for me tonight?"

"Of course I will."

True to his words, after supper Alric took his kithar down from the wall. He had made it himself, a complex instrument with four sets of strings strung over its many surfaces. Alric was one of the few masters of the kithar, not many people even attempted it.

Alodi sat on the floor at his feet and leaned against his legs as he sang, his fingers picking melody and counter-melody at the same time. Sometimes she sang with him, but tonight she was content just to listen.

Alric's music was what had drawn her to him in the first place, and now it eased her troubled mind. It was several minutes before the voices broke through. "Come to us, Alodi!" They sounded urgent, but Alodi shook her head fiercely and concentrated on the music. The voices faded, and Alodi was pleased, feeling she had won a small victory. Then she heard a hiss coming from the ceiling, and, looking up in the corner, she saw a two-headed cat snarling at her. As Alodi drew her breath in sharply, the cat swooped at her face with talons bared and vanished as she instinctively ducked. It was just another vision with no substance, like the others that plagued her throughout the day. Alodi glanced at Alric, fearful that he might have seen the cat, but he continued singing, seemingly unaware of anything but his music,

"Alodi! Alodi! Come to us!"

Alodi inched closer to Alric's legs and clasped her arms around his knees. In an attempt to shut out the voices she closed her eyes and bit her lips, but they were insistent. They were so loud that Alric surely had to hear them. What would happen if he found out about her? Alodi didn't even want to think of it.

"Alodi! Come!" The voices reverberated and Alodi suddenly couldn't take anymore. "Enough!" she cried, holding her head.

Alric looked at her in hurt surprise. "Don't you like the music?"

He had thought her words were meant for him, Alodi realized. She quickly stood up and kissed him on the lips. "I am sorry Alric, but I am weary. Please, let us go to bed."

Alric returned her kiss and held her tightly before following her into the bedroom where Alodi allowed him to make love to her in order to more completely dispel any hurt feelings. It was harder to keep the visions from coming when she was aroused, so she was relieved when Alric sealed their lovemaking with a kiss upon her lips and rolled over and went to sleep.

Sleep was slow in coming to Alodi since she had to struggle to keep the visions from appearing. At last she dropped into a fitful sleep, only to be awakened with a jolt several hours later to see a tableau on the ceiling--an underwater scene with fish, dragons, snakes and seahorses all fighting a battle with bubbles, which they shot at each other from their mouths. Alodi recognized the scene as being from the dream she'd had just before awakening. She turned her head and saw her husband watching the ceiling with an intent look of interest on his face.

"Oh, no, Alric!" Alodi whispered. The vision disappeared.

Alric smiled at her. "Oh, so you're awake."

Alodi flinched in anticipation of his disgust. Now he knew the truth about her. What would he do? Denounce her for sure. He might even kill her himself. And worse, he might kill Flita too, in order to totally remove the Dreamer taint from his house. Alodi shrank away from him, waiting for the first blow. "Please don't hurt me," she whispered.

Alric's words surprised her. "Now why would I hurt you?"

"I'm--I'm a Dreamer." There. Those horrid words were out. For the first time in her life, Alodi admitted it, to Alric and to herself.

"I've known that for a long time," Alric said carelessly.

He knew? He knew she was a Dreamer and yet he had done nothing? Then, in a rush, it came to Alodi that it must have been Alric who had turned her in to the Tzeh Cher; he hadn't had the guts to denounce her to her face. Now anger replaced Alodi's fear, and she turned on him. "How could you know? I've banished my visions as soon as they came. How could you possibly know?"

"Every night, when you dream, I watch it on the ceiling. It's quite interesting, especially when you dream about us." He laughed suddenly. "Oh, relax! You have nothing to fear from me. Alodi, I love you!" He reached a hand out to her.

Alodi was confused. He should be afraid of her, but there was only love on his face. He knew she was a Dreamer, yet he still loved her. "You mean you aren't going to denounce me?"

"Of course not!"

"But I'm a Dreamer, and you are required by law to denounce any Dreamer."

"That's because they are dangerous. But you aren't dangerous, so you've nothing to fear." Alric put his arms around her and hugged her tightly.

