Page 16

“Hold there,” said the snake-man, slithering toward them, powerful upper body upright, wings unfurling.

Halliwell glanced at Julianna. Her chest rose and fell with short little breaths, and just from looking at her, he could see she wanted to bolt. He understood: the presence of this thing made his skin crawl. The very atmosphere of this bizarre world felt too close and claustrophobic around him; only by denying the reality of his surroundings could he fight that feeling. Otherwise it would shatter him.

Panic had been simmering in him from the moment he had stepped into this impossible world. Halliwell didn’t want to think about what would happen to him if he let the panic out.

He turned his attention to the snake-man, determined not to look away.

“Good morning,” Halliwell said, just as though he were walking on a backcountry road up in Maine and had come upon someone he did not know.

“State your business,” the snake-man said, pale blue skin rippling with corded muscle as he swayed before them.

High upon the mountain plateau, it was hot out in the sun. But when the wind blew, it carried a chill from somewhere far off, and Halliwell shivered as the thing spoke to them. He took a protective step nearer to Julianna.

“We’re…newcomers,” Halliwell replied, glancing from the snake-man to the other, whose grip was firm upon the bow. The tip of the arrow glinted in the sun.

The snake-man crossed his arms, scrutinizing them. “Lost Ones? Just arrived?” he asked, and Halliwell thought he was paying close attention to their clothes.

“Yes,” Julianna said. She smiled, a quiet plea in her eyes. “We’re not supposed to be here. We just…we’re trying to find someone. A friend. We were following him and we went through this door and came out…” She looked around, spreading her arms wide. “Here. We came out here, and we couldn’t get back.”

The archer fluttered his wings and took better aim. They were close enough that Halliwell could hear the twang of the bowstring being drawn further.

“Not the first,” the archer said. “Nor the last.”

Halliwell held up his hands. “Look, we don’t want trouble. We’re not even asking for help. All we want to do is get down to the river.”

The older, pale one narrowed his eyes. “Why?”

Julianna cleared her throat as though to get his attention. Halliwell glanced at her, realized that she was just as unsure as he was what to say next. What words would get them where they needed to be without an arrow through the heart?

“This woman is searching for her fiancé. The man she’s supposed to marry,” he said at last. “His name is Oliver Bascombe, and we think he’s passed through the gorge sometime yesterday afternoon. He may even still be there. All we want is to find him, or to pick up his trail so we can continue our search.”

Something changed in the snake-man’s diamond eyes. Halliwell wasn’t sure, but he thought he saw pity there.

“That is all?” the creature asked.

Julianna laughed softly, and a bit manically. “Well, I wouldn’t say no to a sandwich and a cup of coffee…”

“That’s all,” Halliwell said, shooting her a wary glance. “Did Oliver come through the gorge yesterday? It’s a simple question. You don’t even have to let us down there if you don’t want. Just tell us where the river comes out of the mountain and we’ll leave you alone.”

The older snake-man gestured to the other to lower his bow. The archer hesitated a moment, then complied.

“Your names,” the snake-man said.

“I’m Ted Halliwell. And this is Julianna Whitney.”

The creature bowed his head. “I am Ananta of the Naga, and this is Shesa. Our people are the guardians of Twillig’s Gorge. I am afraid that this is not a welcome time for visitors.”

Ananta knitted his brows and bowed his head toward Julianna. “The arrival of your fiancé has only made things worse. Suspicion is rampant here and throughout the Two Kingdoms. Neighbors begin to distrust neighbors. With strangers, the situation is even worse.”

“Wait,” Julianna said, moving closer to Ananta.

Shesa raised his bow again, but the older Naga waved him away.

“You said…you mean, Oliver is here?”

“He was,” Ananta replied. “At daybreak he departed, along with his companions. It appears that before they left, one of their number murdered the innkeeper at the Stonebridge Inn.”

“Murdered?” Halliwell said. His pulse quickened. “How was he killed?”

Ananta frowned, studying him. “Violently.”

He did not want to raise the Nagas’ suspicions again, but Halliwell could not help himself.

