“ ’S beautiful, this is,” Grin said.
The Borderkind stood in the midst of yet another ruin, this time of a Greek-style amphitheater, an outdoor theater on top of a mountain. It was the highest point in the area, as though whatever performances had been conducted here had wanted the gods for an audience.
Below, there stretched a city, though Blue Jay could not have said which. The theater was probably Greek, but the Greeks had influenced the world once upon a time, and the city below looked vaguely Italian, even from here.
Then he saw the volcano in the distance, gray smoke drifting heavenward from its peak.
“Where—” he began.
Frost was beside him. “Didn’t you hear the Mazikeen? Akrai. We’re in Sicily. The volcano there is Mt. Etna.”
The trickster tossed his hair, feathers dancing on the breeze. He stretched and stamped his feet, enjoying the soil beneath his boots. Whenever he crossed the Veil, he needed a moment to become acclimated.
“We’re on an island?” Blue Jay asked. He turned to look at the others. They were spread across the stones that had been laid down as a stage thousands of years before, as though they were the main attraction. “Sicily is an island. How are we going to make our way to the Atlantic coast from here?”
Frost arched an eyebrow, the ice of his face crackling. He turned his head, icicle hair tinkling musically.
Chorti threw his head back and howled.
“Somehow,” Cheval Bayard said, slipping sylphlike up behind them, her silver hair blowing across her face, “I think that is the least of our concerns.”
Blue Jay followed the line of her gaze, and there in the sky, he saw the terrible, angular figures with their antlers jutting from their heads and green-feathered wings spread out behind them.
“Perytons!” Li cried, fire erupting from his nostrils as he held out a hand, in which a ball of flame grew.
“At least seven,” the Grindylow said. He pried a massive, ancient stone up out of the stage and prepared to hurl it.
But that was not what Chorti had scented. He scraped his metal talons on the stones and spun around like a massive dog chasing its tail. Blue Jay glanced around and then he saw, coming over the top of the hill, above the stone rows of seats that surrounded one side of the amphitheater, a pair of dreadful figures.
A hideous crone, the dawn’s light illuminating her blue skin.
And a swift figure that slunk down toward them, its body as large as Li’s tiger, its face a grotesque parody of humanity, its mouth impossibly wide and lined with hundreds of ivory needle teeth, tipped with venom.
“They were expecting us,” Frost said, icy mist drifting from his eyes. “They would not come into the Latin Quarter, but once they knew we were in Lycaon’s Kitchen, they gambled that we would cross the border here.”
Blue Jay sighed. “An ambush. Wonderful.”
Halliwell sat on a fallen tree, catching his breath. His right hand moved inquisitively over the bark and the jagged tips of several broken branches and he wondered what had taken the tree down. He would have thought a storm responsible, but there was a section of the trunk where the bark had been stripped off and deep gouges cut in the wood, as if from horns or something equally deadly. In this place, it might be anything.
He hoped that whatever had knocked down the tree was long gone.
Julianna had continued on sixty or seventy yards in the general direction of what Kara called the Orient Road. He was both embarrassed and grateful for her courtesy. They’d stopped to let him rest. His legs burned from all the walking they had done in the past two days. Halliwell often thought of himself as an old man. The truth was that he was in decent shape for his age; no old man was going to make this journey and not drop dead of a heart attack by now.
But he felt older than ever.
Kara had none of Julianna’s courtesy. The little girl hung from the low branch of a tree just across from the fallen one and studied Halliwell with open curiosity and a bit of disdain. The detective—could he even think of himself as a detective in this place?—forced himself to breathe slowly and evenly and he stretched his legs, ignoring the twinging protests of his thighs and calves. His feet didn’t hurt, so that was a plus. But he suspected that they would, and soon. How far he would be able to go after that, he did not know.
Halliwell returned Kara’s stare, but she was unfazed by his attention. The girl swung on the branch and studied him, head tilted just to one side, like a faithful dog. He was reminded of a mental patient he had tried to interview once in an asylum in Bangor.
“How old are you?” Halliwell asked.
