“What the hell’s going on?” Julianna asked, glancing back at Oliver.
The fat man lunged at her. In that moment of distraction, he grabbed hold of the pitchfork and tugged it from her hands. Then he started toward them both. Oliver grabbed Julianna by the hand.
“Get ready to run,” he told her.
“What? Don’t do anything stupid.”
“Too late. Just get ready to run. I’ll distract him.”
Only when Oliver saw Ixchel did he realize he’d momentarily lost track of the other man. The stablehand stepped up behind his friend and swung a shovel. The man staggered and went down on his knees, eyes rolling up in his head.
He fell on his face, nearly impaling himself on the pitchfork. A trickle of blood ran down his temple.
Ixchel, regret and worry on his face, knelt at his friend’s side and felt for a pulse. When he stood, he seemed satisfied.
Quickly he ran to the stable doors, cracked them open to glance outside, then closed and barred them. Oliver and Julianna could only watch in amazement, still shocked at what he had done. Then Ixchel turned to look at them.
“Bascombe,” the man said.
Oliver nodded slowly, curiously.
Ixchel smiled. He gestured to Oliver and said a few words in his own language. Then he shook his head in frustration because he knew they didn’t understand.
“You,” he said, finding the word. “Legend-Born.”
The gods came out of Perinthia at dawn, just as they had promised.
Kitsune had been sitting on a rock beside the Truce Road, thinking back to the last time she had been here, sneaking into the city with Oliver and Frost after their mad flight on horseback from Bromfield Village with the Myth Hunters in pursuit. Those had been anxious days, but they had been sweet as well. Their intentions had been pure, their understanding of one another uncomplicated.
It had all gone wrong since. Kitsune wished that she could go back. But there was only forward, now, to war—and to whatever life held for her on the other side.
Boredom had forced Coyote to shed his human form and to chase voles across the rough landscape on the outskirts of the city in the hour just before dawn. But as the horizon had begun to lighten and the city of Perinthia began to awaken, the coyote had come and laid down at Kitsune’s feet, gaze locked on the archway that led into the city. The arch connected two watchtowers. Dark figures appeared from time to time atop those towers, but Coyote’s attention was on the arch itself. On the road.
For her part, Kitsune tried her best not to look at the arch, superstitious that if she stared in that direction, the gods might never come. But when Coyote made a soft growl in his throat and rose from his haunches, then transformed fluidly from animal to man, standing almost at attention despite his usual slouch, she knew that they would not march alone.
The war goddess, Bellona, came first through the arch, one hand upon the pommel of her sword, chin high with salvaged dignity. Only steps behind her came a god all in black. The ebon armored chest plate he wore gleamed in the dawn’s light, as did the helm upon his head. His eyes were hidden in shadow, but Kitsune could see the thin line of his mouth and she shuddered. Never had she seen a being so grim.
“Ares,” Coyote muttered.
Kitsune shot him a look.
“It must be,” he whispered.
The fox-woman agreed. The god of war had come. How could he have resisted?
Salacia and Hesperos followed, but Kitsune’s lingering gaze was broken by a blur that swept past Hesperos and Salacia, darted around Ares and Bellona, and raced toward her with such speed that she barely had time to raise her hands in self-defense before he came to a stop in front of her. His narrow face and thin limbs trembled as though with terrible age, and there were lines upon his face. Yet despite the wisps of white hair, she knew this could only be Mercury.
His eyes were alight with youth and power, with speed.
Then he vanished in a blur, racing off along the Truce Road toward the south—toward Bromfield and the Atlantic Bridge and toward war.
“Where the hell’s he going?” Coyote said.
“To scout ahead,” Bellona replied.
Kitsune turned. The golden gleam of the morning sun made the gods seem almost like figments of her imagination. But the rust on Bellona’s chest plate and the dents in her helm were not illusions.
Ares walked past Kitsune and Coyote without a word, not even pausing to be introduced.
Another god came along behind Hesperos and Salacia, a fair-haired male in a pale blue robe who floated several inches above the ground, a small wind swirling up a dust devil underfoot.
“Thank you for coming,” Kitsune said.
