Damia took that in, wondering what it would mean. If Oliver and Collette could really bring down the Veil, take the Lost Ones home, would she even go? She knew the answer. Never. Her loyalty to Hunyadi might have been enough to keep her here, but now she had Blue Jay in her life. She would stay here with him, even if she was the last human in the legendary world.
Exhaustion caught up with her. Her whole body ached.
“You need to sleep,” he said.
“Not yet,” Damia said, as she began unbuttoning his jeans.
The war could wait until morning.
The fox trotted through the woods, hoping for a vole or mouse or insomniac squirrel, anything to capture her mind. It helped to have left her human form behind. The scents of the earth and growing things and the creatures of the wood filled her mind. The sounds of the nighttime erased the voices that haunted her from the day. Here she could find joy. Here, she was only a fox, and not expected to be anything but that.
The night offered the fox freedom from so many things.
A small something twitched in the underbrush and her stomach growled hungrily. The fox paused, inhaling the scent. A rabbit, up past its bedtime. Her lips stretched. Kitsune always forgot that as a fox she could not smile.
She lunged, paws clawing the dirt as she darted after the rabbit. It fled between two thick, tangled bushes, a hitch in its step that revealed some old injury. A swift flash of copper fur pursued the rabbit as it weaved around the base of a large tree and ducked underneath a fallen, rotting birch.
The fox leaped the dead tree and came down on the other side, paws digging into the ground, damp with rain from the previous morning.
Kitsune caught the rabbit easily and dragged it down, the two animals tumbling over one another. It tried to rise before she could, but its ruined leg failed it and the rabbit faltered. The fox pinned it under her forepaws, chest heaving with adrenaline and the thrill of the hunt.
Yet it had not been much of a chase, or a challenge. Though her stomach grumbled and she could practically taste fresh rabbit on her tongue, a twinge of regret touched her. What joy could be found in catching prey that could not possibly outrun her?
The fox stepped back.
Panting, the rabbit stared at her a moment, eyes gleaming pink in the moonlight. It rolled over slowly, twitchingly aware of her presence, keeping her in its peripheral vision. Quivering, it took a single hop, then waited to see if she would pursue. When she did not, the rabbit bolted, limping even as it ran deeper into the woods.
Sadness made its nest in Kitsune’s heart. Yet this was not the ache of guilt and lost love that had plagued her before. This new pain came from acceptance. This pain would be with her for a very long time, and all she could do was hold it close. She had been face-to-face with Oliver, and nothing had changed. He did not hate her, but he did not love her. Whatever closeness the future might have held for them—as lovers or friends—she had ruined it by assaulting Julianna and abandoning them in Palenque.
The fox growled quietly, lay back her head to look at the moon, and wished she were a wolf so that she might howl gloriously in sorrow and fury.
Oliver’s woman had been cold to her, but she had also been right. Much as she hated it, Kitsune had to admire Julianna’s self-control. Were their roles reversed, the fox-woman would have torn out her throat.
As a fox, and a trickster, there were many things about humanity that she had never understood or even experienced. A lesson had been learned, now, and she would never be able to unlearn it. Humanity meant pain. More than that, it meant living with pain every day, and still going on as if the world had not changed around you.
So Kitsune would go forward. She would march to war and she would fight for King Hunyadi—for her own kind and for the Lost Ones as well. But when the war ended, she thought she might retreat to the Oldwood where Frost and Oliver had first found her and simply be a fox for a while. Years, perhaps. Centuries. As long as it took to forget the lesson that living as a woman had taught her.
A quiet step came behind her.
She spun, forgetting the moon, and saw the coyote emerging from the trees. He had come to her downwind, so that she would not catch his scent.
His eyes had always laughed, even when he did not wish them to, dancing with the mad light of the jester, the trickster, of Coyote. But the Sandman had taken one, and the other had no laughter in it tonight, only tenderness. His coat gleamed sleekly, and he looked not at all the rangy mutt of a beast that he often seemed.
The fox cocked her head, studying him.
The coyote came nearer, but stopped several feet away. They began to move in a circle, but when the fox halted the coyote kept going around her once, twice, a third time. He lay back his head and howled. It had not the beauty of the wolf’s cry, but the coyote’s lament broke her heart anew. He had borne witness to her pain today, and suffered so much of his own. Now he had come seeking her, though she had made it plain she wished to be alone.
The fox did not try to send him away.
The coyote came nearer. He nudged her snout playfully with his nose, then darted away. Confused, she only looked at him. Again, he nudged her, then loped several yards and glanced back.
Only then did she understand. He wanted her to run with him. To play. To lighten her heart.
It amazed her to discover how wrong she had always been about Coyote. If not for him, she would still be wallowing in hatred and guilt in the cave at the back of his den.
The fox barked a little laugh and gave chase, wondering what she would do when at last the coyote allowed her to catch him.
The ferries didn’t run in Boston Harbor in March, and wouldn’t until the tourists started to show up in May. Sheriff Norris could have contacted the local authorities and gotten their cooperation—Sara had urged him to do just that—but he had balked, not wanting to have to come up with an explanation for their off-season visit.
Sara had spent her entire life trying to figure out the mind of a policeman—her father—and still hadn’t gotten very far. They were proud and stubborn and courageous and sometimes damned fools.
The sheriff had tracked down a local tour boat operator who was willing to take them out to George’s Island for a fee. Now, on a startlingly brisk March morning, Sara turned up her collar and pulled her jacket tight across her throat. The similarity to her father’s last known journey—on a rented boat out to a deserted island off the western coast of Scotland—was not lost on her. In truth, thinking of it made her feel a bit nauseated.