Kara dropped to the ground, dry grass crunching underfoot. She did a pirouette, amusing herself as children do. “I’m not really sure. How old are you?”
He hesitated a moment, on the verge of answering. Then, reluctantly, he picked himself up from the fallen tree, wishing he could sit there all day but knowing they had to move on. He brushed off the seat of his pants and shot the girl a smile.
“Young enough to make this trip but old enough to wish I was anywhere else.”
Kara’s dark, lustrous features expanded into a glorious smile. “You’re a clever man, Mister Halliwell.”
“And I’m beginning to think you’re quite a clever girl.”
Halliwell studied her more closely. Something in her eyes made him uneasy, and that megawatt smile did not help at all. Thus far she had proven herself a knowledgeable and skilled guide…or at least she seemed to be; they wouldn’t know for sure how good she was until she led them to Oliver. But Halliwell felt wary around her and caught himself glancing at her almost constantly. Whoever and whatever she was, it seemed obvious to him that Kara was not quite human.
Get used to it, he told himself. You’re going to run into a lot of that here.
But that did not mean he had to like it.
Here. He hated even thinking of here and there. It brought back the panic that churned within him. His nerves were frayed, and sometimes his hands shook. He tried to control it as best he could, knowing that Julianna had noticed.
Kara had noticed, too. A clever girl, he’d said. But there was far more to her than that. Halliwell studied her a moment longer. Kara did another pirouette and it was as though she had no idea he was there to watch her. Yet at the same time he thought she was completely aware of him, and this little dance was a performance for his benefit.
Ahead, Julianna waited. She made no gesture for them to hurry and did not call out, but her body language was signal enough. She was getting impatient. Halliwell could not blame her.
Kara led the way and Halliwell had to hurry to catch up. For her size, she moved with uncanny swiftness. He tried not to look too closely at her when she was walking, or to attempt to gauge distance visually. Something went wrong with his eyes if he did that, and a needle of pain would thrust into each temple.
“You’re sure this is the way? Oliver and the…shapeshifter…the fox-woman, they came down here?”
The girl turned and walked backward as she replied. “I can smell them,” she said, giving a small shrug. “Can’t you?”
“No,” Halliwell replied, knitting his brows.
When they reached Julianna, she gave Halliwell a visual once-over and he knew she was checking him out to see if he was okay to continue onward.
“I’m fine,” he snapped, more harshly than he’d intended. He nodded, gesturing that she should get moving and not worry about him.
“All right,” she said. They continued along the path and past a stand of ancient oaks. “You feeling any better?”
“I’ve caught my breath,” he said, brushing off the question. He shot her a hard look, giving her a glimpse of the anger that he was trying to keep bottled up. After a few steps he spoke again, cautiously this time. “I’m…sorry about that, Julianna.”
As she walked, she pulled her hair back into a ponytail, using a rubber band to hold it in place. “Don’t worry about it, Ted. We’re in this together.”
Halliwell spoke without thinking. “Thanks to your fiancé.”
Julianna glanced sidelong at him. “That’s not exactly fair. We don’t know the whole story, but from what we can tell, Oliver didn’t come here by choice and he sure as hell didn’t drag us over here.”
Over his shoulder, Halliwell carried the small satchel Ovid Tsing had prepared for them with food and water. He shifted it now to the other side, taking the moment to draw a deep breath and bite his tongue. Maybe Oliver Bascombe hadn’t dragged them across the Veil, but he had led them here. The guy might be just as much a victim as they were, but Halliwell couldn’t help blaming him, or even hating him a little.
“Ted?” Julianna prodded. “It’s not Oliver’s fault that we’re here.”
Halliwell shrugged, but would not meet her gaze. He felt the anger rising again. “You don’t know that.”
She stopped in her tracks and stared at him. Halliwell kept walking. When he had gained a few paces on her, Julianna started up again. She said nothing, but her jaw was tightly clenched as she fell into stride with him. Halliwell regretted that. They were stuck here together and he did not want tension between them, but he also wasn’t going to lie to avoid it. Oliver might not be a killer, but Halliwell still had some pretty pointed questions for the man.
