Conquer your inner demons…before they break free.
Dreamwalkers protect the unknowing populace from what their powerful imaginations create: monsters. When student dreamwalker Maggie Mackey was discovered by Zeke Garrett, they formed a rare bond that makes it hard to keep their hands off each other, even though they must. Three months later, Maggie’s training has stalled. Irregularities in the dreamspace combine with Zeke’s crankiness to produce an atmosphere that isn’t conducive to learning. Or to friendship—of any sort. Zeke isn’t sure if his clumsy mentoring, their unspoken attraction, or something more sinister is to blame.
When Zeke and Maggie are summoned to dreamwalker hospital to investigate the deaths of several patients, a nightmare from Zeke’s past resurfaces to complicate matters further. To survive the secretive machinations of their own organization and a deadly new force emerging inside the dreamspace, Maggie and Zeke must confront their inner demons as well as their feelings for each other.
Because in the world of dreamwalkers, inner demons don’t remain politely inside one’s brain. They prefer to manifest…and eat people.
Tropes: This teacher/student forbidden love romance has an alpha hero, a tortured protagonist, and a big huge case of “we’re all gonna die.”
Dreamwalkers Book 1: TANGIBLE
***** An excerpt from DISCIPLE *****
Zeke glared at Maggie from his side of the bed and tossed another pillow to the cold tile floor of his utilitarian quarters. At least he hadn’t tossed the pillow at her. Cantankerous ass. Three days without shaving lent him more of a dangerous appearance than normal, and the fresh scar from a wraith skirmish last week certainly didn’t soften his angular features.
Normally, Maggie would have been eager to hop into bed with a single, sexy, physically fit, intelligent, heterosexual male. A man devoted to her mental wellbeing, so to speak. A man with whom she shared an involuntary, magnetic allure known as a tangible bond.
Unfortunately, the alucinator training program didn’t sanction that type of bed hopping. Even if it had, she’d been such a disappointing student, Zeke might have turned her down anyway.
He wound his old-fashioned alarm clock and addressed her in a surly tone. “You don’t have to wait for our chaperone to come to bed. We’re adults. It’s late. Put the damn magazine down. We have work to do.”
“This article about gender’s effect on transnationalism is very interesting.” She tore her gaze from his exposed chest and shoulders and directed it at her latest journal of cultural geography. Just because she was beholden to the Somnium now didn’t mean she intended to let her PhD to go waste. “When I graduate from training—”
“If you graduate.” Zeke kicked another of her pillows to the floor, and she hid her frown behind the journal. “I’m starting to think you’re one of those professional students.”
She wasn’t going to take that bait. “When I graduate, with my background I’m a natural fit to oversee popular culture and predict manifestation forms.”
Alucinators—individuals whose psyches accessed the dream dimension—could drag monsters out of the ether and into the terra firma. New dreamers were was assigned a mentor, like Zeke, to teach them to control it.
All evidence suggested Zeke sucked as a mentor and Maggie sucked as a student. Either way, they’d passed the Somnium record of “most days in nightly rotation” a week and a half ago, and they had to share a bunk until she advanced. They hadn’t acknowledged the milestone…aloud.
“You want to waste yourself as a couch potato when you could be out there making a difference?” Zeke scoffed. Her mentor wasn’t the desk job type. Though the Somnium needed agents of all stripes, his respect seemed reserved for alucinators who physically battled any manifested wraiths.
That meant Maggie got approximately two percent of his respect, which was how often she avoided flinching when someone came at her with a practice sword. It was an improvement. Plus she’d lost ten pounds in the past two months. Boobs and hair, mostly, but she’d take improvements where she could get them.
“It’s not a waste of time to perform as a watcher, Zeke. The Somnium needs all types of personnel.” Her progress in the physics of the dreamsphere dimension hadn’t been as sluggish as her progress in terra firma combat techniques and in-dreamsphere shielding. “Didn’t you read Joseph Campbell? Myths and popular culture affect our subconscious. Our subconscious creates the wraiths. If we know what neos might dream about, we can predict patterns, coach our field teams, and—”
“You sound like Adi,” Zeke said.
“Of course I do,” Maggie answered as calmly as possible. Her curly, short bob tickled her nape when she nodded. “I have frequent Skype appointments with her. Please quit interrupting me. It creates unnecessary hostility, and she wants us to be more amicable.”
If she climbed into bed pissed at him—again—it would make their sleep session problematic—again. Adishakti Sharma, one of North America’s seven vigils and a talented assessor, had counseled Maggie about their protracted training. Adi had concluded that Maggie and Zeke’s shared frustration with her meager headway had deepened the gulf between them. That gulf meant he couldn’t impart the much-needed dreamsphere lessons.
