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

The Gates of Winter

Mark Anthony


Contents

Title Page

Dedication

Epigraph

Map of The Dominions

Part One

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Part Two

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Part Three

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Part Four

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Part Five

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

Part Six

Chapter 56

Chapter 57

Chapter 58

Chapter 59

Chapter 60

Chapter 61

About the Author

Also by Mark Anthony

Perilous Destiny

Preview of The First Stone

Copyright Page

For Carl, Carla, Aurora, and Aidan—

With warm memories of our own winter adventure together

in Salt Lake 2002

“Love shall yet defy you.”

1.

It was the dead of winter when he reached Ar-tolor.

Dusk was falling, and gold lights shone from the windows of the castle on the hill above, beckoning with the promise of crackling fires and steaming cups of wine. He could not remember the last time he had been warm—truly warm—and these last few leagues had been the coldest yet. His feet might as well have been lumps of stone, and despite the rags he had wrapped around them, his fingers were raw and bleeding. All he craved was to ride up to the gates and beg hospitality.

Instead, he turned his gelding away from the road and urged the beast toward a grove of trees that clung, feathery as fog, to the slope beneath the castle. That was where he would find her—not in the bright halls of Ar-tolor, but here, where blue shadows gathered.

He brought the horse to a halt at the edge of the trees, climbed from the saddle with clumsy motions, and threw the reins over a branch. The horse snorted, breath ghosting on the air, and dug at the snow with a hoof. It was Geldath now, the Ice Month; the beast would find nothing to eat. He left the gelding and trudged deeper into the grove, boots crunching on newfallen snow.

Branches wove themselves overhead, sharp and black as ink on parchment, making a broken mosaic of the colorless sky—just as the webwork of scars made of his face. Here and there, where branches intersected, he fancied he could make out the familiar shape of a rune. There was Lir. Light. And over there, three twigs that sketched Krond, the rune of fire. He imagined stretching his fingers toward dancing flames. . . .

Those were foolish thoughts; the cold had frozen his mind as it had his hands and feet. However, he knew he had to thaw his wits, for if he did not choose his words with care, they would betray him. Just as he meant to betray her. He muttered Ber, the rune of strength, and kept walking.

It was the silence that warned him. Somewhere off in the grove, a mourning dove had been singing. The music ceased. He turned around, and his heart became a lump of ice in his chest. A figure in a black robe stood next to a tree. The hem of the robe fluttered, though there was not a breath of wind. Only one set of footprints marred the snow: his own.

He shivered, and not simply from the chill. Every instinct told him to flee. Instead he willed his stiff legs to move, bearing him toward the other. He clutched a hard bundle beneath his cloak as he came to a halt an arm's reach away. At her feet lay a dove, its neck twisted. Blood spattered the snow like winter berries.

A voice emanated from within the robe's hood, sharp as breaking sticks. “Why has it taken you so long to come?”

“It is a long journey from the Black Tower.” His lips seemed molded of clay; it was an effort to speak. “I rode with all possible haste.”

“Is that so? Your steed did not seem overly exhausted when I came upon it.”

He peered back the way he had come. Through the trees, he could just make out a large form sprawled on the snow, slender legs splayed. “That was my third mount. The last dropped beneath me in eastern Calavan.”

“What fragile things they are. I would not tolerate such weakness in my servants.”

He said nothing, and she drew closer, drifting over the snow. A precipitate of frost dusted the fabric of his tunic.

“Are you certain,” she said, “you did not stop at the fortress of your brethren before coming here? It is not so far away from Ar-tolor. Perhaps you desired to show them what you've found.”

“They are my brethren no longer. I am forbidden ever to return to my home—a condition I believe is familiar to you.”

Within the cowl, he caught the glint of a milky eye. “Be careful, mortal man!”

He laughed, no less surprised by this reaction than she. “Don't you think it's far too late for that, Shemal?”

She clucked her tongue. “So, do you have it?”

“I do.”

“Quickly—show it to me!”

He drew out the cloth bundle he had kept next to his heart all these leagues. Forgive me, my friend. Hoping she thought his trembling due to cold alone, he unwrapped the cloth, revealing a disk of creamy stone as large as his splayed hand. Inlaid in its surface was a silvery rune. Tal. Sky.

She reached out hands as pale as the disk.

“Do you want to hold it, then?”

A hiss escaped her, and she snatched her hands back. “Do you mock me?”

He kept his tone disinterested. “I shouldn't think so.” However, as he wrapped the bundle again, he felt a spark of triumph. He had guessed she would not dare touch the rune; surely its magic was at odds with her own. She needed him still, to bear the rune. And to break it.

True, there were two others in the world Shemal might have used to break the rune of sky. However, the runelord Kelephon served the Pale King, not her. And the man the Witches believed was the Runebreaker of prophecy, Travis Wilder, was a tool of her foe Melindora Nightsilver. So Shemal had sought out another Runebreaker, one she could make her slave, and she had found him. She had made him bow before her, and he had done so eagerly, pledging himself to her.

In all, the plan was nearly perfect. There was just one problem. He did not know how to break runes. And if she discovered that fact before he found a way to break the rune of sky, all hope was lost.

“You're thinking of something,” she said. “I see it in your eyes. Tell me what it is.”

“I was thinking of our master,” he lied quickly, trying not to look at the dead dove as he spoke. “He has been banished for more than an eon. Will he truly have the strength to do what he seeks?”

“Such petty thoughts! I had not believed you to be as weak as Liendra. How can you doubt the power of the Lord of Nightfall?”

“He was defeated once. He was banished beyond the circle of the world by the elder gods and the deities of Tarras, just as you and I were banished ourselves.”

“Yet we will all have our victories in the end. And those who dared to cast us out will prostrate themselves at our feet before we destroy them.” She brushed slender fingers against the trunk of the tree, and its bark turned black where she touched it.

“You will see,” Shemal said, her words soft now. “I confess, not long ago, I felt doubts such as yours. The Great Stones Krondisar and Sinfathisar were lost, and the sorcerers of Scirath proved as worthless as insects. So powerful they claimed to be. They would open a gate between worlds, letting Mohg step through. All I had to do was show them how to dig up some dead city lost in the sands of the south.” A sharp laugh escaped her. “Of course, I knew nothing of this city they sought, but I told them I would reveal it to them if they did what they said. I knew it wouldn't matter, that once the Lord of Nightfall returned to Eldh the Scirathi would be his slaves or be annihilated.”

He stamped his feet, trying in vain to warm them inside his boots. She had deceived the sorcerers, just as he was trying to deceive her. Could he really hope to best her at her own game? Look what had happened to the Scirathi.

“The sorcerers were destroyed,” he murmured.

Fear gripped him. He had not meant to speak that last thought aloud. However, she seemed not to notice the slip.

“Melindora Nightsilver saw to that, blast that bitch! She and the fool bard and that Runebreaker whelp of hers. How I wish them dead! I would forge their cadavers into shambling husks and make them serve me.” Her hood slipped a fraction, revealing the curved corner of a mouth, lips as black as bruises against snowy skin. “But that will come soon enough. The raven you sent found me, and the news it carried changes everything. Krondisar and Sinfathisar have returned to Eldh. The Pale King's minions failed to gain them at the Black Tower, but Berash will soon ride forth himself to retrieve them, and he will place them beside Gelthisar in the iron necklace Imsaridur. When that happens, you will break the rune of sky—”

“—and Mohg will return to Eldh,” he said, his breath a fog of dread and wonder. “He will take the Imsari from the Pale King, and with them he will break the First Rune. He'll destroy the world, then remake it in his own dark image.”

Never, since the first day she had come to him in twilight at the ruins of the White Tower of the Runebinders, had she been so talkative as this; the message he had given to the raven must have intoxicated her indeed. “What of the Dominions?” he dared to ask. “What if they stand together and wage war against the Pale King, preventing him from gaining the Imsari? The queen of Malachor has been revealed. Will she not unite the Dominions?”

Shemal laughed, a sound like icicles shattering. “What Dominions? Eredane and Brelegond lie under the fist of Kelephon and his Onyx Knights. Much as I loathe him, he has done well in his task. Embarr shall soon follow, and Perridon and Galt are weak and worthless.”

“And what of Toloria and Calavan?”

The black hood turned, facing up toward the castle on the hill. “Do not concern yourself with them. I have seen to it they will never stand together. And as for your little Malachorian queen—the Pale King will take care of her. Even Berash should be able to accomplish that much.”

He should not ask more questions; surely she would grow suspicious. However, the cold had numbed his fear. “And once the Pale King does gain the Imsari, what if he decides not to surrender the Stones to Mohg, but instead to wield them and rule Eldh himself?”

It was getting darker now; her robe merged with the dusk. “What you speak is possible, and it is why I trust neither him nor his slave Kelephon. For a thousand years, Berash has ruled alone in Imbrifale. He believes he is the dark lord whom we all serve. But once Mohg returns, the Pale King shall recall who is the master and who the slave. Or he shall perish like the others.”

He tried to speak again. However, his lips would not seem to move right.

“Hush,” Shemal said. “The cold has nearly made a corpse of you. I have seen the rune of sky, and that is all I need for now. Go to the castle. I have told Liendra to receive you, and even she cannot fail to comprehend such simple instructions.”

“What of Ivalaine?” he managed to croak. By Olrig, he was not a corpse yet.

“Don't concern yourself with the Witch Queen. She spends most of her time pacing in her chamber, muttering and pulling out her pretty flaxen hair. But you must take care what you speak in earshot of Ivalaine's counselor, Tressa. That witch still has her wits, and I fear Liendra has not always been prudent around her. I would crush Liendra like a gnat if I did not need her to make the Witches do my bidding.”

With a noise no louder than the sound of snow falling, Shemal was gone. A full moon had risen, setting the world aglow, but there was no point searching the night for her. He would not see the Necromancer again. Not until she wished to find him.

With stiff motions, he bent and picked up the dove. Its little body was frozen solid. He let it fall back to the ground, then started trudging toward the road. However, after only a dozen steps, he stumbled and dropped to his knees. He couldn't make it to the castle on foot; he was too cold.

“Hey there, get up! This is no time for napping.”

The voice was a croak, harsh and commanding, yet not without kindness. Light encapsulated him, too soft and golden to be that of the moon. A delicious warmth seeped into his flesh and bones, making his joints ache. He was lying on the ground; he must have fallen into the snow to die. Only he hadn't. Shivering, he pushed himself up to his knees.

An ancient woman stood above him. Her body was a shapeless lump inside myriad layers of rags, and her humped back was nearly bent double.

“Is that the best you can do?” she said, a sour expression on her withered face. “Some Runebreaker you are.”

Clenching his jaw, he gained his feet. He was still stiff, but his hands and feet tingled with pinpricks of fire. He was going to live.

“I'm not a Runebreaker.” He wasn't certain why he told her this; if Shemal knew the truth, he would be dead in an instant, his neck twisted just like the dove's. However, there was something queer about the old hag. The golden light welled forth from somewhere behind her. It was tinged with green and made him think of a forest in summer.

She let out a snort and peered at him with her one bulbous eye. “Well, if you're not a Runebreaker, you should be. You have the face for it.”

Without thinking, he reached up and touched the fine scars that crisscrossed his visage. He had gotten them as a boy, after he had shown a talent for runespeaking. As a reward, his father had tried to cut out his tongue.

“So,” she said, jabbing a bony finger at his chest, “are you keeping him safe?”

He moved his hand to the bundle of the rune, and as he touched it, he understood. The light, the warmth—it had to be. “You're the one he served, aren't you? Sky. You're the one who created him.”

“You mean the Ones,” she said, and for a moment it wasn't a crone who stood before him, but a gray-bearded man. He was tall and powerful, with a storm in his eyes and wisdom on his brow. On his right hand shone O'rn, the rune of runes. His left wrist ended in a stump.

Before he could speak, the hag stood before him once more.

“Do you truly mean to break it?” she said.

Despite the warmth, he could not stop shivering. He felt weak, sick, and stupid. All the same, he nodded. “It's the only answer.”

The old woman clucked her tongue, but there was sorrow in her lone eye. “I suppose it is, lad. I suppose it is at that. But you'll never do it, you know. Not as you are now.”

“I have to,” he said, trying to sound confident. “I'll find a way.”

She let out a cackling laugh. “I think the way's found you, lad.”

As she reached out, he saw the symbol shining on her bony hand: three crossed lines. O'rn.

“Go, runelord,” she said. “Break the sky.”

Before he could pull away from her, she gripped his right hand in her own. Light split the darkness, pain sizzled up his arm, and Master Larad—runespeaker, outcast, traitor—threw his head back and screamed as power coursed into him.

2.

On another world, Deirdre Falling Hawk sat in a claw-footed chair that was older than she by a good four centuries and stared at the closed mahogany door across the hallway.

All right, Deirdre—blink already. You don't have X-ray vision. And even if you did, the room is probably encased with lead shielding. Gods know, the Philosophers always think of everything.

With a sigh, she leaned her head back against glossy wood paneling. She wasn't certain she believed in fate. All the same, she had a feeling hers was being decided on the other side of that door right now. She reached up and touched the polished bear claw that hung around her neck, wishing she could muster some kind of true vision. Wishing she knew what Hadrian Farr was telling them.

She wasn't surprised they had asked to see her and Farr separately. That was standard procedure in interrogation, wasn't it? Divide and conquer. Nor was she surprised the Philosophers themselves had wished to conduct this final interview, as they termed it. The fact was, compared to what she had witnessed on the weathered asphalt of Highway 121 outside of Boulder, Colorado, nothing in the three months since—the midnight phone calls, the endless question-and-answer sessions, the surprise early-morning visits to the South Kensington flat they had granted her—could possibly have come as a surprise.

If she closed her eyes, Deirdre could still see it: the window rimmed with crackling blue fire, hanging in midair. It was what she and Farr had joined the Seekers in hopes of finding—a gateway to another world. They had watched as Travis Wilder and Grace Beckett stepped through the gate, along with the wounded man Beltan and the spindly gray being that was, impossibly, a fairy. Then the window collapsed in on itself, and they were gone. Not two hundred yards away, the Seekers were waiting to pick the rest of them up. So much for the policy of not interfering with those who had otherwordly connections.

No doubt the Seekers had desired to intercept them before the arrival of the police, whose sirens had already wailed on the air. Besides, the otherworldly beings with which Deirdre and Farr had been connected were gone—vanished through a gate to another world. In the days before, she and Farr had been cut off from the Seekers for becoming too closely involved in the Wilder-Beckett case. They had been allowed to break Desiderata left and right just so the Seekers could see what they would do. They had gone from being watchers to being the watched. Only with Grace Beckett and Travis Wilder now far out of reach, the rules had changed again. Silently, they had climbed into the waiting black sedans.

The Seekers had taken Travis's friends, Davis and Mitchell Burke-Favor, into custody as well. Deirdre had not been allowed to talk to them, though she learned later from Sasha that they had been released after intensive debriefing. And also that, in exchange for signing an affidavit of secrecy—something Deirdre suspected was not an option if the cowboys wanted to avoid being turned over to the police to be prosecuted for aiding and abetting known fugitives—they received substantial compensation from the Seekers' deep coffers. Deirdre knew that the two men could use the money; ranching was not an easy business. So maybe, in the end, some good had come out of all this.

Twelve hours after the Seekers picked them up, they had touched down in London; to Deirdre, it felt like traveling to another world. In the time since, she and Farr had both written detailed reports about their activities in Denver. They had been questioned and questioned again by Seekers at nearly every level in the organization. Deirdre was no psychologist, but she knew enough to be sure the subtle repetition was conceived to reveal any inconsistencies in their stories. However, she simply told them the truth; she guessed Farr did as well.

But maybe not all of the truth, Deirdre. Do you think he told them he really is following in the footsteps of the famed Seeker Marius Lucius Albrecht, who fell in love with the woman he had been sent to observe? Do you think Farr told the Philosophers what he feels for Dr. Grace Beckett?

Regardless, it was almost over. Deirdre knew that the only ones left to talk to were the Philosophers themselves—if they even existed.

Evidently they did; the summons had come that morning. Deirdre actually dressed up for the occasion, donning a simple but tasteful skirt suit of black wool. However, she had kept her bear claw necklace, and she had been forced to grab her leather biker jacket against the chill January drizzle that slicked the London streets.

She had spent perhaps an hour in the room beyond that mahogany door. It had been dark and empty except for a single chair carefully placed in a circle of gold light. Then the voices had started, and she had seen the row of dim silhouettes just beyond the light. For a moment she thought they were really there. Only that wouldn't be nearly mysterious enough for the Philosophers, would it? After a minute, a crackle of static passed in front of the figures. It was a projection, that was all—their electronically altered voices coming through speakers, her replies returning to them by hidden microphone. They could have been a thousand miles from that room.

All the same, these were the dread Philosophers she was speaking to—the secret governing body of the Seekers, whose number and identities were unknown. This fact had registered on her, but distantly. She had seen a gold-masked sorcerer from another world use magic to control savage monsters; she had seen a fairy. In the end, nothing could shock her anymore. They had asked all the same questions the others had, and she had answered them mechanically.

It was only at the end of the interview, after a long pause, that a different question finally came.

“Please tell us one last thing, Ms. Falling Hawk. If you were given the opportunity, would you go there?”

She stiffened in the chair. “Go there?”

“To AU-3, the world some call Eldh. Would you go there, if you could?”

She leaned back and touched the silver ring she wore on her right hand. It was the ring Glinda had given to her at Surrender Dorothy—the London nightclub that had been a secret haven for people with fairy blood in their veins. Duratek had been controlling the folk of Surrender Dorothy, supplying them with the drug Electria, hoping to use their blood to open a gateway to Eldh. Only then Duratek had captured a true fairy; it had needed the others no longer. The nightclub had burned to the ground, but not before Deirdre had managed to talk to Glinda.

As she had a thousand times since that night, she thought of Glinda's purple eyes and the impossible forest she had glimpsed when they kissed. A forest she was certain had not been anywhere in the nightclub, or anywhere in London.

“Please answer the question, Ms. Falling Hawk. If given the opportunity, would you go to Eldh?”

She twirled the ring on her finger and smiled. “I think maybe I already have.”

The lights came up, and it was over. She had gone into the hall to wait while Farr took his turn.

Once again Deirdre sighed. How long had he been in there? There was no clock in sight—nothing that would mar the precisely engineered patina of age and tradition that permeated the London Charterhouse. The only concessions to modernity were an Exit sign at the end of the hallway and electric bulbs in the brass sconces that had once burned oil.

Built just before Shakespeare's time, the Charterhouse had originally been the guild lodge of some of London's most notorious alchemists. These days, passersby thought it some exclusive club. They weren't that far off. The Seekers weren't so very different from the geographic societies of Victorian times, planning trips to exotic locales. That these locales resided not on other continents, but on other worlds, was merely a matter of degree.

Acquired by the Seekers just after the Restoration to be their first Charterhouse, the structure had been modified almost continuously, including the addition of a vast maze of offices, laboratories, and computing facilities beneath the ground floor, as well as tunnels that connected to several surrounding buildings.

Just as Deirdre contemplated getting up and pounding on the door, it swung open. Farr stood half in the darkness beyond, so that she could see him only in stark black and white. With his chinos, rumpled white shirt, and before-noon five o'clock shadow, he looked as if he had been digitized right out of a Humphrey Bogart movie.

“Well?” Deirdre stood.

Without looking back, Farr shut the door and stepped into the light. “I wouldn't have thought it would go like that.”

“Go like what?”

A camel hair jacket drooped over Farr's arm. He unfolded the garment and shook it out, but this only seemed to encourage the wrinkles. Farr slung the jacket over slouched shoulders.

“Do you know how many of the Nine Desiderata we broke?”

“Yes, actually. Numbers One, Three, Four, Six, and Seven. Although I never could see the difference between Desideratum One and Desideratum Three. Do you think something was lost in the translation from the Latin?”

“And do you know how many other directives and regulations we ignored in our actions?” Farr went on.

“Let's see. There was the Vow, of course. Plus a dozen or so local, state, and federal laws applicable in Colorado. And as I recall, Hadrian, you only flossed once the entire time we were in the States.”

He ran a hand through his dark hair, as if it could be any more perfectly mussed than it already was. “It doesn't make one whit of sense.”

“No, Farr, you don't make one whit of sense.” She plucked a bit of lint off his coat, noticed it had been covering a spot, and gently replaced it. “And nobody says whit anymore. Now tell me what happened. They've taken three months to decide what to do with us. Are we to be censured? Exiled? What?”

Farr's brown eyes finally focused on her. Even dazed and disheveled, he was handsome. He should have been a poet or an artist a hundred years ago; he would have looked absolutely beautiful dying of tuberculosis.

“They've invited us to rejoin the Seekers. All privileges and benefits restored. And at a higher rank.”

Deirdre gaped, surprised at last.

“So what do we do?” she managed to say.

Farr stuck his gray fedora atop his head. “We go downstairs. The Philosophers have politely requested we stop by the main office before leaving the building.”

“And what if we don't?” Deirdre said. She felt light-headed, as if the air all around her had gone thin.

“What, Deirdre? How could you possibly think to disobey the wise and benevolent Philosophers?”

Farr's voice was strangely soft; nor was he looking at her. Instead he gazed down the corridor, brown eyes haunted.

Deirdre started to reach toward him. “Hadrian?”

He turned his back and moved out of reach. “Be a good Seeker, Deirdre, and come along. We'd best see what wonders the Philosophers have in store for us.”

Three minutes later, they stepped off the elevator into the brightly lit warren of offices beneath the Charterhouse to find Sasha waiting for them, two manila packets in hand. She smacked them idly against her cocked hip as her red lips twisted in a smirk.

“So, Hadrian Farr does it once again. He breaks all the rules and gets all the rewards.” She sauntered forward and kissed Deirdre's cheek.

“It's good to see you,” Deirdre said, squeezing her hand.

“You, too.” Sasha stepped back and rolled her eyes. “Good Lord, Farr, could you quit staring? They're just boobs. I'm sure women on every world have them.”

“Not like . . . that is, I wasn't . . .” Farr cleared his throat and looked away.

Deirdre couldn't blame Farr for staring. Sasha was fashion model gorgeous—tall and lanky, curved in all the right places and sleekly muscled everywhere else. Her skin was coffee with cream, her eyes black opal. Nor did the severe bun into which she had pulled her hair, or the faux secretary outfit—prim gray skirt, white blouse buttoned low, and reading glasses dangling on a rhinestone chain—do much to hide her beauty.

Sasha regarded Deirdre. “Some days it's a complete nuisance being hot, isn't it?”

“I wouldn't know,” Deirdre said with a laugh.

Sasha grinned. “Don't tell me you're just fine with the girl in the mirror.”

Deirdre shrugged. “I can't say I talk to her much, but I suppose she's all right. Although her nose is a little crooked, and I do keep telling her she needs a better haircut, but she doesn't seem to listen.”

“I hope she never does,” Sasha said, the words wistful. Then she turned her attention on Farr. “Why so quiet, Golden Boy? I would have thought you'd be crowing over your victory.” Only Sasha could make disgust seem so impersonal and boring.

“News travels fast in this place,” Deirdre said.

“You know our motto,” Sasha said with a wink, tarting up her West End accent. “To Watch, To Wait, To Believe.”

“And, evidently, To Spring On People When They're At Their Most Defenseless,” Farr grumbled, hands in his pockets.

“I hate to destroy your fantasies, Farr, but I'm not your stalker. I was simply instructed to give these to you.”

Sasha held out the large envelopes. Deirdre took the one with her name on it. Farr hesitated, then took the other.

“What is it?” he said.

“I'm letting myself hope it's a good dose of humility,” Sasha said.

“Thanks, Sasha,” Deirdre said.

“So, when will you be back at work?”

Deirdre fingered the envelope. It wasn't very thick or heavy. “I don't know. Soon, I hope. Hadrian?”

She looked at Farr, but he had turned back toward the elevator.

Sasha held a hand to her forehead. “I think I actually liked him better when he was an arrogant git. Would you go get him a stiff drink? Alcohol should reinflate his false sense of superiority.”

Deirdre nodded. “I'll make it my first mission.”

“Good girl.”

Sasha stalked away through the offices, and Deirdre followed Farr to the elevator.

“Sasha's right. What's going on, Hadrian? You won, didn't you?”

“Let's get that drink,” Farr said as the elevator whooshed open.

3.

A quarter of an hour later they stepped through the door of the Merry Executioner, a pub three blocks from the Charterhouse, and their haunt of old.

Over the last few years, a shocking number of London's centuries-old drinking houses had been quietly replaced by chain-owned franchises—establishments that were not genuine English pubs but rather deftly manufactured replicas of what an American tourist thought a pub should be. Deirdre had mistakenly walked into one not long after their return to London. The too-bright brass railing on the bar and the random coats of arms on the walls couldn't hide the fact that the steak-and-kidney pie came out of a microwave and the bartender didn't know the difference between a black-and-tan and a half-and-half.

In a way, the bland commercialization of London's pubs reminded Deirdre of the workings of Duratek Corporation. That kind of thing was right up their alley—take something true and good, and turn it into a crass mockery in order to make a tidy profit. Wasn't that what they wanted to do to AU-3, to the world called Eldh? She could see it now: roller coasters surrounding the medieval stone keeps, and indigenous peasants in the castle market hocking cotton candy and plastic swords imported from Taiwan in order to keep sticky-fingered Earther tourists from noticing the smokestacks rising in the distance.

Luckily, the M.E. hadn't succumbed to the scourge of commercialization in Deirdre's absence. The dingy stone exterior and grimy windows were just unsanitary-looking enough to ensure foreigners would hastily pass by, shrieking children in tow. Inside, things were as dim and warmly shabby as Deirdre remembered. A drone of conversation rose on the air from a scattering of locals. She and Farr slipped into a corner booth and caught the bartender's eye. Scant minutes later they sipped their pints.

Deirdre gave Farr a speculative look over the rim of her glass. “Better now?”

He leaned back. “Marginally. However, I'm not sure just one pint will be antidote enough for an encounter with Sasha.”

“You know, she doesn't really hate you,” Deirdre said, not entirely convinced that was the case.

Farr must not have heard her. He gazed at the pair of manila envelopes Sasha had given them.

“So, are you going to open it, Hadrian?”

“Maybe. I suppose I really haven't decided.”

Deirdre let out a groan. “Please spare me the I'm-too-cool-to-care routine. You know as well as I do that for all the rules we broke, and for all the havoc we caused, we're the first Seekers in centuries—maybe even the first since Marius Lucius Albrecht himself—to report real, verifiable, and multiple Class One Encounters. We've done the one thing the Seekers have always wanted to do: We've met travelers from other worlds.” She leaned over the table. “Admit it. You want to know what the Philosophers have planned for us as much as I do.”

Farr's expression was unreadable. He flicked a hand toward the envelopes. “Ladies first.”

He had called her on this one. Deirdre picked up the envelope marked with her name, tore off one end, and turned it over.

A plastic card fell to the table. On the card was a picture of herself, her name, her signature, and the sigil of the Seekers: a hand holding three flames. So it was a new ID card, that was all, a replacement for the one they had taken from her at the first debriefing months ago. She turned it over to look at the reverse side.

Farr sat up straight and drew in a sharp breath. Deirdre raised an eyebrow.

“What is it, Farr?”

“Those bastards. Those cunning, diabolical bastards.”

Deirdre frowned and followed Farr's gaze to the back of the card. It bore her thumbprint—no doubt in ink laced with her DNA, taken from blood samples the Seekers had on file. The DNA signature in the ink could be read with an ultraviolet scanner, providing a level of authentication that was virtually impossible to counterfeit. However, as interesting as the technology was, that couldn't be the source of Farr's outburst.

Then, in the lower corner of the card, she saw the small series of dots and lines—a computer code printed in the same DNA ink. Next to the code was a single, recognizable symbol: a crimson numeral seven.

A jolt of understanding sizzled through Deirdre. She looked up at Farr, her eyes wide. When she spoke, it was in a whisper of wonder. Or perhaps dread.

“Echelon 7 . . .”

Farr grabbed the other envelope, shredded it, and snatched his new ID card from the debris. He flipped the card over, then tossed it on the table with a grunt. Like Deirdre's, his card was marked with a red seven.

He slumped back in the booth, his expression stricken. “Now,” he murmured. “After all these years, they finally give it to me now. Damn them to hell.”

Deirdre didn't understand. Why was Farr so upset? Energy crackled through her. She turned the ID card over and over in her hands. “I'd heard stories, of course. Echelon 7—a superhigh level of clearance, a type of access far beyond anything else granted by the Philosophers. But I always thought it was just a rumor—a legend told to new recruits. The highest level of clearance I've ever seen is yours, Hadrian, and that's Echelon 5. I didn't think anyone who wasn't a Philosopher could go any further.”

“No, Echelon 7 is quite real. I know because I've been working for years to gain it.” He hunched over the table, voice hoarse. “Do you understand what this means? With this card, you can access every file, every artifact, every document and bit of data. The deepest secrets of the Seekers will be at your disposal—everything but the private files of the Philosophers themselves is yours.”

“And yours, too, Hadrian.”

“I don't think so.”

Deirdre gave an exasperated sigh. “What are you talking about? You said you've been working for this for years. And now you're just going to throw it away?”

Farr shrugged, running a thumb over his card. “I suppose I did want this once. But I can't say I really know what I want anymore. Except maybe that's not true, either. Maybe I do know what I want, only it isn't this.” He flicked the card away from him across the table.

Deirdre snatched it up. Sasha was right; Farr at his most coy and arrogant was vastly preferable to this maudlin version. “This is ridiculous, Hadrian. You're one of the most important agents the Seekers have, and they've rewarded you for your work. Why is that so hard to bear?”

Farr let out a bitter laugh. “Come now, Deirdre, surely you're not that guileless, not after what we've witnessed. This is no reward. It's simply another ploy to control us. Think of what we've seen, what we know. And think of who besides the Seekers might want that knowledge for themselves.”

“Duratek,” she said on reflex.

“Exactly. The Philosophers will do anything to keep us out of the hands of Duratek—even if it means giving us what we've always wanted. But that doesn't mean we're anything more than the puppets we were in Colorado.”

Anger bubbled up inside Deirdre, at Farr—and, she had to admit, at the machinations of the Philosophers. Much as she would have liked to deny it, there was a ring of truth to Farr's words. But it didn't matter.

“So what?” she said. “So the Philosophers are trying to manipulate us. No matter why we have them, these cards still work.” She reached across the table and took his hand. “Think of what we can do with them, Hadrian, what we can learn. We never knew until last year that the Graystone and Beckett cases were connected. What other connections will we find with access to all of the files of the Seekers?”

Farr winced, and Deirdre knew her words had stung him. It was cruel to mention Dr. Grace Beckett—whom he loved, and who was now a world away from him. However, Deirdre didn't care; he had to listen to her.

“If the Philosophers really think we're their puppets,” she said, “then the joke's on them. We'll be reinstated and—”

He pulled his hand from hers. “I'm not resuming my work with the Seekers, Deirdre. I'm resigning from the order as of this moment.”

This was ridiculous. She glared at him. “You can't quit, Hadrian. I know; I tried it once. And you were the one who told me that leaving the Seekers isn't an option.”

“It seems I was mistaken.”

Deirdre hardly believed what she was hearing.

Farr's face was haggard but not unsympathetic. “I'm sorry, Deirdre, I truly am. I know it's difficult. But you have to face the fact that we've lost.”

“Lost what?”

“Our belief.”

She sat back, staring as if slapped. In all the years she had known him, Farr had never wavered in his quest for other worlds, had never stopped believing in them. “I don't understand. You were there, Hadrian, on the highway to Boulder. You saw it all with your own eyes.”

“You misunderstand me. I haven't lost my belief in other worlds. It's my belief in the Seekers I've lost. And from everything you're telling me, you have as well.”

She struggled for words but could find none.

“To Watch, To Wait, To Believe—that was our motto. We thought all we had to do was keep our eyes open, be patient, and one day it would happen. One day the Philosophers would reveal everything, and the door would open for us. Well, the door did open, only it wasn't the Philosophers who did it.” He laughed, and the cold sound of it made her shiver.

“Stop it, Hadrian.”

“I used to believe the Philosophers knew everything, that they were infallible. But it turns out they're not. They make mistakes just as the rest of us do. Do you think our mission in Denver went even remotely as they had planned?”

“I said stop it.”

“We don't have to be their playthings, Deirdre. And we don't need them or the magic of their little plastic cards in order to find other—”

“Stop!”

She hit the table with a hand. Beer sloshed, and patrons turned their heads. Deirdre hunkered deeper into the dimness of the booth; the eyes turned away.

Farr was watching her, one eyebrow raised. She drew a breath, willing the spirits to grant her strength. She was going to need it.

“Don't even think about it,” she said, her voice low and dangerous. “I mean it, Hadrian. Leaving the Seekers is one thing. If you want to start a nice quiet life as a shopkeeper or an accountant, that's fine. But leaving the Seekers and continuing your . . . work is something else altogether.”

He started to speak, but she held up a hand.

“No—shut up for once in your life and listen to me. The Seekers have eyes everywhere; you know that better than anybody. And you also know how the Philosophers feel about renegades. If they can't be sure of your allegiance, they'll make sure no one else can, either.”

She locked her eyes on his and listened to the thudding of her own heart. For a moment she thought she had him, that he had finally seen reason. Then a smile touched his lips—it was a fond expression, sad—and he stood up.

So it was over; the words escaped her anyway. “Please, Hadrian. Don't go like this.”

He held out a hand. “Come with me, Deirdre. You're too good for them.”

She pressed her lips together and shook her head. Farr was wrong. It wasn't just their belief they had lost. He had lost Grace Beckett to another world. And Deirdre had lost Glinda to the fire in the Brixton nightclub. To Duratek.

All the same, Deirdre hadn't lost her faith. There was still so much to learn, and with the new card the Seekers had given her—with Echelon 7—there was no telling what she might discover.

Deirdre gripped the silver ring on her right hand. “I can't go with you, Hadrian. I have to stay here. It's the only chance I have to learn what I need to.”

“And that's the reason I have to go.”

Despite his grim expression, there was something about him—a fey light in his eyes—that made him seem eager. He had always taken risks—that was how he had risen so high so quickly in the Seekers—but he had never been one recklessly to thrust himself into danger. Now Deirdre wasn't so sure. In the past, she had been angry with Farr, awed by him, even envious of him. Now, for the first time, she was afraid for him.

“What are you going to do?”

He shrugged on his rumpled coat. “You're a smart girl, Deirdre, and you've got good instincts. That's why I requested you for my partner. But you're wrong about something. You said we've done the one thing the Seekers have always wanted to do. Except that's not quite true.” Farr put on his hat, casting his face into shadow. “You see, there's still one class of encounter we haven't had yet. Good-bye, Deirdre.”

He bent to kiss her cheek, then turned and made for the door of the pub. There was a flash of gray light and a puff of rainscented air.

Then he was gone.

4.

They came home to Calavere on a cold, brilliant day late in the month of Geldath.

Grace Beckett smiled as the familiar silhouettes of the castle's nine towers hove into view, banners snapping atop their turrets, as blue as the winter sky. All her life, she had lived in places she had not chosen, houses in which she had not belonged—the orphanage, an endless rotation of foster homes, countless drab apartments where she had never bothered to hang a picture on the wall. But she belonged in Calavere; she knew it by the beating of her heart. If ever she had a home, on any world, it was here.

A small form wriggled in the saddle in front of Grace. She wrapped her arms around the girl and rested her chin atop Tira's curly red head.

“Do you see the castle on the hill over there?” Grace murmured. “That's where I live.”

Tira reached out her hands and laughed.

Grace stroked the girl's hair, smoothing tangles she knew would reappear in an eyeblink. In moments like this, it was possible to believe Tira was a normal child. Possible, if Grace didn't think about how she ran around in the frigid air wearing just her thin smock, yet was always warm to the touch. Possible, if Grace forgot how she had once risen into the sky like a star to become a goddess.

Tira had not spoken a word since Midwinter's Eve, since she appeared at the Black Tower without warning, handed the Stone of Fire to Travis, and called him Runebreaker. There was so much Grace wanted to ask her—where she had been, how she had come back, and why she had brought Krondisar to Travis—only there was no point. Tira wouldn't—perhaps couldn't—answer. And Grace did not for a moment let herself believe she wouldn't be leaving again soon.

“I love you,” Grace said, tightening her arms around the girl's tiny body.

