Then he saw the way they moved and realized they were not ordinary at all. From the waist down, they were serpentine, and their bodies moved swiftly under the water as they came upriver.
Beyond them, Oliver could see the end of the tunnel, where it opened into sunlight, and he gritted his teeth and shook the sword free, ignoring the jacket as the current carried it away. All that mattered now was living long enough to wish he’d held on to it.
Halliwell had never felt so old. It hurt him to think about it. Here he was in a place that should not exist, having seen more fantastic things in a single day than most people would see in their entire lives. Some dim part of his mind told him he ought to feel more alive, feel some thrill that there was truly such a thing as magic. Instead, he felt tired and hopeless and lost. Of course, he was all of those things.
The only direction he had now was to find Bascombe, but not because it had been his assignment—to hell with that. The only way to make sense of anything was to find the one person who might have some idea how to get him home.
Once he had Bascombe, of course, he still wanted answers. The mystery of the murdered children and their missing eyes and the connection to the Bascombe family was a riddle he needed solved. But getting back to the world was even more important. Untethered from everything he’d ever known, he had no touchstone for what mattered. What did it mean to be a policeman if there was no one to recognize his authority?
His service weapon was clipped to his belt at the small of his back. He’d worn it under his jacket, but now the jacket was abandoned. Halliwell felt no need to hide the weapon, but he had seen Julianna looking at it warily. She had been astonished that her firm, Bascombe & Cox, had arranged for him to have a permit to carry the gun in the United Kingdom. Halliwell had not.
Money greased the wheels of the world.
His world, at least.
He had no clue how this one worked.
But Oliver would. And Oliver was in love with Julianna. Having her along for the ride had at first been troubling to Halliwell. Now it had turned out to be vital. For if Bascombe got wind of her presence here, then he would come find them, and they wouldn’t have to search for him anymore.
For now, though, the hunt was on.
Julianna had caught up with him as they walked down the craggy, rocky slope to the river. Halliwell had taken a look to the north and seen only more of the same, unwelcoming landscape, so he had turned south instead, toward the forest. They’d been walking alongside the river ever since, and been in the shade of the trees for a while now.
“You seem awfully certain of your direction,” she said.
Halliwell kept his focus on the bend in the valley ahead, where the river turned and disappeared in the woods. “I am.”
“How do you know Oliver went this way?”
Julianna faltered and fell behind. But when Halliwell didn’t wait for her, she caught up to him quickly and moved around in front of him, forcing him to stop.
“I thought we’d established a pretty decent rapport, Ted,” she said, searching his eyes.
Halliwell let out a breath and nodded. He reached up and scratched at his stubbled chin. “We have. I’m sorry. Maybe I’m not handling this as well as you are.”
“Funny, I thought you were handling it better. I’m feeling pretty brittle at the moment. One little thing and I might shatter.”
He smiled wearily. “At least you’re young. I’m an old bastard and pretty sure I’m in shock, and not in the best shape for a cross-country hike.”
“Bullshit,” Julianna said, eyes narrowing sharply. “You’re in better physical condition than I am. And you’re fiftysomething, not eighty-something. If you’re freaked, that’s fine. Me, too. But we’re here together. Talk to me.”
Halliwell nodded, thinking how beautiful she was, how fortunate Bascombe was to have a smart, pretty girl like this in love with him. How tragic it would be if anything happened to her here.
“Can we walk?” he asked.
Julianna got out of his way and fell in beside him as he started downriver again.
“Water is life, kid,” Halliwell said. “If we follow the river, we’re likely to find a settlement somewhere along the way. The other direction wasn’t exactly inviting terrain, you know? So I’m following my instincts, and a little logic. That doesn’t mean Oliver went this way, but if we have any chance of finding him, we’ve got to find people, to learn something about this place, figure out how to track him.”
“Logical enough,” she replied. “But you could’ve said—”
“Did you feel that?” Halliwell interrupted. He stopped and glanced around, staring at the ground.
