Oliver Bascombe paced his dungeon cell, wondering when his captors would decide to kill him and how they would do it. Public execution?
Swift murder? Torture? Or perhaps they would simply feed him to the Battle Swine and let those filthy porcine warriors bite off his head and strip the flesh from his bones.
In the two months and more since he had first been clapped into the crumbling stone cell with its iron-grated windows and heavy wooden door, he had come to understand that there were only three things a prisoner in the royal dungeon of Yucatazca could do to pass the time—imagine dying, imagine escaping, and work his body hard enough to hurt, just to remind him that he was alive. In all his life, Oliver had never been so strong. He could not escape the irony that despite all of his newly gained strength and discipline, he had also never been so powerless.
A stained sleeping mat was the room’s only comfort. Unless he was sleeping, he kept it rolled up in the center of the cell. With that out of the way, he could walk the perimeter of the room unimpeded by anything but the small sink and the hole beside it that was the closest thing he had to a toilet.
He didn’t have space to run; no way to get up any momentum in a cell twenty feet by twelve. The best he could do was walk and so he did that, swiftly and consistently, for at least an hour when he rose and another hour after dark. After dark, Oliver needed to keep his body occupied because his mind became busiest then, as well. Back in the ordinary world, he had always believed that there truly were things lurking in the dark, but now he knew for certain. In the world of the legendary, everything was possible.
No, more than that. Everything is real.
This morning, like every other, he knew the day had begun by the lightening of the cell from black to gloomy gray and from the passage of silent guards out in the corridor. The two small grated windows never received direct sunlight and offered no view of anything but stone and shadow. Beyond the outer wall of the dungeon was a slotted canyon built into the king’s palace by its architect. He supposed he ought to have been grateful for that little bit of light that allowed him to keep track of the passage of night and day, but Oliver had no gratitude in his heart.
In the absence of Frost—whom he suspected was alive, despite all evidence to the contrary—he had become a kind of winter man himself.
If not for the presence of his sister, Collette, and his fiancée, Julianna Whitney, in the cell across that stone corridor, he knew his heart would have become ice entirely. What saved him was the ability to hear their voices and catch glimpses of their faces through the grated windows in their parallel door. Instead of slamming his palms and fists against the stones, building callus, he might have rammed his skull into the wall and been done with life.
Instead, he lived.
In between his morning and evening walks, Oliver did sets of push-ups and sit-ups. He’d built up the muscles in his arms and shoulders quite a bit, and his abdomen was tight as a drum. This development did not stem solely from his exercise regimen, but also from what he’d come to think of as the “dungeon diet.” He, Collette, and Julianna lived on pitiful meals of crusty bread, water, and a thin stew obviously made from whatever others in the palace had not cared to eat. He tried not to think about the origins of his food and never left a drop in the bowl. It would keep him alive.
He paused beneath one of the grated windows and glanced at the door to his cell. It seemed to him that the voice had come from the corridor, but he was keenly aware of the possibility that he’d imagined it. Claustrophobia had never been a problem for him, but it had crept into his head over the past two months, and sometimes the walls seemed to close in around him and he imagined shadows moving in the corners. Hallucinating voices seemed a likely addition to the menu.
“Oliver?” the voice said again.
He grinned, feeling like a fool. The voice belonged to his sister.
Silently, he crossed the cell and craned his neck to peer through the iron grate set high in the door. Collette and Julianna were in the opposite cell. Jules was tall enough that he could see the upper part of her face through the grate in their door, but Collette had to pull herself up to peer through, like a child trying to get a peek at the world of grown-ups. Even worn and filthy and half-starved, he thought they were both beautiful. His sister’s eyes had a mischievous light in them that had not been extinguished by their incarceration. And his fiancée’s gaze was unwavering.
“Morning, Coll,” he said. Then he locked eyes with Julianna. “Morning, sweetie.”
