A handful of people—no more than a dozen—had gathered in the center of the village to watch the conflagration. They hung back as though afraid the fire would engulf them. None of them so much as looked at Julianna, but she frowned as she studied them. She had seen dozens of small houses and cottages. Admittedly, some of them had looked abandoned, but could there really be so few people living on this island?
The gray sky hung low and heavy, and with the blanket of snow muffling all sounds, the whole island had a claustrophobic feel. When the sound of cracking wood split the sky, Julianna jumped as though it had been a gunshot.
But it was only the roof of the church buckling. Red embers sprayed into the sky.
A strong hand grabbed her arm and pulled her backward, and she turned to glare at the man who'd taken hold of her. It was Halliwell, his sad eyes dark with confusion.
Julianna shook herself free. "Don't do that, okay?"
Halliwell gave her a look as cold as the storm. "You were too close."
Before she could respond there came another crack of wood and then a splintering noise, accompanied by the hiss of the fire. Julianna spun to see the church roof buckle and the steeple start to fall. It snapped in two, part of it crashing down inside the blazing ruin. But the top of the steeple struck the ground only a few feet from where she had been standing, the fire sending up tendrils of steam as it hit the snow.
For a moment she could only stare at the ground, then she let out a shuddering breath and glanced at Halliwell. "Thank you."
The detective replied with an almost imperceptible shrug, then turned to survey the village, as though he was back in Maine and this was just another case. Halliwell was thus far doing an excellent job of pretending he was undisturbed by what they had seen as they arrived at Canna Island. They'd come halfway around the world in search of Oliver Bascombe on a journey financed by the law firm of Bascombe & Cox. Halliwell was a homicide detective, moonlighting for the firm because Oliver was wanted for questioning in connection with the murder of his father. Julianna was an attorney working full time as a case investigator for the firm.
Oliver Bascombe was her fiancé.
He had disappeared shortly before his father's murder—gone missing in the middle of the night, in a snowstorm far worse than the one currently assailing Canna Island. Then, on the night of Max Bascombe's murder, Oliver's sister Collette had gone missing as well. There was so much more—theories that Halliwell had, imagined connections to the mutilation murders of dozens of children around the world—but there could be no answers to any of those questions until Oliver was found. The murder of one of its founders had been ugly enough, if there was to be more bad publicity, the firm wanted to be in a position to do some spin control.
Julianna and Halliwell had tracked Oliver here and paid a local man an absurd sum of money to take them out to the island in the midst of the storm. On their arrival, they had been rewarded with a brief glimpse of Oliver as he strode toward them—toward the dock—with the fires beginning to burn in the village behind him. But Oliver had not been alone. He had been accompanied by a man with blue feathers in his hair, an Asian woman wearing a copper red fur cloak, and a man made entirely of ice.
She and Halliwell had not discussed that particular topic, but she was not prone to hallucination. She knew precisely what she had seen, and that man had not been a mirage.
Then the ice man had stretched out a hand and drawn a kind of oval; the air there had begun to shimmer, and Oliver and his companions had simply stepped out of this world, disappearing one after the other.
Halliwell spoke her name. The man was a curmudgeon by nature, gruff and distant. But somehow the events of the previous few minutes had created a connection between them that had not existed before. For when he spoke to her now, Halliwell seemed almost gentle.
"Focus," he said.
Julianna did. "What happened here?"
The detective glanced at the islanders who had gathered. "No idea." He turned to face them. "My name is Ted Halliwell. I'm a police detective from the U.S. Anyone have any idea how these fires began?"
Blank faces stared back at him. Several people began to whisper to one another. Others started to walk away, eyes averted, as though the last thing they wanted was for Halliwell to talk to them.
Halliwell shook his head as he turned back to her. "Had a feeling that was going to be useless. I know from back home that islanders are xenophobic as hell, but this is different. I think they saw something, all right, and it isn't just that they don't want to talk to outsiders about it. They don't want to talk about it at all."
Julianna glanced at the people. Some of them were no more than gray shapes in the storm. More had begun to drift away, going back to their lives. She wondered if any of them had had their homes destroyed, and what they would do about it. No one was coming from the mainland in this storm.
