/ Language: English / Genre:antique / Series: Last Rune

Beyond the Pale

Mark Anthony


A DARKNESS IS COMING.…

A figure stood inside the elevator, silhouetted by fluorescent light. Grace blinked against the sterile glare. The sounds of the Emergency Department receded into the distance, yet her pulse throbbed in her ears, mixed with the thrum of a hundred other heartbeats, as if the very air had become a stethoscope transmitting the life and sudden fear of all those around her. The figure stepped out of the elevator.

It was him. The man she had pronounced dead three hours ago. He was naked, his skin mushroom pale. With mindless deliberation, the man with the iron heart walked forward, his bare feet slapping against the tile floor.

Sound rushed back into the ED. Screams sliced the air in all directions as people scrambled to get out of the dead man’s way. Grace backed up against a wall. She knew she should run, but it was a dull knowledge, and could not connect with the nerves and muscles of her limbs.…

This edition contains the complete text

of the original hardcover edition.

NOT ONE WORD HAS BEEN OMITTED.

BEYOND THE PALE

A Bantam Spectra Book

PUBLISHING HISTORY

Bantam Spectra trade paperback edition published November 1998

Bantam Spectra paperback edition / November 1999

All rights reserved.

Copyright © 1998 by Mark Anthony.

Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 98-19550.

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

For information address: Bantam Books.

eISBN: 978-0-307-79540-3

Bantam Books are published by Bantam Books, a division of Random House, Inc. Its trademark, consisting of the words “Bantam Books” and the portrayal of a rooster, is Registered in U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and in other countries. Marca Registrada. Bantam Books, New York, New York.

v3.1

For Carla Montgomery—

who has the Touch.

For Christopher Brown—

a true Knight Protector.

And for Sean A. Moore—

who understood the magic of Circles.

For a thousand years the Pale King lay mantled in dark, enchanted slumber, imprisoned in his desolate dominion of Imbrifale.

And then …

Two worlds draw near.

The spell is broken.

Contents

Cover

Title Page

Copyright

Dedication

Map

Prologue: Brother Cy’s Apocalyptic Traveling Salvation Show

Part One - A Coming Darkness

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Part Two - Eldh

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Part Three - Calavere Bound

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Chapter 43

Chapter 44

Chapter 45

Chapter 46

Chapter 47

Chapter 48

Chapter 49

Chapter 50

Chapter 51

Chapter 52

Chapter 53

Chapter 54

Chapter 55

Chapter 56

Chapter 57

Chapter 58

Chapter 59

Chapter 60

Chapter 61

Part Four - Circles of Stone

Chapter 62

Chapter 63

Chapter 64

Chapter 65

Chapter 66

Chapter 67

Chapter 68

Chapter 69

Chapter 70

Chapter 71

Chapter 72

Chapter 73

Chapter 74

Chapter 75

Chapter 76

Chapter 77

Chapter 78

Chapter 79

Chapter 80

Chapter 81

Chapter 82

Chapter 83

Chapter 84

Chapter 85

Part Five - The Gates of Winter

Chapter 86

Chapter 87

Chapter 88

Chapter 89

Chapter 90

Chapter 91

Chapter 92

Chapter 93

Chapter 94

Chapter 95

Chapter 96

Chapter 97

Chapter 98

Chapter 99

Chapter 100

Chapter 101

Chapter 102

Chapter 103

Chapter 104

Chapter 105

Chapter 106

Chapter 107

Chapter 108

Postscript

About the Author

The derelict school bus blew into town with the last midnight gale of October.

Weary brakes whined in complaint as the vehicle pulled off a stretch of Colorado mountain two-lane and into an open field. Beneath a patina of highway grime that spoke of countless days and countless miles, the bus’s slapdash jacket of white paint—a shade called Pearly Gates, just five-ninety-nine a gallon at the Ace Hardware in downtown Leavenworth, Kansas—glowed like bones in the phantasmal light of the setting horned moon. The bus’s folding door squeaked open, and two painted-over stop signs flopped out from the vehicle’s sides like stunted angel wings. One sign admonished Repent Your Sins Now, while the other advertised Two for the Price of One.

A figure stepped from the bus. Wind hissed through dry grass around his ankles and plucked with cold fingers at his black mortician’s suit. He reached up a quick, long hand to keep his broad-brimmed pastor’s hat planted on his head, then gazed into the darkness with dark eyes.

“Yes, this will do fine,” he whispered in his steel-rasp and Southern-honey-pecan voice. “This will do just fine.”

Then the man—who had been called many names in the past, but who these days went by the moniker of Brother Cy—leaned his scarecrow frame toward the bus, like a lodgepole pine bending before the storm, and called through the open door.

“We have arrived!”

A chorus of excited voices answered him. Someone flicked on the bus’s high beams, and two cones of light cut through the night. The rear emergency door swung open, hinges creaking, and a dozen shadowy forms leaped out. They dragged a heavy bundle into the field and unrolled it with deft movements. More dim figures scurried from the back of the bus, wrangling poles and rope, and hurried to join the others. Brother Cy stalked to the center of the field and paced a wide circle, digging the heel of his worn black boot into the turf at measured intervals. When the circle was complete, he stood back and looked on in satisfaction. Here would stand his fortress.

Canvas snapped like a sail.

“Blast and damnation, watch that pole!” Brother Cy shouted as his workers strained to stand a length of wood as tall and thick as a tree on end. A billowing shape rose up before him, like an elephant lumbering to its feet. Brother Cy prowled around it: the hungry lion.

“Stake down that wall!” he roared. “Untangle those lines. Get a rope through that tackle. Now pull! Pull, or you’ll think the Dark One’s domain a sweet paradise compared to the hell I’ll show you!” Brother Cy thrust his lanky arms above his head. “Pull!”

A score of dim forms strained. The mound heaved itself higher into the air, and higher yet, like a mountain being birthed. At last its pointed peak reached the top of the high pole. Ropes were lashed around wooden posts and tied off, stray edges of canvas were skewered to the ground, lengths of cord were tucked away. Where minutes before there had been empty moonlight there now stood a tent. It was an old-fashioned circus tent, what in days gone by had been called a big top, torn and patched in so many places it looked as if it had been sewn from the trousers of a hundred penniless clowns.

Brother Cy clapped his big hands together and laughed like thunder.

“Now, let the show begin!”

Like wraiths in the half-light, the shadowy roustabouts bustled in and out of the tent. Parti-colored banners were unfurled. Collapsible bleachers were pulled from the back of the bus. Fire sprang to life in dozens of punched-tin lanterns, carried inside in a glowing procession until the tent shone gold in the night. Last of all a sign was planted in the earth before the tent’s entrance. It proclaimed in bold, Gothic letters:

BROTHER CY’S APOCALYPTIC TRAVELING

SALVATION SHOW

Ailments Cured—Faith Restored—Souls Redeemed

And below that, scrawled in crude script like an afterthought:

Come on in—we want to save you!

Brother Cy stepped back, crossed his arms, and surveyed his domain.

“Does all go well?” a clear voice asked behind him.

He whirled around, and a cadaverous grin split his gaunt face.

“Indeed it does, Sister Mirrim.” He reached out to help a woman down the steps of the bus. “Do you see? Our citadel stands once more.”

Sister Mirrim gazed at the tent. Her visage was smooth, even beautiful, but her old-fashioned garb was severe. She wore a tight-bodiced dress of funereal black, as well as high-buttoned shoes, the kind that could still be found to this day in the downtown five-and-dime of any number of dusty Oklahoma towns—the kind that bespoke the unforgiving hardness of another century. Yet, even in the pale light of the crescent moon, Sister Mirrim’s long hair shone flame red and flew about her on the wind.

A child followed Sister Mirrim down the steps, a small girl clad in a black dress that was the older woman’s in perfect miniature. Her hair, however, was the color of the night, and she regarded Brother Cy with wise purple eyes. He lifted her into his arms. She coiled a small, cool hand around his neck and pressed her soft rosebud mouth against his cheek.

“I love you, too, Child Samanda,” Brother Cy said in bemusement.

“But of course you do,” she murmured.

He set her down, and hand in hand the trio approached the tent. The wind whistled through the ropes and lines, conjuring a sorrowful hymn.

“Will they come, Brother Cy?” Sister Mirrim asked, her voice like the call of a dove. “I have been looking, but I cannot see them yet.”

He looked past the tent, down into the valley below, to a haphazard collection of sparks that twinkled in the high-country night. Castle City. There they huddled in the warm light of their little houses, unknowing of the darkness that approached. But it was so distant, this darkness, so strange, and so terribly far away. How could they know? How could they realize that their very souls hung in the balance? Yet somehow they must. That was why the three had journeyed here.

“They have to come,” Brother Cy said at last. “There are so many who have a part to play.”

Sister Mirrim shook her head, her question unanswered. “But will they?”

It was Child Samanda who spoke this time.

“Oh, yes,” she whispered. “They will come.” She slipped her tiny doll hands from the larger grips that enclosed them and took a step nearer the lights below. “But there are two whose tasks will be far harder than those of the others. We cannot know if they will have the strength to bear their burdens.”

Brother Cy gave a solemn nod. “Then we can pray, my little bird.”

A chill gust rushed down from the high peaks, and the three looked up to see the tent shake under the blast. Shadows played crazily across the canvas walls, cast from within by lanterns dancing on their wires, as the roustabouts scrambled to brace the tent against the gale. Some of the silhouettes were squat as stumps, while others were oddly tall, with fingers as slender as twigs. Some of them bore what seemed antlers, branching like young saplings from their heads, while others looked as if they walked on crooked legs, tails swishing in agitation behind them. However, rippling canvas could be a twister of shadows, and a player of tricks. The wind blew itself into nothing, the tent grew still, the shadows slipped away from the walls.

“Come, let us go inside,” Brother Cy murmured.

“To wait for them?” Sister Mirrim asked.

Child Samanda nodded in conviction. “Yes, to wait.”

Hand in hand once more, they turned their backs on the night, stepped into the tent, and left the small mountain town to sleep alone in the night below.

1.

Sometimes the wind blowing down from the mountains made Travis Wilder feel like anything could happen.

He could always hear it coming, long before the first telltale wisps of snow-clean air touched his face. It would begin as a distant roar far up the canyon, nearly and yet not at all like the ancient voice of a stormswept ocean. Before long he could see it, rushing in wave after wave through the forest that mantled the granite-boned ranges that encircled the valley. Lodgepole pines swayed in graceful rhythm, while cloudlike aspen shivered green, then silver, then green again. Moments later, in abandoned fields just outside of town, he could hear the witchgrass rattle a final portent as it whirled around in wild pagan circles.

Then the wind would strike.

It would race down Elk Street—Castle City’s broad main avenue—like an invisible ghost-herd of Indian ponies. Past McKay’s General Store. Past the Mosquito Café. Past the abandoned assay office, the Mine Shaft Saloon, the Blue Summit Earth Shop, and the faded Victorian opera house. Dogs would bark and snap at passing newspaper tumble-weeds. Strolling tourists would turn their backs and shut their eyes to dust devils that glittered with gum wrappers and cigarette-pack cellophane. Dude-ranch cowboys would hold on to black hats with turquoise-ringed hands while their dusters flew out behind them like rawhide wings.

Maybe he was the only one in town crazy enough, but Travis loved the wind. He always had. He would step outside the buckshot-speckled door of the Mine Shaft Saloon, which he had the dubious distinction of owning these days, and lean over the boardwalk rail to face the gale full-on. There was no way to know from where the wind had journeyed, he reasoned, or just what it might blow his way. He would breathe the quickening air, sharp with the scents of cold mountain stone and sun-warmed pine, and wonder whose lungs it had filled last—where they lived, what language they spoke, what gods they courted, if they courted any at all, and what dreams they dared dream behind eyes of a hundred different shapes and hues.

It was a feeling that had first struck him the day he stepped off a mud-spattered bus—a flatland kid raised between the straight and hazy horizons of Illinois—and drank in his virgin sight of Castle City. In the seven years since, the sensation had come to him with surprising and comforting regularity, never lessening in potency with time. Facing into the wind always left him with an ache of wordless longing in his chest, and a feeling that he didn’t have to choose between anything, because everything was possible.

Still, despite his many musings, there was no way Travis could have imagined, on a chill evening caught in the gray time between the gold-and-azure days of fall and the frozen purple of winter night, just exactly what the wind would blow into Castle City, and into his life. Later, looking back with the empty clarity of hindsight, he would sift through all the strange and unexpected events to pinpoint the precise moment when things began to change. It had been a small happening, so small that he might not have remembered it had it not been for the fact that afterward things would never—could never—be the same again.

It was when he heard bells.

2.

Afternoon sunlight fell as heavy as gold into the mountain valley as Travis Wilder piloted his battered pickup truck toward town. Faint music crackled on the AM radio in time to the squawking dashboard. A paper air freshener shaped like a pine tree bobbed on a string beneath the rearview mirror, all the fake pine smell long since baked out of it by years of the high-altitude sun. The engine growled as he downshifted and swung around a curve at precisely twice the speed recommended by a nearby road sign: a yellow diamond so full of shotgun holes it looked like a chunk of Swiss cheese.

“You’re late, Travis,” he said to himself.

He had spent most of the afternoon on the roof of the ramshackle hunting lodge he called home, nailing on tar paper and replacing shingles torn off by last night’s windstorm. It was past time to be getting ready for the snow that the fat, red-furred marmots foreshadowed. When he finally thought to look up, the sun had been sinking toward the wall of mountains that ringed the valley. Travis never had been good with time. But then, he never had been good with a lot of things. That was why he had come here, to Castle City.

The regulars would start straggling into the Mine Shaft Saloon by sundown, and there were usually a few hapless tourists who had taken a wrong turn off the highway and had ended up in Castle City by accident. Legions of them cruised the twisting two-lanes this time of year, to ogle the gold splendor of the mountain autumn from the heated comfort of their rental cars. To make matters worse, Moira Larson’s book club was meeting in the back room of the saloon that evening. The topic: Nineteenth-Century French Novels of Adultery. Travis shuddered at the thought of facing a dozen book lovers thwarted in their hell-bent desire to discuss implications of class structure in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.

A nervous whistle escaped his lips. “You are really, really late.”

Of course, Max would be at the saloon.

Max Bayfield was Travis’s one and only employee. Max was supposed to be working the day shift today, although more likely he was poring over the saloon’s books, trying to find money between the lines. Travis supposed that was what he got for hiring a refugee accountant from New York, but at least there would be someone there to pour a drink if a customer asked. Then again, it wasn’t really a great idea to let Max wrangle the bar on his own during busy hours. Travis could only hope Max wasn’t hovering around the jukebox again, telling customers that while listening to classical music temporarily raised one’s IQ, country-western songs—with their simplistic melodic structure and repetitive rhythmic schemes—did just the opposite.

His sense of urgency redoubled, Travis punched the accelerator, and the truck flew out of the curve like a rock out of a slingshot.

He was about a mile from town when a dilapidated shape flashed past the truck’s cracked windshield. Hulking beside the road were the remains of a house. Although he had passed it countless times, like always, Travis found his gaze drawn toward the ruin. The old place had burned years ago, long before he had come to Castle City, yet somehow he knew that even before it caught fire, this had been an ugly building. It was squat and sprawling, with rows of small windows that stared like hateful eyes at the beauty of the mountains. Now the structure was nothing more than a shell, the husk of some gigantic beetle that had died next to the road.

According to the stories Travis had heard, the house had been an orphanage once. Built during the days of the Great Depression, the Beckett-Strange Home for Children had endured for decades as one of the largest orphanages in central Colorado, but about twenty years ago the place had burned. By then orphanages were well out of fashion, and the Home was never rebuilt. Travis couldn’t say he was sorry. There was something … wrong about the ruin. He wasn’t sure what it was, but often when he passed it he found himself thinking dark thoughts. Thoughts about fear, or suffering, or mayhem. Maybe it was just that he knew people had died in that fire. Not any of the children—they had all escaped—but several of the Home’s workers had been trapped in their rooms, and they had all been burned alive. At least, that was what the rumors told. Travis didn’t know if the stories were true, but if there was ever a place for ghosts, it was the remains of the Beckett-Strange Home for Children.

The old orphanage slipped out of view, and Travis fixed his gaze on the road ahead. This was the time of day when deer were inexplicably compelled to leap out and fling their bodies in front of moving cars. He kept his eyes peeled. Except a moment later something caught his attention, and it wasn’t a deer. He downshifted, his hurry forgotten. Gears rattling in protest, the pickup slowed to a crawl.

It was a billboard.

Tires ground on gravel, and the truck rolled to a halt on the shoulder of the road. Travis peered out the driver’s side window. Like so many wooden artifacts in the high country, the billboard was bleached and splintering but curiously intact. The thing had to have seen a good sixty or seventy mountain winters in its existence, and even the most recent advertisement plastered across its face was long faded. However, he could still make out the ghostly shapes of people wearing clothes that had been fashionable two decades ago, laughing as they sucked smooth, delicious smoke out of white sticks propped between long fingers.

Hinges groaned, and the truck’s heavy door swung open. Travis climbed out. Cold air sighed through clumps of dry weeds, and he was glad for his thick sheepskin coat. Beneath this he wore faded blue jeans and a tan work shirt. Travis was a tall man, just on the lean side of big, but he had an unconscious tendency to hunch his broad shoulders. At thirty-three years his face was boyish, and when he smiled, his crooked grin suggested a mischievousness that was not altogether misleading. His hair was the exact color of dull yellow sandstone, but his beard, which he sometimes let grow against the winter cold, or simply out of sheer laziness, had sparks of copper and gold in it.

Travis adjusted the wire-rimmed spectacles that perched in front of his pale eyes. Jack Graystone had given him the spectacles a few years back. Jack owned the Magician’s Attic, an antique store on the west side of town, and he was one of Travis’s oldest friends, maybe even his best. The spectacles were over a hundred years old, and once they had belonged to a young gunslinger named Tyler Caine. Jack always said the best way to understand the here and now was to gaze at it through the eyes of a distant time and place. Sometimes Travis thought Jack was the wisest man he knew.

Travis approached the billboard, his scuffed boots crunching against the hard ground. There—that was what had caught his eye. Last night’s gale had ripped away a piece of the old cigarette ad. He drew in a cold lungful of air. Through the hole in the advertisement he could see what appeared to be a painting of a rugged landscape. Only it didn’t quite look like a painting. It was too real, more like a photograph, breathtaking in its perfect clarity. He could just see the edge of a snow-covered peak, and beneath that the hint of an evergreen forest. Without even thinking, Travis reached a hand toward the billboard, to peel off more of the ad’s colored paper.

That was when he heard them.

The bells were faint and distant, yet clear all the same, and crystalline. The sound made him think of sleigh bells on a winter’s night. His hand fell to his side, and he cocked his head to listen. Now all he heard was the low moan of wind over granite. He shivered and remembered he needed to get to the saloon. Whatever the sound had been, it was gone now, if he had ever really heard it in the first place. He started back for the truck.

The wind shifted and brought with it, fleeting but clear, the chime of music.

Travis spun back around. Once more the bells faded into silence, but this time he could tell from which direction the sound had come. His gaze traveled across a sere expanse of grass until it reached a dark hulk a few hundred yards away. You don’t have time for this, Travis. But he was already walking across the field, hands jammed into the pockets of his coat.

A minute later the orphanage loomed above him, taking a bite out of the blue-quartz sky. He had never been this close to the ruin before. Now the windows seemed more gaping mouths than staring eyes. Lichen clung to scorched clapboards like some sort of disease. Even after all these years a faint burnt smell emanated from the place, acrid and vaguely menacing. Travis held his breath: the eerie voice of the wind, and silence, that was all.

He pushed his way through a patch of dried thistles and walked around the side of the house. Behind the place were a pair of outbuildings. They were far enough away from the main house that the fire had not gotten them. Dull paint peeled from their walls, and their doors were sealed shut with rusted padlocks. Storage sheds of some sort. Between the buildings was a narrow run, almost like an alley. Had something moved there in the dimness?

He took a step into the space between the sheds, and in the murk he glimpsed a pile of scrap metal and an old rain barrel. That was all. He was about to turn away when he noticed a glint of light by his feet. He squatted down and saw tracks in the ground. Water had seeped from the earth to pool in the tracks and reflect the waning daylight. The prints had been made by small, cloven hooves, probably a mule deer. They wandered all over the valley. With a shrug, Travis stood and turned to head back to the truck.

This time the bells were closer. Much closer.

Travis whirled around. There. Something had moved—a dim form by the rain barrel.

“Who’s there?” he called out. No answer. He took another step, deeper in. Shadows closed behind him, and a new sound drifted on the air, a sound almost like … laughter. It was high and trilling, the mirth of a child, or that of an ancient woman. The rain barrel rocked back and forth, then toppled. Water gushed onto the ground, dark as blood.

Travis’s heart shriveled in his chest. He started to back out of the alley. The mocking laughter rang out again. He bit his lip to stifle a cry of fear, turned, tripped over his boots, and broke into a run.

He was brought up short by a tall, stiff object, and this time he did cry out. He stumbled backward and looked up.

“Can I help you with something, son?”

The man standing before Travis looked like he was eighty years too late for a funeral. His black suit of moth-eaten wool was archaic and oddly cut, with a long hem and a high collar. The suit hung loosely on the man’s spare frame, while the shirt beneath had turned the yellow of old bones, its neck bound with a limp string tie that flapped on the air. The man snatched a hand up to keep his broad-brimmed hat from taking off on a gust of wind.

“I said, can I help you, son? I mean, are you in need of some aid? Forgive my saying, but you look as white as Lot after he slipped on out of Sodom.”

The man’s voice was dry, like the rasp of a snake’s belly against sand, but coated with a sticky Southern sweetness. This was a voice to invoke dread and devotion in one fell swoop. A grin split the man’s face. His teeth were the same dull yellow as his shirt, and his eyes glinted like black marbles.

“You aren’t simple, now are you, son? You can talk, can’t you?”

Travis managed a nod. “I’m fine, really. It was nothing, just an animal by the sheds.”

Instinct told him to get out of here. The man gave Travis the creeps, him and his papery skin and that skeletal smile. He had to be some sort of vagrant, what with those thrift-store clothes. And there was something foreboding about him. Not violent, but perilous all the same.

Travis swallowed hard. “Listen, I need to get going. I have … I have something I need to do.”

The man watched him with those black eyes, then gave a solemn nod.

“So you do, son. So you do.”

Travis did not reply. He hurried past the other, kept his eyes fixed on the ground, and hoofed it as fast as he could across the field without looking like he was out and out running. To his great relief, he made it back to the truck. He climbed inside, then cast one last glance over his shoulder. The man in black had not moved. He still stood in front of the ruined orphanage and clutched his hat while waves of grass surged around him. He gazed at the horizon, like those dark marble eyes of his could see something coming, something other eyes could not.

Travis shivered, shut the truck’s door, and cranked the key in the ignition. With a spray of gravel the pickup launched itself down the road.

Travis laughed as the oddness of his encounter at the orphanage evaporated in the mundane task of piloting the truck. Now that he thought about what had happened, it no longer seemed so strange. There had been some sort of animal between the sheds, and the man in black was just a drifter, peculiar but harmless. As for the sounds—he could chalk those up to wind and imagination. Either that or he was going insane, and there was nothing at all special about that. He hummed along with the radio as he drove.

A pointed shape came into view up ahead. As he drew closer, Travis saw it was a big circus tent pitched in a field next to the road. Its canvas roof was patched in countless places, and parked to the side was an old school bus covered with a blotchy coat of white paint. He slowed down as he passed the tent. In front was planted a crude sign. As always, it took a moment of concentration to stop the words from roaming, then he reined them in. The sign read:

BROTHER CY’S APOCALYPTIC TRAVELING

SALVATION SHOW

Ailments Cured—Faith Restored—Souls Redeemed

Come on in—we want to save you!

It was an old-fashioned revival. Travis hadn’t thought these sorts of things still existed. He shifted into fourth, and the tent vanished behind him. At least now he knew where the strange man had come from, and he had been right on one count. The old guy was a nut, although not the kind he had thought.

The battered pickup cruised down the road, and he turned his attention to everyday matters—how many kegs of beer he needed to order for the bar, who he had to call to get rid of that skunk holed up under the saloon, and when he was going to find time to patch the leak in the storeroom’s roof.

Yet all the way into town, Travis couldn’t quite forget the far-off music of bells.

3.

Twilight was drifting from the sky like silver snow by the time Travis turned onto Elk Street and brought the pickup to a halt in front of the Mine Shaft Saloon. Only the summit of Castle Peak rose high enough above the valley to be gilded by the last of the sunlight. He stepped out and shut the vehicle’s door without bothering to lock it. Small-town living had its own little luxuries.

Elk Street hadn’t changed much in the last hundred years. If cars could be traded for wagons and potholed pavement for red mud, Castle City’s main drag wouldn’t look much different than it had at the height of the mining days. It ran broad and straight through the heart of town—unlike the narrow, convoluted roads of Eastern cities, constructed by people who were still accustomed to the cramped burgs of the Old World, before they came to realize just how much elbow room this new continent truly had to offer. Weather-corroded false fronts rose sharp and square against the sky, and hitching rails stood in front of most buildings, although these days they usually kept mountain bikes from wandering off instead of horses.

Lights were coming on all along Elk Street against the deepening night. People strolled the boardwalks, heading to the Mosquito Café for the best cup of cappuccino in Castle County, or chatting in front of McKay’s General Store, or stopping to look at the smoky quartz crystals, obsidian bolo ties, and hand-drawn tarot cards in the window of the Blue Summit Earth Shop. At the end of the street, graceful as a ghost, hovered Castle City’s old opera house, with its Greek Revival columns and baroque marble facade.

Travis hopped onto the boardwalk in front of the saloon just as the neon sign above sizzled to red-and-blue life. He reached out to turn the brass doorknob, then paused. He frowned and leaned toward the door to peer at the upper left corner. There. It was so small and inconspicuous he had nearly missed it. Something had been scratched into the door’s faded gray paint, an oval shape formed of two curved lines:

What it signified Travis couldn’t say. Most likely it was just some piece of graffiti. Castle City didn’t have much of a vandalism problem, but it did happen on occasion. Whatever it was, he was certain it hadn’t been there yesterday: The scratch marks looked fresh. Travis let out a sigh. Well, he needed to repaint the door anyway. He added that job to his growing list, then headed into the saloon. The comforting rumble of conversation and the clink of beer glasses told him that Max hadn’t driven away all of the customers. At least not yet.

Max stood behind the bar and pored over a mass of papers spread out before him on the expanse of old wood. His long hair was tied back in a ponytail, and a yellow pencil perched behind one ear. He stroked the drooping black mustache he had copied a few months back from the local ranch hands and slid a bowl of pretzels across the bar to a customer. All at once he grabbed the pencil and scribbled on one of the pages, then he leaned back, chewed on the eraser, and smiled the smug smile of a kid who had just traded two Green Lanterns and a Superboy for a Batman Giant Special. Travis had been right. Max was going over the saloon’s books again.

Like the street outside, the Mine Shaft Saloon hadn’t changed much in the last century. These days electric bulbs shone in the wrought-iron chandeliers that hung from the pressed-tin ceiling, and neon beer signs glowed above the beveled bar mirror, but that was about it. Mummified heads of elk, deer, and mountain lion stared down glass-eyed from the walls, draped in funeral shrouds of cobweb and dust. Time-darkened Wanted posters plastered the posts that supported junk-filled rafters. An antique player piano stood against one wall, still capable of plunking out its tinny music with nail-studded hammers.

The regular customers greeted Travis with hellos and raised mugs as he wound his way through the haphazard scatter of tables and chairs. He smiled and waved back. Maybe he didn’t have a family anymore, but these people came close. Some of the hands from the dude ranch down the highway sat around a table where they played cribbage and drank single-malt scotch. A pair of red-cheeked German college students in wool sweaters and Birkenstocks had stowed their big backpacks in a corner, and now the two young men were trying to go shot for shot against a blue-haired contingent from the local chapter of the Daughters of the Frontier. They were losing. A pair of cowboys in Wranglers and bright geometric shirts two-stepped together to a country song in the warm glow of the jukebox. And in a corner, Molly Nakamura patiently taught several others how to fold origami animals out of stiff sheets of paper, although none of their crumpled-looking creations quite looked like Molly’s graceful cranes and prowling tigers.

Local legend held that no one came to Castle City by accident. Travis didn’t know much about legends. All he knew was that people who passed through Castle City on their way to someplace else had a tendency never to leave. Each of them always said the same thing—that the first time they laid eyes on Castle City it felt like they had found something they didn’t even know they were looking for. Maybe it was the beauty of the place, maybe it was that they felt like they belonged here, or maybe, as some people believed, it was that the valley had called to them, and somehow they had listened. Travis couldn’t say which explanation was right. Perhaps they all were.

Travis himself hadn’t decided to come here. Like everything in his life, it had just happened to him. He never had been good at making choices. At eighteen he had left the faded Illinois farmhouse where he had grown up to attend junior college in Champaign. He never saw his parents or that house again. Travis couldn’t remember exactly what he had studied in school. He had simply drifted from one subject to the next, until one day he had found himself with a paper in his hand standing at a bus stop. He had stepped on the first bus that had come by, figuring it was as good as any. It had been headed west, and after that inertia had kept him moving in the same direction. For a time he would stop in some city, work awhile, maybe make a friend or two. Then he would find himself on another bus heading west again. Until the day he ended up in Castle City, and he felt that first breath of clean mountain wind against his face.

Andy Connell had owned the Mine Shaft then. He had hired Travis to help out behind the bar, and Travis had rented the beat-up cabin outside of town. He hadn’t decided to stay here any more than he did anywhere else. One day he just woke up and realized he had been here for years, and that he didn’t have any plans for leaving. And that was about as close to making a choice as Travis ever got. When Andy died two years ago, Travis had scraped together enough cash to buy the saloon, though whether he was going to keep it was a point he and the bank disagreed on monthly.

He made his way to the bar, and Max looked up from his pile of papers and grinned.

“Didn’t think I could handle the place on my own, did you, Travis?”

Travis lifted a hinged section of wood and stepped through. “What makes you say that, Max?”

“Nothing really. Just little things, I suppose. Like the fact that you’re always muttering under your breath that you don’t think I can handle the place on my own.”

Travis winced. “Oh.” He pulled a brown bottle of homemade root beer from the chiller and twisted the top. “Let me guess. I have a tendency to think aloud sometimes, don’t I?”

“Don’t worry, Travis. It’s just one of your endearing little quirks.”

Travis wondered what the others might be but opted not to ask. He wasn’t altogether certain he would like the answer. Instead, he checked the kegs to see if any needed changing, then started washing dirty mugs in the bar sink. Max tapped his pencil against the papers in front of him. He might have fled the anxiety of his Wall Street job for the peace of the mountains, but number crunching was in his blood.

“You know, I think we’re going to owe some back sales tax for last year.” He fixed Travis with a speculative look. “This may just be a wild guess, but … you haven’t ever actually considered using a calculator, have you?”

“I’ve always found that doing the books is a much more creative experience without one,” Travis said. The fact was, Travis was about as good a mathematician as he was a brain surgeon. He had been more than relieved to surrender the books to Max, but he wasn’t about to let his employee know that.

Max shut the ledger and groaned in despair. “Why don’t you just stick a pencil in my heart and get it over with, Travis? It would be simpler for both of us.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Travis said. “This way isn’t nearly so messy.”

Defeated for the moment, Max tromped back to the storeroom to hunt for more paper napkins. Travis grabbed a rag to wipe down the bar and enjoyed his victory. As an employer it was his duty to torment Max. That he enjoyed it so much was simply an added bonus.

It was just after eight o’clock when Castle County sheriff’s deputy Jacine Windom stepped through the door of the saloon. For a moment Travis thought she had come by for a beer, then he noticed the gun at her belt. She was on duty. Jace tipped her hat toward Travis from across the room, then marched through the maze of mismatched tables toward the bar.

“Evening, Travis,” Jace said, her brassy voice tinged with a melodic Western twang. She thrust out a hand.

Travis smiled and took the proffered hand. “Nice to see you, Deputy Windom.” His expression edged into a grimace when she returned his grip with one of crushing strength. After she let go he had to resist the urge to rub his fingers. Deputy Windom was a small woman in her late twenties, but she carried herself with an air of authority that made her seem taller and older. She had short brown hair and wore a khaki uniform with creases sharp enough to cut a well-done steak.

Jace set her Smokey-the-Bear hat on the bar and perched on a stool, then scanned the saloon with cool eyes. “Looks like business is good tonight.”

Travis filled a mug with hot black coffee and pushed it toward her. “It’s not bad. Max hasn’t scared too many customers away.”

Jace took a swig of the scalding coffee and fixed him with a stern look. “If you don’t mind my saying, Travis, you’re too hard on Maximilian. It isn’t his fault that living in a big city makes a man soft and nervous. Your employee has a lot to overcome. But I think he’s starting to fit in nice.”

Their gazes traveled across the saloon. Now Max laughed and shook his head while the Daughters of the Frontier, with their blue cotton-candy hair and red-fringed denim jumpsuits, tried to get him to country line dance with them. Max looked up, saw Travis and Jace, and shot them a goofy hound-dog grin.

“Real nice,” Jace said and gripped her coffee mug. “In fact, get that boy a haircut and a pair of Wranglers, and he’d make a fine little cowboy.”

Travis’s eyes bulged. He stared at the deputy as she gazed in Max’s direction, and for the first time he noticed that a gold earring gleamed against each of her small, pretty ears. There was a resolute cast to her square jaw and a fierce gleam in her eyes. Something told him Max was in for a bit of a surprise.

He cleared his throat and changed the subject. “So, what was it I can help you with, Deputy Windom?”

Jace snapped around on her stool, all business once more. She pulled a small notebook from the pocket of her jacket and flipped several pages.

“We received an unusual report at the sheriff’s office earlier.”

A chill skittered along Travis’s spine. “An unusual report?”

“That’s correct. Waunita Lost Owl phoned the station at about four P.M. You know her, Travis. She works behind the counter at McKay’s General Store, lives in a double-wide just north of town. Mrs. Lost Owl was quite agitated at the time of her report. It seems she saw a …” Jace glanced down at her notebook. “… it seems she saw a delgeth in her backyard.”

Travis took a pull on his ever-present bottle of root beer. “Should I know what that is?”

Jace slipped the notebook back into a pocket of her brown leather jacket. “Not unless you happen to have a degree in Native-American folklore. I had to look it up at the library. It’s a Plains Indian myth. As far as I can tell, a delgeth is a kind of antelope spirit.”

Travis gripped the edge of the bar. He remembered the shadow he had seen that afternoon behind the old orphanage and the hoofprint pressed into the mud—a print which, now that he thought about it, could have belonged to a pronghorn antelope as easily as to a deer. He licked lips gone dry. “You don’t think Waunita really saw one of these delgeths, do you?”

Jace let out a chuckle. “I don’t think Sheriff Dominguez is worried about creatures creeping out of old myths to prowl Castle City. But he is concerned that a mountain lion might have come down from the hills. Mrs. Lost Owl did see something. I checked in at McKay’s and the Mosquito Café to ask if anyone else had seen it. I just thought I’d do the same here.”

For a moment Travis considered telling Jace about what he had seen. But if he told her about the shadow, then he would also have to tell her about the bells and the eerie laughter, and he didn’t want to do that. The day had turned strange enough as it was.

“I’m sorry, Deputy Windom, but if anyone has seen anything out of the ordinary, they haven’t told me about it.”

Jace scraped her barstool back, then stood and rested a casual hand on the gun at her hip. “Looks like I had better move on then. Thanks for the cup of java, Travis.” She donned her hat, tipped it toward him, then headed for the door. She cast one last piercing look in Max’s direction, then with a puff of night air the deputy was gone. Travis grabbed a tray, collected empty beer glasses, and did his best not to think about the deputy’s words.

Half an hour later, the phone rang.

Max answered, then with a resigned look held the phone out across the bar toward Travis. That Max never got any calls had been a slight point of contention lately. Max was of the opinion that at least some of the calls to the saloon should be for him, and he seemed to think it some sort of conspiracy that this wasn’t the case. The fact that Travis was the owner of the Mine Shaft and not he didn’t seem to play a significant role in Max’s logic. Travis set down a tray of mugs and took the phone.

“Travis,” the voice on the other end said in hoarse relief. “Travis, I am so thankful to have reached you.”

“Jack?” Travis cupped a hand around the phone and tried to block out some of the clamor of the saloon. He recognized the voice of his old friend Jack Graystone. “Jack, is that you?”

“Listen to me, Travis.” Jack’s faint words buzzed in his ear. “I am afraid I haven’t time to explain properly, so I can only hope that, as your friend, you will see fit to trust me.” There was a potent silence. Then, “You must come to the Magician’s Attic at once.”

Travis was taken aback. He had never heard Jack sound like this. Jack’s voice was shaking, almost as if he were alarmed. No, Travis realized with a chill—almost as if he were afraid.

“Jack, I can’t just leave the saloon.” Travis tried to keep his voice down. All the same, Max shot him a curious look. “This is our busiest night of the week.”

“But you must, Travis.” As if through great force of will, Jack’s voice calmed and slipped into the smooth, indeterminate European accent with which Travis was so familiar. “I wish I could explain over the phone what has transpired. However, I dare not.”

“Explain what?” Travis said.

“I am afraid that must wait until you come to the antique shop. I cannot trust anyone who might be listening to our conversation. Now, you mustn’t repeat to anyone what I have said.” Jack’s voice dropped to a whisper. “But you have to believe me when I tell you that my life is in grave—”

There was a click, then a hissing noise filled Travis’s ear as the phone went dead.

4.

The saloon’s door shut behind him, and Travis stepped into the night. He hunched broad shoulders inside his sheepskin coat. The crescent moon hovered over the parapets of Castle Peak, and its light rimed dark ridges like frost. The warmth and glow shut behind the buckshot-dented door of the Mine Shaft seemed suddenly far away.

He had left without much explanation, but Jack Graystone was his best friend and, however odd they seemed, Travis couldn’t go against Jack’s wishes. Besides, Max had been only too happy to have a chance to run things himself for a while. Yet what had Jack been talking about? Travis couldn’t imagine what anyone might gain by threatening the grandfatherly proprietor of a small-town antique store. There had to be a more mundane explanation for the phone call.

Travis headed to his pickup. He reached for the handle, noticed something wedged into the door crack, and plucked it out. It was a tuft of fur, silver-brown in the moonlight. He frowned. Now how had this gotten stuck in the door? A chill breath of wind snatched the tuft from his fingers, and it danced away on the wind. That most likely answered his question. He climbed into the truck, mashed down the clutch, and cranked the ignition. The engine turned over three times, then wound down with a feeble whine. He tried again. This time he was rewarded with a metallic death-knell buzz that signaled yet another battery had succumbed to the high-country climate. He smacked his forehead against the steering wheel in frustration, then climbed out.

Common sense said he should head back to the saloon and ask someone for a jump start, but if he did, people were bound to ask where he was going, and he had promised Jack. With a sigh he began hoofing it down the street. The Magician’s Attic was only a mile away: He could manage the walk. It was just nine o’clock, but the town’s lone traffic light already winked like an amber cat’s-eye in the dark. He tried not to think about Deputy Windom’s delgeth story. Once already that day he had let his imagination run away with him, and that had been enough.

Travis moved up onto the boardwalk. He passed by the door of the darkened hardware store, then paused and pushed his wire-rimmed spectacles up his nose. There it was again—the same odd symbol that had been scratched on the saloon’s door. He continued down Elk Street and saw other doors marked in similar fashion. Travis shivered and quickened his pace.

To his relief, fifteen minutes later, he found himself in front of the Magician’s Attic. The antique shop occupied the ground floor of a rambling Victorian on the west edge of Castle City, and Jack reserved the upper stories for his living space. The house was lightless and quiet, from the tower that reminded Travis of a castle’s turret to the velvet-curtained parlor windows that stared outward like heavy-lidded eyes. Was Jack even still here? Travis ascended the steps of the front porch and reached out to knock, but the door flew open before his hand touched it.

“Wotan’s Beard! It’s about time you arrived, Travis.”

Travis lurched through the doorway into the cluttered foyer beyond and barely managed to keep from falling. Jack shut the door. He carried a tin hurricane lamp, its speckled golden light the only illumination in the place.

Jack Graystone appeared to be about sixty years old, although Travis couldn’t remember him ever looking any different in the seven years they had been friends. He was a striking man, with a Roman nose and eyes of sky blue. His iron-gray beard was neatly trimmed, in contrast to his thinning hair of the same color, which had a tendency to fly rather madly about his head. He was dressed in an old-fashioned but elegant suit of English wool over a starched white shirt and a flannel waistcoat of hunter’s green. Travis had never seen him wear anything else.

“I’m sorry I took so long, Jack.” Travis tried to catch his breath. “My truck wouldn’t start, so I had to walk here.”