Tira gazed up with a placid expression, one side of her face soft and pretty, the other a blank mask of scar tissue. On Midwinter's Day, when they had set out from the Tower of the Runebreakers, Grace had wondered about Tira's face. Krondisar had turned her into a goddess. So why hadn't the transformation made her whole? However, as the leagues passed by, Grace understood. Tira was whole. This was what the Stone of Fire had made her.

Grace kissed her forehead—the scarred half—and Tira looked again at the looming castle.

“That is a sight I feared we would never see again,” said a deep voice, comforting in its gloominess.

Grace looked up to see Durge guide his horse close to hers. She smiled again. “I don't believe you, Durge. I think you've known all along we would make it back here. Why else would you have set out on the journey in the first place?”

“To be by your side, my lady. Where I belong.”

Grace couldn't help feeling a note of pleasure. She loved the craggy-faced knight; he was truer than any person she had ever met. Travis had told her Durge had been a sheriff's deputy in Castle City, in the year 1883, to which they had traveled and returned from with the magic of the gate artifact. It wasn't difficult to see Durge as a frontier lawmen; no matter where he went, no matter what century he was in, he would always be a knight. Her knight. However, she doubted loyalty was his only reason for returning with her to Calavere.

We're coming, Aryn. Grace cast the words across the threads of the Weirding, not knowing if her thoughts could be heard from so far away. Several times, as they journeyed east, the baroness had contacted Grace over the Weirding, the web of life and power that wove itself among all things in the world. Aryn had spoken of affairs in Calavere and the Dominions, and Grace had recounted their own harrowing encounters at the Black Tower. However, each time Grace tried to contact Aryn herself, she had failed. She did not have the ability to reach out with her thoughts over such long distances as Aryn seemed able to do.

Grace stole a glance at Durge's somber profile. His eyes were focused on the castle as he rode, his left hand pressed against his chest. She wasn't certain when she had first begun to suspect the truth. Maybe it was the way, each time she told the others Aryn had contacted her over the Weirding, Durge seemed to take particular interest. At the same time, Lirith would cast frequent glances at the knight, her dark eyes troubled.

One night, as they lay on the frozen ground near the feet of the Gloaming Fells, Grace had asked Lirith if there was something about Aryn and Durge she ought to know. Lirith had tried desperately to hide the truth, but Grace was a doctor; she knew precisely where to make an incision. At last, over the secret strands of the Weirding, Lirith had told her what she had learned by accident in the Barrens last summer, when she and Durge had traveled with Falken to find the Keep of Fire. In that desolate place, the witch had tried to lend a bit of her own life power to the weary knight, but in the process she had unwittingly stolen some of Durge's memories.

He loves her with all his heart, Grace, Lirith's anguished voice had sounded in Grace's mind. But he says she must never know, that she is too young and good to be bothered by one as old and derelict as he, and he made me vow never to tell anyone. Only now I have, and so I've betrayed him again.

No, Lirith, you haven't betrayed Durge—he's betraying himself. If he loves Aryn, he owes it to her to tell her the truth. Just because he didn't want to trouble Aryn was not reason enough to hide his feelings from her. Grace always gave her patients the true diagnosis, even if it was something they didn't want to hear.

The wind blew Durge's hair from his brow and tugged at the mustaches that drooped beneath his hawkish nose. Durge wasn't handsome. All the same, there was a kindness to his craggy visage, a nobility that went beyond mere beauty. She didn't know if Aryn could return Durge's love, but the young woman deserved the chance.

Durge glanced at her. “Is something amiss, my lady? We must look our best to greet King Boreas and Lady Aryn, and I suppose there's a bit of this morning's porridge stuck in my mustaches.”

Grace laughed. “No, Durge. You're absolutely perfect.”

This statement appeared to confound the knight. He opened his mouth, shut it again, gave her an odd look, then spurred his mount ahead, toward Falken's horse.

“What did you do to him?” Travis said, veering his horse toward Grace's. “It looks like his brain just went bonk.”

“I told him the truth.”

“That'll do it,” Travis said with a nod. “I used to complain that no one ever told me what was really going on. Only then they did, and I realized how much happier I was not knowing.”

“And would you go back if you could? To not knowing?”

Travis smiled, only there was a look in his eyes—sorrow? resignation?—she couldn't quite name. His hair was coming in now, thick and red as his beard. After Krondisar destroyed and remade him last summer, he had taken to shaving his head, hating the way his hair had changed from sand to flame. However, since the Black Tower, he had been letting it grow. It was as if he didn't mind anymore seeing the outward reflection of what he really was. And maybe that meant he had answered her after all.

Travis gazed at the castle, bouncing in the saddle like a sack of turnips. After all these leagues, he was still a terrible rider. Grace sat on her own mount straight and tall, rising and falling with its gait as if she had done it all her life. Of course, the horses were only a recent luxury. For most of the journey they had traveled on foot. Grace, Falken, Beltan, and Vani had had no horses; they had taken the fairy ship as far as they could up the River Farwander, then had marched the rest of the way to the Black Tower. And the horses Travis, Durge, Sareth, and Lirith had ridden there had been left over a century in the past.

It was nearly a hundred leagues from the Black Tower of the Runebreakers to Calavere. The idea of walking the entire way had filled Grace with despair, but with little other choice they had set out on foot on Midwinter's Day, and much to their surprise, they made good time. Perhaps too good. After they made camp each night, Falken would judge the landmarks, and by his estimates they would have covered more leagues than seemed possible.

“Something's not right about this,” Falken said the third night of their trek, and Grace agreed. As they walked, she would keep her eyes fixed on a distant hill, measuring their progress toward it. Then they would pass through a copse of trees or descend into a ravine, and when she caught sight of the hill again it would suddenly loom close, as if it had leapfrogged over the intervening miles when she wasn't looking.

“That's just not possible,” Beltan said, scratching his head after one such instance, and Tira had laughed, as if he had told a marvelous joke.

Grace looked at Tira, but the girl only bent her head over the half-burnt pinecone she had plucked from the campfire, and around which she had wrapped a rag, as if it were a doll.

Soon they left the wild reaches of the western Fal Sinfath and moved along the borders of Brelegond. Several times they caught sight of a troop of knights in black armor riding heavy warhorses, their shields marked with a silver tower and red crown. Durge and Beltan would draw their swords, Vani would vanish into the shadows, and Lirith and Grace would use the Touch to weave illusions to divert the eye.

They needn't have bothered. Each time, the knights rode on without getting close. The runelord Kelephon—whom the Onyx Knights knew as their supreme general Gorandon—wanted both Grace's blood and the magical sword Fellring, which he had failed to wrest from her in the dead kingdom Toringarth. What would he have done if he had known his knights had come within a half a mile of her more than once? Only he wouldn't know.

“You're keeping them from seeing us, aren't you?” she whispered to Tira one night as they curled together on the ground. The girl's little body was so warm Grace hardly needed her cloak, which she had thrown over them as a blanket. The snow curled into steam as it landed on them. “Just like you're helping us walk faster than we should be able to.”

Tira snuggled against her and went to sleep.

The Onyx knights were not the only peril they encountered on the road. Sometimes, those first few nights after they left the Black Tower, whoever was standing watch—Beltan or Durge or Vani—would see a pale glow atop a distant hill or ridge. The Pale King had failed to gain Sinfathisar and Krondisar at the Tower of the Runebreakers, but his minions still searched for the Stones.

However, before they left the tower, Travis had taken a rusted iron pot he found—their old cooking pot from a hundred years before—and had held it in his hands while he spoke the rune Dur. The pot shone with blue radiance, and when the light dimmed, in its place was an iron box. The box was surprisingly delicate and perfectly formed; whether or not he cared to use his power, his ability was growing. Travis slipped the Stones into the box and shut it. On its lid were angular symbols.

“What are they?” Grace asked, touching the runes on the box.

“A warning,” he said, and tucked the box inside his tunic.

The Pale King's wraithlings could see the trail of magic the Imsari left on the air—but not if the Stones were encased in iron. The eerie glow never drew close to their camp, and after a few nights they did not see the lights again.

At last they crossed the headwaters of the Dimduorn and entered into Calavan. They saw no more Onyx Knights, and when they came to a town, they dared to stop and buy horses with some of the gold Grace had left. After that, the leagues had flown by more quickly yet.

“Our journey's almost over.” Grace only realized she had said the words aloud when Travis gave her a sharp look.

“Is it really over, Grace?” He reached inside his cloak, as if for the iron box he kept hidden there.

Grace touched the sword belted at her hip. Fellring. It felt heavy and good at her side, as if she had always worn it. “No, I suppose it isn't.”

“Well, at least we've made it this far.”

They rode in silence until they reached the track that spiraled up the hill toward the castle. Falken and Durge still rode ahead. Grace turned in the saddle to see how the others fared.

Lirith and Sareth rode not far behind, their horses close, their heads bent toward one another. As she had many times on the journey, Grace found herself wondering what exactly had happened to Travis and the others in Castle City. They had told the story of course—how they had found themselves in the Colorado town in the year 1883, and how a sorcerer had followed them through the gate—but Grace suspected there were some things they didn't speak of. For one thing, Lirith and Sareth's love was clear; they made no attempt to hide it anymore. Yet it was fragile, like a bauble made of spun glass.

We can never be as one, Lirith had told Grace. But was the witch talking about the laws of Sareth's people—the Mournish—which forbid a man to marry outside the clan? Or was something else keeping her and Sareth apart?

Behind Lirith and Sareth, Beltan and Vani brought up the rear of the party. Here was another mystery. While there was still an uneasiness between the blond knight and the golden-eyed assassin, they had left their animosity behind on Sindar's ship. Something had happened to them there. Only what?

On the voyage to Toringarth, it had been all Grace could do to keep Beltan and Vani from throttling one another. Now the big knight seemed curiously, awkwardly protective of her. More than once Grace had seen him bring Vani a cup of maddok when he thought the others weren't looking, or lay a cloak over her as she slept. Nor did she seem to resist such gestures.

After a while, it occurred to Grace that Vani might be ill. While the rest of them were always ravenous after a long day of walking, devouring what scant foodstuffs they had scrounged, the T'gol seemed to have little appetite, and often her coppery skin was tinged with green. However, one night when she asked Vani if she could examine her, the assassin had stared, a look of horror on her face, and had told Grace to leave her alone.

As they journeyed, both Vani and Beltan cast frequent glances at Travis, their expressions fond and longing. All the same, both of them seemed unwilling to spend too much time near him. Each time Travis tried to draw close to Beltan, the blond knight would retreat, and Vani did the same. Travis would smile at them, but Grace knew by the slump of his shoulders that their behavior wounded and confused him.

Then again, Travis spent much of his time lost in thought, head bowed over the box that held the Stones. Like Grace, he had other things to worry about. She coiled her hand around Fellring's hilt, enjoying the way her fingers fit against the grip the Little People had fashioned for the sword.

Grace sighed, as she always did when she thought of the silver-eyed man, Sindar. Except he hadn't really been a man. Once he regained his memories, he had remembered his true nature and purpose; he transformed into a being of light—a fairy—and threw himself upon the blade Fellring, his blood making it whole once more.

A thousand years ago, King Ulther had wielded the sword against the Pale King, cleaving Berash's iron heart and defeating him, even as the sword itself was shattered. Now the Pale King gathered his power once again, and Fellring had been forged anew. Grace tightened her fingers around the hilt. According to Falken, only one descended of Ulther and the royal line of Malachor could wield the sword.

You know what he's going to ask you to do, Grace.

And could she? Before she could answer that question, there was a whinny ahead as Falken's horse reared onto its hind legs. What had spooked it? The road to the castle was empty save for a few peasants trudging up the slope, pushing carts of peat or carrying bundles of firewood. Except one of the peasants—a man in a grimy tunic—was heading down the road, moving as if in a great hurry.

Durge gripped the bridle of Falken's horse, helping the bard regain control. “Watch where you're going, man!” Falken shouted after the peasant. “You might have been trampled.”

If the man had heard Falken, he didn't show it. Grace caught a glimpse of him as he passed by. He was taller than most peasants she had seen on Eldh—their growth was usually stunted by malnutrition—and given his clear skin he seemed to have escaped the usual childhood diseases. The man hurried past and was gone.

“Are you all right?” Grace said as she caught up to Falken and Durge.

“I am, thanks to Durge,” Falken said. “I wonder where that fellow was going in such a hurry.”

“The poor man was probably just trying to make his escape,” Beltan said with a laugh as he and Vani rode up, along with Lirith and Sareth.

The blond knight pointed up the road. A group of people had appeared before the castle gate. There were five of them standing in front of a small band of knights: a powerful, black-bearded man, a diminutive woman in a blue kirtle, a taller woman with eyes the same blue as the banners that flew above the keep, a slender young man with a bored look on his face, and a red-haired man who wore no armor but carried himself like a knight all the same.

Travis glanced at Grace. “It looks as if someone in the castle knew we were coming.”

“No wonder that man was fleeing,” Beltan said with a grin. “I doubt he expected to run into the king.”

Falken scratched his beard. He had let it grow on the journey; it was half-silver. “My guess is he's been hunting on the king's lands without permission. Then he gets to the castle gates and finds the king waiting for him. One look, and the poor man turned and ran in fright.”

Grace nodded. King Boreas had that sort of effect on people. Herself included. While the other peasants weren't running, they had all stopped dead in their tracks and were kneeling in the muck.

“Let's go say hello,” Beltan said.

“Wait a moment.” Durge climbed down, retrieved something from the muck, and mounted his horse again. “I believe that peasant dropped this.” He held a small leather sack about the size of a money pouch.

“That could be his life savings,” Lirith said. “He could be working to buy his freedom.”

Sareth gave her a concerned look. “Do you really think so, beshala? If so, it would be a crime not to return it.”

“I agree,” Durge rumbled. However, the peasant man had vanished.

“You'll have to return it to him later,” Beltan said. “I really don't think we should keep my uncle waiting.”

“Or Melia,” Falken said.

They urged their horses into a trot. Grace's heart soared as she saw the faces of her friends. Aryn looked more beautiful than ever, and older as well. She stood beside Melia, who appeared as regal and ageless as ever, though she clapped her hands together in a display of youthful enthusiasm as the riders drew near. Sir Tarus wore a broad grin, and even King Boreas looked fiercely happy, a toothy smile showing through his black beard.

The only one who wasn't smiling was the slender young man clad all in black. Grace had never seen him before, but all the same she recognized him. Teravian would never be powerfully built like his father, the king of Calavan, and his features were finer, but there was the same sharp, compelling look to his face. At the moment, though, that face was marred by a sullen look. Teravian let out a bored sigh and started to look away—then stopped. His eyes shone, locked on Lirith.

They brought their horses to a halt. Grace didn't wait for Durge to help her, but instead slid from the saddle and raced forward.

“Aryn!” She caught the baroness in a tight hug. The young woman returned the embrace with her left arm.

“Grace, you're here—you're really here!”

Talking long distance over the Weirding had been wonderful, but it couldn't compare to this—the real, living touch of someone she loved.

Grace was aware of the others crowding around. Falken was whirling Melia in an embrace, and Melia was actually laughing. She heard Boreas's booming voice, and out of the corner of her eye she saw Sir Tarus hesitate, then grip Beltan's arms, his expression full of warmth.

For so long they had all been apart, lost in different lands and on different worlds. Now, at last, they were all where they belonged—here, together. For that moment, Grace let herself believe they would never be apart again.

At last, reluctantly, she pulled away from Aryn and turned to greet the king.

“It's about time you paid your obeisance, my lady,” Boreas said with a snort, hands on his hips.

“Greetings, Your Majesty.” Grace curtsied, and with only a slight wobble. When she rose, she was surprised to see the king's smile gone and a thoughtful look in his eyes. “What is it, Your Majesty?”

“Nothing,” he said, his voice gruff, “save that I'm not certain it's you who should be paying obeisance. Your Majesty.” He started to move, as if he would kneel before her.

Grace stared, horror flooding her. Boreas was so bold, so proud. He was a king, and she didn't believe there was a stronger man on this or any world. He should never bow before her, no matter what dead kingdom she was supposedly the queen of.

She opened her mouth to stop him, but her words were lost in a peal of thunder.

A shock wave hit her, and a ringing sounded in her ears, shrill as a siren, transporting her for a moment back to the Emergency Department at Denver Memorial Hospital. How many times had she heard that wail approaching as she stood in the ambulance entrance, waiting to put broken people back together? The lightning must have hit close.

Except, last she noticed, the sky had been clear.

Another deafening boom ripped through the air, and it wasn't thunder. She heard cries of dismay, and Beltan swore an oath as he pointed. However, by then Grace already saw it: A white cloud of dust and smoke billowed up from the base of the castle's southeastern tower. It shuddered once, then with beautiful slowness slumped and fell over, sliding down the hill in a heap of rubble.

5.

Travis couldn't hear.

People were shouting all around him, but their mouths moved in silence. A suffocating pall enveloped him, like the time he was bound to the null stone outside the Gray Tower of the Runespeakers, and ancient magic had kept him from speaking the runes that would free him.

Beltan and Durge grabbed for the reins of the horses, which were stamping and bucking. Lirith hurried over, moving among the animals, pressing a hand against their necks. As she touched them, the horses grew calmer, though their eyes were still wild. Boreas seemed to be shouting at the guardsmen. Travis couldn't hear what he was saying, though it seemed the men did, for they turned and dashed back through the castle gate, Sir Tarus with them. The king turned around, and his expression was not one of confusion or shock, but one of fury.

The rest of them watched, motionless, as the remains of the stone tower careened down the slope of the hill on which Calavere was built. Although he appeared as surprised as anyone, there was a look of fascination on Prince Teravian's face. Aryn's eyes were shut, but whether it was because she could not bear to witness this sight, or for some other purpose, Travis didn't know.

Like a rockslide in the Colorado mountains, the wreckage of the tower poured over a stretch of the road that led up to the castle. As far as Travis could tell, no one was caught in its path. A few stray blocks of stone spun down the hillside, then all was still. Travis felt a sharp pang in his gut. He had once studied with the runespeakers Rin and Jemis in that tower. Now it was gone.

The others began moving toward the gates, following after Tarus and the guards, and Beltan pulled at Travis's arm. He was saying something, though Travis couldn't make out the knight's words over the ringing in his ears. The sound of the explosion must have deafened him, along with the crash of the wreckage. Only now his hearing was returning, and when Beltan spoke again Travis barely made out his shouted words.

“I've got to go with Tarus to see what happened. Do you want to stay out here?”

Travis shook his head. “I'm coming with you.”

So was everyone else. Travis found himself next to Grace as they jogged beneath the raised portcullis, through a tunnel, and into the castle's lower bailey. Lords, ladies, peasants, and merchants alike stood frozen in the midst of their comings and goings, staring at the column of smoke and dust that rose into the sky where a tower had stood moments ago.

“What's happening, Grace?” Travis said, trying not to shout even though it was hard to hear his own words.

“I don't know.” Tira's arms seemed welded around her neck. “As far as I know, castles don't just blow up. What could cause that kind of explosion?”

“Grain?” Travis said, trying to think over the ringing in his ears. “Back when I was a kid in Illinois, a silo exploded at the farm down the road. The grain dust hanging on the air was so thick it was combustible. A spark from a frayed wire set it off.” Except the fallen spire had been the tower of the castle's runespeakers, not a grain tower. And he doubted there had been any electrical wiring inside.

Grace's face was pale, determined. “It doesn't matter what caused it. There could be people injured. I've got to go see.” Gently, deliberately, she set Tira on the ground. “Stay close to Melia.”

Travis gripped her arm. “It could be dangerous. There could still be falling stones.”

Before Grace could protest, a stooped figure limped across the bailey toward them, white hair fluttering. “Your Majesty! You must come quickly! There's been—”

“I know, Lord Farvel,” Boreas growled. “I have eyes—I saw the tower fall. Do you know anything about it?”

“No, Your Majesty. I've sent guards to investigate.”

“As have I, and Sir Tarus is with them. We will get to the bottom of this.” The king turned toward Beltan. “Nephew, I want you and Sir Durge to see if—”

The king's words were lost as another explosion sundered air and stone. The concussion was instantaneous, slapping Travis to the ground next to Grace. The sky went dark, then sharp fragments of stone began falling in a deadly hail. Before he could scramble to his feet, a crushing weight landed on top of him.

At first he thought it was a rock, pressing the life out of him. Then he groped, feeling hard muscles, and realized it was Durge. The Embarran had thrown his body over Travis and Grace, protecting them from the falling stone.

Travis clenched his jaw, waiting for the second explosion. Hadn't there been two when the runespeakers' spire fell? However, the second report never came. The sound of thunder rolled away; the ping of falling stones slowed and ceased. For an awful moment there was silence. Then a new sound rose on the air all around: wails of pain and confusion.

Travis couldn't breathe. Durge wasn't a rock, but he was every bit as solid as one.

“Durge,” Grace said. “Off.”

The knight scrambled up, then reached down to help Grace stand; her riding gown was caked with mud. She searched around, looking for Tira, but the girl was safe, clinging to Melia's skirt. Travis staggered to his feet. He might have fallen back down, but strong hands gripped him.

“Are you injured?” Vani said, her gold eyes holding him as surely as her hands. Her black leathers were spotless, as if she had simply dodged the falling debris.

“I'm fine. What about everyone else?”

Travis turned. One of the blocky guard towers that stood above the castle gate tilted at an odd angle. A hole yawned in its side like a mouth full of broken teeth; black smoke poured out its upper windows as if it were a chimney. The tunnel through which all of them had run just moments ago was now half-filled with rubble. If they had been in there . . .

He tried not to think about it. Most of them were scuffed and battered, and Lord Farvel was trembling and could not keep his feet without Falken's assistance. However, after a moment, it became clear the only one who was actually hurt was King Boreas.

“It's nothing,” the king said with a grunt as Grace probed the rapidly growing lump on the top of his head. Blood matted his black hair. “It was a pebble, that's all. You needn't fuss.”

The king's credibility was immediately countered by the way his knees buckled. Beltan caught him under the armpits to keep him from falling.

“You could have a concussion,” Grace said, and Travis doubted she noticed that she had forgotten to call him Your Majesty. She shut her eyes, then opened them again. “In fact, you do. It's mild. You're not in serious danger—as long as you lie still and do nothing.”

Boreas started to protest, only then he doubled over and vomited into the muck.

“You there!” Beltan called to a trio of guardsmen running toward them. “Help the king return to the keep.” Beltan turned toward Teravian, who stood nearby, shoulders hunched. “Your Highness, there are likely to be intruders in the castle. You must guard the king. Take him to his chamber, summon more men. Whatever you do, protect him with your life.”

These words seemed to astonish the young prince, but after a moment he nodded and squared his shoulders, and it seemed a light ignited in his dark eyes. “I'll protect him, cousin.” He moved to Boreas, taking Beltan's place. “Come, Father.”

“Away, boy. I must see to my people.”

“This is a matter for your warriors now. You must leave it to them.”

“Yes, my warriors . . .” His eyelids fluttered.

“Keep close watch on him, Your Highness,” Grace said. “Make him drink water. And don't let him fall asleep.”

Teravian nodded, and Boreas did not protest further as the prince led him toward the arch to the upper bailey. The men-at-arms followed, bearing Lord Farvel with them.

Grace glanced at Melia. “Will you watch Tira?”

The amber-eyed lady picked up the girl, and Tira laid her head on Melia's shoulder. Grace moved toward the ruined gates, threading her way through the crowd. Castle folk ran every which way, their faces white with dust, some of them smeared with blood.

“There could be another explosion,” Durge sputtered, staring after Grace, brown eyes wide. “What is she doing?”

“Helping,” Travis said. “Come on.”

He started after Grace. Dimly, he was aware of the others hesitating, then following after him.

Travis lost sight of her, then a knot of peasants broke apart, and he saw her kneeling over a crumpled form, blood on her hands. It was a young woman in a serving maid's gray dress. Travis started to move to Grace, wondering if he could help. Grace stood, shaking her head. Much of the young woman's lower body was gone; she must have been close to the blast.

“Sir Tarus!” Beltan called out behind Travis. “What news do you have?”

The red-haired knight ran toward them, several men-at-arms on his heels. “The southeastern tower was abandoned,” Tarus said, breathless, as he reached them. “And it broke away clean. There were a few minor injuries, that was all, but the castle wall has been breached—there's a hole in it you could march an army through.”

“What of this tower?” Durge said. “Surely it was not abandoned. It is too much to hope any within might yet live, yet we must try.”

Beltan exchanged grim looks with Durge and Tarus. “We'll get them out of there.”

“And I will see if any intruders yet remain within the castle,” Vani said.

Travis felt a twinge in his heart. Beltan and Vani were each so strong, so brave. What had he done to deserve the love of one of them, let alone both? Except maybe they didn't care for him after all. Both had avoided him on the journey back to Calavere. Had he done something to drive them away? But it didn't matter. Whether or not they loved him, he loved them. That was the one thing in this fabulous disaster of a life of which he was certain.

“I can't possibly do this alone,” Grace said, taking in the sight of the wounded. Her words weren't despairing, but rather factual, frustrated.

“I'm here, sister,” Lirith said, touching her arm. “I'm not so skilled a healer as you, but I'll do what I can.”

Grace met the witch's dark eyes. “I'll also need help with triage—someone to sort and prioritize the wounded.”

“Tell me how, and I'll do it,” Sareth said.

Falken nodded. “And I.”

Moments later the two men picked among the wounded, determining who was alive, who was dying, and who was already dead. Grace bent over a blackened form, and Lirith grabbed a guardsman, instructing him to fetch supplies they needed—cloth, water, needle, thread, and wine. Melia, holding Tira, rushed after the guard to make sure the order was filled swiftly.

Travis hesitated, unsure what to do. This wasn't a task he could help with. After all, his power was not about healing, but about breaking. To his surprise, he found he was not alone. Aryn stood beside him, her blue eyes filled with sorrow, but with conviction as well.

“If there are men trapped beneath the rubble of the guard tower, they will be difficult to find,” she said. “Beltan, Durge, and the others will need help sensing where they are.”

Travis understood. Healing wasn't Aryn's strength either, but she had other abilities, just as he did. He exchanged a look with the young witch, then together they raced toward the listing tower and into the archway where Beltan, Durge, and Tarus had vanished minutes earlier.

Dust and smoke closed around them, blinding and choking them. After three steps, Travis lost all sense of direction. He groped, trying to find a wall to guide him, then a slender hand closed around his wrist, and a shimmering green net of light appeared, outlining floor, walls, ceiling.

This way, said a voice in his mind.

Next to him, the green threads spun themselves brightly around the slim figure of a young woman. Aryn. Was this how she and the other witches saw the world with their Touch?

After a dozen paces, they reached a cavernous space. The smoke was thinner here, escaping through the large breach in the tower's shell, and Travis was able to see even after Aryn released his wrist. All of the tower's upper floors had collapsed into a mountain of rubble rising up from the cellar. Beams stuck out from the wreckage at odd angles like broken bones.

Beltan, Durge, and Tarus had heaved one of the fallen beams into place, creating a makeshift bridge to the mountain of debris, and now they picked at the rubble.

“They're looking in the wrong place,” Aryn said, opening her eyes, her face white with dust. “The men are trapped beneath the other side of the pile, down deep. I can see their threads, but they're already getting dimmer.”

“Beltan!” Travis called, cupping his hands around his mouth. “Stop!”

The blond man stopped and turned. Travis and Aryn scrambled to the beam the knights had wedged into place. Travis edged over slowly, trying not to look down—there was a deep crevice between the mountain of rubble and the cellar walls—but Aryn raced across lightly, holding her gown up around her ankles.

“What are you doing here?” Beltan said when they reached the other side.

Travis glanced at Aryn. “You're digging in the wrong place.”

“You have to get to them,” the young witch said. “They're trapped in a—Durge!”

Stones shifted beneath the knight's feet and he lost his footing. He would have gone tumbling down the slope along with several tons of rock if not for Tarus's grip on his arm.

Travis bent and laid his hands on the stones. “Sar,” he murmured, and the rubble shuddered to an uneasy halt. The stones knew their ancient name.

He could feel it—the broken stones wanted to sink down, to rest against the ground. However, there was a hollow space within the mound—that must be where the survivors Aryn had sensed were trapped. Crossed beams pushed the rocks up, while the rocks sought to crush the beams.

Sar,” Travis said again, willing the stones to obey him. Then he gripped the end of a broken beam that protruded from the wreckage. “Meleq.” Power resonated through the wood. Hold strong, bind together, do not break.

Tarus gave him a curious look. “What are you doing?”

“I think I've stabilized the debris.” Travis leaned back, wiping sweat from his brow. “For now at least.”

Beltan gazed at him, only what his look contained—love? pride? fear?—Travis couldn't say. “Where do we dig?” the knight said to Aryn.

She scrambled around the side of the rubble heap. “Here. They're under here. Six of them. You have to hurry.”

Some of the guards had fetched shovels and picks, but they were worthless against the heavy stones. Instead the men used bare hands to push aside the rocks, as well as levers fashioned from broken planks. It was dreadful work. Acrid smoke rose from the still-smoldering beams, and dust caked their faces and filtered into their lungs until all of them were coughing.

Travis was awed by the tirelessness of the three knights. Beltan and Tarus stood shoulder to shoulder, working together to move stones that had to weigh a quarter ton or more. Durge moved stones nearly as heavy on his own. Soon the dusty mask of Durge's face was creased from effort, and his knuckles were raw and bleeding, but he didn't stop. None of them did.

As Aryn guided the diggers, Travis kept his hands on the debris, speaking Sar and Meleq under his breath. He felt every vibration through the beams, every shift in the blocks of stone. The more wreckage the men removed, the more unstable the heap became.

You must hold on, Travis. He wasn't sure if the voice that spoke in his mind was his own, or that of Jack Graystone and the other runelords whose power flowed in his veins. If you cease speaking the runes, the stones will come crashing down, taking all of you with it. It will be your burial mound.

Travis kept muttering runes.

It was only when Beltan called out “I need light!” that Travis realized it was growing dark.

Lir,” he croaked, his lips cracked and dry from his endless litany of runes.

Silver radiance sprang into being, shining into the gap in the rubble the men had made. Frightened eyes peered out. Beltan and Tarus reached in and pulled out a guardsman, scraped and battered but alive. Five more times they reached in, and five more men came out. Some held broken limbs or clutched the stumps of missing fingers, but all were alive.

A groan rose up through the debris mound. Travis felt terribly heavy. “You have to get out of here,” he gritted the words through his teeth. “I can't hold on much longer.”

Tarus barked orders. The guardsmen who had been digging helped their wounded brethren over the beam and down the passage that led outside. Tarus and Durge accompanied Aryn, then it was only Beltan and Travis.

Travis was so weary. All he wanted was to sink to the ground with the stones, to let them bury him. It would be cool beneath, and still. He could never hurt anyone there, he could never break an entire world. “Go, Beltan. I'll hold the stones back until you reach the other side.”

“That's not how it works, Travis. We're going together or not at all.”

Travis looked up, and the light in Beltan's eyes was so fierce and so tender that his breath caught on his lips, and he could speak neither runes nor mundane words. The magic he had forged with Sar and Meleq shattered. The mound slumped in on itself.

Beltan grabbed Travis's arm and hauled him across the beam. They reached the other side just as the beam slid backward, pulled in by the cascade of stone. Hand in hand, Travis and Beltan pounded down the passage and burst into the lower bailey along with a cloud of pulverized rock. He staggered around in time to see the walls of the guard tower sheet downward, sending a gray plume into the sky.

“I couldn't save it,” Travis said. His mouth was full of dust. “I tried, but in the end I couldn't stop the tower from falling down.”

Beltan wrapped a strong arm around his shoulder. “It was beyond saving, Travis. And this way it can be rebuilt. Sometimes, when something's ruined, the only way to repair it is to destroy it first.”

These words sent a chill through Travis, only he couldn't say why. He tried to speak, but his tongue was dry as chalk.

6.

They gathered in Calavere's great hall for a late supper, though no one had much of an appetite. However, Grace knew it was important that they eat; they had to keep up their strength. She gagged down a bite of cold venison to set a good example, though only a generous swallow of wine kept it from coming right back up.

She surveyed the familiar faces around the high table, and it was easy to make a diagnosis: exhaustion and emotional trauma. They had all witnessed terrible sights in their journeys over the last year. Feydrim and wraithlings. Dragons and plagues. Demons and sorcerers. But it was different when the perils followed you back to the place you called home. If the darkness could reach them here, then no place was safe.

Grace knew she should feel every bit as exhausted as the others; instead she felt strangely, keenly alive. Not since her days in the Emergency Department at Denver Memorial Hospital had she worked so hard and for so long to save so many lives. She had labored on nearly twenty patients that day, though she could never have done it without help. Sareth and Falken had made excellent triage nurses, and Lirith was able to set broken bones and stitch wounds, allowing Grace to see to the worst cases. More than that, the dark-eyed witch was able to soothe away fear and pain with the cool touch of her hand in a way Grace had never been able to do.

Grace had kept Melia and several guards constantly running for supplies, and soon even Tira would come dashing back into the bailey, her small arms filled with bandages. By the time the sun sank behind the castle walls, it was over. Grace had lost just three of her patients—though there were nine more who had died in the explosion and whose bodies had been pulled from the rubble. A dozen in all. Still, when she thought of the crowded castle, it was hard to believe it hadn't been worse.

It would have been, if people hadn't run into the middle of the bailey after the first explosion to try to see what had happened. But what exactly had happened? In the aftermath of the explosions, all of their energy had gone into plucking people from the debris and treating their wounds. Only what had caused the explosions in the first place?

Just as she opened her mouth to ask the others what they thought, a tapestry fluttered, and Vani was there. She stalked toward the high table, silent in her form-fitting black leathers. She carried a small cloth sack. Grace hadn't seen her since just after the last explosion. Where had she been?

Travis smiled at Vani, a look that was weary but warm. “It's good to see you,” he said, and at the same time Beltan said, “Did you find anything?”

Vani gazed at Travis, and for a moment her face softened. Grace often forgot how beautiful the T'gol was. Intertwining tattoos accentuated the graceful line of her neck, and thirteen gold earrings glittered on her left ear. Then Vani looked at Beltan, and her features sharpened. “Yes, we did find something.”

“We?” Durge said, stroking his mustaches; they were gray with dust. “Who else was with you?”

Vani glanced at the wall. Grace saw only blank gray stones. Then the stones rippled, and a man stepped away from the wall. He was slightly built, with a pointed blond beard, and flicked back a shimmering gray cloak that had blended seamlessly with the wall.

“There you are, Aldeth,” Aryn said, setting down her wine goblet. “I was wondering if you would show yourself.”

“Actually, I wasn't really planning on it, Your Highness. However, it seems someone had other ideas.” He cast a sidelong glance at Vani.

The T'gol shrugged. “I cannot be blamed because you did a poor job of hiding.”

“I let you find me in the north tower,” the Spider said hotly.

“You mean in the same way a sheep graciously allows a wolf to catch it?”

The Spider glared at the assassin but seemed unable to formulate a rejoinder. Grace shot Aryn a questioning look. How had the baroness known Aldeth was here in Calavere? The last time they had seen him had been many months ago in Castle Spardis. He was a Spider, one of Queen Inara's personal spies; surely he was a long way from home. It seemed Aryn had not told Grace everything in their conversations over the Weirding.

“I'd like to know what you uncovered,” Falken said. “That is, if you two can stop hissing and spitting long enough to tell us.” The bard held his lute but had yet to play a note. As usual, a black glove covered his right hand. Melia sat next to him, amber eyes thoughtful, Tira on her lap. The girl hugged a black kitten with eyes the same color as Melia's.

“We found this,” Vani said, setting the sack on the table.

Aldeth rubbed his neck. “Actually, I found it, and you shook it off of me like a common cutpurse.”

Despite all that had happened, Grace found herself smiling. Something told her two shadowy types were one more than a single castle could comfortably contain.

“What is it?” Tarus said.

Vani untied the sack and turned it over. Fine black dust poured out in a steady stream.

Durge shoved back his chair and leaped to his feet. “Get the candles away!”

Lirith and Sareth hastily snatched a pair of candles from the table and snuffed them out. Most of the others looked at Durge in confusion, but Grace understood. She had smelled the sharp, acrid odor on countless gunshot victims in the ED.

“It's gunpowder,” she said.