It ought to have felt odd to use such an endearment under the circumstances. But it didn’t. He didn’t love her any less after the time they’d spent imprisoned here. In a thousand ways, he loved her more. They’d had perfect, boring lives in the ordinary world as attorneys for the law firm their fathers had helped to found. Oliver had always lived in the shadow of his father and the life the old man had wanted for him.
As a boy, he’d wanted to be an actor, had believed in magic and imagination, but as he’d grown he’d slowly succumbed to his father’s efforts to stifle such dreams. When he and Julianna had gotten engaged it had been both the best and worst thing that had ever happened to him—the best because he loved her utterly, and the worst because their wedding would cement him forever into the role his father had laid out for him. Oliver had had his doubts, but they’d been fleeting. If Julianna would be his wife, that alone would provide enough magic for him to survive.
Or so he’d thought.
But that was before the magic he had always hoped to find had blown in through his window in a blizzard of ice and snow, on the night before his wedding, and torn his life apart. He’d traveled between worlds since then, met creatures of myth and legend from dozens of cultures—some of them allies and some enemies—and he and Collette had discovered that they themselves might have a bit of the legendary in their blood. Their father had been murdered and they had been hunted on both sides of the Veil that separated the fantastical from the mundane, drawn into a conspiracy to destroy an age-old peace between the Two Kingdoms. Men and legends had died. Julianna had followed Oliver through the Veil and was now trapped here, in this world, unable to return.
And now they were prisoners in the bowels of the king’s palace in Palenque, capital of Yucatazca, accused of regicide. In truth, Oliver had murdered King Mahacuhta, but there had been…extenuating circumstances. At the time, he’d been under a glamour that had caused him to believe the man he stabbed was Ty’Lis, the Atlantean sorcerer who had engineered all of his and Collette’s misery, and so much more.
Ty’Lis had tricked him into murdering Mahacuhta—with the sword of Hunyadi, King of Euphrasia.
No news had trickled in to them from the outside, but he had no doubt that the Two Kingdoms must be in open war by now.
Yet in spite of all of that, he stood at the door of his cell and looked across at the eyes of the woman he’d loved since childhood, and somehow found the faith to believe they’d get out of this.
“Are you all right?” Julianna asked, brows knitted in concern.
“You were kind of muttering to yourself when you were walking.”
Oliver leaned his forehead against the bars, smiling. “Stir crazy. We’ll take turns, okay? Rotate breakdowns, so at least one of us is sane at all times.”
“That’s not funny, Oliver,” Julianna said.
He lifted his gaze to meet hers. For a moment, he felt strong enough to rip the doors away and tear down the walls that separated them.
“I’m sorry, Jules. You’re right. I’m just trying to keep my mind active, stay ready.”
Collette poked her head up beside Julianna again. Through the bars in the small window of their cell door, she looked so small and fragile. It was an illusion. Collette had survived as a prisoner in the castle of the Sandman. Compared to that horror, this was like a resort hotel.
“Ready for what?” she asked.
“We’ll know when the moment presents itself,” Oliver replied.
He had no idea when opportunity would arrive, but he had to have faith that it would. Otherwise, they might as well all curl up and die. The one thing they weren’t going to do was try something stupid like pretending to be sick to draw in the guards and catch them by surprise. That sort of thing worked well enough in the movies, but they’d agreed it was damned unlikely to work for real. And even if it did work, where would they go? In addition to the Atlantean instigators Ty’Lis had sewn into the fabric of the Yucatazcan military and court—soldiers, Hunters, giants, and sorcerers—there were the people of Yucatazca itself. As far as they knew, the monarch of Euphrasia had sent Oliver and his friends as assassins to slay their king. Even if they managed to get out of the dungeon and fight their way out of the palace, then what? Leaving the city of Palenque alive seemed a dubious prospect.
“Maybe you’re not the only one going a little stir crazy,” Collette replied.
As the words left her mouth, she and Julianna exchanged a worrisome glance. Oliver frowned.