“You walked here?” Jack fixed him with a grave look. “That wasn’t a terribly good idea, you know, not on a night like this.”

Travis ran a hand through his sand-colored hair. “Jack, what is going on? I didn’t know what to think after the phone went dead.”

“Oh, that. Do forgive me, Travis, I’m afraid that was all my fault. You see, I thought I heard a noise in the parlor while we were talking. I turned around and accidentally cut the phone cord with a sword I was holding.”

Travis gaped at him. “A sword?”

“Yes, a sword. It’s like a large knife often used by knights in—”

“I know what a sword is.”

Jack gave him a sharp look. “Then why did you ask?”

Travis drew in an exasperated breath. As much as he liked Jack, talking with him could be a challenge. “Jack, would you please tell me why you asked me to come here?”

Jack regarded Travis with perfect seriousness. “A darkness is coming.”

With that he turned and disappeared into the dim labyrinth of the antique shop. There was nothing for Travis to do but follow. The gloom all around was filled with the flotsam and jetsam of history—chests of drawers with porcelain knobs, lead-backed mirrors, lion-clawed andirons, velvet chaises, and weather-faded circus posters. Jack never rested in his hunt for curious and wonderful antiques. That was how he and Travis had become friends.

One day, not long after Travis started working at the Mine Shaft, Jack Graystone had stepped through the door of the saloon, incongruous in his old-fashioned attire, yet not uncomfortably so. He had asked if he might be allowed to cull the saloon’s storeroom for any “artifacts of historical interest.” Andy Connell had been out of town, but one of Travis’s assignments while Andy was away had been to clear a century’s worth of junk out of the back storeroom. Travis had been more than happy to let Jack do some of the work for him.

Yet before long—and afterward he was never quite certain just how it happened—Travis found himself on the storeroom floor, covered with grime and cobwebs, sorting through tangled piles of hundred-year-old clutter, while Jack, neatly ensconced on a barstool, politely offered direction. In the end, the saloon’s storeroom got cleaned, Travis hauled a pickup truck full of copper lanterns, bent-willow chairs, and thick-glassed purple bottles to the Magician’s Attic, and somewhere along the way Jack had apparently decided he and Travis were the best of friends. Travis had never bothered to disagree.

Still, nothing in their long friendship had prepared Travis for Jack’s behavior tonight. With Travis following on his heels, Jack wended his way to the back of the shop, his tin lantern casting off shards of gold light. He stepped over a heap of broken Grecian urns and edged past a wooden sarcophagus that leaned against the wall and stared with knowing eyes of lapis lazuli. They started up a narrow staircase that Travis, in all his visits to the Magician’s Attic, had somehow never noticed before.

Old photographs in antique gilt frames lined either wall of the stairwell. One caught Travis’s eye. He paused and peered more closely at the photo. It showed a group of grim-faced men and women clad in somber attire. Some gripped shovels or pickaxes, and a hole had been torn open in the earth before them. A caption was written at the bottom of the photo in spidery ink. Travis strained to make it out: The Beckett-Strange Home for Children, 1933. It was the groundbreaking ceremony for the old orphanage. However, it was something else that had caught Travis’s attention. A rectangular shape floated in the picture’s background, blurry and half-obscured by a woman’s hat, but he recognized it all the same. The old billboard by the highway—only in this photo it was not covered by the cigarette advertisement. Although dim and murky, he could just discern the wild landscape. So the painting had been there back in 1933. Yet what was it advertising? There seemed to be flowing words written at the bottom of the billboard, but Travis could not read them.

A perturbed voice broke his concentration. “Travis, do stop dawdling. There simply isn’t time.”

Travis tore his eyes away from the old photo and hurried up the steps after Jack. The odd staircase ended in a blank wall. Jack pressed against a mahogany panel to his right, and an opening appeared. Travis ducked his head and followed his friend through the small door. Bronze light flared to life as Jack used the candle from his hurricane lantern to light an oil lamp atop a wrought-iron stand. Travis adjusted his gun-slinger’s spectacles in amazement.

“Jack, what is this place?”

“Minerva’s Thread! You can’t stifle your questions for five seconds, can you, Travis?”

Travis hardly heard him. The windowless room was circular, and by that he knew it to be somewhere within the house’s tower. He was familiar with the rooms above and below. Why had he never considered what might lie between? Now he stared in wonder.

The walls were covered with artifacts. Flat-bladed swords gleamed in the light of the oil lamp, their blades etched with flowing designs and incomprehensible symbols. Beside them hung half-moon axes hafted with bone and leather, and massive hammers that obviously had been designed for pounding in skulls, not nails. There were wooden shields inlaid with silver, and neck-rings of fiery copper, and helmets crowned with goat horns and yellow horsehair. It was like a collection from a museum, but not quite. For what startled Travis most of all was the way the objects shone in the warm light. Most of them were worn and well used, but none seemed to display the signs of decay and corrosion that came with centuries of burial. Well-oiled leather still looked supple, and steel glowed without a speck of rust.

This was too much for Travis. “Jack, I have a request, and I really don’t think it’s all that unreasonable.” He advanced on his friend. “Tell me what is going on.

Jack gave him a sour look. “Do spare the dramatics, Travis. And sit down.”

As usual, Travis found himself obeying. He sank into a chair beside a table that occupied the room’s center. Jack filled a glass from a decanter of brandy and handed it to Travis.

“I don’t want it,” Travis said in a sulky tone.

“You will.”

Something in Jack’s voice made Travis hold on to the glass. “Jack, what are all these things?” He gestured to the artifacts that decorated the walls of the room. “Where did you get them? And how come you’ve never offered any of them for sale?”

Jack waved the questions aside with a dignified flick of his hand. Jack could do things like that. He paced around the table, lips pursed in thought. At last he spoke. “I’m dreadfully sorry to have to involve you in all this, Travis. However, I’m afraid I don’t have any choice. There simply isn’t anyone else I dare trust. And these matters are far too crucial for me to take unnecessary chances.” He sighed, a sound of profound weariness. “I am going to be leaving.”

Travis stared at his old friend in shock. “Leaving? You mean Castle City?”

The older man nodded in sad affirmation.

“But why?”

Jack sat down, folded his hands neatly before him, and met Travis’s eyes.

“I am being hunted,” he said.

5.

Travis gripped the empty brandy glass and listened numbly while Jack explained in a tone of infuriating calmness that certain individuals had been searching for him for a long time. Now they were on the verge of discovering him at last, and Jack was obliged to leave Castle City, at least for the time being. Travis started to wonder if Jack was dealing in black-market artifacts. Maybe the swords, axes, and helmets that adorned the walls of the hidden room had been smuggled into the country, and others who wanted them were after Jack. Hard as it was to believe, it seemed the only logical explanation.

Travis realized Jack had asked him a question. Dazed, he shook his head. “I’m sorry, Jack. What did you say?”

“Pay attention, Travis,” Jack said with a disapproving frown. “This is important. I said I was hoping you could keep something for me while I am gone. It is a small object—of no market worth whatsoever—but of great personal value to me. I would rest far better if I knew it was in good hands while I am away.” He unlocked an oak cabinet and pulled out a box, black and small enough to fit in the palm of his hand. He set it on the table before Travis. “Will you keep it for me?”

“Of course I will, Jack, if you want me to.” Travis picked up the box. It was heavy, and he realized it must be fashioned of iron. Its surface was decorated with angular symbols he did not recognize, and a simple hasp held the lid shut. Travis started to undo it.

“By the Lost Fraction of Osiris, don’t open it!” Jack clamped his hand down on the lid of the box and glared at Travis. Then, with a chagrined look, he leaned back in his chair and smoothed his waistcoat. “Forgive me, Travis. It really would be best if you left the box closed.”

“So I gathered,” Travis said.

“There’s no need to be flippant. Just promise me you’ll keep the box safe and secret.”

Travis sighed in defeat. “All right. I promise.”

“Thank you.”

However, Travis was not finished. “Jack, what’s really going on? Who are these people who are after you? Where are you going? And when will you be coming back?”

Jack’s tone was reproving, if not unkind. “You know better than to ask such questions, Travis. I have already told you more than I should.” With that Jack stood, giving clear indication that the conversation was over. Travis knew there was nothing else he could do, although that didn’t keep a heaviness from weighing on his heart.

Travis picked up the iron box and slipped it into the breast pocket of his sheepskin coat, then followed Jack downstairs. The two paused before the antique shop’s front door. Travis chewed his lip. Was this the last time he would ever see his old friend? “I’m going to miss you, Jack.”

Now a wistful expression touched Jack’s mien. “And I you, Travis. You are a true friend. Thank you for understanding.”

Travis didn’t bother to say he didn’t understand any of this. It would be no use. “Good-bye, Jack.” He couldn’t believe he was speaking these words. “Wherever you’re going, take care of yourself.”

A spark flashed in Jack’s blue eyes. “Oh, you can be assured of that.” Without further ado, he opened the shop’s door and ushered Travis outside.

Travis started through, then halted in mid-step. A chill coursed through him. “There it is again,” he said.

Jack’s bushy eyebrows knit themselves together. “What is it, Travis?”

Travis reached a hand toward the upper left corner of the door, and his fingers brushed over a design scratched into the paint. It was the same symbol he had seen on the front door of the saloon and the other doors around town. Except this one was different in that an X had been scrawled beneath:

Jack peered at the scratch marks, and at once his blue eyes went wide. “Oh, dear,” he whispered. “This isn’t good. This isn’t good at all.”

Travis looked at his friend in astonishment. “You know what this symbol means, don’t you?”

Jack brushed the scratch marks with trembling fingers. “It is the mark of their servants. I had not guessed they were this close, not yet. But if their minions have been here, they cannot be far behind.”

Travis shook his head in confusion, but before he could speak a beam of blue-white light tore apart the fabric of the night. Travis raised a hand to shield his eyes. It was like the searchlight of a police helicopter, except it was too low to the ground, and there was no sound accompanying it, only the murmur of the wind. Whatever the source of the light, it was coming toward the antique shop. And coming fast.

“Go inside, Travis.” Jack’s voice resonated with low urgency.

“What is it, Jack?” Travis squinted against the light. He thought he saw something moving within—tall silhouettes backlit by the glare.

Jack’s voice became a stern command. “Now, Travis!”

This time Travis didn’t argue. He stumbled backward into the shop. Jack hurried after him, slammed the door shut, and slid the dead bolt into place. He shut the drapes that covered the shop’s iron-grilled front window, and the room was plunged into gloom. Only a razor-thin plane of hot white light found its way through a gap in the curtains: It sliced the dusky air like a glowing knife.

Alarm surged in Travis’s chest. “It’s them, isn’t it? The people who are after you.” Jack did not disagree. That was all the confirmation Travis needed. Alarm crested into outright panic.

“Calm yourself, Travis,” Jack warned with a stern look.

“I don’t want to be calm,” he whispered. “Now is definitely not the time for calmness.”

“On the contrary, there is no better time to remain calm than when one is in danger.”

Travis groaned. Jack had to go and say the word, didn’t he? Danger.

Jack moved to an old-fashioned typesetter’s desk, opened a drawer, and drew out an object wrapped in black silk. He unfolded the cloth to reveal a slender, murderous stiletto. A bloodred stone glistened in its steel hilt. He handed the knife to Travis.

“Take this, just in case.”

Travis fumbled with the weapon as though he had just been handed a live snake instead. However, a scowl from Jack kept him from dropping the knife. Travis had never owned a weapon of any sort in his life. It felt cool and disturbingly smooth in his hand. He slipped it through his belt. At least that way he wouldn’t have to hold it.

“Just in case what?” he asked in a croak.

Jack ignored the question. “Follow me,” he whispered and moved through the chaotic clutter of the shop.

Travis started to stumble after him, then froze. An electric humming pierced the silence, and a line of brilliant light flared beneath the front door. With menacing slowness, the doorknob turned right, then left, then right again. Travis felt a warmth against his hip and glanced down. The gem embedded in the stiletto’s hilt now shone bright crimson.

“Travis, get over here!”

Jack stood beside an open doorway that led down to the shop’s cellar, but Travis could not move his feet. His eyes locked on the antique shop’s front door. A sharp beam of frosty light shot through the keyhole. The doorknob twisted faster, until it rattled in its socket, then the rattling ceased. A moment later the entire door shook with a thud. There was a long pause, followed by a second strike.

“Travis!”

The roar of Jack’s voice shattered his paralysis. Travis lurched toward his friend and bit his tongue as he barked his shin on a cedar trunk. Just as Travis reached Jack, one last blow resounded behind him. Hinges shrieked, old wood exploded in a spray of splinters, and searing light flooded the shop.

Jack pulled Travis through the cellar doorway onto the top step. As one, they turned to shut the door at the head of the staircase. For a fleeting second, through the closing gap, Travis glimpsed a figure silhouetted against the blazing light. The outline of the intruder was tall and slender, and moved toward them with swift, sinister grace. Then the door slammed shut and blocked out the sight. Hands shaking, Jack slid a stout wooden bar across the doorway. Together, the two men half ran, half fell down the staircase into the cellar below. Sheet-draped furniture clustered around them like a spectral chorus, and the cellar air was as cold as a tomb. Above, the first violent blow struck the cellar door. Ethereal light poured through the crack beneath and drifted down the steps like livid mist.

Jack’s thin gray hair flew about his head. “That bar will only hold them for a few moments. You must go, Travis. Quickly.” He hurried to the far wall and opened a small wooden door. Beyond was a dark passage. “This tunnel leads to the garden shed out back.”

“What about you, Jack?”

A second blow struck the cellar door.

“Don’t argue with me, Travis. There simply isn’t time.”

“But why aren’t you coming?” Every instinct told Travis to flee, to scramble through the tunnel, to run as fast as he could into the late-October night. Yet he couldn’t just leave Jack like this.

“I have my reasons for staying.”

Jack’s voice was flint, his expression steel. Travis had never seen him like this before.

“Then let me help you.”

“You don’t know what you’re dealing with, Travis.”

Travis shook his spinning head. “I can’t just leave you, Jack!”

At this Jack’s expression softened a fraction. “Don’t be afraid, Travis. I had not planned this, but I see now it is the only way. If I am fortunate, I can give you time to escape. However, you must use it.” A sad light shone in his blue eyes. “You are our hope now.”

He reached out and took Travis’s right hand between his own two and gripped it firmly.

“Forgive me, my friend.”

Agony raced up Travis’s arm. For a fractured moment it felt as if his entire body was on fire. White-hot radiance washed over him, pierced flesh, blood, and bone—streamed through the very substance of his body as if he were as transparent and brittle as glass. Travis tried to scream, but his voice was lost in the roar of the wildfire that engulfed him. In another heartbeat it would burn him into nothing.

The moment shattered. Travis reeled away from his friend. The blazing fire had vanished, and now chill sweat trickled down his sides. Although he dreaded what he would see—crisped flesh and blackened bones—he looked down at his throbbing hand. The skin was smooth and undamaged. However, all that was left of the hair on the backs of his knuckles was a fine gray ash.

He looked up at Jack with a mixture of fear and wonder.

“Go, my friend,” Jack said. “May the gods walk with you.”

Travis shook his head in dull incomprehension. Another impact shook the cellar door. The thick wooden bar cracked with a sound like breaking bones.

“Go, Travis!” Gone now was the kind and slightly absent-minded old man Travis had known for seven years. In his place was an imposing stranger: face sharp, voice commanding, eyes vivid as lightning.

This time Travis did as he was told.

He dived into the cramped tunnel. Cobwebs clung to his hands and face. With a cry he tore them to shreds. From behind came a crash as the cellar door shattered. A high-pitched sound crackled on the air, like dry ice on metal. Travis ran hunched through the tunnel, propelled by terror. Seconds later the passage dead-ended. For a panicked moment he thought he was trapped, then his groping fingers found the wooden rungs in the blackness. He clambered up the ladder, threw open a trapdoor, and found himself in the cluttered garden shed. He stumbled out the shed’s door and into the frigid night.

The antique shop loomed thirty feet away. Light—hot and brilliant as a burning strip of magnesium—flickered behind the windows. Travis took a staggering step toward the antique shop. At that moment every one of the shop’s windows exploded outward in a spray of glittering glass. The shock wave struck Travis like a clap of thunder, threw him to the ground, and knocked the breath from his lungs in a grunt of pain.

He gritted his teeth and struggled to his feet. Now the flames that poured out of the antique shop’s windows were red and orange. Fire, real fire. The place was going to burn.

Travis whispered a single word. “Jack.…”

Then he turned and ran into the night.

6.

Just north of town, the billboard faced blindly into the moonlight.

The highway was empty, a silent river of blacktop cutting across the high-country plain. The night was still. Stars glittered in the purple-black sky, and added their glow to that of the crescent moon. Somewhere a coyote warbled a mournful sōng that would have spoken of cold rushing water, of old splintered bones, of lonely mountains stretching to the end of the world, had anyone been there to listen to it.

The moon brushed the sharp horizon. That was when it began. Like a drop of water on a hot iron skillet, a spark of blue light skittered across the face of the old billboard. The spark burned itself into a cinder of darkness and was gone. Another pinprick danced across the billboard. Before this one dimmed another spark joined it, and another, and another. In moments the entire face of the billboard sparkled with blue incandescence.

A faint hum buzzed on the air. As the sound grew louder, a strip of the faded cigarette advertisement peeled itself off the surface of the billboard and fell to the ground. Sparks clustered like blue fireflies around the edges of the hole left by the chunk of old paper. Bathed in their sapphire glow, a patch of the picture beneath showed through—a jewellike fragment of a wild landscape.

Winking like tiny eyes, the sparks spread outward. More strips of paper curled themselves into tight coils and dropped to the ground, then still more, to reveal the long-hidden image beneath.

7.

People in the Emergency Department always told Grace Beckett she had a good grip on reality.

If they meant she could pull hot chunks of car shrapnel from the chest of a screaming motorcyclist without blinking … if they meant she could perform a caesarean on a seventeen-year-old mother killed in the crossfire of a drive-by shooting and somehow still smile at the perfect smallness of a premature baby’s toes … if they meant she could get called away from the other residents in the TV lounge to resuscitate the elderly victim of a hit-and-run and still make it back before the commercial was over … if that’s what people meant, then Grace supposed they were right. She was good, she knew she was, and she knew it without any sense of hauteur or self-importance. It was simply a fact. Everyone had a talent, a gift—something they did better the first time they tried than most people could do after years of practice—and this was hers. Grace could put broken people back together.

She always knew when a rush was coming.

Of course, there were all the usual signs even a first-year intern knew—a full moon, a rising barometer, a hot Friday night in June. But even when there were no signs, when the city drowsed, and there hadn’t been anything more serious than a sprained thumb all day, somehow she could feel it about to happen, like a prickling on her skin. Even as the others played broom hockey in a slick-tiled hallway—a game they resorted to in those rare ebbs—Grace would slip on a pair of latex gloves and stand, expectant, before the automatic doors.

With a hiss the doors slid open. Then they were there, streaming into the Emergency Department of Denver Memorial Hospital, pulled from an overturned bus, or a burning hotel, or a twenty-car freeway pileup. While the others scrambled to grab gowns and stethoscopes, Grace already weaved her way among the wounded, the frightened, the dead, soothing hurts and fears with precise hands. Some in the ED mistook this cool and focused efficiency for aloofness, but Grace never bothered to correct them. She had not come to this place to make friends.

Yet, sometimes, in the quiet hour that always came at four in the morning, when everything in the world seemed to sleep and the Emergency Department grew still and tomblike, Grace would sit in a vacant wheelchair, holding a foam cup of dull beige coffee drizzled from a dull beige vending machine, and she would think that people were wrong—awfully, utterly, hilariously wrong—and that it was really just the opposite. Grace didn’t have a good grip on reality.

Reality had a good grip on her.

Bullet wounds, mangled bodies, burnt children … despite her effort to keep each instance distinct and sharp and tragic, all inevitably blurred into one endless tapestry of suffering. For every hole she patched, for every shattered limb she straightened, for every heart she shocked and battered and cajoled into beating again, there would be another to take its place.

Still, in all her wheelchair reveries, there was no prescience that could have warned Grace of, or even hinted at, the queer happenings that would weave themselves around her on that purple autumn night. Not that it mattered. For in the end, whether she gripped it, or whether it gripped her, the result would have been exactly the same.

Grace Beckett’s reality was about to unravel.

8.

Grace watched as two interns pushed the gurney down the institutional green hallway. One of the thing’s wheels was askew and rattled like an old grocery cart as it hurtled along. Neither of the fresh-faced young men seemed to notice. Elevator doors lurched open, and a moment later interns, gurney, and patient—victim of an apartment building fire—were gone. Grace leaned against the wall and pressed her cheek to the cool tiles. The doors of Trauma One flapped behind her like the palsied wings of an old bird. She let her eyes droop shut for a delicious moment, then forced them open again. She shucked off her papery sterile gown, crumpled it into a ball, and tossed it into a receptacle where it could await the cleansing fire of the incinerator. With a deep breath she started toward Admitting to get her next injury. The day wasn’t over yet, not by a long shot.

She navigated her way through an antiseptic labyrinth of corridors, past color-coded examination rooms and dim alcoves where emergency medical equipment lurked like alien creatures, waiting to suck vital fluids from human bodies held in their metallic grips. Spare wheelchairs and gurneys littered the hallways, along with a haphazard collection of patients. Most were bored refugees from the recuperative wards—those able to walk, hobble, or wheel their way out of their rooms, exploring in curiosity, maybe looking for a place to smoke a cigarette in secret, oxygen tanks and clattering IV stands dragged in tow.

Grace detoured for a moment and pushed through the door of the ladies’ rest room. She bent over the chipped sink, splashed water on her face and neck in an attempt to wash away weariness and the smell of blood, then used damp fingers to comb short, ash-blond hair. With a snap she straightened the white coat she wore over a blouse and chinos, then surveyed her appearance in the mirror—not to see if she looked attractive, but rather to determine if she looked capable, professional. Beauty was no concern of Grace’s, though in fact she was beautiful. She was a tall woman of thirty, lean and angular, almost stiff in bearing, yet possessed of a subtle elegance. Had her voice had substance, it might have been smoke, or butterscotch, or fine cognac. She never wore cosmetics, and although she thought her features sharp, others described them as chiseled or even regal. She had absolutely no idea that her green-gold eyes had the power to mesmerize.

“It’ll work,” she murmured to the reflection.

True, her skin was too pale, but there was nothing she could do about that. She spent far too much time in the fluorescent glare of the ED, far too little under the Colorado sun. She promised herself next summer she would try to get outside more, even as she knew she would not. Why should she, when all she needed was here?

TEEN STUDIES MEDICINE, the headline had read, RECALLS PARENTS SHE NEVER KNEW.

Newspapers adored that sort of stuff. Human interest, they called it. Grace still had the clipping, crisp and yellow, folded between the pages of a high school scrapbook she was too cynical to take out of storage and too sentimental to throw away. The photo showed a gangly sixteen-year-old wearing a too-big lab coat, her shorn hair looking like it had been hacked off with a scalpel. She held a human skull and stared at the camera with an earnest expression that couldn’t quite conceal the spark of grisly mirth in her eyes. But the pretty reporter had been squeamish of the skull, and it was a weakness that, even as a child, Grace had found funny and—more importantly—contemptible.

“So, honey,” Colleen Adara of the Denver Post had snapped around an apparently delicious piece of gum, “you never knew your parents, is that right?”

“No, I didn’t,” Grace had said. “That’s because, when I was a baby, they both … died.

With that last word, she had thrust the skull at the reporter for dramatic effect. A look of horror had spread across Ms. Adara’s perfectly made-up face like a webwork of cracks on a sun-baked mud pan. It was a minor victory, but one Grace had relished all the same. That had been in the foster home days—the five years she had referred to at the time as one long game of Pass the Orphan—and she had needed all the small triumphs she could get.

In the end, of course, Ms. Adara’s article had been hopelessly wrong. It wasn’t the regretful ghosts of her parents that propelled Grace onward. No, if Grace was haunted by anything at all, it was something very much alive.

She had studied premed at the University of Colorado with fierce abandon and was accepted to the prestigious medical school at Duke University. Packing everything she owned into her primer-gray Mustang, she had traded the bright dryness of Colorado for the damp and shadowed green of North Carolina. It was her first time in the South, and, as a semiarid Western child, she had not been prepared for the rank lushness of it all. Everything here was alive. Not just the rhododendron and dogwood and moss-speckled pine, but the rocks, the soil, the rivers—all were choked with life. Even her shabby Georgian apartment, with its high ceilings and sloping wood floors, seemed to breathe and grow, and it wasn’t just because of the cockroaches, or because of the mold in the bathroom, which she had renamed the Terrarium. For on steamy August nights, when she lay awake and naked beneath a rattling metal fan, the walls would sweat and groan as if they too felt the heat.

During her four years of medical school, Grace displayed a hunger for knowledge that disturbed her professors as often as it impressed them. While other students dissected human cadavers with delicate disgust, she dug into hers with such intensity, determined to discover how every bit of bone and tissue and nerve was strung together, that one of the anatomy professors dubbed her Michelangela. She merely gave him a tight-lipped smile and kept cutting. When she graduated, it was eleventh in her class, not first. To rank higher required someone more personable, someone less intelligent and disarming. Of course, not all specialties required bedside manner, and her advisor, Dr. Jason Briggs, had expected her to place well. Then she informed him she had turned down an internship in radiology, the dream specialty of every medical student with country club aspirations, and had accepted one in emergency medicine instead, at a public hospital to make it worse. Furious, he had told her she was making a foolish mistake. Grace had nodded, then had returned to her apartment, packed her belongings—everything still fit neatly inside her old Mustang—and had headed back to Colorado. Saying good-bye had been easy enough. She had made no true friends, and she would not miss the roaches.

Now she was in the third year of her residency at Denver Memorial Hospital, and the occasional letters from Dr. Briggs had dwindled and, finally, stopped. Of course, Briggs had been as dead wrong about Grace as Ms. Adara of the Denver Post. Not that she cared. This was where she had to be, and that was all anybody needed to know. Healing was a strange and bittersweet revenge.

Grace left the rest room and headed down the hallway to the ED’s admitting area. It was nearly deserted. A few people attempted to doze on plastic chairs while they waited to hear news of a friend or relative. A heavyset nurse floated by, silent in her angel-white crepe-soled shoes. Grace checked, but there were no charts—no more patients to see. She moved through the door near the ambulance entrance, taking a shortcut to the lounge, then she saw a crumpled form on a gurney. There was one more who needed her after all. She took a step forward.

A hand closed on her shoulder to stop her.

“That one is mine, Grace.”

Startled, she turned and found herself looking into quiet brown eyes. They belonged to a lean black man with a salt-and-pepper beard.

If Grace had anything resembling a friend at Denver Memorial, then it was Leon Arlington. Leon was the swing shift manager of the hospital’s morgue. He had been working with dead people so long that, over the years, he had picked up a number of their habits, from his slow calm to his placid and slightly disconnected gaze. These days few of Grace’s patients made the final elevator ride down to see Leon. She was shooting for none.

Leon nodded toward the gurney in the corner, and Grace glanced over her shoulder to see a nurse pull a sheet over the still shape. She let out a shuddering breath. The adrenaline rush that always propelled her without thought from patient to patient evaporated and left her weak and empty.

“Come on,” Leon said in his husky voice. “Let’s get some coffee.”

“I remember her now,” Grace said a few minutes later. The two sat in a bank of green vinyl chairs. She took a sip from her foam cup: The coffee was hot and bitter. “I examined her myself. She was one of the apartment fire victims. One look, and I knew her lungs were gone. She knew it, too.” Grace shook her head in wonder, then looked at Leon. “How is it people always know when they’re about to die? We spend years trying to learn how to read the signs, but they just seem to know. I could see it in her eyes. And you know what I did? I smiled at her, and then I turned away and moved on to someone I had a chance of saving. Any of the other residents would have done the same.”

For a moment she remembered the woman’s eyes, so blue, like two jewels in the fire-darkened ruin of her face.

She shook her head. “Whatever happened to our hearts, Leon?”

Leon just shrugged. “You did what you were supposed to, Grace.”

“I know that.” She searched his lean brown face, hoping to find a bit of that easy calm she could keep for her own. “But did I do what I should have?” She took another swig of her coffee, winced as it burned her tongue, and swallowed it all the same. “Sometimes I wonder if all I’m doing is prolonging the pain. I let that woman suffer so I could keep alive a man who will have to undergo at least a half-dozen skin grafts, and who will spend the rest of his life horribly scarred. Pain for pain. Is that a fair bargain?”

Her voice trailed off. For a long time Leon’s face was expressionless, and when he finally did react it was not as she had expected.

He bared his white teeth in a grin. “I don’t know, Grace, but you might be surprised at the number of folks who, if you gave them a choice, would stick with good old suffering. What do you think that man you just sent upstairs would choose? To suffer the pain of staying alive? Or to sleep in one of my drawers downstairs?” Leon let out a hoot of laughter. “I sure know what I’d choose.”

Grace wondered if she could be so certain. She glanced at a wall clock. Five P.M. Her shift had ended an hour ago, not that official starting and ending times meant much around here. She stood and rubbed the back of her neck with a hand.

“I’m going to get out of here while I can. Have a good night, Leon.”

“Oh, I always do,” the morgue manager said and tipped an imaginary hat toward her.

On her way out, Grace stopped by the office she shared with some of the other residents to shrug off her white coat and pick up her briefcase and beeper, then she headed down a hallway toward a back exit. If she really wanted to escape this place it was best not to be seen. An automatic door slid open, and she stepped outside into the late-autumn evening. The light of the westering sun warmed her cheeks, and she breathed in cool air. Traffic buzzed past, like a line of shiny army ants cutting down all that stood in their path. Grace was on foot. She headed down the tree-lined tunnel of a side street and for the next twelve blocks tried not to wonder if she had made the world better or worse that day.

9.

Twenty minutes later, Grace walked up the steps to her second-floor studio apartment and unlocked the peeling door. Inside, she groped in the dimness until her hand found a light switch, then flicked it on. The electric glare of the overhead lamp was not kind to the space it found. What had been fresh and modern in 1923 when the San Tropez was first constructed had become dingy and ugly in the intervening years. The white paint slapped on the plaster walls had turned the yellow of an old wedding dress, and the green shag carpet was so worn in places that the original linoleum tiles—probably made of compressed asbestos—showed through. Grace’s meager possessions did little to brighten the place. She saw that the last of her houseplants was withered and brown. At least she wouldn’t have to worry about watering it anymore.

She headed to the apartment’s afterthought of a kitchen, rummaged in the rusty refrigerator, and came out with a carton of Chinese takeout. She sat cross-legged on a futon on the floor—it was the one piece of furniture she owned—and ate cold rice while she watched the evening news on a blurry television set almost as old as she was.

But she wasn’t hungry, and the news was the same parade of disasters and violence it was every night, and suddenly she did not want to be there, in that dim little apartment, alone and brooding and trapped. She stood and looked around, as if seeing the place for the first time. It didn’t seem real. Was this where she lived? She knew it was, and yet it couldn’t be. How could it, when she felt so disconnected from it all? This place—none of this—was hers. It was an irrational feeling, and yet so strong and certain she could only believe it was true.

Grace did not belong here.

She left the greasy carton of food on top of the TV set, stood, and grabbed a jacket. The door shut behind her, and only as she started down the steps did she realize she had not locked it. She almost halted, almost turned to head back up the stairs. This was not the best of neighborhoods. Until that moment she had always been obsessive about locking the door. Now giddiness rose in her chest, and along with it an odd sense of premonition. Somehow she knew, if she left this place now, she would not come back again, and if that was true, whether she locked the door or not mattered nothing.

Grace hesitated only a heartbeat, then descended the steps. She shoved her hands in the pockets of her jacket and walked into the gathering twilight.

After a few blocks she found herself on the edge of an expanse of green-brown grass speckled here and there with trees. City Park. She started down one of the park’s asphalt trails. Soon she found herself humming. It was a half-remembered song, from her childhood perhaps. The melody came easily to her lips, although she did not know its name, and she could recall only a few snatches of murmured lyrics:

And farewell words too often part

All their small and paling hearts.…

The words made little sense—she supposed they had been transmuted in her mind with time—but they were comforting all the same. As she often did when she walked, Grace reached up and drew out a silver necklace that hung around her throat. On the end was a pendant, a wedge-shaped piece of metal incised with an angular design. Like the song, the necklace was a thing of her childhood. She had been wearing it when the people from the orphanage had found her, although she had been too young to remember. Still, it was a link to the parents and the life she had never known, and although it was a sad reminder, it was precious as well.

Grace walked on. It felt good to distance herself from the oppression of the city’s buildings. The air was lighter in the park, pearl instead of gray, and she could feel a hint of the vastness of the world that lay beyond. The mountains stood in silhouette on the horizon, as sharp and flat and black as if a child had cut them from construction paper for an art project. The first stars glimmered in the sky. She drifted on through the park.

It was the girl’s eyes that caught her.

Grace nearly did not see her at all, for the child’s old-fashioned dress was the exact shade of twilight, and her hair was a shadow floating about the pale-moon oval of her face. However, her purple eyes glowed in the dimness, and when Grace saw them she froze in mid-step. The girl appeared to be no more than eight or nine years old. She stood quietly beneath the slender ghost of an aspen tree to one side of the path, small hands folded neatly before her, fingers soft and pink as the petals of an unfurled rose. Come to me, Grace thought she heard the child whisper, although that would have been impossible. All the same she moved toward the girl, responding to that instinctual power children sometimes have over adults. In moments she stood before the child.

“I am not lost,” the girl said in a clear voice.

Grace snapped her mouth shut, for that was the question she had been about to ask. She stared down at the girl in wonder, then shivered. There was something extraordinary about the child, something sorrowful, and knowing, and even ancient. All at once Grace felt that she was the one who was lost. The bare limbs of the aspen tree made a forlorn music in the breeze.

“Who are you?” Grace asked. It was all she could think to say.

A pretty frown creased the girl’s forehead. “Who are you? That is a better question, I think.”

Grace shook her head, unsure how to answer. The world had fallen silent. She could hear no traffic, no sirens, no circling airplanes waiting to land. It was as if the city had vanished into the night. A crescent moon hung in the sky, although she could not remember seeing it earlier. The wind held its breath.

The girl’s eyes reflected the moonlight. “A darkness is coming,” she whispered.

Grace stared at the girl in incomprehension, then a shrill chime pierced the silence. After a confused second Grace realized what it was. Her beeper. She fumbled for the small device clipped to her belt, grabbed it in numb hands, and glanced at the glowing liquid crystal display.

“Damn it,” she said. “They want me back at the hospital.” She looked up. “I have to …”

Her words trailed off. The girl was gone. She spun around and scanned the deepening night, but she had no real hope of seeing the child, nor did she.

10.

Fifteen minutes later, Grace dashed through the door of Denver Memorial’s Emergency Department. For a moment she leaned against a wall, eyes squeezed shut, mouth open, and panted for breath. She had half walked, half run the ten blocks from City Park, and now her lungs felt as if she had been the one caught in the smoke of the apartment fire earlier that day. The long hours of a resident left little time for exercise, and although she was thin enough—maybe even too thin—Grace wasn’t in top physical shape. She took one last breath, then opened her eyes.

The ED was a madhouse.

In front of the receiving counter, a man argued with his wife even as he gripped the carving fork she had stuck in his side. Down one hall, a couple of gang members hurled expletives and death threats at each other while a frightened intern tried to bandage their knife wounds. A gray-faced man stumbled through the door, asked to see a doctor, then vomited in the middle of the floor. Every chair in the waiting room was occupied by someone clutching a broken limb, or sweating with fever, or wheezing for breath. Above it all, like a dissonant chorus of sick angels, rose the crying of children.

Grace gathered her will, pushed her way through the throng of injured toward one of the nurses’ stations, grabbed a pair of gloves, and put them on with an expert snap.

“Grace, where the hell have you been? I page you three times and it still takes you thirty minutes to show up?”

“Fifteen,” she murmured. She turned around and found herself gazing at the young, angry face of Chief Resident Morty Underwood. Grace disliked Underwood, but she never displayed her feelings. She refused to give him the satisfaction of knowing he had gotten to her. “It took me fifteen minutes, Morty. I came as soon as you paged me.”

This latter statement was not entirely true. For several minutes, after her beeper had first gone off, she had stood in the park and gazed into the gloom, looking for the child, but the girl in the old-fashioned dress had vanished like a ghost. Maybe, in a way, that was what she had been. Just before Grace had noticed the girl she had been thinking about the orphanage, and there were ghosts enough in those memories to haunt a hundred walks. Yet Grace didn’t quite believe that. The girl had seemed so real. Almost too real. As if everything else Grace had seen that day—the hospital, the city, her own apartment—had been the apparitions, and among them all only the girl in the archaic clothes had been solid and true. Besides, if the child had been a phantasm of memories, why had she spoken of what was to come?

Underwood lifted a hand to check the comb-over plastered with large quantities of pomade to his prematurely balding head. “Take this long to show up again, and I’ll be reporting it, Grace.”

Just wanting to get away from Underwood and get to work, Grace feigned contrition. “Which one is mine?” she asked.

The doors of the ambulance entrance whooshed open. A stretcher hurtled through, propelled by a pair of emergency medical technicians in crisp white uniforms. One of the EMTs shouted for help. Behind them came two Denver police officers, hands on the guns at their hips. On the stretcher, torso smeared with blood, a man writhed in agony.

“I think that’s your ticket now, Grace,” Underwood said with a noxious smile. “Looks like a nice sucking chest wound. Enjoy.”

“Thanks,” was all Grace said. She turned her back on Underwood and moved to help with the stretcher.

“What have we got?” she asked one of the EMTs.

“Penetrating trauma from gunshot,” he said. “Two entrance wounds, no exits.”

Grace grabbed a passing intern. “Get me two units of O-negative and a portable X-ray, and meet me in Trauma Three.” The intern sprinted away, and she commandeered another resident and a pair of nurses.

“How did it happen?” Grace asked as they raced down the corridor.

One of the police officers, a woman with gray-flecked hair, answered. “The suspect was caught breaking and entering at an antique store on South Broadway. We arrived on scene to see the suspect assailing a woman, the owner. When the suspect wouldn’t desist, I brought him down with two shots.”

Grace looked up at the officer. “And the owner? Where is she?”

“There,” the other officer answered, his boyish face grim. Grace followed his gaze. Across the ED, she saw Leon Arlington push a gurney into an elevator. On it lay a sheet-draped form. Leon nodded in her direction as the elevator doors slid shut.

“The store owner was dead on the scene,” the young officer went on. “Her neck was broken, the suspect did it with his bare hands. He’s a strong bastard, I’ll give him that much. Although why he was breaking into an antique shop, I don’t know. There was less cash on the premises than in a convenience store.”

“Maybe he’s a collector,” Grace said. She shook her head. “All right. We’ll take it from here.”

Moments later, wearing sterile gowns, Grace, resident, and nurses wheeled the stretcher into the trauma room. On her count they lifted the patient onto the table. Within seconds the nurses had taped electrical leads to his chest, started an IV drip, and had a catheter in him.

Grace took her first good look at the patient. He was a white male, late twenties, curiously groomed and affluent-looking for a typical break-in suspect. However, she didn’t care who he was. He was wounded, that was all that mattered now. With instinctual speed she assessed his condition. He was cyanotic, his flesh tinged blue. Pink froth bubbled from the holes in his chest. Probable pneumothorax. The intern rushed into the trauma room. Grace took the two units of blood from him, hung them, then glanced at the other resident. “Intubate him.”

He nodded and guided a plastic breathing tube down the patient’s trachea. Grace made an incision beneath the armpit, inserted a chest tube, and attached it to a vacuum bottle. Blood and fluid bubbled into the bottle. Grace and the others stepped back as the intern positioned the X-ray arm over the table, then moved in again after he swung the unit aside and continued their work to stabilize the patient.

“I’ve got the film,” one of the nurses said minutes later.

Grace straightened, and the nurse held up the X-ray for her. Grace’s own gloved hands were now smeared with blood. She glanced at the image on the film, then frowned. “What is this?”

The two slugs showed up on the X-ray as white dots. One was lodged next to the right lung. The other was situated dangerously close to the descending aorta, had perhaps nicked it. However, Grace noticed these only in passing. For just left of center in the patient’s chest was another white blot, except this one was huge, as big as a fist, and rough-edged. It lay directly in front of his heart.

“Your guess is as good as mine,” the nurse said. “But something tells me this isn’t his first chest wound.”

Grace pushed aside the X-ray and glanced back at the patient. The other nurse had cleaned away most of the blood. Now the two gunshot wounds stared upward like angry red eyes. In between them, down the center of his chest, ran a jagged line of pink scar tissue. The scar looked barely healed. Grace studied again the white blotch on the X-ray. Only metal would show up that clearly.

