But some of these were not merely bridges. They went under two homes that had been built across the gorge, and then came in sight of a third structure—a thing of stone and wood that cast a long shadow upon the river and the walls below, with a row of strange peaks across the top, and a small bell tower to cap it all.

“The inn,” Blue Jay said.

To the right, a figure stepped away from the front of a little marionette shop, a wiry little man with matted brown hair, a long face, and crazy eyes.

“You always were pretty fast on the uptake, Jay,” he said.

Blue Jay laughed and stepped forward, pulling the man into a tight embrace.

“Cousin, it’s good to see you.”

The wiry man laughed as well, but his was cold and cynical. “Good to see you alive, Jay.”

Oliver glanced at Kitsune, whose jade eyes had hardened. Blue Jay began to introduce his cousin to Frost, but Oliver leaned in to Kitsune.

“What is it? Who is this guy?”

Kitsune spat on the ground that separated them from Blue Jay, Frost, and the other.

“Oliver Bascombe,” she said, voice rippling with disgust, “meet Coyote.”

The Jaculus flew low, skirting over treetops and the peaks of hills, never so low as to encounter travelers nor so high as to draw undue attention from other airborne predators. Or so he thought.

Hunger gnawed at Lucan, and as he slipped through the air, body undulating, wings propelling him, he nurtured a bitterness in his heart. He had done the right thing, followed his orders to the letter. Ty’Lis and Hinque had sent him north to spy for them, to follow Malla and the Falconer and to watch from this side of the Veil, just in case things went wrong.

And, oh, how things had gone wrong.

It seemed impossible to him that an ordinary man, an Intruder from the other side of the Veil, and a pitiful few Borderkind had defeated and killed not only Malla and the Falconer, but an entire cadre of Kirata, and others. He shivered with pleasure at the thought of what it would have been like if he had been able to attack them when they came through on the hill above the Sorrowful River. Frost might have presented a problem, but the others…he would have loved to sink his fangs into Kitsune’s throat, to wrap himself around her soft fur and tender flesh. And as for Blue Jay…

The Jaculus sniffed as he flew, snorting mucus into his throat, amused at the thought of how easily he could have dispatched the trickster bird. He disliked eating birds. All feather and bone. But with Blue Jay he would have made an exception.

Frustration burned in him, but he pushed it away. He had his orders, and Lucan prided himself on loyalty. He had pledged himself to Ty’Lis and he would fulfill his vow to the edge of death and beyond. Thus was the nobility of the Jaculus.

His tiny wings beat so fiercely that they made a cricket buzz. It was a long way to Palenque, the capital of Yucatazca, but that was why Ty’Lis had sent Lucan. The Jaculi were amongst the fastest creatures in the air.

Lucan crested a hill so quickly that the details of the ground below were a blur. He zipped over tall grass on a long field, then shot through the upper branches of a small stretch of forest with such swiftness that leaves were torn off their branches by the vacuum of his passing.

A wide ribbon of blue crossed his path ahead. The Atlantic River. Off to the north he saw a battalion of Euphrasian soldiers on the march. What they were doing there he had no idea, but it was none of his concern.

His keen eye caught movement, a blur against the blur, down on the riverbank. The Jaculus twisted in the air, almost swimming down from the sky, zipping toward the ground. The vole that had been nibbling at some scattered seeds darted away, sensing Lucan’s approach. It skittered toward a thick stretch of prickly shrubbery on the river’s edge and nearly made it to cover before the Jaculus struck.

Lucan darted his tail downward like a scorpion striking, coiled around the vole, and swept it up toward his jaws in one swift motion. He snapped his fangs closed around its body, plunging venomous needles into its flesh, and it began to shudder, dying. The Jaculus opened his maw, jaw unhinging, and thrust the squirming vole into his throat.

As he beat his tiny wings harder, gliding through the air above the Atlantic River, he swallowed the creature whole. The Atlantic Bridge was just to the south and he swept by it in seconds, though the act of digesting slowed him down some.

A pleasurable shudder went through him. He was going to be sleepy after eating the vole. If only he could have coiled himself into a shady tree for a rest. But it was not to be. He had his duty to fulfill.