Maggie hadn’t needed anyone to tell her that squabbling with Zeke made for a terrible training relationship, but it helped to quote Adi when he got on her case.
“Adi says,” Maggie began, lowering the journal, “our lack of harmony is interfering with our link in the dreamsphere.”
“That’s funny. We have a chaperone to make sure we don’t get too harmonious.”
When she positioned her arms just so, her forearm muscles twinged less. Exercising today with a weighted bo staff had done a number on her. She’d been bruised and battered inside and out since day one of her new life.
If only one part could be easier. Like, for example, Zeke.
“We have a chaperone because it’s standard procedure for alucinators with tangible bonds during sleep training,” she said.
“Standard as of two months ago.”
“Standard nonetheless.” When she and Zeke had met, when he’d rescued her from the monsters she’d accidentally created, they’d been attracted to one another. The tangible bond, a phenomena that had evolved to help high-level dreamers stay in contact in the dreamsphere, had augmented their desires. They hadn’t had sex, but nobody trusted that they wouldn’t.
That couldn’t be allowed to happen.
The last time Zeke had slept with one of his students—a woman named Karen Kingsbury—she’d used his susceptibility to conceal the fact she was psychotic and had manifested hundreds of wraiths that killed many innocent humans before the Somnium could stop her.
“We have a chaperone because nobody wants me to screw up again,” Zeke said in a rare moment of candor. He was no liar, but the past two months, he’d been gruff, irritable, almost accusatory. Maggie had no idea what had happened to the man who’d kissed her the night they’d met. Several times. Several arousing, pulse-pounding times.
“Which is stupid,” he continued. “The guard outside is enough. You and I both know we don’t need an actual chaperone.”
Yes, because apparently their attraction had soured into dislike.
Or Zeke’s had. If he snapped his fingers, if he let down his barriers, Maggie would be hard-pressed not to get physical with him. Despite Somnium strictures. Despite common sense. Despite their agreement to wait until she graduated.
The things he’d promised to do to her…
Yet they hadn’t revisited their initial agreement. It seemed to be—a future relationship seemed to be—completely off the table.
“I’ll come to bed in a minute,” she said. “I just want to finish this article.” She’d have to start over. It was hard to concentrate with a mostly naked Zeke waiting in bed. His bad attitude had yet to cancel out her appreciation of his positive qualities.
“You think I don’t know what you’re doing?” he asked.
Maggie fingered her bookmark. She could put the magazine down…but then he’d be getting his way. “It’s obvious what I’m doing. Reading.”
Zeke flipped off his covers and slid out of bed, lithe and bruise-free. Unlike Maggie.
He had a king-sized mattress—all alucinators expected to train students got king-sized mattresses—in his quarters at the East Coast base. He might be a sentry, but his rank was grounded in his skill as a field agent and not as a mentor.
He approached her with a sigh. “Give me the rag.”
She pushed the desk chair out of his reach, her thighs protesting the movement. “I’m not finished.”
Wearing nothing but white boxers and a few tattoos, he halted, glowering. God, he was sexy—even like this. Mad at her. Disappointed in her. Rejecting her.
“I’m tired, Maggie. I bust my ass when I’m awake teaching neos to fight and bust my ass all night trying to make sure you don’t manifest wraiths.”
“This is hardly night.” The Somnium was a twenty-four-seven organization, and Maggie and Zeke’s agenda scheduled their sleep between four to ten PM instead of a normal bedtime. Because they required an in-room chaperone due to the tangible, they got stuck with a less desirable shift.
“That’s beside the point.” His boxers rode lower on his hips than was good for her libido. “I need six hours of sleep, and so you do. But you won’t come to bed.”
“If our schedule could be normalized,” she argued, staring at the ceiling instead of his body, “it would be easier.”
“Everyone has to deal with disruptions, not just us. That never changes. Manifestations don’t respect schedules. When we’re not here, I’m leading a field team and worrying about you getting eaten.” Mentors and mentees in phase one weren’t supposed to spend their sleep time apart. If Zeke’s missions stretched past twenty-four hours, Maggie had to go with him, no matter how dangerous it was.
“You don’t have to worry about me.” She worried about herself enough for the both of them.
“No? You can’t shield for shit, and you haven’t shed your fear. It’s the fear that attracts all the damn wraiths. Surely Adi told you that too.”
The sourness in Zeke’s voice when he mentioned Adi surprised her. Did he not like the vigil? Adi might be at the top of Somnium hierarchy for the North American division, but there was nothing objectionable about her. She was friendly, smart and patient. Maggie could understand not liking Zeke, because he could be an ass, or Rhys, another East Coast sentry, because he could be overly political. Even Lillian, a third sentry here, had a grudge against upper management that could raise hackles.
“Are you upset with Adi?” Maggie asked. “Oh , wait. She’s making you do counseling sessions too, isn’t she?”