“It’s almost like he’s got some huge chunk of shrapnel in his thoracic cavity,” she said. She had seen a lot of strange things in the ED—an attempted suicide who drove himself to the hospital with a bullet lodged in his cerebral cortex, a woman complaining of heartburn who gave birth to twins, a girl with a piece of grass growing from a seed that had taken root in her eyeball—but this had to be the strangest. How could a man live with a piece of metal that big in his chest? And how did it get there in the first place?

A monitor beeped. “Pressure is fifty and dropping,” the other nurse called out. “I think we’re losing him.”

Grace called for a syringe of epinephrine and injected it into the IV tubing. A second later the patient’s eyes flew open. He screamed and arched his back off the table, hands clenched into claws.

“Get him down!” Grace shouted. “Get him down now!”

It took all of them to hold the man on the table. Convulsion after convulsion wracked his body, and he mumbled something in a ragged voice.

“… sin … have to find … Sinfath …

“What’s he saying?” the intern asked.

“I’ve lost his pulse!” a nurse shouted.

The patient stiffened, then his eyes fluttered shut, and he fell limp. The intern grabbed defibrillator paddles from the crash cart and handed them to Grace. She rubbed them together to spread the conductive gel, then placed them on the man’s chest. The defibrillator whined as the charge built up.

“Everyone clear!”

The patient’s body jerked as the electric charge surged through him, then went still. Grace glanced at the monitor. Only a few erratic spikes broke the flat green line. She shocked him again, and again. No response.

“All right, let’s crack him,” she ordered. “I’m going to massage his heart.”

Grace grabbed a scalpel and made a deep incision in the left side of the man’s chest. She took a stainless steel rib-spreader from the intern and in one deft motion opened him up. Without being told, a nurse positioned a suction tube and cleared away excess blood so Grace could see. Grace reminded herself to compliment her coworkers. They were top-notch and deserved to know it. She reached into the thoracic cavity, deftly moved aside the left lung, then plunged her hand deeper, toward the sac that contained the man’s heart.

Her fingers closed around something hard, rough, and bitterly cold. With a hiss of pain she snatched her hand back. It felt as if she had just touched a lump of dry ice.

“What is it?” the other resident asked.

Grace shook her head and cradled her hand. “I don’t … I don’t know.”

She shook her hand, then picked up a retractor and pulled back the left lung. The suction tube gurgled and drained away the blood in the patient’s chest so that all could see what lay within.

Grace stared in perfect shock.

“Oh, God …” one of the nurses breathed, while the other clamped a hand to her mouth to stifle a scream.

“Jesus, what is that?” the intern said, his eyes wide.

Grace worked her jaw, unable to form words. She could only gaze at the fist-shaped lump of metal that lay in the center of the man’s chest, exactly where his heart should have been. The monitor beeped frantically, then let out a piercing whine.

The suspect was dead.

11.

It was getting late.

About an hour ago the tide in the ED had finally turned, and after that more patients were wheeled out the doors than were wheeled in. The throng of wounded dwindled to a scattering of people waiting to be seen for minor injuries, and the roar of anger and pain faded to a patient murmur. Somewhere, far down a corridor, an infant cried. It was a weak and forlorn sound, and along with it drifted the weary music of a woman’s lullaby.

We are born to this. To life, and to hurt. Grace sighed and gripped a chipped mug with both hands. Ripples shivered across the brown surface of the coffee within. Circles spreading to nowhere, containing nothing, vanishing when they struck the boundary that imprisoned them. Maybe that was all they were, ripples on a pond. Maybe she was foolish to try to fight.

“Dr. Beckett …?”

Grace jerked her head up. A police officer sat in the chair opposite her, a concerned expression on his face. “I was asking you a question about the suspect, Dr. Beckett.”

She blinked. “Yes, of course, I’m so sorry. Please go on.”

“Did the suspect say anything that might help us in learning his identity? Did he mention a name? Or a place he might have come from?”

Grace concentrated, thought back to the urgent chaos in the trauma room, then shook her head. “I’m afraid not. For a minute he did mumble something, but I couldn’t understand what it was. I’m not even certain it was English. It might have been something about sin or sinning.

The officer nodded and scribbled on a notepad. “We’ll run his fingerprints through the system, but any additional information could help narrow down the search. Did he say anything else you could make out? Anything at all?”

Grace shook her head again. She watched as he jotted down a few more notes. Officer John Erwin, read the tag on his blue shirt. He was middle-aged, with kind brown eyes. He and several other police officers had arrived at the hospital not long after the happenings in Trauma Three, called in by the original two officers. Erwin had explained it was standard procedure to file a report on how the suspect had died, and—he had paused here—to describe any unusual circumstances associated with that death. At first Grace had been nervous, but Erwin had sat her down, pushed a mug of coffee into her hands, and with his considerate manner had put her at ease.

Earlier, Morty Underwood had done just the opposite.

Not long after she had sewn up the body of the John Doe and had sent it down to the morgue, she had rounded a corner to find herself face-to-face with the Chief Resident. His comb-over flew above his head, and his expression was one of panic. He had just gotten out of a meeting with the chief of the ED. The hospital’s management had decided it was necessary to keep the incident with the police suspect quiet. Everyone remembered the incident at another hospital a few years back, when toxic fumes emitted by a woman’s blood had nearly asphyxiated a half-dozen hospital workers. Some people had gone so far as to suggest she had been an extraterrestrial alien. Denver Memorial Hospital did not want that kind of publicity. Things like that happened in tabloids, not here. A detailed autopsy would certainly reveal a more mundane explanation for the patient’s condition. Until then, no one—including Grace—was to say anything about the incident to anyone.

Incident. Grace was rapidly getting sick of that word. This hadn’t been just an incident. Incidents were things to be written up, filed away, and forgotten. But this had been real. She had seen inside the man’s chest. There had been no living, beating human heart there. Instead there had been only a metallic lump—she had touched it with her own hand. Yet somehow that thing had worked to pump blood through the man’s body. They had detected the pulse. If the story did make the tabloids, then the headlines would be exactly and terribly right. The man had a heart of iron.

She had run a hand through her hair, her words scathing. “What do you want me to do when the police ask me why their suspect died, Morty? Lie to them?”

Morty had said nothing, and had fidgeted with the collar of his shirt instead. It was clear from his expression this was exactly what he wanted.

She had stared at him in genuine amazement. “Do you actually enjoy being a worm, Morty?”

He had assumed a self-important air. “Whether I enjoy it or not isn’t important. It’s my job.”

Grace had taken that opportunity to accidentally step on his toes. While he clutched his foot she had made her escape. And she had told Officer Erwin everything, just as it had happened. It seemed impossible, even absurd, but she knew what she had seen. While some people could deny the truth in order to protect their small minds from anything that might expand them beyond the comfortable and ordinary, Grace was not one of those people.

Nor, she suspected, was Officer Erwin. He asked her several more questions, and while he raised his eyebrows more than once at her answers, he did not express any doubt that she was telling the truth. He shut his notepad and slipped the pen into a pocket.

“Thanks for your help, Dr. Beckett.” He fell silent and gazed into space. Finally he turned his eyes back toward her, his words quiet. “We think we have it all figured out. But we don’t, do we? We’re not even close.”

A shiver coursed up Grace’s spine. She had no answer for that.

Erwin stood. “I’m going to talk to the nurses who assisted you, Dr. Beckett. If you don’t mind, that is.”

Grace thought of Morty Underwood’s puffy, anxious face. “Be my guest.” She lifted the mug. “And thanks for the coffee.”

“I bet it’s cold by now.”

“I don’t mind.”

Officer Erwin grinned, then moved away across the ED’s admitting area. Grace sipped the cold coffee, and though she wouldn’t have thought it possible then, she found herself smiling. Then her smile faltered, the small hairs of her neck prickled, and she looked up.

After a moment she saw him. He stood some distance down one of the hallways that led from Admitting, watching her. Dark suit, dark hair. He leaned against a wall in a casual, elegant posture. How long had he been there? For a moment his deep-set eyes locked on hers. His gaze was searching, as if he wanted something of her.

Curious—or was it compelled?—Grace started to rise from her chair. Just then a gurney rattled by and blocked her view. A moment later the gurney passed through a doorway. Grace looked back down the hall. It was empty. The dark-haired man was gone. She sank back into her chair and clutched the coffee mug. Maybe the man hadn’t been watching her after all, maybe he had been waiting for someone else.

Maybe, but she doubted it.

12.

Leon Arlington liked his job.

In fact, he liked it a lot. Leon always had been a night person, so he didn’t mind the late hours. And with its thick cement walls, the place was nice and quiet, which made it good for thinking. Leon liked thinking, too. He thought about lots of things while he worked down in the cool silence of the morgue. Things like, how long it would take to walk to the moon, if you really could walk there? And what was the best kind of tree? And if he could drink just one drink for the rest of his life, would it be water or Mello Yello? Hoo boy, that was a good one. He still hadn’t figured that out yet.

But the biggest reason Leon liked his job was simple: Dead folk gave him no trouble. No trouble at all. He had worked plenty of other jobs where he had had to deal with living people. They were always wanting something different from what he gave them, or telling him how to do things he already knew, or acting like he was stupid just because he was slow and quiet and didn’t easily get mad. Too often in this world people mistook fast for smart, loud for important, and angry for righteous. But Leon knew the difference. Besides, the customers here didn’t care what pace he did things at.

Whistling a tuneless song, Leon adjusted the plastic sheet that covered a cadaver lying in an open body drawer. He had to make certain there were no gaps in the wrapping. The morticians hated it when the corpses dried out. Leon wasn’t sure why. Maybe it made it harder to paint the makeup on them for the funeral. That was something else to think about. He paused to regard the old woman in the stainless-steel drawer. With her blue-gray skin and white hair it looked almost like she was frozen in a piece of ice rather than wrapped in clear plastic. It made him think of a story he had read as a child, a story about the queen of Snow. Only the queen had been cruel, and she had imprisoned a little kid in her palace of ice.

Leon slid the drawer shut and shivered. That was the one real problem with this job—it was too damn cold down here sometimes. The chill radiated from the bank of drawers and soaked into the floor and walls, where it lingered like permafrost. The cold had never bothered Leon in the past, but this last year he had noticed it creeping deeper into his joints and bones, like something hungry and alive. Maybe one of these days he would have to get a different job. Something warmer.

He rubbed his lean hands together for heat and turned to see to his next customer. The naked corpse lay on its back on a stainless-steel table—white male, late twenties, in good physical shape. Leon picked up a clipboard and checked his notes. That’s right. This was the John Doe the police had shot before bringing in. They had cracked this one’s chest open, but the wound was neatly closed up now. Leon recognized the precise stitches that bound together the two raw edges of flesh. Even when they were dead, she always took care in what she did to them. This had been Grace Beckett’s patient.

Leon grabbed a pen and made notes concerning the corpse’s condition: height, weight, appearance, the locations of the two bullet entry wounds. He turned the body over, then noticed a small tattoo on the underside of the John Doe’s forearm. He bent closer. No, it wasn’t a tattoo, but a brand. The puckered scar tissue formed a symbol:

It wasn’t anything Leon recognized, although it did make him think of some sort of religious sign. If it was from a religion, then it had to be a crazy one to brand its disciples like cattle. Leon shook his head at the sorry state of the world, then turned the corpse back over and scribbled some more on his clipboard. A moment later he halted and frowned.

“Now, I thought I already shut your peepers.”

The cadaver only gazed upward with unseeing eyes. Leon snapped on a fresh pair of latex gloves and closed the corpse’s eyelids. Staring was one impertinence he did not tolerate of dead people. He made a few last notes, then prepared the cadaver for storage. Leon had it down to a system these days. Toe tag, plastic bag, then into the deep freeze.

“You were a healthy boy, now weren’t you?” he grunted as he wrangled the heavy corpse from table to drawer. Sometimes the bodies seemed to fight him in this, as if they did not want to be shut away in the dark, as if they wanted to hold on to the lighted world for a little while longer. Mostly, though, it was just rigor mortis and the slippery plastic that made it so hard. At last Leon succeeded. He leaned on the open drawer to catch his breath. Maybe he really was getting too old for this job. He supposed he could go work at his cousin Benny’s upholstery shop. It sure would be warmer, and he wouldn’t have to talk to customers if he didn’t want to, not if he stuck to the shop’s back room. Besides, Benny owed him a favor. He resolved to call his cousin in the morning, then started to slide the drawer shut.

The cadaver stared up at him through the clear plastic sheet.

Leon halted. “What the hell …?” he whispered. He was sure he had closed them this time. But the corpse’s dull eyes were wide-open. Leon shuddered, the damn chill again. He leaned over the drawer and bent down for a closer look, to be sure he wasn’t mistaken. His breath fogged on the plastic as he gazed into the dead man’s eyes.

A hand punched through the clear sheet, reached up from the drawer, and closed around Leon’s throat. Leon tried to struggle, tried to scream, but the grip on his throat was far too tight: He could not break it. Even as his mind fought to understand what was happening, his lungs started to burn for want of air. Bright pinpricks exploded in his brain like fireworks. Somehow he managed to look down at the cadaver. His gaze locked with that of the dead man in the drawer, and in those dull eyes he saw … evil. It was a malevolence so vast, so deep, that suddenly he knew it was ancient beyond all reckoning. In that second, Leon Arlington understood everything. A darkness was coming. His very last thought was of how cold he felt, how awfully cold. Then, with terrible strength, the dead fingers tightened around his throat.

The sound of snapping bones echoed off the hard tiles.

13.

Grace drained the last of the coffee, then stared at the bottom of her empty mug. Despite the sense of disconnection she had felt earlier that day, she thought maybe she could return to her apartment after all. Maybe she could curl up with a blanket on her futon and fall asleep to the drone of late-night TV, and when she woke in the morning, things wouldn’t seem so strange, so alien, and so like she didn’t belong.

Grace rose and headed for the break room to rinse out the coffee mug. Along the way she nodded to Officer Erwin. He stood at one of the nurses’ stations and talked with the intern who had assisted Grace earlier. Erwin nodded in reply. Nearby, Morty Underwood looked on with a sour expression and fumbled as he tried to unwrap a roll of antacid tablets. Grace did not resist the small wave of satisfaction she felt as she continued past.

She was halfway across the admitting area when the elevator let out a chime. Afterward, she was never quite certain what made her pause and turn to stare as the elevator doors slid open. Maybe it was that, in the back of her mind, the chime sounded almost like a death knell. She watched transfixed as the doors rolled to either side, like an opening eye turned on its side. A figure stood inside the elevator, silhouetted by fluorescent light. Grace blinked against the sterile glare. The sounds of the ED receded into the distance, yet her pulse throbbed in her ears, mixed with the thrum of a hundred other heartbeats, as if the very air had become a stethoscope transmitting the life and sudden fear of all those around her. The figure stepped out of the elevator.

It was him. The man she had pronounced dead three hours ago. He was naked, his skin mushroom pale. Black blood oozed between the stitches that bound the wound in his chest. His eyes stared forward with dead intensity. Then, with mindless deliberation, the man with the iron heart walked forward, his bare feet slapping against the tile floor.

Sound rushed back into the ED. Screams sliced the air in all directions as people scrambled to get out of the dead man’s way. One EMT was too slow. The dead man thrust out a hand, and the EMT was hurled to one side. He slid a dozen feet along the floor before he struck a bank of chairs. He twitched but did not get up. Morty Underwood stood only a few feet from the crumpled form of the EMT, but the Chief Resident did not even glance at the fallen man. Fear twisted his mealy face. He tossed aside a handful of papers in a multicolored flurry and turned to flee the admitting area. The dead man walked on, headed for the main entrance of the ED. Grace backed up against a wall. She knew she should run, but it was a dull knowledge, and could not connect with the nerves and muscles of her limbs. The coffee mug slipped from numb fingers and shattered against the floor with a sound like breaking bones.

A dark blue blur moved past her. Erwin. The police officer approached the dead man, one hand held out before him while the other reached for the gun at his hip.

“Just stop right there—” Erwin began.

He never got any further. The corpse shot out a hand, contacted Erwin’s forehead, and thrust the officer backward with brutal force. Erwin’s skull struck the wall an arm’s length away from Grace. There was a sharp noise, like a firecracker exploding. Then, as if all his bones had turned to jelly, Erwin slid to the floor. His head left a trail of gore on the green paint.

The walking corpse did not pause. Staring forward with hideous calm, he continued toward the automatic doors and passed within five steps of Grace. A paralyzing odor rose from his body: the foul reek of congealed blood and the sweet taint of decay.

It was the smell of death.

The admitting area was virtually empty now. Most had fled, although a few people peered out of side corridors in dread fascination. The EMT had crawled away. Only Grace and the fallen officer did not move. Then, along with the damp flop-flop of the dead man’s feet, another sound drifted on the stifling air: a metallic creak accompanied by a fearful muttering. Grace cast her gaze over the room in search of the sound’s source.

In front of the ED’s automatic doors, a white-haired woman in a bathrobe struggled with her wheelchair. One of the wheels was stuck and would not turn. With arthritic fingers she tugged at the brake, then tried again. The wheelchair spun in a slow circle but did not move forward. Confused by its proximity, the automatic doors slid open, then shut, then open again, as if wracked by silent, spastic laughter. The woman looked up, and fear touched her faded eyes. Her wheelchair stood directly between the dead man and the doors.

He was going to kill her. The dead man would not move to one side, would not go around her. Instead, he would destroy anything that lay in his path. That was the nature of this … creation. Grace knew it—knew it with strange and perfect certainty. But then, this was not the first time she had come face-to-face with evil.

In that fractured moment, Grace made a decision. She could not allow this thing to do whatever it was it had been made to do. The naked man bore down on the wheelchair. The woman had stopped struggling and now simply gazed at the approaching corpse. Like all the very old, she knew the Angel of Death when she saw It coming.

With dreamlike calm, Grace knelt beside Erwin, unbuckled the leather holster at the dead officer’s hip, and pulled out the revolver. She stood, turned, and pointed. The gun seemed an extension of her arm.

The dead man reached for the old woman. Grace did not hesitate. She squeezed the trigger and called down the thunder. The dead man jerked and arched his back, as if struck a blow by an unseen enemy. A wet blossom appeared on his right temple. He took a staggering step forward. Grace pulled the trigger again. Light and sound shattered the air like crystal. The corpse’s arms flew out to either side, the wings of a weird bird trying to take flight. Again she fired, and again. With the last shot the entire right side of the man’s skull exploded. Dark fluid stained the old woman’s face, and she watched in dull amazement as Death died before her.

The man with the iron heart toppled to the floor. For a minute he convulsed violently, legs jerking, hands scrabbling at the tiles. Then he went still. One last trickle of blood oozed from his chest before the flow ceased. Even this thing needed a brain to function. It was over.

Her back against the wall, Grace slid to the floor and crouched beside the dead police officer. No, that wasn’t right. It wasn’t over. Somehow she sensed it was just the opposite. She leaned her cheek against the wall, cradled the gun against her chest, and gazed into Erwin’s peaceful, empty eyes. The words whispered by the purple-eyed girl in the park drifted once more in her mind, and with them came a strangely exultant sensation.

Yes, a darkness was coming.

Excited voices sounded around her. People rushed into the admitting area now. Two police officers knelt by Erwin and swore as they examined him. Grace did not look their way. Instead, her gaze was drawn to the floor before her, to the shards of the broken coffee mug. A faint smile of wonder touched her lips. So sometimes the containing circle could be broken after all, and the ripples sent free.

14.

It wasn’t until he saw the revival tent glowing in the distance that Travis realized where he was going.

How long he stumbled through the night after fleeing the destruction at the Magician’s Attic he didn’t know. Perhaps it was minutes, perhaps hours. For a time the keening of sirens echoed in the distance. Then the blocky shapes of Castle City shrank behind him, and his boots scuffed against weathered asphalt. After that there was only darkness and the hiss of the wind.

As he walked, he rubbed his right hand—the hand Jack had clasped just before everything had gone mad. It still throbbed, but now the pain had dwindled to a swarm of pinpricks, like the aftereffects of an electrical shock. Travis remembered the fierce light that had blazed in Jack’s usually kind blue eyes. You are our hope now, he had said, and even more mysteriously, Forgive me, my friend. Travis didn’t know what to make of those words. None of this made any sense. All he knew was that his best friend in the world was quite possibly dead.

Through his sheepskin coat he felt the small, heavy lump of the iron box. What did it contain? Whatever it was, it couldn’t possibly be worth all that had happened. Or could it? After all, Jack had told him to keep the box safe—no doubt from the people who were after him, the people who had broken into the antique shop and had set it ablaze. Except, now that he thought about it, Travis wasn’t so certain it had been people who had attacked the Magician’s Attic. At least not any sort of people he knew. He saw again the silhouette he had glimpsed for a fleeting second. So tall, so thin, moving with eerie grace. It might all have been a trick of the light, but even the light itself had seemed wrong. Too bright, too piercing. Travis shook his head. He had so many questions and no place to go for answers.

His boots ground against the pavement as he slowed to a halt. For a moment he considered returning to the light and warmth of the Mine Shaft. But that wasn’t possible, was it? Maybe they were following him, the beings in the light. What would happen if he led them back to the crowded saloon?

Travis shivered inside his coat. He supposed it was midnight by now. Far below, the lights of Castle City gleamed in the mountain dark, beautiful as stars, and as utterly unreachable. His eyes traveled up the desolate stretch of highway, and for a moment he wondered if maybe he had been following the road back to his cabin, with its drafty log walls and leaking roof—if maybe he had been going home. Yet even as the thought occurred to him, he knew it was not so. He did not belong there any more than he belonged amid the lights shining in the valley below. Somehow, during the course of that night, Travis had stepped outside the boundaries of his usual world—he had gone beyond the pale—and he did not know how he would ever return. It was the loneliest feeling he had ever known.

“I’m afraid, Jack,” he whispered, but the words turned to fog on the cold air and melted away.

He turned to continue on, and that was when he saw it, beside the highway not far ahead. The old-fashioned circus tent. Golden light spilled from the half-open entrance flap and through rents in the canvas to give the big top the aspect of a great, grinning jack-o’-lantern. Travis stared for a long moment. Then, before he even knew what he was doing, he started walking toward the tent. But the man in black had gazed into the darkness gathering on the horizon with knowing eyes, and Travis had nowhere else to go.

As he drew closer to the tent, he passed the blotchy white school bus he had seen earlier. Parked beside it was a motley collection of vehicles, ranging from pickups and rusted-out station wagons to suburban minivans and gleaming sports cars. Travis hesitated a moment before the entrance. Did he really think he would find answers here?

There was only one way to find out. He took a deep breath, then plunged into the golden light beyond.

15.

Despite the lateness of the hour, Brother Cy’s Apocalyptic Traveling Salvation Show was in full swing.

The first thing Travis noticed was that the tarnished light came, not from electric bulbs, but from punched-tin lanterns suspended below the canvas ceiling. A haze of smoke hung on the air like an atmosphere of mystery. To either side of the entrance hulked a bank of wooden bleachers. A scattering of people sat upon the splintery planks, perhaps two dozen in all. It was an unlikely mélange. A walleyed trucker in faded flannel kicked up his battered boots, smoking a cigarette. Nearby, a woman in a smart blue business suit perched on her bench like a stiff bird. Beyond her, an old blind man in thrift-store garb leaned forward on his rattan cane, head bowed, listening. Sitting in the front row was a young woman—barely more than a girl—clad in a nylon coat of dirty sky blue with matted fake fur around the neck, a small child clutched on her lap. The young woman’s thin face was tightly drawn—in weariness, and perhaps in trepidation—but the child stared around him with wide eyes, a look of wonder on his grubby cherub’s face.

Feeling conspicuous, Travis found a vacant place and sat down. He lifted his head, and that was when he saw him.

The man in black.

Or Brother Cy, for that was certainly his name, and this was most certainly his traveling revival show. The preacher prowled on a stage opposite the bleachers, clad in that same black coffin suit, and paused now and then to thump a bony fist on a podium that looked as though farm animals had drunk out of it in its last incarnation. He had taken off his broad-brimmed pastor’s hat to expose a phrenologist’s dream of a cranium. With a start, Travis realized the rich music he had heard rising and falling on the smoky air was in fact Brother Cy’s magnificent, terrible, honeyed-rasp voice, preaching up a storm.

“… and you, my friends, you who lurk in your comfortable tract houses,” Brother Cy thundered with as much spit as volume, “believing yourselves protected from all harm, wallowing in your reclining chairs, drinking your six-packs of beer, and prostrating yourselves before the altar of television. You are in for a surprise, my friends.” The podium shuddered under his fist, and his eyebrows bristled like black caterpillars. “For whether you live in a hilltop mansion or a river bottom shack, it will find you just as easy and knock upon your door. For I say to you again—there is a darkness coming!”

“Amen!” a smattering of voices said, and there was even one faint “Hallelujah!” Brother Cy grinned, fire lighting the pits of his eyes, as if it had been an affirmation a thousand voices strong. But he was not finished yet.

“It creeps nearer every day, this darkness—every hour, every minute. But have any of you seen its coming? Have you felt it, like a shadow falling across your soul?” He shook his head, perhaps in sorrow, perhaps disgust. “No, you have not! You have turned your eyes inward, you have shut your ears, and you have drowned yourself in the petty comforts of your material possessions.” He thrust his arms out to either side, and his voice vaulted to a crescendo. “I say, is there not even one among you who has dared to gaze into the heart of the approaching dark?”

Two dozen faces stared at Brother Cy, fearful, entranced. Then one tremulous voice rose on the smoky air.

“I … I have.”

It was the young woman who held the child.

Brother Cy gazed down at her for a protracted moment, like he was judging her with those black-marble eyes. Then he stepped off the stage and moved to her with his scarecrow gait. He cupped a long hand beneath her fragile chin and lifted it until her look was lost in his.

“So you have, child,” he said in a secret voice. “So you have.” They remained that way for a long moment, as if some unheard conversation passed between them. Then he leaped back onto the stage and pounded the podium until its sides bowed.

“Are you not ashamed?” Brother Cy said. “Here before you sits one with a tiny child, who is little more than a child herself, pitiable and full of fear. Yet she has found the strength to do what the rest of you have not, to lift up her eyes and stare into the very heart of shadow!”

The spectators shifted on the hard bleachers.

“Yes, I see the truth now,” Brother Cy said. “There are disbelievers among us tonight, aren’t there? You know who you are.” He thrust out a skeletal finger and swept it over the audience. When the accusing appendage pointed toward Travis, it seemed to pause. Travis squirmed in his seat, and he felt naked. Then Brother Cy’s finger moved on past him.

“It seems I lack the power to convince all of you disbelievers,” the preacher said. “However, you are fortunate, for there is another here tonight who sees this darkness more clearly than anyone else. And with her is one who understands its nature far better than I.” Brother Cy thrust a hand toward a side curtain of moth-eaten velvet and bowed like a macabre facsimile of a game-show host. “May I introduce to you Sister Mirrim and Child Samanda!”

The curtain parted, and onto the stage stepped a woman and a girl. They approached Brother Cy hand in hand, and Travis had the sense that it was not the woman who led the girl but rather the reverse. Both wore heavy dresses of black wool that contrasted with their moon-pale skin. However, there the similarity ended, for the woman’s hair was wild and fiery, and she gazed forward with distant green eyes, a stricken cast to her otherwise impassive visage, as if she looked upon some far-off place, while the girl’s hair was raven dark, and her purple eyes seemed far too knowing for the angelic cameo of her face.

Brother Cy stood behind woman and girl, and encompassed but did not touch them with the half circle of his arms. “Sister Mirrim is possessed of great and unusual sight,” he said in a stage whisper. “Would you have her see for you now?” He held up a silencing hand. “Wait! Before you answer, know that what Sister Mirrim sees may be good or ill, and in these times I say of the two it is far more likely to be ill she will glimpse. But then, from knowledge of evil can come great good, for those who dare to listen. Do any of you so dare?”

A chorus of affirmation rose from the bleachers.

“So be it.” Brother Cy bent close to Sister Mirrim. “See for us, Sister,” he murmured, then retreated. Sister Mirrim stood at the fore of the stage, her hands resting like frail doves on the small shoulders of Child Samanda, who stood quietly before her. At last Sister Mirrim spoke, and as she did her eyes grew more distant yet, gazing on things no other within the tent could glimpse.

“It comes from a place far distant,” she began in a chantlike voice. “Yet in that distance lies no protection. For I can see it growing now, sending forth dark shoots, and digging down dark roots, drinking a world to make it strong. And when it has drunk that world dry, and all that is left is ash and bone, it shall lift its gaze in this direction, and it shall slake its thirst upon this unwary world.” Her voice rose, shrill now. “Can you not see it? The birds of night have taken wing. Their pale master wakes, and his heart is colder than winter. Where are the Stonebreaker and the Blademender? I cannot see them yet. But there is something more, something darker still, a shadow behind the shadow.” She shook her head. “I cannot … I cannot quite …” Her voice was galvanized by panic, and the stricken look in her eyes became one of terror. “Alas! Alas! The eye that was blinded sees once more, and all is blackened and withered beneath its fiery gaze!”

Sister Mirrim swayed and would have fallen save for Child Samanda, who grasped her arm. In two long strides Brother Cy was beside them to add his own steadying grip to the fire-haired woman’s shoulders.

A cracked voice rose from the audience.

“I’ve seen them, too.”

It was the blind man. He lifted his wrinkled sockets toward the stage.

Although his voice was low, Brother Cy’s words pierced the stillness of the tent. “What have you seen?”

“The dark birds.” The old man gripped his cane. “I ain’t seen a thing since I was a boy, but I seen them of late, flying before my eyes, like blacker patches of black on the black I always see. And …” His voice dropped to whisper. “… and I seen him as well.”

Brother Cy watched him with interest, and the old man shifted in discomfort, as if he could feel the force of the preacher’s gaze.

“Who have you seen?” Brother Cy asked.

“Him,” the blind man said, and his knuckles went white around the cane. “The pale one. I saw him once, with the night birds whirling round him, and he was white as snow—or so I’m guessing, as I ain’t seen snow in ’most a lifetime—and he shone against the blackness, tall and fierce and wearing a crown of ice, it seemed to me. And he was laughing. Laughing at me.” The old man shook his head. “He was something terrible, he was.”

The middle-aged woman in the skirt suit stood on the heels of the old man’s words. “Is it too late?” She wrung her hands. “Is it already too late for us to do something about the darkness?”

“No,” Brother Cy said. “It is never too late, not until the end—and even then, who’s to say if all is really over? The darkness approaches, but it is not yet fully here, and if we all do our part, it may never be.”

“But what is it?” a voice called out in frustration. “What is this darkness that everyone keeps saying is coming?”

Travis was shocked to realize the voice had been his own. He was standing now. Somehow all this hysteria about doom and darkness had gotten to him.

“That is the question I have been waiting for.”

It was not Brother Cy who spoke, but the girl. Her voice was soft, and it lisped slightly, yet there was power in it. The girl stepped forward, and her black-buttoned shoes tapped against the wooden stage like tiny deer hooves. Although her voice addressed the entire gathering, Travis was convinced that her too-knowing gaze was for him only.

“The nature of the darkness is both singular and multifidous,” the girl said, and heads nodded, as if the onlookers understood her cryptic words perfectly. “Singular, in that it stems from one deep well. Multifidous, in that each of us must face it in our own way.” With a tiny hand she pointed to the audience. “Each of you has a battle to fight. That is why you came here tonight—although there are many, many more such as yourselves. Most of your battles will be small ones, yet that does not mean they are not important. For that is how this war will be won or lost, by a thousand little battles, each fought by one person standing alone against the darkness—or surrendering to it.”

“But how will we know our battle when it comes?” the trucker asked.

A secret smile touched Child Samanda’s rosebud lips. “You will know,” was all she said.

With that, the revival was over.

“Thank you all for coming,” Brother Cy said with a dismissing sweep of his arms. “Do not forget the seeings of Sister Mirrim or the words of Child Samanda. And do not forget to consider a small donation—a pittance that will allow us to bring our message to others like yourselves—as you depart.”

Brother Cy leaped from the stage and stood beside the tent’s entrance. Seemingly from nowhere, his broad-brimmed pastor’s hat appeared in his bony hand, and he thrust it out before him. A few people tossed in a handful of change or a crumpled bill as they shuffled past. Onstage, Child Samanda led Sister Mirrim toward the curtain. As they stepped through a slit in the ratty velvet, Travis caught a fleeting glimpse of a dim space beyond. He blinked, for it seemed to him that a number of figures gathered behind the curtain, tangled in a queer knot of crooked legs, sinuous arms, and curved swan necks. One of them, a young man—or was he old?—peered back at Travis with nut-brown eyes. Something sprouted from his forehead, something that looked almost like … antlers? Then the gap in the curtain closed. Sister Mirrim and Child Samanda were gone. Travis supposed it was all simply a trick of smoke and shadows, yet he found himself thinking of Waunita Lost Owl’s delgeth all the same.

He realized then he was the only one left inside the tent except for Brother Cy. He hurried to the exit. Avoiding the preacher’s piercing gaze, he dug into the pocket of his jeans, found a creased five-dollar bill, and dropped it in the hat.

“Thank you, son.”

Travis said nothing. Head down, he reached for the canvas flap covering the exit.

“Your battle will be harder than most, son, if you choose to fight it.”

Travis turned around and laughed. It was a hollow sound. He rubbed his right hand. “You mean I have a choice?”

A knife-edged grin cut across the craggy landscape of Brother Cy’s face. “Why, we all have a choice, son. Haven’t you heard one word I’ve been saying? That’s what this is all about.”

Travis shook his head. “But what if I choose the wrong thing?”

“What if you choose the right thing?”

“How will I know?” Travis said. “Sometimes I don’t even know right from left. How can I possibly choose?”

Lamplight gleamed off Brother Cy’s eyes. “Ah, but you have to, son. Light or dark. Sanity or madness. Life or death. Those are our choices, those are the battles we must fight.”

Travis tried to absorb these words. Was there more to Brother Cy than he had guessed? Without really thinking, he reached into the breast pocket of his coat and drew out the iron box Jack had given him. He held it toward the preacher.

“You know, I think the man who gave this to me saw the same darkness you do. Maybe … maybe it would be better if you took it.”

Brother Cy laughed, a great booming sound. Then his laughter fell short, and his stony face went grim. He took a step backward, as if loath to so much as touch the box. “No, son. That which you carry is not for the likes of me. It is your burden to bear now, and no other’s.”

Travis sighed. He had been afraid the preacher would say something like that. There was nothing more for him here. He slipped the box back into his coat pocket and opened the tent flap.

“Wait, son!” Brother Cy said. “You need a token, something to bolster your faith, something to remember when all seems too dark, and home seems too far away.” He reached into his hat, pulled out a small and shiny object, and pressed it into Travis’s hand. It felt cool against his hot skin.

“Thanks,” Travis said, unsure what else to say. “And I hope you stop your darkness, whatever it is.”

“It’s not my darkness, son. It belongs to all of us.”

In a disconcerting instant, the smoky world of the tent was replaced by one of empty gloom. Travis gasped. He stood outside the revival tent now, although he did not remember stepping through the door. He lifted his hand and uncurled his fingers. On his palm lay a silvery half circle. It was a coin, or rather a piece of one, for it was broken along a rough edge. There was a picture on each side of the coin, and he tried to make them out in the cast-off radiance of the revival tent, but could not.

All at once, like a lightbulb switching off, the tent went black and left Travis alone in the cold night.

16.

Travis slipped the half-coin into the pocket of his jeans and started walking, although he had no idea where he was walking to. The crescent moon had gone behind a cloud, and the road seemed to lead only from darkness into darkness. His boots beat a lonely rhythm on the pavement.

He had gone only a short distance when, without warning, the fabric of night was riven by brilliant light.

Travis spun around, held a hand before his eyes, and squinted against the white-hot glare. The world had fallen silent except for an electric hum that vibrated on the air. It raised the hairs on his arms and neck, like a harbinger of lightning. How had they found him? But it was not so hard to understand. If they had not found what they were seeking at the Magician’s Attic, they would have kept searching. And there was only one road out of Castle City. This road.

For a moment he stood frozen, an animal caught in a fatal headlight snare. He caught a glint of crimson and glanced down. The stiletto Jack had given him was still tucked into his belt, and the gem in its hilt glowed bloodred. He jerked his head back up. The brilliant light floated down the highway. At last fear broke through his paralysis. Travis turned and ran headlong into the night. His lungs caught fire. He ignored the pain, leaned his head down, and ran faster yet.

A rectangle loomed in the dark before him and brought him up short. He skidded to a halt and barely managed to avoid colliding with the thing. It was the old billboard. He stared at the back side now, for he had come upon it from the opposite direction than before. The webwork of posts that supported the flat plane looked like bones in the gloom. Urged by a compulsion he could not name, he moved around the billboard to gaze upon the front. Just then, in the sky above, wind tore a cloud to tatters, and the horned moon broke free. Its light drifted down to illuminate the face of the billboard. Travis gasped.

The cigarette advertisement was gone. In its place, fully revealed now, was the picture of the wild landscape. Before, when Travis had glimpsed a fraction of the picture through the overlying ad, it had seemed to depict a daylit scene, yet it was a night land that covered the billboard now. Mountains rose into a star-sprinkled sky, like a crown perched above the endless forest, and everything was dusted with a pearly sheen, as if the light of the moon above fell somehow too upon it. There was a beauty about the landscape that was both fresh and ancient, as though it had stood unspoiled for countless eons, waiting to be seen.

In all, the billboard looked just as it had in the 1933 photograph he had seen at the Magician’s Attic. Only as he realized this did Travis drop his gaze to the words written at the bottom in flowing script. He concentrated, and after a moment they sorted themselves out:

Find Paradise

And below that, in smaller type:

Brother Cy’s Revival, 1 mi. N. of C. City

Laughter rose in Travis’s chest. So Brother Cy had been here back in 1933. That knowledge should have shocked him, should have sent him reeling off-balance. Yet, somehow, after all that had happened, it did not. In fact, it all made an absurd sort of sense.

He looked up as something on the billboard caught his eye. No, it wasn’t on the billboard, but in it—something wispy, like a puff of cotton. Something that was … moving.

It was a cloud. It drifted above the brooding mountains, floated from right to left, and passed off the edge of the billboard and vanished. Fascinated, Travis took a step closer. It wasn’t just the cloud, he saw now. Everything in the picture was moving. Tiny trees swayed in the wake of an unseen wind, and the silver thread of a waterfall glinted as, from its base, clouds of mist billowed upward. Even the stars were alive, twinkling like real stars, now bright, now dim, now bright again as they wheeled in the sky.

It wasn’t a picture on the billboard at all. Somehow it had become a window looking into another—what? Another place? Another time? He thought of Sister Mirrim’s words. Another … world?

His thoughts were drowned out as sound sizzled on the air, growing louder every second. He turned and saw, over a rise in the road, a white glow. Even as he watched, the glow crested the hill like some terrible dawn. Then he saw them in the center of the light, coming toward him: sinister, spidery figures. Had they seen him yet? Had they recognized him from the Magician’s Attic? Travis didn’t know, but he couldn’t run anymore, he was too tired. Whatever the things in the light were, in seconds they would have him. He wondered if it would take long, and whether it would be very painful.

“I’m sorry, Jack,” he said. He clutched the iron box through the thick fabric of his coat. “I’m sorry I let you down. But there’s nowhere left to …”

His words trailed off. He turned and stared at the face of the billboard. Maybe that wasn’t true, maybe there was somewhere after all. It was impossible, but so had been a dozen other things he had witnessed that night. Maybe it made sense to try something impossible himself.

There was no more time to think—the willowy figures moved toward him with malevolent speed. Travis clenched his jaw. He hesitated only a heartbeat, then he threw himself forward …

 … and fell into the billboard.

17.

“All right, Dr. Beckett, I have just a few more questions for you,” the police detective said in a weary voice. He flipped a page of the legal tablet that rested on the cluttered desk before him.

Grace shifted on the hard wooden chair. For the last hour she had sat while the detective took her statement and prompted her for details concerning the deaths at Denver Memorial. Back at the hospital, when a pair of officers had told her they would have to take her to the Denver police station for questioning, Grace had offered no resistance. She had let them pry the gun from her fingers, and was grateful they did not handcuff her as they led her to the patrol car. But the two young officers had been sympathetic, and even admiring, as they bantered in the front seat.

“Bastard didn’t have the sense to know he was dead the first time around,” one of them had said with a low whistle. “Must have been high on something pretty damn amazing.”

“Takes a licking and keeps on ticking,” the other had joked.

The first officer had laughed at that. “Not after the doc here took care of him, he wasn’t.”

The second officer was angry now. “Yeah, she took care of that copkiller real good.” He turned around to look at Grace through the intervening grill. “You did the right thing, Doc, taking him out like that. You did the exact right thing.”

