I TORE open the wrapper and ate the chocolate bar in one go. My gut feeling said I’d need the energy boost for my brain—and a large part of my life meant listening to my instincts. The fact that I loved chocolate was a minor detail.
Normally I went to bed about this time at night. Being the youngest member of Team 32, “Junior”—as my fellow dreamcatchers liked to call me—meant I was still in training. In theory, I wasn’t “ready” to go out on a mission on my own. In practice, I was not just ready, but champing at the bit finally to see some action. It wasn’t in my nature to prepare for something and pussyfoot around waiting for it to happen. But to graduate dreamcatcher school, basically my services had to be needed for the first time on an individual mission, or at least on a team mission.
From what I’d learned so far, there were rarely if ever team missions. For that, the threat would have to be considerable: more spaga—our enemies—than Claw and Taka could manage together, in my particular case. But Claw—the leader of our team—had managed to fight three spaga on his own the night he’d recruited me. He was an expert practitioner of Okichitaw, a style that had Plains Cree roots. I hadn’t seen Taka in action, but I had seen him train, and we’d sparred a few times. He was an expert in Krav Maga, and sword-fighting was his passion. Somehow, I didn’t envision him needing help, either. In short, fat chance of me seeing action anytime soon. At least it felt that way every night as they went out on missions and I babysat the house.
There wasn’t much left for me to keep studying as a dreamcatcher, unfortunately. In terms of martial arts, I’d practiced Kendo for years, then moved on into Taekwondo and Kenjutsu. I’d done the whole competitions thing and had won quite a few prizes before quitting. I’d had my street-fighting phase after that, my need for money, and a sense of terrible frustration needing an outlet combining to drive me. It hadn’t lasted long, though. After a while the exercise of fighting people for money or for the amusement of others had started to feel sterile, pointless.
While my teammates had interesting extra abilities besides kickass fighting, like second sight or creating shields—Claw could use spider magic in creative ways, for instance—my skills outside of direct physical combat were limited to very sharp instincts. My dreamcatcher qualities were very much physical in nature, plus a gut feeling that never seemed to steer me wrong. I could at most use a defensive spell, and I’d had to practice beyond reason to get it somewhat right. In the end, I had cried “uncle” and asked to have the spell attached, already cast, to my life force, to be activated by my free will whenever needed or desired. And that was about it for my foray in the mad skills world. I brought to the table considerable stamina and a lot of enthusiasm in a physical fight. What our skills as dreamcatchers were depended on our nature. We were led by the fearless mother spirit and spider woman Asibikaashi—we called her Aashi for short. The ancestors trained us to use the sacred weapon they bestowed upon each of us on initiation, and Aashi gave us all the same gifts. But what each of us was able to do with them was entirely up to us. All of us had strong life forces, and that was something you were born with. Many of us had been drawn to martial arts or practicing sports or other physically demanding things as a result; having a strong life force meant having more stamina, better physical traits more often than not, and it was coupled with impressive determination from what I could see from meeting other dreamcatchers.
I did put a lot of heart into fighting the spaga. The damned things snuck into unsuspecting sleeping victims’ homes at night, giving them nightmares to get them agitated and steal their life force all the easier—just like they’d done to me on the night I’d been saved and had met Claw. There usually was just one of them going through the house residents one by one over a long period of time. They drained life force gradually, visiting their victims again and again. If not stopped, in the end those victims would die. They were sneaky cowards, attacking defenseless victims—or at least they hoped their victims would be defenseless. But that’s where the dreamcatchers came in.
Spaga attacking in groups was a rarer event. It usually happened when they found a target that had strong life force—like me. Since such an attack hadn’t happened again during the four months I’d been training to become a “real” dreamcatcher, I was left at headquarters at night while Claw and Taka went out on missions. All I had was hope that finally tonight would be the night. Hoping wasn’t exactly my forte—it was annoying the hell out of me.
For some reason, though, tonight I was more restless than usual. I tried meditating, but I was simply too agitated for it. Instead of my thoughts focusing on a state of inner balance, my mind kept jumping over all sorts of possibilities related to my hypothetical first mission and how it could go. I ran various scenarios through my mind, preparing myself mentally for any possible situation and outcome. I tried working out, but it only seemed to agitate me further. Blood whooshed through my veins more and more angrily the more I used my muscles. My gut feeling was trying to tell me something, I realized. But what? The not knowing was driving me positively up the walls.
