Julianna found that she did. All of the long days and weeks in the dungeon were being burned out of her. Soon she would have to rest. But now—with the Borderkind and Lost Ones who had helped them escape Palenque streaming out behind them—she just wanted to keep going.
Their pace slowed not long after, and by the time they reached the edge of the jungle, they were moving only a little faster than a walk. As they entered the jungle, she stood between Oliver and Blue Jay and looked back at the city. Smoke still rose from spots all around Palenque.
“Do you think they’re still fighting?” she asked.
“I hope so,” Oliver said. “And yeah, I think so. Those people want answers. What we started today isn’t going to end quickly, and it isn’t going to end neatly.”
Blue Jay crossed his arms. “We’ve made quite a mess for Ty’Lis. That’s good. But it’s only a start. With every day that passes without Tzajin returning, the suspicion and anger will grow. It may be that Atlantis will face a war on two fronts soon.”
Julianna glanced at him. “But Ty’Lis may not even be in Palenque anymore. Most of the army has already gone north to fight. They’re following orders.”
“For now,” Oliver said.
Then he took her hand. “Let’s go.”
For the first time, with the excitement and adrenaline wearing off and her bruised, exhausted body complaining, Julianna realized she had no idea where they were going.
“What’s the plan? We’re just going to walk all the way back to Euphrasia?”
Oliver shook his head. “No. There’s a shortcut.”
So they marched.
Twice during their long journey they stopped to camp. Sentries guarded their rear flank and ranged on ahead to make sure they would not be ambushed. Julianna soon became used to the rhythm of their traveling, to the voices of the men and women and the Borderkind that accompanied them. She shared several long conversations with Leicester Grindylow and found the boggart charming and kind. Cheval Bayard shot her chilly looks whenever she talked to Grin, as though she were jealous. Perhaps she was, though not, Julianna believed, in any romantic sense.
Li, the Guardian of Fire, stayed apart from the rest. There were perhaps fifty or sixty Lost Ones and half that number of Borderkind on the trek along with them, but Li kept to himself. Only Cheval and Blue Jay made a point to break away to speak with him now and then. Wherever he walked, his footprints were black, burnt marks in the jungle, but the fire did not seem to spread unless he willed it.
After a blur of time that seemed like an eternity, they came out of the thick woods—no longer as tangled as the jungle they’d first entered—and discovered themselves on the shore of a green, gently rolling sea. For two or three miles they walked north along the shore, and then arrived at their destination.
“The Sandman’s castle,” Julianna said, a pit of fear knotted in her stomach.
“He’s dead, Jules,” Oliver reminded her.
She shuddered. “I know.”
But the knowledge did not dispel her fear. This was not the sandcastle they had been through before. Its architecture—if a structure made entirely of sand could be thought to have architecture—was quite different. But Julianna knew that the monster had at least three or four such dwellings scattered across the Two Kingdoms, and maybe more in other lands on this side of the Veil. But they were only separate structures on the outside. On the inside, the sandcastles were one and the same. They could enter here and exit through any of the others. The Sandman had also created doors that led to various other locations on both sides of the Veil.
“What are we doing, Oliver? Is there a Door—” she started.
“No Door,” he said, staring at the peaks of the abominable place. “We’ll go through from here to the sandcastle in Euphrasia. There’ll be a lot of traveling ahead from the other side, but we’ll be closer to the war than we are now. And once we’re on the other side…”
He didn’t finish the thought. Nor did he need to. Julianna had an idea what he was thinking.
All through their journey, Blue Jay had been conversing with the leaders amongst the Lost Ones who accompanied them and with some of the Borderkind who had helped to build up the underground rebellion in Palenque before it ignited. When Oliver and Julianna stood in front of the door to the sandcastle, the trickster approached them.
“It’s just us,” he said.
Oliver blinked. “What?”
“Well, the three of us, plus Grin, Cheval, and Li.”