Halliwell didn’t have to answer her. A moment later he felt it again, and saw in her eyes that she had felt it, too. A small tremor in the earth beneath their feet. It came a third time, more quickly, and he saw the leaves shaking on the trees.
“What the hell is that?” Julianna asked in a whisper.
He had no answer for her. The tremors continued, but this was not an earthquake. It was too regular, too rhythmic, to be anything of the sort. It was more like he imagined a battlefield would be, the impact of mortar shells or bombs not too far away.
“Let’s keep going,” he said.
They walked more quickly now, moving along the river’s edge beneath the shade of branches of the trees along the bank. The tremors continued at a slow, steady march, but they were growing in intensity.
“It’s getting closer,” Julianna said. “Ted, maybe we should go a different way.”
Halliwell shook his head, not in disagreement but simply in confusion. He had no idea what to do. Again, they faltered and came to a halt. Now the branches and leaves all shook with each tremor. The shaking of the earth was not strong enough to throw them off of their feet, but if it kept growing, it soon would be.
“Maybe,” he said at last. “Through the woods. West, I guess it is.”
Julianna turned to go into the trees, away from the river. Halliwell went to follow her but took one last look downstream. As he did, he saw the albino giant come around the bend in the river, towering as high as the trees.
The giant was hideous, the bones in its bleached white face jutting through taut leathery skin, eyes gleaming pink like a fresh scar, the bones of its ribs so sharply defined that they seemed about to tear through the flesh. It bent to snatch at something in the water and Halliwell saw jagged ridges of bones that protruded from the skin along its spine.
His hands shook, one going to his mouth as if to keep himself silent, the other to his chest, which tightened with a sharp, unfamiliar pain. Halliwell froze and stared at the thing, unable to breathe. He had never known terror before, and it engulfed him, unknown and unwelcome.
The thing had frozen as well. From a hundred yards downriver, it stared at him. Then it stood and cocked back its head. He was sure it was sniffing at the air, catching their scent on the wind.
“Weird,” Julianna said, a few feet away in the trees. “The ground stopped…”
Her words trailed off. He glanced over and saw that she had seen the thing now. She screamed, the sound tearing the air like fabric. The wind died in that moment, as though it were composed of spirits who stopped to listen, to watch.
A breath burst from Halliwell’s lips and then he was sucking another in, learning how to fill his lungs all over again.
The giant threw back its head and screamed in return, as if mimicking Julianna. Then it began to run toward them, a thunderous gait that was far swifter than Halliwell would have imagined. Its eyes were narrowed and its lips pulled back in a snarl that exposed a jagged mess of teeth.
He grabbed Julianna’s wrist. “Go!”
The two of them fled into the trees together. Low branches scratched at him and he held up his free hand to ward them off. They plummeted through the woods on a roughly westward path. Julianna was shouting questions at him, clutching his hand with such terror that he thought his fingers would break.
The ground shook now with each pounce of the towering monster. Once. Twice. They made it half a dozen feet between each impact. On the third one, Halliwell heard the splintering of wood behind him and bits of the forest crashed down.
He was not a man prone to prayer. Now he whispered to God; thought of the daughter he had not seen in so very long, who had never really understood how much he loved her, and stopped. Julianna cursed loudly, madness in her eyes, hair wild, face scratched. She struggled to be free of him, but he held her fast.
Its shadow fell upon them, swallowing the sun, and then it landed ten feet away, trees crushed to pulp beneath its mass. It stared down at them with those revolting pink eyes and snarled, baring its filth-encrusted, jagged, broken teeth. It slid its tongue out and a thick string of drool dripped to the ground.
It looked hungry.
Julianna staggered backward, still wild-eyed; there would be no reasoning with her. Halliwell was nearly beyond reason himself, but suddenly the pain and tightness in his chest gave way. This wasn’t the death he’d imagined for himself. But if he was going to die, it wouldn’t be screaming. He’d been a cop all his life.