"Oh Alric!" Alodi buried her face in his shoulder and sobbed with relief. "I've been so afraid you would despise me if you ever found out!"

"Now, just get one thing straight. I love you, and nothing will ever change that. Nothing else matters as long as you are with me."

Alodi snuggled against his chest, feeling more secure than she had in a long time. The beckoning voices faded to a low whisper, and she could scarcely hear them over the steady thump, thump, thump of Alric's heart.

Seven Years Later

Alodi still heard her voices and still had her visions. As long as she was alone with Alric, she didn't try to fight them anymore. She even sort of enjoyed them after a fashion. They could be interesting to watch.

The neighbors still muttered against her, but she did not let it bother her. Alric loved her, despite her curse, and nothing else mattered beyond that. Who cared what the neighbors said as long as she had Alric and Flita? She simply stayed away from the neighbors, and they were more than happy to stay away from her.

She was enjoying the sunshine on the doorstep one day while she let the hem out of one of Flita's dresses as the little girl chased butterflies nearby. She was growing so fast, Alodi could barely alter clothes enough to fit her. Flita laughed as she ran.

There was some chanting in the distance, but Alodi did not take much notice of it till the crowd was nearly to the house. Then she realized that the people were coming toward her. With her heart in her throat, she stood up. There must have been forty of them marching upon the cottage, brandishing axes, knives, picks, scythes, and whatever else they could find to serve as a weapon. She recognized their faces, neighbors every one of them.

"Oh no!" Alodi looked wildly around for Flita. She saw her kneeling to pick a flower, right in the path of the crowd, which surged forward, oblivious of anything in their path.

"Get the Dreamer!" they chanted. "The Dreamer! Get the Dreamer!"

"Flita!" Alodi screamed, but there was nothing she could do. Flita looked up at the crowd and screamed. Then the people knocked her to the ground and tromped right over her.

Alodi's screams were drowned out by the frenzied cries of the crowd. She could no longer see her child, couldn't see anything except the mob before her as they pushed closer and closer. She knew she should run inside the cottage and bar the door, but she couldn't move; fear froze her to the spot.

Suddenly Alric was in front of her with his hoe, shielding her with his massive body. He hit one man on the head with the hoe, but there were several more men to take the place of the fallen man. While he was fending off the crowd from the front, a man snuck around behind Alric and thrust a knife in his back. With an outraged cry, Alric slid to the ground, and then there was nothing to protect Alodi from the crowd. As the frenzied hands reached out for her, Alodi slid to the ground in a dead faint.

When Alodi awoke, she was lying on the bed in her cottage. A tall, brawny man came toward her, and she clutched the covers in fear until she recognized him. It was Alric! "But, you're dead!" Alodi cried. "They killed you!"

Alric shook his head as he handed her a bowl of soup. "I came back from the fields and found you lying on the doorstep, so I picked you up and brought you inside."

"Flita?" Alodi hardly dared to ask.

"She's fine. She said some men came and knocked her down and stepped on her, but it didn't hurt, only tickled."

Alodi finally understood. "A vision. It must have been another vision," she said flatly.

"Tell me about it," Alric said gently.

Alodi tried. "It was our neighbors. They were marching on the cottage, carrying picks and axes, and they were coming for me. They knocked Flita down and tromped right over her, then you came and they stabbed you!" Alodi shook her head. She could go no further.

Alric kissed her gently on the forehead and tucked the covers up around her chin. "There now. Just forget about it. Get some rest, and you'll feel better in the morning."

Alodi burrowed deep under the covers and fell into an exhausted sleep. When she awoke, the cottage was dark. Alric was asleep on the bed beside her, his breathing deep and even. She reached out to hold his hand, and he mumbled unintelligibly but stayed asleep. Alodi sent a silent prayer of thanks to the gods that her husband and child were still alive. She could never have forgiven herself if they had been killed because of her.

It had only been a vision, this time, but next time the mob might be real. This vision had been a warning, a warning that for the sake of her family, she had to leave.