Durge nodded. “I worked with black powder such as this in Castle City. It is a perilous alchemy, one used to power dangerous weapons called guns. There is enough powder here to kill many men.”

“Or to destroy two towers?” said a booming voice.

They all looked up to see Boreas striding across the hall toward the high table. Behind him came a pair of guards and Prince Teravian. All those around the table leaped to their feet. Aldeth wove first one way then another, hunting for a path of escape.

“Don't act as if I don't see you there, Spider,” Boreas said as he ascended the dais. “No matter what you might believe, I'm not that dense. Besides, Queen Inara told me in her last missive you were here.”

Aldeth stopped in his tracks and stared at the king. Aryn stared as well.

Boreas gave them a smug smile. “I'm not the only one around here who has secrets.”

“You should be resting, Your Majesty,” Grace said.

Teravian rolled his eyes. “That's what I tried to tell him.”

“And when you're king, if you should be so fortunate, people will obey you,” Boreas snapped, and the young man turned away, his shoulders crunching in.

Lirith gave the young prince a worried look, and Grace agreed that the king's words seemed harsh. Then again, it had been anything but a good day for Boreas. Grace moved to him, probing the bandage on his head. Belatedly she realized she should have begged his permission to touch him, but it was too late now, so she finished her examination.

“You're going to be fine,” she said. “I imagine you'll live forever.”

“That's an ill curse for a warrior, my lady,” Boreas growled. “I'm not familiar with this g'hun powder you speak of, Sir Durge, but it's capable of working great deviltry, as we saw today. I wonder how it got into my castle.”

“Perhaps we should ask the one who brought it,” Aldeth said, and all eyes were instantly on the spy.

Vani advanced on the Spider. “Did you see someone? Why did you not tell me?”

“It's surprisingly difficult to talk when you're being strangled,” Aldeth said, giving her a sour look. “I saw him not long before the explosions, leaving the room where we later discovered the sack of black powder. Several guardsmen were passing nearby, making a good deal of noise, and the fellow ran off. I suppose he left the powder in his haste.”

Beltan stole the uneaten venison from Lirith's trencher. “So that's why there was only one explosion in the guard tower instead of two. He hadn't finished his work.”

“It seems to me he did well enough,” Sareth said, gazing at his hands. He had washed them clean, but the sleeves of his shirt were still spotted with blood.

Grace rubbed her aching temples. There was something peculiar about Aldeth's story, and not just the fact that someone in a medieval castle had managed to acquire large quantities of gunpowder and fashion it into bombs.

“This man you saw,” she said to Aldeth. “Do you remember what he looked like?”

The Spider stroked his beard. “Vaguely. There was nothing remarkable about him. He was dressed like a peasant.”

“Was he tall? And with good skin?”

“Now that you mention it, yes. Why?”

Grace moved to Durge and gripped his arm. “The bundle you found on the road—the one that peasant who ran into you dropped. Do you still have it?”

“I had forgotten about it, my lady. But I believe so.” He rummaged inside his tunic and drew out the small leather purse the man had dropped in his haste.

“Open it,” she said.

Durge fumbled with the strings and upended the purse. Something sleek and black clattered on the table.

“What is it?” Lirith said, drawing closer.

Grace picked it up. It was smooth and hard, shaped like a river pebble, but made of plastic, and fit easily into her hand. There were two buttons on one edge, and a circle of small holes on one side. Her finger brushed the topmost button.

There was a hiss of static, then a man's voice—tinny but clear—said, “Base here. Is that you, Hudson? Over.”

Grace flung the device down as if it had stung her. It lay on the table, silent now. She looked up and met Travis's startled eyes.

“It's some kind of radio, Grace.”

The torches had burned low, making a shadowed cave of the great hall, by the time Grace and Travis finished explaining what a radio was, what it could do, and how such things were common on Earth. As they spoke, Grace cast frequent glances at Boreas and his son. All of the others knew about Earth, but she had never told the king she had spent most of her life on a world other than Eldh, or that Travis was not from Eldh at all. However, Boreas listened with interest rather than surprise. Prince Teravian, in contrast, was obviously shocked—but only for a minute, and after that he watched in narrow-eyed fascination.

“This makes little sense to me,” Durge said in his somber voice. “Surely the intruder could have caused more damage if he had placed the incendiaries in the castle's main keep.”

Beltan shook his head. “There are more guards in the main keep. Someone would have seen him.”

“No, that's not the reason,” Aryn said. The young woman's blue eyes were strangely hard. “His goal wasn't to destroy the castle.”

Beltan gave her a puzzled look. “Then what is his goal, cousin?”

“Fear.”

A cold needle pierced Grace's heart. Yes, she understood, but Travis voiced it before she could.

“If we're frightened, we won't fight,” he said, his words soft, so that they all had to lean in to catch them. “That's what they want. They're trying to distract us, to make us afraid so we won't fight.”

The king gave him a sharp look. “Whom do you speak of, Goodman Wilder? Who is trying to do these things?”

Travis stared at the communication device on the table, then picked it up. He clenched his fingers around it and whispered a word. “Reth.”

Travis opened his hand; like the shell of a walnut, the black plastic had been shattered. He picked through the black shards and pulled out a green circuit board covered with transistors. A sharp laugh escaped him. Printed on the circuit board, white on green, was the shape of a crescent moon merging with a capital D.

“Duratek,” Beltan said as if he were chewing stones. He seemed not to notice as he pressed a hand to the inside of his left elbow.

That's where they would have attached the IVs, Grace, the ones that infused him with the blood of the fairy.

Boreas gave Beltan a keen look. “You have encountered this enemy before, Nephew? Then you know how we can fight them.”

“No,” Travis said, letting the shards of plastic slip through his fingers. “You don't understand, you can't fight them. They have everything—weapons, technology—things you can't even imagine, things that would seem like magic to you. They could take this Dominion apart stone by stone. And they will. They want to take everything they can from Eldh and sell it on Earth at a profit.”

Boreas fingered the knife tucked into his belt. “Whatever weapons they might have, these men of the kingdom of Duratek sound like bandits. I do not know how things are on your world, Goodman Wilder, but here we know what to do with bandits.”

Travis shook his head, and Grace gave him what she hoped was a look of understanding. She could talk to Boreas tomorrow, but not right now. She felt so terribly heavy.

A small form crawled into her lap. Tira. The girl looked up and yawned, and Grace yawned back.

“We can speak more of this in the morning,” Melia said, rising. “It has been a dark day.”

Lirith met the lady's eyes. “I can concoct a tea for anyone who wishes for sleep . . . without dreams.”

“I believe we could all do with a cup, dear.”

As they rose from the table, Aldeth cast a look at Vani. “I'm sure you're thinking what I'm thinking, so we might as well go together.”

She rested her hands on lean hips. “The intruder you saw will not have gone far. The voice that spoke through the device implied that the one called Hudson had not yet returned to their base, wherever it is. No doubt he wishes to stay close to the castle to see the result of his handiwork.”

The Spider and the T'gol exchanged looks, then both vanished into the dim air.

“Who else thinks their habit of disappearing is getting a little annoying?” Falken said.

A number of hands went up around the table.

The bard sighed. “Come on, Melia, let's do our own vanishing act.”

The two rose and departed the hall, along with Sir Tarus. Boreas was asking Travis more questions about Earth as they walked from the hall, with Beltan, Durge, and Teravian following behind. Grace picked up Tira's limp form and headed after them, along with Sareth, Lirith, and Aryn.

Grace had just reached the doors of the great hall—the others had already passed through—when she heard a snarl echo off stone. It was like the feral sound of a wolf, but higher-pitched, and full of malice. There were shouts, and the ringing of a sword being drawn.

“Travis, get back!” came Beltan's voice through the doors.

Grace set Tira down. “Keep her safe,” she said to Lirith, then dashed through the doors.

She turned to her left and saw Travis and King Boreas with their backs to the wall. A spindly gray form wove toward them, maw open. Boreas slashed with his knife, and Travis gripped his stiletto before him, the gem in its hilt blazing crimson. They were holding the feydrim off, but just barely; the knives were pitifully small.

On the other side of the broad corridor, Durge, Beltan, and Teravian had been cornered by two more of the monsters. Beltan stood in front of Teravian, pressing the prince back against the wall. Like Boreas, he had only a small knife, but Durge gripped his Embarran greatsword in his hands. Only there wasn't enough room to get a proper swing. The two feydrim hissed and spat, looking for an opening.

Grace knew she should feel fear. Instead outrage rose within her. Before she thought about what she was doing, she had drawn Fellring from the scabbard belted at her side. The slender blade gleamed in the dim light, the runes on the flat undulating like things alive.

“Get away from them,” she commanded.

Snarling, the two feydrim closest to her turned, glaring at her with yellow eyes. Her hand sweated around the sword's grip. Maybe that hadn't been such a good idea after all.

Before she could move, Durge let out a roar. The two feydrim had scuttled a few feet toward Grace, and now he had room for a proper swing. The beasts tried to leap aside, but Durge's sword caught one of them on the neck, and the thing's head flew across the corridor. The blade continued its arc, cutting a deep gash in the other feydrim's belly. Its black guts spilled onto the floor. The thing kicked and whined, then went still.

The last remaining beast lunged at Boreas, going for his throat. Travis thrust with his stiletto. The move was unskilled, but the blade was sharp, and it pricked the feydrim. The beast hissed and turned on Travis. By then Durge had crossed the corridor in three strides. He lunged, and his sword pierced the feydrim, passing entirely through its body. The light flickered in its eyes, then went dark.

Grace thrust Fellring into its scabbard and hurried to the king. “Your Majesty, are you all right?”

“I am, but that stone hit me harder on the head than I thought. I didn't even see the beast leap at me from that doorway there. Luckily Goodman Wilder did. He drew his blade and kept its jaws from closing around my neck.” He gave Travis a solemn look. “I owe you my life.”

Travis took a step back. “Not me. It was Durge who killed them. He was the one who—Durge?”

Grace turned around, and her blood froze. Durge's face was pallid and lined with pain, and he was gasping for breath. He leaned on his sword and clutched at his chest with his left hand.

“Durge, what's wrong?” Grace said, rushing to him.

“A pain in my chest, my lady. But it's nothing—it's already passing.”

His breathing was growing easier, and color was returning to his face. All the same, Grace grabbed his wrist with a thumb and two fingers, checking his pulse. Durge was in his mid-forties, and he had exerted himself strenuously that day, first digging through the wreckage of the tower and now fighting the feydrim. He was in excellent physical shape for his age, but that didn't mean he couldn't be having a heart attack.

Except he wasn't. His pulse was rapid, but not erratic, and it was already beginning to slow, as was his respiration. He wasn't just being stoic; the pain had passed. All the same, she should be certain. She pressed a hand to his chest and shut her eyes. Yes, his heart was strong and healthy, beating at a regular pace. She started to let go, then halted. There was something else in his chest, small and shadowy . . .

“Travis, you're bleeding,” Beltan said.

Grace opened her eyes and turned around. Travis held up his left hand, staring at it with a look of confusion. Blood streamed from a long gouge in his forearm where the feydrim had clawed him. She hesitated.

“Do not concern yourself with me, my lady,” Durge said, standing straight now. “I am getting old, that is all. Go see to Travis.”

She nodded, then hurried to Travis. The wound was not deep, and it was bleeding freely, which was good, as that would clean away any contaminants from the feydrim's talon. She pulled a kerchief from her pocket and started to bind it around his arm.

He pulled away from her.

“Keep still, Travis.”

“You have to be careful, Grace.”

She frowned at him. “What are you talking about?”

“It was in Castle City. I . . .” He glanced at the others. Boreas was bellowing for his guards, demanding to know how the feydrim had gotten into the castle, and Teravian knelt, examining one of the dead creatures, but all of the others were nearby, watching.

Grace touched his hand. What is it, Travis? You can tell me anything.

Surprise registered in his gray eyes, then he nodded. It's about the scarab's blood.

What about it, Travis? You used the last drop to open the gate to the Black Tower.

No, Grace. I didn't.

She didn't understand. But if you didn't use it, how did you get here? And where's the last drop of blood?

It's in me, Grace.

An image formed in his mind, and she saw everything: Travis's final encounter with the sorcerer in Castle City, and the way the last drop of blood in the scarab—the blood of the god-king Orú—had fallen on his hand and had entered a wound, merging with his own blood, changing him.

Stunned, she let go. “Oh, Travis . . .”

“First Jack made me into a runelord. Then Krondisar destroyed and made me again. Now this.” He shook his head. “I don't know who I am anymore, Grace. I don't know even know what I am.”

Shock melted away, replaced by a fierce resolve. She took his arm and deftly bound the handkerchief around his wound, then took his hand in her own. “You are and always will be the man we love.”

Travis smiled at her, but the expression was as sad as it was beautiful. “Sometimes I don't know if I'm cursed, or if I'm the luckiest man alive.”

Grace felt a tingling and looked up. Beltan stood a ways off, but his green eyes were locked on Travis.

“Lucky,” she said.

7.

Three days later, Travis sat on a wall in the lower bailey, soaking up the scant warmth of the winter sun. Across the bailey, fifty men—peasants impressed into labor by the king—swarmed over the wreckage of the guard tower. They had been working since the day after the explosions. Already they had cleared the castle gates and shored up the tunnel with beams. All of the debris had been removed from the yard of the bailey, but the guard tower itself was still a heap of shattered stone.

In another corner of the bailey, more men worked to repair the breach in the wall where the tower of the castle's runespeakers had stood. From his vantage, Travis could see through the outer wall of the castle, across the snowy landscape. Dark clouds hovered on the horizon, not approaching yet, but gathering all the same.

It was no use; the workmen would need many months to repair the gap in the castle wall. Only they didn't have months. Travis didn't know when the dark clouds would start marching toward them. Only that it would be soon. After all, winter was his time.

Except it's not just the Pale King that's coming, Travis.

Vani and Aldeth had returned to the castle at dawn the day after the explosions. They had not found the Duratek agent, the one named Hudson. However, the T'gol and the Spider had discovered an empty hut in the town beneath Calavere that contained signs of a hasty departure, as well as an item they could not identify, but which Travis recognized as a roll of black electrical tape. Aldeth had found three distinct sets of footprints on the dirt floor.

But how had Duratek gotten three of its agents from Earth to Eldh? Maybe they had learned something in their workings with the sorcerer on Earth. They had possessed one of the gate artifacts—albeit an incomplete one—for a time. No doubt they had studied it closely, and who knew how much of the fairy's blood they had taken? They could have gallons of it frozen in a vault somewhere.

They're smart, Travis, and they're learning. First they were able to send guns through. Now people. What's next, entire armies?

No, they couldn't have perfected the technology yet. Otherwise, they would already be here in force. However, they were getting ready for a full-scale invasion, that much was clear. Yesterday, Boreas had received a missive from Queen Inara in which she described a mysterious concussion that had destroyed one of Perridon's border keeps. That meant the Duratek agents who had blown up Calavere's towers weren't the only advance team sent to Eldh. There were others here, and their job was to sow strife and confusion, to weaken the Dominions and its peoples, so that when Duratek's main force arrived they would be assured an easy victory.

Except Duratek was going to find itself fighting over the spoils. The Pale King gathered his strength again, preparing for the coming of his master, the Old God Mohg, Lord of Nightfall. At the Black Tower, the man in the dark robe—the one they believed to be another Runebreaker—had gained the rune of sky. If he broke the rune, he would shatter the borders of the world, allowing Mohg to return to Eldh. Then all Mohg would need were the three Great Stones. With them, he could break the First Rune and forge the world anew in his own image.

The Pale King already possessed one of the Imsari—Gelthisar, the Stone of Ice. At the Black Tower, he had tried to wrest Sinfathisar, the Stone of Twilight, from Travis, but his minions had failed—though just barely. Then Tira had appeared, and she had given Krondisar, the Stone of Fire, to Travis.

As long as the child goddess had guarded Krondisar in the heavens, there was no way the Pale King could have gained it, and no way Mohg could break the First Rune. Only now all three of the Imsari were on Eldh; all the Pale King had to do was come and take them.

“Why did you give me the Stone?” he had asked Tira last night in Grace's chamber. “What am I supposed to do with it?”

She had only given him a shy smile, then had run off and buried her half-scarred face in Grace's skirts.

Some things ought to be broken, a raspy voice echoed in his mind.

Brother Cy. That was what the strange preacher had said in Castle City. Travis knew now that Cy and Samanda and Mirrim were all Old Gods. They had helped lure Mohg beyond the circle of Eldh a thousand years ago, and they were trapped there with him when the way was shut. Only then Travis had traveled back to Castle City, to the year 1883, and his Sinfathisar came in contact with the version carried by Jack Graystone. Two copies of the Stone couldn't be in the same place at the same time, and a rift was opened, allowing Mohg and Cy to slip into Earth. And, decades later, the Pale King's forces as well, along with the infant who would grow to be Grace Beckett.

Travis rubbed his aching neck. What had Brother Cy meant? He found himself thinking of Beltan's words from a few days earlier. Sometimes, when something's ruined, the only way to repair it is to destroy it first.

But a world wasn't the same thing as a building, and Travis was not going to destroy Eldh, no matter what the prophecies of witches and dragons said.

He watched the men work for a while more. One thing was certain: The attack on Calavere meant that war was no longer coming; it had already begun. King Boreas had sent messengers all over his Dominion, calling for a muster. Even now, his barons, dukes, earls, and knights would be readying for battle and preparing to march to Calavere. Boreas had sent messengers to the rulers of the other Dominions as well, reminding them of the pact they had made over a year ago at the Council of Kings. He had even sent word to Tarras.

Travis shivered. The sun had edged close to the top of the castle wall. He slipped down from his perch and started back toward the keep. Near the archway that led to the upper bailey, he ran into Aryn.

“Hello,” he said, startling her. She had been absorbed, watching the men work as he had. She blinked and turned toward him.

“Travis, I'm sorry. I didn't see you there.”

Her gaze moved again to the broken wall and the workers, and a frown shadowed her face.

“What is it?” he said.

“Have you ever had the feeling you've seen something before, even when you know you haven't?”

“We call it déjà vu where I come from. What is it you feel like you've seen before?”

“This.” She gestured to the ruined towers. “It all seems so familiar to me. I'm sure I've seen it before, or something like it. Only that's impossible, isn't it?”

Travis ran a hand through his short red-brown hair. “Since I came to Eldh, I've learned that impossible only means just hasn't happened yet.”

That won a soft laugh. “I imagine you're right. We've seen so many things I would have thought impossible a year ago.” She smiled at him, only then the expression fled, and her eyes turned a deeper shade of blue, like the darkening sky. “Sometimes it's so hard to believe that you would . . .”

Travis swallowed the lump in his throat. “That I would what?”

“We should be going inside.”

He moved closer to her. “You have to tell them I'm here, don't you? Ivalaine and the Witches. They think I'm going to destroy Eldh, that I'm Runebreaker—the one they've been looking for—and now you have to tell them you've found me.”

Her face was an ivory mask of determination, but she was trembling, and something told him it was not only because of the cold.

“So you aren't going to tell them about me.” His words fogged on the air. “The dragon was right. He said you would betray your sisters.”

“Maybe I already have.” She crossed her arms, hunching her shoulders. “Did not Falken say dragons always speak truth?”

Yes, and the dragon had also said Travis was doomed to destroy the world.

“I heard Grace and Lirith talking yesterday,” he said after a moment. “I heard them say you're powerful. Maybe more powerful than any other witch alive.”

“What does that mean?” she murmured, and he had the feeling the question was not for him.

He started to reach out, to touch her shoulder, then pulled his hand back. “Neither of us asked for this. This power. We're not really all that different, you and I.”

She turned around, her eyes startled. “No, I don't believe we are.”

“It's good not to want it, Aryn. That's the one thing I've learned. Because if you want the power, then there's nothing to stop you from becoming like them.”

She nodded. “Except sometimes I do want it.”

“You're right,” he said, shivering. “We should go inside.”

The next few days were strangely empty. It was too cold to venture outside the castle, and inside there was little for Travis to do. Grace and Beltan spent much of the time in conference with King Boreas, as did Melia and Falken, Durge and Sir Tarus, and the Spider Aldeth. Aryn was often busy with Lord Farvel, who was planning her wedding to Teravian, though the prince himself was usually as scarce as shadows at noon.

Vani was scarce herself. Travis knew she was busy patrolling the castle and the surrounding lands, watching for feydrim and other intruders. All the same, he would have liked to see her, to talk to her. Or to Beltan. However, both continued to avoid him.

When he wasn't alone, Travis most often spent his time with Lirith and Sareth, who were keeping an eye on Tira while Grace was in council with the king. Unlike the rest of them, the dark-eyed witch and the Mournish man rarely spoke of the coming storm. Instead they seemed content to dwell in the fragile peace of the moment. The laws of the Mournish people forbid him to marry Lirith, but except for his sister Vani, Sareth's people were a hundred leagues away. For a time, at least, he and Lirith could be together.

Given that, it was strange and tender how fleeting their expressions of love for one another were. They did not share a chamber at night, and Travis had never seen them kiss. However, their emotion was clear when they gazed at one another, though there was often a sadness in their eyes as well.

They frequently spent afternoons in Lirith's chamber. The witch would work on her embroidery, and Tira would play quietly with a doll Sareth had carved for her from a fir branch, while Sareth and Travis played a Mournish game using T'hot cards. To Travis's surprise, he usually won.

“I should know better than to play An'hot with one of the Fateless,” Sareth grumbled one day, scooping up the cards. Hard crystals of snow scoured the chamber's window, and they all huddled close to the fire. All except Tira, who padded about barefoot, clad only in her simple shift.

Travis rubbed the palm of his hand. The skin was still smooth—burned away and re-formed in the fires of Krondisar—but lines were beginning to appear again. Were they his fate, forming anew? He was aware of Lirith's eyes on him.

“I'm sorry, Travis,” Sareth said, concern in his coppery eyes. “I wasn't thinking. You know I didn't mean anything by it. It's only a card game.”

He shrugged. “I just hope it's true. I hope I don't have a fate.” He couldn't help glancing at Lirith. Was the witch of the same mind as Aryn? Or had she already penned a missive to Queen Ivalaine saying he was here in Calavere?

“I think I'll send to the kitchens for some maddok,” she said, setting down her embroidery.

Tira laughed and danced before the fire. Travis touched the iron box tucked inside his tunic. He could sense them, nestled in the box, quiescent but craving release. He didn't dare. If he opened the box, wraithlings would see the glow of their magic; they would know where he was.

At first, after the attack of the feydrim, he had feared the Pale King's minions already knew he was here. Only when Beltan had referred to the attack as an assassination attempt had Travis realized the truth. The feydrim hadn't been after him; they had been after King Boreas. What better way to plunge Calavan into chaos? They must have crept through the gap in the castle walls unseen. It was all part of the plot to sow strife in the Dominions.

Except it was Duratek who had engineered the destruction of the castle's towers, not the Pale King.

“Duratek's allied with the Pale King,” Grace said that night at supper when Travis voiced these thoughts. “I've suspected it for a while now, and this only confirms it.”

“But they want to get to Eldh to exploit its resources, to make a profit.”

Grace shook her head. “I think that's just a happy side effect. The real reason they want to open a gate is to help Mohg get back to Eldh.”

“I believe you're right,” Sareth said. He and Lirith sat close by. “The sorcerer who held me captive in Castle City—his kind are ancient enemies of the Mournish, and he could not resist gloating as he held me in thrall. He said the Scirathi were allied with people from the world Earth, that these people wished to open a gate to let their master return to Eldh. While he did not name Mohg, it can only be he.”

Lirith touched Sareth's hand. “But why did the sorcerers ally themselves with this Duratek?”

Sareth closed his hand around hers. “They were promised knowledge of Morindu the Dark. My ancestors destroyed their own city, burying it beneath the sands of Amún, rather than let the Scirathi gain the secrets of their magic. The sorcerer told me their reward for helping Duratek would be the key to finding Morindu the Dark.”

Lirith shook her head. “But you said before Morindu has been lost for eons. Who could tell them where it was?”

“Shemal,” Melia said, her small hand clenched into a fist. “All of this bears the mark of her meddling. And I felt her presence near here not long ago.”

“But would this Shemal person know where to find Morindu the Dark?” Sareth said.

Melia sighed. “Shemal is a Necromancer, not a person. She was once a goddess of the south, as was I, but Morindu was lost well before our time. I imagine she was simply lying to the sorcerers in order to make them do her bidding.”

Travis was stunned—not so much by this new knowledge, but rather by the fact that he hadn't seen it sooner. He gave Grace a shaky grin. “You and your logical mind.”

“Don't be too impressed.” She stared into her wine goblet, and she lowered her voice so only he could hear. “If I was that smart, I would be able to figure out a way to keep Falken from asking me to fight the Pale King.”

Travis glanced at the bard, who sat at the far end of the table. “You think he'll ask you?”

“He does with every look. I'm only waiting for him to speak the words. It won't be long now. Once the army of the Dominions gathers in response to Boreas's call to muster, Falken will ask me to lead them.”

“And will you?”

She looked up, her green-gold eyes frightened. “I can't. I'm not that strong.”

Travis took her hands in his. “You are, Grace. You're stronger than anyone. You'll do what you have to do to save Eldh.”

And so would he. Why hadn't he seen it before? That was why Tira had given him the Stone of Fire.

“Travis, what is it?”

He smiled at her. “I love you, Grace. More than anyone, I think. I never would have made it this far without you.”

Questions shone in her eyes, but all she said was, “I love you, too, Travis. No matter what happens.”

He couldn't think of any more words, so he nodded.

“Your wound,” she said, her tone brisk now, a doctor's voice. “How is it?”

He lifted his arm. “There's a little blood still, but it's healing. Thanks to you.”

“You should probably let it breathe now,” she said, and before he could protest she deftly removed the dressing from his wound and spirited it away. A long scab was forming on his arm. “It's going to leave a scar.”

“Everything does,” he said.

It was after midnight, and moonlight streamed through high windows, as he made his way through an empty hall, back toward his chamber. He had spent the hours since supper roaming the castle; he had needed time to think, to make sure what he was going to do was the right thing.

Except it was, and the real reason he had been wandering was in hope he would see one of them. Neither Beltan nor Vani had been at supper. However, which was the one he hoped to find?

It didn't matter. He hadn't found either of them, and maybe that was a good thing. It would only make what he had to do harder. With a sigh, he headed down a corridor.

He rounded a corner, and a laugh escaped him. Why was it you always found something the moment you stopped looking for it? A tall figure was just turning away from the door to Travis's room.

“Beltan,” he called out softly.

The big knight looked up, and he smiled. As always, the expression transformed his plain face, making him as handsome as his uncle. However, while King Boreas was dark, Beltan's thinning hair was so blond it was almost white, and the scruffy beard on his chin and cheeks was gold. A light shone in his green eyes, but it flickered as his smile vanished.

“I came to be sure you were safe tonight,” Beltan said. “Now that I've seen you're well, I'll go. Be sure to lock your chamber door behind you.”

He started to move away, but Travis caught his arm. He felt Beltan's muscles tense, but he didn't let go. Instead, he pulled the knight closer to him, surprised at his own strength.

“Have I done something wrong?” Travis said.

“There is no ill you are capable of doing.”

Travis felt a pang in his chest. If only that were true. “If that's so, why have you been avoiding me?” He smiled, a bitter expression. “Not that I can really blame you. After all, I am the one who's supposed to destroy the world.”

Beltan did not relax, but nor did he pull away. “I don't care what the prophecies say, Travis. You've saved the world, not harmed it. It's just . . .”

“It's Vani.”

Beltan looked away.

Travis drew in a deep breath. Hadn't he known this was going to happen sooner or later? It was as inevitable as the coming of the Pale King. “You want me to choose, don't you? You want me to choose between you and Vani.”

“No,” Beltan said, still looking away. “I don't.”

“Why?” Travis said, more confused than ever.

The knight looked at him, his eyes stricken. “Because I'm afraid you'll choose her.”

Travis pressed his hand against Beltan's chest, feeling the rhythm of the knight's heart. “I won't lie to you, Beltan. I do love her. And not just because she saved my life, and Grace's. And yours. And not because she's strong or beautiful, though she is.” He shook his head. “I'm not really sure why I love her. Except that maybe it's because she needs love so much, and she doesn't even see it. But I can.”

Beltan nodded. “I'll leave you then.”

“No, you won't.” Travis moved closer, preventing the knight from pulling away. “I love Vani, but I loved you first, Beltan—I loved you when I didn't even know that was something I was capable of, and I won't let you go. If I had to choose, then I'd choose you.”

“You might not, Travis. You might not choose me if you knew.”

“If I knew what?”

The knight only shook his head. Travis could feel Beltan trembling. It seemed strange and amazing that one so brave, so strong, could need comfort. All the same, Travis circled his arms around the knight and pulled him close. Beltan resisted, but only for a moment. Then he let his head rest against Travis's shoulder. A sigh escaped him.

Travis was suddenly, keenly aware of the clean smell that rose from Beltan, of the warmth and hardness of his body. Never in his life had he needed someone as he needed Beltan at that moment. Maybe, until then, he had never been ready. Before he even thought about it, they kissed, pressing close together.

Beltan pulled away. Travis stared, too stunned for words.

“I'm sorry, Travis.” Beltan's face was anguished. “I promised Vani I'd help her keep watch over the castle. I've got to go find her. I'm sorry.”

Before Travis could speak, Beltan turned and hurried down the corridor, disappearing around a corner.

Sweat evaporated from Travis's skin, leaving him feeling clammy and sick. Was he really so horrible that Beltan would rather help Vani than stay with him? Only that couldn't be right. Beltan had said he was afraid Travis would choose Vani. And Travis had felt Beltan's passion when they kissed; there was no mistaking that.

You might not choose me if you knew. . . .

What had Beltan meant by those words?

It didn't matter. Beltan had made his own choice, and cruel as it was, it made Travis's choice that much easier to bear. He opened the door and stepped into his room. It was cold and dank, but he didn't bother to stir up the fire. Instead he pulled the iron box from his tunic. He could feel it like a hum: the Stones wanted to be released from their prison, only he couldn't open the box, not yet. He didn't want to draw the wraithlings to Calavere. But once he was a world away . . .

For so long Travis had run from his power, afraid of it, but he was done running. Aryn had said that sometimes she wanted power, and maybe that wasn't so wrong. He knew now why Tira had brought him Krondisar: because the time for guarding it was over. It was time to use it—to use all his power. Duratek Corporation had sent its agents to Eldh to sow chaos and destruction. Travis intended to return the favor. In the past, Sinfathisar had granted him the power to speak runes on Earth. What might two of the Great Stones enable him to do there? He didn't know, but he was going to find out.

And so was Duratek.

And if you manage to destroy Duratek and their gate, then what will you do? spoke Jack Graystone's familiar voice in his mind. Your magic is needed here on Eldh, Travis, and so is the magic of the Great Stones.

Travis ignored the voice. It was still dim, but the spark of another idea had begun to smolder in his mind. Even on Earth, the Great Stones weren't safe from the Pale King. But what if there was a way to make sure neither Berash nor Mohg ever gained control of Sinfathisar and Krondisar?

Some things ought to be broken. . . .

It was time. He tucked his stiletto into his belt, along with a small money purse. He would have liked to raid Melia's stash for more gold, but he had enough to last him a while, and asking Melia for money might have aroused her suspicion. The others would want to search for him, of course. He had to let them know there was no use. There was no parchment to write on, so he scribbled a note on the smooth surface of the hearthstone with a piece of charcoal, then rose.

He picked up the iron box in his left hand, and with his right he fished into a pocket and pulled out the silver half-coin Brother Cy had given him what seemed an age ago. At the Black Tower, he had gathered the slivers of the coin he had given to Lirith, Durge, and Sareth on Earth. When he spoke Eru, the rune of binding, the slivers had joined back together without visible seam.

Travis turned the half-coin in his hand, looking at the fragmentary runes on each side: Eldh and Earth. The coin was a bound rune, he knew that now, and a powerful one, for its magic functioned even when it was fragmented. He wouldn't have been surprised if Olrig himself had created this rune.

He tightened his fingers around the half-coin. What if Grace uses her piece of the coin to follow you?

She wouldn't. As much as she feared what Falken was going to ask her to do, Travis knew she wouldn't refuse the bard. Besides, Travis was certain now that the half-coin wouldn't work for her as it did for him. It had the power to return you to your world. Eldh was Grace's world. But not Travis's.

He made sure he had a good grip on the iron box, then he raised the hand with the half-coin before him.

“Good-bye, everyone,” he whispered.

Silver light welled between Travis's fingers, and the world faded away.

8.

Grace stood on the ramparts, huddled inside her fur-lined cape, and watched the Tarrasian soldiers march in rigid formation toward the castle. Sunlight glinted off spears and breastplates; black horses pranced, tails and heads held high. Grace's heart soared. Perhaps they really would stand against the Pale King. She gazed past the first company of soldiers and saw . . .

. . . empty road stretching as far as she could see.

“One company,” Sir Tarus said beside her, his words a growl of disgust. “He calls himself an emperor, yet all he sends is one single company.”

Trumpets blared. The castle gates opened, and the soldiers passed through—eighty on foot, twenty mounted. All too soon the gates closed behind them.

Grace sighed, her breath white on the air. It was the tenth of Durdath, what common folk called Iron Month. Three weeks had passed since their return to Calavere, and over a month since Boreas had called for a muster. The Tarrasians were the last to come, but they were hardly the least.

“We should go down and see him,” Grace said, not relishing the idea.

Tarus stamped his boots. “He's not going to be happy.”

“No,” Grace said, her smile as wan as the late-afternoon light, “I don't suppose he is.”

It turned out not-happy was something of an understatement. They heard the king's bellowing three halls away. As they neared his chamber, they crossed paths with the captain of the Tarrasian company. He was a short, powerful man with black eyes and a smooth-shaven face set in lines so hard it seemed cast of bronze. His red cloak snapped as he strode past them.

“I'd say he's fairly not-happy as well,” Grace said. “Just in case you were wondering.”

Tarus took her elbow. “Come, my lady. We've already got one hole in the castle wall. We don't need him opening another with his bare fists. Perhaps you can calm him down.”

Grace tried to tell Tarus that it was Lirith who had a way with wild beasts, but by then it was too late. They had already crossed the threshold into the king's chamber.

“What is the meaning of this, my lady?” Boreas said, advancing on her before she could draw a breath, shaking a wadded-up parchment in his hand.

Melia glided from the corner of the room. “Perhaps if you stopped waving it at her and let her read it, she might be able to tell you, Your Majesty.”

The king grunted and held the paper out. Grace took it and smoothed it out so she could read the words penned in a flowery hand. She scanned the missive.

“Does that say what I think it does?” the king said in a dangerous voice.

Grace nodded. “As long as you think it says that this one company is all Tarras can spare. Emperor Ephesian offers his regrets, but he says that the present state of affairs in the empire do not allow him to send more.”

“I don't need regrets, I need men!” Boreas snatched the parchment from Grace and tossed it into the fire.

Falken glanced at Melia. “The ‘present state of affairs.' What does that mean?”

“The usual, I imagine,” Melia said, coiling a hand beneath her chin. “If Ephesian were to send a large portion of his army north to the Dominions, his position would be greatly weakened, and his enemies wouldn't be able to resist taking the opportunity to depose and execute him.”

Falken scratched his beard. “If you can never do anything with your army, what good is being emperor?”

“I'll have to get back to you on that one, dear.”

Grace glanced around the room, but there was no sign of Beltan. That was unfortunate. He had a deft manner with his uncle, and she could have used his assistance. However, she had seen little of Beltan these last few weeks. She knew he still blamed himself. Beltan was the last one to see Travis, and the knight believed he could have done something to stop Travis from leaving.

Only there was nothing any of them could have done. Grace had learned over the course of this last year that Travis could be as stubborn as he was kind. She had read his message—badly scrawled in charcoal on the hearth in his room—through the tears in her eyes.

Dear Everyone,

I've gone to stop Duratek. You can't follow me, but even if you could, promise me you won't. This is something I have to do alone. I love you all.

—Travis

It was so foolish, and so selfless and brave. Just like Travis. If he could face such an impossible task, Grace could face this.

She stepped forward and laid a hand on Boreas's arm. “Your Majesty, we must work with the tools we have been given.”

“And what will we be able to forge with such poor tools as these, my lady? I need to build a wall to defend the Dominions, and in answer to my call I am sent a handful of sticks and stones.”