In a blink, the river was no longer below him. He slashed across the sky, watching the Truce Road unfold ahead. The terrain was rough, but he could see woods off to the north where the hills rose and there were mountains in the far distance. That was not his course, however. Instead, Lucan turned south, cutting away from the Truce Road. Below, he saw a farm with hundreds of cattle grazing. Past that was a small village, and soon the Truce Road was far behind him.

As he flew south, the air grew warmer. He enjoyed the feel of it. The Jaculus relished heat, and cold made it sluggish. Lucan had embraced the role of spy, but hoped in the future his assignments kept him in Yucatazca.

His path took him through gray afternoon clouds. A light rain began to fall.

High in the eastern sky, something black flashed against the storm. Lucan might have ignored it, but a moment later another shape joined the first. Two birds, black and broad-winged, paced him a hundred feet above.

The Jaculus felt his stomach rumble, acid working on the vole. But he was slowed by the meal and could not digest it any faster.

With a single twist and a thrust of his wings, he switched direction, turning toward a copse of trees at the edge of a field below. Lucan dove, fangs bared, toward the uppermost branches. He shot his tail beneath him like a javelin, grabbed hold of a branch, and swung around, wrapping himself around the tree limb. As he glanced up, he saw the birds descend, their talons out, enormous wings beating the air.

Strigae. They were spies for Ty’Lis as well.

“What are you doing?” the Jaculus cried.

The smaller Strigae crashed through leaves, snapped a branch, and grabbed hold of Lucan, tearing him from his perch. The Jaculus hissed and bared his fangs. He lunged once, missed, and prepared to lunge again, but then the Strigae landed, battering him against the hard ground. The other alighted beside the first and shot out a talon, holding his head down, keeping him from striking. His wings beat uselessly against the dirt.

“Where are you going in such a hurry, sky-worm?” cawed the Strigae who stood upon his head. It bent down and stared into his face, tiny black eyes like stones.

“Returning to Palenque,” Lucan muttered, the talon upon his head making it difficult to speak. “And you had best let me be on my way. I serve at the will of the sorcerer Ty’Lis, as I believe do you. I have vital information for—”

The Strigae pushed the Jaculus’s head into the dirt and put his beak closer to Lucan’s face. “What information?”

“Information I will only reveal to my master.”

The Strigae cawed angrily, and the other followed suit. The two birds were so loud that Lucan’s ears hurt. He twisted and coiled the lower part of his serpent body, but could do nothing. The vole weighed heavy in his gut.

From above came the sound of other wings, much larger, much heavier. The Strigae stopped their cawing and looked up. Lucan tried to see past them, but at first the drizzling rain spattered his eyes and the gray light that filtered through the storm made it difficult to make out the two creatures that flew down and landed heavily a few feet away.

Then Lucan blinked the rain away, and he stopped wriggling beneath his captors. There were few things in any world the Jaculus feared, but the Hunters that slunk across the dirt now, almost blending with the trees, were fear themselves.

Perytons. Their antlers glistened with the rain, wide eyes bright despite the gray storm clouds. The two Atlantean predators moved with a crawling stealth, green-feathered wings pinioned against their backs.

“Jaculus,” said one of the Strigae, as though in answer to a question, though neither of the Perytons had spoken. Lucan was not sure the Hunters ever spoke.

The other Strigae cawed and bent his head in obeisance to the Perytons. “Says he serves Ty’Lis. Says he’s got information for him.”

One of the Perytons stepped back, a grotesque motion like the scuttling of a crab, wings pinned. It slid between two trees and dipped its head as though listening to a voice.

Only then did Lucan see that there was a figure in front of one of the trees. A crone, a terrible hag. She turned and smiled at him, and even from this distance, he could see that her teeth were stone. Her skin was blue, her nose hooked and bulbous.

Jezi-Baba, he thought.

The Jaculus knew he was as good as dead if he did not speak.

The Peryton with Jezi-Baba nodded to the Strigae. The huge black birds cawed loudly. The talon on his head pressed harder.

“I will tear off your head if you do not speak the truth, and now. If there is information for Ty’Lis, it may help us to locate our quarry. If you do not share it, and so thwart us, your master will flay you alive.”

Lucan shuddered, the last trace of strength gone from him, and he told them all that he had seen.

As he spoke, the Perytons closed in around him. The Strigae withdrew, letting him up. He considered fleeing, but only for a moment. With the vole in his belly, they would surely overtake him quickly.