Alodi held tightly to Alric's hand. How could she leave him, never to see him again? But if she stayed, he might die. Alodi leaned over and planted a gentle kiss on her husband's forehead. "Good-bye, my love," she whispered, brushing the tears from her cheeks so they wouldn't fall on his face and waken him. She swung her legs over the side of the bed and stood up, being careful not to make any noise. Then she tiptoed out of the bedroom into the living area of the cottage, pausing for just a moment to peer into Flita's sleeping alcove.

Her daughter was only ten, awfully young to be without a mother. Alric would take good care of her, but it wouldn't be the same. Alodi wavered. She couldn't leave. Not while Flita was so young. Maybe in a few years...

An image flashed in her mind, the image of Flita being crushed by the mob. "No!" Alodi muttered fiercely, clenching her fists. She had to leave. Now, before anyone awoke. Grabbing her cape, she stole out of the cottage.

She headed for the city, with no real goal in mind. She really didn't know where to go, just that she had to get far enough away so Alric would not be able to come after her.

By the time Alric and Flita awoke, Alodi had reached the center of the city. Side by side stood the palace of the Tzeh Cher and the temple of the gods. After a moment's hesitation, Alodi entered the temple. A priestess in long, gray robes glided toward her. "May I help you, my child?"

"I wish to pray, Priestess."

The priestess nodded and glided away. Alodi walked slowly along the temple walls, stopping to pray before a painted image of the goddess Nylene, who was known to take special interest in mothers.

"Oh merciful Goddess, please help me," Alodi intoned. "Lift this curse from me that I might return to my husband and daughter. Please don't let my little girl grow up without me!" Alodi held out her hands beseechingly, but there was no response from Nylene, nor from any of the other gods and goddesses to whom she proffered her prayers. She paused in front of each painted deity, but at the end of the day, when she finally emerged from the temple, the voices again buzzed in her head. "Alodi! Alodi! Come to us!" It was strange to hear them again; she had nearly blocked them completely out of her mind during the last few years.

Now where could she go? No matter where she went, her affliction would be quickly discovered, and she would be forced to flee. While her mind was busy turning over the question of what she should do next, her feet were slowly walking. When they stopped, she was standing at the gate of the palace of the Tzeh Cher. A memory tugged at Alodi's mind, the memory of her audience with Vevine.

"Come to me," the Tzeh Cher had said. "I might be able to help you."

Alodi made up her mind. The ruler seemed to be her only choice. She gave her name to the Peacers at the gate and requested an audience with Vevine. In only a few minutes, Alodi was ushered into the throne room.

"Ah, so you have returned, Alodi." Vevine did not seem surprised.

Alodi was surprised that the ruler even remembered her. "Yes, Tzeh Cher," Alodi said miserably. "I have left my family for their own protection." Her lips trembled. "But I don't know where to go now. There is no place a Dreamer is safe."

"It is written that the Dreamers must be cast into the Outside, as they did to us."

A cold hand gripped Alodi's heart. Her voice shook. "I can't live Outside, Tzeh Cher. No one can." Was this the kind of help Vevine had to offer?

Vevine's gaze softened. "My predecessors may have pronounced the sentence as punishment, but I pronounce it as a kindness, not only to save you from the people inside the Protectorate, but to give you a chance."

"What kind of chance could I have Outside?" Alodi asked scornfully. She should never have come here. Vevine wasn't going to help her. She was going to exile her, cast her out of the Protectorate, cast her out of her home.

"I have heard rumors of a Dreamer's Way, a road of safety that will take you to other Dreamers," Vevine mused.

"But I don't want to find any other Dreamers!"

"It appears to be your only choice if you wish to live, Alodi."

Looking at Vevine's face, Alodi realized it was hopeless. Vevine would not allow her to stay within the Protectorate. "All right," she said grudgingly. "How do I find this--this Dreamer's Way?"

"I don't know. You will have to find it yourself."

"How?" Alodi's voice was full of despair.

Vevine shook her head. "I wish I could tell you more."