“What are you talking about? Are you two okay?”
“We’re all right,” Julianna said quickly, staring at him again across the corridor between their cells. “It’s just…something weird.”
Oliver pulled his face as tightly against the bars as he could and looked left and right along the dungeon hallway. The guards would arrive soon with stale bread and water for breakfast, and perhaps some morning gruel.
“What is it?” he whispered, locking eyes with his sister now. “Don’t try anything. We’ll never get out of here without a plan.”
“I’m not sure about that,” Collette replied.
Panic hit Oliver. “What’ve you got in mind, Coll? If we’re going to act, we’ve got to work together.”
But Collette shook her head. “Nothing like that. Just listen.”
Now it was Julianna’s turn to peer up and down the corridor. When she was sure no guards were nearby, she took a breath. “A little while ago, we felt cold.”
Oliver frowned. “It always gets a little cold down here at night.”
“More than that,” Collette said. “The temperature must have dropped thirty degrees. There were ice crystals on the wall. And I thought I heard—”
“Whispering,” Julianna said.
Oliver stared at them for a second and then pushed away from the door. He paced the cell’s perimeter, running a hand over the thick beard that had grown over the past two months.
The only one of their allies not to escape after the assault on the king’s chambers and the accidental murders of King Mahacuhta himself had been Frost, who Oliver often thought of as “the winter man.” He had been the first creature from the world of the legendary that Oliver had met. Frost had interceded when a monstrosity called the Falconer had been sent to murder Oliver and Collette—though he had lied about the reasons for his presence there and about the Falconer’s target. Still, despite those lies, Frost had saved Oliver’s life many times over.
Magicians of a hundred cultures had gathered together and woven spells to create the Veil, crafting a barrier that would forever separate the legendary from the ordinary. From time to time, human beings slipped through the Veil into the world of the legendary, but once touched by the magic of the Veil, they could never return. There were Doors set into the Veil, few and far between and always under heavy guard, but only the legendary could pass through a Door.
But the Borderkind didn’t need Doors. They were creatures of legend who could travel back and forth through the Veil whenever they pleased. At the time of the barrier’s creation, human beings still had enough faith or fascination for them that they could continue to slip through. Sometimes Oliver thought there was more to it than that—that some of the legendary became Borderkind not because humanity loved them, but because they loved the human world too much to succumb completely to the spells that wove the Veil.
Ever since discovering that Frost had kept so much from him, Oliver had nursed resentment and anger. Had his supposed friend been truthful, things might have turned out quite differently.
“No,” Oliver said, shaking his head, gripping the grate. “If he’s still alive, and he’s found some way to communicate, how does that help? If he can’t get out—and get us out—then we’re no better off.”
“Oliver, I know you feel like he deceived you. Maybe he did,” Julianna said. “What’s his big sin, though, really? He didn’t trust a human being enough to take you into his confidence? Learning the truth at the wrong time might have cost your life anyway.”
“He lied,” Oliver whispered.
Collette banged the door with her palm. “So he played you a little. Treated you like a little kid, the way Dad always did. But Frost isn’t Dad. I didn’t travel with him the way you did, so I can’t know how you feel. All I know are the facts, and—”
“Stop,” Julianna said.
Brother and sister fell quiet, listening. Somewhere, water dripped loudly, echoing off the stones of the dungeon corridor.
“We don’t have time to argue this, Oliver,” Julianna went on. “All we wanted to do was tell you what happened, because it got us thinking.”
“All right. What’re you thinking?”
“That Frost is the opportunity we’ve been waiting for,” Collette said.
Julianna stared across at him. “The moment might never come for us to act, so we’re going to have to make our own moment. From what happened this morning, it seems pretty certain that Frost is still alive, and close. We don’t have to get out of the palace, Oliver. All we have to do is get out of these cells and get to Frost. If we can free him, then he’ll get us out of here.”