(YA Fantasy, 83K words)

When we close our eyes at night, we all see the same ancient place. Exploring Astra is like living a video game. Tomorrow, I’m going goblin-tipping with some of the other wizards. The first rule of being a dream wizard is “no photos.” You don’t want the bad guys finding you where you have no powers. The waking world sucks.

Since Mom went to prison, the Nevada foster system sent me to Minnesota to meet an Uncle Joe I never knew I had. Snow loses its charm after five days. Only music and the dreams make my life bearable.
The weird thing is that elements of the worlds are bleeding into each other. Someone is trying to kill me, and I’m not sure who: the criminal underworld, the elves, or the crazy wizard causing these freaky storms.

SAMPLE of Messenger
Copyright 2014 Scott Rhine

Chapter 1 – Family and Other Strangers

Everything wrong in Daniel’s life rippled outward from that one horrible moment.
Twice a week, Mom drove his brother to therapy. At fourteen, a bored Daniel listened to music on his earbuds in the front seat. The songs were all the same, but now the tempo changed. They left the freeway at the usual off-ramp, heading down onto surface streets. Only this time, instead of slowing, they accelerated. Mom frantically pumped the brakes.
Daniel looked up to see the red light streak past.
Over a month of pain in the hospital was nothing compared to the instant he knew exactly what was going to happen. When Mom took her hands off the wheel to cover her face, his childhood ended.
The Nevada foster system stuck Daniel on a plane to spend Thanksgiving week with his newly discovered Uncle Joe in Minnesota. On Sunday night, a tall stranger greeted him at the airport baggage claim. “Over here, boy.”
Daniel pointed to himself in the universal sign for “Who me?” This guy seems to recognize me, but he could be anybody.
The man tossed him an old varsity jacket several sizes too big with the name ‘Larsen’ on the back.
I guess that’s all the ID he’s going to offer.
Joe Larsen’s corn-silk hair was thinning, and his hands were calloused. “You’re here on a trial basis.” Then he led the way to the parking lot.
Almost a foot shorter, Daniel jogged to keep pace. The sum total of his worldly possessions slapped against his leg. When they stepped outside, his nose hairs froze at the first intake of breath. In minutes, they were driving onto the freeway in frigid silence. Daniel squeezed his eyes shut and turned up his iPod. He didn’t want to see what would happen if a tire blew or they hit an ice patch going seventy miles an hour. He clenched his bag with sweaty hands.
By song ten, he had relaxed enough to play along on an invisible keyboard. Music and intense concentration insulated him from the rest of the world. Around song twenty-two, they slowed for a driveway. The Larsen farmhouse was a century old with a tin roof, wood stove, and plenty of character. Daniel had never seen snow before.

By the fifth day, the novelty had worn off.
On Thanksgiving morning, Daniel set the dining-room table and filled the relish trays. In the kitchen, he asked his Aunt Martha what else he could do. Her blue eyes had faded like jeans washed too many times. Even though she always seemed tired, she didn’t want his help. “Men only snitch food and get underfoot. Go spend time with your cousins,” she insisted, adding milk to a massive bowl of mashed potatoes.
A man’s place was in the TV room. Tuned in for the 10:30 a.m. pre-game show, his four older cousins had already filled all available space on the furniture except the recliner reserved for his uncle. I couldn’t fit in if I tried. He was brown-eyed, with a suntan and wavy, black hair. By contrast, the Larsen boys were tall, blond, corn-fed football players: Joe Junior, Jason Joe, Jimmy Joe, and Joshua, the rebel who planned to letter in wrestling.
Home from the army, Junior took a swig of his beer and discussed the deer hunt that morning. They were all decked out in winter camouflaged fatigues. Daniel wore pajamas and sneakers. After a car commercial, the conversation shifted to trucks. Jason painted custom vans but still lived at home. He put in a plug of tobacco and spit into a paper cup that once held coffee. Daniel shuddered at the thought of putting either in his mouth. Jimmy rarely spoke, except about woodworking or tools. After sinking several screws into a wall, he was known to say, “That’s not going anywhere.”
