Halliwell blinked. Demons?
“She was a little girl!” Julianna screamed, pulling away from Halliwell and stalking toward the dais. Captain Beck got in the way and Julianna stopped, but still she stared at Hunyadi in disgust.
“No,” said the king. “She was not.”
In confusion, Halliwell stepped forward. Even as he reached for Julianna to pull her back, they both looked down at the bleeding corpse of the little girl who had guided them this far.
Her skin no longer looked human. And her face…Tusks thrust from her mouth and an elephantine trunk hung down where her nose and mouth had been. Short, bristly hair stubbled her skull.
“Oh, hell,” Halliwell whispered.
Julianna clapped a hand over her mouth and turned away.
The Borderkind forged their way through the rain forest, the air thick and close, so dense it seemed more akin to striding along the ocean bottom than crossing terrain above sea level. Coils of moss hung down from branches, and in the heat and humidity and the lightly falling rain, the whole forest churned with the rich smell of vegetation, of life. Through the canopy of treetops above, the late morning sky was a blue-white haze.
The winter man led them, moving through the brush swiftly, but heavily. He did not belong in Yucatazca. The heat and humidity wore not only at his spirit but at his physical self as well. It eroded him. The weather could not destroy him, of course; winter itself comprised his core. But here in the rain forest, his form became leaner and sharper, until he stalked mantislike through the trees, freezing the moisture on the leaves he brushed against.
The climate put him in the foulest of moods.
Blue Jay hung back, lingering at the end of their little parade, watching the rain forest for sign of some threat. The others were strung in a line between them: Cheval Bayard and Chorti, Li and the Mazikeen.
Despite his heavy robe, the Mazikeen seemed to drift ghostlike through the heat and dampness. A sense of doomed resignation enveloped him. Frost wondered if this was grief for his lost kin, or some deeper sense of impending catastrophe.
They would never reach Palenque, the capital, without coming under attack. Difficult to accept, but there it was. There were simply too many of them to avoid detection. When he had begun to formulate his plan, he’d envisioned a small army of Borderkind, never imagining that so many would have been murdered or fled before he could repay his debt to Oliver and discover the identity of their enemy. A small army would have been useful. But with every mile they traveled into Yucatazca, Frost became more and more convinced that it had been a mistake to set out with half a dozen allies. Without the strength of a larger force, he’d have been better off alone, slipping into Palenque as a silent assassin, a cold breeze that slit the throat of Ty’Lis.
But there was nothing to be done about it now. They were allies, and committed. The winter man was determined they would make an attempt at stealth, but he felt certain it would fail. The seven of them tromping through the rain forest—they could hardly fail to attract attention.
With a low growl that seemed to vibrate the ground, Li’s tiger padded past Frost. On his back, Li turned toward the winter man.
“Do you see it?” asked the Guardian of Fire.
Ahead, above the canopy, hazed in damp air and roiling heat, thrust the pinnacle of a pyramid. Unlike the Egyptian sort, the structure had a broad, flat top, upon which was built a small square temple. Wide stairwells—fifty feet across—led up the outer walls, steps to allow the high priests to climb to the sky, to be nearer the gods.
Frost had been so lost in thought that he had not, in fact, noticed. Perhaps a dozen large, red-winged birds soared above the pyramid, circling lazily. It was difficult to see from this distance how large the clearing around the pyramid might be, but if there was a temple, he knew there was likely a village, and if a village, likely there was water. Despite the level terrain, Frost suspected a river or at least a stream.
He turned to regard the others as they gathered around.
“It’s half a day to Palenque from here, if the Mazikeen is correct. I do not know how long we can remain undiscovered, but it seems wise to go around any settlements. We’ll move east, keep forest between us and whatever people worship at that temple. From here, it’s going to—”
The growl of the tiger alerted him first. The winter man glanced at the animal. Upon its back, Li narrowed his eyes and the fire that flickered there burned higher as he glanced around, studying the forest. Rain hissed into steam where it struck Li.
Chorti grunted and began to turn in a circle, slowly, also searching for the source of whatever it was that had unsettled him. He edged protectively closer to Cheval.