“You mean they saw you? The Borderkind and the Bascombe? They know that you were spying upon them?” the smaller Strigae demanded, ruffling its wings, black feathers gleaming wetly in the rain.

“It could not be helped,” the Jaculus replied, coiled upon the ground, wings aquiver. He bent his head respectfully. “I would have attacked, would have slain those I could, but my instructions were specific. Watch, only, and return with word.”

The Perytons snorted and pawed the ground with clawed, twisted, nearly human hands. They spread their wings with a sound like banners unfurling. Beneath the trees, Jezi-Baba sneered and ground her stone teeth.

“You are useless,” the larger Strigae said, black eyes like buttons. “You were seen. And now you have freely told what you swore to keep secret.”

Lucan could not breathe. “But…you compelled me. You serve Ty’Lis as well.”

The Strigae cawed loudly and looked to the Perytons. First one, then the other, turned their backs, spread their wings, and took to the air.

“No,” the Jaculus pleaded. “No, wait. I…I am loyal. I did as I was told.”

“You are weak,” a voice said, like the whisper of the leaves, and Lucan looked amongst the trees to see Jezi-Baba merging with the bark of a tall, twisted oak. Then she was gone.

The birds began to laugh.

The Jaculus screamed as they closed in around him, beating him with their wings and pecking him, beaks piercing his flesh.

Sleep. Just the thought of it had an allure that Oliver would never have imagined possible. In all his life he had never been so exhausted. His muscles ached as though he’d been pummeled by a prizefighter, arms and legs and back and abdomen all stiff and sore. His eyes burned and his head felt stuffed with cotton, like the worst hangover he’d ever had, except he hadn’t taken a drink.

But he could have used one.

It was mid-afternoon on this side of the Veil. Twillig’s Gorge had obviously not been hospitable to visitors of late, and so there were plenty of vacancies at the inn. Coyote was staying there, and had been for weeks. Apparently his idea of hiding from the Myth Hunters had been to hole up in a place they would inevitably look, but someplace they could not arrive unannounced. Very few beings could approach Twillig’s Gorge without notice. According to Kitsune, Coyote was a master of vanishing when trouble began. Such was the way with troublemakers.

Frost had a quiet conversation with Coyote while the innkeeper—a voluminously fat man with a shaved head and a thick beard—supplied the rest of them with keys. Blue Jay, Kitsune, and Oliver were given rooms next to one another on the third floor, facing north. Frost asked only that he be allowed to rest in the inn’s cold storage and the innkeeper was happy to oblige, for a fee.

At the bottom of the stairs, out of earshot of the innkeeper, Frost addressed them.

“There’s a tavern here at the inn,” he said. “Coyote tells me it’s empty this time of day. Go upstairs and wash. Rest a while. Coyote has sent for clean, dry clothes for all of you. But I’m afraid we cannot sleep yet. We must leave here in the morning, and that means that our planning must begin now. We’ll meet in the tavern in an hour, with any Borderkind in the Gorge who are willing to speak with us.”

Oliver followed Blue Jay and Kitsune up the stairs without a word. He was too tired for questions and just the thought of a bed and a shower drove him on. The inn was stone and wood on the inside as well as out, like some ancient castle. The stairs wound up through the heart of the place. As he made his way up, admiring the tapestries on the walls, he thought of his father. The old man would have loved this place. It was just his style.

But the old man was dead.

Blue Jay had the nearest room, right at the top of the stairs. His clothes were soaked through, and at some point he’d torn the leg of his jeans. He nodded once before disappearing into his room, looking genuinely haggard.

The second room was Oliver’s, while the third, at the end of the hall, had been given to Kitsune. As he stopped at his door, she smiled at him and wrinkled her nose.

“It appears we both could use a bath,” she said lightly, jade eyes sparkling. Her hood was thrown back.

“Do I stink that much?”

Kitsune nodded gravely. “Oh, yes. Terribly.” Then she leaned in toward him and kissed his temple. “Not to worry, Oliver. We’ll sleep well tonight in soft beds with softer pillows. We deserve one pleasant night before we head into the lion’s den.”

The smell of her, so close, was intoxicating: cinnamon and mint, and something else he could not identify.