Embers floated and danced with the falling snow.
"Let's keep looking," Halliwell said. He stared at Julianna, waiting for her reply. When she nodded, the detective started around the church, moving toward the large building whose beautifully carved porch was little more than charred kindling now.
"Wait!" a voice called.
A lone woman strode toward them even as the other islanders retreated into the storm. Her grim features were cast into even sharper angles by the firelight.
"Do you know what happened here?" Halliwell asked her.
The woman ignored him, focusing on Julianna. "You'd be looking for them what came before. The young man and his friends—the fox girl and the others."
Julianna shivered and hugged herself, the thick coat suddenly not enough to protect her from the cold. Or perhaps this chill came from within.
"That's right," she said.
"Ma'am, could you tell us what you saw?" Halliwell urged. "It's not a difficult question."
But the woman only narrowed her eyes and gazed at Julianna. "They've gone. Came to see the professor, and this is what comes of it. Maybe that's the end, though. No more strangers on the island. Better for everyone if you just let us clean up the mess. Turn round and go back to the mainland. Those you seek have gone."
Halliwell sighed and gestured to indicate that since the woman was ignoring him, Julianna should ask the questions.
She narrowed her eyes and gazed at the woman. "What professor? Where is he?"
The woman scowled and pointed. "Continue on the way you're going if you must, but you won't like what you find."
Then she turned and strode away without a single backward glance. Julianna watched until she had left the main square, then turned to find Halliwell watching her expectantly. She took a breath and let it out slowly.
"Let's go," she said.
Halliwell nodded and together they continued on toward the building whose porch was now crumbling in flames. Bits of the ornate woodwork had burned away completely. Railings had fallen, withering in the fire. The flames glowed within the gutted structure, burning inside the windows like the eyes of some gigantic jack o' lantern.
The burning church was behind them, now, along with the two other houses of worship and a number of cottages. Julianna felt the chill of the storm, the snow whipping around her face as the wind picked up, but as they neared this other fire, its heat made her feel as though the skin on her face was stretched too tight.
"What is that?" Halliwell said, his voice barely audible over the hungry roar of the blaze.
Julianna picked up her pace. Her boots slid in the slushy, melting snow. To the left of the burning building was an old rock wall that ran out of the village square, the stones piled up decades—or perhaps centuries—earlier as some sort of boundary. It lined a path. In the firelight they could clearly see a cottage at the end. The little house had been destroyed recently enough that there was only a dusting of snowfall on the shattered interior, now exposed to the elements.
Fire had not been the culprit here. At first glance she thought an explosion had taken place, but then realized that much of the debris had caved inward rather than blowing outward.
Yet she spared only a moment's thought for the cottage.
It was the carnage that drew her attention. In the diffuse daylight that filtered through the storm and the bright glare of the fire, they could easily make out motionless figures scattered on the ground, shrouded in a thin layer of fresh snowfall. Dark stains spread out from the corpses, and already a frost was beginning to form on the puddles of blood. There was something odd about the corpses, but Julianna could not focus on them long enough to determine what it was that unsettled her.
Because there was another corpse in their midst that made her breath catch in her throat. She could only stare at the creature—for she could not think of it as a man—impaled upon jagged stalagmites of ice that jutted from the ground. Thin, frozen blades punctured the creature's leg and side, shot up through its chest and belly and skull . . . and wings.
Julianna could only stare. Though it had the shape of a man, its upper body and head were that of some giant bird of prey, and its wings were enormous, dark-feathered things.
"My God," Halliwell rasped beside her. "This can't be real. None of it."
He started forward and knelt by the nearest corpse, brushed away the snow to find orange and black fur beneath, and a snout full of deadly fangs. The dead man was not a man at all, but some kind of tiger that walked like a man.
"You mean like the ice man we saw with Oliver? And the way he and the others just disappeared, like they were stepping right out of the world?" Julianna asked, staring at him. After a moment she glanced at the tiger-man again, and then at the bird-thing impaled on the ice. "You said we'd follow, wherever they went, Ted. You've got a whole lot of mysteries on your hands, not just with Max Bascombe's murder and the little girl in Cottingsley, but with the other children you think are connected to this killer who's removing their eyes. I'm having just as hard a time with this as you are, but you can't turn back now."