Grace sighed. She hated to admit it, but Boreas was right; his call to muster had yielded only an army of disappointments. The Order of Malachor, founded just over a year ago at the Council of Kings, was in shambles. King Sorrin of Embarr had recalled his knights from the Order months ago. The knights from Brelegond had vanished without word not long after, and now that Dominion had become as silent as Eredane.

Some knights had come from Toloria, sent by Queen Ivalaine, and Grace wasn't certain whether to be surprised or not. From what Lirith and Aryn had told her, the Witches intended to work against the Warriors of Vathris. However, Ivalaine was a queen as well as a witch, and Toloria was Calavan's most ancient ally. Surely she had had no choice but to send some of her knights—though their number was few, only thirty.

Galt had sent a similar number of knights. We are hard-pressed to guard the passes through the highlands, King Kylar wrote in his missive to the king. The dark knights of Eredane grow restless, and they seek a way south. Would that we could spare more men for you, but to speak the truth, we cannot spare even these I do send.

Queen Inara's news was just as bleak. She wrote of dark clouds gathering to the north in Embarr, and of unrest in her own Dominion. As a result, she had sent just twenty knights, though she also granted Boreas five of her Spiders in addition to Aldeth. May they help you in ways a warrior cannot, Inara wrote.

Grace appreciated Queen Inara's gesture, but she wondered if it was really a good idea to have so many spies in one castle; there was no telling what they were up to. The Spiders were as hard to pin down and bring together as drops from a spilled bottle of mercury.

Then again, if the Spiders could discover the location of the Duratek agents who had destroyed the castle's towers, then Inara's gift would be great indeed. Except one of Inara's own keeps had blown up, and the Spiders hadn't been able to stop it.

Then maybe Travis will, Grace. If anyone has the power to keep Duratek from reaching Eldh, he does.

But even if Travis succeeded, Duratek was hardly the only peril facing the Dominions. The Raven Cult had been reborn stronger than before. The Onyx Knights still controlled Brelegond and Eredane, and surely they would make their move on Embarr soon. Feydrim and wraithlings stalked the land. All the signs pointed to one thing: The Pale King would soon ride again.

Amid all this cold and gloom, one spark of unexpected hope had come a few days ago, when a band of twenty men in gray robes arrived at the gates of the castle. They were runespeakers from the Gray Tower, and while they seemed either woefully young or overly wizened, they were led by All-master Oragien himself.

Oragien was a tall and surprisingly hale man despite being well into his eighth decade. His blue eyes were keen beneath shaggy white brows as he greeted King Boreas in the great hall.

“We are not what we once were,” Oragien had said in his resonant voice. “But we have been learning since Master Wilder left us. Our forebears created the Rune Gate that bound the Pale King in Imbrifale. It is only right that we stand in Shadowsdeep when that gate opens once more.”

“I welcome you and your runespeakers, Oragien,” Boreas had said in a gruff voice. “Would that more remembered their call to duty as you do.”

Even with the addition of the runespeakers, it was a small and motley force that had gathered in answer to Boreas's call to war: some eighty knights, the single Tarrasian company, plus the handful of Spiders and the twenty runespeakers. As she watched the missive from the emperor burn, Grace searched for something, anything cheerful she could say.

“What of your own men, Your Majesty?” she said, hitting on the first topic that came to mind. “How many men has Calavan been able to raise?”

Once again, she had miscalculated. Boreas's visage darkened, and his hands became fists. “It seems even my own barons grow stingy these days. They think they can fulfill their oaths of fealty by sending me but seventy knights and two hundred foot. All the more reason my son and Lady Aryn must wed quickly. I would have at least one baron who is loyal to me.”

Grace had at least hoped for good news from Calavan. Even with these new forces, that gave them fewer than five hundred men. Five hundred to stand against the entire army of the Pale King. It was like throwing a pebble at a river in an effort to dam it.

Her thoughts must have been plain to see, for Boreas moved close and touched her cheek. His hand was rough and warm.

“Do not despair yet, my lady.” His voice was low, rumbling through her chest. “The muster I called as king has yielded us little, but I have sent out another call to war, one I believe will be heeded by far many more.”

Grace gazed into his eyes, then a gasp escaped her. “The Warriors—the followers of Vathris Bullslayer. You're summoning them here.”

She saw the king and Sir Tarus exchange a fleeting look. So Tarus already knew. No doubt Beltan did as well.

“Can you really expect them to come?” Falken said. “What if their kings and queens command them otherwise?”

Boreas gave the bard a sharp look. “There are powers even higher than kings and queens, Falken Blackhand. And there are vows that bind more tightly than vows of fealty. Throughout the centuries, the followers of Vathris have waited for one day to come. For one thing.”

“The Final Battle,” Grace murmured.

Boreas bared his teeth. “Can the war that comes be any other? The men of Vathris will heed the call. If they believe, then they must.”

“Forgive me, Your Majesty,” Melia said, smoothing her blue kirtle, “but I know something of the temple of Vathris in Tarras. I do not imagine the high priests will appreciate a call to war issuing from the north. And while there are many worshippers of Vathris in the Dominions, surely there are ten times that number in the lands of the south.”

Boreas let out a grunt of disgust. “The high priests of Tarras are fanatics and fools. They have forgotten their true purpose and do naught but scheme to find ways to bring men under their power, and to use that power for their own ends.”

“Is it true,” Tarus said, a pained expression on his face, “that the priests in Tarras are forced to offer up the jewels of their manhood in a golden bowl on the altar of Vathris?”

“That and their sanity,” Boreas rumbled. “I doubt an army of eunuchs is what Vathris had in mind when he foretold the coming of the Final Battle.” He stalked toward Melia. “The priests may have forgotten the legends, but the men of Vathris have not. It may take some time for the men of Tarras to come, and even longer for the men of Al-Amún across the Summer Sea. But they will come.”

Melia's amber eyes were thoughtful. “Yes, I believe they will.”

Grace felt hot; she had been standing too close to the fire. Dizzying visions of warriors and feydrim and iron gates swirled in her mind, and she herself stood at the center of it all, holding a shining sword. She had to get out of here, away from the fire, and talk to Lirith and Aryn.

But to talk to them of what? The Witches, and how they sought to stop the Warriors, who they feared would fight on the side of Runebreaker in the Final Battle? Grace wasn't sure. One thing she was sure of was that Aryn was still hiding something—not just from her, but from Lirith as well.

Grace had hardly had a chance to speak to Aryn these last weeks, occupied as the baroness was by Lord Farvel's endless questions regarding her coming wedding. Grace wished the young woman was here now. Or perhaps it was better she wasn't, with all this discussion of the Warriors and the Final Battle.

You don't really believe Aryn would betray Boreas, do you, Grace? She loves him like a father.

And what of herself? She was a witch, too. Not so powerful as Aryn, nor so experienced as Lirith, but a witch all the same. Was she bound to betray Boreas as well?

She struggled for something to say, something that would distract Boreas from the guilt she was certain shone on her face. However, before she could speak, Falken moved to her.

“It's time, Grace,” he said in a soft voice.

She wanted to believe she didn't know what he was talking about, but she did. Slowly, she drew Fellring from the scabbard at her side and held the blade before her. The runes on its flat caught the firelight, gleaming red as if writ in fire.

Falken's eyes were locked on her. “The Warriors of Vathris gather, but it will take time for them to come together. Time we may not have. The Rune Gate could open any day. We need to take what men we have and march north to Gravenfist Keep.”

“Gravenfist Keep?”

“It is an ancient fortress, the greatest ever raised by Malachor. The keep sits atop a narrow pass, guarding the only way out of Shadowsdeep—and out of Imbrifale. If the Rune Gate opens, Gravenfist Keep is all that stands between the Pale King and the rest of Falengarth.”

No, it wasn't nearly enough. What good was a ruined keep manned by five hundred men and one skinny woman with a too-big sword against all the vast hordes at the Pale King's command?

“I can't do it,” she croaked.

Falken actually laughed. “Yes you can, Grace. You're Ulther's heir. Everyone knows it. You don't see the light in the eyes of the men when they see you holding that sword, but the rest of us have.”

Boreas, Tarus, and Melia all nodded, and Grace felt her knees go weak.

“But the keep—what if it isn't even standing anymore?”

“It yet stands,” Falken said. “I saw it myself when I dared to venture into Shadowsdeep over a year ago. It is in disrepair, but it is still strong. It was said both runelords and witches had a hand in the building of Gravenfist, and that they wove its very stones with enchantments of power. If you could find a way to awaken those ancient defenses, you could hold the Pale King's army at bay with just ten men, or even by yourself. Five hundred will be enough to hold back the Pale King until the Warriors of Vathris can reach you.”

Her stomach clenched into a hard knot. “Defenses? What kind of defenses?”

“I honestly don't know,” Falken said.

A groan escaped her. “Well, that's just great. I don't suppose there's a button on the wall labeled ‘Push here for magic'? What if I can't find a way to turn on these defenses you're talking about?”

Her words didn't rattle Falken in the least. His eyes shone as he wrapped his gloved fingers around her sword hand. “You will, Grace. You will because you have to.”

No, she tried to say. I can't do it. I won't.

Instead she met the bard's eyes and gave a grim nod.

9.

That afternoon, Grace ventured down the winding paths of Calavere's garden. She wasn't certain what she was looking for. If it was solitude, then she found it in abundance. In winter, the garden was a half-wild thicket—the hedges untended, the paths all but obscured by dried leaves—as if a section of primeval forest had been transported from Gloaming Wood to the middle of the castle's upper bailey.

If it was signs of spring stirring she had come looking for, then the effort was in vain. Here and there, Grace stooped down to dig through the loam with her fingers. On Earth it would be the middle of February; crocus would already be poking up through the snow. However, she could do no more than pry away a thin sheet of soil; beneath, the ground was frozen hard as iron.

Falken had said the bitter weather was the work of the Pale King and the one Imsari he possessed—Gelthisar, the Stone of Ice. Was this what Berash had planned for Falengarth? A land of frost and snow, where springtime never came?

Grace stood, shivering inside her fur-lined cape. After their meeting that morning, Boreas had begun giving orders; what forces they had were to prepare to march north in three days. There was no point in delaying, the king had said. The journey would be a long one, since they would be forced to avoid Eredane and its Onyx Knights, and instead travel through Toloria, then follow the eastern edge of the Fal Erenn north through Perridon and Embarr to Shadowsdeep.

Grace hadn't bothered mentioning that, by the time they reached Embarr, it could be under the sway of the Onyx Knights as well, and even if it wasn't, the Raven Cult was rampant there. However, none of that mattered. Much as she wanted to find an escape, she knew there wasn't one.

She touched the hilt of Fellring, belted at her side. You sacrificed yourself to reforge this sword, Sindar. Am I supposed to sacrifice myself to reforge the Dominions?

Only sacrificing herself wasn't what she was afraid of. At Denver Memorial, she had always given of herself without limits to heal the wounds of others. No, it was sacrificing the hundreds who were to march with her, and the thousands more that would follow after with Boreas, that terrified her.

If there's no way to stop these things from happening, Grace, then you can't let it all be for nothing. You have to get to Gravenfist Keep, and you have to find a way to hold the Pale King back.

Only how was she supposed to discover the key to unlocking the magical defenses of a centuries-old fortress? Falken always seemed to know about everything, but even the bard didn't know how she was supposed to accomplish this. It was hopeless. She sighed and turned to walk from the garden.

Music chimed on the cold air, high and distant—the sound of bells.

Grace froze, listening. She could hear wind over branches and the thudding of her own heart. Then it came again, faint but clear, like sleigh bells on a winter's night.

She turned and ran farther down a path. Why hadn't she thought of it before? They were more ancient than anyone. If anyone knew what she had to do, the Little People would. Clutching her cape, she raced around a bend in the path—

—and came to a halt. The path ended in a grotto; there was no way to continue on. Yet Grace was sure this was the direction the sound of the bells had come from.

“Are you searching for something, Grace?”

A lithe form separated itself from a shadow and stalked forward.

“Vani,” Grace said the name like a gasp. “I didn't see you there.”

The T'gol shrugged, as if to say this was only to be expected. Grace knew Vani hated the cold. What was she doing out here?

“Did you hear them?” Grace said.

“Hear what?”

“The bells. I was following the sound of them when I ran into you.”

Vani frowned. Dark circles hung underneath her eyes, as if she had not slept well lately. “I heard no such sound. The only noise was the sound of your approach.”

The sound of the bells had been distant, but the T'gol had keen ears. Surely if Grace had been able to hear it, Vani should have as well. Unless the music had been meant only for Grace. But if so, why had they led her to this place? She doubted Vani knew anything about Gravenfist Keep or its ancient magic.

Not that she was sorry to run into Vani. Grace had seen little of the T'gol lately. Ever since their time on the fairy ship, Vani had been acting every bit as strangely as Beltan had, and things had only gotten worse since Travis left them three weeks ago.

“You miss him, don't you?” Grace said the words when she had only meant to think them.

Vani stiffened. “As we all do.”

“No, not as we all do.” Grace knew she should leave the T'gol alone with her pain. Instead, she closed the gap between them. “You love him, Vani. And so does Beltan. Travis's leaving has been hard for you. For both of you.”

Vani crossed her arms over her stomach. “It is for the best that he's gone. This way he will not see . . .”

“He won't see what?”

Vani only looked away.

Grace studied her, searching for signs and symptoms, things she could assemble into a diagnosis. She listed everything unusual she had noticed about the T'gol in the last two months. There was her sudden bout of seasickness on the white ship, her unusual weariness on the journey to Calavere. Then there was the way she often folded her arms over her stomach, and the fact that her cheeks were flushed despite the cold.

Think, Grace. Nausea, fatigue, abdominal cramps, and a slightly elevated temp. It could be something viral, or maybe an infection, or—

Grace's eyes went wide. “You're pregnant, aren't you?”

Vani did not look at her. “Yes.”

It took a moment for Grace to gather her wits. Vani was an assassin, a highly skilled killer. However, while it was difficult to see Vani as a mother, it was not impossible. Some of Grace's shock was replaced by warmth.

“How far along are you?”

“Two cycles of the moon.”

“And is Travis the father?”

“In my heart he is.”

What did that mean? Grace took a step closer. “I don't understand.”

Vani turned back, a bitter smile on her lips. “You are not alone in that.”

What was Vani talking about? She couldn't be two months along already. It had only been six weeks since Midwinter's, when they met Travis at the Black Tower. Two months ago they had been on the fairy ship . . .

Like a needle, knowledge pierced Grace's brain. The odd looks, the strangely tender gestures. It was impossible, and yet it was the only answer. “It's Beltan. He's the father.”

Vani said nothing, and that was confirmation enough.

Grace gripped her arm. “But how? Beltan is—”

“I know what Beltan is. He was tricked just as I was.”

“Tricked?”

Vani pulled away. “It was the Little People. They drew us below the ship, into a garden like this, only in full bloom. And they caused each of us to believe that the other was . . .”

“Travis,” Grace said, seeing it clearly, as if through magic. “They made each of you think the other was really Travis.”

Vani nodded, her gold eyes haunted.

“But why would they do such a thing?”

“I would that you could tell me.”

Grace couldn't. As Falken had often said, the Little People were queer and ancient, and while they were not the enemies of mankind, they were not friends either. Their ways were a mystery, and their purposes unknown.

“Does Beltan know?”

“I'm not sure. If not, he soon will.” Vani pressed a hand to her stomach.

Grace examined the options. Vani was two months along. It was too late for a tea brewed of mistmallow seeds. And a surgical procedure was out of the question here, in these conditions. “So you're keeping the baby.”

“It is not the child's fault how it was made. And who knows? Perhaps Travis Wilder was not my true fate. Perhaps I was only meant to pursue him, to be led to this.” Vani turned away, but not before Grace saw the tears roll from her eyes.

Since Grace had known her, Vani had always been fierce and strong, but now she seemed slender and surprisingly delicate, alone and frightened. So often in her life, Grace didn't know how to respond to people. But this she understood.

Grace wrapped her arms around Vani and held her close. Vani resisted, but only for a moment, then she let herself weep. After a minute she was done, and gently but deliberately she pulled away.

“You have to talk to Beltan,” Grace said.

“I know. But not yet.” Vani wiped the moisture from her cheeks with a rough gesture. “I wish only that there was a way I could tell both Beltan and Travis together, so that I would have to speak these words but once.”

“Maybe there is a way,” Grace murmured, startled at her own words.

Vani gave her a curious look, but Grace shook her head. She would have to think about it later. Right now she needed to perform a thorough examination on Vani, to make sure everything was progressing as it should be.

“Come on,” she said. “Let's go back in where it's warm.”

Grace held out her arm. Vani stared at it a moment, as if unsure what she was supposed to do with it. Then, tentatively, she hooked her elbow around Grace's.

“I am not good at this,” Vani said.

Grace glanced at her. “Not good at what?”

“Sharing secrets with another.”

Grace smiled. “That's what friends are for.”

“A T'gol has no friends.”

“This one does,” Grace said, tightening her hold on Vani's arm, and they walked that way back to the keep.

10.

It was evening by the time Grace returned to her chamber. She had spent over an hour in Vani's room. The T'gol had been reluctant to allow herself to be examined, but Grace was a queen and a doctor. She was not about to take no for an answer. Realizing this, Vani had submitted.

As far as Grace was able to tell—without blood tests or an amniocentesis—Vani's pregnancy was progressing normally. At first Grace wished for an ultrasound machine, only then she realized she had an even better tool. She pressed her hands to Vani's bare, flat stomach, shut her eyes, and reached out with the Touch.

Instantly she saw the fetus. It was tiny, its life thread a wisp of light attached to Vani's own shining strand. While Vani's thread was brilliant gold, the fetus's thread had a green tinge to it, like sunlight on leaves. Had that come from Beltan? Grace probed gently with her thoughts; small as it was, everything was in order.

“It's a girl,” Grace said, smiling, eyes still shut. “I'd say you're a little ahead of—”

Hello, Aunt Grace, a piping voice said in her mind, faint but clear.

A gasp escaped her, and her eyes flew open.

“Is something wrong?” Vani said, her brow furrowed.

Grace shook her head. “No, everything looks fine. I was just saying you seem to be a little further along than I would have expected at eight weeks. But everyone's different.” She shut her eyes again, listening, but this time she heard only the beating of two hearts. She had to have imagined it.

When she opened her eyes, she saw Vani watching her. Grace rose and spoke in a brisk tone.

“There's nothing to worry about. You and the baby are both in excellent health. You should try to keep the maddok and wine to a minimum. I'll fix you a simple that will help with the morning sickness.”

“Thank you,” Vani said, pulling her jerkin back down over her stomach.

“You know, I have a feeling it's going to be hard to find maternity leathers,” Grace said with a laugh. Vani smiled, and for the first time that day it seemed like things really might be all right.

Now, as she opened the door to her chamber, Grace wasn't so certain. The events of that morning came rushing back, as did the enormity of the task that lay before her. She pushed through the door, wanting nothing more than to stir up the fire and flop into bed.

Aryn and Lirith stood from two chairs by the hearth.

“Oh, sister,” Aryn said, rushing forward and throwing her left arm around Grace.

“Aryn,” Grace said, stunned. “What's wrong?”

“It can't be true. You can't be leaving us.”

Grace sighed. So they had heard the news of what she was to do. Gently, she pushed Aryn away.

“I have to go,” she said. If she acted like this was something she actually wanted to do—rather than an idea that turned her knees to rubber—it might make it a little easier for the others. “If we can man Gravenfist Keep, we might have a chance of holding the Pale King back.”

Lirith moved forward with a whisper of russet wool. “Do you truly believe that, sister?”

“I'm trying to,” Grace said with a wan smile.

“You're tired,” Aryn said, pulling Grace toward the fire and making her sit in one of the chairs. Lirith poured them all cups of wine and took the other chair, while Aryn sat on the floor and rested her arms and chin on Grace's knee.

“Let's stay like this forever,” Aryn murmured, gazing into the fire. “Just the three of us, together. Let's pretend there's nothing in the world we have to do except stay here, and drink wine, and talk about foolish things.”

“That's a fine fancy, sister,” Lirith said. The firelight gilded her dark skin like gold on wood. “I wish that it could be so. But we each have our tasks.”

Grace clutched her wine cup. “What tasks do you mean?”

Aryn and Lirith exchanged a look, and the fire went cold. Grace knew the two witches had attended a High Coven in Ar-tolor last summer, when Grace was in Denver. Grace didn't know exactly what had happened at the coven, but over the months she had gleaned bits and pieces. Enough to be afraid.

“Boreas has sent a call out to the Warriors of Vathris,” Lirith said. “The men of the bull prepare for the Final Battle.”

Grace's lungs were too tight; she couldn't breathe. “You can't, Lirith. You can't ask me to defy him. I know the Witches are the enemies of the Warriors, but I gave King Boreas my word, and nothing can make me work against him.”

“No, nothing can,” Lirith murmured, gazing into her cup. “You're not part of the Pattern as Aryn and I are. There are no threads to bind your actions, but Aryn and I must do as the Pattern commands. And it commands us to bring the Warriors and Travis Runebreaker under our control, lest they work together to destroy the world.”

Grace shook her head. “You can't believe that, Lirith. King Boreas is anything but evil. And Travis would never do anything to harm Eldh. That's the one thing in all of this lunacy I can believe.”

Lirith sighed. “I agree, sister. I have seen firsthand how kind he is, but I have also seen the power he wields, and how it is not always under his command. Even so, I would not choose to work against Travis or King Boreas, but there is no way to escape the Pattern.”

“Actually,” Aryn said softly, “there might be.”

Grace stared at the baroness. Lirith set down her cup, slipped from the chair, and knelt on the rug beside Aryn. “What do you mean, sister?”

Aryn leaned back. Her blue eyes were haunted, yet there was a resolve to them. “I've joined a shadow coven,” she said.

Lirith gasped, and her brown eyes went wide. Grace didn't understand what these words meant, not as Lirith clearly did, but all the same they sent a thrill through her.

“Sister,” Lirith said, reaching out as if to touch Aryn's arm, “what have you done? The shadow covens were forbidden long ago, and for good reason. Many of the witches who belonged to them were cruel of spirit and deed.”

“But not all of them,” Aryn said, her tone defiant. “Do you remember Sister Mirda?”

Grace didn't recognize the name, but Lirith nodded. “She was at the High Coven. We never learned where she came from, but it was her words that softened the Pattern. Were it not for her, the Witches would be seeking, not to control Travis Wilder, but to slay him.”

“She came to Calavere before Midwinter,” Aryn said. “When Queen Ivalaine brought Prince Teravian back.”

Connections crackled in Grace's brain. “So that's who was with you,” she said to Aryn. “The time you spoke to me across the Weirding, when we were being held prisoner on Kelephon's ship, I felt another presence with you. It was this Mirda, wasn't it?”

“It was,” Aryn said.

As the fire burned low, they listened as Aryn spoke about the shadow coven, and about what Sister Mirda had told her. While the prophecies of the Witches told that one they called Runebreaker would destroy Eldh, there were other prophecies, ones just as deep and ancient, that spoke how Runebreaker would save Eldh as well. Because this idea was anathema to most—how could the world be at once destroyed and saved?—the Witches chose to ignore the second set of prophecies.

However, over the years, a few witches remembered. It was the purpose of the shadow coven to which Mirda belonged to work for the cause of Runebreaker, to make sure his destiny came to pass. And the Warriors of Vathris were part of that destiny.

“I knew it,” Grace said, her cheeks hot from wine and fire and excitement. “I knew Travis would never destroy Eldh.”

“But he will destroy it, sister,” Lirith said. “If one prophecy is true, then so is the other. How that can be, I do not know, but the crones of old were wise, and their vision far-reaching, and I believe they saw truth.”

Aryn gripped Lirith's hand. “So you'll join the shadow coven?”

Lirith didn't hesitate. “I will, but I do not see how it helps us. We are still bound by the Pattern.”

“Yes,” Aryn said, “but does the Pattern truly require what you think it does?”

“What do you mean?”

Aryn rose, standing before the hearth. “Sister Mirda left Calavere a few days before you returned. She told me she had to meet in person with the other witches who are part of the shadow coven—that they did not dare speak across the Weirding for fear of who might overhear. Before she left, she showed me a way to look deeper into the Pattern.

“On the surface, the weave of the threads seems to say we must work against the Warriors of Vathris and Travis Runebreaker, but if you look beneath, to the warp of the loom from which the Pattern was woven, what it really says is that we must work against them to save Eldh. Yet if working against them would somehow prevent Eldh from being saved—”

“—then the Pattern will allow us to work with them,” Lirith said, leaping to her feet. “The Pattern will allow us to do whatever would save the world in the end.” Her dark eyes shone. “You have given us hope where there was none, sister.”

Aryn looked at Grace. “Will you join us?”

Grace couldn't help smiling. “I think I already have,” she said. Aryn's words were a great relief, but one question nagged at the back of her brain.

“Lirith,” she said, “you mentioned that the shadow covens were forbidden long ago. What would happen if Ivalaine discovered us?”

It was Aryn who answered. “We have no fear on that account. If Ivalaine and Tressa are not members of the shadow coven, they are at least sympathetic to its cause. Although, as Matron, she dares not reveal it.”

“And what of Sister Liendra?” Lirith said. “She was at the center of the Pattern, and she seeks to be Matron in Ivalaine's stead. Most of the Witches follow her lead. What would happen if Liendra were to discover us?”

Aryn turned away. “Then our threads would be plucked from the Pattern, and a spell would be woven over us, so that we would never be able to use the Touch or the magic of the Weirding again.”

Grace shuddered, and Lirith's face went gray. Being cut off from the Weirding would be like a walking death—alive, but unable to feel any of the light or warmth all around them.

“I've got just one more question,” Grace said as Lirith and Aryn made ready to leave. “Lirith, you said the shadow covens were forbidden for working cruel spells.”

The witch nodded. “They brought the hatred of the common folk upon the Witches. That's why they were all disbanded.”

“Only they weren't,” Aryn said, shaking her head. “Mirda's shadow coven survived.”

“And that's my question,” Grace said, crossing her arms. “If this one shadow coven endured, others might also have survived. And if so, what if they aren't ones that work for good, like Mirda's coven? What if they're the wicked shadow covens, the ones that gave the Witches a bad name?”

Silence pressed close. The coals settled on the hearth, and sparks crackled up the chimney.

“Come, sister,” Lirith said at last, taking Aryn's good left arm. “It is time we all went to bed.”

11.

Grace woke to the sound of bells.

She sat up in bed, the shards of a dream falling away from her like broken pieces of glass. Her hair was snarled, and her nightclothes clung to her, cold and clammy with sweat. The space beside her in the bed was empty and cold; Tira had spent last night in Melia's chamber. Frigid air poured through the chamber window, along with hard granules of snow. The wind must have pushed it open.

Grace scrambled from the bed and reached to pull the window shut. She halted. Twenty feet below, at the base of the castle's north wall, prints dented the crust of new snow. She couldn't be certain, but it looked as if the prints had been pressed into the snow by small, cloven hooves. She lifted her gaze, toward a feathery smudge hovering in the distance. The hoofprints made a line pointing straight toward it. Gloaming Wood.

Shivering, Grace shut the window and moved to the fireplace. She stirred up the coals, threw on several sticks, and as flames leaped up she shucked off her nightclothes and pulled on a wool gown the same frosty purple as the predawn sky.

As she dressed, her mind raced. It was the sound of bells that had roused her from her dream, and she had heard bells yesterday in the castle garden. The Little People were trying to communicate with her, she was certain of it. But what was the message?

Grace tried to remember the dream the bells had awakened her from, but it was already growing fuzzy. She had been alone in some sort of castle or keep, running down empty halls, searching in shadowed chambers for something. Searching for a key. But the key to what?

To hope, she thought, only she didn't know why. Was that what the Little People were trying to tell her?

She grabbed her cape, tossed it around her shoulders, and threw open the chamber door, to the round-mouthed surprise of the serving maid standing on the other side. She carried a tray with a pot of maddok.

“Perfect timing,” Grace said, pouring a steaming cup and setting the pot back on the tray. “I wouldn't have made it far without this.”

The serving maid stared, slack-jawed, as Grace hurried down the corridor, sipping maddok as she went.

This is mad, Grace. Completely mad.

Which was precisely why she needed help. She stopped in front of a door and knocked. It opened after a scant second—by all the gods, didn't the man ever sleep?—and Durge gazed at her with somber brown eyes.

“Good morrow, my lady.” He wore a tunic as gray as the keep Grace had seen in her dream. “Though I suppose it isn't morrow yet, as the sun is not yet up.”

“But you are, Durge. And I'm glad, because I need your help.”

“As you wish, my lady.” He eyed her fur-lined cape. “We are going out, then?”

“We are.”

“Then allow me to fetch my cloak.” He retrieved the garment, which was warming on a chair by the fire—that was Durge, always at the ready—and threw it about his thick shoulders.

“Don't you even want to know where we're going, Durge?”

“I imagine I'll find out when we get there, my lady.”

Grace winced. She didn't deserve this kind of loyalty, but all the same she was grateful.

“We'll need our horses,” she said.

They rode away from the castle just as the sun crested the horizon. The cold air pinched the soft flesh inside Grace's nostrils and made her jaw ache, but she was warm inside her heavy gown and cloak, and it felt good to be free from the castle's stone walls.

Beneath her, Shandis cantered lightly over the frozen ground. Last summer, Grace had left the honey-colored mare in Castle Spardis, and she had believed she would never see the horse again. However, a few days after their return to Calavere, she was thrilled to discover Shandis was in fact housed in King Boreas's stable. Aryn and Durge had brought the mare with them when they journeyed from Spardis to Ar-tolor last Krondath, and Ivalaine had returned Shandis—along with Durge's gigantic charger, Blackalock—when she visited just before Midwinter. Durge rode Blackalock now, following Grace as she led the way north, away from the castle.

After an hour, they crossed the old Tarrasian bridge over the River Darkwine. Chunks of ice floated on the water below. Once on the other side, they were no longer in Calavan. Gloaming Wood was closer now. Grace could make out the wispy branches of bare trees; she leaned against Shandis's neck and urged the young horse into a full gallop. She knew Durge would warn her it was reckless to ride so fast over the snow, but first he would have to catch her.

Icy wind numbed her cheeks as the snowy landscape rushed past. Grace risked a glance over her shoulder; she was right—Blackalock pounded furiously after Shandis, and Durge wore a glower of disapproval. That was good. Durge needed something to worry about, and this way he wouldn't stop to think about where they were headed.

Many stories were told in the castle of Gloaming Wood. For as long as anyone could remember, the patch of primeval forest had been a place of shadow and rumor. Folk spoke of lights that shone among the trees late at night—lights that would draw a man into the wood, only to disappear once he was deep among the trees, leaving him lost and alone. Some whispered of hearing queer music or eerie laughter when they passed near the eaves of the wood, and it was said a man could not come within a hundred paces of the forest with an axe in his hand. A terrible fear would come upon him, leaving him shaking and pissing.

When Grace first heard such stories, she had dismissed them as fabrications of the castle's common folk. Then she had met Trifkin Mossberry and his peculiar troupe of actors, and she had been forced to adjust her thinking. The Little People were not products of a fantastical imagination, at least not on this world. Elfs and dwarfs and greenmen—all of them were real. And at least some of them dwelled in the shadows of Gloaming Wood.

By the time Durge caught up with her, they had reached the edge of the forest. Grace brought Shandis to a halt and waited for Durge to dismount and offer his hand to her. In these heavy clothes, she would never make it to the ground by herself without falling facefirst in the snow.

“Thank you, my lord,” she said with what she hoped was a winning smile as Durge helped her down. “You're every bit as strong as you are courteous.”

The knight scowled at her, his mustaches twitching. “Do not try to distract me with idle flatteries, my lady. I can see quite well where you've led us, and I must say I am not pleased. This is a queer and perilous place, and while it is not for a knight to question his mistress, I must wonder all the same why you've brought us here.”

She gripped his hand. “I've come to ask the Little People for help.”

“My lady, you must do no such a thing!” The knight pulled his hand from hers, his brown eyes wide. “The Little People might have aided us in the past, but it was done of their own will and for their own purposes. Surely this is a dangerous scheme. We should return to the castle at once.”

She was not surprised by his outburst. Durge was a man of logic; he did not like meddling with magic. Grace understood how he felt, for she was a scientist herself. However, if she was going to face the Pale King and his army, she needed help from any source—illogical as it might seem. She moved toward the line of trees. Though they were bare, she could see no more than a dozen paces into the wood.

“It can't be so dangerous, Durge,” she said. “Otherwise, you never would have ridden through the wood that day over a year ago, and you never would have found me, lying there in the snow.”

Durge let out a foggy sigh. “That I came upon you here is something for which I will ever be grateful, my lady. Still, it is my duty to question this deed. Even that day I found you, I was riding only through the eaves of Gloaming Wood, following a game track no more than a hundred paces in. I could still glimpse the plains through the trees. If we would find whom you seek, we would be forced to venture deep into the forest, and surely it is impossible for mortals to go there.”

“No, I don't think so.” She touched the papery bark of a tree. “I think I've been in there once before.”

Durge gave her an odd look, and she thought of the time when she and Travis had gone looking for Trifkin Mossberry in Calavere. They had entered the little man's chamber only to find themselves, not in the castle, but in an impossible forest. Even then, with Trifkin Mossberry to protect them, she and Travis had not dared to linger. Durge was right; this forest was perilous for mortals. However, the Little People were trying to tell her something, and Grace was going to find out what it was.

“I'm going in,” she said, gathering her courage. “You can wait here with the horses.”

Durge gave her a sharp look out of the corner of his eye. “I should think not, my lady.”

Grace knew better than to argue. She took Durge's hand, and together they stepped into the wood.

As the trees closed around them, so did a quietness. There were no birds flitting among the bare branches overhead, no small animals scurrying through the underbrush. The only sound was the crunch of snow beneath their feet.

While it was dawn in the world outside, here it was as if the sun had not yet risen. The air was a misty gray, and the trees crowded together, so at first it was difficult to pick a route among them. However, they soon came to a path, most likely worn by deer and boar. As best Grace could tell, the path headed toward the heart of the wood, and they started down it.

“I do not like this,” Durge rumbled. “It seems too easy to come upon a path so quickly.”

“Maybe this is our lucky day,” Grace said. She was going to say something more, but their voices, low as they kept them, rang out unnervingly on the still air.

Durge shook his head. “Mark my words, this path is surely cursed. It will lead us down into a ravine, or over a cliff, or to some other unseemly demise.”

Despite her trepidation, Grace almost laughed. She knew it wasn't his intent, but somehow Durge's gloomy admonitions always seemed to cheer her up. She tightened her grip on his hand, and as they walked she tried not to think of fairy tales in which children met with bad ends in dark forests.

Soon Grace lost track of time. She expected the air to lighten as the sun rose higher into the sky, but if anything the light grew grayer yet. The trees all looked the same to her—tall and slender, with pale bark—and the path wove left and right but on the whole kept leading them deeper into the wood. Despite her heavy garments and the exertion, the cold began to creep into her joints, and ice collected on Durge's mustaches.

At last Grace realized they would have to turn back. She was shivering so violently she could hardly walk in a straight line, and, while Durge was making a valiant effort, he could not keep his teeth from chattering. They had not seen so much as a squirrel, let alone a dwarf or greenman. If the Little People truly dwelled here, then they did not wish to be found. Grace started to tell Durge it was no use, that they had to turn back.

A high, trilling note rang out on the air. The sound echoed away among the trees.

“What was that?” Grace whispered. It had not been the music of bells.

“That was the call of a trumpet,” Durge said.

The sound came again, and it was closer this time—a note so high and pure and wild it caused Grace's heart to beat in a swift, unfamiliar cadence.

“It sounds to me like a hunting call,” Durge said, gazing around. The path had widened into a small clearing.

Grace hugged her arms around herself. “The king's huntsman wouldn't come so far into the forest, would he?”

“He might, if he were on the trail of a fat roe,” Durge said, though he sounded doubtful.

Grace hoped it was indeed the king's huntsman, and that he had blankets with him, and a flask of spiced wine.

The trumpet sounded again, so close the sound set Grace's ears ringing. At the same moment, a bank of evergreen bushes on one side of the clearing shuddered and burst apart, and something large and sleek and white bounded through. It paused, standing no more than five paces away, and Grace found herself gazing into dark, liquid eyes.