Grace had only squeezed her eyes shut and saw again the man with the iron heart, the way his head exploded outward in a spray of white, and gray, and brilliant red. She had said nothing. Yes, it had been the right thing to do, but these thick-necked boys playing cops and robbers had no idea of the true and terrible reason why. And she would never tell them. How could she? I’m sorry, Your Honor, I shot him because he was a creature of perfect evil. She had a feeling it would not provide much of a defense in a murder trial.

The detective droned on, and Grace listened as best she could. As she often did when nervous, she had drawn her necklace from beneath her blouse and now fidgeted with the pendant. The touch of the cool metal calmed her. It was hard to breathe in the detective’s cramped office. The overhead light seemed to leak its dirty illumination only grudgingly, and thick smoke curled from a lit cigarette he had left in an ashtray. She noticed a plastic nameplate amid the litter of his desk. Det. Douglas L. Janson. Something told her people usually called him Doug. She could almost imagine a young, handsome, high school yearbook version of Detective Janson. But with twenty-five years had come twice that many extra pounds, along with thinning hair and circles beneath his small eyes. A crooked mustache framed his thin mouth, and stubble speckled his jowls like grains of sand.

He gripped a pencil in thick fingers and checked off items on his list with bored efficiency. In measured words Grace responded. No, she had never seen the suspect in the ED before that night. Yes, she had believed the life of the old woman in the wheelchair to be in danger. No, she had not called out to the suspect to halt before she had shot him. Yes, she had shot him exactly four times. Yes, she would do it again if she had to.

At last Detective Janson set down his tablet. “Thank you, Dr. Beckett. I think that’s enough.” He stood, took his holster from the back of his chair, and slung it over his shoulder. “I’ve got to confer with my superior for a minute on this, but I doubt we’ll be making an arrest, at least for the time being.”

Grace gave a jerky nod in reply and felt a jolt of relief. Maybe this night was finally almost over.

Janson promised to return in a few minutes. The detective shut the door behind him. There was a click as the lock turned, then the receding sound of his heavy footsteps. Grace glanced at the wall clock. Almost midnight. It had been just six hours. Six short hours since she had encountered the strange girl in the park. Six small notches on the face of the clock, that was all. When the police did release her, she wondered where she would go. Not back to the ED. Knowing what she did now—awakened to the awareness of what things walked the world—she could never again sink into the safe preoccupation that had been her life. Knowledge was perilous, and it changed everything.

The lock on the door rattled. Grace glanced up. She had not expected Janson to return so quickly, nor had she heard his footsteps approaching. The lock continued to rattle, as if the detective was having difficulty getting the key to work, then the dead bolt turned. The door opened and shut again as a man stepped into the office. It was not Detective Douglas L. Janson.

With a start, Grace recognized the dark-haired man. He was the one who had watched her from a distance at the hospital, not long after the man with the iron heart had died. Had died for the first time, that was. Grace started to rise from her chair in alarm, but the man held up a hand to halt her. She was not certain how, but some instinct told her that while this man might be dangerous, he was not her enemy. She sank back down into her chair.

“Who are you?” she asked, surprised at her own calm.

“A friend,” he answered.

The man moved away from the door and slipped a thin piece of wire into a pocket. He was tall, middle thirties perhaps. His tailored suit was of European cut, and his visage made her think of a bust of a Roman general: curly hair, proud nose, full and sensual lips. When he spoke, it was in a cultured voice from which an expensive education had purged all but the faintest traces of an indeterminate accent.

“You are in danger here,” the man said in a grave voice.

Grace sighed and thought of the girl in the park. She had had enough mysterious admonitions for one day. “I’m afraid I don’t take cryptic warnings from strangers anymore,” she said.

The hint of a smile played across his lips. “I apologize, Dr. Beckett. In my urgency to warn you, I have neglected to introduce myself. A regrettable oversight. I hope it has not predisposed you toward suspicion.” He held out a hand. “My name is Farr. Hadrian Farr.”

Grace did not accept the proffered hand. Rather than expressing embarrassment at this snub, Farr deftly altered his gesture and reached into the breast pocket of his suit coat to draw out a gold cigarette case, as though that was what he had intended to do all along. He begged her permission with a raised eyebrow, and when she did not protest took out an unfiltered cigarette, then touched the end to a flame that sprang from the side of the case. Rich tobacco smoke curled upward and blended with the haze that already hung on the air. The man called Farr sat on a corner of the desk to regard Grace. What could he possibly want of her?

“I don’t want anything of you,” he said. “But in a moment, after you hear what I have to say, you may want something of me. That is why I followed you here.”

Grace crossed her arms and treated him to a skeptical look. The man was peculiar, but he did not seem particularly menacing. Despite his air of education—which, she was beginning to suspect, was an affectation—she guessed he was a reporter for some tabloid newspaper, hot after the story of the man with the iron heart. The detective was going to return any minute, so she supposed there was little risk in indulging Farr. Grace indicated for him to continue speaking.

“I belong to an international organization,” Farr went on after a drag on his cigarette. “The name is not important right now, but know that this is an organization that studies—how shall I say it?—unusual things.”

“Things like people with hearts made of iron?”

“Yes, things like that. And more. We take an interest in many sorts of curious items and occurrences, all of which, you might say, have a preternatural character to them. That is, they lie beyond the world of the usual and mundane. It is the purpose of my organization to seek out, investigate, and catalog such instances.” He took another pull on his cigarette. “We are scholars, you see.”

“And the connection between all this and me is …?”

“Oh, there’s the obvious connection,” Farr said. “We often attempt to interview those who have had encounters with the unusual. But there is a more immediate concern here.” He snuffed out the cigarette among the butts in the cheap ceramic ashtray and leaned forward. “I have already said it once, but allow me to reiterate. You are in peril here, Dr. Beckett.”

A chill danced along Grace’s skin. Grim intensity shone in Fair’s eyes, and it was suddenly hard not to believe his words.

“How?” It was all she could manage.

“The man you shot at the hospital was not the only one of his kind, Dr. Beckett,” he said in a hushed voice. “My organization has been aware of them for some time, and we have been studying them—though as of yet we have been unable to make direct contact, so we know little of their origin or purpose. But I imagine you will be interested to know your detective friend here is one of them.”

“One of them?”

“Yes. Janson is an ironheart, Dr. Beckett.”

Grace shook her head in mute disbelief. It was impossible. It had to be. Janson seemed so drab, so uninteresting, so … normal. How could he be another one of them?

Farr did not give her a chance to reply. “There is more you should know. It might have been chance that brought you in contact with the ironheart at the hospital. Then again, I might be inclined to question that. Regardless, there is no blind luck in Detective Janson’s present interest in you. It is your necklace, you see.”

Grace reached up to grip the pendant at her throat. “My necklace? What does my necklace have to do with any of this?”

“Perhaps a great deal.” Farr reached out and uncoiled Grace’s hand from around the pendant. He brushed a fingertip over the designs incised upon it. “As I said, we know little of the purpose of the ironhearts. But we do know they have, in the past, expressed an interest in runes—that is, symbols such as these engraved on your necklace.”

“Runes?” Grace thought she had heard the word before, but she wasn’t exactly certain what they were. “Aren’t those some sort of things New Age types use when their tarot cards wear out?”

Farr gave a soft laugh. “Yes and no,” he said. “Yes, in that the runes used for entertainment today are descended from symbols of power that were used centuries ago by various Norse and Germanic peoples.” He paused a heartbeat. “No, in that the type of runes the ironhearts are interested in—the sort that are on your own necklace—are extremely rare, and of unknown origin.”

Grace tucked a loose lock of ash-blond hair behind one of her small ears. Farr’s words were ludicrous, yet for some reason they frightened her. “What am I supposed to do?”

“First you must get away from Detective Janson,” Farr said. “Get out of the police station as quickly as you—”

He was interrupted as, faint but approaching, the sound of heavy footfalls drifted through the open transom over the door.

Grace stared at Farr with wide eyes. “But how can I know what you’re saying is true?”

Outside, she could hear the echo of Janson’s voice. He had paused to speak to someone. Farr stood, reached into a pocket, and drew out an object. He thrust it into Grace’s fumbling hands.

“Use this. See the truth for yourself. Then—and I entreat you—get out of here as fast as you can.

The footsteps approached once more. Farr moved to the door, then turned to regard her for a fleeting moment. “Good luck, Dr. Beckett.” The door opened and shut, the lock turned, and Hadrian Farr was gone.

Grace glanced down at the object in her hand. It was a plastic compass, the kind Boy and Girl Scouts used on hiking trips. The needle wavered back and forth, disturbed by her shaking hand, but never veered more than a few degrees away from magnetic north. The door opened. Grace jumped to her feet and thrust the compass into the pocket of her chinos. Detective Janson stepped in, a folder of papers in his hand, his expression just as bored as ever. Apparently he had not seen Farr’s departure.

“You’re all cleared, Dr. Beckett.” The detective tossed the folder onto the desk. “We just need you to sign a few things, then you can be on your way. I’m going to have some coffee. Would you like some?”

“Sure,” Grace managed to say. Now that Janson had returned, it seemed harder to believe Farr’s outlandish words. She did not doubt there were others walking the world with lumps of cold iron lodged in their thoracic cavities instead of warm, living hearts. But Janson was just another overweight, overworked, disinterested police detective. Still, she would sleep better if she was absolutely certain.…

Janson turned his back to her, picked up a pot from a hot plate, and filled two paper cups. She drew the compass from her pocket and stepped toward him. She glanced down. The needle pointed straight toward magnetic north. Nothing had altered its direction. Relief coursed through her. Just to prove the point, she stretched out her arms and brought the compass within a foot of Janson.

The needle spun in circles.

Grace stared in horror. Even as she watched, the needle steadied until it was aimed once more in a single direction. Only this time it was not pointing toward magnetic north. It was pointing directly at the center of Detective Janson’s back.

“Now, let’s get you signing those papers so you can go home,” Janson said in an amiable tone. He picked up the coffee cups and turned around.

Grace stepped back and thrust the hand with the compass into her pocket. Janson held out one of the steaming cups, and she gripped it in her free hand, certain he had to see the way she trembled. However, the detective seemed not to notice anything was amiss. Grace clenched her jaw, terrified she was going to scream.

“So, Dr. Beckett,” Janson said, and a spark of interest ignited in his small eyes, “tell me where you got that interesting necklace of yours.…”

18.

In every progression, in every series of changes great or small, there comes a single moment—one thin sliver of a second—in which all that lies behind, and all that lies before, stands in perfect symmetry, like a beam balanced on a fulcrum. Step back from the point of the fulcrum, and the balance shifts to the side that was trod before, back toward the familiar and the usual. But step over the fulcrum, and the beam tilts forward, and one who stands upon it careens down the slope, carried beyond all control into possibilities unknown. And once the fragile balance of the progression has been altered, in either direction, it can never be restored. Step back, and the chance to step forward will never come again. Go beyond, and lose all hope of ever returning to what once was.

Detective Janson’s question trailed off, the echo of his words oozed false nonchalance, and his once-bored eyes were now alive with hungry light.

In that moment, Grace stood upon the fulcrum. She clutched the hot cup of coffee, and a vision passed before her, such as that glimpsed by people during near-death experiences. She was at the hospital, caught up once more in the breathless chaos that gave her—thankfully—no time to think. Morty Underwood laughed, and a stream of injured poured through the automatic doors. Grace bent over each patient, to quiet fear, soothe pain, and mend hurts with deft fingers. Treating the wounds of others left her no time to notice her own.

It was still possible to go back—back to the hospital, back to her carefully constructed life. All she had to do was give Janson the necklace. It was the necklace he was interested in, not herself. If she gave it to him, he would certainly let her go, would almost certainly forget her. And the hospital’s board of directors wanted to keep the incident with the ironheart quiet. She would never have to think of him, or of the cold lump of metal in his chest, again. She saw herself striding through the corridors of Denver Memorial once more: confident, in control, a queen in her own dominion. Even Leon Arlington was there. He leaned against a counter and gazed at her with his sleepy brown eyes.…

Leon?

But Leon Arlington couldn’t be there. Poor Leon, who was now himself lying in one of the metal drawers in the hospital’s morgue. Dear Leon, who had worked so long with dead people he had become like them, then had become one of them. Yet now he was there, and he fixed her with his placid gaze.

The vision slowed, and each moment, each movement, was protracted into agonizing slowness. Everything around her seemed flat and distorted, like a wide-angle film compressed onto a square television screen. Leon opened his mouth, as if to tell her something, but only a rumble issued forth. Her mind reeled. Leon Arlington could not be there.

That was what he was trying to tell her. The low rumbling phased into watery, understandable words.

This ain’t real no more, Grace.…

As if someone had thrown a switch, the image vanished. Detective Janson still stood before her. Grace panicked. How long had she been frozen, lost in the haze of possibilities? Had Janson grown suspicious at her silence? But his eyes still rested on the pendant at her throat. No more than a second or two had passed. Grace took a deep breath and gathered her will. Then she stepped beyond the fulcrum.

Grace affected a pretty smile and performed her finest imitation of a North Carolina belle. “This old thing, Detective?” she said with a winning laugh and touched the necklace.

A grin spread across his face. “Those symbols on it—they’re quite … unusual.” He bent toward her to take a closer look at the pendant.

Grace did not hesitate. She thrust the paper cup toward Janson. Boiling coffee splashed across his face. A strangled scream escaped his throat as he lurched backward, eyes clenched, and stumbled into a filing cabinet. He clutched at his face with shaking hands and hissed in pain. The skin was already turning an angry red. Grace did not waste the moment. She stepped forward, grabbed the pistol from the holster slung over his shoulder, and leaped back. Janson groped for her, tried to grab her arm, but his fingers closed on empty space. He started to lunge for her, then froze at the click of a gun’s safety being switched off. Grace allowed herself a sharp smile and tightened her fingers around the smooth grip of the pistol. She was getting pretty damn handy with these things.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Janson squinted at her through swelling eyelids. “This is a goddamn police station!”

“I know what you are,” she said through clenched teeth.

For a moment Janson stood utterly still, then came a transformation so sudden and complete Grace nearly dropped the gun in shock. As if he had cast off a mask, the detective’s confused expression was traded for one of utter malevolence. Evil light shone in his beady eyes.

“How?” Janson hissed. “How can you possibly know?”

With one hand Grace reached into her pocket and pulled out the plastic compass. She tossed it at him, and he flinched as it landed on the floor at his feet. The needle spun in spastic circles. With a grunt of disgust, he stepped on the compass and ground it into plastic shards with the heel of his shoe.

“You can’t escape us.” He spat the words like venom. “I don’t know who you are, or where you got that necklace, but I guarantee you my master will want it for his own. Once he hears about it, he won’t stop until he gets it, even if it means taking it from around your dead neck.”

“Then maybe he’ll never hear about it,” Grace said.

Janson let out a strangled snarl and tensed as if to spring at her. Grace leveled the gun at his head.

“I know how to kill your kind,” she said without emotion. “I’ve done it once, and I can do it again. A bullet in your chest won’t stop you, but a few in your brain will do just fine.”

Janson glared at her in hate. “I’m a detective, this is a police station. Kill me and you’ll rot in jail—if they don’t give you the chair first.”

“I’m willing to risk that.”

A sneer twisted his puffy face, but he did not move. “What are you going to do with me?”

A glint of metal caught the corner of Grace’s eye. She reached behind her toward the desk, and her hand came back with a pair of handcuffs.

“Take a guess.”

Keeping the pistol trained on Janson’s head, Grace instructed him to sit and handcuff himself to the desk chair. She was surprised at the steel in her own voice. It was as if she were born to giving orders like this. Janson did as he was told. In moments he sat at the desk, wrists securely cuffed to the arms of the heavy chair.

He shook with rage. “You’ll never get out of here.”

“Care to place a bet?”

Janson’s eyes were nearly swollen shut now, yet she still caught a glint of such inhuman fury in them that her breath caught in her lungs.

His voice dropped to a whisper. “Run, Beckett. Run as fast as you can. It won’t make any difference. In the end, he’ll find you. I know.” A shudder surged through his body. “In the end, he finds everybody.”

Dread trickled down Grace’s throat and filled her chest. She could not possibly imagine the evils this man had witnessed, or what temptation had compelled him to sacrifice his own living heart in trade. For a moment she almost felt pity for him. Almost. For whatever had once resided in him that might have been sad and pitiable, it had been cut out and replaced by a lump of iron. Detective Douglas L. Janson was already dead, and upon the dead, as Grace well knew, pity was a wasted thing.

She held the gun with one hand and used the other to grab a handful of paper towels from a stack by the coffeepot. She crumpled them into a ball, then ordered Janson to open his mouth and rested the gun against his left temple for incentive. He complied. She shoved the wad of paper into his mouth. His muffled shout of protest verified the gag was functional. It was time.

She bent forward to whisper in his ear. “Tell your precious master, whoever he is, that he had better think twice before he picks on me.”

Grace moved to the door and slipped the hand with the gun into the deep pocket of her chinos. She opened the door and glanced in both directions. The hallway was empty. She stepped outside and shut the door behind her. Heart thumping, she started down the corridor. She walked quickly, but not so quickly as to arouse suspicion. If she was lucky, it would be several minutes before anyone discovered Janson, and Janson’s superior had approved her release. People would be expecting her to leave the station. She just had to stay calm.

She rounded a corner and collided into a young woman officer. Grace stuttered an apology, certain the officer must have noticed the gun Grace gripped in her pocket. But the young woman only smiled, told her not to worry about it, and continued on. Grace passed several other officers, and she imagined that some of them looked at her with more than passing interest. A terrifying thought occurred to her. Perhaps Janson was not the only ironheart at the police station, perhaps there were others as well. The more she thought about it, the more it seemed unlikely he was the only one. She forced her face to remain expressionless and kept walking.

The corridor opened onto the station’s main office. At first the noise and chaos startled Grace. A dozen harried officers sat at paper-clogged desks, where they took phone calls, talked with belligerent suspects, or tried to reassure frightened victims. Other officers milled about in an attempt to keep the flood of accused moving. After a moment Grace realized the confusion gave her the distraction she needed. She wended her way through the throng, and no one gave her so much as a second glance. She pushed through the police station’s front doors and stepped into the night. The bracing air cleared her head. She descended the steps and walked down the street. She was going to make it.

An engine roared behind her. Grace turned in renewed alarm to see a car speed toward her. Tires squealed as it came to a halt scant feet away. It wasn’t a police car, but a sleek, black sedan. Before she could consider running, the driver’s door opened, and a man stepped out. In the moonlight she recognized the elegant form of Hadrian Farr. He gestured to the open door.

“Get in, Dr. Beckett,” he said.

She gaped in openmouthed astonishment, and once again Farr answered her unspoken question.

“Detective Janson has been discovered. Even now he is informing his fellow officers of what you did, and that you have escaped. They’ll be pursuing you in moments.”

Bewildered, she shook her head. “But how do you know that he—?”

Farr raised a hand. “Please, Dr. Beckett, there isn’t time.” His cultured voice was as polite as ever, but there was an edge of authority to it that shocked her and forced her to listen. “You must take my car. Drive it out of the city, it doesn’t matter where you go. They won’t be able to follow you.”

“But what about Janson?” she said.

A hard gleam touched his eyes. “Do not worry about Janson. I will take care of the detective myself.”

With that, she found herself gently but forcefully helped into the driver’s seat of the sedan. The engine was still purring. Farr leaned through the open door.

“Please take this.” He handed her a small, thin object. “Contact me as soon as you can.”

With that he shut the door and sealed Grace inside the soft interior of the sedan. She looked down at the object Farr had pressed into her hand. It was a white business card. It read simply:

The Seekers

1-800-555-8294

Grace stared at the card. Then Farr’s voice jerked her out of her stupor. “Drive, Dr. Beckett,” he said. “Now!”

Instinct took over and she punched the accelerator. The car lunged forward with surprising speed and pressed her back into the leather seat. Grace tightened her grip on the steering wheel and gained control of the vehicle as it sped into the night. She glanced at the rearview mirror and tried to glimpse the world she was leaving behind. However, the sedan’s glass was too heavily tinted. All she could see was darkness and her own pale reflection staring back at her with haunted eyes.

19.

“Thank you, come again,” the dull-eyed clerk behind the counter mumbled. He handed Grace her change without looking at her, then turned to wipe the soda machine with a grimy rag.

Not much worry of having my face recognized here, Grace thought with slightly manic mirth. Never again would she complain about apathetic service. She glanced around the fluorescent-lit convenience store where she had stopped to purchase gas for Farr’s sedan. A cryptic pictograph caught her eye. The women’s rest room, she assumed, and pushed through the stainless-steel door. She slipped her necklace beneath her blouse, then splashed water on her face and finger-combed her hair in an effort to make herself look somewhat less like a fugitive from the law. A thought occurred to her. She locked the rest room’s door, then pulled Janson’s pistol from her pocket and wiped it with a paper towel. She wrapped more towels around it and shoved it deep into a trash receptacle, then she unlocked the door, walked through the store, and out into the night. A glance through the plate-glass window confirmed her expectations. The clerk still wiped the soda machine with mindless diligence.

Grace hurried back to the car and climbed in. She was still on the outskirts of Denver. It was time to put some distance between herself and the city. She turned the key and noticed a white shape on the dashboard. The business card Hadrian Farr had given her. She picked it up and glanced at it again. The Seekers. That must be the name of the organization to which he belonged. The society of scholars, as he had called them. But who were they really, and why would they go to such great lengths, and at such great risk, to help someone such as she? The only reason that made any sense was the one Farr himself had given her: that the Seekers were observers of the unusual, that to study strange happenings was their purpose, and that she had unwittingly found herself in the midst of one of their investigations.

Grace slipped the business card into her pocket, then piloted the car out of the parking lot. As soon as she was someplace safe, someplace where the police could not find her, she resolved to call the telephone number on the business card. She wanted to thank the Seekers for helping her escape. However, there was more to her desire than merely gratitude. Certainly the Seekers possessed more knowledge of the men with the hearts of iron than Farr had revealed to her. Now that she was aware of their existence, Grace could not simply forget them and their evil. She wanted to learn more about them—where they came from, what they wanted, how the seemingly impossible organs of cold metal functioned to keep them alive. Perhaps she could even help the Seekers in their study of the ironhearts. After all, she was a doctor. She could perform dissections on any deceased specimens they might acquire, to examine their anatomy in hopes of discovering what it was that made them tick. A warm spark of excitement flared to life in her chest. Perhaps, in time, she might even become a Seeker herself.…

The sedan sped down a deserted road and left the glowing lights of the city behind. A smile spread across Grace’s lips. Buoyed by a sudden exhilaration, she pressed the accelerator and sped deeper into the folds of night.

Time slipped by, like the shadowed world outside the tinted windows of the car. Grace had not noticed when the hulking shapes first rose around her. Now they loomed in all directions, sharp against the star-strewn sky. The car’s headlights cut a swath through the dark as it wound its way up the twisting two-lane road. She had not decided to head into the mountains, yet it made sense to stay off the main interstate highways. Besides, once she did see them, the rugged silhouettes of the mountains beckoned to her and drew her deeper in.

She wasn’t exactly certain where she was now. Not that it mattered anyway. It wasn’t important where she went, as long as it was somewhere far away from where she had been before. Like water in the wake of a ship, the night closed behind the car as it glided down the road.

Grace nearly did not see it in time.

She slammed on the brakes, and the car skidded to a violent stop. The seat belt locked, and that was all that kept her body from striking the steering wheel. She peered through the windshield. White light glinted off pointed antlers and silver-brown fur. A shadow darted across the road and vanished into the gloom of the night. Grace let out a breath of relief. That had been close. The last thing she needed to do now was hit a deer.

She pressed the accelerator and drove on. A minute later it struck her. She had seen the antlers, but something about the shadow had been wrong. Then she had it. How many deer walked on two legs?

She shook her head. Her eyes were playing tricks on her, that was all. Sleep-deprived interns in the ED were known to hallucinate.

“You’re tired, Grace,” she said. “You’re way too tired. You’re going to get yourself killed.”

She glanced at the dashboard clock. Almost three in the morning. She was far away from Denver now. It would be safe enough for her to pull over to sleep, just for an hour or two. At least, she had to believe it was.

Just ahead, in the dimness, she glimpsed an abandoned building next to the road. In front was a flat area. It would do. She slowed down, pulled off the highway, and brought the car to a halt before the blocky hulk. With a yawn she shut off the ignition and reached to flick the switch for the headlights.

Something made her hesitate. She gazed through the window at the abandoned structure. It was impossible, but this place seemed familiar to her. She felt a tingling against her chest, lifted a hand, and touched the pendant through the fabric of her blouse. Compelled by a force she could not name, she opened the car door and stepped out.

She shivered as the wind tangled cold, substanceless fingers through her hair. Silence ruled the night. Before her, half-revealed by the headlight beams, the old building glowered against the sky. A dozen empty windows stared out like hooded eyes. Of all the places where she might have driven that night, of all the roads she might have traveled, what trick of fate or long-submerged memory had led her here? She knew this place. This was where it had all begun. This was where she had first learned about the existence of evil.

The Beckett-Strange Home for Children.

Grace approached the ruin. It was difficult to believe she had spent ten years of her childhood here. But it was just miles from this place, on a mountainside, that she had been found as a child: no more than three years old, alone, abandoned. It was here she had been given her Christian name, Grace. It was from this place her legal name, Beckett, had come. And it was within these walls she had first learned to treat the wounds of others.

Much of the Home’s roof had collapsed inward, and only a few shards of glass clung to the window frames to glint like broken teeth in the last of the moonlight. The board nailed over the entrance had fallen to one side, and through the gap, brooding in shadows, she glimpsed the front door. Its surface still bore the blistered scars of old fire. The building was just a husk now, like the cast-off skin of a snake—an empty reminder of the evil that had once dwelled within. Even after all these years, a burnt smell hung on the air. But the fire had come last of all, and long before the fire there had been the cries of owls, and the hands reaching out of the dark.

A voice spoke behind her and jerked her back to the present.

“Can I help you, child?”

Grace gasped for breath, like a swimmer who had just surfaced after long submersion. She turned around and blinked against the glare of the car headlights. He stood before her, although she had not heard him approach, an unusually tall man clad in a shabby black suit that hung loosely on crooked scarecrow limbs. Eyes glinted like chips of obsidian in the cratered moonscape of his face.

“Who are you?” she whispered, but even as she asked the halting question she thought she already had an inkling of the answer. For there was something about him—in his old-fashioned clothes and in his ancient, knowing gaze—that reminded her of the purple-eyed girl she had encountered in the park.

With long fingers, the man in black touched the edge of his broad-brimmed pastor’s hat and affected a mock bow. “The name is Cy,” he drawled in a voice smooth and gritty as new-oiled rust. He reached out, as if to hand her a calling card. “That’s Brother Cy. Purveyor of faith, peddler of salvation, and prophet of the Apocalypse. At your service.”

“I see,” she said breathlessly, for it was an introduction difficult to fathom in just one hearing. She glanced down and saw that instead of a calling card, her cupped hand held only a faint glow of starlight, and as she watched even this ran through her fingers and was gone. To conceal her startlement, she blurted out her own name. “I’m Grace. Grace Beckett.”

Brother Cy gave an absent nod, as if he already knew this fact, or did not care. His eyes flickered past her to take in the brittle shell of the orphanage. “The past lies dark and heavy on this place. Can you feel it?”

“Yes,” she said after a moment, for she could.

He brushed bony fingers against scorched clapboards. “Even fire and time cannot make the wood forget. Not entirely. The memory of evil lingers in the grain.”

Grace crossed her arms over her chest. How could they know so much? Both of them—this weird caricature of a preacher, and the ethereal, porcelain-doll girl.

She whispered it again, desperate now. “Who are you?”

A grin, both terrible and impish, split Brother Cy’s visage. “We are what we are and have always been. We go where the winds of chance blow us, and do what our natures require. But then, who is anyone, child?”

It was testament to Grace’s odd frame of mind, and the disconnection she felt from all that she had once thought of as real, that his words almost made sense. She turned her back to him and gazed once more upon the orphanage. “Can we never be free of the past then?”

“No, child,” Brother Cy said from behind her. “We cannot shape the past, for it is the past that shapes us, and without it we would be as dim shadows, lacking form or substance.” There was a long pause. Then, “You cannot shape the past, and the future is beyond our reach, but remember this, child: You do possess the power to shape your present.”

Grace searched the blistered slab of the orphanage’s door. What would she glimpse if she were to open it? Would she see clumps of dry thistles nestled among burnt timbers, scattering downy seeds like fine ash? Or would she see a small girl, shivering in a torn nightgown in a corner? Present or past? She didn’t know.

“Then find out,” came Brother Cy’s raspy whisper. “Open the door, and see what lies beyond. Only then will you know.”

“I can’t,” she said in dread, even as a queer compulsion blossomed in her chest. Yes. Why had she come to this place if not to open the door?

She felt something small and cool being pressed into her hand. Her fingers closed around the object.

“It is merely a token,” Brother Cy said. “Yet in it there may reside some small reservoir of strength. And by it, perhaps, you will better remember my words.” The preacher’s whisper grew faint, as if he receded into a far distance. “Open the door, child. What you see beyond is up to you.…”

The preacher’s words melded into the night wind, and Grace knew she was alone. Step by step she approached the door of the orphanage. Her heart fluttered at this strange homecoming she had never imagined. The scarred door stood before her. She reached out and closed her hand around the tarnished knob, almost surprised to find it cold against her skin rather than molten with fire. For a second she held her breath. Then she turned the knob. With a creak, the door swung open before her.

At first she saw only darkness, and she was afraid maybe that was all there was left for her. Then something cold and damp touched her face. A moment later another chill, feathery caress brushed against her cheek, followed by another, and another. Then she saw them in the glow of the headlights. Tiny flecks of white danced on the air and settled on her arms, her hands, her hair. It was snow. Pure, white, beautiful snow. It swirled out of the door in a glittering cloud to surround her.

After all the day’s happenings it was, at last, too much. She reeled. The snow cast a veil before her eyes, and a rushing noise filled her ears. Past was forgotten. Present was forgotten as well. There was no light, nor was there darkness. There was only snow. A soft sigh escaped her lips and fogged on the icy air. Only dully did she hear a sound like a door shutting behind her.

Then Grace fell forward and sank into cold and perfect whiteness.

20.

Hadrian Farr turned away from the burned-out building and raised a hand to shield his face against gritty wind. The black helicopter lifted off the stretch of two-lane highway and rose over the abandoned structure, into the hard blue sky. From inside the plastic bubble the pilot saluted in farewell. Then, like an onyx insect, the helicopter sped away and disappeared behind the mountains that bounded the valley. The morning air fell still.

Hadrian lowered his hand and walked back to the sedan parked before the ruin—once an orphanage, according to the remnants of a sign he had stumbled upon. He had traded his suit of last night for wool pants and a fisherman’s sweater. He reached through the car window, opened the glove compartment, and switched off the transmitter inside. They had picked up the signal just after dawn, but the moment they landed Hadrian had known they were already too late. Although obscured by the cloven hooves of a wandering deer, he had been able to follow Dr. Beckett’s footprints to the door of the structure. There her trail had ended. He had searched within the orphanage and found nothing but thistles and charred timber. It was as if she had vanished. However, Hadrian knew well people did not simply vanish. They always went … somewhere.

He pulled a small cellular phone from his pocket, pushed a button, and held the phone to his ear. A polite voice answered.

“I’ve located the car,” Hadrian said without preamble.

The voice asked a dispassionate question.

He shook his head. “No, there’s no sign of the subject. Nor do I expect to find any.” He drew in a deep breath before speaking the words. “I believe we have a Class One on our hands.”

The voice on the other end paused, then spoke again in careful tones.

“Yes, you heard me correctly.” An edge of annoyance crept into Hadrian’s voice. “That’s a Class One encounter. Extraworldly translocation.”

There was a long moment of silence. When the voice resumed, a note of excitement had broken through the formal veneer.

Hadrian nodded. “Yes. And send an observation team out here immediately. There may be residual signs—energy signatures or compound residues—I can’t detect on my own.”

The voice acknowledged his words. Hadrian pressed a button and slipped the phone back into his pocket. He gazed around. Dry grass danced under the lonely mountain sky. It was beautiful. He almost wished he could stay here, but there was work to do. He was to return to the charterhouse in London at once, to make a full report. Efforts to locate the ironheart known as Detective Janson had failed. However, last night, his operatives had managed to acquire the corpse of the ironheart from the morgue at Denver Memorial Hospital, and he had the photos he had taken of Grace Beckett’s necklace. Together, it would be enough to make his case for Class One determination. It would mean a great victory for him, perhaps even advancement. Class Three encounters—rumors of extraworldly beings—were common. And while rare, Class Two encounters—meetings with those who had interacted with extraworldly forces—were well documented. But in the entire five-hundred-year history of the Seekers, there had been no more than a dozen Class One encounters: direct contact with an extraworldly traveler.

Hadrian sighed on the cool air. A mixture of emotions filled him. Excitement at having made so great a discovery. Concern for Grace Beckett, who was now far beyond his reach. And strange envy as well, to think she was almost certainly now experiencing that which he had always dreamed of. A Class Zero encounter—translocation to another world oneself.

He laughed at himself and shook his head. Hadn’t he found what most Seekers spent their entire lives searching for? Evidence of worlds other than this Earth? He climbed into the car and turned the key.

He pulled the sedan around, then paused by the highway to let a splotchy white school bus pass. Inside, the shadowy figure of the bus’s driver waved in thanks. Hadrian waved back, and the dilapidated vehicle roared by. He pulled onto the highway, then piloted the sedan in the opposite direction. A few moments later something caught his eye. Beside the road was a billboard. Its blank surface was covered with a fresh coat of primer-gray paint, ready for a new picture. Empty paint cans lay scattered in the grass before it. For a moment Hadrian imagined his life like that billboard: fresh, clean, ready to be worked anew. Maybe that was what it felt like to journey to another world.

A smile touched his lips. “Good luck, Dr. Beckett,” he whispered.

Engine purring, the sedan sped down the highway and left the blank billboard behind.

21.

Travis blinked.

The first thing he noticed was that he stood in a forest. The second thing he noticed was that misty light filtered its way between the pale trees all around. He adjusted his wire-rimmed spectacles before wide gray eyes. A moment ago the world had been cloaked in the dark of night. Now it was nearly dawn, and snow dusted the frozen ground. But how?

It was hard to think. He drew in a deep breath and tried to clear the buzzing from his head. The forest air was cold and moist, redolent with the tastes of ice and pine. He could not remember a time when he had breathed air this good. For a moment he almost believed these were the woods north of town. Almost. Except, now that he looked at them more closely, the trees he had taken for aspens didn’t seem quite right. They looked like aspen trees should—but they were all a little too tall, their branches spread a little too wide, and their papery bark was a little too silver. And while the occasional conifer scattered among them was as tall and straight as a lodgepole pine, he didn’t remember that lodgepoles had that purplish tinge to their needles. Where was this place? Then the fog in his mind cleared and he remembered everything. The revival, the words of Brother Cy, the beings in the light, and last of all the …

He spun around and expected to see it hovering there, like a window looking out over the moonlit highway that meandered north of Castle City. The billboard. However, there was no floating window behind him, no crisscrossed timbers of a billboard’s back side, nor was there a highway anywhere in sight. He stumbled forward and searched desperately to either side. His walk became a jog, then a headlong run through the forest. Branches whipped at his face, he batted them aside. It had to be here. Yet all he saw were unfamiliar trees that stretched bare limbs toward the sky.

Wherever this place was, it was not Colorado.

At last Travis halted and gasped for breath. His head spun. The air was too sharp, too thin, like that on a high mountain summit. He gripped the trunk of an aspen—or whatever sort of tree it was—to keep from reeling.

“Well now, I had not expected to have company for breakfast,” said a deep voice behind him. “But then, company is the best sort of surprise, isn’t it? Especially in a place as lonely as this. Won’t you join me?”

Travis turned around in astonishment.

The speaker sat on the ground a half-dozen paces away, cross-legged before a campfire. He was a man of indeterminate years, although he was more likely older than younger, for his dark, shoulder-length hair was shot with gray, and lines accentuated a strong mouth and eyes the exact faded blue of the wintry sky above. The man was dressed in curious fashion. He wore a long shirt of heather-gray wool, belted at the waist with a broad strip of leather, and a kind of tight, fawn-colored trousers. Leather boots shod the man’s feet, and gathered around his shoulders to ward off the chill was a cloak the color of deep water. The cloak was fastened at his throat with an ornate silver brooch.

In all, the man reminded Travis of the actors from the local medieval festival that was held each summer a few miles down the highway from Castle City. The festival workers often wandered into the Mine Shaft after the fair closed for the night, to have a drink at the bar or shoot some pool, still clad in their anachronistic costumes, posing as noblemen, ladies, knights, and thieves. However, there was something about the man’s clothes that made Travis think they were not part of a costume. They seemed too well worn, too travel-stained, too … real.

Travis’s dizziness was replaced by alarm. If the billboard really had taken him somewhere else—somewhere far enough away to have strange trees—then there was no telling who he might meet. He eyed the man in suspicion. He could be a criminal, a fugitive, maybe even a murderer.

The stranger grinned, as if he read Travis’s thoughts. His voice was like the sound of a horn. “You need not worry, friend. I am almost certainly the least dangerous thing you will encounter in these woods.” He gestured to the fire. “You’re cold. You should sit and warm yourself awhile. What could be the harm in that?”

After everything that had happened, Travis could think of plenty of possibilities. However, despite his sheepskin coat, he was cold. His hands ached, and his feet were blocks of ice in his boots. He decided it was better to fall in with an outlaw than freeze to death, so he approached the fire and sat on a cushion of pine needles. He held his hands over the flames and soaked in the warmth. Without further words, the stranger picked up a wooden spoon and stirred the contents of a pot balanced over the fire on a tripod of green sticks. The man filled two wooden bowls with thick stew and handed one to Travis along with another spoon.

“Thank you,” Travis managed to stammer.

The stranger simply nodded and began to eat. Travis hesitated, then tentatively tasted the stew. A moment later he was wolfing down the food, heedless of the way it scorched his tongue. It was delicious—seasoned with an herb he had never tasted before—and after the first bite his stomach had reminded him he had not eaten since lunch the day before.

At last he sighed and set down the bowl. Warmth crept through his body. After a moment he realized the stranger was watching him. No, studying him. Travis shifted on the ground. There was something peculiar about the man’s keen blue eyes. They seemed too old for the rest of his face.

The stranger winked, and his gaze was no longer so piercing. “Do not fear, friend. My eyes are not as sharp as some, and if I have seen anything at all in you, then it is neither shadowed nor wicked. Friend I call you, and so you will be considered, at least by me.”

He gathered up the bowls and spoons, wiped them clean with a handful of pine needles, and placed them inside the pot. He stowed the cooking gear in a small pack, then turned his attention back to Travis. “Well then, it is against all laws of hospitality to ply a guest with questions when his stomach is empty. Yet now we have had our breakfast, and I think the time has come for introductions.”

Travis started to speak, but the stranger held up a hand to silence him.

“Hold, friend,” he said. “One cannot make proper introductions without a hot cup of maddok. This may not be a civilized land these days, but that does not mean we have to act as barbarians.”

Travis bit his tongue. Something told him the stranger was not accustomed to contradiction. The man pulled a tin kettle out of the coals and poured dark liquid into two clay cups. As he did this, Travis noticed he wore a black leather glove on his right hand, while his left hand was bare. It seemed a curious affectation, but there was much about the stranger Travis found curious.

Travis accepted one of the cups and gazed into it. He had never heard of maddok, but it looked suspiciously like coffee to him. He raised the cup and took a sip. Instantly he knew maddok was not coffee. It was more bitter, although not unpleasantly so, and richer as well, with a nutty flavor. Almost immediately Travis detected a tingling in his stomach. He shook his head, wide-awake as if he had just had a full night’s sleep. He stared at the cup, then downed the rest of the hot liquid.

The stranger laughed, raised his own cup, and drank deeply. Then he spoke in a formal tone. “My name is Falken. Falken of Malachor. I am a bard, by right and by trade.”

Travis took a breath, it was his turn. “My name is Travis Wilder.” Somehow it didn’t sound quite as interesting as the stranger’s introduction. He searched for something to add. “I don’t know that I’m anything by right, but I’m a saloon owner by purchase.”

“A saloon?” Falken asked with a frown.

Travis nodded. “That’s right—a saloon. You know, it’s like a bar.” By his expression, Falken evidently did not know. Travis kept on trying. “A pub? A tavern?”

Understanding flickered across Falken’s face. “Of course, you are a tavern keeper. An old and honorable profession, at least in this land.”

Travis just shrugged, although inwardly he felt a note of pride. He had never thought about anything he did as being honorable before.

Falken set down his cup. “Then again, something tells me you are not from these parts.”

Travis scratched his chin. “I’m not quite sure.” A question rose to his lips. It was utterly mad, but he had to ask it. “Just where are these parts exactly?”

To his surprise, Falken did not laugh. Instead, the bard regarded Travis with grave eyes, then spoke in measured words. “At the moment we are deep in the Winter Wood, a vast and ancient forest which lies many leagues north of the Dominion of Eredane.”