Halliwell's expression darkened. "Who said anything about turning back? I'm not going anywhere. I just . . . the world isn't supposed to be like this."
Julianna swallowed. Her throat was dry and tight and she didn't think it was from the fire's heat.
"Let's go inside," she said.
The detective nodded and they started for the ruined cottage. As she passed the dead things scattered around her, she tried not to look too closely, but could not help herself. Some were missing limbs, at least one figure beneath that thin blanket of snow had no head, and one of the things on the ground had horns. There was even a creature that was no larger than a dog, with wings folded against its back.
Julianna hurried on.
She reached the front of the cottage. Where the door had been there was a hole, with no sign remaining of the frame. For a long moment she studied the wreckage, trying to determine how she might safely enter. In the midst of the ruined home, she saw snow-dusted legs poking out from beneath a portion of collapsed roof. Jagged, broken beams jutted out of the ruin, and Julianna thought that perhaps they had come as far as possible. Whatever they could learn about what happened to that cottage, they would have to determine from outside.
"Julianna," Halliwell said.
She turned to see him crouched a short way back along the path and off to the left. The snow there had been disturbed, and as she walked over to join him, she saw that in addition to a small pool of frosted blood on the ground, there was a spattering that seemed more recent, even fresh.
Halliwell touched the spots of blood and lifted his fingers to show that they were smeared with red.
Since they had arrived on Canna Island she had been nearly numb. Wonder and confusion and horror had swirled in her mind, but this was the first time she had been afraid.
"One of those things . . ."
Halliwell nodded. He gestured to the ground and she saw that the path of broken snow—where one of these things had crawled or dragged itself on the ground—went around the side of the ruined cottage, past one of the walls that was still standing. Halliwell started to follow the trail.
"Wait. Ted, please. I don't think we should—"
He shot her a dark look. "What did you just tell me about finding answers?"
Julianna moistened her lips. Her pulse was pounding in her temples as she nodded. "All right."
Halliwell went around the corner of the house. Julianna followed warily, peering into the ruin of the house and looking carefully at the stone boundary wall to make certain there was nowhere for anyone to hide. But the trail continued, the broken snow—sprinkled and streaked with fresh blood.
The wall went on perhaps fifty yards past the house, where it intersected with another at a tiny structure built of the same stone, with a roof of cracked and faded tiles. The little building might once have been an outhouse or some kind of storage—perhaps even a workshop—but its two small windows were cracked and covered with grime.
The heavy wooden door hung open. The trail ended there.
"Ted," Julianna whispered.
Halliwell did not even hesitate. He went to the door, tensed as though he might jump aside if an attack was forthcoming, and flung it open. The hinges creaked loudly. Inside there was nothing but dust and shadows.
"What the hell?" Halliwell muttered, and stepped inside, glancing around to be sure there was nowhere for the wounded creature to hide.
Julianna watched him for a moment and then followed. As she stepped into the little building, she peered into each corner and then up at the ceiling. There was a third window at the back, opposite the door, and Halliwell went over to it and examined the frame and the lock.
"Whatever came in here, it didn't get out this way," the detective said.
"But it didn't go out the door," Julianna said. "So where is it?"
Halliwell looked at her, frowning. Then he inclined his head and pointed past her, to the deep shadows hidden behind the open door. Julianna held her breath. If something was back there, she had been only inches from it a moment ago.
The detective came up beside her. The two of them stood a moment and just listened. If something was in here with them, wounded and enraged, surely they would hear it breathing. But there was no sound at all.
Halliwell swung the door closed. The latch clicked shut. If the storm had turned the afternoon dark and gray, inside that little stone house, behind those grime-smeared windows, it was like midnight. It was a mistake on Halliwell's part. If something had been there in the corner, it could have killed them both in the seconds it took their eyes to adjust.
But the corner was empty.
Julianna breathed a sight of relief. "Let's get out of here."