Daniel couldn’t have had less in common with these guys. With no video games permitted in this ‘Christian’ house, his hobbies were limited to music, card tricks, and reading.
At sixteen, Joshua wasn’t too bad. When Daniel had helped him with the farm chores or stacking wood, Josh had given him a ride to school. Otherwise, he had to get up forty minutes earlier and brave the snow-packed dirt roads on a bus with no seatbelts or reliable heat.
Daniel sat on the warped, living room floor and tried to watch the endless stream of sports. However, that close to the wood-burning stove, he kept nodding off. During a boat commercial, Larsen men debated whether Native Americans should be allowed to practice spear fishing when their neighbors could be fined for it.
When Daniel wandered into the kitchen to escape, Aunt Martha said, “I’ll serve dinner at halftime. Go upstairs and change.”
Score! He was eager to hide in his room, even though ice crusted the window panes. First, he borrowed Joshua’s jungle-camouflage jacket to stay warm. Next, he set his iPod alarm for noon. Then, he crawled under a sleeping bag rated to minus thirty degrees and slipped away into dreams.
In his nightmare, Daniel lived with a family of frost giants who had not yet noticed he was dark-haired and human. Giants hated people. However, he had learned months ago how to take control of dreams before they turned bad. Rather than wait for the giants to attack, Daniel escaped through a mountain pass. The narrow passage in the rocks transformed into a crude staircase. The higher he climbed, the warmer the climate became. Unfortunately, other giants spotted him and hurled rubble.
A huge boulder arced through the sky toward him. He scrambled up the narrow pass. To his right, the truck-sized rock shattered with the sound of thunder. He shut his eyes because tiny fragments stung his face like shards of safety glass after a violent crash. He ran blindly up the steps. The second near miss heaved him through the air. He landed on his hands and knees. Again, he prayed to be anywhere else before the next impact came.
After the last of the echoes of thunder rolled away, Daniel’s jacket felt too loose in the breeze. Dreams shifted that way sometimes. Glancing down, he now wore a green cloak held shut by a Celtic knotwork clasp. He had seen similar designs in slides from The Book of Kells in art class. Art was an oasis in an otherwise barren day.
The stairway now led to a plateau at the edge of a cliff. Standing, he could make out some crude farm outbuildings on the other three sides, but it was too overcast to tell more without streetlights. The only aspects of the dreamscape that had remained the same were the stairs and the storm.
Nearby, he spotted a well with a round, stone wall and a sloped roof. When he tried to take a step to examine the wooden bucket, however, someone grabbed him from behind, pulling him up short. “Whoa! You don’t want to go through that again.” The voice sounded high-pitched and Irish, like a leprechaun.
Daniel turned to see a short boy in a black cloak and puffy sleeves. “What are you, ten?”
“Seventeen,” the boy protested. The kid was pale, thin, and just the right size to get stuffed in a locker. “Hey, you’re not Charlie anymore.”
“My name’s Daniel.”
“You must be Charlie’s replacement,” the older-but-wiser boy noted. “Call me Astrofeld.” The boy stuck out his right hand to shake, but his other hand went along for the ride.
Squinting at the shackles on Astrofeld’s wrists, Daniel asked, “Why are you handcuffed?”
“A misunderstanding,” the short teen insisted. “But we’re friends, right? I mean, I saved your life.”
“From what?” Daniel glanced down at a shimmering puddle that reflected the purple-tinged lightning overhead. “And who’s Charlie?”
Astrofeld snorted. “Observe.” He dipped the chain connecting his shackles into the puddle. The metal link in the center turned transparent, swelled like an iridescent soap bubble, and popped. “That is what happened to Charlie. He knew his defensive spells. His cloak protected him from just about everything, except an attack from below. He vanished. A few seconds later, after a huge thunderclap, you showed up.”