“Were his eyes removed?”

Ananta and Shesa exchanged a confused look.

“What prompts the question?” Ananta asked.

Halliwell shook his head. “Never mind. Where I come from, I’m a…guardian, much like yourself. But it’s not important now.”

Not important, because the look between the two Nagas had told him the answer. The innkeeper’s eyes were not taken. So whatever had killed Max Bascombe and all those children, it hadn’t caught up to Oliver here. Or so it seemed.

“Do you know where Oliver went? When he left, I mean? And how long ago?” Julianna asked, the questions tumbling frantically one after the other.

Ananta gestured toward the east. “Across the Gorge. He traveled east with Kitsune at dawn. The other Borderkind who were with him yesterday left earlier, on a westerly course.”

“We need to follow,” Julianna said quickly. “Can you help us?”

The Nagas regarded each other once more. After a moment, Ananta slithered over to Shesa, serpentine body scraping over stone and hard-packed dirt. They conferred for a moment quietly, but Halliwell heard enough to realize they were speaking a different language. One he could never have understood.

At length, Ananta turned to face them again, his wings spreading wide.

“Shesa will remain here on guard. I will see you safely to the other side of the Gorge, and there the Nagas who stand sentry to the east will set you on the path you seek. Whether you will overtake them must be left to fate, for the Bascombe has a Borderkind with him, and there is no telling how swiftly they might travel, or if they shall remain in this world.”

Halliwell allowed himself the smallest flicker of hope. If Oliver could go back, that meant he could, too. And that was one more mystery solved. When Oliver had disappeared from his family home on Rose Ridge Lane in the middle of a blizzard, Halliwell had been baffled by the question of how he had gone anywhere in the storm. Then Collette had disappeared. Oliver had shown up in Cottingsley, and then in London, with no clear explanation of how he had traveled there. But it was obvious now. He had traveled here, then back to the real world.

Home, Halliwell thought.

He glanced at Julianna and smiled, and he was sure she was thinking the same thing. The panic that seethed in him at the utter alienness of this world could only be calmed by two things: hope, and concentrating on resolving their predicament.

“All right, all right,” he said quickly, practically mumbling. “That’s fantastic. Thank you so much.”

The Naga guard studied them, surveying their clothes again. “You truly are newcomers, then? Newly Lost?”

“We said as much,” Julianna replied, though not unpleasantly.

Ananta nodded. “Come, then. Before I set you on the path, you must speak with Virginia Tsing. It is rare for the newly or recently Lost to find their way to the Gorge, but it has happened. Miss Tsing sees to them, as she will to you. There are things you will need to know about the Two Kingdoms if you wish to survive here. She will likely feed you as well. Perhaps even sandwiches and coffee, though I have never understood what humans love so much about those beans.”

“They’ve got quite a start on us already,” Halliwell said.

“Do not worry. Miss Tsing will not keep you long. Come.”

Ananta slid across the mountaintop, toward the top of the ridge. Halliwell watched Shesa warily for a moment, but the younger Naga ignored him now, as though humans were beneath him. Halliwell thought that perhaps, in this world, that was precisely what such creatures thought.

Now that they were near the top of the ridge, it was clear that this was indeed the gorge. The edge was in sight. Jutting up from the broad canyon below he could see the tops of some kind of rope and metal rigging, as well as the tips of some kind of ornamental stonework.

“You have no idea how much we appreciate your help. But I wonder…if Oliver and this person he’s traveling with go back through to…where we come from, can you show us how to get through? Is there another door that goes back?”

At the edge of the cliff, Ananta paused and looked back at her. “I am sorry. I thought you understood. You are Lost Ones now. You have crossed the Veil. And once through the Veil, the Lost Ones can never go home.”

Halliwell staggered, swayed on his feet, staring at the Naga as he spread his wings, trying to make sense of the words.

“That’s…that’s impossible. We have to go back.”

Ananta only shrugged. “You will want to speak with Miss Tsing. She can explain better than I.”