Travis shivered at the sound of the strange names. “The Dominion of Eredane?”

Falken leaned forward, his expression suddenly one of sharp interest. “That is correct. Eredane is one of the seven Dominions which lie in the north of the continent of Falengarth.”

Travis gave a jerky nod, as if this made sense, when it made nothing of the sort. “I see.” He searched for a way to phrase his next question that would not sound utterly absurd. It was no use. He asked it anyway, doing his best to sound nonchalant. “And the world we’re talking about here is …?” His question trailed off on the cold air. He was suddenly freezing again.

Falken raised a dark eyebrow. “Why, the world Eldh, of course.”

The words struck Travis like a clap of thunder. He had not stepped through the billboard to another place, but to another world. The world Sister Mirrim had spoken of at the revival. There was no other explanation. The strange trees, the unfamiliar air, Falken’s odd clothes. As impossible as it seemed, it was the only answer that made sense.

This was not his Earth.

With this knowledge came a new, terrible thought, and a wave of panic crashed through him. There was no sign of the billboard on this side, no window that looked out over Castle City.

How was he going to get back?

22.

Travis felt something being pushed into his hands. It was a clay cup of maddok. He raised the cup and gulped the warm liquid. After a moment his mind started to clear, and his panic receded a bit, although it did not vanish. Falken was beside him now, concern written across his wolfish features. “Are you well, Travis Wilder?”

Travis shook his head in a daze. Was he well? In the last day he had lost his best friend, his home, his entire world. He was anything but well.

“I don’t think I’m going to faint, if that’s what you mean,” he said.

Apparently satisfied with this, Falken leaned back on his haunches and rubbed his jaw in thought. He spoke in quiet wonder, almost more to himself than Travis. “So you come from a world other than this. I have heard of such things, although I never expected to come face-to-face with the proof myself. Yet I must confess, the moment I saw you I knew there was something unusual about you. And it was not simply your queer garb and manner of speaking. There is an otherworldly air about you, friend.”

The maddok had done its work to steady his mind, and Travis actually managed a weak laugh. “An otherworldly air? Funny, but I would have said the same thing about you, Falken. Except I suppose this is your world, not mine.” His hand shook as he set down the empty cup. “But if this truly is a different world, then I have just one question. What am I doing here?”

Falken clasped his hands together. “A good question, and one I would like to know the answer to. The morning is wearing on, and I had hoped to get an early start today, for I have a long way to travel, but it might be the time it would take to hear your tale would be well spent. If you would care to share it, that is.”

As peculiar as he was, there was something about Falken that put Travis at ease. Besides, right now Travis didn’t have another friend in the world. This world, anyway. A lump of loneliness welled up in his throat, but he did his best to swallow it.

He nodded. “All right, Falken. Maybe you can make more sense out of what’s happened to me than I can.”

As the sunlight brightened from silver to gold among the trees, Travis recounted everything that had happened to him since yesterday evening. It was almost a relief to share all the strange events with another. There was only one thing Travis left out of his story, although he wasn’t quite certain why. Maybe it was simply too personal, and too disturbing, to think about. Regardless of the reason, Travis did not speak of the moment when Jack had gripped his hand, and how it felt as if lightning had struck him.

Throughout Travis’s tale, Falken listened intently, and interrupted only now and then to ask about a word that was unfamiliar to him, things like truck or telephone. Travis reached the end of his story, and for a time the bard was silent, his expression thoughtful. The only sounds were the hiss of the dying fire and the music of the wind in the trees.

At last Falken spoke. “I imagine your friend Jack Graystone was a wizard of some sort.”

Travis gaped at the bard. “A wizard?”

Falken nodded. “Clearly there is magic at work in your tale, and it seems to center around your friend. Wizards often have an interest in ancient objects, just as you’ve described Graystone. While there is no way to be certain, it seems the likely explanation.”

Travis started to protest that this was impossible, then stopped. Was it really? The more he thought about it, the more magic seemed a better explanation for everything that had happened. He wasn’t sure he believed in magic, but then he wasn’t sure he didn’t believe in it either. As with so many things in his life, he had simply never decided one way or the other.

“It might help us to know what is in the box,” Falken said.

Travis reached inside his coat and closed his hand around the iron box. Jack had warned him not to open it, but that had been when Jack had feared his pursuers nearby. For all Travis knew, the beings in the light were an entire world away now. Besides, he was suddenly filled with a burning curiosity to know what was inside. He drew it out and set it on the ground between Falken and himself. It looked dark and ordinary in the morning light, the symbols carved on its sides and lid barely visible. He hesitated a moment, then in one quick motion undid the box’s latch and raised the lid.

It was a stone.

The stone was small enough to fit easily in the palm of one’s hand and perfectly round, like an oversize marble. It was a mottled gray-green in color.

Travis groaned in amazement. “A rock? I went through all of this for a rock?”

He reached out and picked up the stone. Instantly he sensed there was something more to it than he had guessed. It was slick, almost oily, although it left no residue on his skin. He turned it around and noticed a fleeting iridescence to its otherwise dull surface as it caught the morning light. The longer he looked at the stone, the more he realized how beautiful it was. He held the stone out toward Falken.

“Here, take a look at it.”

The bard shook his head and thrust his hands behind his back, as if to avoid temptation. “No, I do not think I will, Travis Wilder. Your friend Graystone gave it to you and you alone. I do not believe it is meant for other hands, at least not hands such as mine.”

Travis didn’t quite know what to make of Falken’s words. He gazed at the stone a moment more, then placed it back in its box. With reluctance he shut the lid. Now that he had seen the stone and how beautiful it was, it seemed a shame to hide it away again. Already he missed the smoothness of it against his skin, the weight of it in his hand. He started to open the box once more, but Falken’s movement halted him. The bard scattered a handful of dirt over the remains of the fire to extinguish it, then he placed the clay cups and the kettle in his pack, tied it shut, and stood.

“Well, I think we have wasted quite enough of this day.” Falken squinted up through the treetops at the hard blue sky. “It is best to get moving while the weather is fair, for storms can blow out of the Ironfang Mountains without warning this time of year.” He lowered his gaze toward Travis. “At present I am journeying southward, to the petty kingdom of Kelcior, where I hope to meet an acquaintance or two of mine. It is a trek of some days on foot, but you are welcome to join me as I travel. In fact, I would rather recommend it, for there is not another fortress or village to be found in many leagues of this place. At least, not one in which folk have dwelled in a thousand years.” He slung his pack over his shoulders.

Travis grabbed the box and leaped to his feet in renewed panic. It was one thing to sit in this strange forest and have coffee—or whatever the stuff was—with Falken. It had been almost pleasant. But to go tramping after the bard, farther and deeper into this … this world … was something else altogether. This place was where the billboard had brought him. If he left it behind, he didn’t see how he could ever hope to find it again.

“Wait a minute, Falken,” he said. “You still haven’t answered my question. What am I doing here? And how am I supposed to get back home?”

The bard shook his head. “I am afraid I have answers to neither of your questions, Travis. Though as we journey, it is my hope we might discover some. At any rate, I am beginning to think it was not chance I met you here.”

Some of Travis’s panic was replaced by puzzlement. “What do you mean?”

Falken’s faded eyes grew distant. “Fate is an efficient spinster. She wastes no thread needlessly, and it is fair to say she will weave as many destinies into one happening as possible.” Now a mysterious smile played across the bard’s lips. “So we will just have to keep our eyes open for those answers of yours, friend.”

With that, Falken turned and marched off through the leafless trees. Travis stared after him. What should he do? But even as he wondered, he knew he didn’t really have a choice. Once again in his life he had simply drifted with the tides of circumstance, and this was where they had stranded him. With a heavy sigh, Travis stuffed his hands into his coat pockets and trudged after the bard.

23.

All that day, Travis followed Falken through the frozen silence of the Winter Wood.

As they went, Travis was filled with questions—How far away was this Kelcior place? Who exactly were these people Falken was meeting? Would any of them be able to help him find a way home?—but he was forced to forgo asking them in favor of gasping for breath. The bard set a stiff pace over the uneven forest floor, up steep slopes, and down snow-dusted ravines. Despite his long legs, Travis was hard-pressed to keep up. The forest changed little during that first day, and consisted mostly of pale not-aspens dotted here and there by stands of purplish not-pines. Before long Travis noticed a third sort of tree, or rather shrub. This was a bluish evergreen, its feathery boughs speckled with pearlescent berries. Striving for consistency, Travis decided to call it not-juniper.

Soon the sun rose above the bare trees into the cobalt dome of the sky. Like everything else here, there was something peculiar about the sun. It loomed a little too large in the sky, and it cast a glowing yet dusky patina over everything, like the shellac on a Renaissance painting. Finally Travis remembered when he had seen daylight such as this before. It had been a few years ago in Castle City, during a partial solar eclipse. For a short time, the moon had taken a small bite out of the circle of the sun, and a gloom had descended over the valley, dim yet somehow rich, like tarnish on copper. The half-light had made everything look curiously old, and so it did in this world as well.

From time to time, when they crested a low hill, Travis caught a glimpse through the trees of mountains that thrust upward from the horizon like a dark wall. Although the rest of the sky was clear, clouds brooded behind the knife-edged line of peaks. He wasn’t certain why, but gazing at them filled Travis with a nameless foreboding, and he was glad they were heading away from the mountains rather than toward them.

It was late afternoon when he lost Falken.

With a grunt, Travis pulled himself up a rocky slope. At the top he bent over, hands on knees, to catch his breath. His stomach rumbled in complaint—the stew eaten beside Falken’s campfire seemed woefully long ago now—and he wondered how long it would be before they stopped to rest and, he hoped, have a bite to eat. He lifted his head to see how far ahead the bard had gotten.

Falken was nowhere in sight. Travis looked around, but all he saw was empty forest. Dread rose in his chest, and he cupped his hands to his mouth.

“Falken! Where are—?”

“Don’t shout, you fool!” a voice hissed in his ear.

Travis clamped his mouth shut and nearly shed his skin in fright. He whirled around, then terror gave way to relief when he saw Falken before him. The bard wore a disapproving frown on his face. The echo of Travis’s cry died on the air, as if suffocated by the preternatural quiet.

“I’m sorry, Falken.” Travis whispered the words, loath to break the oppressive silence of the forest again, for it reminded him of another silence, one that had hung over the Illinois farmhouse where he had grown up.

He had been thirteen. Day after day his father had lurched around the house, like some robot from a late-night space movie, while his mother had faded as steadily as the gingham curtains that drooped over the kitchen window. The air in the house was so brittle Travis had hardly dared say anything, let alone the one word that meant something, anything. Alice. As if now that she was gone, lowered in her small coffin into the ground, they had to pretend she had never existed.

“Travis?”

He shook his head. Falken still glared at him.

“I thought I had lost you,” Travis said.

“And lost me you had,” the bard said. “Though I certainly had not lost you.” His expression softened. “It is my fault, of course. I should have warned you earlier. So let me warn you now—it is not a good idea to shout or even raise your voice in a place such as this. This is not an evil land, and yet it is not so far from evil, either. It is best not to draw attention to one’s self when there is no telling who might be listening.”

As if to punctuate Falken’s admonition, a shadow flew overhead and let out a harsh croak that rang out through the forest. The two men looked up in time to see a raven wing swiftly over the treetops and vanish into the distance.

Falken shook his head. “It appears my warning comes too late. Yet I suppose we can hope it was simply an ordinary raven, disturbed from its roost by the sound of your call. If it was something else, then it is too late to trouble ourselves about it now.”

Travis wondered what the something else might possibly have been, but he was unsettled enough as it was, and he did not ask. Yet he could not help noticing that the raven had flown in the direction of the jagged peaks.

“It would be best to be as far from the mountains as possible by sundown,” Falken said.

With that, the bard hefted his pack and started off again through the forest. Despite his weariness, Travis found he had no desire to linger in this place. He mustered his strength and hurried after Falken.

They made camp that evening beneath the shelter of a stand of not-pines, and soon twilight mantled the forest. Falken started a small fire with flint and tinder and heated the remainder of the morning’s stew. They ate in silence, hungry after the day’s long march. However, when the dinner things were stowed once again in Falken’s pack, they sat close to the warmth of the fire and talked in low voices.

Travis would have asked questions, but he had no idea where to start. Fortunately, Falken seemed in a mood to talk, and for a time he spoke of things he thought a stranger to this world might be interested to know. He started with the names of the trees around them. The purplish pines were called sintaren, which meant duskneedle. The juniperlike shrubs were melindis, or moonberry. And the ghostly trees that reminded Travis of aspens had the most beautiful name: valsindar, which meant king’s silver. But, as Falken explained, they were more commonly called quicksilver trees for the manner in which they quickened, or trembled, under the slightest breath of wind.

Later Falken discussed something of Eldh’s geography, so Travis might know where in this world he was. At present they walked the far north of the continent of Falengarth. Kelcior, to which they journeyed, lay to the south, and beyond that were the seven Dominions, where many folk dwelled.

Travis gazed into the forest, and a question struck him. “What about this place, Falken? Doesn’t anyone live here?”

A shadow that might have been sorrow flickered over Falken’s visage. “Long ago, they did. We tread now in lands that once lay within the boundaries of the kingdom of Malachor. Then, all the north of Falengarth lay under the crown of that realm. But Malachor fell seven centuries ago and is no more.”

Travis frowned at this. Hadn’t the bard introduced himself that morning as Falken of Malachor? Of course, it was possible that Falken traced his ancestry to the ancient kingdom. That might explain what the bard was doing tramping around this desolate forest.

Falken went on. “I would hazard that knife of yours is of Malachorian make.”

Travis looked down in surprise at the stiletto tucked into his belt. Until that moment he had forgotten about the knife. At the Magician’s Attic—and again on the highway north of Castle City—it had shone crimson, but now the ruby embedded in the hilt was cool and dark. Travis looked up at Falken. “My friend Jack Graystone gave this to me. But what would Jack be doing with a knife from this world?” Even as he voiced the question he knew the answer. His eyes widened in shock.

Falken gave a sober nod. “Yes, Travis, I believe your friend Graystone came from Eldh. Though they are rare enough here, it seems wizards are more common in my world than yours. So you see, it is not chance at all that brought you to this place, though what the real reason might be I still cannot begin to guess.” He gestured to the stiletto. “At least your friend gave you a precious gift in parting. A Malachorian blade is a treasure few kings possess. Finer smiths have never worked metal in this world, unless one counts the dwarfs in their mountain forges—but the dark elfs are only a legend, and one barely remembered, like all the Little People.”

Travis traced a finger over the knife, as if he could feel the long years that lay upon it. Another question occurred to him, but even as he voiced it he wished he had not, for the fire seemed to dim, and the cold pressed in hungrily.

“Is there a country beyond the dark mountains?” he whispered.

Falken gave him a piercing look. “It is best not to speak in the dark of what lies beyond the Fal Threndur.”

With that, their conversation was finished. Falken banked the coals of the fire in the ashes, it was time for sleep. A half-moon had risen into the sky. Like the sun, it was larger than the moon Travis was accustomed to, only far more so. It seemed to hang only just beyond the treetops. And, as if to erase any doubt that might have lingered in Travis’s mind that this was truly another world, even the stars were too near and too brilliant and traced unfamiliar constellations against the heavens.

His shivering did not go unnoticed.

“Here, take this.” Falken pulled a bundle from his pack and handed it to Travis. “It is old, and a bit frayed around the edges, but the weave is still warm.”

Travis unfolded the bundle. It was a cloak. The pearl-gray cloth was thick and soft, and it seemed to absorb the moonlight.

“There are no finer garments than the mistcloaks woven in Perridon,” Falken said. “It will keep you warm, even in the deepest, dampest chill.”

Travis regarded his curious traveling companion, amazed at his kindness, but grateful for it all the same. “Thank you, Falken,” he said. “Thank you for everything.”

When at last the bard spoke, his eyes glittered in the gloom. “You may not wish to thank me yet, Travis Wilder.” But what those words meant, he did not say.

Travis lay down on a bed of pine needles and moss near the remains of the fire, then wrapped himself in the cloak. Soon his shivering stopped. He thought of all the strange and incredible things that had happened to him in the last two days, and was certain sleep would be impossible. However, exhaustion from the day’s labor soon won out over worries, and before long, slumber stole over Travis.

Afterward he was never quite certain, but as Travis drifted down into sleep, it seemed to him Falken still sat by the glowing coals, and that he drew an instrument, like some sort of lute, from his pack. The bard strummed a soft melody, and after a time, as the strange stars glowed in the sky above, he began to sing in a low voice. The bard sang about memory, and loss, and most of all about beauty. And whether it was a dream or not, the words lingered in Travis’s mind for the rest of his life:

The shining tower has fallen,

The high walls stand no more—

Yet I have been

On wings of dream

Again to Malachor.

How silent dwelled the garden,

Beneath that shadowed keep—

Still one rose bloomed

Amid the gloom

And dew its petals wept.

Before a throne of silver,

Stood columns two by two—

But did the hall

In ruin fall

Where valsindar now grew.

Alone there I did wander,

And yet when I did halt—

Still voices rang

And mem’ries sang

Within that forest vault.

At last the gloaming deepened,

And then I dreamed no more—

But sweet I own

That I have known

The light of Malachor.

24.

Either the going was not as rough as the day before, or Travis was already getting used to the thinner air of this new world. All day he tramped after Falken through the still reaches of the Winter Wood, and he kept pace so that never once did he lose sight of the bard.

As the ghostly valsindar slipped by, Travis’s thoughts turned to Castle City. He supposed he had been missed by now. No doubt Sheriff Dominguez had put out a missing person bulletin, and Deputy Windom would be questioning everyone in town concerning his whereabouts. At least Max was there to keep the saloon running. A longing filled Travis then—for the smoky warmth of the Mine Shaft and the familiar sound of Jack’s voice. A sharp pang of loss pierced his heart, and he rubbed his right hand.

After a time Travis shook his head. These were melancholy thoughts, but then the Winter Wood was a melancholy place. A shadow lay upon it, yet the shadow was not of it, and it was almost a sweet sadness that lingered there among the trees, like a memory of beauty. He sighed as he trudged after Falken. Sometimes it was all right to be sad.

It was late afternoon, and the sun had just dipped behind the sentinel trees, when Travis and Falken came upon a clearing. The silence of the wood weighed on this place, and the two men slowed to a halt. The clearing was roughly circular and about thirty paces across. Nothing grew on the frozen ground, not even moss or witchgrass.

In the center of the glade was a standing stone. The stone was as tall as a man and about half that much wide, hewn of some dark volcanic rock. Its surface was weathered and pockmarked with time. Propelled by curiosity—or perhaps some other force—Travis approached the stone. He now saw it was covered with carvings, but they were faint and illegible, all but worn away by centuries of wind and rain and ice. As he neared the standing stone, the air dimmed and grew colder, as if he had stepped into a shadow. In answer to a wordless compulsion, he lifted his arm and reached toward the rough surface of the stone.

“No, Travis, do not touch it,” a voice beside him whispered, gentle but insistent.

Travis stood frozen. The stone seemed to fill his mind and blotted out everything else. Then, with great effort, he shuddered and withdrew his hand. He tried to swallow, but his mouth was dry as dust.

“What is this place, Falken?” The unnatural hush stifled his words.

“It is evil,” the bard said, the line of his mouth grim. He paced around the stone, careful to keep his distance. “It is a relic of an ancient war, a war fought in this land long ago. A pylon, I believe such things were called then. I had thought all such traces of the Pale King were cast down in ages past. It seems I was wrong.”

Travis stared at the standing stone. The bard’s words thrummed in his mind, and he thought he saw a thousand sparks of crimson, like fire glinting off raised spears as a shining army marched toward a vast, shadowed host. Faint but clear, the sound of horns rang out as the army of light pressed onward, until it seemed like a tiny white ship lost in an undulating sea of darkness.

“Let us go,” Falken said. “We will find nothing good in this place. Even after all these centuries, the land has not forgotten the evil that dwelled here.”

Travis shook his head, and the vision melted away on the cold air. He stepped away from the standing stone, and the day brightened once more. He cast one last troubled glance at the stone, then hurried after Falken. While the bard had set a brisk pace before, now Travis almost had to jog to keep up with him. However, he did not complain, and soon the two left the glade and the pylon far behind.

For three more days they traveled south. As they marched, Travis found he had little extra energy to worry about how he was going to return home. Each day they rose with the frigid dawn and pushed on until twilight mantled the Winter Wood. They subsisted mostly on maddok and a thin soup Falken concocted of bitter herbs and hermit’s root—a kind of white root which the bard always seemed to know where to find. Once or twice a day Falken would pause in their trek to kneel and pry several of the roots from the frozen soil with his knife. Travis would not have ventured so far as to term the soup filling, but it did keep the worst of his hunger at bay. Then, late on the fifth day of their journey, the trees thinned, and the two found themselves on the edge of a gold-brown plain. At once the oppressive silence that had hung over the forest lifted, and the air, although it remained crisp, grew a trifle warmer.

“We have journeyed beyond the shadow of the Fal Threndur,” Falken said in answer to Travis’s unspoken question. “Winter comes early to this part of the world and lingers late, but in the Dominions autumn still wanes. We should find the climate a bit kinder as we travel on.”

Travis glanced back over his shoulder. True to Falken’s words, he could no longer glimpse the brooding line of mountains through the barren trees. However, to the south and east, the land rose up to meet a new range of mountains—a lower yet still rugged jumble of peaks. These Falken named the Fal Erenn, or the Dawning Fells.

“That way lies Kelcior,” the bard said.

Together they set out across the plains, leaving the sadness of the Winter Wood and the valsindar behind.

25.

Two days later they came upon the ancient road.

“This is the Queen’s Way,” Falken said as they scrambled over a grassy bank and onto the broad swath of the road. “Folk still call it by that name, though few know the true reason why they do.”

Travis plopped down on the side of the steep road bank to catch his breath, and Falken sat beside him. As far as they could see in either direction, the surface of the road was covered with flat stones. The paving stones were cracked and worn with centuries of wind and rain, and the passage of countless feet. Wind rattled through dry grass that had pushed up between them. However, the road was still passable, and it cut across the rolling landscape—straying from its course for neither hill nor valley.

They rested beside the road for a time and sipped water from a flask Falken pulled from his pack. The sun was bright, but the wind was sharp, and Travis was grateful for his new garb. In place of his jeans, work shirt, and jacket, he now wore a forest-green tunic and fox-colored breeches along with the gray mistcloak. The breeches fit him well enough, and while the tunic was on the baggy side, he had cinched it with a wide leather belt, into which he had tucked the Malachorian dagger. He had slipped the iron box and the half-coin Brother Cy had given him into a pocket sewn inside the tunic.

Falken had pilfered the clothes the day before from a ramshackle farm—the first sign of human habitation they had come upon.

“I cannot say I enjoy resorting to thievery,” the bard had said as he handed Travis the clothes. A mischievous light had twinkled in his faded blue eyes. “Nor can I say it is the first time. Regardless, now that we have reached the edge of settled lands, it is important you look less outlandish. Times were troubled when I left the Dominions, and they may have grown more troubled yet in my absence. It is best if we do not draw undue attention to ourselves.”

Travis had bathed in the frigid stream next to which they had made camp, and had donned the new attire. When he had returned to the campfire he had discovered, much to his chagrin, that Falken had burned his old clothes while he wasn’t looking. He had belatedly realized his wallet had still been in the back pocket of his jeans. Now his cowboy boots and his gunslinger’s spectacles were his only connections to Earth.

Travis scratched the red-brown stubble on his chin, then reached into his pocket and drew out the silver half-coin. He had all but forgotten about Brother Cy’s gift until last night. Now he studied the broken coin. There was something engraved on each side, but he couldn’t make out what the carvings were. It would take the other half to determine what the pictures represented.

Falken leaned over and peered at Travis’s hand. “What have you got there?”

Travis explained how the strange preacher had given him the coin after the revival.

Falken gave him a peculiar look. “May I see it?”

With a shrug, Travis handed the half-coin to him. The bard examined it closely, then shook his head.

Kethar ul-morag kai ennal,” Falken said. “Sil falath im donnemir.

The words that tumbled from the bard’s lips were flowing and beautiful but completely incomprehensible.

Travis gaped at Falken in confusion. “What did you say?”

This time it was Falken who looked confused. “Min uroth, kethar ul-morag kai ennal.” He handed the half-coin back to Travis. “As I mentioned, you’ll probably want to hold on to it. Whatever land this is from, it is very ancient. And do try not to mumble, Travis. I couldn’t understand a word you just said.”

Travis stared at the broken coin that glinted on the palm of his hand. “You weren’t the only one,” he said. Then, quickly, he explained what had occurred.

A few more experiments confirmed Travis’s suspicions. If he held the half-coin, or if it was anywhere about his person, he could understand Falken’s speech perfectly, and the bard could understand his. However, if Travis was not in contact with the coin, neither could understand a word the other said. There was only one answer. The language Falken spoke was not English—a fact that made perfect sense once Travis considered it. After all, this was an entirely different world. However, the half-coin Brother Cy had given him functioned as some sort of translator and allowed Travis to speak and understand Falken’s tongue, even though it seemed to him he still spoke English.

Falken’s expression was thoughtful. “It seems your friend Graystone was not the only wizard in this Castle City of yours. Tell me, are there any more surprises you have yet to spring on me?”

Travis gave a weak smile. “Only ones that will be surprises to me, too.”

The bard shot him a speculative look, then stood. “Come,” he said. “The day is wasting. If we press on, we may reach Kelcior before nightfall.” He shouldered his pack and started southward down the road, and Travis followed after.

“So just why is it called the Queen’s Way?” Travis asked after they had been walking for a time.

“It’s an old story,” Falken said. “This road was built a thousand years ago, in the years after the army of the Pale King was defeated by King Ulther of Toringarth. It is for Elsara, Empress of Tarras far to the south, that folk call it the Queen’s Way, although they do not remember it. It was she who commanded a road be forged, running from the city of Tarras on the shore of the Summer Sea, all the way to the then-new kingdom of Malachor in the north, where her son sat upon the throne side by side with Ulther’s daughter. But all those names are forgotten now.”

“Why were they forgotten?”

Falken paused to scoop up a handful of dirt in his gloved hand. “Malachor fell to ruin, and the Tarrasian Empire dwindled. Its borders moved ever southward, and left only barbarian lands in its wake, until the Dominions were forged centuries later. Of them all, only Toringarth endures to this day, although little is heard from the icy land beyond the sea. Kingdoms rise and kingdoms fall, Travis.” The dirt slipped through the bard’s fingers and was gone. “It is simply the ebb and flow of history.”

With that Falken started once more down the ancient highway. He began to sing in a clear voice, and Travis felt his blood stir, as if he could see the great battle conjured by the bard’s song:

With Fellring sword of Elfin art,

Ulther smote the Pale King’s heart—

The magic blade was riven twain,

But Berash did not stand again.

Then came the Runelords to the vale,

To bind the gates of Imbrifale—

And witches too with their fey art,

Wove passes high with perils dark.

Lord Ulther knelt before the Queen,

And a pact they forged between—

They set the guard of Malachor,

That shadows gather nevermore.

It was late afternoon, and the sunlight had turned to gold, when they came to the crossroads. The old road had plunged into a dense copse. There, within the leafless stand of trees, a narrower road intersected the Queen’s Way at right angles.

“We turn east from the Queen’s Way here,” Falken said. “It is not far now.” With that he started toward the left-hand road. Travis followed after.

The road left the copse behind, then began to wind its way up a series of ridges that rose ever higher, like gigantic stone steps. Not only was this road narrower than the Queen’s Way, it was in far worse repair. The paving stones were crumbling and treacherous, and in places they were gone altogether, leaving patches of hard ground where little grew besides stinging nettles, though these did so in great profusion. Soon Travis’s shins were burning with nettle stings, for the barbs seemed to prick right through his breeches.

Just when Travis’s lungs were starting to burn, the two men crested the shoulder of a ridge and came to a halt. Below them the land fell away into a bowl-shaped valley. In the center of the valley was a lake, its waters molten with the light of the westering sun. A rough finger of rock protruded into the lake, and atop the craggy peninsula stood a fortress of stone. Even from here Travis could see that at least half of the fortress had fallen into ruin. Broken columns loomed like rotten stumps over jumbles of stone that might once have been walls. Even the part of the fortress that still stood sagged under its own weight as if, with one final sigh, it might collapse inward at any moment.

“There it is,” Falken said. “Kelcior.”

Travis eyed the weathered keep, his expression dubious. “I hope you won’t be insulted, but it really doesn’t look like much.”

Falken laughed. “These days, it isn’t much. Though once, long ago, this was the northernmost garrison of the Tarrasian Empire, and after that it was a keep of Malachor. However, these days the fortress—or at least what’s left of it—is occupied by a scoundrel named Kel. Barbarian though he is, Kel fancies himself a king, and it’s a good idea not to disagree with him, at least not in his own great hall.”

A gloomy thought occurred to Travis as he gazed at the keep. He let out a troubled breath.

“What is wrong, Travis?”

He shook his head. “I don’t know. It’s just that you’re going to be meeting your friends here, Falken. That means your journey is over. But I still have no idea where I’m supposed to go to find a way back to my world.”

Falken studied Travis for a moment, then reached out to grip his shoulder. “I never said my journey ended at Kelcior, Travis.” He chuckled softly. “Given the nature of Kel’s court, it would be ill luck indeed if that were the case.” His visage grew solemn once more. “To speak the truth, I’m not certain either where best you should journey. But there is some hope one of my acquaintances will have a better idea of that than I. And do not forget the weavings of Fate. Who knows? It may be our paths lie together for a while yet, friend.”

Travis gave the bard a grateful smile. He was far from the world he had known all his life, but at least he wasn’t alone. Together the two started down the road toward the ancient fortress below.

26.

Grace clung to the knight’s broad back as his horse galloped toward the castle that loomed in the distance.

Castle?

The word skittered off the surface of her frosty mind. She tried to grasp at its meaning, but it was no use. Like a fish beneath the surface of a frozen lake, it flashed brightly and was gone.

She was cold, so terribly cold. A rolling landscape slipped by in blurs of gray and white. Yet a moment ago there had been something else, hadn’t there? She remembered branches against a pale sky, sharp and black as lines of ink on paper, forming angular words she could not read. Trees? Then there had been an expanse of silver, and the drumbeat of hooves on stone. However, the names for these things could not break the icy plane of understanding in her brain. After that the trees had fallen behind, and on a distant hill before them she had glimpsed towers and high walls muted by swirling shards of ice, just like a scene inside a child’s snow globe. Yes, it almost certainly had to be a …

She was too cold to grasp the word again. Perilously cold. She huddled inside the woolen blanket the knight had wrapped around her. It smelled of sweat and horses. Her half-frozen blouse and chinos clung to her skin, yet she was not shivering. Wasn’t she supposed to be shivering?

You’re hypothermic, Grace, spoke a dispassionate voice deep in her turgid brain. Even now, while the rest of her was numb with cold, the doctor in her evaluated the situation and offered its precise diagnosis. Your heart rate is depressed, your blood pressure is dangerously low, and you are clearly experiencing an altered mental state. You know these symptoms, they’re the first signs of a patient going into shock. You have to get warm, Grace. If you don’t, you will die.

It was so hard to move: Her muscles were lead. Yet somehow, ever so slowly, she tightened her arms around the knight’s chest, and pressed her body against the heaving back of the horse beneath her. This action drained the last remnants of her strength. Paralysis stiffened her limbs, the landscape around her faded away. Darkness pressed from all sides. It was neither cold nor warm, nor was there fear in its soft folds. There was only sweet and endless emptiness. Though a tiny presence seemed to whisper something to her—you can’t sleep, Grace, not now—she could not quite comprehend its words. She slipped deeper into the gently suffocating darkness.

It appeared as a tiny but brilliant spark against the black backdrop of her consciousness. It flashed and was gone. Grace ignored it and continued her descent into the abyss. Just a little farther now and she would never be cold again.

Another bright pinpoint flared in the dark, and another. Then there were thousands of them, small and sharp and white-hot as stars. At last she realized what the specks were. Pain. Countless pinpricks of pain crept along the surface of her skin. The sparks tore apart the darkness that surrounded her. She felt a twinge deep inside, followed a moment later by a noticeable twitch. Then, all at once, a violent shiver wracked her body.

She opened her mouth, drew in a shuddering breath, and only then did she realize she must have stopped breathing. Pain sparkled up and down her limbs as warmth from the horse and the knight crept into them. Again a shiver coursed through her, and again. After that she could not stop shivering.

This is a good sign, Grace, the doctor’s voice said without emotion. The reflexive action of your muscles will generate chemical heat and restore blood circulation to your extremities. The pain indicates you don’t have frostbite. You’re going to make it.

Shiver-warmth continued to seep through Grace’s body as the horse pounded onward through the wintry day. The dullness in her mind began to melt, and she grew more aware of her surroundings. For the first time she saw the knight as something more than a dim blur before her. She sensed that if he stood, he would not be a tall man, but he was powerfully and compactly built. He gripped the horse’s reins with mesh-gloved hands, and he wore a kind of long, smoke-gray shirt, slit on the sides, beneath which Grace felt numberless small, hard, interlocking rings of metal. A black cloak hung from his shoulders, and on his head he wore a flat-topped helmet of beaten steel.

The man glanced to one side, and Grace caught a glimpse of his profile. Pockmarks dinted his skin here and there, the legacy of some childhood disease. Ice clung to his drooping black mustaches, and his breath fogged on the air. His nose was hawkish beneath brown eyes, and creases framed the grim line of his mouth. She guessed the knight to be in his forties.

Knight?

Where had she gotten that word? Perhaps in her fog she had heard him use it. Or perhaps the term had been dredged out of her unconsciousness in response to the sword sheathed at his hip and the metal rings beneath his long shirt. Either way, the term suited the man. Noble, solemn, slightly dangerous. He looked like a knight should look.

She wondered then if she had been rescued by some sort of anachronist, a mountain recluse who styled himself as a kind of medieval warrior. The more she thought about the possibility, the more it began to make sense. Although it was difficult, she forced her brittle mind to search back and remember what had happened before she had found herself on the horse, riding with the knight through the frozen forest. She could almost recall a place, a door, a voice. Then, like dark water bubbling up through a hole in an icy lake, memories welled forth.

She remembered the orphanage. Yes, that was it. She had driven to the mountains in Hadrian Farr’s sedan, fleeing Denver, and the police, and the men with the hearts made of iron. Then she had been too weary to go on, and somehow, by chance or fate, she had ended up before the burned-out husk of the Beckett-Strange Home for Children. Now darker memories threatened to gush through the hole in the ice, but Grace forced them back. She did not want to remember those things. Not here, not now. It was already too bitterly cold.

What next?

An image flashed before her, of obsidian-chip eyes and a cadaverous grin. The man in black. Yes, that was right. She had spoken with the weird preacher in the old-fashioned suit, the preacher who was certainly akin to the porcelain doll girl in the park. What had the man in black told her?

Open the door, child. What you see beyond is up to you.…

That was just what she had done. She had opened the charred door of the old orphanage, and beyond the door had been … snow. The last thing she remembered was the sound of a door shutting behind her. Everything had turned white as she fell, and then—

—then she had been here, gripping the knight as the horse galloped on.

No, that wasn’t quite right. There had been something before that. The memory was as pale and fragile as the drifting snowflakes, but she recalled a moment when she had opened her eyes. Trees had woven their dark fingers against a white sky above her, and a shadowy form had bent over her as a deep voice spoke in wonder.

Why, ’tis a lady!

Piece by piece, her analytical mind began to patch together the puzzle. Of course—it all made sense. She had seen snow when she opened the orphanage’s door, but that was only because it had been snowing outside. It was hardly unusual for the mountains in late October. No doubt the flakes had drifted down through holes in the building’s ceiling. At that moment she had collapsed, an inevitable physiological reaction to stress and exhaustion. It was luck plain and simple that the knight had found her before she died of exposure.

Grace turned her thoughts to her rescuer. She supposed he was some sort of historical re-creationist. No doubt he lived in a remote valley, rode his horse, wore his costume, and pretended he dwelled in a time long past. Certainly it would have been better if someone passing by on the highway had seen her prone form, but Grace would not complain. She was grateful to have been rescued before hypothermia stopped her breathing for good. She supposed the knight was taking her to his hut or fort or whatever structure it was he had built for his home. Once she was warm enough, and when the weather permitted, she could walk back to the highway. And then? She wasn’t sure, but she could worry about that when the time came. She remembered the card the mysterious man, Hadrian Farr, had given her. It was still in the pocket of her now-thawed and wet chinos. Perhaps she would call the number on the card. The Seekers might be able to help her decide what to do next.

Carefully, for she was still dangerously cold, Grace parted the blanket in which she huddled, then peered around the knight’s broad back. She was curious to see if she could recognize any landmarks in the direction in which they rode. After all, this area had been her home once. Certainly she would recognize something.

Through the gap in the blanket, she watched fields bordered by low stone walls slip by, all dusted by the snow that fell from the colorless sky. None of it looked remotely familiar. Only after a long moment did Grace realize she could see no mountains. Instead, they rode across an undulating plain. But that couldn’t be right. Maybe the falling snow had obscured her vision. She leaned to one side, in order to get a view of what lay directly ahead of them.

She had forgotten about the castle.

It was closer now, standing atop a low hill that rose above the horizon. Turreted towers reached toward the sky, surrounded by a wall of gray stone. With sudden certainty she knew there was not now and never had been a place like this in Colorado. And the knight was riding directly for it.

Grace’s carefully crafted explanation shattered like so much ice.

27.

“Where …?”

The word was barely a whisper and was snatched away by the frigid wind. Grace drew in a gulping breath and pressed her lips together in an attempt to warm them. She tried again.

“Where are we?”

This time it was something between a whisper and a croak. The knight craned his neck and glanced back at her over his shoulder. For a fleeting moment he smiled, displaying whiter and straighter teeth than Grace would have guessed. Then his expression grew solemn once more.

“So, my snow lady is awake,” he said in a grave voice that was rich with a lilting accent Grace did not recognize.

It seemed he had not understood her faint words. With great effort, she spoke the question one more time.

The knight frowned, as if this were a peculiar thing to ask. “Why, we are in Calavan, of course.” He let out a forlorn sigh and his shoulders slumped. “But that was greatly discourteous of me, was it not? I will ask your forgiveness, though I doubt you can possibly grant it. You must feel distressed after your ordeal. Indeed, it is a wonder your mind was not completely addled by the cold, and that you can speak at all. So allow me to answer you again. We have been in the Dominion of Calavan proper ever since we crossed the old Tarrasian bridge over the Dimduorn, the River Darkwine.” He pointed toward the rapidly growing castle. “Yonder is Calavere, the seat of King Boreas.”

Grace did her best to digest this information. She could not fathom precisely what it meant—there were far too many intriguing but unrecognizable words. However, it all seemed to confirm her suspicion this was somewhere very far from Colorado. She tried to swallow and found she could.

“Why did you call me your snow lady?” Her voice was stronger this time.

The knight glanced back at her again, his brown eyes somber. “Because, my lady, when I came upon you in the forest, you were as white as the drift of snow in which you lay.” He shook his head. “I feared you were dead when I found you. In truth, I half fancied you had never been a living creature at all, for your skin was as white as ivory, and when I lifted you out of the snowbank your flesh was as hard and cold as stone. But when I laid my ear against your chest, I heard the faintest sound of a heart beating. ‘Durge,’ I said to myself, ‘somehow your snow lady is alive. But if you don’t get her to the castle, and as quick as lightning, she’ll be as cold as the snow indeed. No doubt you are too late, and there is no hope, but you ought to try all the same.’ ”

Grace’s forehead furrowed. The knight, whose name was apparently Durge, seemed a gloomy fellow. “But you did save me,” she said.

The knight looked startled at this. “We’ll see,” he said. “It isn’t much farther now, but I imagine you cannot endure the cold any longer. I suppose it would be all the more ironic if you expired a mere furlong from the castle gate.”

She shook her head. “I’ll make it.” A thought occurred to her. “You said you found me in the snow?”

“That is so, my lady. There has been an early snow—a queer storm for a land so far south as this. I rode into a clearing, and there you were, lying in a drift as peacefully as a princess on her feather bed. Nor were there footprints in the snow around you. It was as if you had drifted down from the sky.”

Here the knight paused and cast a look at her out of the corner of his brown eyes. However, if he wondered how it was she had come to be in the woods, he did not ask her. But how had she gotten from the old orphanage by the highway to a snowy forest here in … wherever this was? At the moment she had no idea, but she intended to find out.

“It is a wonder anyone found you at all, my lady,” Durge said. “It is spoken that Gloaming Wood is a fey and ancient place. Few of the common folk will venture within its shadowed eaves. I suppose they fear the Little People. Though it is the mundane dangers—boar and bear and poison mushrooms—rather than old myths that are likely to harm them.”