A dozen questions clamored in Daniel’s head, but he couldn’t decide which to ask first.
Astrofeld jerked as a raindrop seared his puffy sleeve like acid. “Ack! Run for it.” He bolted for shelter, dodging the puddles.
Daniel followed every step like a game of ‘don’t step on the crack’ in a minefield. The damp grass soaked his sneakers, yet he didn’t feel any burning. Some of it must be plain water, but how do I tell which puddles are safe? They hopped onto a split-rail fence and walked it like gymnasts on a balance beam until they reached a dirt road. Water collected in the wheel ruts. Astrofeld leapt to the high point in the center. Then he repeated the feat to land on a wooden sidewalk on the other side.
Out of breath, Daniel stood next to Astrofeld against a set of swinging double doors from an old western movie. The sign above the doors read ‘Goodforwhat Ales.’ Since the swinging doors were barred, the saloon appeared to be closed.
Astrofeld said, “Be right back.” Then the tiny boy wiggled under the doors as if they were for a pay-per-use bathroom stall.
Moments later, the doors unlatched and swung open. Daniel stared at the tavern interior as Astrofeld lit an oil lamp. The ten round tables were all made from thick, rough-hewn oak, and the d├ęcor was an odd mixture of late medieval and early Amish. The walls were decorated with round, Highlander shields and dartboards.
The bar reminded him of one in an adventure game where he went to get quests. Every room in the children’s hospital had a game system hooked into the TV. With his right leg immobilized, he couldn’t do much else. Soon the quests grew so boring that he started hanging out in the tavern just to talk to people. Maybe I’m just inventing this because I’m feeling alone again.
“We should be safe in here for a while,” said Astrofeld, grabbing a mug from behind the bar. “In weather like this, nobody in Sardeniston is going to set foot outside their hovels to investigate.” Without his hood, his pointed ears stood out like a cat’s, complete with black fur that matched his hair.
Daniel double-checked, but the fur didn’t seem to cover any other part of Astrofeld’s body. He also had normal teeth. As his bizarre friend poured something from the barroom tap, Daniel sat at the closest table. “Am I dead?”
Astrofeld pointed his thumb to a bucket in the corner. “Do you think they mop the floors in purgatory?”
Daniel shrugged. “People pay in different ways. Folks do what they know, and some people may feel the need to scrub a few stains.”
“No. You’re in what you might call a different state of being.”
“Not Kansas,” said Daniel. Both laughed.
After he tipped the excess foam off his brew, Astrofeld said, “You’re in Astra, a place where our kind gathers.”
Daniel only echoed the last phrase. “Our kind?”
The short boy took a deep drag on the mug and coughed. “Hold the clasp on your cloak and tell me what you see.”
Daniel did as he asked. The clasp wove together at least four brass snakes. As he stared, the serpent bodies loosened and slid against each other like a puzzle. He liked puzzles. In his head, he almost completed the solution to open the clasp when Astrofeld interrupted. “Good. The cloak accepts you as its new owner and will protect you. To learn the rules, you need to hire a magic teacher as soon as possible.”
Beneath the cloak, Daniel could see his plaid, flannel pajama pants and nightshirt. The fabric of the cloak rippled and reweaved like the snakes to fit the dimensions of his body. “This is some dream.”
“Even dogs dream, you yokel. Astra isn’t simple rapid-eye movement—it’s an energy level, a shared experience.”
Daniel narrowed his eyes. “So you’re real?”
“Define real. If you mean from the same waking world, then yes.”
“Why is everything here so old-fashioned?”
“It takes the dreamlands a little while to catch up because everyone has to agree to it or something. I’m not good with theory.” Astrofeld swallowed more brew and stomped his foot till the burning subsided. “Smooth.”
“That stuff is going to stunt your growth.”