“No,” was all he said, as the thing reached down to scoop them up, one in each hand. Julianna tried to run and its fingers scurried after her, snatching her easily.
In the moment before it picked him up, Halliwell drew his gun.
He was cold inside. Like ice. Numb.
Maybe this is how it feels to be dead, he thought.
The giant carried them back to the river, walking now, in half a dozen strides. Halliwell hung limp in its grip, staring up at it, repulsed by the sickly white flesh and the way its bones jutted from the skin. It paused, standing in the water, and lifted Halliwell up to its face. He wondered dully if it would eat him. It sniffed at him, nostrils curling. A little voice in the back of his head urged him to fire, but he could only watch.
It lifted Julianna toward its mouth and then breathed in her scent as well. From deep in its throat came a sound of contentment and desire that was the single most unsettling noise he had ever heard. The grotesque perversity of it curdled his insides.
It studied her greedily for another moment, then opened its jaws and brought her toward its mouth.
Halliwell raised the gun and pulled the trigger, all in one motion. The first bullet burst one of its eyes, sending a shower of pustulent fluid down upon Julianna. The second bullet struck its temple, bringing a foul trickle of black ichor. He kept pulling the trigger as the giant staggered against the current, walking upriver, shaking its head like a wet dog.
On the fourth bullet, it dropped them.
Halliwell hit the water and the current took him. He was under for a moment and he tried to swim. He got his head above the water and looked around, saw Julianna surface nearby. She saw him, and the terror was still in her eyes. But they were free.
The river carried them southward. Halliwell hoped the giant had fallen, that it was dead, but then he saw that it was still standing and feared it would pursue them. As they swept along downstream he watched it stagger in the opposite direction, slapping the side of its head with an open hand as though trying to dislodge the bullets in its skull. Half-blind, perhaps brain-damaged, but it kept walking.
Then they were carried around the bend and out of sight.
Gun still clutched in his hand, Halliwell fought the river only enough to get nearer to Julianna. “We’re all right,” he told her. “We’re okay.”
She didn’t argue, but the look in her eyes was enough to show him how ridiculous she thought his words were. And she was right. They were a whole world away from being all right.
Soon they came in sight of a cliff rising at treacherous angles ahead. Halliwell started toward shore, unsure where the river went from here. Julianna followed suit.
“It looks…can it go right into the mountainside?” she asked.
It did. The river plunged into a dark tunnel in the cliff face.
“We’re not going in there,” Julianna said, standing in the water as it rushed around her, moving for the bank.
“Damn right,” Halliwell replied. After what they’d just been through, no way were they swimming some underground river, with God knew what waiting in the darkness for them.
On the bank, they followed the river until they reached the cliff.
Julianna looked up. “What now?”
Halliwell felt the exhaustion in his bones. But there was no rest yet. Not when all they had for a direction was a guess. He pointed westward, along the base of the cliff.
“We go up the side of the valley until we can cross over the top. The river’s got to come out somewhere.”
She hesitated. As a plan of action, it was shit. But they didn’t have anything else.
“I hate being wet,” she said, holding out her arms and looking down at her sodden clothes, nose wrinkled.
Then she started along the base of the cliff, westward, and Halliwell followed.
Oliver expected to die. Beyond the end of the tunnel he could see the sunlight streaming into the gorge, but he did not think they would ever get there. He had been battered and bruised by his collision with the rocks, his throat was raw from nearly drowning, and his companions seemed exhausted as well. There had been all too much of battle in these past hours, then the trek along the river had drained them further. Blue Jay and Kitsune were ragged and weakened. Frost was their only chance.
The Nagas swam at them, serpentine lower bodies gliding under the water, moving upriver slowly, watching them carefully as though searching for the precise moment to strike. From the waist up they were ordinary enough, men and women carrying bows, arrows at the ready. But below the waist they were enormous snakes, with all the deadly speed that would entail.
“What do we do?” Oliver whispered, his voice resounding eerily off the walls of the tunnel.
“Nothing,” Frost said. “Do nothing.”