A closed-off grouch like Zeke wouldn’t enjoy that. Why she continued to have feelings for him was a mystery.
“That has nothing to do with you being such a chicken shit in the dreamsphere that we can’t get anything done,” he snapped.
His language and tendency to blow off steam no longer fazed her. Sometimes he targeted her, sometimes himself, and sometimes he just cursed about the “fucking tangible” or “goddamn Rhys being smug.” He’d toned it down since Adi had started counseling Maggie—and presumably him too.
Today, though, something was eating him. He was prickly and mean, like the early weeks when she’d seriously considered asking to be reassigned to a curator. Only a curator could take over mentorship of a high-level alucinator after an initial training link had been formed, but alucinators sent to the curators tended to disappear. Lillian had convinced Maggie to stick with Zeke, and the counseling sessions with Adi had begun shortly thereafter.
She wondered, briefly, whose counseling sessions were more important—hers or Zeke’s. Instead of pestering him about it, she channeled Adi’s calm demeanor and responded to his rudeness. “Why are you so fussy tonight? Bad day?”
“I’m not fussy.”
“And I’m not a coward. My fear is not our only impediment. I read the newsletters, Zeke. The entire division has registered an increase in wraith presence in the dreamsphere—to go with the increase in new dreamers. The wraiths sure as heck have noticed me. It’s hard to relax.”
“I know you’re not a coward, but…” He raked his fingers through his hair. “If you’d quit being so timid, they wouldn’t cluster like they do around dreamers in comas. I wish you’d man up.”
“That’s not at all sexist,” she said dryly. She remained in the desk chair, at faux ease, while he radiated tension.
“You know what I mean.”
“I do, but that’s no reason to perpetuate sexist terminology. There are actually more women in positions of power in the Somnium than men, and—”
He scowled. “Okay, it’s a stupid phrase. Lill has more balls…” He stopped and kind of laughed.
She hadn’t heard him laugh in days and couldn’t help herself—she smiled at him. When his gray, changeable gaze locked with hers, when he smiled back, she remembered all the reasons she wanted him.
Until he continued talking.
“Lillian is braver than anyone I know, man or woman. Adi ain’t exactly a cream puff. But you’re changing the subject. If you don’t master the fear, you don’t master the dreamsphere. If you don’t master the dreamsphere…” He trailed off ominously.
If she didn’t master the dreamsphere, she’d be sent to a curator anyway. Or worse. L5s couldn’t be cast adrift with nominal training like L1s and L2s. “Did you have to deal with a wraith baby boom when you were new at this? I feel like a wraith magnet in there.”
“They’ve always come after L5s hard,” he said. “More of them can manifest through a high-level alucinator, provided they can get at you.”
“It seems like they’re all trying to get at me. Every last one of them. You said yourself you’d never seen this many. Cut me some slack.” When she was in the sphere, wraiths clogged the area around her so thickly, she and Zeke could barely see outside the shield, and they’d only entered the sleeping sphere so far. There’d been a number of close calls on the field team too, when manifested wraiths inexplicably attacked Maggie instead of the neo who’d created them.
Sometimes Maggie wondered. Wondered if the others believed she was nursing a psychosis like Karen Kingsbury. Wondered if they thought she was biding her time before unleashing a horde of monsters on the world. No other neonati got twice weekly counseling.
No other neonati had Zeke as a mentor, either. Asshole.
“I cut you all sorts of slack,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what people are saying.”
Maggie leaned farther back in the desk chair, studying his expression—his high cheekbones, his messy, dark blond hair, his scruffy whiskers. Good Lord, the man was gorgeous.
If she kissed him, he’d quit talking. That would be nice. At least until he pushed her away and yelled at her for coming on to him.
“What are people saying?” she asked, trying not to think about kissing—or about being pushed away.
Most alucinators didn’t chat with her beyond what her training required. She couldn’t tell if they were avoiding her or too busy to breathe, like she was. She wanted to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, but it reinforced her suspicion nobody trusted her.
Zeke shrugged. “Stupid shit. It’s probably sexist too, and you hate that. So it doesn’t matter.”
“It does or you wouldn’t have mentioned it.” She riffled the pages of her magazine as if she were about to start reading again. “Are they saying I’m like Karen?”
His lips thinned. Yeah, they were saying it, all right.
“We just gotta do our job and get you up to speed,” he declared.
“Are they saying there’s something wrong with you too? That you shouldn’t be mentoring?”
“What do you think they’re saying?” He paced away from her, then back. His discomfort let her know she wasn’t going to like what he was about to tell her, but she needed all the facts. She had to work with these people the rest of her life. That was what a contract with the Somnium meant unless you opted to be part of the fundi, dreamers who contributed money to the Somnium instead of making it their vocation.
