“They are not alone,” Cheval Bayard called, her silver hair gleaming in the day’s last light. Her eyes were narrow with grim resignation.
Dusk was almost upon them when Blue Jay looked to see what she was talking about. At the base of the hill, just at the outskirts of the city, three large figures slunk catlike along the ground. They raced toward Frost, and the winter man turned to face them.
They rose up on their hind legs twenty feet from where Frost stood. The creatures were jaguars: true jungle cats with black-spotted, golden-brown fur, with white muzzles. Yet they were not jaguars, really, for they stood on their hind legs. They were still built like cats—their faces had not altered and their tails still twitched behind them—but their forelegs were more like arms now, and their claws had lengthened.
“No!” Blue Jay cried.
He took flight, transforming into the bird in a blink. The winged serpents had begun to descend now and were also moving straight toward Frost. These Hunters were here for the winter man. Just as the Borderkind had come to slay Ty’Lis to disrupt their enemies, the Hunters had been sent to murder the leader of the Borderkind.
Li hurled a thin stream of fire into the air and it seared past the serpents. Grin and Cheval raced toward Frost. Blue Jay flew above them all, small wings propelling him forward. He sliced through the air and, just as he was about to reach Frost, prepared himself to change again. In his mind’s eye he could see it. Just before he touched ground, the mystical wings that his magic and his legend had given him would appear. He would dance.
He would slay them all.
Whatever Frost’s faults, he was a friend and a leader, and Blue Jay would not allow him to be slain so callously.
At the city’s edge, where the last of the buildings on its outskirts were capped with tall, ugly-faced stone statues, other creatures began to emerge. Some were troll-like creatures with huge mouths in their bellies. Others were animal-human legends: creatures combining frog and man, or crocodile and woman.
The dusk erupted suddenly with a flash of brilliance, and Blue Jay saw a woman step out from between two buildings and spread glorious wings as she transformed into a bird made of pure golden light.
The winged serpents descended. They were even larger than he’d thought, nearly man-sized, and when they alighted on the hill they held themselves up with their twisting, coiling tails, wings furling behind them, claws outstretched. They had burning red eyes like hot coals, and when they hissed they revealed black mouths full of long fangs.
Somewhere he had heard of these things. The name escaped him, but Blue Jay knew they were a breed of vampire.
He steeled himself for battle, and for death.
Then the jaguar-men bowed to Frost. The vampire serpents did the same, bodies undulating as they lowered themselves into a bow and then lifted their heads again. The rest of the creatures followed suit.
“What the bloody hell is this, then?” Grin barked as he and Li caught up to Cheval.
Blue Jay spun through the air and alighted beside the winter man. Beneath his arms, mystic wings shimmered, almost invisible. He stared around at all of these creatures who had intercepted them, and who now had made this unexpected gesture of respect.
“Frost, what’s going on?” he asked.
The winter man smiled, the ice around his mouth cracking, cold mist streaming off of him.
“You haven’t figured it out yet, Jay?” Frost asked, looking at him with mischief in his frozen eyes. “They’re not Hunters.”
Blue Jay stared at the jaguar-men and the vampire serpents, at the gleaming bird of light and the things with the hideous mouths in their bellies.
“These are Borderkind?”
Frost nodded. “This is Yucatazca, not Euphrasia, my friend. A different kingdom. A different world.”
As Blue Jay watched, others streamed out of the city. Humans. Lost Ones, descended from the ancient races that made up this kingdom and the many who had been lost there after its founding.
“What are they doing here?” Cheval asked, stepping up beside Blue Jay in the gathering indigo gloom of dusk. The fires and electrical lights in the city glowed more brightly as darkness fell.
One of the jaguar-men came forward. “They are here to help,” he said, his words heavily accented. “Just as we all are.”
The Lost Ones and strange Yucatazcan Borderkind gathered more closely around the five who had traveled so far.
“Whispers have come down from the north,” the jaguar-man said, cat eyes bright. “The slaughter of our kin has only truly begun in Yucatazca.”