Alodi fought to control her anger. Here she had come to her leader for help, and instead she was being exiled like a common criminal, sent to die in the foul air of the Outside. A flame suddenly appeared before her, leaping and dancing, threatening to engulf both herself and the Tzeh Cher. Alodi gasped, and the flame disappeared, but too late. The Peacer by the door had drawn his sword and with a lightning-quick jump was by her side with arm raised to cut off her head.

"Wait!" Vevine's voice rang out.

The Peacer stood still and Alodi trembled as she waited for Vevine's wrath to fall upon her. How could she have done such a thing? She must be mad! She would never get out of this room alive now.

"Leave her be," Vevine commanded. With a shrug, the Peacer lowered his sword and returned to his place by the door. Vevine stood up and walked toward Alodi, She peered into Alodi's face. "I have never before seen an actual vision. Could you have made it burn me?"

Relief swept over Alodi. Vevine did not seem angry, only awed by what she had seen. "I can't make it do anything!" Alodi replied. "The visions just come and go, and I have no control over them whatsoever."

"I could almost feel the heat singe my hair, hear the crackle of the flames! It must be wonderful to have a power like that!"

Alodi was shocked. "How can you say that? What I have is not a power; it's a curse! My entire life is ruined because of it!"

"Oh, Alodi, surely something so powerful can also be useful. Why don't you try working with it instead of fighting it? You might be surprised at what you can do."

"How can you say that? I could have killed you just now! I'm no better than any of the other Dreamers!" A lone tear trickled down Alodi's face and she reached a hand to brush it away.

Vevine slipped her arms around her. "Alodi, I have never had any fear of the Dreamers, and I have no fear of you. You wouldn't hurt me."

This embrace from her ruler touched Alodi. "I didn't want to hurt you, but I couldn't help myself."

"That's why you need to find the other Dreamers. Perhaps they can help you learn to use your powers."

Alodi stiffened and pushed herself away from the Tzeh Cher. "Never! I never wanted to be a Dreamer, and I won't be one now. You can kick me out of your Protectorate, but you can't make me be one of them. I'll die first"

Vevine smiled sadly. "Very well. It's up to you. You will have to leave the Protectorate, whatever you decide. I can give you a special breathing suit to use Outside. It will protect you for a little while. But I don't need to tell you how dangerous it is. Your only hope is to search for and find the Dreamer's Way."

Alodi nodded and bit her lip. "Please, Tzeh Cher, one request."

"Yes?"

"Please send a message to my husband. If I had waited to say good-bye to him, I never could have left."

Vevine nodded. "A message will be sent. Good wishes, Alodi." Vevine nodded at the Peacer who came and grabbed Alodi by the arm and pulled her out of the room.

A short while later she was in a carriage, approaching the edge of the Protectorate. She looked down at the strange suit that had been given to her. It fit her body closely and left no skin to be exposed to the poisonous air. She held a loose hood in her hand, knowing that soon she would have to slip it on over her head. The carriage drew closer to the outskirts of the Protectorate and Alodi shivered with dread. "Those good wishes sure won't get me very far," Alodi thought as the Peacer showed her how to watch the gauge on the suit to tell when she was about to run out of air. She listened politely, but she didn't really care how the suit worked. It didn't matter anyway. She'd already decided what she had to do.

She had made her decision immediately after sending the vision against the Tzeh Cher. She couldn't take a chance of ever trying to hurt someone again. This curse was too strong for her; she couldn't control it. Why, she was just as great a danger to the Protectorate as the rest of the Dreamers. Alodi couldn't bear to live with this horrible power. She'd be better off dead, she thought, than forced to live the rest of her life as a Dreamer.

The Peacer finished his instructions and then prodded her towards the Protectorate border. Alodi had expected that she would feel something as she crossed the border, but there was just a slight pressure and then she was through the barrier. She turned to look at the Peacer, but he had already climbed back into his carriage and was riding away, not wasting a backward glance on her.

At last she was outside the Protectorate for the first time in her life. She looked around with an air of reluctant curiosity. It didn't look very much different from inside. The air, however, could kill in a matter of minutes. This she had learned in school. She had also learned about the monsters that lived Outside, horrible creatures made even worse by the foul air they breathed.

