Oliver followed as best he could, wondering how long this side trip to find the Dustman would take, and if they would survive it. He wondered where Collette was, even now, and whether she understood what was happening any better than he did. He wondered what the Sandman had done to her, there in his dreadful place.
And how long she could stand it without losing her mind.
During the night, Collette could hear a child cry. A little boy, she thought. He sobbed and whimpered and whispered “no” over and over. It had begun perhaps two hours before dawn, rousing her from sleep. In her prison chamber in the Sandman’s castle, she had sat at first and tried to figure out the source of the crying. It came and went, as though at times she was nearer to the anguished boy and at others further away. She had stood and walked the circumference of her prison, had gazed up at the arched windows of the sand pit, and at the stars that showed through, even as they were bleached out of the sky by imminent morning.
She wondered if it was the Vittora, taunting her with more lunacy, but there was no sign of the thing, not a spark of light within the walls of her prison.
“Who are you?” she called into the emptiness of the castle and the vastness of the night. “Where are you?”
There came no answer. Only sobbing. But in spite of the lack of response she kept calling, speaking words of comfort, just in case he could hear her.
Her heart broke for the boy. She wanted to get to him, tried to push her fingers into the hard-packed sand of the walls, to climb, if she could, but there was no purchase. She knew that, of course. Once, and only once, just before the Sandman had appeared within the walls of her prison for the first time, she had felt the sand give way and been able to scoop away at the wall, digging into it. But since then she had begun to believe it had been a hallucination, for she had attempted it a hundred times, trying to make handholds for herself so that she could climb to the windows.
She knew the walls were solid. But the terrified whimpering sobs of the boy got under her skin and forced her to try again.
In time, all she could do was pace and try to cover her ears. The torment of hearing the child’s terrified voice, and being unable to help him, was more than she could bear. She had no children of her own, but Collette wanted them, wished to find a man someday who would be a better husband than the asshole she’d married and divorced…wished for a little boy. And here was this child, no different than the son she might have one day, sobbing in fear and despair, and she could do nothing to soothe him.
At daybreak, the child began to scream.
Collette froze, breath coming in tiny gasps. She stared at the smooth wall, the dawn’s light beginning to make a warm glow of the carved sand all around her. Once, twice, three times she spun, searching for the origin of that scream.
She could not just let it happen. Could not just do nothing. Shaking, skin prickling with gooseflesh, she raced to the wall and put her palms against it. Collette closed her eyes, listening more closely than she had ever listened to anything in her life. The screaming—a chilling shriek of agony that went on and on—echoed around the chamber, but its origin was nearby.
Close, but not here. Not right here.
To the left. Her eyes still closed, she slid her palms frantically along the wall, sand scraping her skin. Again she froze, focused, listening.
Here. Just here.
The screaming stopped. She opened her eyes. The Vittora hung in the air just a few feet from her, its light flickering.
“I met her in the mall,” it said, words drifting on the air, so close, as if it were whispering right in her ear. “I should have known our relationship was doomed.”
During her imprisonment, Collette had retreated again and again into her favorite movies, played them on the screen inside her head. There were a handful of movies she loved with a passion, and this was her favorite line from one of them. The Vittora spoke in the voice of John Cusack from Say Anything, as if it could comfort her now. As if the words were anything but gibberish in the panic of this moment.
“I don’t want to buy, sell, or process anything—” it began.
Collette drowned its voice out with her screams. She could not ignore its presence, the dreadful light, the knowledge that it existed there on the periphery of her imprisonment, waiting for her to die so that it could be released from the tether that held it to her. But she would not let it get in her way.
“Where are you? What is it?” she shouted, palms against the wall.
The silence shattered. The boy began screaming again, but this time he cried as well, not only terror and pain but anguish. Absolute despair and surrender.
“No,” she whispered, gritting her teeth. “No.”