“Why … why were you in the woods?” Grace asked. The words came easier now.

“I am making haste to Calavere, my lady,” the knight said. “A Council of Kings has been called for the first time in long years, and the rulers of all seven Dominions ride to Calavan. I have journeyed south from my homeland ahead of my liege, King Sorrin of Embarr, to make certain things stand ready for him when he arrives at the castle. At dawn I decided to cut through the fringes of Gloaming Wood, for the way is faster, and I had hoped to find a fat stag to offer for King Boreas’s table. But winter comes early this year, and game is already scarce. I found no trace of stag in the woods. Thus King Boreas will have to make do with your company instead.”

Grace thought the stern knight had made a joke, then she reconsidered. Something told her Durge was not one for making merriment. Whoever this Boreas person was, she would almost certainly need his help to learn where she was, and it would not aid her cause if it seemed she was the reason there was no meat for his board.

Grace lifted her eyes to the dark shape that rose before them and studied it. She had seen castles before in pictures, and had been inside replicas of them at amusement parks. However, the fortress that loomed before her was neither a crumbling relic of a bygone age nor an anachronistic recreation constructed to amuse and elicit money from tourists. Somehow Grace knew this castle was real.

Counting, she saw the castle—Calavere, the knight had called it—possessed nine towers. None of them were alike. Some of the towers were tall and spindly with pointed roofs, while others were stout and square. Most were set into the many-sided wall that ringed the hilltop, while the largest dominated the center of the fortress. This last tower was a great, blocky structure as wide as it was tall, with narrow windows and high crenellated parapets. The haphazard towers gave the impression the castle had been built in many stages over several centuries with no common design. The result was a kind of stark and craggy majesty that seemed as natural and unplanned as the beauty of mountains.

Durge nudged the flanks of his soot-colored mount. “Come now, Blackalock. This is no time to dally.” The horse stretched its legs to gallop faster, yet the stallion’s gait remained smooth, even careful, and he rolled his eyes back to glance at the passenger who rode behind the knight.

In minutes they reached the base of the hill on which the castle perched. Durge guided Blackalock onto a broad path that wound in a spiral up to the summit. For the first time they encountered others on the road, and the higher they went the more people they passed. These were all on foot, dressed in drab but warm-looking clothes cut of rough cloth. Some pushed wooden carts filled with peat or firewood, while others carried bundles on their stooped backs or prodded flocks of goats with willow switches. To Grace they all looked curiously old: their limbs crooked, their faces weathered. All except for their eyes, which seemed too young for the rest of them.

A memory crept into her mind, of old men in patched overalls sitting on a rickety front porch. Only they hadn’t been old, had they? She had seen people like this once before, while on a vacation in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. In Appalachia there were places where people still lived under the same primitive conditions their ancestors had three centuries before, in ramshackle cabins that lacked refrigerators, running water, and electricity. Most of them had looked years older than their twentieth-century counterparts—wrinkled, gnarled, toothless. Something told Grace these people here were a similar case.

Peasants, the word drifted from her subconscious. With great effort, she dredged up dusty recollections from her undergraduate world history course. Didn’t every castle have peasants who paid tithes of goods and labor to the lord in exchange for protection? Except, according to the course professor, the feudal system had vanished over six hundred years ago. At least on Earth, a disconnected voice in her mind added. However, she was still too cold to consider the implications of that. She tightened the blanket around herself and tried not to stare at the people who trudged along the road.

They came to the castle gate. This was a high arch in the wall flanked by a pair of square towers. Massive doors of iron-reinforced wood stood open to either side. The knight slowed his horse to a walk and followed the stream of people into the opening. Beyond was a dim corridor. The sounds of people and animals echoed off the stone walls. At the far end of the passage was a raised iron grill. Grace craned her neck and saw dozens of holes in the ceiling. Their purpose was clear. Intruders who broke through the first gate would be stopped by the second and caught within the tunnel while defenders rained down arrows or boiling lead from the murder holes above. Whatever this place was, it certainly was not unfamiliar with the concept of war.

Two men stood at the far end of the tunnel, clad in mail shirts, swords belted at their hips. Like the peasants, they were small but powerful-looking, with weathered faces and young eyes. The men-at-arms collected a copper coin from each of the peasants who passed through the far archway. The knight nudged his mount forward. One of the men-at-arms looked up, then saluted, fist against chest.

“Where will I find King Boreas’s seneschal?” Durge asked.

“In the king’s stable, in the upper bailey, my lord,” the guard said and gestured through the archway.

Durge nodded and guided Blackalock toward the opening. As they passed, the guard’s eyes widened. The man elbowed his companion, who affected a similar expression. Durge kept his gaze fixed ahead. Grace cast one last glance back and saw the two men-at-arms make some strange sign with their hands. Then the horse passed through the archway and into the space beyond.

It was a courtyard. High walls enclosed an area as large as a city block. The courtyard—or bailey, to use the guard’s word—was ringed all around by stone buildings of myriad shapes and sizes, each built with its back against the castle’s outer wall. Smaller buildings of wood were scattered throughout the courtyard. It looked as if some sort of market or fair were in progress, for the entire bailey bustled with peasants and various castle folk. The hooves of livestock and the wheels of carts had churned the ground into a mire. There was as much to smell as see, and Grace’s nostrils were assailed by the odors of smoke, manure, and roasting meat. Any last doubts this place was anything but real were erased from her mind.

Knight, horse, and passenger moved through the crowded courtyard.

“What was that all about?” Grace gestured back toward the castle’s gate. “The guards acted so strangely when they saw me.”

The knight cleared his throat. “It was nothing that should concern you, my lady. They wonder who you are, that is all. You must forgive them. They are simple men.”

Grace accepted this, but she thought there was something more Durge was not telling her. A flash of silver caught her eye, and she glanced down at the ground. It was a puddle of water, a mirror to the sky above. A ghostly face gazed up at her: thin, ethereally pale, green-gold eyes like summer gems above sharp cheekbones. It was her own reflection in the puddle. No wonder the guards had stared at her so. The horse continued on, and the reflection was gone.

At the far end of the bailey was a wall that was darker and older-looking than the others. There was a second gate in this wall, and it was toward this that Durge steered his horse.

“We are going to see Lord Alerain, my lady,” the knight said. “He is the king’s seneschal, and so is concerned with visitors to the castle. I must announce myself to him, and he will be able to see to your needs.”

Grace gave a jerky nod. It was not as if she had any other suggestions.

They passed through the gate and entered a smaller courtyard. The upper bailey was quieter than the lower bailey. This was the oldest part of the castle, Grace decided, for here the stonework looked heavier and more weathered. Against the far wall rose the high, square tower she had glimpsed before. It must have been the hill fort’s original keep, although its layers of different-colored stone indicated that the tower had been expanded many times in its history. Stone wings stretched from either side of the main keep and turned the corners to encircle the courtyard on all sides.

In the center of the upper bailey was a thick and tangled garden that looked like a tiny forest. Even in this wintry weather, Grace caught the faint perfume of flowers on the air, and from somewhere in the garden drifted the music of water. She sighed. It was a peaceful and private refuge. Even the thick stone walls were comforting rather than confining.

There were fewer people about the inner courtyard—men-at-arms and others Grace took for servants. Durge asked a grizzled guard to direct them to the king’s stable, and the fellow pointed toward a long wooden building. As they approached the structure, Grace caught the rich scent of horses.

The knight brought his horse to a halt and dismounted, then reached up to help Grace. She was stiff and clumsy and nearly fell, but Durge caught her in strong arms and set her on the ground.

A sharp voice emanated from the stable. “And the next time I catch you sleeping, boy, you can clean all the stalls yourself—and without the benefit of a rake, mind you!”

“Yes, Lord Alerain,” answered a youthful and contrite voice.

A figure stepped from the shadows of the stable. He was a lean, precise man of later years. His white hair was closely cropped, and a neatly trimmed beard adorned his pointed chin. His garb was fine but understated, all in shades of maroon and black, and a cloak was clasped at his neck by a simple—but large—gold brooch. He cut an imposing figure, yet there was something grandfatherly about him all the same. Perhaps it was the preoccupied look in his watery blue eyes. He started toward the keep, an intent cast to his face.

“Pardon me, Lord Alerain,” Durge said.

The seneschal looked up, searched for the source of the voice, saw them, and approached. He studied the knight, then seemed to make a decision. “The earl of Stonebreak, I presume?” he asked in a formal tone.

“You presume correctly,” Durge said.

A smile broke through Alerain’s stern expression. “Then I have not lost all my skill. Well met, my lord. You have the look of your father, Vathris keep him.” He reached out and gripped the knight’s hand. “It seems Embarr is the first to arrive for the council. Is King Sorrin far behind you?”

“At least a fortnight, my lord. Though it would surprise me little if his traveling party were delayed by bandits, or lamed horses, or a fallen bridge.”

Alerain scowled at this. However, his eyebrows were too bushy for the expression to be genuinely fierce. “You Embarrans! Such a gloomy folk—always expecting the worst of things. I’m certain King Sorrin will arrive in good order.”

Durge shrugged. “If it pleases you to say so, my lord.”

The seneschal rolled his eyes but let it pass. He glanced at Grace, who was still wrapped head to toe in the blanket. “Tell me, my lord, who is this who accompanies you?”

“I cannot truly say, Lord Alerain.” Durge gazed at her with his solemn eyes. “I came upon her half-frozen in the snow, in the eaves of Gloaming Wood.”

Alerain gave the knight a sharp look. “You ventured into Gloaming Wood?” The seneschal shook his head. “You are a brave man, Sir Knight. Or, if you’ll forgive me, a foolish one. You might have become as lost as this poor lass.” He took a step toward her. “Now, what have we here?”

Grace opened her mouth, but Alerain clucked his tongue to silence her. “Do not fear, my child. We’ll get you out of that damp blanket and into something dry at once. There will be plenty of time to tell us your name after you’ve warmed yourself by a fire.” He reached a hand toward her.

Grace hesitated. Yet it couldn’t hurt to wait until she was warm and dry to start asking questions about where she was. She reached out to take the seneschal’s hand. As she let go of the blanket, it slipped back around her shoulders, away from her face.

Alerain sucked in a hissing breath. “My lord!” he said to Durge. “Why did you not tell me who your companion was?”

The seneschal dropped to one knee right there on the muddy ground in front of the stable. Grace cast a startled look at Durge. The knight gave a nod, as if something he had suspected had just been confirmed. Then he too bent to one knee before her.

Grace watched the men in confusion. What was going on? As if to answer her question, Alerain bowed his head and spoke in a ritual tone.

“Welcome to Calavere, Your Highness. How may we serve thee?”

28.

The door shut behind Grace and she was alone inside the drafty bedchamber. Outside, footsteps faded away as the two maidens who had led her through the castle’s labyrinthian corridors retreated. She let out a deep breath.

“What would a princess do in this situation, Grace?”

She grimaced. It had been absolutely no use trying to convince Lord Alerain she was nobody special. In the courtyard, after the flustered seneschal had managed to recover his composure, she had attempted to explain he had made a mistake. Her name was Grace Beckett. She was not royalty, and there was absolutely no need to keep bowing his head or calling her Highness.

Despite her repeated protests, Alerain had given her a conspiratorial wink. “As you wish, Your Highness,” he had said. “It is not my place to question why a lady of high station might desire to travel in disguise. It is a curious happening, to be sure, but these are curious times. Though I confess, I cannot fathom from whence you hail. The line of your jaw speaks of the noble houses of northeast Eredane, but your cheekbones could belong to a duchess of southernmost Toloria. And your eyes are like those of no royal family I can think of.” He had stroked his short beard. “It is part of my office to know every noble in the Dominions on sight, whether we have met before or no. But I know you not. This Beckett must be a dominion far distant from Calavan.”

“Very far,” Grace had replied.

After that she had given up. It was simpler that way. Besides, she was too numb really to protest. Alerain had summoned a half-dozen servants, and with crisp commands gave orders for a room to be prepared for her. Most of the servants had dashed off at breakneck speed, but two pretty women—barely more than girls—clad in dove-gray dresses had remained behind. Each took one of Grace’s elbows and had led her at a more careful pace toward one of the wings of the keep. She would have shaken off their hands and told them she could walk on her own, but she wasn’t entirely certain that was true. Her knees shook, and she felt light and hollow.

She had wondered then what had become of Durge in all of the chaos, and had glanced over her shoulder. Gloomy as he was, she rather liked the knight, and though she seldom made friends, she thought she could use one in this unfamiliar place. However, the brown-eyed knight had been nowhere in view, and before she could ask about him the maidens had led her through a door into the keep.

Now Grace let her gaze wander over the room. It was perhaps five paces across and nearly twice as long. One end of the room was dominated by a gigantic four-posted bed. The top of the bed was so high off the floor that a stepping stool placed before the footboard was the only practical means of climbing up. At the other end of the room was a fireplace in which a cheerful blaze crackled, and on the far wall was a narrow window glazed with thick glass. All around the room colored tapestries hung against the walls and depicted flowering trees, lushly tangled vines, and clear fountains. So vivid were the images in the weavings that if she half closed her eyes, Grace could almost believe she stood in an idyllic spring glade. Almost. For despite the fire and the tapestries, and a worn carpet beneath her feet, a chill radiated from the stone walls and floor. By this, and the musty odor that lingered on the air, she suspected this room had not been used in some time.

Grace decided to look out the window in an effort to get her bearings—she had lost all sense of direction in the castle’s mazelike corridors—and moved toward the far wall. Halfway there she halted—something she had not noticed before caught her eye. In a corner near the fireplace was a large wooden tub filled with water. Even as she watched, a crisp curl of steam rose from the water’s surface. On a stool next to the tub lay a neatly folded cloth towel, a brown lump she took for soap, and a porcelain bowl filled with dried herbs and flower petals.

Grace cast another look at the window. She wanted to learn more about where she was. However, the window wasn’t going anywhere, and right now her chilled body ached to feel itself immersed in hot water. She debated the issue—window or bath?—for a second more.

Bath won out.

She stood before the fire, kicked off her cold shoes, and started to unbutton her blouse. It was only then she noticed her left hand was clenched shut in a tight fist. She thought about it and realized it had been so all along. With her right hand she had clutched the blanket around her while on the knight’s horse, and it was also with the right she had reached toward Alerain. Her left hand had remained closed throughout all of it, so numb with the cold she had not noticed. Now, with her right hand, she unclenched the left.

Something small and silver shone on the palm of her hand.

Grace peered at the object she had clutched so tightly. It looked like half of a coin. There was a design on each side, but she could not make them out, for the half-coin was too worn. It must have been very ancient. Yet where had it come from?

A raspy voice seemed to speak again in her mind. It is merely a token. Yet in it there may reside some small reservoir of strength.

Of course. He had given it to her. The weird preacher man in black. Brother Cy. She remembered something small and cool being pressed into her hand, just before she had opened the door of the orphanage. Just before everything had gone white and she had awakened to find herself here, in this …

“… world?” she whispered aloud.

Yes. That was the word that had been hovering on the edge of her understanding, waiting for her to voice it. This was not present-day Earth. Nor was this even Earth as it had been in some past century. She wasn’t certain how she knew this, only that she did. Perhaps it was some deep and primeval human instinct, embedded in her chromosomes over the course of millions of years of evolution—sensitive to slight discrepancies in the color of the light, or the force of gravity, or the chemical composition of the atmosphere—that told her this was not her world.

Yet that did not seem entirely right. If that were truly the case, then the knowledge she was no longer on Earth—that she had somehow stumbled through an impossible doorway into another, alien world—should have flooded her veins with fear and adrenaline. Wasn’t that how instincts worked? However, for all its strangeness, there was something about this place that felt oddly … comfortable.

None of this served to answer her primary question. How had she gotten here? Had he sent her to this world? But the preacher had told her what lay beyond the door of the orphanage was up to her. Perhaps something deep inside of her had wished to find a way to another world.

She dug into the pocket of her chinos and pulled something out. It was damp and rumpled but still legible: the business card Hadrian Farr had given her. Farr had told her it was the mission of the Seekers to search for and study strange occurrences.

A jolt of grim humor hit her. “You should have stuck with me, Farr. It doesn’t get any stranger than this.”

A shiver reminded Grace of the steaming tub of water. She set the card and the half-coin on the mantel above the fire place, then took off her necklace and placed it beside them When she got back to Earth—if she got back, she amended, then suppressed the thought—she would call the number on the card and talk to the Seekers. However, right now there were other matters to concern her, the most immediate of which was survival.

As quickly as she could with her stiff fingers, she shucked off her wet clothes and piled them in a heap before the fireplace. Then, without even testing the water, she climbed into the tub.

She let out a gasp. The water was shockingly, painfully, and deliciously hot. A series of violent shivers surged through her body, and needles of pain danced across her skin. She forced herself to stay submerged. Her shuddering eased, and the bright pinpricks faded to a pleasant tingling. Finally the heat seeped into her chilled core, and her shivering ceased. She let out a luxuriant sigh and sank deeper into the tub as her stiff muscles melted.

She decided it was time to scrub and reached for the lump of soap. It was soft and fatty, and its smell was faintly rancid. However, it was soothing as salve when she rubbed it on her skin. She sprinkled the dried herbs and flowers into the water, and a sweet fragrance rose upward, effectively masking the unpleasant odor of the soap, as was clearly their purpose.

After this, Grace leaned back, soaked, and drowsed for a time. At last the water started to cool. With a sigh, she climbed from the tub and toweled off in the glow of the fire. Soon she was dry and warm. And, she realized, quite naked. She eyed the clothes piled on the hearth. They were steaming now, but still sopping.

She gazed around the room, and her eyes fell on a tall cabinet in a corner. She threw open the cabinet’s doors, and this action confirmed her initial suspicion. It was a wardrobe. Inside were several gowns, each a different color, but all fashioned of soft wool. Folded on a shelf above were some sort of undergarments, made from undyed linen. All looked to be about her size. No doubt these things had been brought here ahead of her, along with the tub of water. Grace gave the odd clothes a dubious look. None of them were exactly her style—chinos and a blouse were about as dressy as she ever got—but she supposed necessity superseded fashion.

The undergarments were easy enough to comprehend. They were soft and not unlike a pair of long underwear. She slipped them on, then started to reach for one of the gowns, but at that moment a wave of weariness washed over her. Between her ordeal in the woods and the warmth of the bath, she was exhausted. Her gaze drifted toward the massive bed, and immediately her only thoughts were of sleep. She clambered up the stepping stool, flopped onto the bed, and sighed as she sank down into expansive softness. Goose down.

Then, for a time, she did not think of all that had happened to her. She did not think of the man with the heart of iron, or of Hadrian Farr, or of Brother Cy. She did not think of this strange world, or of how far away from Earth she might be. She did not even think of the hospital, or of the endless stream of broken people that streamed through the Emergency Department’s door.

Grace’s last conscious effort was to burrow under the heavy bedcovers. Then she shut her eyes and drifted into a deep and peaceful sleep in which she thought of nothing at all.

29.

Travis and Falken reached the ancient keep just as the sun sank behind the rim of the valley and the lake turned from copper to slate.

“Shall we see if anyone is home?” the bard said. His black-gloved hand slipped to the knife belted at his hip, and belied his light tone. Travis didn’t need a magical translator for that message. He swallowed hard and gripped the hilt of his stiletto. Falken made a fist of his left hand and pounded on the door—a huge slab of scarred wood—three times.

There was a grating sound. Then, with a groan, the door opened a crack—just enough to reveal a single, bulbous eye. The bloodshot orb rolled back and forth, then focused on the two men.

“Who goes there?” a chalky voice said.

Falken answered in a formal tone. “Two travelers seeking shelter against the coming night.”

“Well, then you had better find another keep,” the voice said in a croak. “We’ve already taken in our share of vagrants. We couldn’t possibly squeeze in another, let alone two. Good-bye!”

The door started to shut, but Falken wedged the toe of his boot in the crack to keep it open.

“In case you hadn’t noticed, there are no other keeps,” the bard said. “We might be on the far frontier of the Dominions, but even here the laws of hospitality hold sway. Or have you forgotten?”

This resulted in a burst of cackling. “I have forgotten nothing. Yet I’m afraid King Kel doesn’t go in much for laws—except for ones he makes up himself, of course. Still, I doubt you’ll find a lord more hospitable to those he favors—or more harsh to those he does not.” The eye squinted to a slit. “Which be you, Falken of the Blackhand? Friend or foe?”

Another burst of laughter answered Falken’s surprised expression.

“Yes, I know who you be, wanderer. Of little worth would be the doorkeeper who did not know the sight of the Grim Bard coming!” The eye rolled in Travis’s direction. “But what is this delicious morsel you’ve brought with you?”

Travis squirmed under the orb’s scrutiny, uncomfortable for a reason he couldn’t quite name.

Falken glowered at the eye. “Just answer my question. Are you going to let us in or not?”

“Oh, very well,” the voice said. “If you absolutely must, you may pass. But you would be wise to answer my question, at least to yourself. Be you friend or foe? As I recall, King Kel was not altogether pleased with the name Falken Blackhand when last you left here.” With that the eye vanished.

“What was that supposed to mean?” Travis whispered.

“I’m not entirely certain.”

Travis didn’t like the sound of that, but before he could question the bard further the door swung inward with a creak. Torchlight spilled out. The doorkeeper was nowhere in sight. Travis took a deep breath and followed Falken into the passageway beyond. There was a great booming as the door slammed shut behind them. The two men spun around.

It took Travis a moment to realize that what he had at first mistaken for a pile of rags in the dim light was in fact an old woman. She slid a wooden bar across the door, then scuttled toward them. Bony arms and legs stuck out of the tatters that wrapped her shapeless body, like the limbs of a spider. She stared at the two with her one bulging eye.

“Welcome to Kelcior!” she said in a facetious croak.

Falken was obviously unimpressed. “So King Kel has been reduced to this? A single hag to guard his door? What happened to those famed warriors of his?”

“Bah!” the old woman said. “Warriors.” With a gnarled hand she gestured toward an alcove. Two men clad in greasy leather slumped within, snoring. “These ones drank themselves into a stupor by sundown—as usual.”

Falken’s eyes narrowed. “And I suppose they didn’t have any help in this matter from you, witch?”

A snaggle-toothed grin split her face. “ ’Tis not my fault if they don’t look at what’s floating in their ale before they quaff it!”

Falken shot Travis a look. “So are you going to take us to Kel or not?” the bard asked.

“Ah! Too important to hang about with the likes of Grisla, are we?” The witch affected a mocking bow. “Very well, Lord High-and-Mighty. Grisla will do as you bid, and with quivering pleasure. Come this way, come this way!”

The hag Grisla grabbed a smoking torch from the wall and led them down a murky corridor to a set of doors. A dull roar emanated from the other side.

The hag gestured to the doors. “Beyond is the great hall. The king is holding a feast tonight.”

“When isn’t Kel holding a feast?” Falken asked.

Grisla scratched at her matted hair. “I think there was a Melinsday morning two years ago when everyone decided to go on a picnic instead.”

Falken let out a groan. “Enough, witch! Back to the door with you.”

Venom perfused her words. “As you wish, Lord Irritability.”

Before she left them, the crone plucked at Travis’s sleeve with knobby fingers. “I have an eye for you, my lad!” She cackled and pressed something into his hand.

Travis looked down, then gagged. On his palm was a glistening eyeball. It lolled damply back and forth, staring up at him. With a yelp he dropped the eye, and it rolled away down the hall.

With a shriek, Grisla chased after the orb and groped for it with blind hands. At last her fingers closed on the loose eye. The witch stuck it back in its socket, grunted in satisfaction, then scuttled down the hallway.

Travis wiped his hand on his tunic. He felt vaguely ill. “How did she do that?”

Falken shook his head. “Believe me, you don’t want to know.” He motioned to the doors. “Shall we?”

Together the two pushed through into the space beyond.

Travis’s senses reeled, overwhelmed as they tried to take in the dizzying scene that greeted them. The great hall of Kelcior was a cavern of a room. High walls of stone rose to a ceiling crisscrossed by soot-blackened beams. Two lines of trestle tables ran the length of the room, perpendicular to the high table, which stood upon a dais at the head of the hall. Torches lined the walls, but their light barely cut through the haze of smoke that hung on the air. Travis took a breath and nearly choked on a powerful reek—a mélange of burnt meat, spilt beer, sweat, and vomit.

King Kel’s feast was no formal affair. As many people stood on the tables as actually sat at them. Brawny men used swords to hack apart huge joints of roasted meat, while others drank out of rusted helmets. Serving wenches swaggered as they plunked down platters of food and deftly evaded large, groping hands. One warrior managed to grab a smudge-faced maiden and got a dagger through his hand as a reward. Children in patched tunics ran shrieking back and forth in some ruleless game, while wildmen—clad in rancid animal skins, their hair caked with blue mud—fought and snarled with mangy dogs for scraps under the tables.

Travis gave his companion a dubious look. “Are all your friends like this, Falken?”

The bard treated Travis to a withering glance, then wended his way through the throng. Travis followed close on his heels. They reached the steps below the high table.

A great bellow thundered over the roar of the feast. “Bring me another haunch of aurochs! Hold on there—better make that two. I’m feeling a bit peckish!”

Travis craned his neck and stared upward in awe. The largest man he had ever seen sat at the center of the high table. The man had the shoulders and chest of a grizzly bear, and his huge head was crowned by a shock of red hair that was surpassed in wildness only by the tangled bush of his beard. Eyebrows bristled like living things over the blue sparks of his eyes. A sizzling hunk of some dead beast was plunked before him. Kel displayed pointed teeth in a barbaric grin, then tore into the joint of meat with hands like paws.

As befit a king—even a petty king—sitting with Kel at the high table were the most important members of his court. That is, the burliest warriors, the most buxom wenches, and the wildest-looking wildmen. Once, years ago, while in an unfamiliar city, Travis had accidentally stepped into a rough and seedy biker bar. Harrowing as that experience had been, that bar had had nothing on this place. If he turned and left now, would he have a chance of getting to the door before getting a sword in the gut?

“Don’t even think of running,” Falken said under his breath. “They can sense fear.” With that, the bard ascended the first step of the dais.

“Greetings, Kel, King of Kelcior!” Falken spoke in a resounding voice.

The king looked up, and his blue eyes widened into circles. The joint of meat slipped from his hand and fell to the table. As if that were a cue, the entire great hall went silent. Warriors froze in mid-brawl, wenches gripped serving trays with white-knuckled hands, and wildmen cowered beneath tables, where they whimpered along with the frightened hounds.

30.

“Falken Blackhand!” King Kel’s voice was a growl. “I had not expected to see your bleak face in my hall again. At least, not so soon after the last time. Have you come to bring me another disaster? We’ve only barely finished burying the bodies after the last one, you know.”

Falken raised a hand to his heart in a gesture of feigned surprise. “So the north guard tower did fall, then?”

King Kel shoved back his chair and stomped around the high table to tower over Falken. “Aye, it fell! Just as you said it would, and mere hours after you disappeared without begging proper leave from my kingdom, you scoundrel. Killed my best hunting dog when it went.” Kel wiped a tear from the corner of his eye. “Oh, and a few dozen members of my court as well.”

“I warned you the tower’s foundation was weak.”

Kel grunted in suspicion. “Aye, you did at that, Falken Blackhand. It seems you’re always warning of disaster, and it seems you’re always right.” He glowered at the bard. “A man might start to wonder if dark happenings follow you, or if, just maybe, you have a hand in making your warnings come to pass.”

At this accusation a hiss ran around the great hall. Kel wasn’t the only one with this idea.

Falken held out his arms, begged for silence, and somehow received it. “It is true I have often warned you against impending trouble, Your Majesty. And if you heeded my warnings, it might be little ill would come of them. Be that as it may, I am saddened you have forgotten all the other admonitions of Falken Blackhand—the ones that have brought good rather than ill.”

Falken paced on the dais. His voice rose, as if this were a performance of some sort. Travis held his breath. Perhaps it was at that, a performance which, if not compelling enough, could cost them their heads.

“Who told you where in the lake to search for lost treasures of Tarras?” Falken asked. “Who told where to mine salt, when you had no salt for your table? And who sang to you the entire Lay of Boradis for three days without pause or rest, just so you could hear over and over the verse in which the dragon eats the army?”

The king’s eyes sparkled. “I love that part!”

Falken fixed Kel with a sharp look. “Who did these things?”

The king heaved his massive chest in a sigh. “You did, Falken.”

Falken crossed his arms and nodded.

Kel scratched his furry chin in thought, then snapped his thick fingers. “I know! I’ll ask my advisor what I should do.”

Falken’s brow furrowed. “Your advisor?”

The king’s bellow rang out over the great hall. “Where’s my witch? Somebody bring me my witch!”

“I’m right here, Your Boisterousness.” A spidery form scurried onto the dais.

Falken raised a single eyebrow at the hag. “You’re his advisor, too? If you don’t mind my saying, you seem to get around.”

Grisla shrugged her bony shoulders. “A witch’s work is never done.”

King Kel looked to the hag. “What should we do with them, witch?”

She reached into the mass of rags that covered her body and drew out a handful of thin, yellow objects. Only when she cast them upon the steps did Travis realize they were bones. Grisla hunkered down to study the pattern made by the fallen bones.

“Humph!” she said. Then, “Hmm.” At last she concluded with a harsh “Hah!”

Kel clasped a big hand to his chest. “What is it, witch?”

Grisla looked up and fixed Falken and Travis with her one bulging eye. Travis’s heart fluttered.

“The oracle bones speak clearly,” Grisla said. “These two come on dark business.”

The king let out a snort. “I hardly need your charms to tell me that, hag.”

“I’m not finished! Dark as their business is, it does not concern us.” Grisla gazed again at the bones, and her face pursed into a frown. “Yet it does not not concern us.”

“That’s conveniently vague,” Falken said.

Grisla snorted. “I don’t make the oracles, I just read what they say.” The hag gathered up the bones and tucked them away among her rags.

King Kel mulled over this new information. He scratched his head and made his wild red hair even wilder. Then he nodded. “I have made my decision.” He towered over Falken and Travis. “I will not grant you the hospitality of my hall, Falken Blackhand.”

Travis shot Falken a look of open alarm. The bard started to protest but was silenced as Kel raised a meaty hand.

“However,” the king went on, “I will allow you to earn it.”

At this Falken’s grim expression was replaced by a broad smile, and Travis let out a breath of relief.

“I will be only too happy to earn my keep with my lute, Your Majesty,” the bard said. “And, if it would please the court, I might even sing the Lay of Boradis a time or two.”

A toothy grin split Kel’s face. “By Jorus, I never could stay mad at you, Falken!” He grabbed the bard and crushed him in a bear hug. The great hall erupted into merriment once again.

“I can’t play if you break me,” the bard said in a muffled voice.

Kel dropped Falken to the dais. The bard staggered and might have fallen save for Travis’s steadying arm. The king returned to the high table and called to his servants. Two stools were set upon the steps before the high table, one each for Falken and Travis. The only chair in the entire great hall belonged to the king—everyone else sat on benches. A wench thrust a foaming tankard into Travis’s hand. Thirsty, he took a deep draught and immediately started choking. The gritty liquid in the tankard was neither Budweiser nor oatmeal but something in between.

“Don’t just sit there sputtering, Travis,” Falken said. “Unwrap my lute and hand it to me.”

Travis managed to catch his breath. “But the pack’s right by you. Can’t you get it yourself?”

“I could,” Falken said. “But it’s an apprentice’s job to serve his bard. Unless, of course, you don’t wish to pose as my apprentice, and would prefer to find your own way to earn King Kel’s hospitality. I’m sure the drunken warriors over there could use someone to hold up their knife-throwing target.”

Travis hurriedly reached into the pack and retrieved the bard’s lute.

The feast resumed, and Falken strummed his lute and sang of ancient battles, proud kings, and fey treasures. Travis was content to sit quietly on his stool and sip his beer. It wasn’t so bad once he learned to filter it through his teeth. He listened to the bard’s songs and let his gaze drift over the great hall. In one corner of the hall he noticed two people—a man and a woman—who did not seem to fit in with the rest of the barbaric revelers. The woman was beautiful, her hair black, her skin coppery, her amber eyes striking. She wore a midnight-blue kirtle trimmed with silver. Her companion was a big, rangy, fair-haired man. He appeared to be a knight of some sort, for he wore a heavy-looking shirt of chain mail, and a helm rested on the table before him. The knight watched the merriment in the hall with an expression of amusement, while the woman’s gaze was turned inward, as if she gazed upon some secret place.

Falken handed Travis the lute, and his attention was turned away from the two strangers. It was time for a break. Kel called out in his thundering voice for food to be brought for the bard and his apprentice. Each was handed a hunk of meat on a slice of hard bread, which Falken called a trencher. Travis was ravenous. Not caring what animal it might have come from, he took a bite of the meat and chewed. And chewed. And chewed. It was more gristle than flesh. He managed to swallow, although just barely.

He snapped his head up at a low growl. A hunting dog stood before him, muzzle pulled back in a snarl. Travis decided it wasn’t worth losing a hand over and tossed the rest of the unidentifiable meat to the dog. He settled for gnawing on the trencher, which, while stale, was somewhat edible.

Another call went out from the high table and was quickly picked up by others.

“Bring on the play! Where is Trifkin Mossberry? Bring on the play!”

“We had better get out of the way,” Falken said to Travis.

They grabbed their stools and retreated to one side of the dais. A curtain behind the high table parted, and a diminutive figure popped out. The small man leaped onto the table, performed a capering dance in which several tankards and bowls were upset, then launched himself into a handspring and landed nimbly on the steps of the dais. A great whoop went up from the crowd at this entertainment.

The little man was clearly full grown, though he was no more than half Travis’s height. He had a broad face and nut-brown eyes, and his pointed chin was beardless. His clothes were of green and yellow, and a red-feathered cap perched on his tousled brown hair. He doffed his cap, bowed deeply, then rose to address the crowd in a piping voice:

My name is Moss, and Berry, too,

But your names I’ll not ask you.

For I have come to wonders show,

Not to drink, nor mischief sow.

Behold, my friends—turn not away—

As Trifkin’s troupe performs the play.

At that cue the curtain behind the table parted again, and a dozen forms dashed out to stand upon the dais with Trifkin. The actors were clad in elaborate and outlandish costumes. A man in white robes with a long white beard tossed dried petals like snow into the air. Tree-women clad in bark-brown dresses shook long arms that ended in branching twigs. Bare-chested goat-men with horns tied to their heads scampered about in fuzzy trousers. In the center of the troupe stood a radiant maiden in a green dress, her long hair tangled with leaves and flowers. Trifkin raised his arms, and the noise of the crowd died down as all leaned forward to watch the actors at their craft.

Though he tried his best to follow the action, Travis didn’t quite understand the play. As far as he could tell, it had to do with Winter and Spring. The old man in white was obviously Winter. He walked around what seemed a forest and tossed his snowy petals on the ground while the tree-women shivered their twiggy arms. Then Winter came upon the beautiful maiden in green—who was clearly Spring—and, affecting a salacious grin, snatched her up and ran off, an action which caused the audience to let out a reaction that was equal parts hisses and cheers.

After this, the scene changed, and the goat-men bounded onto the dais. Travis wasn’t entirely sure what this part of the play was about, but it seemed to involve a fair amount of capering and trouser-dropping. The scene shifted again. Now Spring languished in Winter’s chill grip. However, the goat-men soon came to her rescue. They grabbed Winter, heaved him off the stage, and thus freed young Spring, who showed her gratitude by letting the goat-men cavort around her. At last the goat-men surrounded Spring and concealed her from view. When they dashed away again, Spring had a large bulge in her dress.

At this point, Trifkin Mossberry himself bounded into the scene with an energetic series of flips and tumbles. He came to a stop before Spring and reached up her dress, then snatched out the bundle and held it aloft. It was a crude doll dressed all in yellow with a yellow crown. Travis decided he had just witnessed the birth of Summer. The play concluded in a dance that made the rest of the drama seem sedate by comparison, then the actors dropped to the steps in exhaustion as the audience roared its approval. The tree-women and goat-men sprang up to take their bows, followed by Winter and Spring. Last of all Trifkin himself rose and bowed, then spoke once more in his piping voice:

I hope you liked our merry play,

Yet if not, then hear me, pray.

For we are like to shadows see,

Treading soft on memory.

And now let fall your weary heads,

As off you journey to your beds.

The curious troupe of actors dashed off the dais and disappeared through a door on one side of the great hall. The audience blinked and yawned, and, as if Trifkin’s words had been some sort of enchantment, the revel wound down to an end. The trestle tables were folded and pushed against the walls, and people spread sleeping mats of woven rushes on the floor. King Kel disappeared into the room behind the frayed curtain, and the mysterious woman and her knightly companion were nowhere to be seen—they must have departed to a private chamber during the play. Even Falken looked weary as he strummed his lute, then slipped it into its case. It seemed Travis was the only one who was not ready for sleep. He gazed at the side door through which Trifkin’s troupe had vanished. He could not stop thinking about the little man and his actors. There had been something extraordinary about them and their peculiar play, though he wasn’t certain just what.

Torches were doused, and soon only the ruddy light of the fire filled the great hall as the folk of Kelcior readied themselves for sleep. Falken found a spot in a corner, and he and Travis lay down and curled up in their cloaks. Sounds drifted around them in the dimness: snoring, murmured talk, the soft noises of lovemaking. Travis tried to close his eyes, but he wasn’t tired.

“Do you think he really would have thrown us out?” he whispered after a while. “King Kel, I mean. He seems a bit on the barbaric side.”

“No, we were in no real danger,” Falken said in a sleepy voice. “At least, I don’t think we were. Kel likes to act terrible, but I suspect a large heart resides in that burly chest of his.” He gave a weary sigh. “Now go to sleep, Travis Wilder.”

Despite his exhaustion, Travis stared into the dusky air long after Falken’s breathing had grown deep and slow.

31.

Travis opened his eyes. The fire had dwindled to a heap of coals, and the great hall was quiet except for the soft sounds of breathing. It was the deep of the night. He sat up, cocked his head, and listened. What was it that had awakened him? He wasn’t certain, but it had sounded almost like … bells.

Now Travis was wide-awake. He glanced at Falken, who lay beside him in the murk. The bard’s eyes were shut, and he snored gently.

“You should go back to sleep, Travis,” he whispered to himself even as he quietly stood up. He cast one more look at Falken, then picked his way among the bodies that littered the floor of the great hall. He should not be doing this. At the very least it was foolish to go wandering around a strange castle at night, and at the very worst it could be perilous. Yet the last time he had heard bells—on the highway outside Castle City—was when everything had started to change. Maybe there was a connection here that could help him find a way back home.

His boot trod on something soft, and there was a sleepy grumble of protest. Travis froze and bit his lip to stifle a cry. He peered down in the gloom and saw he had stepped on the foot of a wildman. Travis’s heart raced. Then the wildman let out a sigh, rolled over, snuggled against a slumbering hunting hound, and after that was quiet. Travis let out a silent breath of relief and continued on.

He came to a side door—the same door Trifkin Mossberry’s troupe of actors had vanished through earlier. He pushed open the door, thankful that it did not creak, then stepped through and shut it behind him. He found himself in a narrow corridor. While the great hall had been warm with the heat of fire and dogs and people, here the stones radiated a wintry chill. At one end of the corridor lay an alcove which, his nose told him, contained the privy. At the other end was a small arch that opened on a spiral staircase. Travis headed for the stairs. The steps were steep and narrow, and he grew dizzy as he wound his way upward. At the end of the staircase was another archway. This opened onto a hallway similar to the one below. Doors lined one wall, leading to rooms that must lie above the great hall. The corridor was dark except for a single line of golden light that glowed beneath the farthest door.

This time there was no mistaking the sound. As he drew near the door, the music of bells shimmered on the air, followed by laughter as clear as creek water. Only when he stopped before the door did Travis realize he was trembling. A single beam of light poured through a keyhole. Before he even thought about what he was doing, he knelt and peered through the aperture into the chamber beyond.

The first thing he noticed was that the room was bathed in a radiance the color of sunlight in a forest. The second thing he noticed was that there was no visible source for this light: no candles in sconces, no torches on the wall, no oil lamps hanging on chains from the ceiling. The light simply was. It filled the chamber with its golden radiance.

Trifkin Mossberry’s troupe gathered inside the room. At first glance nothing seemed out of the ordinary. This was merely a band of actors relaxing after a performance. Yet the more Travis stared, the more things seemed peculiar. For one thing, none of the actors had removed their costumes. A few of the goat-men reclined on the floor and balanced wine goblets on their naked chests. Another goat-man played a melody on a reed pipe while three tree-women danced in a circle around him and laughed as they shook their branch-arms. The young actress who had played Spring leaned back on a lounge and hummed to the music, while a tree-woman combed her green hair with twig fingers. Old man Winter spun around and threw handfuls of his white petals in the air. Above it all, on a high shelf like a red-cheeked cherub, sat Trifkin Mossberry. The little man swung his short legs in time to the dance below. He gripped a silver cup and beamed beatifically, as one who was joyfully drunk.