She did not bother trying to seek out the road of which Vevine had told her, but walked aimlessly away from the Protectorate. Since she had no intention of joining the Dreamers, she paid no attention to where she went. For what she had in mind, it wouldn't matter.

At last she decided she had gone far enough and next to a jumble of stones. She settled against a particularly large rock and took a deep breath. Now all she needed to do was lift the hood of her suit and wait for death to come.

She reached her hand to the neck of her suit, but before she could unfasten it, a low, growl tickled her ears. She looked up and couldn't help but scream when she saw the orange blob tromping toward her. Purplish-brown lumps jutted through the monster's matted, yellowish hair, and greasy drops of scum oozed down its pockmarked hide. The creature had one bulging eye on the top of its head, and another off to one side. A stump substituted for its fourth leg, and tentacles extended from its chest, raking the air for objects to grasp and cram into its smashed-in mouth.

Alodi shrank back against the rock, surprised to find her will to live surfacing in the face of this horrible monster. She hoped the creature wouldn't see her, but as it lumped by her, pulverizing stones beneath its feet, it caught a glimpse of her out of the eye on the side of its head and stopped to take a better look. It stared at her for a long moment in which Alodi was afraid to move, and then reached a tentacle for her. Alodi looked desperately for someplace to hide, but there was none.

The tip of a tentacle grazed her breast, leaving a blob of slime as it trailed down the front of her suit, and the monster moved closer to her. Alodi gave a half sob and scrambled to the side, but it was no good. The creature moved closer and the tentacle twined around her leg.

Alodi closed her eyes in resignation and waited for the monster to pull her into its gaping maw. The tentacle tightened around her leg, but then everything seemed to come to a stop. She could still feel the tentacle wrapped around her, but it was no longer tugging at her, and she could no longer hear the raspy growls of the creature. Alodi slowly opened her eyes. As she did so, a flame lashed out of the sky at the monster's head. Both Alodi and the monster looked up, just as a barbed tail swooshed past the monster's nose.

Alodi threw her hands over her head to ward off this new threat. It was another monster, a flying one. It whipped around the head of the creature on the ground, shooting flames from between its slashing teeth. Alodi flattened herself further against the rock, poor protection that it was. The last thing she needed was another monster! If one didn't kill her, the other would. She had one hope, and that was to slip away unnoticed while the two monsters were fighting. But first, she had to do something about that tentacle wrapped around her leg.

The first creature swiped at the flying monster, but the tentacles went right through dragon's leg. At the same time, Alodi realized there was no heat in the flying dragon's fiery breath. The dragon started to flicker and with a jolt, she realized that it was nothing more than another one of her visions. Relief swept over her, but it was short-lived as the flying monster abruptly disappeared, and the first monster turned its attention back to Alodi.

A second tentacle curled around her arm, and Alodi pressed back against the rock, knowing she could not hope to evade the monster much longer. Now she regretted the disappearance of her vision monster; at least it had distracted the first creature. If only it had lasted long enough for her to slip away. Suddenly the thought flashed in her mind--what she could do once, she could do again. Maybe she could even control her vision enough to protect herself!

Alodi concentrated fiercely on the dragon, and it appeared hazily in the air. The first monster snarled in puzzlement. Alodi forced herself to ignore the first monster and concentrated fiercely on her flying dragon. Soon she could feel the flames from its breath and smell the sickening scent of a scorched tentacle. In some part of her mind, she was aware that the tentacles that had been wrapped around her arm and leg had loosened their grip.

Alodi lost herself in the vision--she was the flying dragon. Her talons slashed at the enemy beneath her, and she roared in pain as one of the tentacles grabbed her foreleg. She could feel the blood trickling down her leg; feel the searing pain from the open wound. With a scream of fury, she dove at the monster, swinging her tail at its face and stabbing at it with her claws.

