Cernunnos stood gazing down at her with hard, intelligent eyes of the brightest green. His antlers threw criss-cross shadows over Damia’s face.
“You are the Lost girl who summoned me?”
For a moment she hesitated. Then she cursed herself silently for becoming so enchanted. She stood up straight and sheathed her sword, then bowed her head in respect.
“I am, Lord Cernunnos. You honor me and my king by agreeing to meet here.”
“I avoid involvement with the lands beyond the wood,” the master of the forest said, his gaze sage and a bit sad. “But my people are afraid. They whisper of a dark time beginning. They fear war and fire in the wood. Are they right to be afraid?”
Damia raised her chin, meeting his gaze without wavering. “Yes, milord. They are. Atlantis has betrayed the Two Kingdoms. The truce is broken.”
Cernunnos waved a hand in the air. The trees seemed to sway away from him. But when he spoke, it was as if they leaned in to catch his every word.
“That has nothing to do with Oldwood. The legends here care nothing for kingdoms or kings.”
Still, she did not waver. “Would that they could continue to live without caring, sir. But the war will not leave the Oldwood unscathed. The armies of Yucatazca have invaded, with spies from Atlantis amongst their ranks. They will come. And those prophecies of fire may well come true. You will be a part of the war, whether you wish to or not.
“If you want to keep the Oldwood safe, you must help us. I have sent a portion of my soldiers to the west of the forest. The southern army will see them and will pursue them. My troops hope to retreat into the Oldwood, to draw the invaders in. We’d like to fight them here, in the wood.”
All the quiet wisdom went out of his eyes. Cernunnos’s face darkened with rage. His lips peeled back from his teeth and he quaked with anger.
“You dare much, Lost girl,” he sneered. “The war might have passed us by, and instead you ask to bring it here?”
The dryads hissed and circled closer, fingers hooked into talons. From the branches and the underbrush came a stirring of bestial sounds and the snapping of twigs. Eyes glowed yellow and red in the darkness, hidden behind trees and in bushes.
Damia steeled herself. “And what will you do then? Eventually, they will come to subjugate you and all of Oldwood. As angry as you are, you should recognize an ally when you see her. Hunyadi does not interfere with you. Do you think Atlantis will afford you that courtesy?”
Cernunnos scowled at her, his nostrils flaring. Then he held up a hand and the dryads withdrew.
“And how much time do I have to prepare?”
“Tomorrow, with your permission, a company of my soldiers will lead the invaders into the Oldwood from the west. I have three more companies, making a full battalion, waiting on the eastern road, with two regiments of cavalry and a platoon of Borderkind. I’d like to move them into the forest tonight.
“But I need to know, milord. When the battle begins, will you help?”
Cernunnos took a long breath, then nodded, his head heavy with those wicked-looking antlers.
“Yes, Commander Beck. We shall help kill your enemies.”
A shudder went through Virginia Tsing’s sleeping form. Rising almost to wakefulness, she drew her blanket up to her neck and huddled under it. This far north and east, the nights could get chilly, but she enjoyed sleeping with the windows open. Her bedroom was above the café and faced the Sorrowful River. Sometimes she felt she could hear the gentle sigh and weep of the waters, but usually it was only the soft rush of the river rolling by. The sound comforted her, eased her mind when she lay down at night.
Again she stirred. Half aware, she frowned and reached up to rub at her eyes. Her nose wrinkled. The place was always full of the smells of the café—of coffee and baking bread, of cinnamon and moon cakes—and underneath it all the thick, starchy odor of dough and flour.
Without opening her eyes, she tried to discover what had woken her. There had been a sound that was not the river, and a smell that was not the café. The odor had an earthen quality to it and it tickled her nose.
She burrowed deeper under the covers. The aches of an old woman’s body pained her, but when she settled down again, they retreated. Her breathing was steady, but her forehead had not lost the crease of the frown she wore.
The sound came again. Not the creak of a floorboard or the sound of voices that might have reached her if Ovid had a lady friend visiting late. This was not the river. It had a scratchy quality, skittering across the floor.
Virginia’s nose wrinkled again. Her breath hitched and she brought her hand up, but could not prevent herself from sneezing. When she sneezed, her eyes flew open.