“Where are the others?” Coyote asked.
“Most of the old gods are tired,” Bellona said, glaring at Coyote. “But there are those of us who refuse to be forgotten.”
Kitsune shot Coyote a hard look.
“And we’re very grateful,” she told Bellona.
Placated, the war goddess gestured around her. “Mercury and Ares have gone on ahead. Salacia and Hesperos you know.” She put a hand on Kitsune’s shoulder. “Notus, this is Kitsune of the Borderkind and her cousin, the trickster Coyote,” Bellona said, and nodded toward the floating god. “And this is Notus, the south wind.”
Kitsune bowed her head. “We are honored to have you with us.”
A gentle wind caressed her face, perhaps whispered something in her ear, and then was gone. Notus smiled at her, then continued along the road.
Kitsune glanced at Coyote, but saw that her cousin was not watching Notus, nor was he gazing at either of the beautiful goddesses who had joined them. His eyes were locked upon the watchtowers at the city’s edge and at the archway between them.
Head bowed, a giant lumbered through the arch, the road buckling beneath the heels of his leather boots. With his shaggy beard and dusty clothes, he looked like one of the carnivorous giants who lived along the Sorrowful River, eating wayward children and crushing their parents underfoot.
Frantic, she glanced around for cover. Not all of the Myth Hunters, it seemed, had gone to war.
But Bellona laughed softly and both Hesperos and Salacia turned to smile lovingly at the giant.
“Have no fear,” the war goddess said.
“It is only Cronus,” Hesperos added.
Kitsune shook her head in confusion. “Cronus?”
Salacia stepped up beside her, looking almost sickly in the morning sun despite her beauty. Her green-hued skin had an almost Atlantean caste, but the dawn light gave her a kind of jaundiced, cadaverous appearance.
“A Titan. They were forerunners of the gods. Cronus is the father of Zeus. His mind is not what it was, once, but he is fearless and savage in battle.”
Coyote stepped close to Kitsune. “I don’t doubt it.”
Kitsune watched the Titan as he lumbered toward her. His head was still bowed and she looked at his eyes, expecting them to be cruel but finding only lost innocence there.
Cronus smiled at her. “Pretty fox,” the Titan said.
Bellona stood straighter, hand gripping the pommel of her sword.
“Shall we go?” the goddess asked.
Kitsune bowed with a flourish of her copper-red fur cloak. “By all means.”
The morning had been gray and bitter, but as the lunchtime crowd began to make the pilgrimage back to their offices, the sky allowed a tantalizing glimpse of spring. In the passenger seat of Jackson Norris’s new Jeep—his personal vehicle, since it wouldn’t be very subtle to sit there in a car emblazoned with the logo of the Wessex County Sheriff’s Department—Sara Halliwell gazed up at the blue sky peeking through the clouds above and thought about the hope that spring inspired. Spring, she had told more than one girlfriend, was what made people believe in God and the afterlife. The seasons followed the arc of human life, and when men and women hit autumn, they began to fear the snowfall. Come winter, brittle and white and cold, people were desperate to believe in spring.
Sara didn’t know if she believed in an afterlife—in a spring after human winter—but she had no doubt that when she reached her own autumn, she would wish for a little faith.
“Doesn’t this guy ever eat lunch?” Sheriff Norris said.
Slouched in the driver’s seat, he stared over the top of the steering wheel at the façade of Bullfinch’s, a small used book shop two blocks out of the center of Chesterton, Connecticut. They had been there since shortly after ten A.M., and Sara had to pee, but mentioning this to Sheriff Norris seemed like a bad idea. This was supposed to be a stakeout. But the man they were waiting for would have to leave the bookshop at some point to eat lunch.
A terrible thought struck her, and she couldn’t stop herself from giving voice to it. “What if he brought his lunch to work?”
The sheriff sighed and glanced at her. “I’ve been trying not to think about that. I really don’t want to have to sit here all day. My butt’s already asleep and before long I’m going to need the bathroom.”
Sara grinned. “Thank God. Me too.”
Jackson looked through the windshield again. “Let’s give him half an hour. If he doesn’t come out, we’ll take turns for bathroom breaks.”