She went to the door. It seemed to stick a moment, and then the latch gave and Julianna hauled it open, hinges creaking again.
Outside the door, the world had changed.
The storm was gone, and so was Canna Island. A blast of warm air rushed in to greet them. A light summer rain fell from a sky striped with low clouds, speckled with clear spaces where the blue sky showed through.
Julianna could not breathe.
Shaking, she stepped out of the little stone hut. It stood now at the top of a long, sloping hill of rock, striated with colors like thousands of years of volcanic eruption. At the base of the hill, far below, a river rolled gently past. Some small brush and greenery grew on the banks of the river, but on the other side, once again, there was nothing but rock. She turned in a complete circle. Around her there were only mountains, though far to what ought to have been the south she saw the tops of trees in the river valley.
A short way along the rocky slope was the still, lifeless form of the tiger-man, who had escaped the carnage of Canna Island only to die here, alone on the craggy hillside.
"This . . . can't be," Halliwell rasped.
Julianna studied his face. Tentatively, she reached out a hand to touch him. The moment her fingers confirmed that he was real and solid, she felt foolish. Of course he was real. But in that moment, she had been uncertain of everything.
"Go back," she said. "Go back through."
Halliwell looked stricken, but he nodded and quickly reentered the stone hut. She followed him in. Even the warmth of the day and the gentle rain made her skin crawl, simply because it was wrong. Unnatural.
They exchanged a silent look. Trembling, Julianna reached out and closed the door, casting them once more in the grim gray darkness within those stone walls, behind those filthy windows. She expected to feel cold almost immediately, but the warmth remained.
A terrible weight settled upon her and Julianna bit her lip as she opened the door. But beyond it, nothing had changed. There was the barren hillside and the river below, the summer rain pattering the rocks. Whatever sort of door they had just traveled through, it only swung in one direction.
After a moment's hesitation, she stepped back out into the impossible world. Her heavy jacket was too warm and she unzipped it, then slid it off and dropped it on the ground beside the open door.
She wouldn't be needing it here.
Julianna turned and glanced at Halliwell. She was surprised to find not fear or confusion, but determination etched upon his face.
He stepped out after her, treading heavily upon the rocky terrain.
"All right, then," Halliwell said. "Let's go."
"Go?" She knew they had no choice, but had no idea how to begin, which direction to take. "Where are we going?"
"The job hasn't changed. We're going to find Oliver. And we're going to find some goddamned answers."
Grim silence embraced Oliver and his companions as they made their way along the bank of the Sorrowful River. When they had crossed through the Veil from Canna Island, they had emerged on a rocky slope not far from the water. Blue Jay had transformed himself into a bird and taken to the air to survey their surroundings. He had returned with the news that not only did the river valley become fertile and wooded to the south, but that he knew the area and believed they were not far from a place called Twillig's Gorge.
Kitsune had balked at this. She believed Twillig's Gorge was only a story, a legend amongst legends, but Blue Jay insisted it was real. So they had set out, following the river as it ran through the valley and then into a forest of whispering leaves and cool shade.
The longer Oliver spent in the forest, the more troubled he became. It was peaceful here, even pleasant, but it simply felt wrong to him. It was jarringly discordant, moving from the carnage of the battle they'd fought in his world to the gentle respite provided here, beyond the Veil. He knew that it could not last, that there would be fear and blood to spare in the days to come. But to experience the calm beauty of this wood and the rushing river was unsettling.
They all felt it. He knew that they did. But none of them would speak of it. Blue Jay led the way, the wind making the feathers tied in his hair dance, and he rarely looked back to see that they were following. Oliver and Kitsune were side by side—though as close as she was, still she seemed far away from him. Frost trailed them all, sometimes falling back so far that he was nearly out of sight. The winter man's face was a frozen mask. Icy mist trailed from his eyes, but he said nothing.
Amongst the four of them, fewer than a hundred words had been spoken since they had arrived here. Oliver understood. Jenny Greenteeth had betrayed them, and Kitsune had been forced to kill her friend. Gong Gong, the Black Dragon of Storms, was dead. Professor Koenig, the man they had gone to Canna Island to meet, had been murdered by the traitorous Jenny. Oliver blamed himself for the professor's death. If he had never tracked him down, the old man would still be alive.
