It had been many hours since they had seen a village, but even here the beauty of the land was staggering. Perhaps here more than anywhere else. The air was crisp and the starlight and the scimitar moon cast a golden light upon the snow-capped peaks. There was such peace here, and perhaps that struck him more than anything else.
Somehow, it woke him from the fog he’d traveled in—and woke a rage in him as well.
There could be no peace for him.
At the top of the ridge, a point at which the two mountains met, Captain Beck reined in her mount and peered down into the valley on the other side. She raised a hand, a gesture that Halliwell had quickly learned meant she wanted them all to form on her, and quickly.
He snapped the reins and the horse galloped up the ridge. Julianna raced up beside him, so firm and confident on her horse that she seemed to float along above it instead of bouncing painfully in the saddle like Halliwell.
The detective didn’t mind.
They were close.
Fourteen riders gathered at the top of the ridge, in the crux of two mountains. In the starlight they saw a third peak straight ahead. And below, in the cradle formed by the three mountains, a terraced pagoda palace made only of sand.
Halliwell gripped the reins so tightly his knuckles hurt. Answers waited there. One way or another, he would have some answers at last.
“Do you see anything, Damia?” Julianna asked, moving her horse up next to Beck’s.
She was the only one who got away with calling the woman by her given name. Everyone else simply called her Captain—even Halliwell. He doubted she would care if he followed Julianna’s lead, but he was accustomed to uniforms and protocol and there was a comfort in that.
“No sign of movement,” Captain Beck replied. She studied Julianna’s face, her own skin shining in the starlight, then looked at Halliwell. “No horses. No indication anyone’s there at all.”
“The door is open,” observed a powerfully built soldier called Tsui.
Halliwell looked down at the Sandcastle, but his eyes were not what they once were and he could not make out from there if the door was, indeed, open.
“We have no way of knowing if Oliver’s here or not,” Julianna said.
Captain Beck nodded, but her eyes were still on Halliwell. “True. But if he hasn’t arrived yet, and what Bascombe has been told is true, his sister is still a prisoner down there.”
Halliwell drew his gun. “Why don’t we head down, then?”
The captain smiled. “It’s what we came for.”
She spurred her horse and started down into the cradle of the mountains and her soldiers followed. Halliwell and Julianna kept pace with them as they rode toward the towering pagoda palace. The double doors in front were indeed hanging slightly open.
Captain Beck’s horse crossed from rough grass onto shifting sand.
They spread out, taking up position outside the pagoda. Captain Beck raised a hand and Halliwell thought she was about to give the command to dismount, but then the doors were blown wide open from within. The wind howled as a cloud of dust blew out those open doors, originating somehow from within the castle, and three people came out, half stumbling, hurrying as though they feared the place might fall down around them.
Despite her haggard appearance and the dark tan she’d acquired, he recognized Collette Bascombe immediately. The Asian woman in the fur cloak was also familiar, but only vaguely. He’d seen her on Canna Island with Oliver just before they both had disappeared.
And then, of course, there was Oliver himself.
Halliwell held tight to the horse’s reins, frozen in the knowledge that the moment had finally arrived. Staring at Oliver Bascombe, he discovered that he felt both hatred and pity for the younger man. If everything he’d learned in his investigation proved true, Oliver was as much a victim as Halliwell himself had become. But if Halliwell had never become involved in Oliver’s disappearance and later Max Bascombe’s murder case, he would never have had to see the eyeless, mutilated corpse of Alice St. John, or learn about all of the other children who’d been killed the same way. He never would have hunted for the missing man, or for Collette, when she’d gone missing as well.
He wouldn’t have been lured here. Trapped here, in this world.
Oliver was not to blame, but Halliwell blamed him anyway. He might be a victim, but the difference, from what he’d heard, was that Oliver could still go home. If nothing else, Halliwell hated him for that.
The panic took him again, mixed with rage and hatred and despair. Just looking at Oliver stoked all of that emotion, and it surged up inside. He felt as though it might erupt from within. He felt his face twist into a sneer.
“Damn you,” he whispered. “Damn you for killing me like this.”