Maybe sleeping would make it all go away. I did have the spectacular gift of falling asleep in three seconds flat after my head hit the pillow. Just as I was about to get into bed, I felt that shiver down my spine. It was a zinging shot through my mind that put my whole body into a state of fight or fight—because flight never seemed to me like a doable option, with one notable and shameful exception I consciously ignored.
My skin rose in goose bumps and I jumped to my feet instantly. I was fully alert. I knew what it meant, but it was hard to believe and so terribly exciting.
I ran down the stairs toward the webs room. There was a ghostly gray glow coming out from under the closed doors. I knew for sure Aashi was in there. And I had been called on—no doubt about it, she’d summoned me. At last! Though it was the first time I would be summoned for a mission, something deep in me recognized the call with staggering clarity. I swallowed thickly and knocked on the double doors, excited like a horny virgin going on his first date.
“Drew, come in,” she called out in her usual jaded tone.
I opened the doors and stared around for a moment. It was my first time entering the room alone. The delicate webs that covered the corners of the room, falling in fluttering curtains from the ceiling all the way down to the floor, seemed to vibrate with her presence. I inhaled deeply, trying to contain my enthusiasm. It seemed inappropriate to be excited about a mission, since it meant a victim had been attacked.
“Don’t act all shy now. Come closer,” she said.
I stepped forward and inclined my head, keeping my gaze aimed at the floor. It was a sign of respect, but also what my instincts told me to do. Aashi was an impressive presence, even if she usually chose to show herself as a petite and lovely woman. But her essence wasn’t human, and it made me feel tiny and squish-able like a bug. The ancestors, a collective authority she answered to, only allowed her to manifest in the webs room. Each team had one. For her to make it her lair, there had to be a spider rune drawn in magic by the ancestors themselves. It made the room itself very powerful, but her presence was even greater. The potent magic she wielded with great skill almost shimmered around her, emanating a strange glow that reached even my downward-cast gaze. I was feeling bashful and shy.
“I intimidate you,” she said and chuckled, sounding delighted. “It shows you are of sound judgment.”
I cleared my throat and said, “Thanks.”
“Son of my heart and sword of my cause, the ancestors call upon you to enter our service.”
Shivers went up and down my body.
“Will you answer the ancestors’ call?” she asked, and her voice seemed to reverberate strangely through the room.
I could almost feel the spider webs around me shiver with it, and my heartbeat sped up.
“I am honored and willing to serve,” I said, hoping I managed to find the right thing to say.
She sighed. “Great. Now that we’ve gotten the technicalities out of the way, look up. You do have great hair, but there’s only so much I can find amusing about someone’s scalp. It’s annoying to talk to someone who’s not looking at you.”
I did as asked. God, she was a vision of beauty. Her long black hair hung free and gorgeous down her back, the shiny texture giving any hair product ad a run for its money. Her skin was flawless, a rich dark tan that also seemed to glimmer at her slightest move. The haunting black eyes were framed by thick black lashes and sharp eyebrows, and her lips were quirked up in a smile. I was very clearly gay, and I still felt an odd sort of pull toward her. I wondered, just for the briefest of moments, how the spider woman would look if she’d manifest her true form—if such a thing even existed.
“Claw and Taka are out on missions tonight, as you might know.”
“Their jobs aren’t done. There’s another attack taking place right now in your team’s area. I need to send you out tonight, Drew. I wouldn’t do so if I didn’t think you were ready, do you understand?”
“Thank you,” I answered, and grinned because I couldn’t help it.
I’d been waiting for this moment for what felt like an eternity, not just four months.
“Should you disappoint the ancestors, vengeance will be swift,” she added, and smiled sweetly.
Oh-kay. “I’ll do my best to make the ancestors proud.”
“Good boy. If you disappoint me, I’ll curse you with a beer belly that will never disappear, regardless of dieting and exercising.”
“There’s no need to go to such lengths, or widths for that matter. I can beer-belly myself the old-fashioned way; you just have to say the word,” I added sweetly, and smiled.
She chuckled. “I do admire your dedication.”
“Living with Taka does things to a man’s mind,” I muttered, still wet-dreaming about the spaghetti Bolognese he’d cooked us today. I could’ve written poems and sung songs about it, if I’d had the least bit of talent. As it was, I could truly compliment the chef by eating—which I did, with utmost dedication.
Aashi reached out her open palm. “Here are your traveling charms. The red one takes you there, the green one brings you back here. You swallow the red one, do your job, do the cleansing, and swallow the green one—mission accomplished, and junior status a thing of the past.”