The kid made a rude gesture in response as he wandered the main room of the tavern. “I have a defective pituitary gland. My parents left it untreated… for religious reasons.” His voice was beginning to slur. “They want my faith to make me taller. Oops, I shouldn’t tell you that. Please don’t tell anyone, and I won’t squawk about where you arrived.”
“Sure. Why would that matter?”
Astrofeld set the half-empty mug on Daniel’s table. “Because if someone could track me down in the waking realm, I’d be dead. I’ve robbed a lot of powerful people. To be safe, you should never tell anyone else personal details. That’s why I use my favorite D&D character’s name. In the other world, never let your picture appear in the newspaper or on the news, or someone might recognize you.”
“I meant the stairs. Why would anyone care?”
“That’s your rebirth spot.” The thief staggered to the swinging doors and peeked outside through a crack. “The next dream you have, reappearing at your last exit point is easiest. But if anyone ever locks you in a jail cell, for instance, then you can head back to the stone step where we met. When you return there, you’ll give up whatever you were carrying, plus some accumulated energy, but it’ll be worth it.”
“Like a video game.”
“If someone knows your rebirth spot, they can own you. Astra’s not a game, so don’t tell anyone about it… or me.”
“Yeah. If I did that, my social worker would make me attend therapy sessions twice a week.” The last time I saw a therapist, I told him I felt invisible. The foster family forgot to pick me up from that session.
“So you’ve been to juvenile hall, too? Cool—” Suddenly, the thief’s eyes darted to a door beside the bar.
A click sounded, and the oak door creaked open. A burly man in a smock crept through holding a crossbow.
Daniel turned his head to ask his friend what to do, but the thief was gone. All he could do was smile at the tip of the crossbow pointing at his nose. “Pleased to meet you, sir. I’m Charlie’s replacement.”

Chapter 2 – Magic Lesson

The crossbow aimed at Daniel’s head didn’t waver. Dressed in a smock, the barrel-chested tavern owner rumbled, “Were you the one who left those muddy tracks on my clean floor?” There were overtones of a Scottish brogue in the accusation.
Daniel looked at his muddy, slightly melted sneaker bottoms and then at the black smear on the hardwood floor. “Yeah. Funny story about that. I . . . showed up on your doorstep, and when I tried to leave, those swirly colored puddles started to dissolve my shoes. I didn’t have any choice but to duck inside. Sorry.”
The heavy man trundled up to the table, picked up the mug with his weaponless hand, and gave it a sniff. “And you decided to help yourself to a tankard of my best brew?”
Daniel decided to keep his cat-eared friend a secret, mostly because no one would believe him. “I can pay.” He searched his pajama pants, hoping for a coin.
The barkeep raised the crossbow again. “No sudden moves.”
His pajamas contained only a linty tissue—an unlikely form of currency. Moving his hands around the cloak, he found a pocket that held a hard lump. When his finger came in contact with a stone, Daniel saw images flit by like someone else’s family album. Only, this album had photos of big, ugly, ominous monsters lurking in it, wrapped in a sense of unease and incompleteness. The lump was as much a puzzle as the Celtic clasp. Pulling out the polished, dark-gray stone, he slid the treasure across the table toward the tavern owner. “Will this cover it?”
The large man lowered his weapon with a grunt. Picking up the stone, he sniffed the scorched-looking material. “Mnem stone. Seems pretty full, too. I don’t use them, but Feldspar might. I’ll call him and offer to trade it to him to cover your debt.”
“You have phones?”
“Don’t be daft.” The barkeep walked behind the bar and grabbed a piece of rope looped over a metal hitch on his ceiling. After giving the rope three quick jerks, the owner retied it to a small bell labeled with an ‘F.’ There were four such bells scattered around the bar.
“Clever,” said Daniel. “What do I call you?”
“Do ye read?”
“Ma name is over the door you burgled.”
“Aye. While we’re waiting, you can shine my floor.”
“Um… I thought the stone would cover the inconvenience.”
