"My name is Remmi Clearwater and I was never mind-drained," I whispered to myself as I had every day for the seven years I'd lived in the Cavern Lands of Penumbra. This was a secret I had to keep. I'd be executed if anyone discovered I had a functioning brain and could perform illusion magic.
My name was all I owned, even if I was the only one who knew it. Just saying it softly helped me keep my sanity in this place, the gloomiest province in Dreamearth.
But today was different. A dream was finally scheduled to take place here, in several minutes, in the courtyard just outside the Main Cavern. Visitors from Realearth hardly ever entered Penumbra during their nightly jaunts. This was my one chance to finally escape.
My mind churned as I dipped the soaking rag back into the bucket and continued scrubbing the Main Dining Hall's endless marble floor. Without stopping, I glanced through the corner of my eye at my fellow drones. Their faces remained eternally impassive as they worked, their drained minds unable to think beyond their assigned tasks. Some, like me, scrubbed the floor, while others polished the countless glowstones that dangled on silver chains from the vaulted ceiling. My companions wouldn't be a problem.
Getting past Treb, our overseer, was another matter altogether.
He stood against the far wall tapping a thin, knotted whip against his boot. A shudder passed through me. My coarse tunic rubbed uncomfortably against the welts on my back from his last beating. He had simply been in a bad mood the other day and I'd been the closest target. Among all the drones, I was usually his favorite scapegoat. But I'd face much more than a mere lashing if he caught me at this.
A lock of tangled hair fell into my eyes but I didn't bother to brush it back. I had to act mind-drained and couldn't let such things distract me from my task.
"You lot keep working," he said, finally heading toward the door. "This room had better be sparkling when I get back." He slapped his whip against the floor for emphasis. The cracking sound echoed through the large chamber.
The other drones continued their tasks without hesitation. They had been given a command and were compelled to obey it. But not me. I scrambled to my feet the second he was gone and scuttled across the slick floor. I had to get to that dream! From what I'd heard from stray conversations, those Dreamearthlings who worked directly with Realearth Visitors carried portals that whisked them from one part of our world to the other in seconds. If I planned this right, I'd sneak through one of these portals and leave Penumbra forever.
I hurried to the tall door and cautiously peered through the crack. Crowds of pale Penumbran citizens, garbed in drab clothes, streamed down the cavern corridors, in the direction of the Main Square.
My heart throbbed in a rapid staccato. I had to be extra careful. I was taking an enormous risk by using my magic, but what choice did I have? I was sure I'd inherited this talent from Mother, who could also change her appearance through illusion.
I mentally pushed aside her advice to never reveal my gift as I stepped up to a large mirror and concentrated on transforming my coloring and clothes. It didn't matter if the other drones saw this; I practiced my magic in front of just them all the time. Their brains had been restructured to instantly tune out things that happened beyond what they had been ordered to do.
A tingling sensation that felt like droplets of warm honey dabbing my skin spread over me. I sighed with relief as I studied my now translucent, grime-free skin and storm-colored eyes. My dark, matted hair had turned smooth and white. The illusion had worked. Even my ratty work tunic had become clean and form-fitting, with a pleated skirt and cloth slippers. I now resembled a middle-class Penumbran girl.
I took a deep breath and, hoping I could hold the illusion long enough to reach the unfolding dream scene, stepped through the door into the main tunnel that led outside. The streaming crowds jostled me but luckily no one took notice. I thrust my shoulders back and held my head up, such a different posture from the one I daily used as a mere drone. I could feel the cold stone floor beneath my feet; they were still bare behind the illusion of shoes.
Rows of glowstones lined the rounded walls and ceiling, throwing down a golden glow that was richer than the misty daylight seeping through the cave's opening. I struggled to maintain a calm expression as well as my illusion. One slip of that . . . I didn't even want to think about what would happen if the wrong person noticed.
The damp cave smell was instantly replaced by the scents of mist and early spring sage as I stepped outside, into the Main Square that backed up to the Dusk Hills. If only I could do more than merely form illusions and actually make myself taller. I was small for my age, unable to see over the heads of the adult Penumbrans. A few had lifted little children onto their shoulders to give them a better view of the unfolding dream, which had already started.