“Are they saying we’re having sex?” she asked. “Despite the chaperones?”
In her previous occupation, she’d never have dreamed of violating the student-teacher relationship. With Zeke, she was a hypocrite, but she kept her longing to herself. This thing between them was never happening. She’d reconciled herself to that.
“People know we’re not screwing. Lill would bust my balls.” He raised an eyebrow at her. “And yeah, professor, that’s a proper use of the term.”
“Tell me the rumors.” She braced herself with a deep breath. “I won’t get mad.”
“Come on. It’s been two months. Two freaking months. Longest phase one ever recorded. By now you know how old the Somnium is, so ‘ever recorded’ is a long time.”
They were going to air it out. Finally. This was healthy for open communication, wasn’t it? Unfortunately, the expression on his face boded ill for her peace of mind.
“Those aren’t rumors. Those are facts,” she said. “It’s not particularly upsetting to learn that facts are being discussed by our peers.”
“They say someone’s dragging it out on purpose to make trouble. And the fact is—since you like facts—you should be out of my bed by now so I could get some damn sleep.”
Because he looked so exhausted, stalking around the room like a caged lion, arguing with her and growling.
“If they think I’m dragging it out, they’re idiots. I don’t like sleeping with you either.” Once she’d given up on a relationship with Zeke, she’d looked forward to being assigned to her own bunk after phase one. She’d share her space with others but not her bed.
“Then you should work harder.” He threw up a hand in disgust. “Nightly rotation is tying me down for field duty and other shit, and it’s causing problems. You’re L5, Maggie. You should be strong enough to hold a shield and ace any alucinator skill that exists, outside of whatever the hell curators do. We should be in the final phase of training like Rhys and your brother. You should be almost ready to contribute to the Somnium instead of restricting my ability to contribute.”
“Why are you complaining? You don’t want to mentor other people anyway.” Divisions all over the world, along with an uptick in wraiths, had experienced an uptick in neo awakenings. Most mentors juggled several students at once but could only handle one in nightly rotation due to certain repercussions of too much time spent in the dreamsphere. “As long as we’re in phase one, you’re safe from more students.”
He shook his head. “I don’t mean mentoring. God. They may never force me to take on another neo after this mess.”
“So that’s a benefit,” she said. “You’re welcome.”
“Be serious, Maggie. I need to go on more field assignments. I need to be scanning, not sleeping with you. I’m a sentry. I gotta be out there killing wraiths.”
The planet was divided into several divisions, and each area in those divisions had seven sentries, appointed by their vigils. Sentries handled field operations, base and waystation oversight, and scanned for dreamsphere disruptions. They directed the alucinators under them to cover the area. Sentries were hands on, doing all the jobs they asked others to do.
“I’m not stopping you from going into field. I’ve gone with you.” She’d been given the role of driver on missions, since it kept her safe in the van. Supposedly safe in the van.
“And you get in the way, like last week when you nearly got your arm torn off.”
They’d been collaring an L2 neonati in DC at the time. She’d remained in the vehicle, as ordered, but had still disrupted the mission. “I can’t help it if the wraiths come after me.”
“That’s why you need to learn to deal with them when they do. In and out of the sphere. I’m doing my part. Now do yours. Step the hell up. Right now that means take off your robe and get your ass in bed.”
“Fine.” She slammed the magazine on his desk and stomped across the cold floor. Her fuzzy pink robe fell to the tile in a heap. She should be better in the dreamsphere. She really should. But she couldn’t overcome her aversion to the sphere any more than she could her attraction to Zeke—and the aversion was easier to understand.
Dreamspace was formless, creepy and leaden. It wasn’t restful or right. Her unease remained despite Zeke demonstrating how to manipulate it, despite her devotion to book learning. It wasn’t enough to understand the sphere academically.
Alucinators could protect themselves and others. They could communicate across the globe via the dreamsphere. They could scan for manifestations, they could find other dreamers, and they could assess mental stability. Some could erase memories of bystanders.
Maggie couldn’t even pretend to ignore the wraiths that swarmed outside the shields.
“You act like I’m going to let you get hurt,” he said, half turning away from her. “Is that your deal?”
“I haven’t been hurt yet. Much.” His shields weren’t as solid as they could be. They were perforated because of what had happened to him when his previous student had tried to destroy the entire town of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
His expression blanked. “The one time my shields ragged out on us, there were extenuating circumstances. When you and I train, we’re asleep, not tranced. We’re cushioned. Wraiths can’t hurt you in the sphere when you’re asleep unless they manifest in the terra firma and chow down on you.”
She climbed into bed. “Chow down. Your imagery astounds me.”
“It’s what they do, Maggie. But manifestation ain’t gonna happen. Even you can keep the wraiths from using you as an escape hatch.”