The monster cried piteously and shuffled away, its tentacles busily exploring its wounds. Alodi/dragon seared its back with flames. The monster howled and tried to find cover, but there was no place it could hide. Deep inside, Alodi realized that she needed to get back to her own body, but another part of her wanted to stay with the dragon. She felt fierce and invincible, and she leaned her head back and let out a mighty roar of triumph. Flames again shot from her mouth and she flapped her wings to lift her dragon body higher into the air. Her wings flickered, and Alodi realized how very, very tired she was. With a mighty effort, she pulled herself out of the vision and collapsed against the rock. She peered anxiously about, expecting another monster to come upon her any minute. She felt so tired; she could barely stand. She was hardly aware when she slid to the ground, her back against the rock and fell into a deep sleep.

When she awoke, it took her a while to remember where she was and what had happened. With the help of her power, she had actually fought that horrible creature and survived. Ruefully she remembered how she had meant to kill herself. The monster had chased all that out of her mind, and now she knew that she was not ready to die yet. Somehow she had to find the Dreamer's Way and get to the City of the Dreamers.

"But I won't be like them," she vowed. "I will never do anything to hurt anyone in the Protectorate. And someday, when I've learned to control my visions, I'll return to the Protectorate. I won't stay a Dreamer forever!"

Now that she had decided where she was going, she had to figure out how to get there. She glanced down at the oxygen gauge and noticed that her supply was alarmingly low.

"This suit can't protect me for much longer," she told herself as she started walking. She knew it was hopeless, she couldn't possibly expect to find the Dreamer's Way in the short time she had left, but her life had suddenly become very precious to her, and she was not about to give it up without a fight.

For two hours, Alodi walked, without much real hope of finding anything, but determined to do more than sit. She tried to keep going in one direction, but with no landmarks, that was hard to do. This was a barren area of the Outside, with nothing but poisonous air and hard ground. Not even a rock to break the monotony of the horizon. And nowhere was there anything that could even remotely be construed as a road.

At last her wrist gauge showed her life support was nearing empty, and she had to admit defeat. She slumped on the barren ground and watched the gauge run out. It was over. She was going to die.

Now she railed against the people in the Protectorate for turning her out. "I've never done anything to hurt them!" she cried. How she hated her people. "If they could have seen me fight that monster, they would know I'm not a bad person. I'm not like the rest of the Dreamers. I might even be able to help them with my powers, if they'd let me."

Suddenly it struck her. If she could envision a monster realistic enough to fight and vanquish a real monster, why couldn't she envision a miniature Protectorate for herself-just long enough for her to find the Dreamer's Way?

It was certainly worth a try. Alodi closed her eyes and concentrated on pure, sweet air. She knew that her gauge must surely be on empty, yet she still breathed. She opened her eyes and peeked at the gauge just to make sure. As she had thought, it was completely red. She should be gasping for air; yet she was still alive.

Tentatively she lifted the hood of her suit. The air outside was breathable. Alodi inhaled deeply, half afraid of disturbing her vision, but it held firm. "Now I have to keep this going till I've found the Dreamer's Way."

"You've found it!" a voice beside her said.

Alodi jumped and turned to see a young man sharing her pocket of air. His eyes danced as he said, "Whoa! Steady! You're about to lose it!"

Indeed, she felt a choking sensation as her concentration slipped. She firmly checked her vision and was able to breathe again. "You're a Dreamer?" she asked the young man, amazed that he looked so normal. Somehow she had expected the Dreamers to look, well, different from the people of the Protectorate. More like monsters, perhaps. But of course, Alodi reminded herself, if they didn't look normal, they wouldn't be able to infiltrate the Protectorate.

"Yes, I'm a Dreamer," the young man answered. "I've been waiting for you to find us. It took you long enough," he scolded, but his eyes still had laughter in them so she didn't mind too much. He grabbed her hand. "Come on, I'll take you to the City."

Alodi looked down at her hand in his. She didn't want to like him. He was a Dreamer and all her life she had been taught that Dreamers were evil. But this young man seemed very nice, not at all monster-like. And he knew how to take her to the Golden City, where she would be safe. There she could bide her time and someday, she would return to the Protectorate to help her people. "What is your name?" she asked.

"My name is Silvan," he said with a slight bow. "Now, are you ready to go?"

Alodi looked around at the barren landscape and took a deep breath. "Okay," she said.

Silvan closed his eyes, and the two of them disappeared. There was not a trace of them left behind.


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