But what choice did he have? He was under a death warrant, an Intruder on this side of the Veil. If he could not do as Koenig had done, and persuade the monarchs of The Two Kingdoms to spare his life, he would soon be dead.
Yet Oliver felt certain that the future weighed even more heavily upon his friends than the past. There was a conspiracy afoot in The Two Kingdoms, a clandestine effort by forces unknown to eradicate all Borderkind from the world. The Myth Hunters had been pursuing any creature that could still freely move back and forth through the Veil—from the world of legend to the human realm—and many had already lost their lives. Others had gone into hiding. The Borderkind could not count on aid from the legitimate authorities of either kingdom, nor could they know who was trustworthy.
An underground resistance had begun to form, but those with whom Frost, Oliver, and Kitsune had contact had already been captured or killed. All save Blue Jay. The time had come for the surviving Borderkind to take action. Frost had fulfilled his obligations to Oliver. He would be determined, now, to discover who was responsible for the slaughter of his fellow Borderkind, to stop the killings and take vengeance. Oliver had to assume that Kitsune and Blue Jay would accompany Frost.
And he would be alone.
In his own world, Oliver's father had been murdered by the Sandman, who had then abducted his sister, Collette. But why had he not simply killed her? What the Sandman wanted with her and what had driven the monster to kill their father in the first place, he had no idea. But Oliver had no choice except to find Collette. And that did not even begin to address the question of how he would get near enough to the monarchs of Euphrasia and Yucatazca to prove he was worthy of their trust. Finding Collette had to come first.
Oliver had not yet inquired about the origin of the name of the Sorrowful River, but he found it apt. As beautiful and calming as their surroundings were, he was not soothed. There was room for little else but sorrow in his heart, though he managed to find space for dread.
Soon enough, they would reach Twillig's Gorge and they would rest. And after that their paths would diverge, and Oliver would be forced to make his way alone.
The Sword of Hunyadi hung heavily at his side. Though he had acquitted himself well with it back on Canna Island, he felt foolish carrying the thing. He was no warrior. No hero. He was just a smartass New England lawyer who wished he was an actor.
He wanted to scream, just to break the silence of his companions . . . the friends who would soon abandon him. But how could he blame them? They were in just as much danger as he was; they and all their kind.
There was nothing for Oliver to do but keep walking, and enjoy their company until their paths diverged.
Oliver had tied his jacket around his waist. Even with the cool breeze and the shade of the trees, he felt warm, but he would not leave the jacket behind. Experience had taught him that the world beyond the Veil was impossible to predict. He ran a hand over the stubble on his cheeks and rubbed at the corners of his eyes. It had been long enough that he could no longer recall what it felt like to get a decent night's sleep. He would have given almost anything to be able to lay down there on the riverbank, use his coat as a pillow, and sleep with the gentle shushing of the wind in the branches as his lullaby. But there was to be no respite for him. Not yet. Perhaps not ever.
His boots pressed into the damp soil on the bank of the river. He dropped his gaze and watched the water while he walked, wondering again at its name. The river washed over rocks, the current picking up as it ran almost imperceptibly downward, with only the occasional small drop-off or waterfall.
When Kitsune touched his hand, he flinched away.
The sting of his reaction showed in her eyes.
"Sorry, you startled me."
Kitsune gave him a melancholy smile. "You were very far away."
"I've been far away for a long time. Feels like I'll be far away forever."
She nodded. Her red fur cloak swayed around her as she walked. The hood lay against her back, draped in her silken black hair. Her green eyes were like smooth jade. Kitsune reached out to take his hand again, and this time Oliver did not flinch away. They continued like that along the river bank for several minutes. Oliver took some comfort in the contact, but did not fool himself into thinking that all would be well. Kitsune had other allegiances, and he understood that.
But after a while he began to enjoy her touch and remembered the way she sometimes looked at him, recalled the sight of her at the inn in Perinthia, when he had seen her coming out of the shower, and broke the contact again.
