Each of the black stones had grown tall, but not uniformly so. The largest stood perhaps twenty feet in height, the shortest a dozen. The circle they formed was uneven, yet still undoubtedly a circle, placed that way with some purpose. The gaps between stones were as little as a few inches in some places, and at the widest, no more than two feet.
Flowers grew in clumps amongst the knee-high grass of the clearing, as though the black stones themselves were some sort of shrine or memorial and the flowers had been left by mourners.
Oliver paused at the edge of the road, hesitant to enter the clearing.
“What do you think will happen?” he asked without looking at Kitsune.
“I don’t know,” the fox-woman replied, her voice soft and, he thought, perhaps even a bit fearful. “But now we find out.”
The late afternoon sun still reached fingers of daylight into the clearing, but Oliver shivered as a chill breeze rustled the trees. With a nervous grin he stepped into the clearing, tall grass scritching against the legs of his blue jeans as he walked toward the ebony circle.
Oliver tried to peer between the stones, but there was only shadow there, as though night had already fallen within the circle. He could see that the grass grew in the gaps between the stones, and that heartened him a bit, though he did not know why. What would happen, he wondered, if he was unable to pass through, but Kitsune vanished? Would she be able to come back for him? Would she bother?
Thoughts of Collette steeled him.
Kitsune did not reach out for him, but she took a step past him and cocked her head, looking back curiously. Then she reached up and drew back her hood for the first time since they had come back through the Veil. Despite his fear, he caught his breath just to look at her. Her eyes were kind.
“You must try, Oliver. This will save us days.”
He nodded. Collette awaited. The Sandman was also waiting.
Oliver took another step.
As if startled by the motion, a flock of small birds cried out and took off from the tops of several trees at the edge of the clearing, branches waving at the suddenness of their departure.
Something had spooked them.
Oliver glanced at Kitsune and saw that she was sniffing at the air.
“No,” he whispered, jaw set tightly. “Not now.”
A terrible hiss filled the clearing, resounding off of the stones. Oliver turned, trying to find the source of the echoing sounds, but then he saw that Kitsune’s gaze was locked on a spot at the edge of the clearing—at the very same knot of trees that had blocked their view of the stone circle until the last moment.
A creature stood in the shade of those trees, a thing with antlers and green-feathered wings and long, vicious claws. Its features were thin and brutal and its eyes were bright as it stepped into the last of the sunlight and started toward them.
Oliver glanced around. There were others. Of course there were others. Six or seven of the antlered things, each of them terrifying to behold. They carried no weapons, but this troubled Oliver even more than if they had been armed. Their long fingers came to vicious points, and it was clear they needed no other weapon.
Back on the Orient Road, two other figures had appeared from the woods. One was an immense, hunchbacked hag with jaundiced, pustulent skin and a thick mess of gray and black hair. The hag stood at least eight feet high, and she carried a long butcher’s knife in each hand, ready to carve.
But she was far from the worst of them. For beside her came the thing responsible for the hissing in the air. It rose and fell, bobbing in the air, and its upper body swayed back and forth. The head was vaguely serpentine, but beneath that it was simply a mass of tentacles that coiled like snakes, turning in upon themselves. Its body was like a tower of vipers, the tentacles lashing out and then curling inward again. It moved across the dusty road without legs, the tentacles dragging and thrusting and dancing it forward.
“Oliver,” Kitsune whispered.
From the corner of his eye he saw her raise her hood again. Oliver put his hand on the pommel of his sword, holding his breath.
“You’ve gone far enough, I think,” the hag said.
“Black Annis,” Kitsune said, her eyes as cold as her tone. “This is none of your concern. Hunt me another day. We have an errand that will not wait.”
The hag crouched lower, the hump on her back more pronounced than ever, and took a step nearer. “This errand will not wait.”
The tentacled thing roiled toward them, kicking up dust from the road. Oliver stared at it, hating his fear but unable to rise above it. Twisted as she was, the hag at least had human form. The other was unnatural, a nightmare churning forth from his fevered mind.
