Blue Jay leaped into the air, spreading his arms, and in a moment he was a bird again, a tiny jay speeding toward Li and the Mazikeen. Seconds later, all four of them did the same, leaving the king’s guard and their Atlantean allies behind, leaving the bloody battle on the steps of Mahacuhta’s palace, leaving Palenque…
Leaving the winter man to his fate.
The Sandman’s castle felt hollow, as empty and dead as an ancient ruin. The only sound was the whisper of the wind as it blew scattered grains of sand across floors and walls. Already, the sand had begun to drift and erode, obscuring edges and wearing at corners.
Collette recalled the feeling of the sand falling away at her touch, at the way she had sculpted it and carved a doorway with her hands. She had thought because of that she might feel a kinship with the place. If there was something of the mythic in her heritage, she must certainly have tapped into that.
But now, with only whispers there, she felt no connection to the Sandman’s castle except as her prison, and she wanted nothing more than to leave it as quickly as possible. Whatever had allowed her to carve the sand, to manipulate the substance of the place, seemed to be gone.
Kitsune had led them back into the Sandcastle and through that vast entry hall. Collette showed the way to the stairs she had used to escape from her prison and soon they were navigating the seemingly endless corridors and staircases of the castle, whose interior seemed far vaster than its exterior would allow. They took care to keep to the outer walls, never entering a corridor or room that did not have windows.
“I hate to just leave him here. It doesn’t seem right,” Julianna said. Despite her obvious elation at reuniting with Oliver, the shock and grief of witnessing Halliwell’s death was eating at her.
“We have no choice,” Collette told her, each time she brought it up. “If it’s at all possible, I swear to you we’ll come back. We’ll bury him.”
Such reassurances did not erase the haunted cast of her eyes.
When they had reached the highest point of the castle, they found the tower where Collette had been a captive. She shuddered and hesitated to go any nearer, remaining upon the top step.
Julianna gasped at the sight of the panorama visible from that pinnacle. Her reaction came not only from its beauty, but from the abrupt shift of the view. The landscape was no longer the trio of snow-capped mountains, but instead the ocean on one side and the steaming jungle of Yucatazca on the other.
Oliver came to Collette and held her hand and reluctantly she went with him. Stepping carefully, they moved around the edges of the pit that had been her prison, only darkness visible through the arched windows that looked down into that hole. The Sandman might be dead, but still she did not feel safe here. Her pulse raced and she bit her lip. There were several stairwells leading down from this tower, but they chose the one directly opposite that which they had ascended.
“I don’t care if this gets us where we’re going,” Collette whispered to her brother as they went down again. “I’m not coming back here.”
Oliver hugged her gently and kissed her head. Flanking her, Julianna reached down and took her hand. Oliver fell back to make sure they weren’t followed, and up ahead, the fox-woman led the way, her harshly beautiful features hidden in the hood of her cloak. At times she turned corners and they lost sight of her for a few seconds, and each time, Collette found herself both anxious at being left alone and relieved to be away from Kitsune.
Their descent proved as uneventful as their climb upward had been, save that through every window now their view was of Yucatazcan jungle or the crashing surf. The air had the salty tang of the ocean, and even in the night they heard the distant cry of sea birds as they passed the windows. There had been no physical awareness of this shift between one kingdom and the other, but at first every time Collette glanced out a window the sense of dislocation rocked her. The Sandman’s castle was an extraordinarily powerful bit of magic and she wondered what would happen to it, now that he had been destroyed. Would it collapse or erode, or would it stand open from that moment onward as a portal that travelers might use to move from one place to another?
A mystery for another time.
When at last Kitsune led them back into the vast entry hall, it seemed entirely unchanged, except of course for the view from the windows and the salty tang of the air. Collette remembered all too well the hideous appearance of the sand-creatures that had been summoned by the Sandman and crafted to be her doppelgangers. No trace of such things remained except for the shifting sands of the floor of that great hall.
The doors hung open. The chill of the mountains of eastern Euphrasia was gone, replaced by a thick, humid heat that was uncomfortable at night but would undoubtedly be unbearable come morning.