The point of the arrow rose again. “You’re not one of those rich gits who thinks he can buy his way out of trouble?”
“N-no, sir.”
“Good. This is about character.”
I can’t even escape the Cinderella routine in my sleep. Daniel reluctantly grabbed the mop and applied it to the mess. Although the mud in front of him vanished, more dirt appeared behind him as he walked. He apologized, took off his shoes, and cleaned the whole area.
When the owner inspected the job, he growled, “The footprints are still here.” He pointed to smears of rubber on the floor that looked like chewing gum spread on hot pavement. “You’ll need to use the scrub brush and put a little elbow grease into it.”
“Ah, man,” Daniel grumbled as he bent to the task.
As he scrubbed, a gray-haired man in a brown, Japanese robe came into the bar and chatted with the owner. Daniel overhead Goodforwhat call him Feldspar. The newcomer with spectacles could have been a school teacher.
Once the final scuff was erased, the teacher spoke to him in a New England accent. “Follow me to my tower for your testing.”
“My what?” Daniel slid into his half-melted shoes and had to hurry to keep up.
Feldspar stepped out the door and onto the narrow, wooden sidewalk. He turned a corner and strode toward the rear of the building. “I threw one lesson in as part of the trade. Since you were able to subvert Goodforwhat’s wards, you’re clearly a powerful wizard. We need to find out what sort and where your talents lie. Hence the testing.”
A large plank spanned the alley behind the tavern. Once Daniel crossed, the teacher picked the plank up and carried it under his arm. I guess he wants to avoid the magic puddles, too. Next, they passed the short side of a barn. Beyond this point, there weren’t many buildings in town.
Pointing behind them with his thumb, Daniel asked, “What’s the drop-off back that way?”
“The chasm? We don’t talk about it. If you discuss it or even look at it too long, it gets bigger. Sometimes it sneaks up on people and swallows them.” Serious, the teacher put his finger to his lips.
The older man dropped the plank across the alley to reach a stone path on the other side. The path led up a small hill to a tower about twenty feet wide and two stories tall. Daniel followed the man up the path, avoiding the runoff.
“What is that swirly goo?” asked Daniel, pointing to one of the dangerous puddles.
“Fallout. Someone’s been toying with High Magic lately, and it’s really messed with the weather. Any idea who it might be?”
Daniel shook his head.
Hefting the plank, the man carried it with him to the turret, like a guard raising a drawbridge. When they reached the massive, wooden door, the teacher sketched two curves on the doorway, reciting the incantation, “Supply and demand.” The point where the two curves intersected glowed. He touched the spot and said, “Fair market value.”
The door clicked open, and Daniel rushed inside the tower, afraid the vile rain might start again.
The study was lined with books and charts. A bay window, a writing desk with a stool, and a large, comfy, wingback chair circled the fireplace. The teacher barred his front door from the inside. “Can’t be too careful these days. Would you mind taking off those shoes? They smell awful, and I don’t want my carpets ruined.”
Daniel slipped off his ragged sneakers and left them on a mat by the door.
Pointing to a peg on the closet door, the old man said, “Feel free to hang up your cloak and make yourself at home.”
Daniel reached for the clasp but reconsidered. The test might hurt, and the cloak had protections. Besides, it was the only item he still had from the mysterious Charlie. “I’m good.”
Something about the floor plan still didn’t feel right. When Daniel figured out what, he pointed to the thirty-foot-wide room and gasped. “It’s too big for the outside dimensions.”
The teacher smiled. “This is my memory palace. There are many rooms and two levels. In Astra, a home can be as complex as the man who created it. Some people have mud huts, while the Great Stephen has the Castle of Smoke and Mirrors. I’m somewhere in between. Let me show you.”
Ducking through an archway, they walked through a dining hall, a kitchen, and up dark, wooden, circular stairs. Daniel was able to peek out a narrow slit in the curved wall—the clouds were gone, and he saw hints of some sort of red nebula in the distance.