“What’s this, then?” Grin mumbled low, almost to himself.
Frost looked past them all, at Blue Jay. The trickster closed his eyes and tilted his head back, listening to the patter of the rain and whatever other sounds were in the forest.
“Jay?” Frost said.
The trickster shrugged. “Not sure. Something, though. Something dark.”
“What do you say, sorcerer?” Frost asked the Mazikeen.
The hooded man reached up and tugged the iron rings in his beard, brow furrowed in thought. “No sorcery. Whatever comes this way is not familiar to me.”
Frost peered into the trees around them. Li rode the tiger into the forest, weaving in and out of trees with stunning quiet, prowling in search of their watcher. The winter man did not wish to wait any longer.
“Let’s move on. We will circle the settlement, as planned. All of you, be wary.”
The Borderkind began to move, continuing southward through the rain forest. The hazy sky seemed far lower suddenly, as though it were slowly collapsing in upon them. The rain fell upon each of them, hissing as it touched Li and the tiger, but merely dappling the others.
Something watched. They had a Mazikeen among them, and creatures with remarkably acute senses. Whatever it was, they ought to have been able to sense it.
Wings fluttered above him, and Frost glanced up to see the small bird dart above his head. Blue Jay felt safer in that form, Frost knew. Cheval moved through the trees as though dancing. Her rain-dampened hair clung to her face and coiled in wet strings upon her shoulders. Chorti stayed close to her, metal teeth bared as though every raindrop posed a threat.
Now it was the Grindylow who hung back. Even as Frost glanced at him, Grin paused and turned slowly, backtracking with his eyes.
A noise had been growing, distant at first but moving closer, a high-pitched flutelike whistle. Frost saw no sign of its source but knew it was only one more reason to continue forward. The alternative was unacceptable.
First, though, they had to get past whatever Grin had seen in the trees. He wanted to see it for himself. The ground around the winter man froze, ice spreading from his feet onto the grass and leaves and the stalks of plants. His eyes narrowed. Again he spun, mist rising from his eyes, and then he saw it ahead of them, standing amidst the trees as though to block their way through the rain forest. At first glance it seemed like a man riding horseback, but it was nothing so mundane.
“Black Devil,” Chorti grunted.
The winter man stared at the centaur—some sort of local legend. It had the body of a stallion, but where its head ought to have been was the upper body of a man. Yet that was only illusion, it was neither one thing nor the other but a third creature that shared elements of both. Its skin was black and smooth and ridged with cords of muscle. Slick with rain, it gleamed in the haze of the Yucatazcan day.
Frost caught scent of its musk.
The whistling noise became louder…moving closer.
“Either it moves,” Cheval said, gliding past him, “or we kill it.”
Li urged his tiger forward, blocking her with its sinewy body. The little man glared at her. “Do you really think it is alone?”
“Ah, bloody Hell!” Grin swore, as if in answer.
As one they all glanced back at him. He ignored them, staring still into the forest they had just traveled through. Two more of the Black Devils were moving out of the trees, hooves noiseless on the wet ground.
The winter man studied the centaur ahead of them, took a step toward it. “We don’t know they’re enemies. Even if they are, they might not be Hunters.”
Blue Jay circled around his head, wings fluttering, and with a blur of color that seemed darker against the rain, transformed once again into the jean-clad trickster. The feathers in his hair lay flat and damp against his head. His eyes were clear and bright with danger.
“Something else is coming.”
The tiger growled. Li shifted anxiously upon its back. The Mazikeen appeared suddenly at the winter man’s side as though he moved between moments.
“They are Minata-Karaia. We must leave the forest.”
Frost heard the whistling. It grew louder still.
The Black Devils moved through the trees in a slowly closing circle, but they were only three. Around the winter man, the rain turned to snow. He was weaker here in the tropical climate, but not entirely without power.
“Get to the pyramid!” he snapped. “Kill anything that gets in your way!”