“Why?” Julianna asked. “We could use all the help we can get in the war. The Borderkind especially. Don’t you think Hunyadi would want those jaguar-men on his side?”
“They are on his side,” Blue Jay replied, gaze shifting between her and Oliver. “This is their land. They want to fight for it. They escorted us this far to make sure that Oliver got out of Yucatazca safely, but they’re going back, now. If this is going to be a second front in this war, these people and Borderkind are needed here.”
“You’re right,” Oliver said. “Of course.”
“You’re ready?” Blue Jay asked.
Li strode toward the doors of the sandcastle. Cheval Bayard had long since abandoned her kelpy form and approached them now, silver hair gleaming, as though she were some elegant lady out for a stroll. Grin followed, long arms practically dragging on the ground.
Oliver looked at Julianna. She nodded.
“We’re ready,” she told Blue Jay.
“Just tell them all to keep back from the castle after we’ve gone in,” Oliver added.
“Why?” the trickster asked.
Julianna smiled and took Oliver’s hand. “Just tell them,” she said, and they walked through the open doors together.
The quartet of northern Borderkind entered behind them and they found themselves in a great hall of sand. A shudder went through Oliver as he looked around. Despite the Sandman’s destruction, the place seemed to breathe with lingering malevolence. Since he had first crossed the Veil, he had been inside three manifestations of the sandcastle. Death had nearly claimed him the first time he had been inside this hall, and it had been here that he had finally found his sister again. Oliver was glad Collette was not with them. She would not have liked to return to the place that had been her prison.
“This place gives me the creeps,” Julianna said.
Oliver clasped her hand and nodded. “Agreed. I don’t want to be here a second longer than necessary.”
“None of us do,” Blue Jay said.
Oliver led them to the stairs that rose up on one side of the room, and they followed him into the upper chambers of the sandcastle into a twisting maze of passages until they found the steps that led to the castle’s peak. From there, as before, they descended on the other side. At the first window, Oliver saw the landscape of Euphrasia’s eastern mountains spread out around the castle, and knew they had to try again. They returned to the peak and began to descend what appeared to be the same stairs they had come up. But this time, at the first window, the view revealed forest and a well-defined way that he recognized as the Truce Road.
“This way,” Oliver said.
Twenty or thirty minutes after they had entered the sandcastle in Yucatazca, they stepped out through its massive doors onto the grass of Euphrasia, an entire kingdom away.
Oliver turned and looked up at the castle looming over him. He clenched and unclenched his hands. For what seemed an eternity he stared at it, and then he became aware of Blue Jay and the others gathering just over his right shoulder.
A soft hand touched his left arm and he turned to see Julianna there. She moved her hand to the back of his neck, leaned in, and kissed him.
He smiled thinly and nodded. The sandcastle might be useful, but it was a monument to evil. Instead, he would make it a grave marker for the monster who had constructed it.
Oliver reached out and pressed both hands against the outer wall. At first it felt like concrete. But soon the grains of sand began to lose their cohesion. Entropy took hold and the wall began to break down. The sand cascaded down around him, sifting around his feet.
“Back away,” he told Julianna. Then he glanced at Blue Jay. “All of you.”
Even as they complied, the entire castle began to tremble. Oliver waited a handful of seconds, then staggered away, picking up his pace and running to join Julianna and the others.
He turned just in time to see the entire castle collapse with a rush of air and a hiss of sand against sand, its substance spilling and spreading on the ground. In the Orient, and in Yucatazca, and wherever else the sandman had built castles, those structures would be doing the same. In his mind’s eye he could see the remains of the sandcastle that had stood on the seashore in Yucatazca. It would be crumbled now. The waves would roll in. Over time, they would erase any trace of its presence.
In a hush, they all stood and stared.
What the Sandman had made, Oliver had unmade.