At the top, the teacher pulled out a key to unlock the door. He gestured for Daniel to enter the stone chamber first. “To begin with, are you aligned with the Protective Order or the Circle of Deception?”
“Who are they?”
“Hmm. If you decide to declare for either, I can notify them, and a representative will come claim you.” The teacher motioned to a single grade-school desk in the center of the room. One wall held a blackboard and the other a small window ten feet above his head. “Have a seat.”
Great. Homework in dreams. Daniel moaned to himself. He sat in the chair. “What if I declare for neither?”
“You can homestead and petition the town to accept you, but you’d need to have a useful talent. We have enough farmers.”
“Why do I need someone to accept me?”
The teacher shook his head and tsked. “This isn’t a magic lesson. You have to pay for those.”
“I need the basics to survive.”
The teacher sighed. “In exchange for one minor service lasting a full REM, I’ll give you a few minutes of instruction.”
“What’s a REM?”
The old man in the robe held out his hand to shake. “You can search the library yourself when you wake up… if you wake up.”
Daniel sighed in exasperation. “Deal.” He shook.
The old man posed at the blackboard and lectured rapidly. “As the world sleeps, we few chosen can lucid-dream. How much do you know about the sleep cycle?”
“Um… it takes about half an hour to fall asleep enough to dream.”
“A Yogi trained in meditation can do it in five minutes.” He drew a wiggly line on the board. “In this phase of sleep, you are descending. This is the phase where you can experience night terrors, bedwetting, and sleepwalking. This area here is where normal humans dream. It is characterized by Rapid Eye Movement.” He wrote the abbreviation REM on the graph. “Human dreams last an average of fifteen minutes and happen once every ninety minutes. A person needs about four or five of these complete cycles a night to stay healthy and sane.”
This is sane?
Feldspar sketched mock water waves underneath the lowest level. “What if, instead of splashing in your own private bathtub, you could jump in the ocean at the mental beach? If we could all share the same brainwaves?”
“We’d see the same thing?” Daniel guessed.
“Exactly! The waves lift us all at the same time. Every mage around the world has the opportunity to participate in the same shared REM. They might be in slightly different points along the shore, or have different perspectives, but we all see the same land.”
“So anyone can reach Astra?”
“No. Beach access is strictly controlled. The lifeguard only lets a certain number in, and new people can’t swim until someone else leaves—conservation of mental energy or some such.”
“Which is why I replaced Charlie?”
“Yes. He’s either a vegetable or deceased.”
“Whoa.” Daniel held up both hands in a stop gesture. “You can die in these dreams?”
“Not normally, but magic or experiences here can permanently alter your mind. In extreme situations, mages losing duels have experienced strokes. Wounds here can manifest as phobias or irrational habits in the waking world.”
“Wait. It’s been more than fifteen minutes already since I hopped in here.”
“That’s subjective. The dream feels like it takes up the whole hour and a half, six times longer than the absolute clock.”
This is like math class, thought Daniel. “What happens at the end of the dream?”
“You blend seamlessly with the next. The effect looks continuous—an illusion like the rapid flickering of a fluorescent bulb. Now on with the test.”
“That’s it? That’s all I get?”
“The effects of magic depend greatly on the personality of the individual. Some people grow angry and throw fire. Goodforwhat bottles humors, whims, and emotions for the consumption of others—in the real world, he’s some sort of musician, poet, or writer. Where does your talent lie?”
“I don’t know. What do you do?”
“Could you explain television to a caveman? Half my peers at the university don’t understand my specialization. Let’s say I collect odd information and use it to predict things like elections and the stock market.”
“You’re a professor?” guessed Daniel.
The teacher seemed to run out of chalk. He raised a finger and strode out toward the shelves in the hall. Once outside the room, he slammed the heavy door behind him and locked the prison cell shut. Through a tiny grating, he said, “I give tests. Before you can leave this place, you must either declare your allegiance to an external organization or reveal your magic ability to me.”

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