He had to have someone to blame for his fear and rage, for his panic and sorrow. Who better than Oliver Bascombe? What he wanted more than anything was to meet up with the guy and get him by the throat, up against a wall, and squeeze answers out of him.
Halliwell practically trembled with the need to lash out.
Julianna wasn’t the target he wanted. As long as she didn’t push his buttons, he would hold it all in. For now.
Soon they passed a ramshackle building that Kara referred to as a way station. Halliwell imagined that it must once have been exactly that—a stopover point for travelers, perhaps for coaches, horsemen, and soldiers. But though there must still have been a need for such a place, it seemed abandoned. Sometimes there were things the detective in him could not ignore, and this was one of them. He wondered why travelers in need of a place to rest would avoid this structure. Perhaps something had happened here that kept them away.
They reached the Orient Road—little more than a dirt track—and turned to the west. In time, his feet began to feel like blocks of wood. The muscles in his legs burned as though frostbitten and there were aches all through his back. But Halliwell said nothing of this to Julianna. His comments had been hurtful. True or not, he ought to have spared her those words. No way was he going to look for sympathy from her now.
Halliwell hated it, but as the day grew longer and the shadows deeper, he knew he was going to have to stop to rest again. If he could hold on a while, perhaps they could eat something from the bag that Ovid Tsing had given them.
All throughout their trek along the Orient Road, Kara had been keeping up, but only barely. Like an even younger child she stopped to investigate everything, picking up fallen leaves and letting the wind take them, climbing rocks, weaving amongst the trees on the edge of the forest. Now she joined them by virtue of a cartwheel that carried her right up beside Julianna.
“The Bascombes are special,” said the girl. “It isn’t as though they can help it.”
Halliwell hooked his thumbs in his pockets. “What does that mean?”
“Is there something you’re not telling us, Kara?” Julianna asked.
The girl looked at them, all wide-eyed innocence. “What, me?” She grinned. “Don’t be silly. There are thousands of things I haven’t told you. We’re only just getting to know each other.”
Halliwell chuckled softly. He couldn’t decide if she was a complete smartass or really that innocent. Though he was wary of her, Kara also took him off guard with her oddity and nonsense, and the attitude she presented that seemed to indicate she perceived herself as the adult and the two of them as the tiresomely inquisitive children. In those moments, she helped to lighten Halliwell’s mood, which was good. Anything that took the edge off of the anxious, frantic buzz in his head.
“About Oliver,” Julianna prodded.
Kara shrugged, rolling her eyes. “I don’t know. It’s just that so many people are going to so much trouble over him. Would that happen if he and his sister were just ordinary?”
Halliwell would have pushed the question further, but Kara’s face lit up with pleasure and she ran ahead.
“What the hell is she doing?” Julianna asked quietly.
He didn’t know. With some difficulty, he picked up the pace and they both hurried after the girl. Evening was still a ways off, but the shadows stretched across the road now from the woods on both sides. Things dashed through the underbrush. Halliwell’s nerves were so brittle that the movement startled him, every time, even as he tried to keep his focus on Kara.
Thirty yards ahead, she stopped in the road. With the waning light, it was difficult at first to see what had gotten her attention. Only when they walked up and were nearly on top of it did he and Julianna realize she was crouched over a large pile of horse shit, buzzing with flies.
The girl sniffed the air as though she wanted to inhale every bit of the aroma. Julianna grimaced and made a disgusted noise.
“What’s so special about a pile of manure?” Halliwell asked.
Kara ignored him. She started off again at a trot that he was sure was meant to mimic the horse that had passed along the road recently. A giddy little noise escaped her.
“I’m not sure the girl is entirely sane,” Julianna said, voice low and deadly serious.
Halliwell picked up the pace further, a strange exhilaration filling him as he pushed past his exhaustion. “You think?”
Kara continued to run ahead and passed another pile of horse shit. A few minutes later, they came to a quaint little stone bridge that crossed a narrow but swiftly moving stream.