I knew, but interrupting her wasn’t an option, so I just nodded now and then to make sure she knew I was listening. It sounded easy enough. Real fights were never easy, of course. I was aware of that.
“Once you get there, the house will be charmed by your arrival. All objects moved or altered by the fight will return to their initial state once you’re done. Though you can use anything around you in the fight, remember the only true weapon against your enemy is your dreamcatcher weapon. Whatever happens while you’re there, the house residents will be asleep and not able to wake up until you use the green charm to leave. The cleansing of the house and residents will hopefully keep them safe in the future. I won’t go through this speech again, so you better know all of it by heart already.”
“You’ve been chosen to become a dreamcatcher because you’re worthy. Make the ancestors and your teammates proud. And don’t disappoint me, Drew. Or else, beer-belly curse will seem like a day at the spa.”
What else did she have in mind, the limp-dick-forever curse? Not like I used it that much lately, anyway. But I liked to know it was safe, just in case it was time to whip it out and let it do its magic at some point. But I wanted it to feel magic—that was my issue. Even when you lived in a house visited by a powerful spirit, with two pretty much legendary warriors who kicked spaga ass on a nightly basis most likely without breaking a sweat, finding magic was tough.
“I’d wish you good luck, but if you end up needing luck, then we all failed by inviting you to join the team,” she informed me cheerfully.
I nodded and took the two marble-looking charms. The spider magic woven in them was very strong. It pulsed like a heart, giving me a pang of magic-envy. Our skills couldn’t come anywhere near Aashi’s, but I secretly aspired to become half as good as her. The fact that Taka had a lot of shielding tricks up his sleeve didn’t help with my bruised ego, either. It was one thing for our team leader to be able to use magic in ways I couldn’t—like seeing life forces and being able to interact with them even when they became out-of-body—but a whole other story when the other member was able to do cool things and had been able to do them since day one as junior team member. Or so I’d been told. I was secretly afraid I might prove to be too mundane for the job.
I shook my head. “Yes. Sorry.”
“Go now,” she said, waving her hand as if shooing me away.
I nodded, grabbed my katana from the weapons table, and stared at the red marble. This part I wasn’t looking forward to. But I inhaled and just swallowed the charm. Magic exploded on the tip of my tongue and left my senses reeling for a second. I blinked, and when my eyes reopened I was somewhere else—somewhere dark. There were clothes and hangers next to me on either side. In the closet, huh? I hadn’t been for years now, and she knew it. Was it her way of telling me I needed to get out more maybe? I shrugged and focused on the environment around me.
After attuning to the vibe of the home, my senses registered the spaga’s presence like an annoying fly buzzing in my ear. I could tell where it was and what level it was, too. I frowned. What level they were. There wasn’t just one. I closed my eyes and called around me the protection of the spider magic. A sort of energy shield wove itself around me like a second skin. I felt its presence and it brought me comfort. It might not be as kickass as Taka’s, but it would do the job—I hoped.
As I stepped out of the closet and into the bedroom, I reached back and drew my katana from its sheath. The two spaga were on either side of the bed, their focus on the victim intense enough to give me the benefit of a surprise attack—good so far. I swung my arm with determination. Just when my katana was about to connect with its target, the other one screeched and tried to attack me. Well, that could have gone better. I jumped back and adjusted my pose, my katana above my head, poised for another hit. Not wasting any time, I flexed my legs and attacked again, taking off its head. The second one came at me. I felt its claws trying to tear the protection off my skin, but it held. I was about to hit its torso when its bony leg connected with my stomach, throwing me against the wall. This was one of those situations where the freeze-spell worked wonders, not allowing anything in the room to be destroyed after my arrival and until I left. No furniture would break from impact. My bones, though, they were another story—because ouch! I stayed down, calmly counting in my mind. When I got to about seven, it came at me. I moved my arm swiftly and cut the damned thing in two. Its body evaporated, like the first one’s had.
On the upside, they had been ghouls—low-level spaga. They were pretty dumb and quite aggressive, but easy to take out. Why two of them, though? There was usually only one. Two of them was strange. I took my phone out, marked my location on the team’s GPS app, and called Claw.
“I’m doing the cleansing. What’s up, Junior?”
I pinched the bridge of my nose. “Seriously, I’m taller and older than you.”
“I pack more of a punch, though,” he replied without missing a beat. “Plus, I’ve been ‘younger’ than you for more years than you care to know.”
“But I’ve got more stamina,” I replied lamely.
“And yet you’re still the junior of the team—ha!”