With a sound like the flap of a flag in high wind, one of the winged Hunters took flight at the edge of the clearing, throwing a dreadful shadow across the grass. The one that had been directly opposite it took flight as well.
“Kit?” Oliver whispered.
The fox-woman did not reply, only stared at Black Annis, then glanced around quickly at the others. He could practically hear her heart pounding, and he saw in her stance that she wanted nothing more than to bolt into the trees and run for her life.
Oliver knew then that they would die here. They stood no chance at all against so many Hunters. Kitsune could drag them across the Veil again, but could she grab him and step through before they attacked? He did not believe so. And from the look of her, she was so frightened that it had not even occurred to her.
I miss you, he thought, images of his sister, and of Julianna, rising in his mind. And he began slowly to draw his sword from its sheath.
He caught his breath. The Dustman, he thought. If he could summon the Dustman, at least they would not be alone. The numbers might still be too great, but…
And then Oliver realized that there was another alternative.
Leaving his blade sheathed, he reached into his pocket. His fingers pushed aside the feather from the little girl’s pillow and he grasped instead the single large seed that the gods of the Harvest had given him what seemed like so very long ago. Promises had been made that day, of help when he needed it.
He could not imagine ever needing it more.
Oliver dropped the seed to the ground. For good measure, he stepped on it, pressing it into the soil.
The ground began to tremble.
The antlered creatures began to close in, but several of them paused and glanced at one another, confused. The two in the air began to swoop downward.
“What have you done?” shrieked the hag.
The hissing of the other Hunter grew so loud it almost drowned out the rumbling of the earth and it darted across the road, propelled by a hundred thick tentacles.
Cornstalks shot up out of the road and wrapped around it, grabbing tentacles one by one and dragging it down. The thing struggled, at war with the cornstalks as they continued to burst up through the hard-packed soil.
Other things grew. Trees and plants came up amongst the grass, only sprouts and saplings one instant and fully grown the next. The Kornbocke himself was there, antlers raised. A low, snarling shape tore itself from a thick crop of cornstalks, and the Kornwolf bounded free.
The appletree man lumbered toward Oliver, taking up a defensive position beside him. Others quickly joined them; elegant women made of bark and thorns; stout little red-faced men who stank of rotting berries; and the king himself, Ahren Konigen, the corn husk man who had given Oliver the seed to begin with. Corn husks lay over the hollows where his eyes ought to be and formed the crown upon his head.
“As good as our word, Oliver Bascombe. These are dark days, and your fight is ours.”
The Hunters attacked.
The gods of the Harvest were silent but savage, and blood splattered the grass and the circle of black stones. Oliver drew his sword and raced to stand beside Konigen.
“My sister,” Oliver said as one of the antlered things circled above, looking for an angle of attack.
Konigen turned toward him.
“Go, and do what you must,” the harvest king said. “It seems to me our troubles are all connected under the surface, roots intertwined.”
Oliver nodded. With a single glance around at the furious battle, he spotted Kitsune and raced toward her. Though she surely would have been safer as a fox, she had remained in the shape of a woman, standing and fighting side by side with the gods of the Harvest.
He grabbed her wrist and she spun on him, teeth bared, jaws impossibly wide.
“Kit, stop! Konigen said to go. If they lose, we may not have another chance.”
The fox-woman hesitated, jade eyes flashing. Then she shook her wrist loose and ran for the circle of stones. Oliver heard the flap of heavy wings above him, the shadow of a dreadful, antlered thing falling over him, and felt an icy chill grip his heart.
“Fuck that,” he snarled, and ran for the circle of onyx stones that thrust up from the clearing, the entrance to the Winding Way, wondering if he would find himself alone amongst the stones, or if their magic would work for him.
“Kill them all, myths and Legend-Born alike!” the hag, Black Annis, screamed nearby.
Oliver glanced back and saw her, slashing at the rotting berry-men as they overwhelmed her. She was splashed with putrid fruit and blood, but they began to draw her down.
“Legend-Born?” he asked, calling after Kitsune as she darted between two towering black stones.
The fox-woman did not look back.