In his mind, by leading him to this, Oliver Bascombe had destroyed him.
The detective in him wanted answers, wanted to know what had set the Sandman free to slaughter those children and the why of it all. But the man, Ted Halliwell, the father…he wanted Oliver to tell him how to get home. And he wanted someone to hold responsible.
Captain Beck shouted something, but Halliwell wasn’t listening.
Julianna slipped off of her horse, leaving it to wander, and started running toward the castle.
“Oliver!” she cried, giddy with fear and relief.
Half of the soldiers began to dismount, led by Damia Beck. The other six remained on their horses and spread out, backing away slightly to be prepared for anything.
Halliwell climbed off of the horse, bones and muscles aching from days in the saddle. He clicked the safety on his pistol off and turned toward the front of the castle.
Julianna ran toward her fiancé. Oliver stared at her, then he started to stumble toward her—incredulous, laughing. The Asian woman and Collette followed, glancing anxiously over her shoulder at the wind and sand that continued to blast out of the castle doors.
Limping, cursing his age, Halliwell started across the sand. The gun felt heavy in his grasp.
Julianna and Oliver were still separated by thirty or forty feet when the wall of the Sandcastle exploded. Massive fragments of the wall came down and burst, spilling sand across the ground. Two figures crashed out through the shattered wall, grappling with one another. One of them, cloaked and hooded, with monstrous, hooked talons, had deep yellow eyes that seemed to float in a cloud of shifting sand. The other seemed a figure from Victorian times, in a bowler hat and long, heavy coat—a statue of Dr. Watson carved from granite or sculpted in sand.
They did not crash to the ground.
The two figures burst into twin clouds of sand that spun and slammed together and tore at one another. In a heartbeat they had reformed on the ground twenty yards in front of Halliwell. He stared at these sand creatures as they attacked one another.
He thought of Alice St. John and all of the other children who had shared her fate.
It was a sick joke.
Suddenly, Halliwell had found another focus for his rage and sorrow and hate. Oliver might have answers, but at last, Ted Halliwell had found someone to blame. Someone to pay for all that he had lost.
He raised his gun and something snapped inside him. He began to scream, but the words were guttural nonsense in his ears, and he ran at the two elemental creatures tearing at one another’s limbs and faces.
He pulled the trigger again and again. Gunshots echoed across the crux of those three mountains. Bullets tore through cloak and greatcoat, punched holes in the bodies of the Sandman and the other thing, the other myth.
The monsters did not even notice him. The image of Alice St. John stayed in his mind, and he could not stop. Halliwell would never see his Sara again. The monsters felt like a gift to him. After what they had done to Alice and those other children…He marched toward them, finger on the trigger, and knew he had to find a way to get justice for that little girl.
For all of them.
And for himself.
Gunshots echoed off the mountainsides. The wind howled out through the doors of the Sandcastle. The Dustman and the Sandman grappled and tore at one another. Soldiers bearing the crest of King Hunyadi climbed off of their horses and started to spread out, ready to fight if the Sandman should win, but careful to keep their distance.
Oliver barely noticed any of it.
The world seemed to tilt under his feet. Julianna did not belong on this side of the Veil. All that she was and all that she meant to him was so wrapped up in his thoughts of home and Maine that simply seeing her disoriented him. They were supposed to have picnics at the beach and take the catamaran out sailing. In the winter, they’d ski a little, but only to have an excuse to curl up in front of a crackling fire with Irish coffees and blond brownies.
They were not supposed to be here.
Even with Collette standing beside him in her ragged pajamas, skin baked brown from sun exposure, haggard and thin, Oliver had somehow been able to separate himself from the man he had been before Frost and the Myth Hunters had come into his life.
But from the moment he saw Julianna slide from the saddle of that horse and run toward him, something inside of him began to break down. It was as though the Veil had not only separated the ordinary world from the realm of the legendary, but had also split Oliver in two—one the mundane lawyer who’d lived a privileged but plain life, and the other the one who had survived in the wilderness of a world of the fantastic.