“Clever enough,” Li said, flames sputtering at the corners of his eyes. The patches of ember on his skin continued to spread like virulent infection. “Ty’Lis wanted the Borderkind here to feel safe, as though it was all happening so far away.”
“But we are not fools,” the jaguar-man said, grim-faced as he stared at Frost. “This trouble comes to all of us. The whispers from the north have carried stories of your struggles against the Hunters. When word arrived that you were coming to Palenque, we knew there would be Hunters here to greet you.”
Frost glanced around. With nightfall, the mist that surrounded him seemed to form a cloud that eddied away on the steady current of the warm night wind.
“But there are no Hunters awaiting us.”
If a cat could be said to smile, that is what the jaguar-man did. “Oh, but there were. And other enemies will await you in the city.”
Once again, the jaguar-man bowed, and the rest of those who had gathered there—human and Borderkind alike—did the same.
“We are here to see that you reach the castle and that you find the answers you seek…and that whoever is truly the master of the Hunters is punished.”
Blue Jay laughed softly to himself, relief washing through him. They were not so alone as they had feared. With all of the setbacks they’d had, he’d expected the worst. It was a pleasure to be wrong for once.
Frost glanced at Cheval, who had been studying the jaguar-man intently. This could be a trap, after all, but she had a sense about things, about creatures and the truth in them. She nodded once. The winter man looked at Li and at Grin and then finally at Blue Jay, his expression clearing.
“What are we waiting for?” Blue Jay said, sliding his hands casually into the pockets of his jeans.
Frost nodded and turned to the jaguar-man. “Lead on.”
Collette paced the confines of her prison, trailing her fingers along the hard-packed wall. Her eyes burned with exhaustion and her limbs ached, but she refused to lie down. She would not sleep. The memory of the horror she had witnessed, the Sandman in the bedroom of that little, murdered child, had etched itself in her mind. The only way for her to shake such thoughts was to focus on another memory, the tactile sensation of the sand as it gave way beneath her fingers.
The wall felt hard as concrete, yet it had given way. That had been no hallucination. Now as she dragged her fingers across it, the wall was like sandpaper scraping the soft pads of her fingertips, but when she’d heard the sound of that child crying, she found a way to push through and the sand had gone soft.
How…she wondered. How had she done it?
Without thinking, that was the answer. When the cries of that doomed child had reached her, she had touched the sand and it had changed. When doubt had given way to necessity, something had happened. And, in her very bones, Collette felt sure that the change had not been the Sandman’s doing but her own. He had been furious when she had intruded upon his crime.
So now she walked, clearing her mind of anything save exhaustion. Trudging around and around the circumference of that room, she kept contact with the sand wall and she let the rest of her thoughts go.
“There’s no place like home,” chimed the Vittora. “No place like home.”
Her luck, her doom, both were tied into that little sphere of light. But Collette had found a strange peace within herself. The Vittora waned, growing smaller and dimmer, and she knew that the luck of her life was being leeched away. But somehow, the presence of the death spirit had become a comfort to her, an odd companion in her imprisonment. It did nothing but mutter bits of sentences that might mean nothing and lines from her favorite films, snatched from her brain, but it was hers. If this was her luck and her death, she embraced it.
The air stagnated down in that chamber, despite the arched windows high above. It felt warm and close, but from time to time a cool, errant breeze would reach her.
Collette closed her eyes and continued walking. Almost unconsciously she began to press harder against the wall. Her fingers made a rasping noise as she scraped them on the rough surface. Around and around, increasing the pressure so much that her arm shook and her fingertips were scraped raw.
Then the sand gave way, loose grains cascading down the wall with a shushing sound.
Without opening her eyes, Collette froze in place and pushed her fingers further into the wall, digging them into the sand, her heart leaping at the feel of the dry sand spilling around her wrist.
Turning toward the wall, still with her eyes closed, she pushed her other hand into a spot higher on the wall. The sand yielded to her touch, but only as far as she pushed. Where her thumb brushed the wall, it remained intact.
Unable to hold off any longer, she opened her eyes.