He took flight for just a moment, dropping down to a platform just beyond the edge of the cliff. Halliwell walked numbly after him. He glanced at Julianna. Her eyes were hollow.

The guardian had to be wrong. Oliver could travel back and forth. There had to be a way. The thing wasn’t even human, after all. What the hell did he know?

Together, Halliwell and Julianna went to the edge and looked down into the wondrous river gorge. There were awnings and stone bridges, ladders and walkways of wood and rope. The river went through a thriving village. The smell of food cooking down below rose to make Halliwell’s stomach growl. Somewhere down there, children were laughing, and the sweet sound echoed off the walls. He saw a large, colorful florist’s cart on the broad promenade beside the river, amidst all manner of shops.

Below, Ananta waited on the platform. It was connected to a strange latticework of stairs and rope bridges that led down hundreds of feet into the heart of Twillig’s Gorge.

Halliwell took one last, long glance at the eastern side of the gorge, knowing that their path continued there. They had to get after Oliver and this Kitsune. That was the only way they were going to find real answers.

But Ananta began to slide his long serpent body down the stairs, holding the rails, wings tucked behind him, and after a moment’s hesitation, Julianna followed.

Still numb, Halliwell descended behind them, wondering if there was any point in going on.


Light snow fell on the tarmac at Bangor International Airport, the gentle cascade of white illuminated by the runway lights as the plane touched down. Sara Halliwell stared out the window, her forehead against the glass, and stared at nothing as the pilot taxied toward the terminal.

Everyone stood up before the seatbelt light was off. Sara stayed in her seat. Only when the door was open and people began to file along the aisle did she stand and retrieve her bag from the overhead compartment. It was smaller than a suitcase but larger than an overnight bag, and heavy. With the strap over one shoulder, she listed badly to one side.

She shuffled along the aisle, face slack, tired but all too awake. The flight attendants stood just outside the cockpit and smiled pleasantly as she got off the plane, then Sara was in the throng moving up the gangway into the terminal. People hurried by her. A crewman pushed an elderly black man in a wheelchair. She went around them, but neither of them glanced up.

Once upon a time, an eighteen-year-old Sara had driven into Canada to go skiing with her girlfriends. It was raining lightly, just spattering the windshield, but in the dark she had not realized it was freezing rain, and the highway had become a sheet of ice. Then something about the sound of the rain on the roof of the car troubled her and she frowned and gently tapped the brake.

She had crested the hill. As she did, she saw the brake lights flash on the car in front of her. It started to skid, sliding as if in slow motion down the other side of the hill. Ahead, cars collided, one after the other, first two, then five, and then there were at least nine vehicles careening into one another with a crash of metal, gliding so gently into their collisions.

Sara had not tapped the brake again, nor had she accelerated. Instead, she had steered, carefully, skirting around a slowly spinning car and weaving through the wreckage. Even as she made it through to the other side, a car came over the hill behind her going much too fast, and the resulting crash made a thump like a cannon shot into the air.

Yet Sara had slipped through, as though she had been invisible. Untouchable. She felt that way now. Moving up the gangway and into the airport, anonymous and invisible, she was untouchable.

But fate had already touched her, after all.

Fate had been Jackson Norris on the phone just after ten o’clock last night. Just hearing his voice she had caught her breath. A phone call from Jackson Norris could only mean the worst.

When she left the gate area and walked past security, he was there waiting for her. The man was fortysomething, but the raccoon-dark circles under his eyes made him look ten years older. Haggard and tired, he looked too thin and his hair was much grayer than the last time she had seen him, back in the spring.

Still, he managed a sad smile for her as she went to him.

“Hello, Sheriff.”

He held her at arm’s length, like a long-lost uncle who hadn’t seen her since childhood. “Sara. You look great, kid.” The sheriff took her bag and slung it over his own shoulder. “And I’ve told you before, you’re long since old enough to call me Jackson.”

“Not sure I’ll ever be old enough for that,” she said, and she kissed his cheek even as they began to walk through the airport.

The sheriff led the way, already fishing out his keys, though it was no short walk to the parking lot.