Disappointment filled me when I finally found a gap. I could still barely see. Countless Penumbrans crowded the vast courtyard. Every Penumbran in the province had to be here.
Several dancers waltzed to eerie, echoing music. They swirled around small tables and enormous colored balls that were scattered everywhere. Some of the dancers were humans, while others had the heads of horses, pigs, and sheep. All were garbed in bright clothes, the males in elegant suits, the females in gowns that glittered against the milky sunlight that never could penetrate the constant fog. My breath caught. I'd lived so long in a land where the only hues were variations of black, white, and gray that I'd almost forgotten other colors existed.
I spotted the Visitor instantly, an old man who was chasing something I couldn't see from my angle, weaving with surprising agility around obstacles and dancers. I could see through him as if he were made entirely of insect wings.
I continued to inch forward, straining to hold my illusion, as I slipped through the tight crowd, but unable to take my eyes off the dream. I had been a small child when I'd last witnessed one. Where was the portal the dream actors used to transport themselves to Penumbra, then onto the next dream site? My plan was to get close enough and shift my illusion to that of one of the dancers. I was counting on the Penumbrans being so enthralled by the dream that no one would notice my slight maneuver. That part looked to be working. The second the dream ended, I would then slip with the actors through the portal. I didn't care where we ended up; even the Nightmare Realms had to be better than Penumbra. I'd finally be free.
My skin tingled as the illusion threatened to slip. I couldn't continue to hold it. No. Not now. Please no. I was still separated from the dream by hundreds of gaping Penumbrans.
Horror filled me as the Visitor vanished, waking in Realearth. Stunned gasps washed through the crowd, followed by thunderous cheers. Not only was my chance for escape ruined but my entire body tingled, shedding the illusion. I was now just a filthy, ragged drone again. At least everyone was still too distracted to notice.
I dropped to the ground and began to pluck out weeds from a crack, pretending to be intensely interested in the task and oblivious to what was happening around me. My hopelessly unruly hair fell over my face in tousled snarls. I winced as the crowds pushed past, some of them thrusting kicks at me.
"Out of the way, stupid drone," someone grumbled, kicking me extra hard. Pain shot through my side and rage trembled through me but all I could do was remain huddled on the ground, plucking out weeds one by one. I gulped deep breaths in an effort to remain calm. I was sick of putting up with this kind of abuse and unable to defend myself. I'd come close . . . so close, only to slip at the last moment. If only more dreams took place here, I might have had time to come up with a better plan.
Gradually the crowds thinned as the Penumbrans hurriedly returned to the caverns. That didn't surprise me since they despised the outdoors, preferring the comfort of their interlocking caves.
My despair deepened. Why had I even tried? Not only did I fail to get away, but it was now obvious I'd disobeyed Treb's direct order to stay in the Dining Hall and keep working. I'd be lucky if all I got was a mere beating! Hadn't my years as a drone in Penumbra taught me that such efforts were useless? I'd never escape from here.
When everything had quieted, I dared to raise my head and push back my hair. The courtyard was nearly empty. The dream actors, along with the tables and balls, were already gone. It was as if a dream had never taken place. Only two figures at the far end were left, placing items into a wheelbarrow. I could tell, even from this distance, they were not Penumbran. One was a stocky, bearded man, the other a lanky boy. Both had vibrant red hair and brightly colored clothes.
Did I still have a chance? I looked around. The place was otherwise deserted. I was safe.
I rose to my feet and paced closer, my bare toes scraping against the paving stones. My heart pounded.
I froze as they turned toward me. They were gathering objects that appeared to be made of soft, transparent clay. What should I say? I had longed to sneak away with these outlanders but now my mind was completely blank, as if I really had been mind-drained. My face burned with humiliation as I realized how filthy and rumpled I looked. I ran a hand through my knotted hair and peered down at my baggy, threadbare tunic, smattered with stains. My face was also smeared with grime. When had I even last had a chance to shower? I usually didn't give my appearance any thought. What good was that to a drone?