It was a stag. The beast was tall and muscled, its coat a silvery white that blended with the trees. It held its neck arched and proud, and its head was crowned by an enormous pair of antlers whose points were too numerous for Grace to count quickly. The stag let out a snort, then sprang away to their left, vanishing among the trees.

“May steel break and stone splinter,” Durge swore. “I've never seen so magnificent a beast.” He reached over his shoulder to grip the hilt of the greatsword strapped to his back and took a step forward.

Grace grabbed his arm. “No, Durge. Don't go after it.”

He frowned at her. “Why not, my lady? It would make a fine prize to offer the king.”

She struggled for words. She didn't know why it was wrong to hunt this animal—only that it was too proud, too fabulous to be pursued by mortals such as they. However, before she could speak, another trumpet call rang out, followed by the pounding of hooves. Grace and Durge turned to see a horse leap over the bushes from which the stag had burst moments ago.

The horse was every bit as beautiful as the stag, though in an entirely different way. It was short of stature—no larger than a pony—its legs delicate, its coat pure jet. A silver star marked its forehead.

Riding the horse, without benefit of either saddle or bridle, was a boy. He appeared to be ten or eleven years old, and he was lean and lanky, with a shock of red hair that stuck up from his head. A bow was slung on his back, along with a quiver of arrows fletched with green feathers. Despite the cold, he wore only a pair of leather breeches, leaving his chest and feet bare. His skin was brown as maddok.

In the boy's hand was a small silver trumpet. He blew it again, then called out in a piping voice, “This way! The king has come this way!” He touched his horse's neck, and the beast spun around, ready to lunge into a gallop.

Grace and Durge stood in its path. Before they could leap out of the way, the horse skittered to a halt. Its rider glared down with malachite eyes, and only then did Grace see the stubby horns that protruded from his brow. This was no boy.

“What is this?” the rider said, a sneer crossing his freckled face. “Mortals? A kind of quarry, to be sure, but none so noble as that we hunt. How did you get here?”

Grace was so startled she could only answer with the simple truth. “We came by the path.”

“The path?” the rider snapped. “And who gave you permission to tread upon it?”

Durge cleared his throat. “The path is here for all. We need no permission to follow it.”

Ire flashed in the rider's eyes. “You are wrong, mortal. The path belongs to us, as does everything in this wood. You are trespassing here.”

“Then we'll leave at once,” Grace said. Like a candle burned to a stump, the desire to talk to the Little People had sputtered and died within her. In spite of his boyish appearance, there was a predatory air about the rider. His eyebrows slanted over his green eyes, lending his face a cruel aspect. “Let's go,” she said, tugging Durge's arm.

“Not so quickly,” the rider said, guiding his horse in a quick circle around them. Other figures stole into the glade. Some slunk on four legs while some pranced on two; some slithered on their bellies, and others flitted on wings as delicately woven as a spider's web. Grace had glimpsed such creatures on Sindar's ship, but only fleetingly, out of the corner of her eye. Here they gathered in plain view.

It was hard to be sure how many of them there were, given the way they kept weaving in and out among the trees. There were greenmen with round bellies and beards of oak leaves, prancing goat-men with shaggy legs and curving horns, and swan-necked women who wore gowns of white feathers—or were the feathers part of them? Tiny beings with butterfly wings and ugly, long-nosed faces darted about on the air, and golems made of sticks bound together by vines stared at Grace and Durge with hard pebble eyes.

“Stay close to me, my lady,” Durge rumbled as he reached up to grip the hilt of his greatsword.

The strange beings formed a circle around the two mortals. Like the boy on the horse, the goat-men and swan-women carried bows with arrows ready, and the butterfly creatures carried tiny bows as well, fitted with darts no larger than toothpicks. The greenmen carried wooden cudgels, and the other beings bore stone-pointed spears or wielded long thorns like knives.

“Tell me quickly,” said the one on the horse. “Which way did the king go?”

Grace shook her head. “But he didn't go anywhere. King Boreas is in the castle.”

Even in anger, the rider's boyish face was beautiful. “Not him, you dolt. I couldn't care less for the comings and goings of some foolish mortal who dares call himself a king. I speak of the true king—the forest king. Which way did he go? Tell me, and perhaps we will spare your wretched, finite lives.”

Like a ray of light, understanding pierced the fog in Grace's brain. “The stag. That's who you're hunting.”

The boy's eyes sparked with green fire. “We are always hunting him. Every year we slay him and spill his blood upon the ground. And every year he comes again, so we may begin the hunt anew. Now speak up, or it's your blood that we'll spill. Which way did he go?”

“That way,” Grace said, pointing to a gap in the trees directly opposite the place where the stag had vanished. Durge turned to stare at her, but she gave her head a slight shake. She didn't know why she had done it; only that the stag had been so majestic, so beautiful.

The rider grinned and lifted the silver trumpet, blowing a ringing note. “This way!” he said, motioning to the others, and urged his horse in the direction Grace had pointed. Grace dared to breathe a sigh.

Two greenmen bounded into the clearing, coming from the direction the stag had gone. The rider whirled his horse around, a frown on his elfin face. He leaned over in the saddle, and one of the greenmen jumped up to whisper something in his ear. The boy sat up at once, his face a mask of fury.

“You lied to me, mortal. The king did not go the way you pointed.”

Grace shook her head, searching for words. Durge pressed close against her.

“You are a fool to protect the forest king,” the rider said. He climbed down from his horse and advanced on them. “Don't you know it is his fate to fall to our arrows? You will pay for your deception.”

“Hold right there!” Durge roared, and in a swift motion he drew his greatsword, holding it before him.

Laughter rose from the strange beings, a sound like falling water. The boy threw his head back as peals of mirth escaped him. Durge frowned, then his expression turned to shock. His sword writhed back and forth in his hands. With a cry he dropped the blade, and Grace saw it wasn't a sword at all, but rather a great silvery snake. It slithered away across the snow and vanished into the forest.

Durge stared at his empty hands, then clenched them into fists. “Stay back,” he said, standing before Grace. “You cannot harm her.”

“You're right about that, mortal, I can't.” He gazed past Durge at Grace. “The light of the forest is in your eyes. It's faint, but even your mundane blood cannot sully it. You shall be spared.” His gaze moved back to Durge. “But this beast is mortal through and through. Since we have been denied our true quarry for today, we will make sport of this one instead and hunt him like the animal he is.”

“No!” Grace said, her voice rising in panic. “It wasn't his fault. It was I—I was the one who lied to you!”

It was no use. The hunters were already moving. The queer beings shoved Grace aside and swarmed around Durge. He swatted several of the things away, but they kept coming. A root tripped Grace—or was it the limb of some creature?—and she fell to her knees. She heard Durge let out a roar, but the sound was drowned out by laughter. She crawled until she found a tree, then used it to gain her feet.

There were too many of the beings for Durge to fend off. They had pinned his arms and legs, and though cords of effort stood out on his neck, he could not break away. The creatures tore at his clothes with twisted hands, leaving him standing naked in the cold. A pair of antlers was placed on his brow and fastened in place with ropes woven of vines.

“Durge!” Grace cried out.

He could not turn his head, but he met her gaze with wide eyes. “My lady, you must flee this place! Take the path back the way we came. Go now!”

No, she couldn't leave him. If she had told them the truth about the stag, this wouldn't be happening. She gathered what remained of her will and hurried to the boy.

“Let him go,” she commanded.

“That I will,” the boy said. “It would make for poor sport if he didn't have a head start.”

He gave a flick of his hand, and the creatures moved away from Durge. The knight staggered and caught his balance. He was hairy in his nakedness, and with the antlers he looked not unlike one of the goat-men. A queer expression crossed his face—not pain exactly. Rather, it was the face one would make if something precious were being torn away.

“My lady,” he said, but the words were oddly slurred.

A spasm passed through him, and Durge hunched over. When he looked up again, his eyes were dull and wild, and his lips pulled back from his teeth. The rope that had tied the antlers to his head were gone. Instead, the things sprang from his brow, curving and growing longer even as Grace watched.

She stared at the boy. “What have you done to him?”

“Nothing so very great,” the boy said with a smirk. “A man is but an animal at heart. All we've done is to help him remember that fact.”

Durge let out a snarl, crouching and spinning around, the whites of his eyes showing. The fey beings laughed and raised their weapons.

A wave of terror crested in Grace. “Run, Durge!” she screamed. Could he even still understand her words? “Run!”

For a moment it seemed dim recognition shone in his eyes, then with a roar Durge sprang forward, running across the snow on bare feet, and vanished into the trees.

“You said you'd give him a head start,” Grace said, turning toward the red-haired boy. “How long?”

The boy laughed. “I'd say he's already had more than long enough.” He lifted the trumpet and blew a shrill note. “Let the hunt begin!”

12.

Grace ducked as a hail of arrows hissed through the air. They stuck quivering into trees or sank deep into the ground. A tiny arrow shot from the bow of one of the butterfly creatures caught in Grace's cloak. She plucked it out; the tip was sticky with green sap. A brief examination using the Touch confirmed her fear: The green substance was some kind of toxin.

The red-haired boy leaped onto his horse and urged it into the forest after Durge. The fey hunters bounded or flitted or scuttled after, fitting new arrows to their bows as they went. They seemed to have forgotten Grace in their glee for the hunt, and in moments all of them were gone. Grace reeled, gathering her wits, then she picked up the hem of her gown and dashed into the trees after the hunters.

There should have been a trail where the fey folk had trampled the ground, but instead she saw only Durge's footprints in the thin layer of snow. She followed them. The trumpet rang out again, and it already sounded alarmingly far off. Grace ran faster. Branches scratched at her face and tore her clothes. At some point she lost her cloak, but she didn't stop for it. Despite the cold she was sweating, and her breath came in ragged gasps.

Several more times Grace heard the call of the trumpet, and each time it was fainter than the last. She lost Durge's trail on a stony patch of ground, and when she heard the trumpet call again, it was off to her left, and so distant she could hardly make out the sound over the thudding of her heart.

Grace staggered in that direction, but after that she did not hear the sound of the trumpet again. The sweat froze her dress stiff as her pace slowed, and she grew clumsy with the cold. At last she could go no farther, and she leaned against the trunk of a gigantic tree. She listened, but there was no trumpet call, no trilling of high laughter; the forest air was still and silent.

“I've lost him,” she mumbled with numb lips.

Pain stabbed at her heart. Durge was gone—the kindest, truest, and dearest friend she had on this or any world—and it was her fault. The agony of that thought was too much to bear. Grace threw her arms around the tree, pressed her face to its trunk, and wept.

“Are you well, daughter?” said a kindly voice behind her.

Grace pushed herself from the tree. A moment ago the forest had been gray and bleak, but now green-gold light sparkled through her tears. She wiped her eyes and gasped.

“Whyever do you weep so?” said the old woman who stood before her. “Is it for this great father of trees you embrace? If so, then dry your tears, for he is not dead. When spring comes, he will be green and full of life again.”

Grace stared, sorrow and shock receding. Like the light, a feeling of peace radiated from the old woman. She was tiny and withered and beautiful, her skin as delicate as flower petals, her hair as fine as spider's silk. She wore a robe the color of snow, and in her hands was a wooden staff every bit as gnarled as the fingers that gripped it.

“Who are you?” Grace said.

The old woman smiled, and her eyes—the same color as the light—sparkled. “I suppose you may say I am the queen here, even as you are queen out there.” She made a sweeping gesture with the staff. “Of course, my reign is nearly at an end, and yours is only about to begin, daughter.”

Grace struggled to comprehend these words, but she couldn't, not quite. Her brain was dull and slow from fear and cold. “I'm not crying for the tree.”

“Then for whom is it you weep?”

The words tumbled out of her in a rush. “It's Durge. The boy—the one with red hair—he and the other hunters are chasing him through the forest. And they've done something to him. They tied a pair of antlers to his head, only they aren't just tied in place anymore. They're real. The hunters are going to kill him, and it's all my fault.”

The old woman cocked her head. “Your fault, daughter? Now how can that be?”

Grace felt more tears welling up. “I lied about the white stag. I told them he ran one way when he ran the other. But he was so beautiful. I didn't want them to kill him.”

The other shut her eyes and gripped her staff. “Yes,” she murmured. “I see it now, and I should have known that Quellior was part of all this.” She opened her eyes. “That was kind and selfless of you to help my husband escape.”

Grace shook her head. “Your husband?”

“As I said, I am the queen of this place. And is he not the king?”

Yes, that was what the red-haired boy had called the stag—the forest king. “So he's safe, then?” Grace said. “The stag? I mean, the king?”

The old woman nodded. “For now. But in time Quellior and his hunters will catch him, and they will slay him.”

“No!” Grace said, cold with horror. “They can't!”

The old woman gave a soft sigh. “It is the way of the wood, daughter. Every year Quellior and his hunters pursue the forest king, every year they slay him, and every year he returns again. However, the king is newly risen. It is not yet time for them to catch him, and it is because of you that he escaped. So for your good-hearted deed, I will help you.”

“What can you do?” However, before Grace finished uttering the words, the old woman moved her staff, and a thicket of trees parted like a curtain. Beyond was a glade, and a scene that made Grace's heart stop.

The red-haired boy—Quellior—sat on his black horse, an arrow fitted to his bow. The other hunters gathered around him. Like a fallen beast on the ground, Durge lay below them. His eyes were shut, his hair tangled with leaves and twigs, the antlers jutting from his brow. A dozen tiny darts pierced his skin. Quellior laughed and pulled the arrow back to his ear, ready to send it flying down into Durge's heart.

“Stop!” Grace cried out, tripping over roots as she dashed forward. She fell to her knees beside Durge, covering his body with her arms. “Leave him alone!”

“Wood and bone, how did you get here?” Quellior sneered in his high voice. “But it's no matter. My arrow can pierce two as easily as one.”

“I should think it will pierce none at all,” said a sharp voice, and at the same moment the arrow in Quellior's bow sprouted leaves and tendrils. The tendrils coiled around the boy's hands like green snakes, binding them. The other hunters gasped and chattered and fluttered their wings.

Quellior glared at the old woman. “Blood and stone, Mother! I nearly had him!”

Grace blinked in astonishment. Mother?

The old woman marched into the glade, staff in hand. “Shame on you, Quellior.” She cast a stern eye at all of the hunters, and they quailed under her ire. “Shame on all of you. Is this mortal man the quarry you are bound to hunt?”

“She denied us our quarry,” the red-haired boy said, glaring at Grace. “So we were hunting this one instead.”

The forest queen's eyes flashed. “Answer my question. Is this mortal your true quarry?”

Quellior hung his head and sighed. “No, Mother.”

“I should think not. Now off with you.” She gave a flick of her staff. “All of you. You shall find the forest king again when summer comes and is in its waning days.”

Quellior lifted his head, and there was a queer look in his eyes. “If summer ever comes again, Mother.” He cast one hateful glance at Grace, then his horse bounded away through the trees, and the other fey hunters followed.

Grace cradled Durge's head in her lap. She smoothed his mousy hair from his brow, and she could not help marveling at the way the antlers melded with his skin and skull. She touched a tiny arrow that jutted from the skin just above his collarbone but could not bring herself to check his pulse.

“Is he dead?”

“No, daughter,” said the forest queen, standing above her. “The darts of the winged ones bring sleep, not death.”

“Then how can I wake him up?”

“Are you sure you wish to, daughter?”

Grace stared in blank confusion.

Sorrow lined the old woman's face. “A mortal man is not a beast, but he may be made to act like one. I fear Quellior has played a wicked trick upon your friend. If he were to wake now, he would not remember he was a man at all, but rather would think himself an animal.”

In a way he did look like a beast—naked, dirty, and wild. But Grace knew the true man that lay beneath. Her tears fell on his face, washing away some of the dirt. “He's not a beast. He is the kindest, bravest, and truest man in the world.”

“If you can see that in him, then perhaps there is a way you can help him.”

Grace looked up, hope surging in her. “How?”

“You must join your spirit with his. You must show him how you see him—not as a beast, but as a man. If you do, he may remember himself.”

For a moment Grace trembled. All her life she had kept others at a distance, afraid that if they drew too close they would see what she really was and would recoil in horror. But Durge was her friend; if she could see good in him, she had to believe he would see it in her as well.

She steeled her will and ran her fingers over Durge, plucking out the darts where she found them. A groan escaped him, and he stirred, eyelids fluttering. He was waking up. If he did, he would run from her, she was sure of it; she had to hurry.

Grace pressed her hands against Durge's chest and shut her eyes. Instantly she saw his life thread. It was somber gray, as she remembered it, only marked with a wild streak of crimson. He let out a grunt, moving beneath her, but before he could twist away she reached out and gripped his thread, bringing it close to her own shimmering strand. In her mind she pictured Durge as she knew him: kind, strong. Good. Then, with a thought, she braided the two strands together.

I love you Durge! she called out. Come back to me!

For a single moment she could not discern Durge's thread as a separate thing from her own. They were a single strand, gleaming and perfect.

No, not perfect. There was something else there. Something sharp and dark and terrible, pressing dangerously close. What was it? Before Grace could tell, a gold light welled forth, encapsulating her, and she knew no more.

She must have fallen asleep. Grace pushed herself up to her elbow and used her fingers to comb leaves from her hair. The gold light was dimmer now, but still comforting, and she felt warm. Durge lay beside her, his chest rising and falling in a steady rhythm. The antlers had fallen away to either side. She laid a hand on his forehead; the skin of his brow was unblemished, save for the lines of worry that furrowed it even in repose.

Grace smiled, then rose. Her cloak, which she had lost earlier, now hung on a nearby branch. She cast it over Durge, covering his nakedness, then knelt beside him. Her smile faded as she touched the center of his chest. When their threads were one, she had sensed something inside him—like a shadow, but different. Harder, colder.

“So you've seen it within him, daughter. I thought you might.”

Grace looked up. The old woman—the forest queen—stood above her.

“You can see it, too?” Grace said.

The old woman nodded. “It was clear to my eyes the first moment I saw him. But then, ever have we hated the cruel touch of iron, and we know it when it comes near us.”

Grace was no longer warm. “What are you talking about?”

“There is a splinter of iron in his chest. It lies dangerously near his heart. And it works its way nearer each day.”

No, it was impossible. Durge couldn't be one of them. Then Grace remembered the pains he had felt in his chest the night of the attack on Calavere. She examined his chest. A dozen scars traced white lines beneath dark hair, but she recognized them as the remnants of the wounds he had received on Midwinter's Eve over a year ago, when he was attacked by a band of feydrim.

Durge was a marvelous warrior, but all the same she had been amazed he had been able to fend off so many feydrim by himself. Grace had always wondered how he had managed to get away from the creatures. . . .

But what if he didn't, Grace? What if he didn't get away—at least not until they let him go?

She shut her eyes, and though dread filled her at what she might see, she reached out with the Touch, gazing into Durge's body. Now that she knew what to look for, she saw it immediately, an inch from his heart. The splinter was no bigger than the tip of her little finger, but it was cold, so terribly cold.

She opened her eyes. “Oh, Durge, what did they do to you?”

She could see it clearly, as if the memory had lingered in his flesh and she had glimpsed it like a ghost image on an X ray. Even his greatsword was not enough to keep so many feydrim away. They swarmed over the brave Embarran, dragging him down, knocking him unconscious. Only they did not kill him. Instead they fell back as a figure strode into the chamber, clad in a bloodred gown, a smile on her pale face. It was Lady Kyrene, who had been Grace's first teacher as a witch, and who had traded her living heart for one of iron. Kyrene knelt, taking something small and dark, and pressing it deep into a wound in Durge's left side. He cried out, a sound of despair and agony, only by the time his eyes opened, the others were gone. He couldn't have known what they had done to him, why they let him survive.

“They wanted to turn him into a traitor,” Grace said, and it felt like a splinter of metal had pierced her own heart. “Only they wanted to do it without us knowing.”

“Yes,” the old woman said above her. “But his heart is far stronger than they believed. Evil always underestimates the power of good—that is its greatest weakness. All this while, he has resisted.”

“Then he can keep resisting it,” Grace said, grasping for hope.

The forest queen shook her head. “He is mortal, daughter. Even a man so strong as he cannot resist forever. Soon now, the splinter will reach his heart.”

Grace could barely speak the words. “What will happen when it does?”

The old woman met her eyes. “His heart will turn to ice, and he will become the willing slave of the Lord of Winter—the one whom you call the Pale King.”

A moan escaped Grace. “I have to get it out of him. I have to operate before it's too late.”

“It's already too late, daughter. He should have perished that night. It is only the enchantment of the splinter that has kept him alive. If you remove it, he will die.”

Grace couldn't believe it. She wouldn't. Except she had to. She wiped tears from her cheeks and looked up. “You do it, then. You can help him with your magic.”

“I fear that is not so,” the forest queen said, sorrow on her wizened visage. “Iron is a thing whose touch none of us can bear. I have no power over it.”

Anger boiled up in Grace, and she seized on it as she stood, because it was so much easier to endure than despair. “I came here to find Trifkin Mossberry and the Little People. I wanted to ask them for help in standing against the Pale King, and I found you. But you're no help at all. You don't even care. You ran away from the world to hide here in your forest, and now I can see why. Your magic is old and weak and useless.”

For a moment, anger touched the old woman's face, and her eyes blazed like the noonday sun. It was a terrible sight, but such was Grace's own rage that she did not flinch.

At last the forest queen shook her head, and her eyes dimmed. “Perhaps you are right, perhaps we have grown too distant from the world outside. Yet you are wrong if you think we do not care. Quellior is brash and foolish, but he was right—if you cannot stop the Lord of Winter from riding forth, summer will never come again. And while we cannot stand beside you in the way you hoped, perhaps I can help you discover a way to help yourself.” She met Grace's eyes. “You seek a key, do you not, one that can aid you in the war you must fight? Sit in the chair that is forbidden to all others, and the key shall be revealed to you.”

It wasn't enough, Grace wanted to say. She wanted the Little People to fight beside her when the Rune Gate opened. And she wanted Durge to be solid and whole, to be there for her as he always was. All the same, Grace felt her anger melting. She turned away.

“Do not lose all hope, daughter,” the old woman said behind her. “The splinter has not yet reached his heart. You will yet have time with your knight before the end.” Her voice was receding now. “Farewell. And remember the chair.”

Grace turned around, but the gold light filled the forest, and she couldn't see the old woman. Then the light dimmed, and she turned back to see a silver snake slither up against Durge's side. Only it wasn't a snake at all, but his greatsword. He was clothed again, his garments bearing no sign of rip or stain.

“My lady, what has happened?” Durge sat up, blinking gentle brown eyes as he stared in all directions.

Grace knelt beside him and gripped his hand. Her breath fogged on the air; the bitter cold had returned. “What do you remember?”

“I'm not entirely certain.” His mustaches pulled down into a frown. “I recall riding to the forest with you. And then . . .” He shook his head, his expression one of wonder. “I fear the Little People must have been at work, my lady, even if we never saw them, for I had the most peculiar dream. I dreamed I was a stag running through the forest, and that hunters wanted to slay me. Only a beautiful maiden threw herself upon me, protecting me from their arrows. It was all most queer.”

Relief flooded Grace. He didn't remember what had really happened. “Don't think about it, Durge. You're fine now.” Only that wasn't true, was it? Even now the splinter of iron was working its way nearer his heart.

Grace didn't even realize she was crying until he wiped the tears from her cheek.

“What is this, my lady?” he said in a chiding tone. “You must not weep. After all, there was never any hope the Little People would help us. Nor does it matter. I can't imagine we'll ever find a way to stop the Pale King from riding forth, but at least we'll not find it together.”

“Oh, Durge,” Grace said, and to his clear astonishment she threw her arms around him and wept.

13.

There was a package from the Seekers waiting for Deirdre Falling Hawk when she stepped through the door of her flat. She set her keys next to the cardboard box on the Formica dinette table. The landlady must have let them in.

Or maybe the Seekers have a skeleton key that works for all of London.

Regardless, the package could wait. She squeezed into the closet with a stove and a sink that served for a kitchen, put on a pot for tea, then headed to the adjoining bathroom. She took a shower, letting the hot water pound her, as if it had the power to wake her when she knew perfectly well she wasn't sleeping.

She toweled off, wrapped herself in a terry robe, and padded back to the kitchen to fix a cup of Earl Grey with lemon. Cup in hand, she curled on the threadbare sofa. She sipped tea, watching the day drizzle away outside the window, and wondered if she would ever see Hadrian Farr again. Over and over, she thought through their conversation at the pub earlier that day. It was no use; nothing she could have said would have stopped him from leaving.

It rained until night fell. Deirdre rose and switched on a tasseled floor lamp. Whoever decorated this place for the Seekers had clearly possessed a penchant for vintage stores—along with a fierce and single-minded need to make sure every object in the flat was a completely different color.

She donned jeans, a lamb's wool sweater she had picked up in Oslo a few years ago, and her leather jacket. She left the flat, walking down streets made black mirrors by the rain. After a few blocks she passed a neon-lit nightclub. Pounding music spilled out the door, running down the gutters like rainwater. Laughter floated on the moist air. Hands in pockets, she walked on.

She bought Indian takeout at a small shop and headed back to the flat. The Seekers' box took up almost the entire table, so she moved it to the floor. There was no mark on it, not even a mailing label—only a small symbol stamped in one corner: a hand with three flames.

Deirdre sat at the dinette and ate slowly, breathing in the heady aromas of cardamom and clove. As she ate, she looked at the newspaper she had bought from a box, only noticing after she had nearly finished going through it that it was yesterday's edition. Not that it mattered. These days, the news was always the same: more fear and unrest, more shootings and suicide bombings, more rumors of war.

Things had gotten better for a while last fall, after the plague of fire had ended as suddenly as it began. Now troubled times were back, darker than ever. Things seemed particularly bad in the United States. People were afraid, and the economy was crashing as a result. At the same time, the government's rhetoric was growing increasingly hard-line. Basic civil liberties were being suspended, and some senators were actually talking about closing the borders. Only that would accomplish nothing. Hiding in a locked room didn't do any good when the whole house was falling down around you.

Appetite gone, she folded up the paper and tossed it in the recycle bin, then took the leftovers and dishes to the kitchen. Finished, she went back to the sofa and sat. The box from the Seekers lurked in the corner, sinister in its blankness.

Deliberately, she pulled her gaze from the box and reached for the wooden case that held her mandolin. It was too quiet in this place; every thought was like a shout in her head. Maybe a little music would help. She strummed the mandolin and winced. The poor thing could never seem to hold a tune in the damp London air. She tightened the strings, then strummed again. This time she smiled at the warm tone that rose from the instrument, a sound as welcome and familiar as the greeting of an old friend.

She plucked out a lilting Irish air. It was the first tune she had learned to play as a girl at her grandmother's house. She supposed she had been no more than eight or nine, and small for her age, so that she had barely been able to finger chords and strum at the same time. Now the mandolin nestled perfectly against the curve of her body, as if it had been fashioned just for her.

More songs came to her fingertips, bright and thrumming, or slow and deep as a dreaming ocean. Her mind drifted as she played, back to the days when she had been a bard, wandering to a new place, earning a little money with her music, then moving on. That was before she had ever heard of Jack Graystone or Grace Beckett. Before Travis Wilder was anything other than a gentle saloonkeeper in a small Colorado town with whom she had almost had an affair. Before she met Hadrian Farr in that smoky pub in Edinburgh, fell like countless other foolish women for the mystery in his dark eyes, and found her way into the Seekers.

It was only as she thought how strange and unexpected were the journeys on which life could lead one that she realized it was a song about journeys she was playing. In a low voice, she sang along with the final notes.

We live our lives a circle,

And wander where we can.

Then after fire and wonder,

We end where we began.

Her fingers slipped from the strings, and the music faded away. A chill stole over her, and she shivered. What had made her choose that song?

She had found the music and lyrics two years ago in the Seekers' file on James Sarsin. Sarsin had been the focus of one of the Seekers' most famous cases. He had lived in and around London for several centuries before abruptly disappearing in the 1880s after his bookshop burned. After that, the Seekers lost track of him. It was only recently, through Deirdre's work, that they discovered James Sarsin was in fact one and the same with Travis Wilder's antique dealer friend Jack Graystone.

Among the few papers recovered from Sarsin's burnt bookshop were several sheaves of music. One of them was “Fire and Wonder.” The music had been transcribed in a manner Deirdre had never seen before, but at last she had managed to decipher the code and learn the song. She had played it in Travis Wilder's saloon, curious to see if it would get a reaction from him.

And it did, Deirdre, though not for the reason you thought. He didn't hear it from Jack Graystone. He heard it from a bard on another world.

She hadn't played the song since that day. It was a simple tune, pretty, yet there was a sadness to it that made her heart ache. Again she strummed the last few chords. The words reminded her of something. Something that had happened in Castle City, something she had forgotten.

She set down the mandolin and moved over to the trunk where she had stowed her few belongings. After a bit of rummaging, she pulled out a leather-bound book—one of her journals. Farr had taught her early in her career as a Seeker to take notes. Lots of them. She checked the label on the spine to make sure it was the right volume and headed back to the sofa. She flipped through the pages, trying to remember. Then three words caught her eye, and her heart fluttered in her chest.

Fire and wonder. . . .

Quickly, she read the entire entry. She remembered now. It was the day she had ridden alone into the canyon above Castle City, to make a satellite phone call to Farr. There, by the side of a deserted road, she had encountered a pale girl in an archaic black dress. Only later did she learn that both Grace Beckett and Travis Wilder had encountered this same girl, that her name was Child Samanda, and that there were two others she seemed to travel with: a preacher named Brother Cy, and a red-haired woman named Sister Mirrim.

The Seekers had never been able to locate any trace of these three individuals, but that didn't surprise Deirdre. Maybe Marji, the West Colfax Avenue psychic, had been right. Maybe Deirdre did have some ability as a shaman. Because Deirdre had known in an instant this was no normal child.

Cradling the journal, Deirdre ran her finger over the conversation she had transcribed over a year ago.

Seek them as you journey, the child had said.

What do you mean? Deirdre had asked. Seek what?

Fire and wonder.

At the time, there had been so much going on—the Burned Man, the illness of Travis's friend Max Bayfield, Duratek's agents in Castle City—that Deirdre hadn't noticed the connection. Now, at last, she did. What was the significance of the ghostly child's words? And why had she appeared to Deirdre?

She set the journal down and found herself staring once more at the box in the corner. Maybe it was a hunch. Or maybe it was what Marji would have called her gift. Either way, Deirdre moved to the box and knelt beside it. She broke the tape with a key, dug through layers of packing peanuts, and pulled out something cool and hard. It was a notebook computer. The machine was sleek and light, encased in brushed metal.

She took the computer to the dinette table, opened it, and pressed the power button. A chime sounded as it whirred to life. A login screen appeared, but there was no place to type her agent name or password.

She turned the computer, studying it. Inserted into the side was a silvery expansion module. The module bore a thin slit, about the width and thickness of a credit card. Deirdre reached into the pocket of her jeans and pulled out her new ID card. It slid into place with a soft snick.

The login screen vanished, replaced by a spinning wheel. Just as Deirdre was thinking she should have plugged the computer into a phone jack, the screen went black. Then words scrolled into being, as if typed by invisible hands:

DNA authentication scan accepted. Seeker Agent Deirdre Falling Hawk—identity confirmed.

Working . . .

Deirdre let out a low whistle. So this thing was wireless. More glowing words scrolled across the screen.

Welcome to Echelon 7.

What do you want to do?

>

The cursor blinked on and off, expectant. Deirdre sat back in the chair and ran a hand through her red-black hair.

“Damn,” she said.

What was she supposed to do? There were no menus on the screen, no windows to explore, no buttons to click. Just the glowing words.

It asked you a question, Deirdre. So why not answer it?

She swallowed a nervous laugh, then leaned forward and tapped out words on the keyboard.

I want to find something.

She pressed Enter. A moment later new words appeared on the screen.

What do you want to find?

>

Deirdre hesitated, fingers hovering over the keys. Then, quickly, she typed three words.

Fire and wonder.

Again she pressed Enter. The words flashed, then vanished. Deirdre chewed her lip. Had she done something wrong? She reached out to press another key.

Before her finger touched the keyboard, the screen exploded into a riot of motion and color. Dozens of session windows popped into being. Text poured through some of the windows like green rain, while in others images flashed by so quickly they were superimposed into a single blurred montage of stones covered with runes, medieval swords, pages of illuminated manuscripts, and ancient coins.

Deirdre leaned closer to the screen. Some of the data windows contained menus and commands she recognized; they belonged to various systems in the Seeker network she had accessed in the past. However, most of the windows contained unfamiliar interfaces, their indecipherable menus composed in glowing alien symbols. Atop everything was a single flashing crimson word: Seeking . . . Trembling, she reached out to touch the computer.

The screen went dark. Deirdre jerked her hand back. Had she damaged it somehow? Then her heart began to beat once more as glowing emerald words scrolled across the screen.

Search completed.

1 match(es) located:

/albion/archive/case999–1/mla1684a.arch

>

So it had found something. But where? Deirdre didn't recognize the server name; wherever this file was located, it wasn't in a database she had ever searched before.

And why should it be? This is Echelon 7. And if Hadrian is right, this file is something just about no one in the Seekers has access to.

She drew in a breath, then typed a quick command.

Display search file. [Enter]

The cursor flashed, and the computer let out a beep.

Error. Unable to access file mla1684a.arch.

File does not exist.

>

Deirdre swore. “What do you mean the file doesn't exist? You just found it, you stupid computer.”

She forced herself to take a breath. It was not a good sign when one started berating inanimate objects. Forcing her hands to hold steady, she typed another command.

What happened to search file? [Enter]

File mla1684a.arch has been deleted from the system.

>

That made even less sense. How could the query have found the file in the first place if it had been deleted? Deirdre typed with furious intensity.

When was file mla1684a.arch deleted? [Enter]

File mla1684a.arch was deleted from the system at time stamp: Today, 22:10:13

>

A coldness stole over her. She forced her eyes to focus on the wall clock—10:12 P.M. Two minutes ago. The file had been deleted from the system two minutes ago. But that had to be . . .

“Just a few seconds after your search query located it,” Deirdre whispered.

She pushed back from the table and reached for the phone on the wall. Fumbling, she punched the number of the flat where Farr had been staying. One ring, two.

Someone had deleted the file the moment after she found it. Why? To keep her from reading it, of course. But then why leave the file on the server where she could find it in the first place? Her mind whirred like the computer.

Maybe deleting the file would have drawn attention to it, Deirdre. Maybe whoever erased it didn't want to do so until they absolutely had to—until the file was found. So how were they watching it?

She had to talk to Farr; he would know what to do.

Three rings, four. “Come on, Hadrian, answer. Bloody hell—come on.”

A click. The ringing ended, and a robotic voice spoke in her ear. “The number you have reached has been disconnected. If you feel you have reached this recording in error—”

Deirdre slammed the phone back onto the wall. No, it was no error. Farr had left. But where was he going? There had been something about him earlier—a power, a peril—she had never seen before. Then, with a shiver, she remembered his last words to her.

You see, there's still one class of encounter we haven't had yet. . . .

Deirdre sank back into the chair, staring at the computer screen. It was the first thing every Seeker learned upon joining the order: the classification of otherworldly encounters. Class Three Encounters were common—rumors and stories of otherworldly nature. Class Two Encounters were rarer, but well represented in the history of the Seekers—encounters with objects and locations that bore residual traces of otherworldly forces. And Class One Encounters were the rarest—direct interaction with otherworldly beings and travelers.

But Farr was right. There was one more class of encounter, one that had never been recorded in all the five centuries of the Seekers' existence. A Class Zero Encounter. Translocation to another world oneself.

Deirdre clenched her hands into fists. “What are you doing, Hadrian? By all the gods, what are you doing?”

The only answer was the ceaseless hum of the computer.

14.

Deirdre fumbled with her sunglasses as she climbed the stairs of the Blackfriars tube station and stepped onto the bustling sidewalk.

Never before had she believed it possible for the sun to be too bright in London. After all, she had lived most of her life in the cloudless American West; the sun in England was a sixty-watt bulb compared to the brilliant floodlight that hung above Colorado three hundred-plus days a year. However, after staring all night at the phosphorescent screen of the computer the Seekers had sent her, even the weak morning light (which, frankly, was as much haze as sun) seemed to jab at her eyes.

She started down the sidewalk and immediately stepped in gum. Leaning against a lamppost, she lifted her foot. Gooey strings stretched from the cement to the sole of her boot. She tried to pull off the wad of chewed gum, but it only stuck to her fingers.