Oliver ran after her and twisted sideways, pushing himself through the narrow gap. He had just a moment to wonder how the battle they had left would end, and to regret abandoning those who had come to his aid, then he plunged into a cloud of thick, gray mist that pulsed and twisted and flowed around him, like something alive.
Ahead, through the mist, he could barely make out Kitsune’s presence and, beyond her, a road like a curved ribbon of black glass.
The Winding Way.
Blue Jay’s boots squelched in soft, damp earth and water dripped from the feathers tied in his hair as he stepped from the rain forest. The daylight had turned a golden hue, the promise of evening on the horizon. Below, the city of Palenque sprawled across several miles of Yucatazcan valley. He had never been to Palenque. In his mind’s eye he had pictured a city that was little more than a series of pyramids like the one where they’d been attacked by Hunters.
He had not expected this.
Already many of the buildings and homes in Palenque had lights burning within, and some of the streets were lined with oil lamps. Towers rose above the skyline, three or four times the height of the average structure. He did not know if they existed for industry or for worship, but they were formidable structures. Homes had been built into the side of a hill at the eastern end of town, rising one upon the other in terraces, each connected by steps and ladders.
The streets were designed in concentric circles, radiating out from the tallest of the towers, which thrust up from the center of Palenque, providing what must have been a breathtaking view of both the city and the hills surrounding it.
The architecture showed myriad influences. Blue Jay had never made a proper study of the subject, but the colors in the stone and the iconic statues that stood as monolithic sentinels at the far edges of the circular city hinted strongly at the Mayan and Aztec past of those who had founded the city and other ancient civilizations. There was a Palenque still in the human world, but Blue Jay felt sure it looked nothing like this.
Leicester Grindylow stepped out of the rain forest and came to stand beside him. The water bogie crossed his long arms and whistled in appreciation.
“She’s a beauty,” Grin said.
Cheval and Li emerged from the trees as well—each solitary in their grief—with Frost coming along last. The winter man despised the sweltering heat of the rain forest, but at least the moisture helped slow its effects. Now Frost paused on the edge of the hill, not wishing to leave the forest and come into the heat of the waning day. His features were sharp, his body a brittle razor. Blue Jay worried for him, for so many reasons.
Frost started out of the rain forest, beginning the final leg of their journey to Palenque. He moved down the hill toward the outskirts of the city, not even bothering to search the sky for Perytons or glance around for other enemies.
“Watch yourselves,” Cheval Bayard said, treading carefully, gliding down the hill, her wary gaze seeking out any sign of trouble.
Grin and Li followed her. The Guardian of Fire had been silent for hours, mourning his dead companion. Whatever physical loss he had suffered because of the tiger’s death, it appeared to be permanent. He was pale and thinner, the fire inside him burning through his skin in places, small flames licking across his flesh, unbidden. There was power in him still, but somehow the loss of his tiger had put something off balance inside of him, and the flames seemed to be slowly devouring him from within.
Blue Jay wondered how long it would take for the fire to consume Li completely.
The trickster came last in their procession. Perhaps that was why he was the first to notice the things that flew overhead, slipping out of the rain forest behind them and snaking through the air above them.
“Frost!” Blue Jay shouted.
They all looked up at the alarm in his voice and tracked the progress of the flying things above them. At first, Blue Jay thought the winged serpents were Jaculi, but these creatures were far larger than the one that had spied upon them near Twillig’s Gorge.
“Prepare yourselves,” Li snapped, opening his arms wide as though to embrace the sky, flickering fire running across his hands and arms all the way to the elbows. It churned in his grasp as though he might sculpt a sword of flame from the air. The patches of burning ember on his skin grew wider, spreading.
Grin took up position beside Li, awaiting an attack. Blue Jay had certainly not been expecting them to be able to enter the city without a fight, but he was tired of fighting, tired of death, tired of the twisted pleasure the Hunters took in their work.
He began to dance, the rhythm of his movements, the precise placement of his feet a gesture of respect to ancient traditions and ancient peoples. As he made his way down the slope, spinning and leaping in that dance, he felt the magic take hold, and the air blurred blue beneath his arms as his mystical wings formed. Whatever these new Hunters were, he would destroy them as quickly as possible, and then move on.