And there he stood.
Death had come for her, a hooded figure that seemed to shift and rasp with each movement. Its body flowed with motion and she realized it was made of sand.
The Sandman stared at her with bright yellow eyes. It smiled, showing sharp black teeth.
“What do you want?” she asked.
The creature slid toward her, its tread scouring the floor.
“Kitsune,” it rasped. “The Borderkind who traveled with the Legend-Born…the Bascombe. I am told that the fox is here, and that you will know where.”
Her heart fluttered with fear. Those eyes were dreadful to see. But Virginia Tsing would not crumble. She was far too proud. Perhaps that was the thing she had most in common with her son. Even terror could not break her.
“She’s no longer among us,” the old woman said softly. Her voice did not sound as strong as she had hoped it might.
It reached down with one hand and laid its palm across her mouth. She felt the sand spilling into her throat. Her eyes widened, and her heart began to race. Terror gave her the courage to reach up and grab its wrist. She felt the sand shifting beneath his cloak as she stared up into those awful yellow eyes.
Virginia gagged as the sand reversed direction, returning from her body to the Sandman’s.
“Where?” he asked.
“Perinthia,” she rasped. “Kitsune’s gone with Coyote to Perinthia, to see the old gods.”
The Sandman bowed his head as though in thanks, the hood of his cloak obscuring his eyes.
“You won’t stop the Legend-Born,” she persisted. “Their time has come.”
The monster laughed. “I don’t want to stop them. Only to kill them.”
As though it were a promise, he lowered himself toward her. Virginia cried out, her scream blotting out the sound of the river. Strangely, in that moment she could smell all of the aromas of the café—the coffee, the cinnamon, the flour.
The Sandman dipped its talons toward her eyes.
She studied its face and realized she had seen it before. Once, that face had belonged to a man, a Lost One, who had passed through Twillig’s Gorge.
“Halliwell?” she asked.
The Sandman plunged his fingers into the corners of her eyes and plucked them out. Virginia shrieked and he silenced her with a flow of sand that clogged her nose and throat once more. He flooded her skull with sand and it spilled from the empty sockets where her eyes had been.
Inside the Sandman, Ted Halliwell screamed.
The monster heard his voice, and only laughed in return.
Halliwell knew he existed only as a thought, now. He saw what the Sandman saw, heard what the abomination heard. Yet Virginia Tsing had looked up into the face of her death and she had seen Halliwell himself. Frozen in horror and grief over the woman’s murder, he shivered at the realization that, looking up into the sand sculpted into his own features, the woman had died thinking that Halliwell himself had murdered her.
And yet, as much as that weighed on his heart, he quickly realized it had other implications. Somewhere in the eyes of the Sandman, Virginia had seen him. Had some part of his essence come to the surface in that moment? If enough of me still exists in here for her to see me, is it enough to exert some influence?
Sickened as he was by the old woman’s death, he found in it a glimmer of hope.
When the Dustman had drawn him down into the dark storm at the core of the Sandman, he had shared a terrible truth. They were all one, now. Three spirits in one form. The substance of the Sandman had changed. Now it was sand, and dust, and Ted Halliwell’s bones, ground down to a fine powder by the scouring of the sand.
They were one. The teeth that bit into Virginia Tsing’s eyes were their teeth. The claws that ripped at her flesh were their hands.
“I’m sorry,” Halliwell said.
It might have been that the words came from the Sandman’s lips. And, if so, what else might Ted be able to do down there in the dust, and the sand, and the powder of his own bones?
Ovid woke to the sound of his mother’s voice. As he blinked, clearing his vision and his mind, he realized it was still early. What was his mother doing awake? Yet, now that he listened, he realized there was another voice as well—an inhuman rasp that made the hairs on his arms stand up.
He vaulted from his bed, legs tangling in the sheets. As he extricated himself, he heard his mother coughing. Ovid’s heart beat faster, his skin warming with the heat of panic. He ran to his wardrobe. His sword hung in its scabbard from the door. The metal sang as he drew the blade.
“You won’t stop the Legend-Born,” he heard his mother say, coughing. “Their time has come.”
Whatever menaced her, it laughed. It didn’t want to stop them, it claimed. Only to kill them.