“That doesn't look at all sanitary,” volunteered an elderly woman in a cheerful voice. She took a tissue from her purse and held it out.

Deirdre gave her a wan smile, took the tissue, and wiped her hand as the woman strolled away. The gum didn't come off, but bits of tissue adhered to it, reducing the stickiness.

Twenty minutes later she stepped from a mahogany-paneled elevator into the main office below the Charterhouse.

“You're late,” Sasha said. “Nakamura was expecting you ten minutes ago.”

Deirdre raised an eyebrow. Maybe Farr was on to something; Sasha did have a propensity for springing on people. Today she wore a clingy white sweater and black slacks. A saffron scarf was draped around her neck with a carefree air so perfect the thing could only have been pinned in place.

“I had a problem at the gate,” Deirdre said. “The card reader wouldn't take my new ID card.”

She had inserted the card into the reader a half dozen times. However, each time the light flashed red, and the last time a sickly buzzing noise had emanated from the reader. At that point a security guard had rushed out of a side gate, eager to clap her in irons, but a fingerprint scan had confirmed her identity, and he had grudgingly escorted her in.

Sasha raised a dark hand to her chin. “That's right. I forgot about your new card. Are you having any fun with it yet?”

Deirdre tried not to look shocked. Did Sasha know about her new clearance for Echelon 7? Deirdre would have imagined that was restricted knowledge.

“Why does the assistant director want to see me?” she said.

“Because you're a wicked girl and already plotting mischief, and Nakamura means to nip it in the bud. All right, that's just speculation. All the same, you'd better get moving.” Sasha prowled away like a runway model, then paused to glance over her shoulder. “By the way, where's Sir Mopesalot today?”

Deirdre did her best to keep her voice neutral. “I honestly have no idea where Farr is.”

Sasha nodded, as if Deirdre had confirmed something she already knew. The elevator doors opened and shut, and she was gone. Deirdre headed for the front desk, behind which a receptionist typed at Mach speed. She was middle-aged, with tortoiseshell-rimmed glasses and a sensible haircut. Deirdre didn't recognize her; the nameplate atop the counter read Madeleine.

“Excuse me,” Deirdre said when the receptionist did not look up from her work.

“You're a Seeker, Miss Falling Hawk. I'm absolutely certain you're capable of reading.” The receptionist didn't miss a key as she typed.

Deirdre stared, then noticed the small sign resting next to a clipboard. Please sign in before proceeding.

“I'm sorry.” Deirdre groped for the pen attached to the clipboard. “We didn't use to have to sign in.”

“I have every confidence you'll make the adjustment.”

Deirdre didn't know how to interpret that, so she scribbled her name and headed down a hallway to the assistant director's office. Nakamura stood and smiled when she entered, and some of her fear that she was going to be scolded faded a bit.

“Close the door, will you, Agent Falling Hawk? And please, take a seat.”

She pulled the door shut and perched on the edge of a leather chair as the assistant director sat once more behind his desk.

Richard Nakamura was, as far as Deirdre knew, the highest-ranking American in the entire order of the Seekers. He was a short, compactly built man with white hair and an oval face that was surprisingly smooth given his seventy years. He had been born in San Francisco to Japanese immigrants, and as a child during World War II he and his family had been forced to spend time in Amache, an internment camp in eastern Colorado. Deirdre didn't know if it was ironic or fitting that Nakamura was one of the most patriotic men she knew. A U.S. flag stood in one corner of the room, opposite the Union Jack, and a picture of the American president decorated the mahogany wall, along with Roman death masks, medieval tapestries, and samurai swords.

Nakamura had entered the Seekers as a young man in the late 1950s, and if his rise was not meteoric, like Hadrian Farr's, it had certainly been steady. He had made solid progress in his laboratory research over the decades, especially in the area of detecting and classifying trace energy signatures. Five years ago, he had been promoted to the assistant director level.

That made Nakamura one of the dozen most powerful men and women in the Seekers—apart from the Philosophers. The assistant directors answered only to the directors of Research, Operations, and Security. And the directors answered only to the Philosophers themselves.

Deirdre fidgeted on the edge of her chair, knew she should stop, and couldn't. Why did Nakamura want to see her? Did he want to question her further about what happened in Colorado? He folded his hands on the desk and said nothing.

Deirdre couldn't stand it any longer. “Farr is gone,” she said.

Nakamura's placid expression didn't change. “Yes, we know. He couriered a letter to us just before his departure. I'm sure you did your best to convince him to stay.”

Deirdre's throat ached. “I don't know where he is.”

“Of course you don't, Miss Falling Hawk. No one does. Agent Farr's talents are such that we won't find him until he wishes to be found.”

The pace of Deirdre's heart slowed, and belatedly she realized Nakamura's silence had been deliberate. He had wanted her to speak first, to see what she would say. But she didn't care if he knew what was on her mind. She had nothing to hide.

And don't you? What about Glinda? What about the forest you saw when you kissed her?

She folded her hands in her lap, covering the silver circle on her right ring finger. “What will happen to him?” she said.

Nakamura's brown eyes were serious, and perhaps sad. “I suppose in the end that's up to Mr. Farr.”

Deirdre nodded, though she wasn't certain she agreed. Once you opened a door, could you really control what came through? Maybe Farr was the last person who could decide what would happen to him.

“I read everything,” she said. “All of the files about Hadrian and me. The reports, the assessments, the observations. Everything that was written about us. My new ID card . . .”

“Gave you access.” Nakamura nodded. “Yes, of course you read the files. We imagined you would do so immediately once you were granted Echelon 7. Would you care for some tea?”

Deirdre licked her lips. “No, thank you.”

“I'll have Lucas bring a second cup just in case you change your mind.” He touched a button on the telephone. “Lucas, two cups of tea, please. With honey and lemon. And some of those shortbread biscuits—you know, the ones Abby says will give me another heart attack. Thank you.”

Light spilled through the window, illuminating Nakamura's white hair. He seemed kind and grandfatherly, but Deirdre dismissed that image. One did not rise so high in the Seekers by doling out cookies and tea. All of the orders about how to handle her and Farr in Denver had come from this desk.

“You were using us,” she said.

He peered over a pair of bifocals. “Certainly, Miss Falling Hawk. We gained a great deal of knowledge from observing your actions in Colorado. I know you were placed in some degree of peril. However, you and Farr were willing participants in the experiment, were you not?”

Deirdre didn't know what to say. She hadn't expected this level of honesty. Maybe her new rank had brought her more than just Echelon 7 access.

“I believe you gained a valuable experience,” Nakamura went on. “It's useful for the observer to know what it feels like to be the subject. I know it changed my own perspective. Good, here's Lucas with our tea.”

A white-haired man shuffled into the room carrying a silver tray. It was said Lucas had served the Seekers since the time of the Great Depression. He certainly looked old enough for the story to be true; he was stoop-shouldered and hawk-nosed, and he seemed lost inside a dusty black suit that had obviously been worn by a much larger man years ago.

Lucas set the tray down on Nakamura's desk, porcelain teacups rattling. Deirdre hardly noticed as, with a trembling, white-gloved hand, he set a steaming cup of tea before her. What had Nakamura just told her?

I know it changed my own perspective. . . .

Had Nakamura once been the subject of observation by the Seekers, just as she and Farr had been in Denver?

“Thank you, Lucas,” Nakamura said with a smile.

The old man bowed stiffly, remaining bent over for such a long time Deirdre grew alarmed he was having a stroke. However, he finally straightened again, shuffled from the room, and shut the door.

“I'm sure you're curious about your new assignment, Miss Falling Hawk, so I won't keep you in the dark any longer. While it's not quite as glamorous as your most recent assignments, I think you'll agree it's important work.”

Nakamura handed her a manila folder. Deirdre opened it and scanned the directive clipped to a slim bundle of papers, then shut the folder.

She had guessed as much. It looked to be an exercise in cross-database cataloging. It was just the kind of work she had been doing two years ago when she discovered the link between the Graystone and Beckett cases. Important? Yes. Dull? Yes again. It was just as Sasha had said. The Seekers wanted to make sure she stayed out of trouble.

Only it doesn't make sense, Deirdre. Why give you a promotion and Echelon 7 clearance if all they intend for you to do is a safe and boring desk job?

Then again, with Echelon 7, there was a whole new world of files and information open to her. Maybe it wouldn't be so tedious after all.

“Thank you,” Deirdre said, holding the folder on her lap. “I'm sure it will be interesting work.”

Nakamura sighed. “Well, I suppose I shouldn't have expected an outburst of excitement.” He sipped his tea, then regarded her over the cup. “This isn't a punishment, you know. You're very important to the Seekers, and I don't mean as a subject with otherworldly connections. You have a gift for seeing pattern, symbol, and meaning others can't. You're one of our finest agents—now more than ever.”

Deirdre's heart ached. It would be so easy to let herself think Nakamura didn't mean what he said, that it was nothing more than a cynical ploy intended to engender her loyalty to the organization. Except somehow she couldn't make herself believe that.

“You can let yourself out, Miss Falling Hawk.”

Only as he spoke did she realize she had been staring. “Of course,” she said, clutching the folder and standing. She hurried to the door.

“By Hermes himself, I nearly forgot.” Nakamura removed his glasses. “It will take him a day or two to wrap up his previous assignment, but he'll be contacting you very soon.”

Deirdre shook her head. “What?”

Nakamura picked up his teacup. “It's simply our standard procedure. We really prefer Seekers to work in tandem. And don't worry—he isn't your superior. In fact, with your promotion, you'll be the senior agent this time.”

Deirdre's mind buzzed; this was important, she was sure of it, but she couldn't quite grasp why. “I don't understand. Who are you talking about?”

“Your new partner, of course.”

Deirdre's jaw dropped open.

“Good day, Miss Falling Hawk,” Nakamura said as he took another sip of tea.

15.

It quickly became evident Deirdre wasn't going to get any work done that day.

After her conversation with Nakamura, she stopped by her office—the same one she had shared with Farr for the last three years. It was a dank space, with only a single iron-barred window looking out at sidewalk level. However, it was huge, which was the reason they had chosen it. Bookshelves and filing cabinets lurked in countless alcoves, and in between the two gunmetal gray desks was a battered claw-footed table which Deirdre had often used for spreading out maps, facsimiles of manuscripts, and other documents.

When she stepped through the office door, she found a workman in blue overalls just folding up a stepladder.

“I've replaced all the lightbulbs for you, Miss Falling Hawk. They were beginning to flicker. And I used natural light fluorescents. That should help make it a bit less like a dungeon in here.” A grin showed through his curly red beard. “Unless you're into that sort of thing, in which case I could switch them back.”

She smiled. “No, the lights are wonderful. Thank you, Fergus.”

Whistling, he carried his stepladder out the door. Deirdre walked around the office, exploring, and soon realized the lightbulbs weren't all that had been changed. The filing cabinets and bookshelves were empty. So were the drawers in each of the desks. All of the books, papers, notes, and drawings she and Farr had accumulated over the years were gone. But why had the Seekers taken their files?

To pick them apart, Deirdre. To analyze them and see if there was anything in them about your otherworldly connections which you hadn't mentioned.

A crushing weight filled her. It had taken years to accumulate, index, and cross-reference all of the information in those files. Now she was going to have to start over completely from scratch.

Or was she? Deirdre reached into her pocket and pulled out her new ID card, turning it over. The crimson number 7 shone like wet blood. Maybe everything she had had before was right here in her hand—everything and more.

She slipped the card back into her pocket and moved to one of the desks. There was a working phone, a stapler, a pencil holder filled with sharpened pencils, and a box of paper clips. That was all. She had left her new computer at her flat. There was nothing she could do here; she might as well go home.

On her way out she looked for Sasha, but Madeleine the receptionist said she was in a meeting. Deirdre didn't really know what Sasha did for the Seekers. She didn't conduct research or perform investigations. All Deirdre knew was that Sasha was some sort of attaché to the director of Operations. Whatever her job description was, she always seemed to know far more about what went on around here than Deirdre did. Deirdre had hoped Sasha could tell her what happened to Deirdre and Farr's files. It could wait.

“Will we see you tomorrow, Miss Falling Hawk?” Madeleine asked, glancing up from her computer.

Deirdre stepped into the elevator, then turned around. “I'll be in by nine,” she said, and the silver doors whooshed shut.

As she walked through the gate in front of the Charterhouse, she noticed a pair of technicians in white shirts huddled over the security card reader. The front of the card reader was open, and the men picked at its innards with needle-nosed pliers. The technicians spoke in annoyed voices, and Deirdre caught the words gum and tissue. She stuck her hands in her pockets and quickened her pace.

She walked along the iron fence that surrounded the Seeker complex and in her mind went over her conversation with Nakamura. Why had they assigned her a new partner? She didn't buy the line that it was simply standard procedure.

Stop it, Deirdre. Farr was the one obsessed with conspiracy theories. Nakamura said you're the senior partner, so it's probably just some neophyte they want you to train, that's all.

A rough croak sounded above her, and Deirdre looked up. A raven perched on top of the fence, staring down at her with eyes like onyx beads. A breeze ruffled black feathers as it opened its beak, letting out another raucous call.

Deirdre halted on the sidewalk. In many Native American myths, Raven was a trickster—often a troublemaker, but sometimes a creator and even occasionally a hero. In one story, it was Raven who rescued the Sun when it was stolen, and who restored its light to the world.

Ravens were also important in Norse mythology, in which they were symbols of battle and wisdom. It was said two ravens named Hugin and Munin—Thought and Memory—sat on the god Odin's shoulders. They flew out over Midgard each day, searching for fallen warriors worthy enough to be brought back to Odin's great hall, Valhalla.

Yet Deirdre knew that in many myths and cultures of old, ravens were not such noble creatures. Instead they were seen as carrion eaters—harbingers of death and decay, followers of strife and destruction. For some reason it was these myths and stories that came to her as she gazed up at the bird. It cocked its head, watching her.

“Go away,” she whispered.

With a loud croak, the bird spread its wings and swooped down to a patch of scarlet-stained fur in the middle of the street. It was a dead squirrel, or perhaps even a cat; it was too flattened for Deirdre to tell. The bird hopped toward the dead thing and picked at it.

A shrill sound pierced the air, and Deirdre stumbled back a step. A van as black as the raven's feathers sped down the street. The shadowy driver behind the windshield honked again. The bird spread its wings and sprang off the pavement.

It was too slow. The van struck the raven. There was a wet thud, and black feathers flew in all directions. Without slowing, the van cruised past Deirdre. On its side was painted a capital letter D merging with a white crescent moon.

Duratek. It seemed as if they were everywhere. They were constantly in the news, and a dozen times a day Deirdre saw the ghostly crescent emblazoned on cars, T-shirts, cell phones, computer screens, and store windows. Every time she turned on the TV, one of their commercials was blaring—a pageant of surreal landscapes, perfect houses, and blankly smiling people that advertised nothing and everything at once.

The van rounded a corner and was gone. In the street lay a small black heap. Feathers fluttered in the wind, but otherwise the thing was motionless. Deirdre forced her eyes away from the dead raven and continued on.

When she reached the Blackfriars tube station, she didn't descend the steps. It was a good three miles back to her flat on the south side of Hyde Park, but what reason did she have to hurry? She kept walking, her boots scuffing out a steady rhythm on the sidewalk. Near Charing Cross, a cozy-looking coffee shop caught her eye, and she stopped in for some late breakfast. To her chagrin, the shop turned out to be a chain restaurant. It only annoyed her further that the coffee was rich and perfectly bitter, and the pancakes set before her were flavored with just a touch of real vanilla and melted in her mouth.

That was the danger of big corporate chains. Not that they were often so horrible—but rather that sometimes they were disturbingly good.

That's how Duratek will win in the end. Even those of us who know better will be seduced. We'll drink their perfect coffee, drive their luxurious cars, and wear their fashionable clothes, and in our satisfaction we'll forget to think about the people—the whole worlds—that were exploited to bring those things to us.

She cleaned her plate, emptied her cup, and left a large tip for the khaki-clad waiter. On her way out she passed a newspaper box, and the headline caught her eye. The U.S. stock market was continuing to crash, dragging the world economy with it. However, a subheading noted, one stock was defying the trend and continuing to surge upward: Duratek. Deirdre turned and walked on.

Something more than an hour later, she stepped through the door of her flat and saw the light blinking on the answering machine. Even as she punched the PLAY button, she knew it would be Hadrian Farr's accentless voice that would emanate from the machine.

“I'm sorry I missed you, Deirdre. I suppose you're at the Charterhouse, being a good little Seeker just as they want. Do me a favor, however, and don't be too good. Somebody has to keep giving the Philosophers conniptions, and I think you're up to the job. You have to be your own Philosopher, Deirdre. You're the only one you can trust now.”

Deirdre pressed her hand to her heart and leaned her head against the wall. She tried to imagine where he was. New York? Madrid? Istanbul?

“I'm not anywhere you might think I'd be,” Farr's voice continued as if to answer her question. “So don't try to find me. My journey has begun more quickly than I could ever have guessed. I'm not sure when I might be able to contact you again, or if I'll have time, but I'll do my best. I owe you that much and—”

A click sounded in the background.

“Well, I believe that's my signal to go. Even if I could tell you more, I'm afraid there isn't time. According to my watch, in seven more seconds the Seekers will know exactly where I am. Good-bye, Deirdre.”

The synthesized voice of the answering machine spoke, informing her there were no more messages. Deirdre hesitated, then picked up the phone, listening to the steady sound of the dial tone. Then she caught it: a clicking noise, just like the one she had heard while Farr was talking.

“Who's there?” she said.

Another click. She slammed down the phone and moved away. So her line was tapped. Nakamura had lied—they were still watching her.

No, Deirdre. It's not you they're watching. It's Hadrian. They knew he was likely to call here. You can't blame them, can you? You would have done the same.

Her outrage cooled. Wherever he was, Farr had his quest, and so did she. Deirdre sat at the table and turned on the computer. She pulled her ID card from her pocket, wiped it off, and inserted it. The screen flickered, then glowing green words appeared.

Welcome to Echelon 7.

What do you want to do?

>

Deirdre's fingers hovered above the keyboard. What did she want to do? Search for something—but what? There was no point in doing another search on the words Child Samanda had spoken. The only file that query returned had been deleted the moment she found it.

She still wondered what that file had contained. It had to be important—so important the watcher would do anything, even risk drawing notice, to keep the file's contents from being discovered. However, right now there was something else that weighed on her mind.

She gazed at the ring on her right hand—the ring Glinda had given her at Surrender Dorothy, just before the fire. Deirdre had never been able to decipher the writing engraved inside the band. She thought for a moment, then began to type.

Identify all cases that include samples of nonhuman DNA. Cross-reference with cases that contain instances of written inscriptions of unknown language affinity. Display linked files.

[Enter]

The computer emitted a chime as a dozen session windows sprang into being. Deirdre leaned closer as a single word pulsed at the top of the screen. Seeking . . .

It was only when she realized the glow of the computer was the brightest thing in the room that the passage of time finally impinged upon her. She leaned back from the table and stretched, causing her spine to emit a distinct crunch. Outside the flat's windows, dusk had fallen. Dead leaves swirled by the glass, causing the lights of the city to flicker like stars. Her stomach growled; the pancakes had been a long time ago.

She stood and switched on the lamp by the sofa, bathing the room in amber light, then glanced again at the computer screen. She still wasn't certain exactly what it was she had found, only that all of her instincts as an investigator told her it was important.

In one of the open session windows, a chromosome map scrolled by. The map was from a mitochondrial DNA sequence, its banded series of genes delineated in blues, oranges, and purples. In another window was the scanned photo of a marble keystone, removed from an arched doorway. An inscription was engraved on the keystone; however, the stone was chipped and battered, its surface stained with soot and some other dark substance, so that the inscription was almost completely illegible.

Almost. The writing on the stone was too incomplete to have been transcribed into the Seekers' language files. That was why no match had come up months ago, when Deirdre first performed a search on the writing on Glinda's ring. However, once she magnified and enhanced the image, the similarities were apparent to her eye despite the fragmentary nature of the inscription. The writing on Glinda's ring and the keystone were exactly the same—the same symbols written in the same order.

That wasn't the only similarity. Just like the inscription on the keystone, the DNA sequence was fragmentary. It was taken from a sample that had been collected nearly two centuries ago, at the same London location from which the keystone was removed. The sample had been analyzed only recently, as part of an ongoing effort to sequence all biological matter—hair, blood, bone—contained in the Seeker vaults before time took its toll and any hope of doing so was lost.

Despite the poor quality of the sample, computer analysis determined there was significant similarity between the partial DNA sequence and the sequence Deirdre had performed on the sample of Glinda's blood she had collected. The case to which the keystone and the partial DNA sequence were related had been closed in 1816. Now, once again, Deirdre had found a connection between a long-forgotten case and a modern investigation. Without doubt, the 1816 case was linked to Glinda. But how?

“Maybe it's simpler than you think.” She sat at the computer and quickly typed a query.

Identify the location where the biological sample and keystone from the case 1816-11a were collected. Superimpose result on a map of present-day London.

[Enter]

The computer chimed, and a new window opened, covering the others. It showed a map of London. A red star blinked in the center of the map. Deirdre leaned closer, reading the word on the map just below the star: Brixton.

Surrender Dorothy. It had to be; it made too much sense. In 1816, the Seekers had collected samples with otherworldly connections from a building in Brixton—the same building that, nearly two centuries later, housed the nightclub.

So the Seekers were aware of Surrender Dorothy. At least at one time they were.

Or was it the other way around? Maybe it wasn't chance that Deirdre had met Glinda that day in the Sign of the Green Fairy.

They knew about the Seekers—Glinda, Arion the doorman, all of them—and they were desperate for help. Duratek was using them, hoping their blood might open a gate to Eldh. Who else could they turn to?

Only it had been too late. Deirdre hadn't been able to help them. That night, Surrender Dorothy had burned, taking its strange denizens with it.

Deirdre twirled the silver ring on her finger. “Who were you, Glinda? You and the others. You weren't quite fairies. But you weren't quite human, either. So where did you come from? And why were you in London?”

She opened a new session window on the computer. There had to be more answers in the Seekers' files. And with Echelon 7, she was going to find them. She started a new query, one to call up all otherworldly cases located in London in the last four hundred years, but before she could finish typing the screen went blank.

Deirdre frowned. Was the battery dead? She started to check it, then froze. Words scrolled across the screen.

> You'll never find it that way.

She stared at the computer. She hadn't done that; her hands weren't even on the keyboard. The words pulsed slowly, like a slow laugh. Deirdre moistened her lips, then touched her fingers to the keys.

Find what? [Enter]

> What you're seeking.

The reply had come quickly, as if the person on the other end had been waiting for it. If it was even a person at all. Deirdre thought a moment, then typed.

Who are you? [Enter]

> A friend.

> Make that a secret friend.

Again the reply came quickly, but somehow these words were not comforting.

If you're a friend, where can I find you? [Enter]

> Look out your window, Miss Falling Hawk.

Dread spilled into Deirdre's chest. Her body seemed to move of its own volition as she rose from the chair and moved to the window. Outside, full night had fallen. A few cars passed down the quiet side street; a cat ran along the sidewalk. Then she saw it across the way: a dark figure standing just on the edge of a pool of light beneath a streetlamp. The figure moved. Had it nodded? There was something in its hands.

“Why are you watching me?” she whispered. “What do you want?”

A chime sounded behind her. She turned and glanced at the computer screen.

> I want the same thing you do.

> To understand.

So the other was listening as well as watching. Later she would tear the flat apart and find the bug. Now she kept her back to the window. “I don't believe you,” she said, the words sharp and angry this time.

More words scrolled across the computer screen.

> He's coming.

> You should be careful of what other eyes see.

A knock sounded at the door. Deirdre had to bite her tongue to keep from letting out a cry. At the same moment, the computer screen flickered; the words vanished, and the results of Deirdre's previous searches reappeared—the keystone and the DNA analysis. She glanced again out the window. The pool of light beneath the streetlamp was empty.

Another knock sounded at the door, this one more impatient than the last.

“Coming!” Deirdre called out. She slammed the computer shut, then headed for the door. Her hands were shaking, and she fumbled with the dead bolt before jerking the door open.

A man she had never seen before stood in the hallway. At first she wondered if he was the one she had glimpsed beneath the streetlamp. But she had seen the other just seconds before the knock came at her door; he couldn't have gotten all the way up to her third-floor flat so quickly. Besides, the dark silhouette she had seen had been tall and slender, almost willowy.

In contrast, the man before her was not particularly tall and anything but willowy. The elegant lines of his Italian suit were mostly defeated by the muscles that bulged beneath, straining the fabric. His white-blond hair was cropped close to his head; nor was its color natural, given his short, dark beard. His eyes were shockingly blue above craggy, pitted cheeks.

Deirdre was too startled to say anything but, “Can I help you?”

The man smiled, his blue eyes crinkling. The effect was quite riveting.

“I'm Anders,” he said in a voice at once gravelly and offensively cheerful. She couldn't quite place the accent. New Zealand? Australia? “I'm sure Nakamura told you about me. I blew into town earlier than I expected. You weren't at the office, so I thought I'd stop by.”

Deirdre tried to comprehend these words but failed utterly. “Excuse me, but who the hell are you?”

Still smiling, he held out a large hand.

“Come now, Deirdre. That's no way to greet your new partner.”

16.

If Travis had thought returning to Denver would be like coming home again, then he was wrong. All of those thoughts and feelings that might occur to one when considering the word home—things like warmth and comfort and safety—were only shadows here. They were thin and vaporous things, haunting every street corner, fogging every bright shop window: reminders of what was lost and could never be regained. No, this was not his home, and he was anything but safe.

Travis shoved raw hands into the pockets of his battered parka as he trudged down Sixteenth Street. He kept watch out of the corners of his eyes, glancing left and right, staying vigilant as he always must. The sky was as gray as the cement beneath his duct-taped sneakers, and hard bits of ice fell from above like shards of glass. He hunched his shoulders toward his ears. The kindly Chinook winds of January had blown east across the plains weeks ago, and the fast-melting snows of spring were still a month away. It was February, it was cold, and he had nowhere to stay for the coming night.

He peered into brightly lit stores as he passed by. The people in them smiled as they purchased designer shoes or sipped steaming coffee drinks. When they were ready, they would dash out to cars already warmed by waiting valets and speed away home. No one lingered out on the street; no one, that was, except those who had nowhere else to go. Travis's feet scuffed to a halt, and he stared into a men's clothing store, thinking how he might go in and get warm for a moment.

But only a moment. Then a clerk, or possibly two, would hurry up to him and speak in low voices that he had to leave, that if he didn't, they would call the police. Travis knew from experience they would do just that. Then he would be back outside, and the brief flirtation with warmth would only make the cold more bitter. It was better not to go in at all.

As he turned away, he caught a reflection of himself in the store window. His beard and hair were shaggy and unkempt: copper flecked with more gray than he ever would have guessed. His face was haggard beyond his thirty-four years, and dirt smudged his coat and ill-fitting jeans. But it was the eyes that would truly startle the clerks: gray, set deep into his face, and as haunted as the streets of this city. They were the eyes of a man with nowhere left to go.

He hadn't planned on being homeless in Denver in February. Then again, he supposed no one did. However, the gold coins he had brought from Eldh had fetched far less than he had hoped they would at the pawnshop on East Colfax where he had finally been able to sell them.

At first, all of the pawnbrokers he approached had seemed suspicious of the coins. He and Grace had sold Eldhish coins for money once before in Denver. Had agents from Duratek visited the area pawnshops, telling their proprietors to be on the lookout for a man or woman selling strange coins?

Travis didn't know. All the same, he went into a hardware store and, in a back aisle, used a file to smooth away the writing on the coins. After that he managed to sell them, but for less than a third of what he had been counting on. Still, it had been enough money to last several weeks if he was careful. He didn't need much—just enough to find out where in the country Duratek had hidden the gate and to get himself there.

However, focused as he was on Duratek Corporation, he had forgotten to worry about more mundane dangers. He would never know who they were or how they found out about the money. Maybe they had seen him selling the coins at the pawnshop earlier that day, or maybe the shop owner himself had told them. It didn't matter. That night he rented a room in a cheap motel. He left to get some food, and when he returned he found the door of his room ajar, the lock broken. Inside, the bed and dresser had been torn apart. The money, which he had placed beneath the Gideon Bible in the nightstand, was gone. All he had were the few dollars in his pocket left over from buying dinner.

After Travis told the motel's manager of the break-in, she had called the police. By the time the black-and-white cruiser pulled into the parking lot, Travis was already walking away down Colfax, head down. He didn't dare let himself believe the police had stopped looking for him and Grace. Without money and with nowhere to go, he had spent the night wandering the cold streets of Denver.

Tonight was going to be no different.

Travis put his back to the store window and started down the street. He supposed he could walk the ten blocks to the homeless shelter, though there was little point. By this late in the day all of the beds would be claimed. He had planned to head over to the shelter earlier, but he had gotten caught up in the books he had been reading at the Denver Public Library, and he had lost track of time.

The library was a neoclassical fortress of cast stone guarding the south edge of downtown, and it was one establishment people like him weren't automatically thrown out of—at least not if they followed the rules. On the coldest days, when he couldn't stand to be outside, he would clean himself up as best he could in the public rest room, and if he sat at a table and quietly read books, he could stay there as long as he wanted.

Of course, the security guards patrolled by frequently and cast hard looks at him, and he knew no matter how tired he was—no matter how much he wanted to lay his head on the table or, better yet, curl up on the carpet that was softer than anything he had slept on in weeks—he knew he didn't risk it. The moment he slept instead of read, he would be loitering, and the guards would toss him out, and maybe write him up so he could never come back. So he read book after book, and when his brain could no longer force the dancing letters into comprehensible order, he would simply stare with his eyes open and turn a page every few minutes. Then, after that poor facsimile of rest, he would blink, get up, and find another book.

Usually when he was at the library he spent his time in the Western history collection. It was there, just that afternoon, in a bound book of crackling yellow newspapers, that he finally found what he had been searching for. It was a copy of the Castle City Clarion from December 26, 1883. His eyes blurred as he read the title of the first entry in the Obituaries section:

Maude Carlyle, aged 35, hosteller, of consumption

Beneath that was a second entry:

Bartholomew Tanner, aged 37, former sheriff, by his own hand, of a revolver wound to the head

Travis ran a shaking finger over the page as he read the obituaries, but they were short and offered little information, and there were no pictures. Which of them had gone first? Only he knew. Tanner had wanted to spend Maude's last days together with her. And when she was done with this life, so was he. Travis stared, not understanding, as dark blots spread over the page, and only after a while did he realize they were his own tears.

He was still staring at the book when a security guard touched him on the shoulder and told him he had to leave. At first Travis thought he must have fallen asleep in his reverie, that he was being kicked out. Then the announcement came over the loudspeaker that the library was closing. He had hastily shelved the book and hurried out into the failing day.

Travis was right. By the time he made it to the homeless shelter there was already a cluster of men waiting outside the door for any last bed that might become available. Some of the men looked at him through narrowed eyes, and he hurried on; he would find no shelter there tonight.

He supposed he could try one of the churches, but most were a long walk away, and they were likely to be filled as well on a night as cold as this—what few still offered shelter for the homeless. Every day, the newspapers Travis retrieved from waste bins bore news darker than the last. More company closures and layoffs, more bombs planted in shopping malls and random shootings, more strange new diseases without cause or cure. The flood of charity had thinned to a trickle; most churches had been forced to shut their doors to the needy and had become beggars themselves.

Most, but not all. As he walked, Travis looked up. It loomed against the skyline north of downtown, on the other side of the river, as sharp and imposing as a mountain. Only this mountain was not made of stone, but rather of steel and glass. The first time he had seen it, the structure had still been under construction. Now light welled forth from within, like the radiance of heaven spilling through bleak clouds, gold and hard—beautiful but forbidding.

Some of the other men Travis had spoken with from time to time said that you could still get charity at the Steel Cathedral. All you had to do was fall on your knees, confess your sins, and pledge your soul, and you'd get a soft bed and all the hot food you could eat. Only if that was true, why was there a line outside the homeless shelter? Maybe it was just that most people didn't want or need to be saved. All they wanted was some food and a safe place to sleep. Because being poor wasn't a sin, and offering up one's soul seemed like an awfully high price to pay for a bunk and a bowl of soup.

Or maybe souls were cheaper than he thought these days—another side effect of the faltering economy.

He kept walking, not sure where he was going, only knowing it would be colder if he stopped moving. His belly rumbled, but he still had three dollars—money earned from collecting bottles and cans out of trash bins—and that would be enough to buy him a hamburger and a cup of coffee. The garish sign of a fast-food establishment loomed in the night. He would eat—slowly, lingering in the harsh fluorescent warmth as long as possible—then he would decide where to go after that.

The glowing yellow sign filled his vision, and he thought of Calavere's great hall, of the fire that would be roaring even now in the massive fireplace, and of the roasted venison and flagons of wine that would lade the tables. However, it wasn't the thought of food and warmth that caused his breath to fog on the air. It was the faces he could picture sitting at the high table. Grace and Aryn on either side of a blustering King Boreas. Lirith, Sareth, and good, solid Durge. Melia and Falken, speaking in mysterious whispers as always. And on opposite ends of the table, a fair-haired knight with green eyes, and a woman in sleek black leather, her eyes as gold as moons. . . .

He clenched his jaw and stared at the fluorescent interior of the fast-food restaurant, letting the light burn away the visions. He couldn't let himself think about them. It would only lead to despair. Or worse yet, to madness. Besides, both Beltan and Vani had made it clear that they no longer needed him. Somehow he had won their love, then just as inexplicably lost it. Only why should he be surprised? He had lost Alice, and Max, and the saloon. When in his life had he ever been able to hold on to anything good?

You don't preserve things, Travis. Not like a doctor, like Grace. You break them, and it's time to quit denying it. Besides, some things need to be broken. That's what Brother Cy said—and Beltan, too.

Only Travis wasn't going to break a world, not like the Witches and the dragon Sfithrisir believed. He was going to break Duratek Corporation and the gate they had created to get to Eldh. And when he was finished, there was something else he was going to break. Some things . . .

He felt a note of curiosity in his mind. The presence of his old friend Jack Graystone was always there, listening to his every thought. But Travis couldn't let Jack know what he was thinking; Jack would only try to stop him. Travis forced the thoughts from his mind, then stepped off the sidewalk and started across the street.

He froze as a black van cruised silently around a corner just ahead. The crescent moon on the side of the van glowed a sickly orange color in the illumination of sodium streetlights. Travis stumbled back, folding himself into the shadow of an empty atrium, and watched.

The vehicle pulled into the parking lot of the fast-food joint. The door opened, and the driver climbed out, a young man in a black uniform, the same crescent moon emblazoned on the back of his nylon jacket. In his hands was a black plastic tablet with a shimmering green screen. The driver looked around, then headed into the restaurant.

Travis had seen them use the tablets before. The man was a technician, coming to check on the electronic systems installed in the restaurant. It seemed as if almost every store these days used Duratek systems for inventory, communication, and security. No one used a credit card, accessed a computer, or made a phone call without Duratek knowing about it—Travis had learned that quickly enough.

The morning after he fled the police at the motel, he fished a newspaper out of a trash can and read about the contract the city of Denver had signed with Duratek Corporation. Despite the positive spin presented in the article, Travis could only imagine it had been a desperate act, one intended to pacify the anxious populace of Denver. Or had the mayor been compelled by other factors—by money or threats?

Whatever the reason, the city had hired Duratek Corporation and their technology to assist the police in maintaining security. And while that might have made the people of Denver feel safer, no doubt that security came with a price beyond mere dollars. Travis could not bring himself to believe the well-being of Denver's citizens was truly Duratek's primary concern.

After that, he had thought about getting out of Denver as quickly as possible. His goal was to find the gate Duratek was using to send its agents across the Void to Eldh. Just where the gate was located, Travis didn't know. Duratek was a multinational conglomerate; it could be anywhere in the world. All he knew was that, somehow, he would find it—and then he would destroy it, along with any hopes they might have of creating another.

A grand plan began to form in his mind. He would seek out their corporate headquarters, he would blast open the polished doors of their boardroom with the power of the Great Stones, and Duratek's highest executives would cower before him. They would tell him where the gate was located, or they would suffer the wrath of his runes.

There was just one problem with the plan: It was utterly hopeless.