As one, they turned south. Blue Jay took flight again, diminishing into a bird and darting up through the branches. Li and his tiger bounded into the trees with Grin and Chorti crashing through the forest behind them. Cheval Bayard was all green and silver streaks, shifting in an eyeblink from woman to horse. Frost could have summoned a chill wind to carry him, but he dared not exert himself so much in this weather. Instead he ran, slicing through the forest again.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw one of the Black Devils careening through the trees to cut him off. He tensed, dagger fingers hooked, prepared to slaughter the thing if it attacked. But before he could even pause, Cheval was there. The kelpy thundered through the trees, snapping branches before her, and collided with the Black Devil, knocking the centaur off of its feet. Before it could fight back, she began to beat it with the hooves of her forelegs, breaking bones and pulping its skull. The Black Devil screamed, then fell silent.
The winter man kept going, grateful and impressed. He had underestimated Cheval, and vowed not to do it again.
Another bestial cry came, off to his left, and he glanced over to see a Black Devil writhing on the ground, bucking against the earth in obvious agony. Over it stood the Mazikeen, one skeletal hand extended from beneath its robe, the air shimmering between its fingers and the centaur’s flesh.
The last of the Black Devils galloped behind him, its hooves pounding the forest floor, but Frost was not concerned. On its own, a single Black Devil posed no challenge to the Borderkind.
Ahead, in the trees and through the sheen of light rain, he saw Chorti and Grin rumbling through the rain forest like enormous children playing some sort of game. But the whistling sound had grown louder still, and the name the Mazikeen had used, Minata-Karaia, was echoing through the winter man’s head. What were they? The sound was unfamiliar, but if the sorcerer said they had to flee, he knew they must be terrible indeed.
Branches whipped against him, snapping on his frozen form. All around him, snowflakes whipped in a light breeze, the rain no longer reaching him. Frost darted around trees and leaped—flowed—over fallen logs.
Up ahead, he heard Li’s tiger roar.
Something shifted in the forest beside him.
But not a tree. He looked up and his eyes widened at the sight of the creature as tall as the tallest tree, fruit hanging from its strange branch-arms, its head a thick wooden knot that jutted up from the trunk of its body. There was a hole in its head, and even as it bent to grab at him, the air rushing through that hole screamed into that terrible whistling noise.
With merely a thought, Frost became the winter storm. There in the rain forest it was little more than a cloud of frigid mist, but as the Minata-Karaia reached its tree-fingers into that cloud, the entire branch froze solid. When the creature moved, that whistle announcing its motion, the branch snapped off.
Frost drifted only a dozen feet before taking form again, a sliver man, narrow ice carved like a stick figure. He could not keep up the storm for long. Now he ran again, but this time his gaze searched the trees above and he saw them moving. The whistling grew louder. The Minata-Karaia came after him through the harmless, unmoving trees.
Li’s tiger roared again, the sound echoing through the rain forest. There came a howl that could only have been Chorti. Then Cheval thundered past, her hooves pounding the ground. Frost would have tried to swing up onto her back, but by then the Mazikeen was beside him as well, not running but rather floating along a few inches above the forest floor.
Together, they burst from the trees out into the vast open plain around the settlement. Small huts and white-washed buildings were clustered on the far side of a narrow river, little more than a stream. On the near side was the pyramid.
The Borderkind charged out across the open ground, leaving the trees behind. Chorti had blood matted on his furry back. The Grindylow rested on his fists like a mountain gorilla and spun to face the others. Li leaped down off of the tiger, spheres of fire bursting from his hands, ready for battle. Blue Jay danced down from the sky, spinning until he was a man again, his boots alighting upon the ground. Cheval reared back, the battle cry erupting from her throat not quite a neigh.
Together, Frost and the Mazikeen turned to look back the way they’d come. The Minata-Karaia shuffled to the edge of the rain forest. Only when they were moving was it obvious they were not trees, but then it was very, very obvious. They were not even tree-men, but giant, narrow creatures with dark, brittle flesh like bark and long, long legs. They were a race of giants perfectly created to camouflage themselves in a jungle or forest, save for that horrid whistling their heads made as they moved.
But they stopped, unwilling to come into the clearing, at least for the moment, and so the whistling stopped as well. They made odd Hunters, these things who would not pursue their prey. Frost saw perhaps fifteen or twenty of them, just standing there watching as though they were the audience at some kind of bizarre Roman forum.