Now Julianna stripped that all away.
She raced toward him, calling his name. Oliver sheathed the Sword of Hunyadi. His heart leapt at the sound of her voice and the joy on her face, but with every step she took on the shifting sand, he felt more keenly the horrors that the legendary had inflicted upon his life and his family. His father’s murder and Collette’s abduction, the utter destruction of his own life and reputation, it all was real. How could he ever try to return to his old life when the friends and colleagues he’d known thought him either a murderer or the accomplice of some child-killer?
Yet here was Julianna.
He started toward her, shaking with a mixture of relief and dread. His elation at seeing her was tempered by the fear that, after all that had happened, things might not be the same between them. The last time they had spoken, on the phone, the pain in her voice had been clear. He had never meant to hurt her, but he knew that he had. He wondered how that might have changed her feelings for him, and how much she understood about what had really happened to him.
Then she was there, and all such thoughts fled. None of it mattered.
An icy wind blew down from the mountains. Her features were pale in the starlight, her auburn hair almost black in the night. All of his hesitations and second thoughts became damnably insignificant in the face of his love for her. So much could have been avoided if he had only trusted the soul he saw through her eyes, just as he saw it now—this soul that knew him, that understood and loved him.
“Oliver,” she said, voice barely a whisper, his name quickly stolen away by the wind.
Julianna ran into his arms. He felt her body, so familiar, against his, and pressed his nose into the scent of her hair, holding her tightly.
“I’m sorry,” he said, the ache in his heart making it feel as though it weighed a thousand pounds. “Oh, Jules, I’m so sorry.”
“You’re alive,” she said, face pressed to his neck. “Jesus, you’re alive. Don’t be sorry. None of this was your fault.”
“There were…there were always things I should’ve said.”
Julianna reached up to hold his face steady and stared up at him, gaze sharp with the intelligence that had always challenged and thrilled him.
“Do you love me?” she asked, searching his eyes for the truth.
For a fraction of a moment, he couldn’t breathe. Then a pang of remorse went through him, regret for all the time he’d wasted on doubt.
“More than anything.”
“Then nothing else matters.”
Oliver stared at her, his heart racing. In her eyes, he saw fear and regret and a tiny bit of hope, and he knew that it was all just a reflection of what she must see in him.
He touched her face, then bent and kissed her. The feeling of her lips against his, rough from the wind and the sun, filled his heart with such grateful relief that he wanted to just take her hand and run. Whatever hesitations he’d once felt were gone. They ought to have had a lifetime together.
Oliver pulled back and gazed at her, brushing her hair from her face. If the myth of the Legend-Born was true and if he and Collette really were the children of Melisande, then Julianna was wrong. They might not be to blame for what the Hunters had done, but it was because of them that Julianna had been dragged into it.
Now they were together, here in this impossible place. He wanted to know how she had gotten there, to figure out what it all meant, and where they would go from here.
Behind him, Collette screamed, her voice frantic and her throat raw.
“No, you idiot! Stay away from them!”
Oliver spun, one arm still around Julianna. Collette shouted again. Beyond her, the stranger with the gun—the man Julianna had been traveling with—ran at the two brothers where they were locked in battle. He was an older guy with salt-and-pepper hair and a craggy, Clint Eastwood sort of face, fifty years old if he was a day. But he didn’t run like he was fifty. His expression was full of grim rage and he held the gun slightly raised as he hurtled toward the Sandman and the Dustman.
The soldiers called to him. One, a statuesque black woman who was obviously in command, started after him with her sword drawn. The man with the gun appeared not to hear or even remember that the soldiers were with him. He shouted something as he ran at the warring facets of the Sandman, but Oliver couldn’t make out the words.
“Hey! Hey, man, don’t…” He let the words trail off, feeling like an idiot. With the way the man was shouting and the howling wind, there was no way he was going to hear anything.
Then Collette started shouting again, and Oliver pulled away from Julianna. He turned to see his sister running after the man with the gun. Collette, a petite little woman in her torn pajamas, was trying to get in the midst of a fight between myths and one crazy asshole with a gun.