Travis blinked. Suddenly he was no longer certain the actors were still in costume. The more he looked, the more he was certain the goat-men’s crooked legs were not merely clad in shaggy trousers, but in shaggy hair. The tree-women did not simply grip bundles of twigs in their hands. Their hands and fingers were twigs, thin and lithe as willow-wands. The white flecks Winter tossed into the air melted into diamond droplets of water as they touched the floor. And Travis was now sure that the flowering vines had not simply been braided into Spring’s hair. Instead, they were part of it, and grew from her scalp with the rest. Of them all, only Trifkin Mossberry seemed no different than he had earlier in the great hall. He still wore the same yellow breeches and green jacket, and the same red-feathered cap was perched on his curly brown hair.

As if he sensed eyes upon him, the little man turned his head toward the chamber’s door. There was an odd look in his nut-brown gaze: curious, knowing, and slightly mocking. Travis’s heart ceased to beat. Somehow Trifkin knew he was there!

Travis stifled a cry, scrambled backward, and ran for the stairwell. The sound of high laughter pursued him. He did not look back. At breakneck speed he careened down the steps, ran to the side door, and hurried across the great hall. This time his clumsy steps left a string of grumbles and muttered curses in his wake. He reached Falken, knelt, and shook the bard’s shoulder.

Falken groaned, and his eyes fluttered open. “What is it, Travis?”

“I saw them, Falken,” he whispered. “They weren’t costumes. They were … they were real.

“What on Eldh are you talking about?”

In quick words Travis described how he had heard the sound of bells and had followed, and what he had seen through the keyhole. However, even as he described the experience, it seemed more and more absurd. His words trailed off. Falken wore a disapproving look.

“You were dreaming, Travis,” the bard said with no small amount of annoyance. “I’ll grant you, the play was peculiar enough to give one nightmares. These days actors seem to think they can perform any bit of tomfoolery and label it art. What’s more, dim-witted nobles are too prideful to say they don’t understand it, and so lavish gold upon the actors to hide their ignorance. It is a trick, but hardly magic. Now go back to sleep.”

Without waiting for a reply, the bard rolled over, shut his eyes, and soon snored again. Travis lay down and tried to do the same. Falken was probably right. The play had been peculiarly vivid, and it was little wonder it had encroached on his dreams. Yet when he closed his eyes, he saw again the goat-men and the tree-women dancing, and he remembered that he had glimpsed similar creatures before. The moment had been so fleeting that, at the time, he had decided he had seen nothing at all. Now he was not so certain what to believe.

It had been at Brother Cy’s revival in Castle City, and he had seen them behind the curtain.

32.

This time it was Falken who woke Travis. The bard shook him—a bit more roughly than was strictly necessary—and grinned when Travis sat up.

“So, any more strange visitations last night?”

Travis worked his dry tongue. “Just this taste in my mouth.”

“Feasts have a way of doing that.” He gave Travis a hand up. “Let’s go find something to wash away the remnants of last night’s revel.”

Though the hour was early, the keep’s folk were already up and about, and the great hall was nearly empty. An ashwife stirred the coals in the fireplace, and a pair of girls scattered fresh rushes on the floor. Travis followed Falken down a set of stairs and through a door outside. Here, behind the keep, was a courtyard bounded by crumbling walls. The sun had just risen over the lake, and had set aglow the mist and the smoke of cookfires.

Despite what Falken had intimated last night, apparently there wasn’t always a feast in progress in the petty kingdom of Kelcior. Last night’s revelers were now engaged in a variety of tasks. Old women boiled mash for beer in a great iron cauldron. Boys cleaned the stalls in a thatched stable full of horses. Several men worked to bolster a sagging wall, and others sharpened swords, repaired harnesses, or hammered horseshoes over a hot fire. One of the shaggy wildmen led a flock of sheep out a gate in the courtyard’s wall while a hound barked happily at his heels.

Travis and Falken made their way to the cooking shed, which leaned against one wall of the courtyard. The bard charmed the red-faced kitchenwife into giving them a pot of beer and a loaf of yesterday’s bread, and they made their breakfast atop a pile of stones. Beer would not have been Travis’s first choice to wash the taste of last night’s feast from his mouth, but the stuff in the alepot turned out to be more yeast than fire, and it did the job. The black bread was hard, but it was flavorful and filling.

As they ate, Travis watched the men repair the courtyard wall. According to Falken, there were barbarian chiefs and bands of outlaws in this land who would be more than happy to take over the ancient keep if Kel gave them the chance. Here on the edges of the Dominions life was rough and only barely civilized, and a petty king ruled by the might of his warriors, not by the right of inheritance. However, Kel had held the keep for some years. He had forged alliances with several of the chiefs, and, in exchange for tithes of grain and meat, his warriors protected the villages scattered along the Queen’s Way to the west. It was not a perfect system, yet it worked.

Falken stood up. “All right, let’s get moving.”

“Where are we going?” Travis asked around his last mouthful of bread.

“You will see.”

Travis knew he would get no further explanation from the bard. He swilled down the last of the beer and followed. They returned the empty alepot to the kitchen, then left the courtyard through a gate. To their left lay a ruined portion of the fortress, and it was in this direction the bard turned. They picked their way among heaps of broken stone, and soon Travis realized they were making for the broken stump of a tower that stood on the end of the peninsula. Sweating despite the morning chill, they reached the tower and stepped through an open archway. Inside, the tower was roofless, its circular floor covered with dry grass. Sunlight spilled through a gap in the east wall. Only after a moment did Travis realize he and Falken were not the only ones in the tower. An amber-eyed woman in a midnight-blue kirtle sat upon a large stone, while a tall, fair-haired knight stood behind her, hand on the hilt of his sword—the same pair he had seen at the feast the night before.

“Well, it’s about time you got here, Falken Blackhand,” the woman said.

Travis shot the bard a nervous look. “These are the friends you talked about, aren’t they?”

“However did you guess?” Falken said. The bard approached the duo. “I’m sorry it took me so long to get here, but I ran into a few … complications along the way.”

The woman turned her startling gaze on Travis. “So I see.”

He squirmed under her attention. Something about the way she looked at him made him feel transparent. He sighed in relief when she turned her attention back toward Falken.

“We were about to give up on you. It has been nearly a month since we were supposed to meet here, and I must tell you King Kel’s hospitality, although graciously given, grows a trifle wearisome by the sixth or seventh feast.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” the knight said in a cheerful tenor. He scratched the scruffy blond beard that clung to his cheeks. “I rather like Kel’s court. One doesn’t have to think about what to do every night. The social activities are all sort of planned out.”

The woman stood. “So, are you going to introduce us to your companion, Falken? Or have you decided to dispense with all semblance of manners in order to better blend in with King Kel’s courtiers? I must confess, it appears to be a role quite within your reach.”

Falken winced, then turned toward Travis. “Travis Wilder, I would like you to meet my friends.” He shot the others a dark look. “Though sometimes I wonder if that’s really the proper word. At any rate, the big blond oaf in the metal suit is Beltan. And the lovely woman with the tongue of steel is the Lady Melia.”

Melia shot Falken a warning look. “I might be happy to see you, Falken. Then again, it would be wise not to press the point.” She approached Travis with a swish of wool, held out a hand, and affected a disarming smile. “I am pleased to make your acquaintance.”

Unsure exactly what he was supposed to do, Travis took her hand in his and kissed it.

“Well, at least somebody here has manners,” Melia said, and her eyes glinted.

“You might want to find a place to sit, Travis,” Falken said. “Lady Melia and I have a bit of catching up to do, and it might take some time.”

Falken sat on a stone near Melia, but Beltan continued to stand behind the dark-haired lady. Travis found a place in the sun not far away from the others. He sat cross-legged on the ground and let the morning light warm his face as he listened.

It was Melia who began. “A great deal has happened in the year since we parted ways and set off on our separate journeys, Falken. Beltan and I have traveled to all of the seven Dominions, and we have seen and heard much that is troubling. But let me begin by giving you what might be the most pressing news. A Council of Kings has been called at Calavere. Even at this moment, the rulers of the other six Dominions journey toward Calavan.”

Falken let out a low whistle. “Things must be bad indeed. I’m afraid where I journeyed in the last year, I heard little news of the rest of Falengarth. Tell me more.”

As sunlight crept across the grassy floor, Falken and Melia continued their exchange, with occasional additions from Beltan. Travis watched them with keen interest. After all, these were the people who might be able to help him get back to Colorado. There was little in their conversation he truly understood, yet during the course of their talk he managed to glean a bit of information about the two strangers. Apparently the big knight, Beltan, came from the Dominion of Calavan, where this Council of Kings was to be held. No one mentioned from what land Melia hailed, though Travis got the impression she came from the far south, and that she was a lady of some importance there. At least she acted like one.

At one point as he watched the three, Travis adjusted his wire-rimmed spectacles, and he almost thought he glimpsed a faint aura shining around each of them. Beltan’s aura was bright gold, though there was a dark streak in it, almost like tarnish. Falken, too, had an aura Travis had not seen before—as pale as silver, and as sad as valsindar in winter. Brightest by far shone the corona around the Lady Melia. It was the same rich amber as her eyes, yet it shimmered with azure as well.

Melia turned to fix Travis with a piercing look. Startled, he fumbled with his glasses, and the auras were gone—if he had ever really seen them. Melia turned her gaze back toward Falken.

From what Travis could understand of their talk, Melia and Beltan had parted ways with Falken in the Dominion of Calavan last autumn, and had agreed to meet again in Kelcior in one year’s time. The purpose of their travels had been to search for the source of an evil that had begun to stir in Falengarth. As Melia and Beltan told their tale, it became clear that, during the intervening year, things had gone from dark to darker.

Everywhere in the Dominions the summer had been short and blighted. Crops perished in the fields, while plague swept village after village. Now winter came early, and by the looks of things it meant to stay long. A hard winter meant that bands of barbarians and outlaws, who usually prowled the marches on the fringes of the Dominions, were likely to strike deeper into the heart of civilized lands in search of food and warmth. Fear and unrest already grew among the peasantry, and that made the nobles more than a little nervous. Yet raiders were not the only things of which the peasants were afraid. In some of the villages Melia and Beltan had passed through, the common folk had been worked up about rumors of strange creatures prowling about and causing mischief.

Travis’s ears pricked up at this. He thought of Trifkin Mossberry’s troupe of actors, and the queer figures he had glimpsed behind the curtain at Brother Cy’s.

“Strange creatures?” Falken asked, his eyebrows drawn together.

It was Beltan who answered. “That’s right. It’s always in the most remote villages—those on the edges of deep forests or high mountains. Time and again, folk claim to have seen creatures right out of old stories and legends. Things like goblins, and greenmen, and even fairies.” He let out a skeptical snort. “Of course, even I’m not stupid enough to believe those tales. I would guess they’re just rumors told by village drunkards and gossipy goodwives.”

“And most likely your guess is right,” Melia said. “However, I’m not entirely surprised such rumors are on the rise. People grow more fearful and superstitious in troubled times. They do not know the real causes of disasters like plagues and famines, and so turn to old legends as a source of explanation.” A grim light shone in her eyes. “Either that, or they turn to new religions.”

Falken cocked his head.

“There’s a new mystery cult on the rise in the Dominions,” Melia said.

The bard ran a hand through his hair. “But that doesn’t make any sense. The mystery cults are ancient. All the ones practiced in the Dominions came north across the Summer Sea centuries ago. How can there suddenly be a new cult?”

Melia smoothed her gown. “That’s a good question, and one whose answer I would give much to know. From what I can gather, disciples of the Raven Cult must renounce their spirit into the keeping of their god. What’s more, they hold that life itself is unimportant, for in death they will become one with the Raven god and know eternal ecstasy.”

“That’s awfully convenient,” Falken said in a caustic voice. “You’re saying the cult’s priests don’t have to try to explain any of the current strife and trouble. In fact, they can actually exploit it to win new converts.”

Anger colored Melia’s cheeks. “Exactly. And it all leads to a horrid kind of apathy. Disciples of the cult don’t try to do anything to counter suffering in this world because, according to their priests, there’s no point. If life becomes too hard, it simply makes them yearn for the bliss of death all the more. To the followers of the Raven Cult, life has no meaning. Only death does.” She clenched a small hand into a fist. “It’s utterly perverse,” she said with a vehemence that seemed somehow personal.

Falken rubbed his chin with his gloved hand, his expression sad and weary. “Yes, it is. Unfortunately, it’s also just another sign of dark times.” He took a deep breath. “Well, I think our course from here is clear. We have to journey south as fast as possible, to the Council of Kings at Calavere, to report what we’ve learned.”

“Wait a minute, Falken,” Beltan said. “You have yet to tell us where you journeyed and what you found there. Have you forgotten?”

The bard’s faded blue eyes grew distant. “No, I haven’t forgotten. The truth is, I’m not yet entirely certain what I learned, and I don’t want to say more until I’m sure. But I will tell you this: My journey was dark and long, and it took me to the Fal Threndur, and after that into Shadowsdeep, and all the way to the Rune Gate itself, beyond which lie the shadows of Imbrifale.”

Melia and Beltan stared at Falken. A chill danced up Travis’s spine. So that was why the bard had been traveling south through the Winter Wood, away from the Ironfang Mountains.

Falken’s gaze snapped back into focus. “More of my journey I won’t say at present. Yet I suppose now is as good a time as any to show you this, Melia. I wouldn’t mind a second opinion.” He pulled a cloth bundle from his pack. “I found it in Shadowsdeep.”

The bard set the bundle atop a flat rock. Drawn by curiosity, Travis rose and approached. Falken unwrapped the cloth and revealed the object within. It was a disk of some sort of white stone, about as large as Travis’s splayed hand. Embedded in its surface was a silver symbol:

A jagged break ran down the center of the disk and separated it into two halves.

Melia peered at the artifact and pursed her lips in interest. “It looks to me like some sort of bound rune. In which case, it’s quite ancient. The Runebinders’ art has not been known in Falengarth in centuries.”

Falken nodded. “A bound rune—that’s what I thought, but I’m glad to hear the same answer from the lips of another. I know only a little of runes, yet I think …”

The bard’s words dwindled to a drone in Travis’s ears. He gazed at the broken rune. The stone looked as smooth as cream, and his fingers itched. What would it feel like against his skin? Before he knew what he was doing, he reached out his right hand and touched the broken rune.

The stone disk flared with blue incandescence, and the silver symbol glowed bright white. At the same moment a voice spoke an unfamiliar word in Travis’s mind.

Krond.

But that was not the strangest thing, for he knew the voice. It sounded exactly like Jack Graystone’s.

Travis let out a cry of alarm, and the others gaped at him. He snatched his hand back, and at once the azure radiance vanished. The symbol on the disk dulled, and the voice in his mind faded and was gone.

Travis rubbed his hand—it tingled fiercely—then Falken reached out, grabbed his wrist, and turned it over.

A wave of disbelief crashed through Travis. The others looked at him as if he had just grown a second head. All except for Melia, whose expression was sharp and calculating.

It marked the palm of Travis’s right hand—the hand Jack had grasped that night at the Magician’s Attic—glowing silver-blue like some impossible brand. A symbol, but not the same as the one which marked the broken rune. A low moan of fear escaped his lips.

“Oh, Jack,” he whispered. “What did you do to me?”

33.

“I believe, Falken,” Melia said as she paced across the grassy circle inside the abandoned tower, “that it is time you told us more about this complication of yours.” She fixed her amber gaze upon Travis.

Travis slouched on a rock, head hung low, and gripped the wrist of his right hand. The symbol on his palm had already faded away, but he could still feel it there, like a prickling beneath his skin. The glowing image had burned itself into his brain, so that every time he blinked he saw the symbol again, three crossed marks:

Questions whirled in Travis’s mind. How had Jack placed the marks on his hand? And what did the symbol mean?

No, it wasn’t a symbol. Though it was different from the mark on the broken disk Falken had brought from Shadowsdeep, certainly it was of the same ilk. What had the bard called the stone? A rune? Yet that still did not answer his question. What had Jack done to him?

Beltan shifted from foot to foot but said nothing. The rawboned knight clearly deferred to Falken and Melia on the topic of magic. Yes—magic. There was nothing else it could be. Except that, in the stories Travis had read as a child, magic had always been a wondrous and exciting thing. Instead, this was dark, and frightening, and isolating. Even now the others watched him with wary expressions.

Falken crossed his arms over his gray tunic. “I had thought we were done with these little surprises of yours, Travis.”

“So did I.” Travis looked up at the bard. “I need to tell Lady Melia and Beltan, don’t I? About everything that’s happened to me.”

“I think that’s probably a good idea.”

Travis took a deep breath, then spoke in a quiet voice, recounting all that had happened to him starting with that last, fateful night in Castle City. Throughout it all Melia watched him with a calm and even intensity, as if nothing he might say could possibly have worked to surprise her, but Beltan’s eyes grew wide.

Travis’s words trailed into silence. Melia rose and approached him with a rustle of blue wool.

“May I see the box?”

He jumped to his feet. “Of course.” He pulled out the small iron box and held it toward Melia.

She shook her head. “You open it. Please.”

Polite as they were, Melia’s words seemed less a request than they did a command. Travis undid the latch and opened the lid. Inside, the gray-green stone shone in the morning light. Melia peered into the box and examined the stone, though she was careful not to touch it. Then she indicated he could shut the lid.

“What do you think it is?” Travis asked.

She cupped an elbow in one hand and rested the other beneath her chin. “I don’t think anything. At least, not yet. However, I suspect you would be wise to keep the box well hidden, Travis. Do not open it again unless for some reason it is absolutely necessary.”

Travis tucked the box back into his pocket. Falken treated Melia to a speculative look. Obviously the lady had some suspicions regarding the stone’s nature but was unwilling to say what these were. Travis, for one, was not about to ask her. He had had more than enough surprises for one day.

Falken rewrapped the broken stone disk in its cloth and tucked it away. “Let’s get going, then. I think it’s time to beg our leave from good King Kel. It’s a long way to Calavan.”

Melia made a subtle gesture toward Travis. “And what are we going to do about our little problem?”

“Well, unless you have any ideas, we still have no way of getting him back to his own world.”

Melia tapped her cheek with a finger. “I think we had better take him with us to Calavere. After that little incident with the bound rune, I imagine it’s best if we keep an eye on him.”

“My thoughts exactly.”

“Excuse me,” Travis said, annoyed at being spoken about as if he wasn’t standing right there, “don’t I get a say in this?”

Evidently he did not. Melia and Falken exited the tower, then started back toward the keep, discussing plans for the journey south along the way.

Travis stared after them, feeling more than a little sorry for himself. “No one ever tells me what’s really going on.”

Beltan clapped a big hand on Travis’s shoulder. “You might as well get used to it,” the knight said with a grin. “Those two aren’t much into explaining things.” He started off after the bard and the lady.

Travis stood alone in the empty tower. Then he took a deep breath and followed the others through the ruins.

34.

Grace awoke to a soft sound, like the movements of a mouse.

She opened her eyes and blinked. Honey-colored light filled the bedchamber. She turned her head on the pillow and saw golden sunbeams slant through the room’s narrow window. It had been both morning and snowing when Durge brought her to the castle. Now the clouds must have broken, and the day had turned to late afternoon. She had been asleep for hours.

Her forehead creased in a frown. There it was again, the sound that had awakened her: a rustle followed by a faint pad-pad, as of quiet footsteps. Grace pushed aside the bedcovers and sat up.

Like young does caught in the beam of a hunter’s flashlight, two servingwomen in gray dresses froze and stared at Grace in round-mouthed surprise. One stood beside a table that had not been there earlier and was in the act of setting down a tray laden with dishes. The other was just picking up Grace’s clothes from the hearth.

Grace cleared her throat. “Hello.”

She might have screamed the word in her loudest voice rather than murmured it, for the reaction it caused. As one, the serving maidens let out a cry. The one dropped the tray on the table in a bright clatter of crockery. The other snatched up the damp garments and crumpled them into a ball. Both scurried toward the chamber’s door.

Grace reached out a hand in alarm. “Wait! Those are my clothes!”

It was too late. The serving maidens both shot her one last look of terror, then fled the room and shut the door behind them.

Grace chewed her lip. What had that been all about? Certainly she didn’t look as frightening as she had earlier—although belatedly she realized she had not combed her hair, and a probing hand confirmed that it was wild and tangled from sleep. Yet that didn’t really explain why the maidens had seemed so afraid of her. And why had they taken her clothes?

Grace climbed down from the bed and moved to the hulking wardrobe. There was nothing to do but try one of the gowns. She examined each of the garments in growing despair, then finally chose the one that seemed the least complicated. This was a voluminous affair that consisted of more yards of blue wool than Grace could count. She shrugged the gown over her head and almost went down under its weight, but she gritted her teeth and managed to keep her feet. After this ensued a great deal of tugging, pulling, and adjusting in which she tried to figure out the gown’s myriad and inexplicable straps and fastenings.

It was futile.

Grace considered herself an intelligent woman, but the logic of the gown was beyond her. No matter what she tried, the gown bunched up or gapped open, and generally made her look like an overstuffed chair. Huffing with exertion, she untangled herself from the dress and heaved it back into the wardrobe with a few choice exclamations.

She was about to shut the door of the wardrobe—she did not want to even look at the gowns again—when she noticed something balled up in a corner. She drew out the bundle and unfolded it. There was a long shirt of brown wool as well as thick green leggings, along with a leather belt. Now these were more to her liking. Grace shrugged on the clothes over her undergarments. Both the tunic and hose were baggy, and she suspected they belonged to a servingman who had forgotten them here. However, the garb was warm and comfortable, and—most importantly—comprehensible. She cinched the tunic around her waist and noticed, attached to the belt, a leather pouch. She moved to the mantel, slipped her necklace over her head, and tucked the pendant beneath her tunic. Then she took the Seekers’ card and the half-coin, placed them inside the pouch, and tied it.

“There,” Grace said in satisfaction.

She turned from the wardrobe, and a savory smell reached her nostrils. Her gaze moved to the tray on the table. A chair had been placed nearby. Her stomach let out a loud growl of protest to let her know it had been ignored far too long, and it was high time she paid it some attention. Grace considered the tray for a moment, then moved to the table and sat. After all, hunger impaired the thinking process. It simply made more sense to come up with a plan on a full stomach.

Grace lifted various lids and covers and explored the contents of the crocks. The fare was peculiar: slices of cold meat accompanied by a green jellied sauce, tiny poached eggs that floated atop a thick beige soup, a bread pudding freckled with mysterious herbs, and a kind of dried fruit she did not recognize swimming in thick cream. She eyed the food for a moment, then hunger won out over caution.

She sampled the contents of one of the crocks. Seconds later she was shoveling food into her mouth. The meat was rich and delicious as long as she avoided the green stuff, and while the eggs had a strong, unpleasant flavor, the yellow soup tasted of leeks and potatoes and was quite acceptable. The bread pudding had a note of anise, which she had always liked, and the dried fruits were edible, if leathery. In all, Grace had partaken of far worse meals, though given her hunger she supposed she would have made do with dog kibble.

Serious eating had given way to pleasant nibbling when she noticed something near the hearth where her clothes had been. It was a pair of boots. She set down her spoon, rose, and retrieved them. They were fashioned from creamy deerskin. She sat on the chair and tried them on. They slid over her feet and calves like butter, and she could not help letting out a soft gasp of delight. The boots fit perfectly. So perfectly she suspected they had been made especially for her while she slept, using her old hospital shoes for a model. She stood and walked around the chamber to test her new footwear. They hugged her feet, yet flexed with every step, like a pair of boots she had owned for years. She suspected she could walk twenty miles in them and not get a single blister.

Her path brought her near one of the room’s narrow windows, and she realized then she had yet to look outside. She halted and peered through the window. It was glazed with rippled glass dotted with bubbles, inclusions of sand, and other imperfections. These sparkled in the sunlight, and the effect was beautiful rather than distracting.

She saw that she was on an upper floor of one of the wings attached at right angles to the main keep. To her left she could see the king’s tower. To her right was the gate through which she and the knight Durge had entered the upper bailey. Across the way was the other wing of the keep, and in the center of the courtyard lay the tangled garden. Bare-limbed trees obscured her view of the garden’s center, but she could just make out meandering footpaths as well as the evergreen labyrinth of a hedge maze. The sun sank behind the castle’s spires and turrets, and gilded them with molten gold, while dozens of banners snapped in a stiff wind, bright against the darkling sky.

Grace still stared out the window when a soft knock sounded on the chamber’s door.

35.

Grace turned and stared at the door. The knock came again, gentle yet insistent. She froze in panic. What was she to do? She could face any gruesome injury, could treat any hideous disease, could manipulate the wounded like broken puppets. So why did whole people terrify her so?

She cleared her throat. “Come in,” she called out and winced at the wavering of her voice.

There was a pause, then the latch turned, and the door swung open. A young woman stepped into the chamber, and Grace knew at once that this was no serving girl.

So that’s what those gowns are supposed to look like.

The dress hung elegantly on the slender young woman, and its sweeping lines enhanced her willowy shape rather than bound or concealed it. A pleated fold of cloth gracefully draped her right shoulder. The gown’s sapphire color perfectly matched the young woman’s large eyes and contrasted with her dark hair and ivory skin. Her features were fine, but they were strong and gentle rather than merely delicate. Though at present she was pretty, she would, with age, become beautiful.

The young woman curtsied deeply. How could she possibly manage the action in that heavy gown? But she made the motion appear effortless.

At last the young woman straightened. “Am I disturbing you, Your Highness?” she asked in a clear voice.

Grace’s surprise gave way to exasperation. She let out a groan. “Not you, too.”

A look of alarm crossed the young woman’s visage. “Has Her Highness been disturbed previously in her rest?” Alarm turned to quiet outrage. “Be certain I will find the perpetrators of this terrible act and have them suitably drubbed, Your Highness!”

Grace thought of the two frightened servants and shook her head. “Oh, no—no drubbing. Please. Really, no one disturbed me. It’s just …” She took a step toward the young woman. “It’s just everyone keeps calling me Your Highness, and I really wish they wouldn’t.” There, she had said it.

The other nodded, and a knowing smile touched the corners of her mouth. “Lord Alerain warned me you would maintain this, Your High—that is, my lady. Of course, I will respect your wishes. However, you must let me know how I am to address you.”

Manic laughter tickled Grace’s throat. “How about if you just call me Grace? It even happens to be my name.”

“Well, that would seem to be the logical choice then, wouldn’t it?” the young woman said.

Either she had entirely missed the wryness of Grace’s comment, or she was responding with an even subtler humor. Grace could not decide which. Curiosity began to replace her trepidation.

“And you are …?”

A chagrined look crossed the other’s face. “Well, it seems I left my manners in my other gown today.”

Grace breathed in relief. Definitely humor.

“I am the Lady Aryn, Baroness of Elsandry.” The young woman said this in a slightly pained voice, as if she found the title somewhat trying. “However, if I am to call you Grace, then you must call me Aryn, and were you the queen of lost Malachor, I would still not accept a refusal in this regard.”

Never in her life had Grace been comfortable around other people. Yet she felt almost at ease in the company of the young noblewoman, as if there were some connection between them she could sense but not quite name. She made her own clumsy attempt at a curtsy.

“I wouldn’t dream of refusing your request, Aryn.” Feeling positively brave, she fixed the baroness with a sharp look. “Now, do you plan to come in and shut that door, or is it your particular intention to let in that icy draft? I’ve already been half-frozen once today, and that really was enough.”

“I’m so sorry, my lady!” Aryn hurried into the room and shut the door behind her. The playful mirth had fled her expression, and concern clouded her eyes.

Grace groaned inwardly. Well, you’ve certainly done a good job of botching the mood. I suppose that will teach you to try being funny.

She spoke in earnest then. “Please don’t worry, Aryn. I was only being foolish.”

She did not want the baroness to leave in fear as the servants had. Rarely in her life had Grace sought out companionship, but at that moment she realized just how profoundly lonely she was. But what could she say to convince the baroness to stay?

“I’m afraid I have a tendency to be a bit too wry for my own good sometimes. Please, you have to forgive me.”

A radiant smile lit Aryn’s face. “You needn’t apologize, Grace. Certainly not after all you’ve endured today.”

They gazed at each other, then the baroness rushed forward and reached out to squeeze Grace’s left hand with her own.

“Oh, I’m so glad you’re not dreadful!” she said, then she snatched her hand back and bowed her head.

Grace was unnerved in the wake of the baroness’s gesture. “What made you think I would be dreadful?”

Aryn glanced up. “Usually noble ladies who visit Calavere are troubled only with asserting their status over the highest-ranking woman in the castle.” She let out a despondent sigh. “Which, I’m afraid, at the moment happens to be me. I’m King Boreas’s ward, and ever since Queen Narena passed away, it has been my duty to greet and entertain all visiting ladies of importance. This typically consists of listening politely while I am told in no small amount of detail how much grander and more luxurious their households are compared to mine, how much finer and more expensive their clothes, and how much faster and more fearful their servants.”

“Sounds delightful,” Grace said. Aryn’s description reminded her more than a little of the power plays in Denver Memorial’s Emergency Department. There, the residents had constantly jockeyed against each other to win the favor of the attending physicians. It was a game Grace had not cared to play. “However, as I told Lord Alerain, I’m not royalty, so there’s certainly no need to be afraid of me.

“Of course, Grace,” the baroness said. “As you wish.”

It was clear the baroness believed Grace’s denials of nobility as little as had the king’s seneschal. However, Grace did not press the point.

Aryn continued with increased enthusiasm. “Regardless of your station, or your reason for traveling to Calavere, I’m glad you’re here, Grace. You see, there are so few women of manners in the castle who are even remotely near my age. I must confess, I had secretly hoped you would be absolutely wonderful, and that you would wish to spend time talking together, and taking walks in the garden, and …” Her cheeks flushed. “But I’m being horribly presumptuous, aren’t I?”

“Yes, you are,” Grace said. “However, you’re also lucky in that you’ve happened to presume correctly.”

There was a moment’s silence, then Aryn laughed. To her surprise, Grace found herself joining in. Apparently she was much better at humor when she wasn’t actually trying to be funny. She would have to remember that.

After this, Aryn gestured to a stone bench set into the wall before the window. The two sat together in the honeyed light of late afternoon. Grace shifted on the bench and searched for something to say. She had never excelled at the art of conversation, though it might have been for lack of practice.

“So, do I have the king to thank for the kind hospitality I’ve been shown?” She tried to make the question sound as if it weren’t completely forced.

Aryn shook her head, and a fleeting smile played about her lips. “Oh, no. I’m afraid that King Boreas is usually far too preoccupied to see to the needs of his guests. Ruling a Dominion is a rather distracting job. At least, so I would imagine. The king rarely so much as exchanges pleasantries with visitors to Calavere, unless they are of the greatest importance. Taking care of guests is my job.”

“Then I would like to thank you,” Grace said. “For everything. And especially for these.” She gestured to the deerskin boots she now wore. “They’re absolutely wonderful.”

“I’m so glad you like them, Grace.” A shadow of concern touched Aryn’s forehead. “Alas, I see none of the gowns I left for you were similarly suitable. I was afraid that might be the case. However, you’re quite a bit taller than I, so I had few choices. Those are Queen Narena’s gowns—she was almost exactly your size. I had dared hope they would do temporarily, but they are rather out of fashion. However, if I could impose on you terribly to wait, by tomorrow I could have the king’s tailor alter one of my own gowns for—”

Grace shook her head and interrupted. “No, it wasn’t the gowns, Aryn. I’m afraid it was me. I just couldn’t figure out where all the straps and hoops were supposed to go. I’ve never worn anything like it before.”

Aryn raised an eyebrow. However, if she thought Grace’s statement odd, she was too well mannered to say so. “Well, then, I will simply have to show you.” The baroness moved to the wardrobe.

After a moment Grace decided to ask the question that had been growing on her mind ever since coming to the castle. “Why are people here afraid of me?”

Aryn turned around. “What on Eldh would make you say a thing like that?”

Eldh? Was that the name of this world? Grace filed that question away for later. Now, before she lost her nerve, she explained the way in which the guards had looked at her, and how the two serving maidens had reacted when she woke. When Grace finished, Aryn pressed her lips together in worry.

“You know the reason, don’t you?” Grace said.

Aryn sat down beside her, her expression concerned. “You really mustn’t worry about it, Grace. They’re common people, after all—predisposed toward superstition. And toward gossip as well. I fear you hadn’t been here an hour before the story of how the earl of Stonebreak found you in Gloaming Wood had run thrice around the castle. Of course, the tale grew more fantastic and further removed from the truth with every telling, until soon the servants had convinced themselves that you are in fact a …”

“That I am what?”

Aryn drew in a deep breath. “That you are in fact a fairy queen.” She shook her head. “I know, it is a great fancy, but there are many strange stories about Gloaming Wood. Of course, these are nothing more than tales to frighten children by firelight. Still, you were perfectly white when the earl brought you into the castle, and you are certainly beautiful enough to be one of the fey folk. I’ve never seen eyes the color of yours. They’re remarkable, like a forest in summer. So I hope you won’t be too upset that the servants mistook you for a queen of the Little People.”

The baroness laughed at this, then her mirth faltered. “They are mistaken, aren’t they?”

This was the first time Grace had ever been accused of being a fairy queen. She did her best to sound reassuring. “I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I’m afraid I’m completely mundane.”

Aryn’s smile gathered strength once more. “I rather doubt that. There’s nothing mundane about you, Grace of Beckett.” The baroness leaned forward, threw her left arm around Grace’s shoulders, and pressed a cheek to hers. “We’re going to be friends, aren’t we, Grace?”

Grace stiffened, alarmed by this sudden display. This was exactly the sort of intimacy she had guarded herself against all her life. She didn’t dare get this close to another, not now, not yet. It was far too dangerous. However, gradually, the baroness’s warmth melted through her fears, and Grace tentatively returned the embrace.

“No, Aryn,” she said to her own amazement. “I think we already are.”

It was then Grace realized what had been bothering her. The second the baroness of Elsandry had entered the chamber, her doctor’s instincts had pricked up in alert, had sensed something was wrong. Until that moment those instincts had been content to remain in the back of Grace’s mind, patiently and dispassionately observing. Now they rushed to the fore. Before she even considered what she was doing, she gently pushed the baroness away and regarded the young woman with probing eyes.

“May I look at your right arm, Aryn?”

The baroness’s face paled, and a shadow stole into her eyes. “My arm? Why should you want to look at my arm?”

“I’m a doctor,” Grace said in a solemn voice. “I might be able to help you.”

“A doctor?”

“I heal people, Aryn.”

At last the baroness nodded. “I see. You mean you are a chirurgeon.”

“You’re surprised,” Grace said. “Are there no women doctors in this … in Calavan?”

Aryn gave her a puzzled look. “All healers are women, of course. Men consider it beneath them, though in truth I think they are simply squeamish. Besides, they lack the patience for so subtle a craft. But I might have known you were a chirurgeon. You have the look of a woman of wisdom about you.” The baroness braced her shoulders. “Of course you may examine me, Grace, but I doubt there is anything you can do to help me.”

With the same precision she always used when examining a new patient in the ED, Grace lifted the fold of cloth that draped Aryn’s shoulder. Beneath, the baroness’s withered right arm rested in a sling fashioned from a linen kerchief.

Aryn sat perfectly still and stared impassively out the window while Grace examined her and systematically formulated a diagnosis. Unlike the left arm, which was normally developed, the right was malformed and profoundly atrophied, being perhaps two-thirds the length of its companion. Bones were visible beneath the wax-pale skin, twisted and fragile, like the braided tendrils of a wisteria vine. Wisp-thin muscles clung to these, displaying that perfect liquid smoothness that comes only with persistent disuse. The hand was folded in on itself and held in a perpetually flexed and pronated position—wrist and palm downward, digits curled in. The last three fingers, only partially developed, were syndactylous, contained within a single sheath of skin. The result was disturbing and alien, yet beautiful, like the white, contorted arm of a kabuki dancer, frozen in a gesture of quiet sadness: the fall of a wounded dove, the stillness of a yew branch in winter.

“Can you squeeze my fingers?” Grace asked in her crisp doctor’s voice.

Aryn frowned, concentration written across her forehead. The curled digits closed softly around Grace’s hand. Then, with a gasp, the baroness pulled her arm back and held the withered limb close against her side. With her left hand she deftly replaced the fold of her gown and concealed the arm once more.

Grace took a deep breath. “You’re right, Aryn. It’s a congenital defect. There’s nothing I can do.”

Aryn nodded in reply. “You mustn’t worry, Grace. I don’t mind. Truly, I’m quite used to it.” With this, the baroness smiled. It was a brave and brilliant expression.

Grace did her best to smile in turn. “I could show you some simple exercises. They would help increase your strength and range of motion. Nothing drastic, but you might be able to use your arm a little more than you can now.”

“That’s kind of you,” Aryn said.

A distant look crept into her eyes, and she gazed out the window. Her voice became a murmur.

“In a way we have something in common, Grace. When I was born, my mother died in childbed, and when the midwife saw my … my arm, she told my father, the baron, that I was a changeling—a child spirited into my mother’s womb by the Little People. I was born in winter, and the old midwife would have set me out in the snow to perish. However, I was my father’s only child, and he was not a superstitious man. He cast the midwife out instead.” Her eyes returned from the window to focus on Grace, and her lips smiled once again. “So now both of us have been mistaken for the kin of fairies. I suppose that makes us sisters of a sort.”

Grace could only stare in sorrow. How many times had she tried to resuscitate a baby pulled from a cold metal Dumpster? Maybe this world was not so far from Earth after all.

A sharp knock sounded at the chamber’s door. Grace and Aryn exchanged looks, then the baroness rose to answer the knock. The door opened to reveal a stocky man clad in a mail shirt and a black cloak. Grace rose to her feet.

The man-at-arms bowed, then cleared his throat and spoke in a loud voice. “I bring a summons from His Majesty, King Boreas of Calavere. The king respectfully requests the presence of the Lady Grace of Beckett in his chamber. Immediately.”

Grace shot Aryn a look of terror. The baroness’s mouth dropped open.

“I thought you said the king was too busy to greet his guests,” Grace said, breathless.

“He is.” Aryn fixed Grace with an awed expression. “Unless … unless, as I said, those guests happen to be of unusual importance.”

Grace lifted a hand to her chest and tried to breathe.

36.

Grace hurried after Aryn down the torchlit corridor while the man-at-arms marched behind them.

In the bedchamber, the baroness had clucked over the drab servingman’s clothes Grace had donned. However, the guard had continued to stand in the doorway in wait for them, and there had been neither time nor opportunity for a change of costume. Aryn had taken a moment to pull an ivory comb from a pocket and subdue Grace’s ash-blond hair. Then the two had rushed out the door to half walk, half run through the castle’s maze of passages and hallways. Grace gathered one did not keep the king of Calavan waiting.

“Whatever you may think when you first meet him, King Boreas really isn’t so terrible,” Aryn said. “Well, most of the time, that is.”

Grace winced. “That really isn’t all that reassuring, you know.”

Aryn gave her a tight smile. “Sorry. I guess I left my wits in my other gown as well. I’ll try harder.”

They rounded a corner, and the corridor widened into a long hall.

“Boreas is a rather simple man,” Aryn said so only Grace could hear. “Though do not take this to mean he lacks intelligence, for he most certainly does not. However, the king tends to see things in absolutes, and he greatly favors action over debate. So if he asks you a question or wants your opinion on something, cut to the heart of the matter in as few words as you possibly can. And be warned: He may say things to deliberately startle or frighten you. It’s his way of testing people. The best reaction is to react as little as possible—don’t flinch or gasp. If he thinks you weak or flighty, he’ll dismiss you immediately. Although in his favor I will say he is no more biased toward women than men in this regard.”

Aryn tapped her chin. “Oh, and one more thing. The king thinks he’s a good deal funnier than he actually is. So do try to pay attention to what he’s saying, and if it sounds at all like a joke, laugh. The louder the better.”

Grace clenched her jaw. How was she possibly going to remember any of this? Facing Aryn for the first time had terrified her nearly to the point of paralysis, and she couldn’t imagine a person milder than the baroness. How was she going to face a loud and demanding king? If he was bleeding and unconscious on a gurney in the ED, she wouldn’t even blink. But whole and talking, asking her questions? That was a far different matter.

“You’ll do just fine, Grace,” Aryn said, as if she sensed Grace’s thoughts.

Grace made an attempt at a courageous smile. “I’ll try my best.”

They rounded a corner and were brought up short by an unexpected obstacle in their path. Grace’s jaw went slack, and Aryn let out a gasp.

“Well, if it isn’t our dearest Lady Aryn.”