“Well, not anymore,” I said, grinning.
“Yep. We’ll talk about that later. I found two ghouls here, though. Does that strike you as strange?”
“Yes,” he replied promptly, all the fun drained from his voice. “I might have expected a sentient or a ghoul—it could have been a caster on the premises, even. We’ve never run into a caster in victims’ homes, but other teams have. When they do go in, they usually have more servants with them—ghouls and sentients. Are you sure there were just the two?”
“No more spaga on the premises.”
“There’s something weird going on here. We’ll talk to Aashi about it, see what she thinks.”
“Okay. I’m preparing to head back home.”
“Good. Congrats, man! And don’t forget to do the cleansing before leaving.”
“Yes, Mommy. Bye.”
I put the phone back in my pocket and looked toward the bed. The victim stirred beneath the covers. I knew they were supposed to be sound asleep, but I held my breath nonetheless. It was really weird to stand and look at someone who was sleeping—I felt a bit creepy. The person had to be turning on the other side or something, but then the head poked up. The bedroom windows were positioned so the light from the street hit his face—because I saw clearly it was a man. He blinked a few times and looked at me, his face slack from sleep and probably the shock of staring at someone standing in his bedroom. He had hazel eyes and dark brown hair, and his skin looked just as deliciously tan as I remembered it. His face had changed a bit. The angles were sharper and the lines more prominent. He looked more grown-up somehow. But it was him, without a doubt: Angelo, my first real steady man. The one that got away—well, more accurately, the one I’d walked out on five years ago. Even if he could see me, the red charm still being active, he was supposed to go right back to sleep. If he’d remember anything at all, he’d be convinced it was a dream.
“Drew? Is that you?”
My heart skipped a beat or five. He was most definitely not going back to sleep. He was freaking talking to me! I panicked and quickly swallowed the green charm. I found myself immediately back at our home base, in the webs room, my heart pounding like hell.
Claw poked his head into the room. “Hey, man. Back already?”
I stared at his long, straight black hair, at his black eyes. I’d had a bit of a crush on Claw when I first met him. Something about his dark skin had always reminded me of Angelo’s permanent tan. But Claw’s black eyes with their intense, brooding gaze had never been like Angelo’s glimmering hazel ones. I felt my stomach tighten. Just thinking about his name did things to me, all these years later. I was such a huge moron—they had to invent a whole new league just for me.
“Come into the kitchen,” Claw said. “We’ve got a bit of a celebration going on here. You finally popped your dreamcatcher cherry after all.”
I smiled while my pulse spiked. Oh, crap. Way to end my very first mission—I hadn’t done the cleansing. I’d panicked and fled, without doing the cleansing. Goddamn it! For tonight, having used my red charm there would keep the home shielded. But without the cleansing it would be a beacon to all spaga, calling their attention to the premises and the residents, starting next nightfall. I had to get back there before that. No way was I going to tell Claw I’d screwed up on my first ever mission. No way. I just had to hope Aashi wouldn’t think to check up on my work. She didn’t, usually—at least as far as I knew. I could fix this.
I went into the kitchen where Claw and our other teammate, Taka, were holding up glasses of champagne. I took mine and we toasted to me not being the junior anymore. We didn’t hang around too much after that, going to our rooms instead. Claw had to attend the daily dreamcatcher leaders meeting for the Seattle area. Taka probably went back to his room to read—he was always reading, it seemed to me. And I just went to my room, hoping that the excitement would wind down and I’d be able to sleep.
It took a while. I kept thinking about five years back. I kept remembering nights spent with Angelo, and the sweet mornings after. All the things I now yearned for, and from which I’d run away then. I’d been dealing with a lot of confusion at the time. I hadn’t been able to find my center, and the steady connection between us had only made me feel more off-kilter when it came to everything else. I’d needed to sort myself out. So I walked out on him and tried to do just that.
It seemed to me that before shaking shit off and figuring yourself out, you had to get piles of shit a mile high weighing you down so you’d have the proper incentive. So I’d worked on my pile until it was nice and large. And then I’d shaken it off and figured out who the hell I was and what I wanted from life. Sad thing was, in my rare moments of honesty, I knew part of what I wanted was what I’d had with Angelo.
The look in his eyes tonight kept overlapping with the look in his eyes the day I’d moved out. It had hurt to walk out that day. I could imagine how it must’ve hurt him to see me do it. I had to make amends somehow. I had to keep him safe.
I finally fell asleep with the image of his hazel eyes running through my mind over and over again.