Kitsune did not look up, only kept walking close beside him. She was perhaps the most desirable woman he had ever met—though woman was not entirely accurate—but was engaged to be married, and instead of shaking his love for Julianna, the wildness and terror of recent days had only crystallized those feelings.
He wanted to say something to Kitsune, to express those thoughts, no matter how foolish she might think him. But even as he opened his mouth, he saw that Blue Jay had paused on the riverbank just ahead.
The Native American shapeshifter turned toward them with a satisfied grin. The mischief had disappeared briefly from his eyes, but it was back, now.
"Twillig's Gorge," he said.
Oliver and Kitsune caught up to him and the three of them stood, awaiting Frost. The river turned slightly eastward ahead, and the quiet forest ended in the shadow of a sheer mountain cliff hundreds of feet high.
The river flowed right into the cliff face. Somehow it had carved a cave into the rock, or else the river went underground.
"I don't get it," Oliver said.
"The gorge is further along. Gods and legends, Borderkind and Lost Ones, all sorts of people live there. Creatures who want to hide away from the rest of the world, who don't want to have anything to do with the Two Kingdoms," Blue Jay explained. "There are a few places I can think of that would be safer havens for us right now, but nothing else within easy distance. It's as good a place as any."
Oliver stared at the cave where the river entered the mountainside. Frost could have gotten over the top easily enough, and Blue Jay could fly, but he would never be able to climb that sheer cliff. There was only one way to get to Twillig's Gorge for an ordinary man.
As he contemplated this, Frost joined them. Oliver glanced at the winter man, at the blue-white ice of his eyes, but Frost was not looking at him at all. With a toss of his head that made the jagged ice strands of his hair jangle together, he turned to Kitsune.
"You're aware that we're being followed?"
Kitsune nodded gravely. "A Jaculus. It has paced us since the moment we made the border crossing."
Oliver began to glance around, looking first across the river and then up toward the branches above them. "What the hell's a—"
But Frost ignored him, focusing only on Kitsune.
"Kill it," said the winter man.
Coiled around the branch of a massive oak tree, Lucan could not hear the whispered words of the Borderkind below. But he saw the Intruder—the Bascombe—go rigid and begin to look around, and he knew that his quarry were aware of his presence.
His instinct was to attack. His eyes were excellent and he could see the way the veins pulsed in the throat of the Bascombe. He could smell the femaleness of the fox, Kitsune. What Lucan desired more than anything was to launch himself from the tree and plunge straight down on one of them, fangs bared. They would underestimate him because of his diminutive size, and that would be his advantage. He felt certain that he could use his serpentine body to crack their bones, to crush them even as he drew their life out of their veins. He would have dearly loved to put his confidence—and his speed—to the test.
But Lucan had his orders.
The moment the fox raced toward the tree in which he was hiding, he loosed his grip upon the branch. As she leaped for the lower branches, he spread his wings and sprang upward, bursting up through rustling leaves of the oak and taking to the sky.
There were shouts from below, threats hurled skyward, but the Jaculus did not slow down. If the trickster shifted into bird-shape and followed, Lucan could kill him easily. And the winter man was weakened, now, and too slow. In moments, the winged serpent was over the top of the mountain and soaring toward the southern horizon.
The Strigae were excellent spies, but Ty'Lis and Hinque had asked Lucan to come himself to be sure that the there were no mistakes, that someone was there to report the outcome of the Myth Hunters' attack. Now they and the others would be waiting for word. The Bascombe was supposed to be dead many days ago, and the Borderkind who had allied themselves with him as well. These were simple measures, precautions to be taken before the rest of the plan could be put into action.
But it was too late, now. The whispers had begun, the violence would follow shortly, and then there would be war. And in the midst of that, the Bascombes and the Borderkind would be little more than an afterthought.
Yet Lucan knew that, to Ty'Lis, nothing would be as important as the death of these most dangerous enemies. The rest of the Borderkind had to be exterminated, no matter how many Hunters had to die with them. And Oliver Bascombe along with the filthy myths he had befriended.
The Veil itself depended upon their deaths.
And an empire would be forged upon their graves.