The lady—for certainly she was a noblewoman—was older than Aryn, more of an age with Grace. Though, next to her, Grace felt like a gawky and boyish teenager. The lady’s beauty was lush and sensual, mature without the faintest trace of decline. Ripe. That was the word. She was perfectly, lustrously ripe. Her hair was dark blond, her complexion smooth ivory, her eyes the same bold green as her gown. It seemed she favored the color, for a large emerald pendant rested in the deep cleft of her bosom, which was barely contained within the confines of the gown’s bodice. Instinct prickled the small hairs on the back of Grace’s neck.

Aryn’s forehead crinkled. She gave the other a curt nod. “Good eventide, Lady Kyrene,” she said in a tight voice.

Kyrene lifted a hand to the arch of her throat. “Sweet Aryn, you hardly seem pleased to see me. And here I was only just thinking how lovely it would be to talk with you.”

Aryn chewed the words. “Forgive me, Kyrene. We’re in a bit of a hurry right now.”

The emerald-gowned lady affected an ingenuous expression. “But whatever for, love?”

The baroness groaned. “We don’t have time for this, Kyrene. You know exactly what we’re about. Hardly a mouse shakes its whiskers in this castle that you don’t know of it. I doubt you simply happened to be wandering in this particular corridor at this moment by chance alone.”

Kyrene’s full lips parted in a smile. A kitten-pink tongue ran across tiny, milk-white teeth. “My, you are a clever girl, aren’t you?” It was not in any way a compliment. The lady’s green gaze moved to drink in Grace, cool with a glint of curiosity. “And who is this accompanying you on your weighty errand?”

“Please don’t expect me to believe you don’t already know,” Aryn said.

A delicate expression of annoyance touched Kyrene’s visage. “What a wild thing you are, Lady Aryn. Haven’t you manners enough to introduce me properly to a new guest of the court?” She shook her head and sighed. “But I am cruel to scold you. It’s hardly your fault, raised as you were by that crude bull of a king, and without the benefit of a woman’s tempering influence. You must forgive me, love.”

Aryn gritted her teeth. “Oh, think nothing of it.” She drew in a deep breath. “Kyrene, this is the Lady Grace of Beckett. Grace, allow me to introduce you to the Lady Kyrene. Kyrene is the countess of Selesia, in southern Calavan.”

Grace had absolutely no idea what to say. She settled for, “Pleased to meet you.”

“Of course you are, love,” the countess said. Interest flickered in her languid gaze. “It is rather unusual for a traveling lady to be summoned by the king so soon upon arriving, is it not? Do you know what he might wish of you?”

Grace shook her head. “I’m afraid I don’t have an answer for you.”

Kyrene’s eyes narrowed. “I see the courtly game is played as skillfully in this Beckett of yours as it is here in Calavere. I will have to remember that.”

What did that mean? Grace wasn’t trying to play a game, she was simply being honest. Yet now the countess regarded her in—what? Fascination? Contempt? Suspicion?

Kyrene turned toward Aryn. “I must be on my way, love.” She inclined her head toward Grace. “I wish you well in your audience with the king, my lady. But I won’t say good-bye. After all, I am quite certain we will see each other again.”

Whether that was a threat or a promise, Grace wasn’t sure. The Countess Kyrene brushed past them with a rustle of fabric, swept down the corridor, and was gone.

Aryn’s expression was part shock and part wonder. “She has absolutely no shame.”

“There’s no room for it in that dress,” Grace said.

Aryn bit her lip. “I’m a baroness and she’s only a countess, but somehow she always manages to make me feel like I’m a serving maid and she’s a queen.” She shook her head, lost in thought, then she let out a small cry. “King Boreas!” She clutched Grace’s elbow in panic. “We have to hurry!”

“What will the king do if we’re late?”

“You truly don’t wish to know.”

Grace needed no further inducement. With the guard in tow, they hastened down the corridor into the heart of Calavere.

They turned down a side passage and came to a stop before a broad door. An ornate crest had been carved into the surface of the door and inlaid with silver: two swords crossed beneath a crown with nine points.

The man-at-arms who had accompanied them cleared his throat and addressed Grace. “The king is expecting you, my lady. You may enter at once.” The guard rapped on the door, then pushed it open and held it for Grace. Beyond she glimpsed flickering red light.

Aryn gave Grace’s hand a warm squeeze. “Good luck. And try to remember what I told you.”

Horror flooded Grace. “But aren’t you coming in with me?”

The baroness shook her head. “The summons was for you, Grace, not for me. But I know you’ll do wonderfully.” The light in her sapphire eyes wasn’t quite as confident as it had been before. “May Yrsaia’s strength be with you.” With that, Aryn withdrew her hand and stepped away.

Grace had to think of some way to get out of this, some excuse why she couldn’t see the king. But her mind was frozen, and it was already too late. The guard took her arm and gently but irresistibly propelled her through the portal. Grace caught her toe on a crack in the floor. She stumbled forward, gasped, and heard the door shut behind her with a boom.

“Come in, my lady,” said a deep voice.

Grace lifted her head. The walls and floors of the chamber were strewn with rugs, and a claw-foot table of dark wood dominated the room’s center. A fire roared in an open fireplace, and what she at first took for a lumpy fur rug before the hearth was in fact a pile of sleeping black mastiffs. Each hound’s head was bigger than her own. She might have been afraid of the dogs, but another feral figure caught and trapped her attention.

King Boreas of Calavan was at once compelling and terrifying. He was not so much huge as he was solid. His presence weighed so heavily on the air that she thought she might start orbiting around him, caught like a piece of flotsam in his gravity well. His visage was fiercely handsome, and his keen eyes sparked like flint on steel. A few flecks of gray in his trimmed beard and dark, slicked-back hair—along with a series of fine lines around his eyes and nose—were the only hint of his advancing middle years.

Belatedly, she decided some obeisance was expected of her. After all, this was a king before her. She started a curtsy, then realized she had absolutely no idea how to complete the action, and turned it into a clumsy sort of bow halfway through. She straightened and expected to see anger or derision in the king’s eyes. There was neither. Instead he regarded her with an intensity that was far more alarming. It felt as if he were trying to look inside her.

“Allow me to welcome you to Calavere, my lady.” His voice thrummed in her chest.

A jerky nod was all the reply she could manage. She could not breathe, and a cold hand constricted her throat.

The king crossed his arms. “I suppose it is proper etiquette for us to exchange long salutations and overwrought soliloquies concerning our overwhelming joy at meeting before we discuss anything remotely resembling business. However, I’m not certain I have the time or patience for such niceties.” His voice deepened to a growl. “Does that trouble you, my lady?”

He flung the question at her like a knife. Grace remembered Aryn’s admonitions and somehow managed to keep herself from flinching. She cleared her throat.

“No, Your Majesty. It does not.”

The king eyed her for a moment, then grinned. It did not seem an expression of mirth. There were far too many teeth involved, and they were all far too pointed. Boreas scratched his beard, then nodded.

“Excellent, my lady. Consider yourself well met, for I am glad indeed you have come to Calavere. Now, I will bandy words no more, but will get right to the point.” He approached her with fluid strength. “I require your help, my lady.”

Was this one of the king’s poor attempts at humor Aryn had warned her about? However, something in the king’s frank expression told Grace this was no joke. She swallowed her forced laughter.

“My help?”

“That’s right.” Boreas pointed a finger directly toward her heart. “You, my lady, are going to help me save Calavan.”

37.

King Boreas paced before the fireplace like a caged animal. The crimson light flickered across his handsome face and made his features sharper yet. The king snorted as he gathered his thoughts.

Grace watched in silent awe. He is indeed like a bull, a great, dark, restless bull.

She clutched the goblet of wine he had thrust into her hands moments before. The king had downed his wine in a single gulp, then tossed the cup aside. Grace might have liked to do the same, but she was not certain she could trust her shaking arms to bring the goblet to her lips without spilling. She was an overworked resident in the emergency department of a city hospital. What could she possibly do to help the ruler of a medieval kingdom?

Boreas halted and turned to impale her with steely eyes. She braced her shoulders.

“Have you ever heard of a Council of Kings, my lady?”

Grace shook her head. “No, Your Majesty. I haven’t. Other than to hear it mentioned by the earl of Stonebreak after he … after he came upon me in the forest.”

She expected the king to give her a look of suspicion, like the Countess Kyrene, who had seemed to take nothing Grace said at face value. However, Boreas nodded, as if he had not considered for a moment that she might be telling him anything other than the truth.

“I am little surprised,” he said. “There has not been a Council of Kings in over a century, not since the horde of barbarian Thanadain marched out of the west to threaten the Dominions. I had to have Lord Alerain dig through all of Calavere’s records just to find the proper protocol for calling a council.”

“Then it was you who called the council, Your Majesty?” Grace asked, apprehensive at her boldness after the fact. Her impulse to drink her wine overpowered her fear of spilling it. She raised the goblet and actually managed to get some of the liquid into her mouth. She swallowed. The wine was cool, rich, and smoky. She gulped some more and set the goblet down.

The king gave her a curious look. “Yes, I did call the council. Somebody had to do it.” He clenched a big hand into an even bigger fist. “By Vathris, I wasn’t going to sit here on my throne waiting for one of those other fool monarchs to get around to it while the Dominions fall apart around my ears!”

Grace jumped back, as if Boreas’s wrath might scorch her like fire. That should teach her to ask questions of a king. It was time to stop this charade right now. There was nothing she could do to help King Boreas. She summoned her will and told herself it would be no worse than informing one of the ED’s attending physicians that his diagnosis was completely wrong. After all, she had done that often enough.

“I understand your urgency, Your Majesty.” She tried to keep the quaver from her voice. “However, I really don’t know anything about kings or councils, so I think it’s best if I don’t—”

Boreas dismissed her words with an impatient wave of his hand. “Unimportant. In fact, the less you know concerning the machinations of courtly politics, the better. An outsider always has a clearer view of a quagmire than those mucking about within. Besides, my lady, it means I might actually be able to trust you. And that’s a rare enough virtue these days.” He reached down to stroke the head of one of the mastiffs.

Grace shook her head. Well, that certainly hadn’t had the intended effect. She would have to try again. In an effort to be brave she took a step forward. “But, Your Majesty, you don’t know who I am. Or even where I come from.”

He snapped his fingers. “Exactly!”

Grace groaned. She should just stop before she inadvertently managed to convince Boreas he should give her the crown of the kingdom, while he became her court jester.

The king started pacing once more and slapped the palm of one hand with the back of the other, shaggy eyebrows knitted in concentration. “If you must know, my lady, I don’t care one whit what land you hail from. The fact is, it suits my purposes far better if no one—including myself—knows the truth of your origin or station, or why you have chosen to travel in disguise. Your bearing marks you as a woman of noble birth, and a mysterious foreign lady with power and purposes unknown is exactly what I need.”

He bore down on Grace, his mien grim. “These are dark times in the Dominions, my lady. It is imperative the council act swiftly, instead of bogging itself down in petty argument and meaningless debate. I need to divine the intentions of the other rulers, to shape their opinions, and to convince the council to take action. And you, my lady, are going to help me do just that.”

Grace’s trepidation gave way to confusion. “But I don’t understand. What help could a stranger possibly be to you? I’m sure no one will even bother to talk to me.”

Boreas let out a grunt. “You truly don’t understand the workings of court politics, do you, my lady? Things must be different in this Beckett of yours.”

“Very different.” Grace didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. She settled for a wry sort of grimace.

“Then you must trust me in this,” Boreas said. “The task I require of you is really quite simple. I have called the council to convene on the first day of Valdath. Nobles from the royal courts of the other Dominions will arrive soon to prepare things in advance of their kings and queens. You’ve already met Durge of Embarr. All you have to do is observe, speak to the other nobles when you have opportunity, and report to me all of interest you learn.” He regarded her, his eyes solemn. “Will you deign to accept this task, my lady?”

Grace decided to give reason one more chance to prevail. “Forgive me, Your Majesty, but I just don’t think I can be of any help to you.”

Boreas glowered at her. “That was not my question, my lady.” He drew close, until his face was mere inches from hers. She could almost see intensity radiating from him like waves of heat distortion. “I will only ask you once more.” His voice dropped to a thrum. “Will you help this king, Grace of Beckett?”

Exasperation gave way to awe. She knew nothing of politics, and she was hardly the right candidate for a job mingling with nobles. However, it no longer seemed her place to protest. This was, after all, the king. In disbelief, Grace found herself murmuring in reply.

“Of course, Your Majesty. I would be honored to help you.”

Boreas nodded. “I am gladdened at your answer, my lady. You see, I find I rather like you, and I would have been quite distressed to have had to toss you in the dungeon. The rats start to get hungry this time of year, what with winter coming and all.”

Grace’s eyes bulged.

The shadow vanished from King Boreas’s face, and sparks of mirth danced in his eyes. He grinned again, but this time the expression was only slightly fearsome. He had been making a joke. Aryn had warned her, all right. The king really did think he was funnier than he actually was.

“I got you, didn’t I?” Boreas said in triumph.

Grace let out a deep breath of relief. “Oh, yes. You certainly did.”

The king clapped his hands together at his victory. “Now,” he said, “to find what’s become of the Lady Aryn. I have a task for her as well.”

“Would you like me to go look for the baroness, Your Majesty?” Grace tried not to sound too eager to take her leave of the king.

A sly light crept into Boreas’s eyes, and his voice dropped to a whisper. “No, my lady, I don’t think that will be necessary.” He stalked to the chamber’s door, his boots making no sound against the thick carpets. “I think I know exactly where to find my ward.”

The king paused beside the door, then in one swift motion jerked it open. Something blue tumbled into the chamber with a gasp of surprise.

“Greetings, Aryn.” Boreas folded his arms and gazed down at his ward.

The baroness straightened and smoothed her sapphire gown, her face pale. “I wasn’t listening at the door, Your Majesty,” she said. “I swear!”

“Yes, you were.”

Aryn’s look was stricken. “All right, I was listening at the door, but I didn’t hear a thing about the Lady Grace helping you at the coun—” She bit her tongue.

Boreas shook his head in reproach. “I’m beginning to think I failed somewhere in the course of your upbringing, Aryn. Who taught you to lie like that?”

The baroness hung her head. “You did, Your Majesty.”

“Yes,” he said. “But it’s apparent you weren’t listening very closely. You won’t survive a minute at court if you don’t learn to lie more believably than that.” The king held a hand beside his mouth to give Grace a half-whispered aside. “I’m afraid the poor thing has an incurable streak of honesty in her, though I have no idea where it comes from. There must be common blood in the House of Elsandry somewhere.”

Grace did not even attempt a reply to that.

Aryn let out a forlorn sigh, and the king’s expression softened. He laid an affectionate hand on the young woman’s shoulder. “There, there, child. It isn’t your fault. You tried your best. And I really do think you’re improving.”

Aryn looked up, her face shining with hope. “You do?”

“No,” he said. “I was lying. But see how natural it can sound?”

Aryn sighed again, this time in exasperation. “Does His Majesty have a task for me?”

“As a matter of fact, he does.”

Boreas treated Grace to a critical look, as if noticing her attire for the first time. Clearly he was not pleased by what he saw. She willed herself to vanish, but unfortunately it didn’t work.

“The Lady Grace of Beckett is going to be attending the coming Council of Kings,” Boreas said. “I would be most grateful, Lady Aryn, if you could help her to become slightly less …” Here he fought for the proper word. “… slightly less irregular in terms of dress and manner.”

Aryn’s brilliant expression returned. She nodded in excitement. “Of course, Your Majesty. I’ll show her everything a lady needs to know.” The baroness winked at Grace and whispered, “Don’t worry. This is going to be fun.”

Grace swallowed hard. Fun wasn’t exactly the word she would have chosen. She cast a nervous glance at the king. What in the world—what in this world—had she just gotten herself into?

38.

The four travelers set out from Kelcior in the brilliant late-autumn sunlight to begin the long journey south to Calavere and the Council of Kings.

In the muddy courtyard behind the old Tarrasian keep, Travis and Falken mounted the horses that had been King Kel’s farewell gift. The bard’s steed was a jet stallion with a white streak in its forelock. Travis, in turn, sat astride a shaggy brown gelding with intelligent eyes and a star in the center of its forehead. Melia and Beltan mounted their own horses, which they had ridden to Kelcior. The blond knight’s horse was a bony roan charger, while Melia, her blue kirtle artfully arranged, perched upon a mare as pale as mist, with delicate legs and a graceful neck.

Earlier that afternoon, they had gone to find King Kel and beg his permission to leave Kelcior. As Beltan had explained to Travis, under the laws of hospitality, a guest could not depart—be it from castle or hovel—without first being granted leave by the master of the house.

“What?” Kel had said with a glower after Falken had made the formal request to depart the keep. “Leaving so soon?”

They had met with the shaggy king in his solar. This was a cozy, if cramped, chamber located behind the curtain which crossed the end of the great hall.

“Some of us have been indulging your hospitality for nearly a month, Your Majesty,” Melia had said. “Surely any longer and we will overstay our welcome.”

Kel’s voice had rattled the very stones of the fortress. “Impossible!” Then he had snapped his fingers. “Would you stay, my lady, if I were to command a feast in your honor?”

Melia had refrained from answering, although by her expression the effort cost her. Falken had expressed their need for urgency, and at last Kel had acquiesced—though not without some grumbling when he learned a Council of Kings had been called and he had not been invited.

“Just because I have a few wildmen in my court, they think they’re so much better than me.” He had let out a disgusted snort. “Why, I have half a mind to march down to Calavere and show King Boreas how a real kingdom is run.”

“Now that is something I would pay good gold to see,” Beltan had whispered to Travis with a grin.

The travelers had spoken their good-byes, then had made their way from the keep. As they passed through the great hall, Travis had looked around, for he had hoped he might catch one last glimpse of Trifkin Mossberry. However, there had been no sign of the little man or his troupe of actors. They had vanished, like a strange dream, with the night.

Now, astride his horse in the courtyard, Travis cast a sidelong glance at Falken and Melia. He was still wounded by the way they had decided his fate that morning in the ruined tower. For the tenth time that day, the two were engaged in some discussion which they did not seem compelled to share. Travis sighed and turned his attention to adjusting the gear strapped to the saddle behind him.

Each of the horses bore a pair of saddlebags that bulged with provisions from Kel’s kitchen. The king had not been given the chance to hold a farewell feast in their honor, so he had apparently decided to send one with them instead. Tucked away in the saddlebags were smoked meats, hard-crusted breads, cheeses contained in protective rinds of mold, and clay pots of wild honey. Kel had also provided the travelers with extra clothes and blankets.

After he tightened the straps, Travis stared at the saddlebags. He was starting to feel like just another piece of baggage himself.

Falken shaded his brow with his one gloved hand and eyed the sun overhead. “Are we ready yet? It’s a long way to Calavere, and we’re not getting any closer just standing here in the courtyard.”

Melia adjusted her slate-blue cloak. She was seated on her gray mount sidesaddle—a feat she somehow made appear graceful and natural. Travis suspected that, if he tried the same, he would promptly slide into the muck below.

“I am ready,” Melia pronounced, as if this were the only factor constraining their departure.

Apparently it was. The others nudged their horses into motion, toward a gate in the ramshackle wall, and Travis followed suit. A brisk wind picked up, and the smoke of the castle’s cookfires scudded across the courtyard like blue mist. They had just reached the gate when a drab figure scuttled out of a swirl of smoke and brought the horses to a sudden halt.

“What?” Grisla the witch said in her chalky voice. “Leaving without so much as a simple fare-thee-well?”

Falken glared at her, annoyance written across his wolfish face. “The laws of hospitality require a guest to ask leave of a castle’s lord before departing. I’m afraid I don’t recall a line in there about hags.”

“It’s in the fine script.” The tatters that served as the ancient woman’s clothes fluttered on the wind along with her scraggly hair.

Melia guided her mount forward a few steps. “Do you know you delay our departure on a crucial errand?”

The hag clasped a gnarled hand to her cheek and affected a look of mock mortification. “Oh, forgive me, Lady High-as-the-Moon! How foolish of me to stand in your all-important path. Please don’t punish me for being drawn to your grandness. I am like a lowly fly, you see, compelled by nature to alight upon all great heaps of dung.”

Melia’s coppery skin blanched, then her eyes narrowed to slits. “What do you want of us, Daughter of Sia?”

The hag spat on the ground. “I want nothing of you, Lady Vitriol.” She turned her lone eye on Falken. “Nor you, Lord Calamity.” She bared her snaggled teeth in a sly grin. “I wish to have a word with the tasty young lad, here.”

The witch scampered on stick legs to stand before Travis’s horse, then pointed a clawlike finger at his chest. “I believe you have a bone to pick with me, lad.”

“What?” he said in confusion.

“A bone, boy!”

His expression of puzzlement only deepened.

Grisla gave her head a rueful shake. “Why does Fate always shine upon such dimwits?” She thrust out a greasy leather bag. “Go on, lad. Pick one!”

Travis eyed the lumpy sack, wary of its contents. However, there was only one way out of this situation. He clenched his jaw and slipped a hand into the bag. He half expected to touch something wet and slimy. Instead, his fingers brushed several hard, smooth objects. He drew one out and gazed at it. It was a yellowed knucklebone, three lines scratched into its surface.

“Humph!” Grisla said. “I wouldn’t have thought you would draw that one. One line for Birth, one line for Breath, and one more for Death, which comes to us all.” Her eye rolled toward Falken for a moment. “Though for some of us later than sooner.”

Travis shook his head. “But what does it mean?”

“What do you think it means?” Grisla said.

Travis chewed his lip and stared at the bone. He was reminded of Trifkin Mossberry’s play about Spring and Winter and the birth of Summer. “It seems like it’s about endings. Or maybe beginnings.” He shook his head. “But which is it?”

“Perhaps it’s both, lad. Perhaps there’s no difference between the two.” Grisla shrugged her knobby shoulders. “Or perhaps the oracle bones can lie after all.”

The witch snatched the bone from his hand and spirited the bag into the depths of her swaddling rags.

“Are you finished with your amusement yet, hag?” Falken said.

“As a matter of fact, Lord Impatience, I am.” The witch brushed Travis’s hand with her gnarled fingers. “You know, you’ve taken a little piece of my heart, lad.” She cackled, scuttled into a cloud of smoke, and was gone.

Travis felt something warm and damp against his skin. He looked down to see a piece of raw meat on his palm. With a yelp he shook his hand and flung it into the mud. He wiped his hand on his tunic. “I really wish she would quit doing that!”

With the way clear once more, the four urged their horses through the gate and picked their way across the causeway that led from fortress to shore. The air was cold, but the autumn sunlight was warm, and it gilded the lake like gold filigree on blue enamel. It was a fine day for traveling.

“What do you suppose that was all about?” Melia asked Falken after they had ridden for a time.

“You mean the hag Grisla?” The bard shrugged. “I doubt it was about anything other than spectacle. As far as I can tell, witches derive their chief entertainment from baffling people. But I suppose there was little harm in allowing the old crone to indulge herself for a minute or two.”

Melia nodded at his words, but whether the regal woman agreed with them or not, she did not say.

A question occurred to Travis. He nudged his gelding toward the others. “Who is Sia?”

Falken gave him a piercing look. “What is Sia, might be a better question. But I suppose you could say she is a goddess of sorts.”

Travis thought about this. “Like one of the gods of those mystery cults you were talking about before?”

“No,” Melia said with a sharpness that startled Travis. “Sia has nothing to do with the gods of the mystery cults, nor they with her.”

This did little to answer Travis’s question. However, given Melia’s reaction, he decided not to press the point. The horses clambered up the steep trail to the summit of the ridge that ringed the valley. Wind tangled Travis’s sandy hair—a wind like the one that sometimes rushed down from the mountains around Castle City, that carried with it an ache of longing, and a sense of infinite possibility.

Beltan cast one last wistful glance over his shoulder at the old keep below. “So much for feasts,” he said. “And I was really getting rather used to them.”

Then the horses started down the other side of the ridge, back toward the crossroads and the Queen’s Way, and the ancient Tarrasian fortress was lost from sight.

39.

All the rest of that day they journeyed south along the grassy swath of the Queen’s Way.

The four travelers soon fell into a pattern. Beltan periodically spurred his rangy charger and galloped down the ancient highway to scout for danger. Falken and Melia rode side by side, their heads often bent together to exchange some murmured bit of conversation. Travis kept a short distance behind them and tried not to look as if he were leaning forward in an attempt to catch what they were saying. However, the wind was behind him, and any interesting items of information the bard and the lady might have uttered were blown in the wrong direction, although once, in the wake of a swirling gust, Travis did catch a snatch of one of Falken’s quietly spoken sentences.

“… that we shouldn’t dismiss the stone in the White Tower even if it is …”

The wind changed again and took the bard’s words with it. Travis’s frustration at not being paid any attention became unbearable. He urged his horse forward.

“So, how long will it take us to get to Calavere?” he asked Falken and Melia.

Falken looked up in surprise, as if he had forgotten Travis was even there. “The Queen’s Way will take us all the way, but it is a long and arduous road. Once we cross the headwaters of the River Farwander, we will be in the Dominion of Eredane proper. However, we must traverse all of Eredane and cross the highlands of Galt before we reach the northern marches of Calavan. In all, it is a journey of nearly a hundred leagues. It will take us well over a fortnight, if the weather holds.” He cast a glance at Melia. “Of course, there is also the matter of a small detour I intend to make along the way.”

“If we have time,” Melia said. “The Council of Kings is to convene in less than a month. We’re going to be slicing it rather finely as it is.”

Falken ran a hand through his gray-shot hair. “It’s not as if I’m proposing this for the sheer fun of it, you know. It’s really rather important.”

Melia’s amber eyes flashed. “So is getting to the council before it’s over.”

“Where is it you want to go, Falken?” Travis said. “Is it a white tower?” Instantly he regretted the question, for both Falken and Melia fixed him with penetrating looks.

“Someone has sharp ears,” Melia said.

“So it seems.” Falken considered Travis for a moment. “It’s not a white tower, Travis. It’s the White Tower.”

Travis didn’t understand, but the bard offered no further explanation. Instead, he and Melia urged their mounts ahead, and thus signified this was all the information Travis was going to get. Feeling terribly sorry for himself, Travis let out a sigh. However, nobody seemed to notice, so he turned his attention to not falling out of the saddle.

The ancient Tarrasians had been engineers of great skill, for the Queen’s Way continued to cut across the rolling landscape. At times it sliced through the tops of hills and at others leaped over deep ravines, supported by stone arches that, while crumbled at the edges, still bore the weight of centuries with ease. As the travelers progressed south, the hills to their left grew into rugged mountains: the Fal Erenn. Westward, to their right, the land swept away in a sea of dun-colored waves. It was all vast and beautiful, but achingly empty as well, and only served to remind Travis that this was not his world.

The sun had sunk into a bank of bronze clouds when Beltan rode back to report he had found a place to make camp for the night. This turned out to be a flat knoll a few hundred paces east of the road. The knoll was ringed by scrub oak, which offered some protection, and a spring trickled from beneath a rock near the hill’s top. Travis climbed down from his gelding and groaned. The last time he had ridden a horse had been at a county fair, and he had been eleven years old. It felt like someone had rearranged all his muscles while he rode and wedged them into places they did not belong.

They made camp as twilight mantled the knoll. Though Melia seemed to feel no compunction in ordering the others around, she did not shirk her own share of the labor. The dinner fashioned from Kel’s provisions was her work, and she seemed pleased by the compliment the other three paid her efforts by eating ravenously. Then again, she might have preferred it had Beltan not been quite so vigorous in his praise.

“And what will you be eating for the rest of the journey, Beltan?” she asked in a pleasant voice as he took his third helping of stew and bread.

Beltan swallowed hard and set the food back down. “You know, I’m really not as hungry as I thought I was.”

“I didn’t think you were, dear,” Melia said.

Travis finished his own food quietly and did not even consider asking for more.

Night deepened around them, and they spread their blankets by the fire. Beltan moved a short distance off, mail shirt jingling, to take the first watch. Travis shivered with the chill, then wrapped himself in his mistcloak and shut his eyes.

He awoke to strange stars.

They blazed against the jet sky, shards of diamond and sapphire. He thought he could see pictures in the stars, shapes far clearer than the sketchy, half-imagined constellations of Earth: feral beasts, winged maidens, warriors wielding swords of cool starlight. The murmur of conversation drifted on the air—it was this that had awakened him. His mind was turgid with sleep, but it seemed to him Melia and Falken spoke in soft voices by the embers of the fire.

The bard’s quiet words drifted on the night air. “But surely you should be able to tell if Travis comes from the same place.”

Travis struggled to sit up. If I come from the same place as what?

He didn’t think he even managed to ask the question aloud. However, Melia turned her amber gaze upon him. Her expression was stern, though not unkind.

Go to sleep, Travis.

Her lips did not move, yet her voice spoke clearly in his mind. Travis tried to protest, but a wave of drowsiness crashed over him. Unable to resist the pull, he shut his eyes and sank once more into deep and starless sleep.

40.

By the time the crimson orb of the sun rose above the horizon, it found them already riding hard down the Queen’s Way. It was midmorning, and the autumn day had turned crisp but fine when they reached a moss-covered stone bridge that arched over a narrow defile. At the bottom of the gorge rushed a small, frothy river. According to Falken, these were the headwaters of the River Farwander.

The bard spoke over the roar of the water. “It isn’t much to look at here, but this is the start of a river that stretches three hundred leagues from source to mouth. By the time it reaches the Sunfire Sea, the Farwander is over a league wide. Or so the stories say, for I know of no one alive in the Dominions who has traveled to the farthest western coast of Falengarth.”

Melia arched a single dark eyebrow. “No one? Not even a great wanderer like yourself, Falken?”

He shook his head, gazed into the distance, then spoke in a low voice that was nearly lost in the rushing of the river. “There was but one road to Eversea, to the Far West, and its beginning was in Malachor. Yet that road lay in one direction only, for those who took it never returned, and the way is lost to all of us now.”

The bard smiled, and though there was sadness in the expression, there was genuine mirth as well. “Yet that is all old history. We have our own road to journey, and to less melancholy lands.”

He spurred his mount and, hooves clattering, the dark stallion crossed the Tarrasian bridge. The others followed after.

They rode all that day with only a few short breaks to chew some bread and allow the horses to drink. Finally, as the sun dipped toward the far horizon, Beltan once again rode back to tell the others he had found a place to make camp. He seemed particularly pleased with his find.

It turned out to be a small depression no more than twenty paces from the road, ringed by a circle of gnarled trees. In the center of the circle was a spring, and around this grew a thick patch of herbs, still green and fragrant even this late in the year. As they drew near, Falken explained this place was a talathrin, or a Way Circle. The Way Circles had been made by the Tarrasians when they built the road, and were intended as safe places for travelers to spend the night. They picketed the horses outside and entered the talathrin through an archway formed of branches that had centuries ago melded together into living, braided columns.

Falken’s breath fogged on the cool air as he spoke. “Some say there is an enchantment in the trees that ring these circles, a magic that protects those who sleep here. However, I cannot speak to the truth of that, for I know little of Tarrasian magic.”

“That’s because there is little enough to know,” Melia said. She allowed Beltan to help her step over a twisted root. “The Tarrasians were always far better engineers than sorcerers. And while there is no magic in the talathrain, it is equally true there is a goodness that abides yet in these places. The trees are ithaya, or sunleaf, which grow along high cliffs above the Summer Sea, and their bark, when brewed in a tea, is good for aches and fevers. And the plants by the spring are alasai, or green scepter, and can be used to flavor food, as well as to remove the taint from spoilt meat. Both are of great use to travelers.”

Melia approached the spring, drew up the hem of her gown, and knelt to part the thatch of sweet-smelling herbs with her hands. This action revealed a figurine carved of rain-worn ivory beside the spring.

“You see?” she said with a smile. “Naimi, Goddess of Travelers, keeps watch over this place, though her name has not been worshiped in this land in long centuries—not since the people of Tarras dwelled here.” Melia dipped her fingers into the spring and sprinkled a few droplets of clear water before the figurine. “I hope you don’t mind us using your Way Circle, dear one,” she murmured.

Travis couldn’t help thinking this seemed a little informal for a prayer to a goddess. However, Melia knew far more about such matters than he. Holding her dark hair behind her neck with one hand, Melia bent over the spring and used the other to bring cool water to her lips. She drank, then rose.

“We may make camp now.”

They ate their supper as night fell around the Way Circle, then readied themselves for sleep. Melia seemed to feel there was absolutely no need for one of them to keep watch, but Beltan did so all the same. He stood by the talathrin’s gate and gazed into the night. Falken promised to relieve him later.

Travis sat on his bedroll and used a leaf of alasai to clean his teeth. It wasn’t exactly a toothbrush, but Falken had shown him the trick, and it worked fairly well. He would not have minded a shave as well. The red-brown stubble on his chin and cheeks itched to become a full-fledged beard. However, the only blade he had was the Malachorian stiletto Jack had given him, and that was likely to shave him a little closer than he wished. He settled for scratching. Then he rolled up in his mistcloak and lay down.

The hard ground did nothing to ease his cramped and complaining muscles after the long day’s ride. All the same, exhaustion won out over pain, and Travis fell asleep.

41.

On their third day out of Kelcior the clear autumn weather gave way to dreary clouds and cold drizzle. Rain slicked the road’s paving stones and made them treacherous for the horses, which in turn made the going slower. The landscape was lost in a shroud of fog, and there was little to occupy Travis’s attention. He had given up even trying to eavesdrop on Falken and Melia’s conversations—it was impossible to make out anything over the clatter of hooves and the constant patter of rain. Sometimes as they rode he spoke with Beltan, for the knight was more amenable to answering questions, but most of the time he sat in silence on the back of his horse.

More than once Travis wished it would just get cold enough to snow. Beltan and Melia had said that winter had come early to the Dominions, but that didn’t seem to be quite the case here. When he asked Melia about it, the lady only shook her head.

“It’s almost as if winter has been moved from where it should be to where it should not.”

She spoke these words to Falken rather than Travis. The bard nodded as if he understood them, but Travis didn’t, although he knew better than to ask for more explanation. He huddled in his mistcloak and stared into the drizzle.

It was late one particularly foggy afternoon when Beltan came cantering back to the group on his roan charger. The knight wore a grave expression on his face, but there was a gleam of excitement in his eyes as well.

“I’ve got some bad news,” he said. “About half a league ahead, the road passes through a narrow gap between two hills. There’s a band of outlaws camped on top of one of them. It’s a convenient location if you plan to ambush people traveling on the road below.”

Falken swore. “So how many of them are there?”

“Oh, only a half dozen or so.” The blond knight grinned and gripped the hilt of his sword. “I should have no trouble handling them.”

Melia folded her arms across her chest. “Really, Beltan?”

He squirmed in his saddle, chain mail squeaking. “All right. So there might be a little trouble. But I still say I can handle them.”

Melia reached out to pat his hand. “Of course you could, dear. But why don’t we try it my way first?”

Beltan heaved a breath of disappointment, then nodded.

“Now,” Melia said, “did the brigands notice you approaching?”

The knight shook his head. “I’m fairly sure they didn’t. I could hear them as clearly as if they were an arm’s length away, but I don’t think they could hear me at all. Sounds carry strangely in the fog.”

Melia nodded. “We’ll just have to hope they don’t already know we’re coming.” She gazed around at the foggy air, then let out a resigned sigh. “I’m much better with shadows than with mist, but I suppose this will simply have to do.” Her tone became crisp and commanding. “All right, everybody gather around me. And do stay close. I’m going to have to concentrate, and I won’t be able to pay attention to make certain none of you are wandering off.”

Travis nudged his shaggy gelding near Beltan’s charger. “What’s she going to do?”

“You’ll see.”

Melia shut her eyes, and a furrow of concentration marked her forehead. At the same time she held her hands close to her body and made small movements with her fingers which reminded Travis of someone knitting. The fog closed in around them. It grew thicker and more opaque, as soft and gray as Travis’s cloak. Melia opened her eyes.

“Is this really going to be enough?” Falken said. The fog seemed to absorb his words even as he spoke them.

Melia urged her horse into a slow walk. “There’s only one way to know for certain.”

The four moved down the road, their horses huddled in a close knot. They proceeded by sound rather than sight, for the fog remained thick as they went. Except, after a while, Travis started to think they weren’t moving through the fog at all. Rather, the dense cloud of mist seemed to be moving with them. On impulse, he leaned forward in his saddle and blew against the fog with all the breath he could muster.

“Please don’t do that, Travis,” Melia said.

Travis jumped in his saddle, then glanced at Melia. She was not looking at him, but instead continued to frown into the fog. He hunched down in his saddle and after that did not attempt any more experiments.

They rode in near-perfect silence. The footfalls of the horses, the creak of the saddles, the jingle of Beltan’s mail shirt—all were muffled by the preternatural fog.

A voice cut through the gloom. Travis clenched his jaw to stifle a cry of alarm. It sounded as if the speaker were no more than ten paces away.

“Sulath’s Balls, it’s cold today!”

Another rough voice answered the first. “You think you’re cold now? Go back to camp and tell Guerneg you’re too chilly to keep a lookout for travelers to rob. Then you’ll be cold all right. Stone cold, and with his sword stuck in your stinking guts.”

The first outlaw spat in disgust. “There’s nothing on the road today except this blasted fog. Look, there goes a whole cloud of it, just floating by. It’s not normal, this mist. It has the feel of the Little People about it. We’re probably being cursed just breathing it.”

“Better cursed by fog than skewered by steel,” the second outlaw said.

The first grunted but did not argue with this bit of wisdom.

The voices of the outlaws fell behind and faded away. Only when he let out a tight lungful of air did Travis realize he had been holding his breath. The group came to a halt. With a weary sigh, Melia waved a hand. The cloud of fog that surrounded them broke into ragged tatters and melted away on the late-afternoon air. To the north, two shapes rose dimly in the haze. Those must have been the hills where the highwaymen had waited to ambush unwary travelers. Somehow the four had passed by the outlaw encampment unseen.

Travis looked at Melia in wonderment, but he did not even consider asking her how their safe passage had been accomplished. Sometimes answers could be far more disturbing than their questions.

“It looks as if the fog is lifting,” Melia said in a bright voice.

“What a coincidence,” Falken said.

With that they continued on their way and cantered down the ancient road.

42.

Two days later they came to a town.

The morning after their near encounter with the outlaws, the fog gave way to sunshine that gilded the rolling landscape between plains and mountains, and changed browns to russets and tans to bright golds. Despite the sunlight, the weather turned cold and sharp. Winter had not forgotten this land after all. Beltan’s mail shirt jingled on the crisp air, and the breath of the horses was white and frosty. Travis kept warm inside his mistcloak, but his hands seemed to freeze around the reins of his gelding, so that by day’s end it was almost impossible to unclench his stiff fingers.

They encountered more and more signs of human habitation the farther south they traveled. From the swaying back of his mount, Travis saw thatch-roofed farms, muddy villages, and stone signal towers atop which bonfires could be lit in troubled times to warn of danger or invasion. They were deep in Eredane—although, according to Falken, the Dominion’s most populous lands lay many leagues to the west, along the banks of the River Silverflood. The eastern marches of Eredane, where they journeyed now, were considered rough and provincial lands these days.

The sun was high overhead when Beltan spurred his charger back toward the others. As usual he had ridden ahead to scout the way. Now he bore the good news.

“There’s a town just over the next rise in the road.”

Falken shot him a speculative look. “And just why are you grinning like that?”

Mischief sparked in Beltan’s green eyes. “Where there’s a town, there’s got to be ale.”

Melia clucked her tongue. “You know, contrary to popular Calavaner belief, one actually can survive for considerable lengths of time without ale.”

Beltan gave her a puzzled look. “Yes, but what would be the point?”

After a small amount of discussion, Falken and Melia concurred that, despite their need for haste, they should spare an hour or two to enter the town. Though generous, the foodstuffs King Kel had given them were beginning to dwindle, and Melia wanted to replenish their supplies. Also, Falken hoped to hear more news of affairs in the Dominions. The matter settled, they urged the horses into a canter. Minutes later they crested a low swell and came to a halt.

“I don’t remember Glennen’s Stand being a walled town,” Falken said with a frown.

Beltan shrugged. “Maybe they’ve had problems with outlaws or barbarians coming down from the mountains.”

“Maybe.” The bard sounded less convinced. “Regardless, I don’t think Glennen would be pleased to see what has become of his namesake.”

Travis lifted a hand to shade his eyes and studied the town below. Glennen’s Stand was situated in a hollow beside a small river, no more than three furlongs from the Queen’s Way. He guessed there to be about a hundred buildings in all. Those upstream were of stone with dull slate roofs, while those downstream were little more than shacks thatched with dirty straw. A wall surrounded the entire town, and while a dark patina of age hung over Glennen’s Stand, the wall was pale and rough-edged, a testament to its recent construction.

Following Melia’s lead, they nudged their horses into motion and made for the town. As they rode, Travis guided his horse toward Falken’s.

“Who was he?” he asked the bard. “Glennen, I mean.”

The bard gave him a thoughtful look. “You remember the war I told you about, the one that took place long ago against the Pale King?”