“Deal.” Sara nodded. Then she glanced at him. “Are you sure you don’t want to just go in there and talk to him?”
“For a dinky little bookstore, they’ve got some healthy traffic. Seems like there’s nearly always someone in there,” the sheriff replied. As if to punctuate his words, a pair of fortyish women came along the sidewalk carrying cups of coffee—office workers still on break—and entered the store. “I really don’t want to be interrupted.”
Sara felt a twinge of sadness for Marc Friedle. “We’re just going to ask him some questions. You talk like he’s the one who killed all of those kids.”
A furrow wrinkled the sheriff’s brow. “Nothing like that. But the more I think about it, the more I’m sure Friedle knows something that he didn’t tell us. Kind of pisses me off. I wonder what we would have done differently if he’d been forthcoming with us from the outset. I wonder if your father would still be around, bitching to me about some policy change or other.”
Just like that, she didn’t feel sad for Friedle anymore. She laid her head against the cold glass of her window and watched the door of Bullfinch’s Books, willing the man to emerge. Sara had known Jackson Norris most of her life, but she had never envisioned spending long hours in a car with him. They had exhausted topics of conversation two-thirds of the way into their trip to Connecticut and she had no idea what they would talk about on the way back. But for now, silence was just fine.
Chesterton had a certain appeal. Forty minutes south of Hartford, it wasn’t quite close enough to the ocean to be considered seaside, and was neither large enough to be a city, nor small enough to be called a village. Yet Chesterton was clean and upscale enough to almost be considered gentrified. The locals cared about their town. A banner that hung over the street announced that the Spring Fling Festival would be held the first weekend of May.
There were many places Sara had been that she’d felt could be summed up with that classic bon mot, “It’s a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.” Chesterton seemed like it would be a wonderful place to live, but visitors would be bored out of their skulls.
“Here he is,” Jackson said.
Sara’s eyes popped open and she drew in a long breath, realizing she had begun to drift off to sleep. It took her a second or two to interpret the words. Sheriff Norris stared out through the windshield and Sara followed his line of sight to discover a small, almost dainty-looking man standing in front of Bullfinch’s Books with a ring of keys, locking the door. Doubtless when he stepped away, there would be a “Back in thirty minutes” sign or something similar on the glass.
Friedle started along the sidewalk toward them. Sara reached for the door handle.
“Wait,” Sheriff Norris said, one hand on her arm. “Not until he passes.”
So they watched him go by. Sara studied him out of the corner of her eye. He had thinning hair and a vaguely European look, but his distant gaze and despondent air diffused some of her antagonism toward him.
When Jackson opened his door, Sara did the same. She stepped out onto the sidewalk, her muscles throbbing at the change in position. They closed their doors simultaneously and the sheriff moved swiftly around the back of the Jeep. Sara fell in beside him and the two of them quickened their pace, catching up to the neat little man.
“Mister Friedle?” Jackson said.
Sara thought it odd that, instead of stopping, Friedle walked on a couple of paces, then slowed, halting with his back still to them. He seemed to deflate.
“I wondered when you would come for us,” the man said, his voice a strange rasp.
Then he turned toward them. Sara flinched back, horrified. His face had changed. The pale, somewhat effete countenance had become a twisted, ugly thing with leathery furrows and jagged, broken teeth. She stifled a small cry and then blinked—
And the illusion had passed.
Illusion? That didn’t feel right, but how could it have been anything else? She glanced at Sheriff Norris, but he didn’t seem fazed at all. If he had caught a glimpse of that ugly, inhuman face, he gave away nothing.
“Us? Who do you mean by ‘us,’ Mister Friedle?” Jackson asked.
Now, though, more than one mask had come up to cover Friedle’s features. A caul of suspicion pulled tight across his face as he studied the two of them.
“I’m sorry. I thought you were someone else.”
Jackson pulled out his identification wallet. As he took a step nearer to Friedle, he glanced around to make sure no one was paying attention.
“We’ve never met, Mister Friedle, but you probably know my name. I’m Jackson Norris, the sheriff from up in Wessex County.”