The last rays of the day’s light streamed into the chamber through those high arched windows, casting odd golden shapes upon the upper walls. Nearby, the Vittora hovered in the air. Collette felt sure it had grown larger and brighter while her eyes were closed. Quietly it hummed a familiar tune, something from a film, she was sure.
A smile touched her lips. It was “In Your Eyes,” by Peter Gabriel, from the movie Say Anything. God, how she loved that film.
Bracing herself, setting her grip in the handholds she’d made in the wall, she lifted her bare foot and pressed her toes against the wall. It slid through the sand as though the toehold had been there all along, just waiting for her. But that wasn’t true. She had investigated every inch of this prison.
Somehow she was doing this herself.
The Vittora hummed more loudly and drifted toward her. Fear tingled at the base of her spine and Collette started to climb as though she might outrun it. Where she thrust her hands and feet at the wall, the sand formed handholds for her to grip. Inch by inch, she scaled the wall as the Vittora danced around her, humming growing louder with each new grip.
It darted across the circular chamber, paused, and then zipped toward her.
Collette tried to cry out, but could not find her voice. The Vittora struck her back and she nearly lost her grip and fell fifteen feet to the bottom of the chamber. But somehow she managed to hold on as the Vittora seared her flesh for a moment…
And then was gone. Its light winked out, its voice vanished.
For several seconds she hung there on the wall, and then Collette realized what had happened. The Vittora had not vanished. It had simply returned to the place from which it had come…inside of her. Her luck had come back to her, and it seemed her doom was not so imminent as she had believed.
A small voice in the back of her mind wanted to know how any of this was possible, but she existed now in a world of impossible things. Stopping the Sandman, getting out of this hellhole, saving those children and her brother…those were the things that mattered.
There were secrets here. Secrets that involved her and Oliver. Collette knew that. But secrets could wait.
With the Vittora back inside her, she felt invigorated. Her pajamas were torn and filthy, her hair matted, her skin like leather from the sun, but she climbed swiftly.
When Collette pulled herself through one of those high arched windows, she had a smile on her face. She dragged her belly and breasts on the rough sand of the window ledge and then stood up, turned, and spat down into the chamber that had been her prison.
Then she glanced around. The view from the ledge that surrounded the cell at the level of those windows was a breathtaking panorama, with the soft white sand of a magnificent beach on one side and what seemed like jungle on the other. The building around her was a castle. No other word could have described it.
A sand castle, on the shore of some tropical land. How it was that, throughout her captivity, she had never once heard or caught scent of the ocean, she did not know. Another secret yet to be exposed.
Collette looked around and found a set of stairs that led downward, into the castle. They were the only possible way down. A jump from this height would surely kill her. Exhilaration and fear raged through her, and her skin prickled with anticipation as she started down the stairs.
All the walls of the castle were constructed from the same hard sand as her prison, and she wondered if she could shape them as well. The corridors were dark, save for torches set in sconces on the wall at long intervals, so at times she walked through nearly complete darkness.
There were many doors in the castle. Many stairwells.
On one of the stairwells, the view froze her in place. It revealed a sprawl of sand and a broad, well-traveled road that ran through a lovely landscape of oak and rowan trees, with mountains in the far distance.
Whatever land that was, it existed far from the place she had seen from the castle’s pinnacle.
For long minutes, she kept on searching for some way out of this endless labyrinth of halls and stairs, passing through great chambers and eventually through quiet, empty rooms. Only the wind moved here, scouring the sand that created every surface.
At last, when she could stand it not a moment longer, she turned to the nearest wall and began to dig. The sand gave way, spilling all around her, and soon her hands burst through to another chamber beyond the wall. Collette paused and used her fingers to carve into the sand an outline of a door.
She pushed, and all of the sand within that outline collapsed on the floor.
Collette stepped through, into a chamber whose ceiling rose up and up like the greatest of cathedrals. All around the edges of the vast room were doors set into the outer walls. And at one end there stood a pair of enormous, wooden doors, large enough for a parade of elephants.