The sun rose on a new day, but Collette and the winter man were still on the water. For much of the previous day they had skipped across the ocean at high speed, burning through the gas in the tank and then tapping the reserve fuel tank and at last moving on to a pair of large plastic gas cans stored in the rear of the boat. Luck had been with them in a lot of ways since their escape from Palenque, but Collette thought stealing the boat of a drug lord topped the list.
They’d kept a north by northwest course all through that day and had spent hours out of sight of any land at all. During the night, she’d seen the lights onshore.
Now, an hour or so past dawn, she studied the coast through binoculars the boat’s owner had conveniently stowed on board and tried to figure out where the hell they were. One hand stayed on the wheel, the warm weather long since having melted the ice that had formed on it during the few hours she’d slept and let the winter man drive.
A chill went through her, gooseflesh prickling her skin. The coolness almost caressed her.
“Do you recognize anything?” Frost asked.
Collette lowered the binoculars and turned to him. His jagged features gleamed white and blue in the morning light, but his eyes seemed soft and a light mist rose from them.
“I’ve never been to Central America. What am I going to recognize?”
Frost cracked half a smile. “You’re well-educated, Collette. I thought you might be able to put that education to work.”
“Meaning you want me to guess?”
The boat skipped over the waves. She let her knees absorb the rise and fall.
Collette tried to hate him, but she couldn’t stop herself from smiling. “Based on our coordinates and not on any visual confirmation, I’d guess we’re looking at the coast of Nicaragua. In case you’re unfamiliar with it, let me just say it’s not a place I’d want to get stranded.”
Frost looked thoughtful. “But we have very little fuel remaining.”
“Maybe we’ll get lucky. Could still be Costa Rica we’re looking at. That’d be better.”
The engine coughed.
“Either way, we’re going to have to start heading in.”
But Frost wasn’t looking at her, or at the shore. The winter man had turned around and now stared southward, back the way they’d come. His eyes were narrowed and his brows knitted together with a crackling of ice.
“That might be wise.”
Collette felt her spirit sag. “You’re shitting me. All day and all night, nothing. And now?”
She turned before he could answer and confirmed her worst fears. Three boats were moving fast toward them from the south, swiftly skirting the tops of the waves. These weren’t government boats. Not a single flag fluttered in the wind. They were private vessels, and she had a feeling they had guns on board.
Frost reached out, took the wheel, and cut it toward shore. He grabbed the throttle and pinned it. The boat surged forward and Collette had to grab hold of him to keep from falling. Her palms and fingers seared with the frozen touch of the ice, then she managed to take the wheel from him.
“Hurry,” he called to her over the roar of the engine and the cry of the wind.
“And when we hit shore?” she shouted back.
“Then they’re my problem,” the winter man replied.
Collette gripped the wheel so hard her fingers went numb. The thrum of the engine and the skip of the boat across the surf traveled up her arms and made her bones ache. But she kept on, straight for shore, the wind whipping at her, and she resisted the urge to look back to see how close the other boats had gotten.
The shoreline grew closer. A small inlet lay ahead, not much more than a fishing village. Sails dotted the harbor, fishermen already at work. Collette started toward the inlet, thinking they could lose their pursuers for a few vital moments amongst the other boats there—long enough to find a place to hide or a car to steal. How strange that such things, once inconceivable to her, had become pure instinct. Survival was hardwired.
“Not that way,” Frost said.
The winter man loomed in her peripheral vision, a sculpted creature, pointing out across their bow.
“Take us to shore, as close and fast as you can.”
“You got it.”
A small promontory, little more than a spit of land, jutted out to help block the worst of the surf from the inlet, protecting the village harbor. Collette cut the wheel due east, the boat slewed a bit, and then they were jetting toward the spit at full throttle. Water sprayed up and blew in her face.
A gunshot cracked the air.
“Son of a bitch!” Collette shouted, turning to look.
The lead boat headed for them at an angle. Some asshole in a black T-shirt knelt on the bow, trying to get a bead on them.
The rocky promontory drew closer. They were only a couple hundred yards from shore, now, but the other boats were closing.