“Kit, how far from here to Palenque?” Oliver asked.
The fox-woman flinched at the sound of his voice, or perhaps at the familiarity of his tone. Collette watched her as she paused and turned to face them, and something in the Borderkind’s bearing troubled her. When Kitsune and Oliver had come to rescue her, Collette had sensed only warmth and courage and nobility in the fox-woman. She did not understand what had changed.
“I am not certain,” Kitsune replied, as Oliver, Collette, and Julianna caught up to her, the four of them standing in the midst of that vast hall, whose ceiling was lost in the darkness. “Palenque is a full day’s ride on horseback from the ocean, but there is no way to know where along the coast we will emerge.”
Julianna slipped her hand into Oliver’s. “It’s a shame we couldn’t have brought horses through.”
Kitsune turned away, jade eyes hidden beneath her hood, but before she did Collette saw the venom in her gaze, a hatred directed at Julianna. Only then did she finally understand that the fox-woman had fallen in love with her brother.
This is trouble, she thought.
But then Oliver was talking and Kitsune had started for the door again, back to the rest of them, and Collette became more concerned with their survival and their journey than with inconvenient matters of the heart.
“I know we could probably all use some rest, but—”
Collette shot him a hard look. “I’m not camping here, Ollie.”
He nodded. “I know, Coll. I wasn’t going to suggest it. But we’re all exhausted, and if we’ve got a long journey ahead of us, we should try to get some rest.”
Julianna did look tired, dark circles forming under her eyes, but she stretched and smiled and her eyes were alert. “I could certainly use some sleep. But I’m all for waiting until we’ve put a lot of distance between us and this place.”
A ripple of sadness passed across her face and she glanced at the ground. They all knew she was thinking about Halliwell.
Oliver put his arm around her. “There was nothing you could do, Jules. Nothing anybody could do. He was past listening to anyone—”
“He went a little crazy,” Collette said quietly, looking around them at the various doors, remembering the one where she had been trapped with the Sandman with the cries of his victims so close by. “But it’s hard not to lose your mind a little in this place.”
Julianna shook her head. “He wasn’t crazy. He was just…done. There was so much anger in him, just horror, and frustration over never getting the answers he wanted, and sorrow over things he’d never been able to say or do with people he loved back home. When we found out we were trapped here, he just…”
She gazed at Oliver, sad and lost. “He thought you could help him find a way to get home.”
Kitsune had reached the doors and she stood silhouetted in the moonlight that streamed in from the humid night. She turned toward them, little more than a shape with those gleaming green eyes peering at them.
“You’ve crossed through the Veil. There is no way home for you.”
Cold. Harsh. But as callous as Kitsune’s words seemed, no one argued, for they were true. Oliver hugged Julianna close.
Collette shook her head in disgust at the fox-woman’s cruelty and turned away. She glanced around again at the many doors in the chamber, studying them in the moonlight. A frown creased her brow. One door in particular drew her attention and she wandered toward it, even though she knew that they had to leave this place.
When she reached the door, she stared a moment. A symbol had been etched upon it, a shield emblazoned with the figure of a winged serpent wrapped around a sword, and spreading out from either side of the shield, the wings of a bat. The shield had been dyed red and white, the serpent green, its eyes gold, and the sword a glittering silver.
“Collette?” Julianna called.
“Wait,” she said, almost to herself. Then she blinked and cleared her throat. “Oliver. Come over here.”
In moments, all three of the others had joined Collette at the door.
“What is it?” she asked.
Kitsune stepped forward and traced her fingers over the symbol. She turned and studied Oliver’s face. “It is the royal emblem of King Mahacuhta of Yucatazca.”
Oliver shook his head. “Come on. You’ve got to be kidding me.”
The fox-woman spared not a glance for Collette or Julianna. Her entire focus was on Oliver. “This is a place of doors. The magic of the Sandman brought him almost anyplace he wished, and not merely the bedrooms of small children in the ordinary world. That was his power. If he wanted a door to Palenque—”
“Are you serious?” Collette said. “Isn’t this just a little convenient? Like, freakishly convenient?”