Collette tore at the wall, grit getting up under her fingernails. The pads of her fingers scraped on the sandlike concrete. Her heart hammered. Fresh tears traced lines in the dirt on her face. She shouted back to him, pictured the little boy, wondering what he looked like, where he was, what was happening to him.
Anguish clutched her heart, and so it was a moment before she realized her fingers were digging in sand. Then her eyes widened as it came away in her hands, scoops of dry sand. It began to spill down from the wall as though she had broken through some outer shell and now it sifted to the ground, pooling at her feet.
“I’m coming!” she shouted to the boy.
Then his screaming stopped again. Collette kept digging, but fell silent. Perhaps shouting her intentions was not wise. Should the Sandman hear her, what would he do?
“Come on, come on,” she muttered under her breath. Her fingers hurt. They were bleeding. But she kept digging, trying to figure out what she was digging toward.
Another prisoner. That had to be it. The boy must be a prisoner in the castle, just as she was, and now someone, the Sandman or one of those freaky hunters, was hurting him. Torturing the little boy.
Her breath came even faster as she dug. The sun was rising and now she could see clearly. She cupped her hands into claws and she dug quickly, both hands at the same time, tearing the edges of the hole to make it larger and larger, digging deeper.
There came one last, long, lingering scream of sorrow.
“No!” Collette shouted.
She thrust her hands, fingers outstretched, into the hole, into the sand, and felt them break through into somewhere else…into open air. Holding on to the edges of the hole in the wall, she braced herself and kicked at the sand. Gray nothing light showed through from the other side. Almost darkness. But it was another room, some other chamber.
Again and again she kicked and huge chunks of hardened sand fell away, collapsing and crumbling so it spilled on both sides of the opening.
The Vittora began singing a song called “Joe Lies.”
The hole she’d dug in the wall was more a tunnel, its shape an arch almost like a door or the windows of her cell. Collette’s heart soared. She started through, praying it was not too late for the boy. In the darkness on the other side it was all gray light, but she saw now that it was not another chamber like hers.
It was a young boy’s bedroom, a poster of the Justice League of America on the wall, a small night-light casting a dull gray glow into the room. Sand from the hole she had dug had spilled onto the carpet, but otherwise the place looked entirely ordinary, as though she had opened up a tear in this world and back into her own.
With the glare of morning sun behind her, she blinked, trying to get a better look at the figure that lay on the bed. The covers were a tangle, the spread half on the ground. The boy had his arms splayed around him, the shadows making lines upon his face.
She stood in the opening as her vision adjusted to the dim light of the bedroom. Then she saw that the lines on his face were not shadows. They were streaks of blood. And the deepest of shadows were the indents where his eyes ought to have been. Instead they were gaping, empty, bloody holes.
“Oh,” Collette whispered.
All the strength went out of her and she collapsed to her knees, sand spilling all around her, down the back of her pajamas, into her hair, into the room ahead of her.
Then something moved across her peripheral vision, a shadow separating itself from the rest of the gray.
The Sandman stood just inside the room. He had remained out of sight at first, but now he swept toward her, his hideously bony form all sharp angles beneath that cloak, his fingers bent and contorted, hands held up in front of him like some bizarre insect as he moved.
From beneath his hood, he glared at her with those terrible lemon eyes.
Then he turned his right hand palm up, and she saw that he held the boy’s eyes, still dripping blood and vitreous fluid, optic nerves hanging from them like tails.
The Sandman grinned and opened his mouth, showing those yellow, broken fangs, then let the boy’s eyes dangle from the optic nerves above his mouth. He dropped them in and began to chew. Something damp and gleaming spilled over his lips and down his chin.
Collette could not scream. Her breath would not come. Her tears burned her cheeks and her whole body shook. Had she not already been on her knees she would have crumbled then.
“Was that what you wanted to see?” the Sandman asked in his rasping voice. He ran his black tongue over his teeth. “Perhaps in the future you will learn that it is better not to look.”
Then he held up his hand.