When Travis ventured into the bus terminal, he saw sleek Duratek computer systems poised on the ticketing counter. It was the same at the train station, and no doubt at the airport as well. They were monitoring all ways out of the city, keeping watch. Keeping watch for him and Grace.

Not that it made a difference. After the robbery at the motel, he didn't have the money for a cab ride, let alone a trip on a bus or airplane. Nor was getting a job to earn more money an option. Thanks to the new security contract, every business in Denver was required to screen new employees using Duratek's systems.

The plan crumbled in Travis's mind. Wracking his brain, he tried to concoct an alternative, but he came up with nothing. He couldn't use the Stones to destroy the gate if he couldn't get to it. And tempting as the thought was, he couldn't use the Imsari to return to Eldh, because that would only make it easier for the Pale King to gain them and surrender them to Mohg.

As the days passed, it grew increasingly difficult to think about how to destroy the gate and stop Duratek, and his thoughts became occupied instead with more basic concerns, like keeping warm, and wondering how he could get some food in his aching stomach, and where he could find shelter when blue night fell over the city. Duratek wasn't his only enemy now. So were cold, and hunger, and the danger of living on the street.

And those enemies were winning.

Inside the restaurant, the technician pulled a stylus from the tablet and began writing on its screen as he spoke to the clerk behind the counter. There would be no going into the burger place now. The technician wouldn't be so caught up in his work that he wouldn't notice a homeless man come in, and Travis had no doubt his photo and description—as well as Grace's—had been distributed to every employee who worked for Duratek Corporation. Much as he wanted to, he couldn't believe they had given up searching for him. What would they do if they found him and the two Stones in his pocket?

Travis had no desire to find out. Despite his growling stomach, he turned and hurried away down the street.

17.

Half an hour later, cold and stiff from walking, Travis pushed through the door of a bar in an industrial neighborhood just far enough from downtown to have rebuffed any encroaching gentrification. The air was sour with smoke and disinfectant, and the decor was not so much cozy as claustrophobic. However, the establishment had one compelling feature; on the bar, rather than a sleek computer unit, was a cash register that looked like it hadn't been wiped off once in its decade-spanning history. This bar didn't use Duratek systems, and that was why Travis came here from time to time.

That, and the fact that the beer was cheap and they served free peanuts.

The place was all but deserted, and what few patrons there were seemed more intent on their glasses than on Travis. He sat at the bar, showed his money to the bartender, and ordered a beer. The man plunked down a glass in front of him, pale brew slopping over the edge and onto the scarred wood of the bar. In this place, they didn't bother with niceties like cocktail napkins.

The bartender halfheartedly dabbed at the spill with a grimy rag, then started to turn away.

Travis cleared his throat. “Peanuts?”

The bartender glared at him, then grabbed a big bowl from behind the bar and pushed it across the bar. “Only as long as you're drinking.”

Travis nodded. He could drink slowly.

He took a sip of the beer—it was none too fresh—then shelled and ate boiled peanuts with deliberate motions. It wasn't much of a meal, but it was better than nothing, and better than he had gotten some days. When the bartender wasn't looking, he shoved a handful of peanuts into a coat pocket.

I must say, this is absolute madness, Travis, Jack's voice spoke in his mind. You shouldn't be here, scrounging for crumbs. You're a runelord, by Olrig—you should be back on Eldh, standing with Queen Grace against the Pale King.

These words pricked at Travis's heart; he hated feeling like he had abandoned Grace to face her fate alone. However, Jack was wrong. Eldh was Grace's world; she belonged there. But this was his world, and if it was up to her to fight the Pale King on Eldh, then it was up to him to stop Duratek here on Earth.

Only he didn't see how he could. Even after everything he had learned since returning to Denver, up until tonight he had still clung to a fragment of hope. However, it was as if being forced to run from the burger joint had leeched the last drops of resolve from him. He was tired and cold and trapped, and if he couldn't get out of Denver, there was nothing he could do to stop Duratek.

Yet that didn't mean there was nothing at all he could do. Maybe he could help Grace and Eldh after all. Because if Plan A wasn't going to work, there was always Plan B. . . .

What are you intending, Travis? An anxious note sounded in Jack's voice. You're not hiding something from me, are you? I gather that destroying Duratek's gate was your Plan A. So what in the world is this Plan B?

“Never mind, Jack,” Travis said.

The bartender shot him a dark look, then turned up the sound on the television above the bar. The local news was on—the usual parade of unrest, violence, and disaster.

Travis ignored it, gazing down at his hands. A thin scar that ran across the back of his right hand—the only trace left of the wound through which a drop of the scarab's blood had entered. The power of blood sorcery flowed in him now, along with the power of rune magic. Travis didn't know what that meant, only that there had to be a way to use that power. Blood sorcery had its source in the morndari, the ravenous, bodiless spirits who inhabited the Void between worlds. Their power was that of consuming, of destruction; he had learned that when he faced the demon—one of the morndari bound in rock—in the Etherion. Could there be a way to use sorcery to do what he intended?

“—and her report on more rumored disappearances among the homeless,” blared a tinny male voice.

Travis glanced up. The bartender had turned up the volume on the TV another notch. Doe-eyed local reporter Anna Ferraro was on-screen, standing in front of Union Station downtown. Travis had noticed before how men tended to stop and stare vacantly every time Anna Ferraro appeared on TV, though he couldn't quite understand the attraction. She was pretty in a thin and fawnish way, but there was something about her—a calculating air—that left him cold. She reported about death and disaster with a glint in her eye, as if she could see the ratings going up even as she spoke. The bartender remained fixated on the screen, and Travis took the opportunity to sneak another handful of peanuts into his coat pocket, cleaning out the bowl.

On the TV, Anna Ferraro launched into her report with apparent relish. “That's right, Dirk. I'm here in downtown Denver tonight, where I've been speaking with people who don't have homes as you or I do, and who actually live on the streets.” She wrinkled her nose in an expression that was at once sympathetic and repulsed. “But it's not just the cold that these men and woman are worrying about tonight. Many of the homeless are telling stories about how others who live on the street have vanished without a trace in recent days. There are unconfirmed reports of at least seven missing, and the number may be higher. However, the Denver police have yet to take any action.”

She lowered her microphone and looked out of the TV expectantly. After an awkwardly long moment, the report cut to videotape of a police officer—a Sergeant Otero, according to the text at the bottom of the screen—standing outside the Denver police station, a microphone jammed in his face. “—and we're not taking action because no official missing person reports have been filed,” he said.

A cutaway to Anna Ferraro, a coy expression on her heavily madeup face. “But isn't it true that an address and telephone number are required to file such a report? And homeless people, as I'm sure you know, don't have addresses.”

The sergeant squinted, obviously annoyed. “We take all reports seriously. However, right now there is no evidence that anyone is actually missing—”

From the way his lips moved, the sergeant had gone on to say something more, but his words were muted, and the scene cut back to Anna Ferraro in front of Union Station.

“There you have it,” she said triumphantly. “Right now the police are refusing to help in this matter, so the homeless of Denver can do nothing but wonder tonight.” She gave the camera a long look. “And fear. This is Anna Ferraro reporting in downtown Denver. Back to you at the station, Dirk.”

Dirk the anchorman looked startled, then smiled blankly at the camera. “Thanks for that fascinating report, Anna. Coming up next, we have an exclusive interview with Denver's deputy mayor. She's going to tell us how the test of the new security program, launched last month in association with Duratek Corporation, is making our city safer than ever. After that, we've got the latest weather forecast. It looks like it's going to be cold, cold, cold over the next few days, so—”

The bartender turned the sound back down. He turned around and gave the empty bowl of peanuts in front of Travis a suspicious look, then swapped it out with a full one. Travis smiled and took another sip of his tasteless beer.

He didn't know if the reports of disappearances among the homeless had any truth to them. At the shelter the other day, he had overheard a group of men talking in whispers about others who had vanished, but the stories were second- and third-hand. Whether the rumors were true or not, one thing Travis did know was that he wasn't safe in Denver. Nobody was.

Every day the newspaper headlines blared word of the latest shootings, wars, and biological scares. People were constantly afraid—afraid of anything and anyone that was at all strange or unfamiliar. When people were afraid, they were all too willing to give up their freedom in exchange for the illusion of feeling safe. Just as the people of Denver had done by inking that contract with Duratek. They believed they were safe from the monsters now, but they were wrong. They had locked the monster in the room with them.

Travis's gaze focused back on the television. The news was over, and now the image on the screen was that of a man in a white suit. His black hair swept up from his forehead, shellacked into a glistening wave. The volume was too low to hear what he was saying, but he prowled back and forth on the stage, gesticulating with stiff energy. A choir of bland-faced young men and women was arranged behind him, though they weren't singing.

The scene cut to a shot of a rapt audience. Mouths hung open, and tears streamed down faces. The camera panned across the seated crowd, and Travis saw glass and sculpted metal soaring to a ceiling so dizzying it made him think of the Dome of the Etherion in Tarras.

So it was the Steel Cathedral, only seen from the inside. Travis hadn't realized just how big it really was. There must have been two thousand people in that audience. The scene cut back to the man onstage, pulling in so tight that Travis could see the way his pancake makeup cracked as he spoke. The man seemed at once excited, angry, and exultant. A computer-generated title appeared at the bottom of the screen:

Sage Carson, Pastor of the Steel Cathedral

In a way, the pastor reminded Travis of Brother Cy. Both were tall, edging toward lanky, and both obviously knew how to hold an audience in thrall. However, Sage Carson's white attire was modern and well tailored, unlike Brother Cy's dusty black coffin suit. And while Brother Cy's angry preaching had always been softened by sorrow, even without being able to hear him, Travis could tell this Sage Carson exuded only do-as-I-say-or-be-damned righteousness. By the looks on their faces, the audience was eating it up. But then, deep down, most people liked being told what to do. It was so much easier than thinking.

“So are you going to buy another round or not?” The bartender's growling voice startled Travis.

“No, sorry,” he muttered.

His glass was empty. He must have finished the last sip without thinking. He stood and shoved his hands in his coat pockets. A stray peanut fell out, and the bartender glared at him. Travis hurried toward the door.

“Don't come back, you hear?” the bartender called out after him.

Travis headed out into the frigid night. The door of the bar shut behind him: one more way that was barred to him.

But the way's not barred, Travis. You could go back to Eldh. All you have to do is use the Stones. They have the power to take you there. Jack said they do.

For a moment he let the image of Calavere's great hall fill him. He imagined Grace smiling, drawing him close to the fire, handing him a cup of spiced wine.

Then a different vision rose up within him, blotting out the image of friends and fire like a black cloud: the sun went dark, the ground shook and cracked apart, the walls of Calavere came tumbling down, and darkness swallowed the world.

No, he wouldn't let that happen. Maybe he couldn't get to Duratek, but he would keep Mohg from getting the Great Stones. He gripped the iron box in his pocket and headed into the frosty night.

Ten minutes later, he stood at the top of an embankment. Below, the half-frozen waters of the Platte River oozed among small islands of sand and gravel. There was no place in downtown where it was safe to start a fire; lighting one was guaranteed to bring the police—along with fingerprint scanners networked to Duratek databases. However, there were a pair of cement-and-steel viaducts here. If he started a fire underneath one of the viaducts, no one would be able to see it from above.

He climbed over a cement barrier and half walked, half slid down the weed-covered embankment. As he reached the bottom, the sounds of the city receded, and the sluggish murmur of water rose on the air. Gravel and ice crunched under his sneakers as he walked toward one of the viaducts. The space under the bridge was veiled by a curtain of shadow even his preternaturally sensitive eyes could not penetrate.

That was good; if there wasn't already a fire beneath the viaduct, it meant no one else had already staked out the place. Hands clamped under his armpits, he trudged across weeds and gravel, then passed into the darkness beneath the viaduct.

The darkness moved. Before Travis could react, an arm coiled around his throat, and a hand clamped over his mouth, muffling his cry of surprise as well as any runes he might have spoken. He reached up, to try to pull away the hands of his unseen attacker, then froze as something glinted in front of his face.

It was a knife, gleaming in a stray beam of moonlight.

“You don't belong here,” hissed a man's voice, and the arm tightened around his neck as the knife moved closer.

18.

They must have been waiting for him to step into the shadows. They would have been able to see him walking toward them in the cast-off cityglow, while he had not seen them in the blackness of the viaduct. However, now that he was in the darkness, his eyes—made anew and keener than before in the fires of Krondisar—were starting to adjust. He could just make out the silhouette of the man who held the knife. Travis jerked hard, half-breaking the grip of the other who held him.

“Keep him still!”

“I'm trying,” came a voice from behind. “He's stronger than he looks.”

Despite the powerful arms that gripped him, Travis might have broken free, except his shoes hit a patch of gravel, skittering out from beneath him. He started to fall, but strong hands hauled him back to his feet. A crunching sound filled Travis's skull as all of the vertebrae in his neck popped.

“Didn't you hear me, you big moron? I said hold him still!”

“You're not going to kill him, are you?”

“Why not? He isn't a cop or anything. He's one of us. I've seen the news—the police could care less what happens to people like us. What's one more disappearance to them?”

“What will we do with the body?”

“I say we cut it up. There are plenty of stray dogs down here by the river. They should take care of the pieces.”

Travis's heart lurched as he felt the touch of metal against his cheek. Frantic, he twisted his head, and for a second one of the hands flailed, trying to clamp back down on his mouth.

A second was all Travis needed. “Dur!” he said through clenched teeth. There was a cry of pain as the knife went flying away into the dark, followed by a plop as it landed in the icy waters of the Platte.

“What the hell . . . ?” The shadow in front of him shook a hand as if it had been stung.

Travis felt the arms holding him go slack. This was his chance. He drove backward with his elbows and was rewarded with an exhalation of pain and surprise. A forward lunge broke him free, but his legs were shakier than he thought. He stumbled and fell to his knees.

“Sar!” he gasped, pressing both of his hands against the ground.

The rune was weak, like the rune of iron. The Stones were sealed in the iron box; their power could not help him. However, the magic was enough to lift a dozen pebbles from the ground and send them whizzing through the air. Soft thuds sounded as rocks pelted skin, and yelps of pain rang out.

Travis gained his feet. His eyes had finally adjusted, and he could see the two men. The one who had held the knife spun in circles, yowling; he was a small, pudgy man with rounded shoulders. The other, the one who had grabbed Travis from behind, was tall and scarecrow thin, his long arms waving like the blades of a windmill as he tried to bat away the flying stones. Travis knew he should run, but he found himself laughing instead.

“Stop it!” The shorter man shouted, his voice high-pitched and rasping. “Stop throwing stones!”

“I have,” Travis said. The magic had faded away, leaving only an itch in his right hand.

“Oh.” The small man stopped spinning.

“How did you do that?” the other man said, his long arms falling back at his sides. His voice had a halting yet musical cadence to it. “You weren't throwing the stones. You said something, and they started flying.”

Travis took a step back. He should get out of here; these men were killers. “Why did you pull a knife on me?”

The little one spat a wad of phlegm. “Get a clue, dipstick. We were playing with you, that's all—giving you a little scare for invading our place, and maybe making you think you were going to be the next guy to disappear.”

“I told you it was a bad idea,” the tall man said.

“Well it's not my fault this jerk doesn't have a sense of humor.” The little one glared at Travis. “You didn't have to go all psycho on us.”

Travis shoved his right hand into his pocket. “Sorry. I didn't mean to . . .” There was no use trying to explain. “Sorry.” He turned around and started across the gravel.

“Wait!” Heavy boots sounded on gravel behind him. “Wait a minute. You don't have to go.”

Travis hesitated, then turned back. The tall man gazed at him with placid brown eyes. His long black hair was streaked with gray. “It's cold tonight, but the viaduct blocks most of the wind. You should stay here with us.”

The other man danced a jig of anger on the gravel. “Holy crap, what did you go and do that for, Marty?”

“Maybe he can start a fire,” the tall one, Marty, called back. He smiled at Travis. “We haven't had any luck. The wood is so cold it won't catch.”

“What makes you think I can do it?”

“You look like a man who can start fires,” Marty said, then turned and started back toward the viaduct.

Travis stood still, not sure what to make of those words.

You should leave. You can't trust anybody—you can't know who's working for Duratek.

Even as he thought this, a chill wind whistled over the river, slicing through his thrift-store parka. He drew in a breath, then ducked his head and trudged back toward the dimness of the viaduct.

There was a niche in the cement retaining wall beneath the bridge where the men had set up their makeshift camp. However, it was anything but warm; their breath formed frozen ghosts on the air. Marty introduced himself, along with his associate. The short man's name was Jay, and his sparse black beard framed what seemed to be a permanent scowl. Travis gave them his first name and shook Marty's big hand, but Jay turned his back when Travis tried to repeat the gesture.

“Never mind him,” Marty said. “He has a thing about certain kinds of people.”

Travis pulled his hand back. “What kinds of people do you mean?”

“The living kind.” Marty squatted down beside a pile of unburned sticks. “So, you can get it going, can't you?”

Travis gazed down at the wood. “I suppose I can.”

Despite the darkness and his turned back, it was impossible to hide what he was doing. He held a hand toward the sticks and whispered the rune of fire. A tendril of smoke curled up from the wood, but that was it. His rune magic was pathetically weak here on Earth, and while it would have been far stronger if he opened the iron box, he didn't dare. He might end up setting them all on fire. Instead, he spoke the rune with greater force.

“Krond!” Flames leaped up, bright and consuming.

Marty grinned, the sharp planes of his face illuminated by golden light.

“How did you do that?” Jay stood above Travis. “You didn't even use a match. Marty's right—all you've got to do is say some mumbo jumbo and stuff happens. What was that word you said? Tell it to me so I can start a fire.”

Travis stared into the flames. “It's not that simple.”

“You mean you just don't want to tell me,” Jay said, his scowl deepening. “You want to keep the secret for yourself, don't you, you greedy bastard?”

“Believe me, if I could give it to you, I would.”

Those words seemed to startle Jay. He opened his mouth, closed it again, then sat next to the fire.

Marty laughed. “You really must be able to do magic, Travis. I've never seen anyone put Jay at a loss for words.”

The little man glared at Marty. “And I've never heard you be such a big blabbermouth before, so maybe it is voodoo.” He turned his hot gaze on Travis. “You're pretty good with the fire stuff. Got any words that'll magic up some food?”

Travis shook his head.

“Well, then what good are you?” Jay's tone was disgusted, but a trace of a smile showed inside his beard as he held his stubby hands toward the fire and rubbed them together.

“My uncle told a story,” Marty said, “of a man he knew who could use sticks to find lost jewelry, and I knew a pretty woman who could see the future in a deck of cards. But I've never heard of making a fire with a word.”

“I didn't make the fire,” Travis said. “Fire is just a transformation. When something burns, all it's doing is moving from one state to another. The heat and light were locked inside the wood all along. All I did was release them.”

Jay let out a snort. “Good grief, that sounds like the kind of crap old Sparky is always dumping on anyone stupid enough to listen to him. Still the professor, even though the college gave him the boot years ago. It's all something is nothing, and nothing is everything, and the universe was once the size of a walnut, only now it's flying apart. It makes my brain hurt.” He pulled off his stocking cap and rubbed his bald head.

Travis felt a tightness in his chest. “Who is this Sparky person?”

“A smart man,” Marty said before Jay could say anything. “He's usually in Civic Center Park in the morning. Although if it snows tonight, he might not be there. His chair gets stuck in the drifts. We can take you to him in the morning, if you'd like.”

“What do you mean we?” Jay snapped. “I'm not going near that freak. He makes me feel . . . weird.”

“Why is that?” Travis said.

Jay shook his head. “Lots of reasons. All the junk he says. Like the universe is so freaking big, and we're just stupid little specks. But mostly it's his eyes. It's like he's seen things nobody else has. Things maybe no one shouldn't see.” Jay licked his lips. “Kind of like your eyes.”

Travis opened his mouth, but he had no reply.

“We should get some more wood for the fire,” Marty said, standing. “We don't want it to go out on a night like this.”

They returned to the viaduct with two pilfered loading pallets to break up for wood—Travis helped Jay with one, while Marty carried the other by himself—and spent a cold but bearable night huddled close to the fire. For a while they spoke in low voices, and Travis learned that Marty and Jay had both come to Denver that summer on a train from Topeka. The two men had met a couple of years ago in Ohio and had been traveling together ever since, slowly making their way west. Travis asked them how long they would keep traveling.

“Until we run out of country to cross,” Jay said, firelight shining in his eyes. “Then we'll spend our days on a California beach lying in the sand, eating oysters, and watching the ladies walk by. That's our plan, isn't it, Marty?”

Marty said nothing and used his big hands to break off more wood from one of the pallets. Finally, it grew too late and too cold for talking. At Jay's suggestion, each took a turn keeping watch while the others dozed.

“No creep is going to get us like those other guys who disappeared,” Jay said. “That's why Marty and I travel together. It's safer that way.” He thrust a finger at Travis. “It's a bad idea to try to go it alone in this world. If that's what you were thinking, then you need to think again.”

“I'll take the first watch,” Travis said.

While the two men slept on ragged blankets by the fire, Travis pressed a hand to the cement viaduct and whispered Krond over and over, until waves of heat radiated from the retaining wall, pushing back the frigid air a few more inches.

After midnight he woke Marty, whose turn it was to keep watch, then he curled up next to the fire, wishing he hadn't sold his old mistcloak in Tarras over a century ago.

The world was filled with gray light when Travis opened his eyes.

“Well, well, it looks like the wizard is finally awake,” said a sardonic voice.

For a moment Travis was confused. Everything was the soft color of fog. Was he back in the Gray Tower of the Runespeakers? Master Larad was always mocking him and his power, his scarred face at once disgusted and amused. Except that couldn't be right. All-master Oragien had banished Larad from the Gray Tower for his treachery, and Travis hadn't seen the sharp-tongued runespeaker since.

The sound of thunder rumbled above. Travis sat up and rubbed his eyes, and the world smeared into focus. Marty was rolling up the blankets, and Jay poked at the ashes of the fire with a stick. Sunlight turned the icy-clogged water of the Platte a soft pink, and flakes of cement fell like snow as another truck hurtled over the viaduct above.

“I don't suppose you could get the fire started again, Mr. Wizard,” Jay said.

Travis shook his head. “The wood's all gone.” It was hard to speak; his jaw was stiff as a rusty hinge.

“What about what you did to the cement wall?” Marty said.

Travis winced. The tall man must not have been asleep after all when Travis worked that magic.

“What do you mean, what he did to the wall?” Jay said, glaring at Marty.

“He means this.” Travis pressed his hand against the retaining wall and muttered Krond several times, until a comforting warmth radiated from the hot cement.

Jay's eyes bulged from their sockets. “For the love of Pete, how did you do that?”

“The same way I started the fire last night.”

“I thought that was just a trick. You know, like a magician pulling a rabbit out of his hat.” Jay clamped his hat tighter on his head, as if the force of his surprise might send it flying. “I didn't know you really could do magic.”

Travis glanced at Marty, but the tall man appeared as placid as ever. “Now you do.”

“Man, that feels good.” Jay held his bare hands close to the wall. “I've got to tell someone about this.”

“Don't,” Travis said.

He hadn't meant the word to sound so harsh. However, Jay took a startled step back. Even Marty raised his eyebrows.

“Sure, man,” Jay said, holding up his hands. “Whatever you want. Just don't do anything crazy.”

Travis cringed. “No, I didn't mean it like that. I won't do anything to . . . I won't hurt you.”

“I know you won't,” Jay said, but all the while as they finished gathering their things, his small eyes kept flicking in Travis's direction.

“It didn't snow last night,” Marty said, shouldering his frayed backpack. “Sparky will be at Civic Center.”

“This early?” Travis said.

“He likes to watch the sunrise.”

“Like I told you, he's a goddamn loon,” Jay said. The little man wasn't carrying anything; he had stowed his blanket in Marty's pack. “But if we're going to go, then let's go. Do you have any money, Mr. Wizard?”

Travis shook his head. He had spent his last three dollars at the bar.

Jay snorted. “Now why doesn't that surprise me? Well, you provided the heater last night, so I'll buy us all a cup of coffee on the way. Then we'll call it even.”

Despite his weariness, Travis couldn't help grinning. He didn't know these men, and he doubted they were trustworthy, but all the same it was good not to be alone in the world. In this world. The two men started up the embankment, Jay taking two steps for each one of Marty's lanky strides, and Travis followed after them.

19.

As promised, Jay bought them all Styrofoam cups of coffee at a street vendor's cart at Colfax and Broadway, and they walked beneath a neoclassical colonnade into the broad circle of Civic Center Park just as the sun set fire to the gold-plated dome of the Capitol building.

“It looks like Tarras,” Travis murmured, shading his eyes against the fiery glare of the dome.

“It looks like what?” Jay said, squinting at him.

Travis shook his head. “Nothing.” He glanced at Marty. “Do you see your friend?”

“Hell's bells, I told you he's not our friend,” Jay said. His pudgy hand tightened around his cup, so that coffee shot out the hole in the lid.

“I think he's over there,” Marty said. He started across the brown grass, moving fast on his scarecrow legs, so that Travis had to march briskly to keep up, while Jay was forced to break into a terrier-like trot.

Travis saw him when they were halfway across the park. He had positioned his wheelchair in a patch of sunlight, and he basked in the morning radiance, eyes closed. They came to a stop before him, but he didn't open his eyes. He was a grizzled man, about fifty years old. His body was a shapeless lump wrapped in a canvas coat over multiple sweaters, and his legs were short stumps ending at mid thigh, each one covered with a Denver Broncos knit ski cap that matched the one on his head. A metal box with a profusion of dials and knobs rested on his lap. It emitted a low hiss of static.

“Hey, Sparky,” Jay said. “What's up?”

“The sun,” the man in the wheelchair said, a crooked-toothed grin showing through his matted beard.

Jay scowled at him. “So I noticed.”

“Did you?” the man replied, his eyes still shut. “Then you're a smart man, Jay. It took the writings of Galileo to finally convince the world once and for all that it was not the sun that rose in the sky, but rather the Earth that was turning as it revolved around the sun. And even then poor Galileo was arrested by the pope for the crime of heresy. Tell me, would you suffer the same—going to prison for refusing to disavow something you know to be true?”

Jay snorted. “Crap on a cracker, I told you he makes my brain hurt.”

The man in the wheelchair laughed and opened his eyes. “That's a good sign, Jay. It means it's working. Hello, Marty. It's nice to see you—you always remind me silence is the better part of wisdom. Who's your friend here?”

“This is Travis,” Marty said. “He wants to talk to you.”

“Nice to meet you, Travis.” He held out a gloved hand. “My name is Caleb Sparkman.”

Jay snorted. “Sparkman, Sparky—what's the difference?”

Travis shook his hand. “I hope we're not bothering you.”

“Not in the least. Rather, you're a fine distraction.”

Travis glanced around the deserted park. “Distraction? From what?”

“From the voices,” Marty said.

Travis pulled his hand back. Sparkman smiled up at him. “Don't worry, friend. They're not real. Although they can be quite annoying.”

Jay let out a bark of laughter. “A little more than just annoying.” He circled behind the wheelchair and leaned on the handles. “See, here's the story, Travis. The professor here used to teach at some of the community colleges around town. Physics and math and crap like that. Only then the voices started talking in his head, and they told him to do stuff.”

Sparkman folded his hands and nodded, listening to the story right along with the others.

Jay kept talking, rolling the chair forward a few inches, then back a few. “At first it was just weird little stuff, you know, like shredding all of his files so no one could know what he was thinking, and setting up a machine to make some kind of radio interference so the security cameras in his classroom wouldn't work. Only then it got worse, and the voices told him parts of his own body were being used to track him. Isn't that right, Sparky?”

“It is,” he said in an agreeable tone.

“So you know what he did next?” Jay said, eyes glittering. “He cinched a belt around each of his thighs for a tourniquet. Then he took a hatchet, just like the voices told him to do, and he chopped off his own legs.”

Travis staggered back a step. He should have tried to hide the horror he knew was written across his face, but he couldn't.

“That's not quite accurate, Jay,” Sparkman said, his tone pleasantly argumentative. “The hatchet was too small for the job, as it turned out—I was a good mathematician but a poor carpenter. I lost consciousness before I completed the task the voices gave me. One of my students came upon me in my office, and I was taken to a hospital, where doctors completed the amputations.”

Jay laughed and clapped his hands. Marty was silent, gazing at the gold dome of the Capitol.

The bitter coffee churned in Travis's stomach. “You were ill, weren't you?”

Sparkman nodded. “Very much so. But the doctors helped me understand the effects of my psychosis. Knowledge is a powerful thing—a tool that can help you accomplish any task—and it helped me control my illness.”

Jay clapped him on the shoulders. “But you still hear the voices, don't you, Sparky?”

“I always will. But I've learned not to listen.” He smiled up at Travis. “Still, even after all these years, it's hard to ignore them. They hate not being listened to, and they can get rather vociferous. Which is why the distraction of conversation is most welcome.”

Travis turned his head, letting the morning light blind him. Shock melted into sorrow and understanding, and he let out a sigh. What would they think if they knew he heard voices in his head as well—the voices of Jack and all the runelords who had gone before him?

Marty touched Travis's arm. “You should tell Sparkman about your magic.”

“That's right,” Jay chimed in. “You should have seen it, Sparky. It was freaking amazing. He started a fire just by saying a word.”

“Really?” Sparkman appeared interested but not surprised. He looked up at Travis. “You're a magician, then. Were you employing some sort of legerdemain?”

Jay's eyebrows drew together in a thick scowl. “It was no trick, Sparky. I saw it with my own eyes.”

“I'm afraid our eyes can deceive us right along with any of our senses,” Sparkman said.

Travis sighed. It was wrong, he shouldn't do magic without grave need. Except maybe this was important after all. He held out his hand, palm up, and whispered a rune. “Lir.”

It condensed instantly from thin air to hover above the palm of his hand: a small orb of light, not gold like the morning sun, but silver-blue. With a flick of his finger, he sent it whizzing through the air. The orb flew between Marty and Jay as the little man swore. It made several orbits around Sparkman's head, then returned to Travis's hand. He squeezed his fingers around it, and the light vanished.

Sparkman's eyes were wide now. He wheeled his chair closer to Travis. “Absolutely fascinating. It looked holographic, only you could move it at will. And unless you've hidden a laser up your sleeve, I have no idea how you created it.”

Travis shrugged. “I'm not sure I know, either. But it doesn't matter right now. That's not what I want to talk to you about.”

“And what do you want to talk about?”

Travis licked his lips. “Destroying something.”

Jay cast a startled look at Marty and Sparkman. “Hell, Travis—you're not going to go and try to blow something up, are you? People could get hurt.”

“No,” Travis said, holding a hand to his head. It ached from the cheap caffeine, and from fear. “I don't want anyone to get hurt. That's what I'm trying to keep from happening. And that's why I've got to destroy them.”

“Destroy what?” Marty said.

Travis wrapped his fingers around the iron box in his pocket. “I can't tell you.”

Marty's face was solemn. “Are they something evil?”

Travis shook his head. “No, not in and of themselves. But they could be used to create great evil if the Pale . . . if they fell into the wrong hands.”

Jay gave him a cockeyed look. “That sounds like something old Sparky here would say. Are you sure you're not hearing voices, too?”

Travis almost laughed. He was quite certain Jack would not want him to do what he intended.

And just what are you intending to do, may I ask? came Jack's testy voice. You've been awfully secretive lately.

Travis ignored him.

Sparkman stroked his beard, his expression thoughtful. “Destroying things is a perilous profession. Einstein showed us that a small amount of mass is equivalent to an enormous amount of energy. For example, did you know the nucleus of an atom has less mass than the sum of all the particles within it?”

Travis was beginning to agree with Jay. Talking to Sparkman made his head hurt. “But that seems impossible. Where is the missing mass?”

“It's not missing at all,” Sparkman said, smiling as he clapped his gloved hands together. “You see, breaking apart matter releases the force that binds that matter together. The difference in mass is the potential energy that would be released if the nucleus was broken apart.” He pulled his hands away from one another. “Of course, you would never be able to break apart just one nucleus. Free particles would strike adjacent atoms, causing a chain reaction. And if that reaction is uncontrolled, you have—”

“—a nuclear bomb,” Travis said.

Sparkman nodded. “At the very least. But then, even today's nuclear weapons create imperfect chain reactions. If the reaction was perfect, there would be nothing to stop it from destroying the world. Or even all the universe.”

Travis felt sick. There was something important here, something about what Sparkman had just said. However, before he could grasp the answer, a sharp crackle of static broke the silence, followed by a series of beeps and clicks.

“Oh, good,” Sparkman said, eyes lighting up. “Here they are now.” He fiddled with several knobs on the metal box in his lap. The static faded, and the beeps and clicks grew clearer. “They've been quiet all morning. I was beginning to think they'd gone, but they must still be here.”

Travis shook his head. “Who must still be here?”

“Why, the aliens of course.”

“The aliens?”

“The ones who've been abducting homeless people for their experiments.” Sparkman patted the metal box. “I put together this special radio so I could monitor their transmissions, and I've been listening to them for weeks now. But don't worry—I've made sure they can't track this receiver. Or my thoughts.” He pulled off his stocking cap. His bald head was covered with a crinkled dome of aluminum foil.

Jay let out a crowing laugh. “See, Travis? I told you old Sparky was a nut.”

“What are the aliens talking about now?” Marty said, his brown eyes serious.

Sparkman bent his head over the receiver, listening. “I'm not certain. This seems to be some sort of encoded data transmission.”

Travis's mouth had gone dry. He knelt beside the wheelchair. “If they communicate in code, how do you know they're the ones who are abducting people in Denver?”

“This receiver is rather low power,” Sparkman said. “It's range is quite limited, so I know the aliens can't be more than a few miles away. What's more, I've been able to understand some of what they say. They must have collaborators here, because often they speak in English, though even then they use code words in their alien tongue. Still, I've heard enough to be certain the aliens are the ones behind the abductions.”

Travis wanted to tell Jay and Marty it was time to go, but before he could speak muffled voices emanated from the receiver.

Sparkman's eyes lit up. “Here we go! Listen.”

He turned a knob, and the words grew clearer. “—and have been ordered back to base. Report there as soon as you can. I believe we're to receive new—” The man's voice was lost in another crackle of interference.

“There,” Sparkman looked up, smiling. “Did you hear that?”

Jay rolled his eyes. “Hear what? Half of that was gibberish. Did you understand it, Marty?”

The tall man shook his head. “Only a little. They used words I've never heard before.”

“That's their alien language,” Sparkman said, nodding.

Travis stared at the receiver. If half of that had been spoken in an alien tongue, why had all of it made sense to him? He dug into his pocket, pulled out the silver half-coin, and set it on the ground.

Jay frowned at him. “What are you doing, Mr. Wizard?”

“Turn it up,” Travis said.

Sparkman fiddled with the knobs. Again static phased into words, only this time Travis didn't understand all of them.

“—and heading to the taldaka location now.”

Another voice, a woman's, replied. “Any indication that the senlath has—?”

The words were lost in a low hiss. However, it had been enough. Travis picked up the half-coin and slipped it into his pocket as he stood. He hadn't understood the non-English words; he hadn't made an effort to learn the language, unlike Grace. Yet even without the magic of the half-coin, they had sounded familiar—familiar enough to know they were Eldhish. But who would use Eldhish words on Earth?

You heard Sparkman. They're using the words for a code. And what better code than a language from another world? No one would ever be able to decipher it.

Only Travis was certain the voices didn't belong to aliens. They belonged to people from Earth. They had sent operatives to the Dominions; surely they had learned much about the culture and language there.

It's Duratek, Travis. They're the ones Sparkman has been hearing. They're the ones who are abducting people.

But that didn't make any sense. What would a multinational corporation need with a bunch of homeless people? Besides, no matter how smart he was, Sparkman was surely crazy. Travis tried to think, but before he could Marty spoke.

“We should go to the shelter,” the tall man said. “If we don't go now, they'll run out of breakfast.”

Jay pawed at the sleeve of his jacket to bare a Timex watch, its face barely visible beneath the fogged crystal. “Damn, we've got to go. Come on, Travis.”

The idea of food made Travis's stomach churn, but he didn't have the energy to resist as Jay tugged at his sleeve. “What about you, Professor Sparkman?” he said.

Sparkman reached into his pocket and pulled out a bagel. “I'm all set. And look.” He stuck a finger though the hole. “It's just like the missing mass in an atom's nucleus.”