But Kitsune was not listening. She slipped her hood back and tilted her head, sniffing the air. Her eyes narrowed and she glanced down, then dropped into a crouch. Her fingers reached out into the shadows just to the right of the door and she plucked something from the ground. Only when she stood and held it up in the moonlight did Collette see what it was.
A green feather.
She shivered with the memory of the Hunters she had seen crouched around the rim of her prison, those scarecrow-thin creatures with their long, black talons, their heavy antlers, and wide, green-feathered wings.
“Perytons,” Kitsune said.
“What are they?” Julianna asked.
“Atlantean Hunters,” Oliver replied. He glanced at Kitsune. “The Falconer said the Hunters had been sent by Ty’Lis.”
“Pretend that some of us don’t know who the hell that is,” Collette told him.
Oliver ran a hand through his hair, eyes wandering as he sorted out his thoughts. “Atlantean sorcerer. Main advisor to King Mahacuhta. If he sent the Hunters, including the Perytons, then he was also the one who set the Sandman free, sent the fucker after us.”
Collette stiffened. “The one who gave the order to murder Dad.”
“So it would make sense if the Sandman made a door that would take him right to his new master,” Julianna said. She stared expectantly at Kitsune, and a glint in her eye suggested to Collette that the fox-woman’s jealousy had not gone unnoticed.
“Yes,” Kitsune confirmed. “It does make sense.”
“But we have no idea what’s on the other side of this door,” Oliver warned her.
“Then it’s a good thing you have that sword.”
Julianna turned, taking her hands from her pockets, and reached for the door. Collette tensed, awaiting some horror. Kitsune snapped that she should wait. But Julianna did not even pause. She swung the door wide.
On the other side was a well-lit, empty corridor of limestone and wood. Shouts and the sound of people running echoed along the walls. Julianna started forward but Kitsune grabbed her arm. The two women stared at one another icily, and then Oliver slipped between them and stepped into the corridor on the other side of the door.
He glanced both ways, then beckoned for them all to follow.
Diminished he might be, but Frost remained the winter man, a legend that stretched from ancient to modern times, the harbinger of the blizzard, the first snow of the season. With one possessed of such power, weakened did not mean weak. If anything, as he rushed through the corridors of the palace of King Mahacuhta, Frost felt reduced not to weakness but to the primal essence of his own legend.
Swift and deadly, he swept around corners and beneath doors, nothing but a frigid wind and a swirl of snow. He manifested a physical form—a jagged, cruel-eyed knife-blade of a creature—only when he encountered a member of the king’s guard alone.
When he touched their flesh, freezing bits of them instantly, and bared his icy teeth, they were anxious to answer his question. One single question. Where were the king’s personal chambers? Before Frost bothered to visit Ty’Lis, he wanted to know if Mahacuhta was aware of the Atlantean’s machinations. He wanted to know if the king was also his enemy.
The deeper he went into the palace, the cooler and drier the air became. Frost whipped along the walls, leaving a rime of ice as he passed, the moisture in the air freezing on every surface. He emerged into a large, open space, lavishly appointed and well lit, with a limestone staircase rising at one end of the room, up and up and up so that it seemed the entire purpose of this enormous palace was to encase those stairs. Twenty armed soldiers guarded them. Frost kept close to the wall, a gust of wind, but as he passed, the glass lamps cracked and burst, bulbs popped, and lights were extinguished.
The soldiers began to shout, drawing their weapons and searching the room for enemies.
By then Frost was halfway up the stairs.
At the top stood the heaviest wooden door he had ever seen, ornately carved with extraordinary figures of legend, birds of light and alligators that walked on two legs. There were images of jungles and temples and human sacrifice. In the midst of it was the royal emblem of King Mahacuhta, the crest of Yucatazca.
The winter man—the first breath of snowfall—blew under the door.
In a single moment, so many of his questions were answered.