Ovid froze. The thing—whatever it was—had just confirmed his mother’s belief. The Legend-Born were real.
Then his mother began to scream.
“No!” he cried, and bolted from his room.
Sword in hand, he raced down the corridor. He had recently begun to insist that she lock her bedroom door at night. As she shrieked in agony he tried to work the point of his sword between the door and the frame. His blood boiled with bitter irony.
At last he reared back and began to kick the door, just beside the knob. Again and again he kicked, until at last the wood splintered and the door flew open.
Only then did he realize that her screams had ceased. He peered into the darkened room. His mother lay on the bed, her throat crushed, broken, and bleeding. Her chest had been caved in. Where her eyes had been there were bloody, ragged holes.
Above her stood a thin figure in a gray cloak, its body shifting and flowing, its flesh in motion. But it was not flesh; it was sand. For a moment, he recognized that face, and it was not the face of a monster but of a man he recognized…a man to whom he and his mother had given their hospitality. Ovid even remembered his name. Ted. Ted Halliwell.
Then the sand shifted again and the face became the monster’s. The Sandman turned to gaze at Ovid as it licked its bloody fingers, which were thin as knives.
Ovid screamed and ran toward it, anguish overcoming reason. He raised his sword—grief a hollow pit in his gut—and swung the blade as he lunged for the Sandman.
The sword passed through it. Ovid felt a tug against the metal and heard it hiss as the sand scraped against it.
The Sandman collapsed, losing all cohesion. A wind rose from nowhere and swirled and eddied the sand across the floor and out the windows into the nighttime peace of Twillig’s Gorge.
When it had departed, all that remained for Ovid Tsing was the gentle sound of the river passing by outside.
On a street in Palenque’s inner maze, just outside the great plaza where the king’s palace thrust up from the city’s heart, a small bar called Brasilia provided the pulse of the capital. A pair of musicians played steel drum and guitar, sometimes adding flute and trumpet. The couples who dined or drank on Brasilia’s patio were young and beautiful, with complexions the color of caramel or cinnamon. The waitresses were even younger and more beautiful. Everyone smiled and laughed, and once in a while someone passing by the patio would begin to dance to the music.
The scent of flowers carried on the breeze from a nearby florist. A father swung his daughter up to perch on his shoulders and made the snorting sounds of an angry bull, scraping his shoe against the cobblestones as though about to charge. The girl squealed in delight.
Leicester Grindylow watched all of this from just inside the bar. He sat on a stool from which he could take in both the inside of the bar and the bright, glittering nightlife on the patio and beyond. Inside, however—where the serious drinkers were—things were not so bright, and the patrons were far less beautiful. They had not come for dinner or music, but only to stare into their drinks and to argue bitterly about things upon which they mostly agreed.
Had they been able to see him for what he was, they would not have spoken so freely. Had they realized he was a spy—for what else could one call his present occupation?—they likely would have beaten him bloody. But there was no way for the Lost Ones in Brasilia to recognize his true nature. They would see an ordinary man instead of a long-armed water boggart. When he spoke, they would not hear English with the London accent he had acquired over years of visiting the ordinary world.
The Mazikeen had seen to that.
When Blue Jay and Cheval had first returned to the apartment where the Borderkind had holed up in Palenque, Grin had been dubious. Yeah, the Mazikeen were powerful. But a pair of sorcerers weren’t going to have enough magic between them to take the palace and free Oliver, Frost, and the others. For that, all the Mazikeen in the Two Kingdoms might not have been enough. Ty’Lis had enough sorcery on his own to take out several Mazikeen, at least the way Grin had heard it. And even if Ty’Lis had sent most of the other Atlanteans off to the north to conquer Euphrasia, they had no way to know what kind of forces he had in the palace, or what surprises he had waiting.
But it turned out Blue Jay hadn’t shared the whole plan with any of them. Part one of their mission didn’t have a thing to do with getting Oliver out of the dungeon. A bit of espionage was the first order of business.
The Mazikeen had lined them up—not just Grin, Cheval, and the burning Li, but a bunch of local Borderkind the sorcerers had organized in secret in Palenque. There was a bloke with a massive mouth in his belly, and half a dozen Pihuechenyi—tall, winged, serpent-men with wicked fangs.