Travis clamped his jaw shut, and Jay started pulling him across the park after Marty. Sparkman waved after them, then took a bite of his bagel and bent his head over the receiver.

“Put a move on it,” Jay snapped. “I can't believe we wasted so much time talking to Sparky. All of that thinking puts me in a bad mood.”

“It makes me hungry,” Marty said.

Jay punched his arm. “Everything makes you hungry.”

20.

Dawn was still an hour off, and the castle was silent as Grace made her way down empty corridors. Cold poured off the stone walls, and she had thrown only a shawl over her nightgown before stealing from her chamber.

This is stupid, Doctor. How are you supposed to lead an army if you catch pneumonia?

She was to ride forth from Calavere later that morning to begin the journey north to Gravenfist Keep. Behind her would follow the woefully small force that had come in answer to Boreas's call for war. As if Grace knew the first thing about commanding an army.

Maybe it's better so few answered the call to muster, Grace. At least this way you're only leading five hundred men to certain death, rather than five thousand.

All night she had lain awake in bed, and she had thought it simply fear of the task that lay before her that made sleep an impossibility. However, as gray light seeped beneath the shutters, she realized it was something else that weighed on her mind, something that had to do with her trek into Gloaming Wood three days ago. Then, as the light changed from gray to silver, it came to her.

You seek a key, do you not, the forest queen had said, one that can aid you in the war you must fight? Sit in the chair that is forbidden to all others, and the key shall be revealed to you. . . .

She had slipped from the bed, careful not to wake Tira, who was curled in a tight ball under the covers, and without making a sound had opened then shut the chamber door.

Now she padded through the castle's entry hall and down a passage until she reached an enormous oaken door carved with the crest of Calavere: a pair of swords crossed beneath a crown with nine points. Only the crown shouldn't have nine points anymore, it occurred to Grace. Two of the castle's towers were gone, fallen to rubble. Would there ever be a time to repair them?

There wouldn't be if she didn't do this. Grace pushed against the door and opened it just enough to slip into the space beyond. Once in, she leaned against the door to shut it, grateful that some servant must have oiled the hinges in the recent past.

Enough light came through the high windows to let her make out the rows of raised seats that ringed the chamber, as well as the circular table that dominated the center. This was the place where the Council of Kings had been held over a year ago. The space had been used little since then, and the air was frigid and musty. Grace hurried to the table, then glanced over her shoulder. She felt like a teenager sneaking into school after hours.

That's ridiculous, Grace. If the forest queen was right, then you belong here.

She walked around the table. Inlaid in the center was the rune of hope, which Travis had bound there after he broke the rune of peace. Eight ornate wooden chairs surrounded the table, royal crests carved into the back of each one. There was Chair Calavan next to Chair Toloria, and chairs for the rest of the seven Dominions.

Grace came to a halt behind the final chair. It was newer in appearance than the others, glossier. But then, over the centuries, it had never been sat in, had it? Legend told that a witch had cast a spell on this chair, and that only the true heir to the throne of Malachor might dare sit in it, for one who was false would surely be struck dead.

Mad mirth bubbled up inside Grace. Falken and the others were absolutely convinced she was the last descendant of the royal house of Malachor. What if she sat in this seat and ended up getting fried to a crisp?

“That would certainly show them, wouldn't it?” she murmured, and had to bite her lip to keep from laughing.

Grace brushed the symbol carved on the back of the chair: a stylized knot with four loops surrounding a four-pointed star. There was no jolt of magic. Her fingers came away dusty, not burnt. She edged around to the front of the chair.

“Well, here goes nothing.”

Grace sat down. If Chair Malachor had a curse, it was simply that it was extremely uncomfortable. The seat was hard, and the carvings in the back poked her from behind. Other than that—and the fact that the chair seemed to have been constructed for someone three feet taller than she—there seemed to be nothing special about it.

But there had to be something here. Sit in the chair that is forbidden to all others, the forest queen had said, and the key shall be revealed to you.

Grace didn't see anything sticking out of the chair that looked remotely keylike, and all of the knobs and protrusions were firmly attached. Perhaps it was a riddle of some sort—perhaps there was something that could be seen only when sitting in this chair. Except the chamber looked the same from this angle as it did from any other.

All right, so maybe there was something about the table in front of the chair. She groped along the underside of the table with a hand, half-expecting to encounter a chewed piece of gum someone had stuck there, but there was nothing. Grace sighed, feeling cold and tired and more than a little sick. What had she really expected? It was just a chair, and she doubted that the story of the witch who had cursed it was true.

“Tell that to the Earl of Wetterly,” said a croaking voice. “He fancied himself descended of King Ulther, and he tried sitting in the chair a few centuries ago. All they found of him the next morning were his teeth. No one's touched the chair since. Until now.”

Grace gasped and looked around, but she could not see the speaker. “Who's there? Show yourself!”

“Why, I'm right here, Your Majesty.” A lumpy form clad in gray rags shambled around from behind the chair.

“Vayla,” Grace said. She cocked her head, thinking of the hag she had met in King Kel's camp. “Or is it Grisla?”

The crone shrugged knife-edged shoulders. “Why don't you decide, Your Majesty?”

“Let's stick with Vayla for now. She's a bit less . . .”

“Fun?” the old woman said.

Grace smiled. “I was going to say impertinent.”

Vayla let out a snort. “Suit yourself, Your Majesty. But maybe it would be better if it was Grisla who was here and not me. You see, she wouldn't hesitate for a second to tell you what an enormous dolt you are.”

“What do you mean?”

“You know what I mean.” Vayla jabbed a bony finger at her chest. “You're always so sure there's no hope. After all you've seen, do you really think so little of magic? So little of life? By the first and the last, sometimes you make that Embarran fellow look like a ray of sunshine. Perhaps you should change your name to Lady Lamentsalot?”

Grace's eyes narrowed. “Are you sure you aren't really Grisla?”

“We all have different faces. It's just a matter of which face we choose to wear at any given moment.” The crone peered at Grace with her one bulbous eye. “So which face are you going to put on today?”

Grace started to say that she didn't have different faces, but that wasn't true, was it? She was a doctor and a witch. And, whether she wanted it or not, a queen. She was a woman as well, frightened and alone. But which of them was really her?

“I don't know what I'm going to be.”

“Humph,” Vayla said, hands on her shapeless hips. “You'd better decide.”

“What will happen if I don't?”

“Madness, that's what. Doom and death.” The crone leaned into the chair; she smelled like old leaves. “We have many faces, but we can wear only one at a time. If you try to be everything to everyone, then you'll end up being nothing at all. So pick one and stick with it.”

“Even if it's not the right one?”

“And if what you choose comes from within you, daughter, how can it possibly be wrong?”

These words startled Grace—and filled her with a strange excitement as well. Ever since her heritage was revealed, she had resisted the idea that she was a queen. But what was the true reason for that?

Queens are supposed to be proud and regal and fearless, Grace. They order people about with a flick of a finger. And they always know exactly what they're doing.

Or was that just some silly notion of what a queen was supposed to be—something culled from books and movies? Maybe Grace didn't have to be any of those things to be a queen. Maybe all she had to do was put those unattainable ideas aside and be her own sort of royalty—one with a bad haircut, a serious maddok addiction, and a complete inability to curtsy. And one blessed with wondrous friends who could help her through just about anything. Maybe, just maybe, she really could be a queen.

A gasp escaped her—a sound of realization, and of letting go.

Vayla patted Grace's cheek with a crooked hand. “That's it, daughter—no one can tell you who you're going to be. Not bards or gods or pale kings. That's for you to decide.”

The old crone turned and shuffled toward the chamber door.

Grace stared, then panic gripped her. “Wait! I need you. I have to find the key!”

“You don't need me for that!” the old woman called over her shoulder in a surly voice. “It's been right under your thumb all this time.”

Under her thumb? Grace looked down at her hands, which rested on the arms of the chair. The wood was smooth beneath both thumbs, though next to the right was a small carving of—what? She bent closer, and her heart leaped into her throat.

It was a carving of a walled fortress atop a high mountain. Her thumb gave an involuntary twitch against the carving. There was a click, and a small section of wood beneath her thumb pressed inward. Startled, she pulled her hand away, and a small drawer popped out of the arm of the chair.

Once her heart decided to start beating again, Grace peered into the drawer. Inside was a creamy disk of stone about the size of a quarter, but many times thicker. She hesitated, then picked it up. Immediately she saw it was a rune. Three parallel lines incised the surface of the disk, identical to the rune in the center of the council table. Grace recognized the symbol. It was hope.

Of course. Wasn't hope always the key? With hope, anything was possible.

“So how do I use it?”

Silence. She looked up. Vayla was nowhere in sight. However, there was only one way the crone could have gone. Grace rose and tucked the rune into a pocket, then slipped through the crack in the door. Shawl flapping, she ran down the passage until she came to an intersection. Which way?

Grace caught motion out of the corner of her eye and turned in time to see a flutter of gray cloth vanishing around a bend. She sprinted down the corridor and rounded the corner. A lumpy shadow was just passing into an archway ahead. Grace hurried after.

She found herself in a dim hall lined with suits of armor. At the other end was a doorway, glowing with gold light. For a moment a shapeless silhouette was outlined in the doorway, then it passed through. Grace leaned forward, raced down the hall, and ran through the doorway.

“Going somewhere?” said a voice. It was gentle and serene but slightly bemused, a woman's voice.

Grace skidded on her heels, halting just short of a spear that a suit of armor gripped at a decidedly perilous angle. She was in a small antechamber. There were a few chairs, and several time-darkened portraits of dukes, earls, and princes adorned the walls. Saffron-colored light spilled through the window; outside, the sun had just risen.

“Are you well, sister?”

Grace turned. The woman was not tall, but she was elegant all the same, clad in a gown that seemed to catch the morning light and spin it into a dozen different hues of purple, green, and peacock blue. Her black hair was marked by a single streak of white, and wise lines accented her almond-shaped eyes. Was she a noblewoman? Perhaps, though her dress seemed a bit unusual.

Realizing she should probably say something, Grace drew in a breath. “I'm looking for someone. She came in here.”

“Really?” The woman raised an eyebrow. “That's curious. For as you can see, I am the only one here besides yourself, and there are no doors to this chamber other than the one you came through.”

Grace frowned. Where could Vayla have gone?

Probably anywhere. There's no telling who Vayla really is. Or Grisla, or whatever she calls herself. But there's certainly more to her than meets the eye. You won't see her again until she wants you to.

“I ask again, are you well, sister?” the woman said in a motherly voice, taking a step closer.

Grace nodded. “I'm fine, really. I just have a lot on my mind, that's all. I'm sorry to have bothered you.” She started toward the door.

The woman smiled. “It's no bother. I arrived at the castle early this morning, and I've simply been waiting for people to wake up.”

Grace hesitated. “What people?”

The other's smile deepened. “Why, people like you, sister.”

Grace took a step back into the room. For some reason the woman reminded her of Vayla, though the other was certainly no hag. Instead, she was beautiful and mature, a woman in the prime of life.

“Excuse me,” Grace said, “but have we met before?”

The other nodded. “In spirit, yes, if not in person.”

Grace stared, then it hit her. On the white ship, when she had struggled against the runelord Kelephon, Aryn had reached across countless leagues to help her weave a spell. But there had been another presence along with Aryn's, one that was deep, calm, and wise. It was . . .

“You!” Grace said with a gasp. “Aryn and Lirith told me all about you. Your name is Sister Mirda, and you're the witch who helped change the weaving of the Pattern at Ar-tolor. And you were the one who convinced Aryn to join the—” Grace dropped her voice to a whisper. “—to join the shadow coven.”

Mirda nodded, her expression knowing. “I see Sister Aryn has told you much.”

“No, don't worry,” Grace said, moving forward. “You see, we've joined the shadow coven, too. Lirith and I.”

Mirda pressed a hand to her chest. “I know not whether to be glad for myself, sister, or afraid for you. It is no simple thing to join a coven such as ours. The shadow covens were forbidden over a century ago, and if we are ever discovered, we shall all be cut off from the Weirding forever.”

“Aryn told us the risks,” Grace said, trying to sound confident. “But we've joined, and what's done is done.”

Mirda's smile returned, then in an action that surprised Grace, the elder witch glided forward and caught her in an embrace. Despite her shock, Grace found herself smiling as well.

“We are lucky,” Mirda said, stepping back, “to be joined by three witches such as you and your sisters. Each of you is so talented in your own way.”

Grace stiffened and tried to pull away, but Mirda held her hands tight.

“No, sister, you must not deny your gifts, not now when they are most needed. You are a great healer, and you have skill such as I have never seen before. You weave the Weirding in new and wondrous ways.”

At least Grace freed her hands. “I'm nothing compared to Lirith and Aryn.”

“I would hardly say that. But it is true that Sister Lirith is strong in the Sight, and Sister Aryn's power is deep—deeper than any other's, I think. With you three, perhaps there is hope for our impossible task after all.”

Hope. Grace touched the pocket where she had slipped the rune.

“Where have you been, Mirda?” Grace asked. “Aryn said you left just before we arrived in Calavere.”

Mirda turned toward one of the windows. “I'm afraid an urgent task called me away. But it is done, and I've returned, and I'll not be leaving again.” She turned back. “Unlike yourself, sister.”

Grace sank into one of the chairs. “I have to go north, to Gravenfist Keep. I'm supposed to stop the Pale King from riding forth when the Rune Gate opens. But I don't know how I'm possibly going to do that. All I have is an old sword and five hundred men. And this.” She drew out the rune.

Mirda studied the rune but did not touch it. “It seems you have much to me. Remember that you do not need to defeat the Pale King. Your part in this shadow coven is to hold him back until the Runebreaker can fulfill his destiny.”

A shiver coursed through Grace. “Until he breaks the world, you mean.”

“Or saves it,” Mirda said, meeting her gaze.

How could it be both? Grace still didn't understand that. But there was one thing she did know—there was no person on any world kinder or truer than Travis Wilder. He would not harm Eldh; she would not believe that he could.

“He's gone, you know.” Grace leaned her head against the back of the musty chair.

“He will return,” Mirda said.

Grace shut her eyes. “But how can you know that?”

“Because prophecy demands it. The Runebreaker will be there at the end.”

“But what if it's not Travis? What if it's the other Runebreaker who's there at the end?”

“Then,” Mirda said, her words hard as stones, “all the world is doomed.”

Grace sighed and opened her eyes. She couldn't know who was going to reach the First Rune first—Travis or Mohg or the other Runebreaker. However, even if Travis did manage to save the world, there would be nothing left to save if the Pale King had already ridden across it and enslaved all of its people. She had to face Berash. Not because she was better than anyone else, or stronger. Simply because someone had to stand against the Pale King, so it might as well be her.

Her thoughts must have been clear upon her face.

“Is it not time for you to go, sister?”

Grace stood, feeling a bit shaky, but surprisingly strong. “I suppose it is.”

Mirda touched her cheek. “Do not fear. We will keep watch here while you are gone. Sister Liendra and the other Witches would work to hinder the Warriors of Vathris, so it is the task of Sister Aryn, Sister Lirith, and myself to make certain that does not come to pass. Once the Warriors have answered King Boreas's call to muster, they will march north, and you will have a vast force at your command.”

Grace didn't know whether to be reassured by that thought or terrified. She started to pull away, then a thought occurred to her. Mirda's knowledge seemed to run so deep. Perhaps she would have an answer to the other shadow that weighed upon Grace.

“Sister Mirda,” she said. “My friend, the knight Durge—there's something wrong with him.”

“There is none whose skills at healing are greater than your own, sister,” Mirda said. “Can you not care for him?”

Grace felt a sob rising in her chest, but she swallowed it down. “No, I can't. At least, I don't know how, but maybe you can help me. You see, it's his heart.” Forcing herself to speak in a clinical tone, Grace described what had been done to Durge.

Mirda was silent for a moment, then a sigh escaped her. “That is how evil works—by taking what is good and true and corrupting it. That your friend has resisted so long tells me his spirit is one of unsurpassed strength and goodness.”

“Then there's hope for him,” Grace said, her words hoarse.

Mirda shook her head. “I fear not, sister. In the end, the splinter will work its magic. All the goodness in his heart, all the loyalty and kindness, will be replaced by shadow. There is nothing that can be done for him. Except for one thing.”

Grace staggered back. “What are you talking about?”

“Take this.” Mirda pressed a small vial into her hand. “It is a tincture of barrow root. A single drop brings an end, swift and painless. Keep watch on your friend, and before it is too late, you must give it to him.”

Grace stared, cold horror spilling into her chest. “I can't,” she said, choking. “I won't.”

Mirda closed Grace's fingers around the vial. “You must, sister, if you love him as you say you do. He would never want to become what the splinter will make of him.”

It was too much. Grace couldn't breathe. She staggered toward the door. “I have to go.”

“So you do, sister,” Mirda said, nodding. “I will be there to see you off when you ride from the castle.”

Grace hardly heard her. Her head swam, and she was shaking. She wanted to throw the vial down, only somehow her hand wouldn't let go of it. A single drop brings an end, swift and painless. . . .

She pushed through the door and ran down the hall, past the suits of armor. They seemed to stare at her, like specters forged of cruel metal. Her nightgown tangled around her feet, tripping her, and she started to fall.

Strong arms gripped her, holding her upright.

“My lady, what is wrong?” spoke a deep, familiar voice.

She blinked and saw Durge's craggy face in the gloom. The knight wore riding gear and a mail shirt. Panic seized her. How long had he been out here in the hall? Had he heard what she and Mirda had been talking about? She gripped the vial so hard she thought it must shatter, but it didn't.

“Durge,” she managed to croak. “What are you doing here?”

“Looking for you, my lady. And I'm lucky to have found you, as I was just passing by the door to this hall when I saw you come running this way.”

Grace tried not to breathe too obvious a sigh of relief. He hadn't entered the hall until after she had left the antechamber. That meant there was no way he could have heard her conversation with Mirda.

“I came to your chamber at dawn,” Durge went on. “However, I found only Tira playing a game with a serving maid, so I came in search of you. Your army gathers even now in the lower bailey. We are to ride forth in an hour.” His mustaches descended in a frown as he took in her tangled nightgown. “I must say, my lady, this is hardly proper riding attire. You will freeze to death before we travel a league.”

“Sorry,” she said. “I'll change.”

And despite her fear, she found herself laughing. Whatever the iron splinter would make of him, right now he was still Durge—good, dear, gloomy Durge. As long as she had the Embarran by her side, she was going to enjoy every moment of it. She threw her arms around his stooped shoulders, much to his obvious surprise.

“Thank you, Durge.”

He hesitated, then wrapped his strong arms around her. “Whatever for, my lady?”

“For being you.”

He let out a rumbling breath. “Well, I can't say I give being me very much thought or effort. But all the same, you're welcome, my lady.”

21.

An hour later, Grace glanced out the window of her chamber to see the sun cresting the castle's battlements. In the last few minutes Durge had checked on her twice and Sir Tarus once, and the servants had already taken her things. Everyone would be waiting for her in the lower bailey.

“I have to go now, Tira,” she said.

The girl sat in front of the fire, playing with one of her half-burnt dolls. Grace knelt beside her, though the action was made awkward by the scabbard belted at her side. Fellring's hilt jabbed her in the kidney, and she grimaced as she readjusted the sword. How did Beltan wear one of these blasted things all the time?

“Tira, do you understand what I'm saying?”

It was always so hard to know if she was getting through. Tira still hadn't spoken a word since they left the Black Tower. Grace smoothed back the girl's tangled red hair and touched her chin, so that she stopped her playing and looked up.

“I'm going to be going on a journey, to a place very far away from here, and I'm afraid you can't come. It's not that I don't want you to.” Grace drew in a breath, shocked at how difficult this was. “I'm going to miss you so much. But where I'm going is too . . .that is, it's not a place for children. It's all right, though—you'll have Aryn and Lirith and Sareth here to take care of you, so you'll be safe. And I'll come back to you soon. I promise.”

Tira smiled—though the expression did not touch the scarred side of her face—then bent back over her doll. Grace sighed, hoping it had been enough. She caught the girl in a tight hug, rocking her, kissing her head. At last, fearing she would weep, she rose quickly and left the room.

Waiting outside was a slender man with a pointed blond beard and a silver-gray cloak.

“Aldeth,” she gasped, clutching a hand to her chest. “You startled me.”

The Spider smiled, revealing rotten teeth. “I may have been discarded by Queen Inara like a soiled handkerchief, but it seems I've still got the touch.”

Grace frowned at him. “Durge sent you, didn't he?”

“Tarus, actually. Durge was too busy having an apoplectic seizure. Something about how if we don't leave immediately, the army won't get a league from the castle before it's time to set up camp. I didn't catch the rest. He was too busy swelling up and turning red. Do you think Embarrans can burst?”

“We'd better not find out,” Grace said, wincing. “I'm ready now. I just had to say good-bye to someone.”

The Spider let out a snort. “You should do what I do, my lady, and avoid getting to like other people. That way it's never hard to say good-bye.”

Somehow those were the saddest words Grace had ever heard. Maybe because they reminded her of herself not long ago.

“Oh, Aldeth,” she said and touched his cheek.

When they reached the castle's lower bailey, they found it empty save for a scattering of sheep and peasants. For an absurd moment Grace wondered if she had missed the departure of her own army. But no, there were Durge and Tarus, both walking swiftly toward her.

“Your force awaits you below the castle, my lady,” Durge said. Aldeth was right. His cheeks and neck were red as holly berries.

“I prefer to think of the army as being all of ours, Durge,” she said with a wry smile.

He glowered and grew a touch redder.

Tarus took her arm and steered her toward the castle gate. “If you don't mind my saying, my queen, I'd lay off the jests. At least until we're well on the road.”

“Understood,” Grace said with a nod.

They passed by the remains of the ruined guard tower—the rebuilding had only barely begun—and through the castle gate. As they reached the other side, Grace's heart skipped in her chest. Perhaps Aldeth was right; perhaps growing to love people was not worth the pain of saying good-bye.

Except it was, no matter how much it hurt. Lirith and Aryn rushed up to her, catching her in a fierce embrace.

Sisters, she spoke in her mind.

Hush, Grace, came Aryn's voice over the threads of the Weirding. You don't have to speak. We just came here to let you know how proud of you we are.

You are brave, sister, Lirith spoke, her voice as true and warm as sunlight. Braver than any of us. We will think of you every moment while you're away, and we will speak prayers to Sia for your safety.

And we'll speak to you, too, Aryn said. I know I'll always be able to find you now, no matter where you go. The Weirding will guide me to you.

Grace laughed despite her tears. Then I'll never be alone, will I?

At last, reluctantly, she stepped back from the two witches. Tarus was giving them a wary look.

“Did they just cast some sort of spell?” the red-haired knight said.

Sareth grinned. “Almost certainly.” The Mournish man approached and kissed Grace's cheek. He smelled of spices. “Let Fate guide you.”

She met his dark eyes and nodded. “I'll try.”

“My brother is right,” Vani said, drawing close. “Fate will lead you where you must go, if you will let it.”

Grace smiled and gripped the T'gol's hand. Then, over her shoulder, she saw a tall, rangy figure. Beltan.

Talk to him, Vani, she spun the words over the Weirding, and by the T'gol's wide gold eyes Grace knew she heard.

Vani said nothing, but she nodded before she turned away. Then Beltan was there, hugging Grace so tightly it hurt, but she didn't care, and she hugged him back as hard as she could.

“This feels wrong,” he said. “I don't care what King Boreas says. I should be coming with you now, not waiting until the rest of the Warriors of Vathris answer the call to war.”

“Boreas needs you as a commander.”

“My place is with you, Grace.”

She thought about it only a moment. “Is that really true, Beltan? Isn't your place with someone else?”

She felt him tense. Was this right? Was she working toward Fate, or against it? She didn't know; all she knew was that she had to do this.

Grace moved her lips close to his ear. “There's a way you and Vani can go to him. You have to find him and bring him back. Eldh needs him. We all need him.”

Beltan was trembling now. “Travis,” he whispered. “You mean Travis.”

“Yes. You see, I kept—”

“That's quite enough, Beltan,” said a blustering voice. “I'd say it's my turn now.”

Grace and Beltan broke apart as King Boreas strode toward them. Beltan's expression was one of wonder and confusion. Vani gave him a sharp look, and Beltan met her gold eyes, but the king seemed not to notice this exchange.

“My lady,” King Boreas said to Grace. “Or, I should say, my queen—it is a brave thing you do this day, for the Dominions, and for all of Eldh. Nor will I insult you by pretending it is not a most perilous thing as well.”

She managed a weak smile. “You know, that's not really all that comforting, Your Majesty.”

He flashed a toothy grin. “Isn't it? Well, take heart, my lady. While it will be difficult, you need only hold Gravenfist Keep for a short time. The men of Vathris have heard my call. It will not be long until a great host assembles here. When they do, the Warriors of Vathris will march north with all haste to relieve you.”

Grace nodded, hoping the terror wasn't too apparent in her eyes. Perhaps it was, for he moved in close and took her right hand in his.

“It was a lucky day when Sir Durge found you in Gloaming Wood, Lady Grace.” His voice was low and gruff, so that only she could hear. “Lucky for Eldh. And for me as well.”

He smiled, and this time the expression was only slightly fierce. “I loved Queen Narenya, and when I lost her I thought I had no more need of women, that ruling a Dominion was enough to occupy me. But last winter, when you came into this castle and brightened its halls, I realized how mistaken I was. There are times when I occupy myself with a fancy, my lady. And a most beguiling fancy it is. For in it, you and I sit side by side on the thrones of Calavere, ruling wisely. Together.”

Grace could do nothing to hide her astonishment as all words, all motion, fled her. The king bent his head, and his lips passed near hers, almost brushing them. She did not retreat. However, at the last, he turned his head and kissed her cheek—gently, chastely—before stepping back.

Grace trembled. In that moment she was struck by how like Boreas was to the god he followed. Like Vathris, he was a man so strong, so powerful, no one could deny his wishes. How would she ever resist him if he desired to make her his own? Only he had let her go, and was that not more powerful than even the sternest command?

Grace lifted her chin and met his eyes. “Your Majesty, I am in your debt for the kindness you have shown me. More than that, I care for you, so I won't lie to you. The fact is, I don't know if it's possible for me to love someone as you loved Queen Narenya. And I'm fairly sure I wouldn't be much of a wife. But if you ever have need of a queen by your side, you have only to ask, and I will be there.”

Her own words astonished Grace, but she knew they were true. However, the king did not accept her offer. Instead his smile faded, and a strange light shone in his eyes, though what it was—joy? regret?—Grace couldn't be sure.

He touched her cheek with a rough hand. “May the gods go with you, my lady.” Then he strode away. He paused to raise a fist for the benefit of the small army below, this action eliciting a cheer, then the bullish king of Calavan vanished through the castle gate.

“What was that all about?” Falken said. The bard drew close, along with Melia. Both wore thick riding cloaks.

“He wished me luck, that's all.” Grace gathered her own cloak about herself. The sun was bright, but the air was bitter. The Feast of Quickening was only a month away, but winter had not loosened its grip on the world.

“Tell me, dear,” Melia said. “Did you see Prince Teravian on your way out of the castle?”

“I'm afraid not. I suppose he's lurking somewhere.”

“Almost certainly.” The amber-eyed lady sighed. “That's unfortunate. I had hoped to say good-bye to him.”

The cold must have numbed Grace's brain. “What do you mean, Melia? Teravian isn't going anywhere.”

“No, dear,” Melia said, “but we are.”

Grace stared at the bard and the lady. “You mean you're coming with us to Gravenfist Keep?” Hope soared in her chest, but was dashed as Falken shook his head.

“We have our own journey to make. Shemal is still loose in the world, and so is the other Runebreaker. I'm guessing that if we find one, we'll likely find the other.”

Melia took Grace's hands in her own. “I'm sorry we can't come with you, Ralena. But you have your task, and we have ours. Now that my dear brother Tome is no more, I am the last of my kind, and Shemal is the last of hers. It is right that we face each other as the end approaches, and Falken has been good enough to agree to come with me.”

Grace didn't know what to say, so she settled for, “I'll miss you both so much.” Then she flung herself into their arms.

“Don't weep, dear,” Melia said as she hugged Grace tight. “We'll meet again before the end. I'm certain of it.”

“Remember your heritage, Grace,” Falken said, kissing her brow. “You are the queen of Malachor. Gravenfist Keep will know you.”

Durge approached and cleared his throat; it was time to go. Reluctantly, Grace pulled away from Melia and Falken, then turned, searching for Beltan and Vani. However, before she could start toward them, a woman in a multihued cloak glided forward. She nodded to Lirith and Aryn, then halted before Grace.

“I could not let you go without a blessing from Sia,” Mirda said in her calm voice. “May she guide you in all of her guises: Maiden, Matron, and Crone.”

A sense of peace radiated from the elegant witch, soothing Grace's frazzled nerves. Then Grace remembered the small vial Mirda had given her, and which now rested in the leather pouch belted at her waist, and the sense of peace vanished.

“Excuse me, but do I know you?” Falken said, tilting his head as he gazed at Mirda.

She turned her wise gaze toward him. “I cannot say, Falken Blackhand. Do you?”

He glanced down at his black-gloved hand. “You remind me of her, in a way. Only that's impossible, isn't it?”

“Perhaps,” Mirda said. “But tell me, what was she like, this one I remind you of?”

Falken's voice was soft. “She was barely more than a maiden, though her power was deep. Her hair was gold, and her eyes like blue cornflowers.”

Mirda smiled. “Well, that doesn't sound much like me.”

“No, I suppose it doesn't.” He glanced again at the mature, dark-haired witch. “Though I must confess, you're a bit more my style. I never went for the girlish type.”

Melia shot the bard an outraged look. “Falken!”

The bard gave her a sheepish grin, then the expression faded. “I never did get a chance to thank her. I think she saved my life.”

Mirda touched his gloved hand. “If you wish to thank her, then do not hide the gift she made for you.”

“How did you—?” Falken shook his head. “But you're right. I think it's time I stopped trying to hide my past and started living up to it.” He stripped off the black glove, and his right hand gleamed in the morning light. “From now on, my name is Falken Silverhand.”

Mirda smiled. “She would be glad to know.” The witch gazed at Grace. “Remember you are never alone, sister. Look for help on the road—it will find you as you journey.”

“Thank you,” Grace managed.

Mirda nodded, then, cloak fluttering, she moved to stand by Lirith and Grace.

Melia arched an eyebrow. “That was curious.”

Falken said nothing as he flexed his silver hand.

A coldness crept into Grace's chest. So that was it, then. There were no more good-byes to make. Durge spoke to Tarus, and the red-haired knight mounted his horse and rode down the hill. The Spider Aldeth followed on a horse as gray as his mistcloak. Durge climbed into the saddle of his charger, Blackalock, and Melia and Falken mounted their own horses. Nearby, a guardsman held the reins of Shandis, Grace's honey-colored mare. Heart heavy, Grace turned to mount the horse—

—and stopped. A small figure sat in Shandis's saddle, the wind tangling her flame-colored hair. She wore only a thin smock, and her feet were bare.

“Tira,” Grace gasped. “How did you get there?”

By the guardsman's stunned look, he wondered the same. He nearly dropped Shandis's reins. However, the mare was nonplussed, and she gave a soft whicker as Tira laughed, burying her hands in Shandis's mane.

Falken gave Grace a sharp look. “I think somebody wants to come with you.”

Grace thought her heart would shatter. “But she can't. It's too dangerous. She's just a child.”

“No,” Melia said carefully, “she's not.”

It was true. Krondisar had transformed Tira into a goddess. What her purpose was, Grace didn't know, but she had the feeling that, even if she wanted to, she could not prevent Tira from coming. Nor could Grace say she was sorry.

With the guardsman's help, Grace climbed into the saddle behind Tira. The girl snuggled close.

“Grace!” said a hoarse voice.

Beltan stood beside her horse. The knight's green eyes were desperate, questioning. Hastily, Grace reached into the pouch at her side and drew out a wadded piece of cloth. It was blotched with dark brown stains.

“Take this.”

He fumbled with the cloth. “What is it?”

“A bandage. I took it from Travis's arm.”

Shock flickered across his face, then understanding. There was only a small amount of Travis's blood contained in the cloth, but it was enough. And Vani still had the gate artifact.

“Bring him back to us, Beltan. To Eldh.”

The knight looked up at her, his face determined. “I will. We both will.”

“Now, my lady!” Durge said, wheeling Blackalock around.

Grace had done everything she could; it was time to ride. On impulse, she drew Fellring and raised it above her head. The morning sun glinted off the blade, setting it afire.

“To Gravenfist Keep!” called a bold voice, and Grace was amazed to realize it was her own.

Tira laughed. “Blademender,” she said.

And a cheer rose on the bitter air as Grace rode down to meet her army.

22.

They marched east, following the same road Grace had traveled on the way to the Gray Tower last summer. She rode at the head of the small force, Durge to her right and Tarus to her left. Behind came the knights of the Dominions, followed by the Calavaner foot soldiers and the band of runespeakers upon sturdy mules. Last of all came the one Tarrasian company, bronze breastplates gleaming. As for Queen Inara's Spiders, Grace could never be certain where they were, though she had little doubt that they were keeping up—and keeping watch.

The weather was crisp and brilliant. Sunlight splintered into rainbows as it struck prisms of ice, and the jingle of chain mail rose like bells on the frigid air. Despite the cold, Grace was warm in her fur-lined cloak as she rode Shandis. Although she supposed it was neither garment nor horse that accounted for her comfort.

“Thank you,” she said as the castle vanished from sight behind them. She pressed her cheek against Tira's unruly red hair. As always, the girl was warm despite her bare arms and legs. “For keeping me warm.”

Tira ignored Grace as she made her doll dance along Shandis's mane, as if running through fields of wheat.

After that, Grace gave her first order as commander of the army. She told Tarus that if at any time as they traveled, any man—or woman, for there were the two lady Spiders—found the cold too unbearable, he was to come walk or ride near Grace.

Tarus gave her an odd look. “And how will that help, Your Majesty?”

“You haven't been cold riding beside me, have you?”

“Now that you mention it, I haven't.”

She hugged Tira and smiled. “I didn't think so.”

Tarus shot her a puzzled look, then wheeled his horse around to give the order.

Grace knew she shouldn't be enjoying this—they were riding off to war, not a picnic in the countryside—but all the same it was difficult not to feel her spirits soaring. Maybe after they had marched a hundred leagues they would look weary and bedraggled, and things would seem different, but right then she was struck by the grandeur of the army. All of the men looked hard and capable and brave, their helms gleaming in the sun. Bright banners snapped overhead: white on blue for Calavan, gold on green for Toloria, dark violet for Perridon, and russet for the men of Galt. The Tarrasian force carried the standard of the empire—five stars over three trees—and the gray robes of the runespeakers were like their own kind of banner.

Grace let out a foggy breath. “It seems I'm the only one without a flag.”

Durge smacked a hand to his forehead. “Forgive me, Your Majesty, in all the haste to depart I quite forgot to give you this. Senility must be setting in already.”

She gave him a fond smile. “I rather doubt that, Durge.”

The Embarran rummaged in a saddlebag and drew out a bundle wrapped in waxed cloth. He handed it to her.

“What is it?”

“A gift from Falken and Melia. They asked me to give it to you once we were on the road.”

Grace opened the bundle, and inside was a folded piece of cloth. Grasping two corners, she shook it out.

It was a banner. The colors were like those of Calavan, though the blue was deeper, and the symbol embroidered in silver thread was not the crown and swords of Calavan. Instead it was a star surrounded by a knot with four loops. Grace knew the symbol well. Falken always clasped his cloak with a brooch that bore the same design.

“It's the emblem of Malachor,” she said in wonder.

“You must select a man to be your standard-bearer, Your Majesty,” Durge said, his brown eyes thoughtful. “He must be a man you trust above all others, one whose heart will never fail you. For if your standard ever falls, then all is lost.”

Grace didn't even need to think about it. “You, Durge. I want you to carry it.” She held the banner toward him.

His hesitation was visible. “My lady, I can . . . that is, surely there is another better suited.”

For a moment an icicle of fear stabbed at Grace's heart. Durge had never avoided any duty she had ever asked of him. Why would he resist this? She thought of his words, how the standard must be carried by one whose heart would never fail . . .

But he can't know about the iron splinter, Grace. He's being modest, that's all.