If only I was cleaner, more presentable, I thought in desperation, wishing my illusion hadn't faded so quickly. The familiar tingle of another one spread over me. The strangers gasped.
What had I done? My mind whirled in panic as I looked down. My knee-length tunic had transformed into a pale green gown that appeared to be made of fine silk. Even my hands, which, a moment ago, had been callused and caked with dirt, were now as smooth and clean as a Penumbran lady's.
The boy's vivid blue eyes, behind round glasses, widened. He had spiky hair and a narrow, freckled face.
Did my hair look smooth as well? I reached up to touch it. The prickling sensation returned as my fingers encountered thick, tangled locks. A mixture of disappointment and embarrassment slid through me. I was back in my tattered tunic, grubby hands and all.
My brief discomfort was instantly replaced by terror. I had just displayed my illusion magic before these strangers.
"How come you didn't return with the others?" the boy asked in an awed tone. His accent carried a lilt that was so different from the sharp, guttural tones the Penumbrans spoke. It was reminiscent of Mother's speech, the accent outland Dreamearthlings used. A stab of homesickness struck my chest. "Aren't you one of the Substitutes?"
Substitutes. I'd heard that word before and wondered what it meant but that wasn't my greatest concern. "Please don't tell anyone you saw me do this," I rasped. I'd spoken aloud so little these past years that my voice sounded strange to my ears. "I'll be in deep trouble if they find out."
The boy looked confused but understanding softened the man's face. It was round and ruddy, fringed by a neatly trimmed beard. His gentle eyes were green, swirled with brown. "We promise, my dear." I gaped up at him. I couldn't help it. It had been years since anyone had acknowledged me in a non-commanding manner, let alone spoke with such kindness. The wistful longing to return to outland Dreamearth grew even stronger and reminded me of how much I missed Mother. "I'm George Mimsy," he turned toward the boy, "and this here's my son Peter." Peter smiled and nodded. "What's your name?"
"Remmi." It felt good to say it to someone other than myself. "Remmi Clearwater."
"Clearwater?" He rubbed his beard. "I've heard that before. How old are you Remmi?"
I closed my eyes, momentarily savoring the sound of someone else saying my name. It had been years since I'd experienced that. Whenever I was addressed, it was just "You," or sometimes "Pale Green Eyes." "Almost fourteen." My voice still sounded dry and whispery.
"Just like me," said Peter, stepping forward, his shoes tapping against the cracked flagstones. I looked up at him and felt a twinge of jealousy. Did he have any idea how fortunate he was to be free and have a father who obviously cared for him? "Dad's training me to become a Thought Collector like him."
"Thought Collector?" I frowned in puzzlement as my gaze strayed to the wheelbarrow. Distant memories from my early childhood stirred. Substitutes. Thought Collectors. Hadn't I heard of such occupations when I was a child? I had never understood exactly what they were and Mother would change the subject whenever I asked.
"That's right. You've probably lived much of your life in Penumbra which is hardly ever Visited." George plucked an object from the wheelbarrow. It was clear like glass but resembled a lump of wet clay. "This is a thought, a memory," he said, holding the object out for me. "Go ahead. Touch it."
I did so, cautiously. Images I didn't understand stirred in my mind. I was riding in some sort of vehicle that moved rapidly along a black road. Outdoor edifices, larger than those I'd seen in any village, lined that street.
I pulled my hand away. The images instantly vanished. "This was the Visitor's thought?"
George nodded. "When Realearth Visitors enter Dreamearth during sleep, they shed extraneous thoughts, like this. It's up to us Thought Collectors to gather them up for the Analysts to study. This particular thought fell off that Visitor who'd just had his dream here. We—"
He stopped suddenly at the sound of hurried, thudding footsteps coming toward us. I froze, my blood turning to ice. Someone had spotted me, a drone, freely chatting with these outlanders.
A strong hand grasped me by the hair and jerked my head back painfully.