Power struck her. The sand she had torn away, that had spilled into the boy’s room, rose up and hit her, wrapped around her, thrust her back through the passage she had dug. It threw her back into her prison so that she sprawled across the soft, shifting floor.
Collette looked up in time to see the wall repairing itself, the sand dancing up from the ground and rebuilding. In seconds, the wall was smooth again, as though she had never touched it.
Solid, again, probably.
But she did not want to know, could not imagine touching it to find out.
The Vittora hung above her, barely noticeable now that the sun had risen. It normally went away while the sun was up, but not this morning. She wondered what that meant.
Quietly, it sang its mad song.
“My daughter,” Halliwell said.
He and Julianna walked side by side. They had been traveling across the plateau for more than two hours and Halliwell felt sure they would reach the river gorge anytime now. Twillig’s Gorge, the tricky little monk had called it. For the past twenty minutes they’d been on a steadily rising slope, but now he could see that it came to a crest ahead where the slope fell away like a cliff.
That would be the gorge.
He hoped so. God, he needed a rest.
Yet it was not only the gorge, or Oliver, that was on his mind. Since their meeting with the thing on the roadside, his thoughts had been of Julianna, and of home. If not for her, he might be dead now, or at least in debt to some monster, some…demon…on the roadside.
They were in this together. Julianna was trying to reach home just as desperately as he was, yet for her, Oliver was a part of that home. Halliwell had never quite believed Oliver was a killer, and by now he was sure of it. He only wanted answers from the man, and some help as well. But he had never looked at it through Julianna’s eyes. To her, finding Oliver was everything. She needed to see him, to hold his hands in hers, to hear his voice and maybe to tell him what was in her heart.
Halliwell understood that now.
And it made him think of Sara.
“You asked me what I need to get back to so badly,” he said, not turning to look at her, not wanting to see her eyes. “The answer is ‘my daughter.’ ”
They went on another ten steps before Julianna replied.
“What’s her name?”
“It’s been a while since you’ve seen her, huh?”
Halliwell frowned. This time he did look at her. “It shows?”
Julianna smiled kindly. “When Oliver disappeared I was just as angry as I was scared of what had happened to him. There were so many things that I wished I’d said to him, conversations we should have had but avoided so many times. When he was gone, the idea that we’d never say those things was devastating.”
Halliwell nodded. For a few seconds they walked on, but it was an easy companionship, with no weight of expectation. If he said nothing more, Julianna would not press him. Perhaps because of that, he glanced at her again.
“I don’t see her much. But when I do, I never say the things I wish I could. It’s like there’s so much distance between these days and the old days, back when she was my little girl, that my voice just won’t carry all that way. Does that make any sense?”
“It makes perfect sense,” Julianna said. “But she will. You say what needs to be said, and she’ll hear you.”
“Yeah. Maybe,” Halliwell allowed. “But first we’ve got to get home.”
Julianna made no reply. None was needed.
Once again, Halliwell looked up the slope toward the sharp ridge there.
Two figures stood on the ridge, silhouetted in the late morning sun. Halliwell held his breath and slowed, but did not stop walking.
“I assume you see them?” Julianna said.
“So what do we do?”
“If you want to go home, there’s nothing we can do. We go talk to them, or try to. They’ve seen us by now, and neither of us is in much condition to outrace them if they want a chase.”
A few more steps, and Julianna whispered again.
“They’re not human.”
“So I noticed,” Halliwell replied. “There seems to be a lot of that going around.”
Halliwell trudged onward until the figures on the ridge came into clearer focus. They were tall, thin creatures with wings, and from the waist down had the powerful bodies of snakes. In their arms, they held longbows, and each had a quiver on his back.
The creatures watched them come. As Halliwell and Julianna approached, the larger of the two slung his bow across his shoulder and slithered forward to meet them, wings rustling against his back as though at any moment he might try to take flight. The other, whose flesh was a deeper blue, nocked an arrow and drew back the bow, watching them carefully.