She stood inside the tour boat—its engine chugging, filling their noses with a terrible oil smoke—and tried to imagine how cold it would be if she allowed that acrid odor to drive her out on the deck for fresh air. Finally, nearly choking, she stepped out on the prow of the boat and let the wind buffet her, whisking away the smell. Salt and sea filled her lungs now and she breathed it in gratefully. Her teeth chattered and she shivered, but she surrendered to the cold, letting it settle into her body. Somehow it made her feel more alive.
Jackson and Marc Friedle—his name’s Robiquet, she thought, reminding herself for the hundredth time—remained inside for another minute or two, just talking. Every time Sara looked at him, she had difficulty seeing the human mask the goblin wore instead of the monstrous features that he had let them glimpse only twice. His true face would always be seared into her memory.
The seas were rough, even here in the harbor, and she stood with her legs wide so as not to lose her balance. The captain and mate moved the old boat easily through the water, laboring on a path between islands. Sara had been out here several times on tours when she was younger. Once her father had taken her out to George’s Island for a picnic, and she remembered it well.
The island loomed ahead. The dock and visitor center were abandoned, left with the haunted quiet of the off season. Beyond them, the fort rose up in an imposing wall of stone, half overgrown. It had been built partially into the natural terrain, and the overall effect made it seem far older than it was. The thirty-acre island had been used as a training area for Union soldiers during the Civil War, and later the fort had become a prison for Confederate soldiers.
Must be a thousand ghosts here, she thought.
The idea had come to her mind unbidden, but she pushed it out of her thoughts. There were enough impossible things in the world without having to worry about ghosts.
As they approached the docks, the captain slowed the boat. The engine quieted to a dull roar and smoke billowed around them. The waves rocked them and the captain moved forward with caution. The first mate came onto the prow and threw bumpers over the side. The ferry dock was too high, so the captain chugged them slowly up beside the one built for private boats.
Sheriff Norris came out onto the deck with Robiquet behind him. The fussy-looking man made no move to assist, but Jackson took a rope from the mate’s hands. When the mate had hopped up onto the dock, the sheriff tossed him the rope. They worked together to tie the old boat to the dock.
Sara didn’t wait for a hand up. She leaped from the boat to the dock. Robiquet hesitated, but she didn’t have the patience to wait for him. As she strode away, she heard Jackson talking to the captain, assuring him they’d be back to the boat in no more than an hour. Then the sheriff and Robiquet were hurrying after her. Apparently the goblin had gotten over his anxiety about leaving the boat.
When they reached the entrance to the fort, they found the gates padlocked.
Sheriff Norris turned to Robiquet. “There another way in?”
Sara started following the outer wall, turning to call back to the sheriff over her shoulder. “We’ll walk around. At the back, you can walk up the hill—it’s not too steep—and get right to the lookouts at the top of the fort.”
She kept ahead of them. It wasn’t just impatience that drove her on. If all of the things Robiquet told them were true—and she believed they were—then this spot was the closest she had come to the truth of her father’s fate since he’d vanished in December. Sara felt breathless as she hiked the outer edge of the island, keeping the fort to her right. The terrain became difficult, but she did not slow down. That sense of nearness to her father propelled her forward, even as a terrible dread weighed upon her heart.
Robiquet didn’t seem to have any trouble with the hills and pathways on the outside of the fort. Of course, he wasn’t human. Sheriff Norris, on the other hand, labored to keep up. The man was in decent condition, but he wasn’t exactly young, anymore.
Sara didn’t slow down to wait for them until she had reached the rear of the island. There, she stood and stared up at the squat stone towers where the lookouts would have been posted. The frigid wind whipped up off of the water and it was icy on the back of her neck, but she barely felt the cold.
When Jackson and Robiquet caught up, the sheriff gave her a hard look, an admonishment for not having waited. Sara ignored it, and she paid no attention to the way he stood, catching his breath, obviously hoping for a rest.
She started up the hill.
At the lookout post, she moved around the tower and dropped down to the walkway behind it. She could not help wishing that she had brought her camera. Even at the worst of times, Sara saw the world through a photographer’s eyes.
Again, she waited impatiently for the others to catch up with her. Robiquet kept pace with the sheriff, perhaps thinking that he would rather deal with Sara’s impatience than Jackson’s annoyance. When they reached the lookout, the sheriff sat on the edge of the wall and slid down to the walkway. Robiquet hopped down with the ease of a child.
Sara took the peculiar man’s measure once again, still seeing in her mind the image of his true face.
“Lead the way,” she said. “I hope you know what you’re doing.”
Robiquet turned to look at her, the human mask he wore furrowing its brow in displeasure. “You think I would have dragged you all the way out here if I wasn’t sure?”
Sara shrugged. “I don’t know what I think, especially when it comes to you.”
Slowly, Robiquet nodded. “Fair enough, I suppose. Come along, then.”
He led them to a set of darkened stairs that led down into the tomblike stone passages of the old fort and prison. From above they could see that even during the day the stairwell descended into impenetrable darkness. Sara went to follow Robiquet, but Sheriff Norris put a hand on her shoulder and shook his head.
“I’ll go next.”
She understood immediately. There was no way to know what the goblin might try, down there in the dark, or what else they might encounter. If there was going to be trouble, Jackson wanted to be the first to come up against it. Sara bristled at the idea that she needed protecting, but she couldn’t deny that a part of her was relieved.
The whole world—even familiar places—had become unknown territory to her and the sheriff since they’d met Robiquet. If there was some passage here on the island to the world of legends and monsters that he had told them about, then she was relieved not to be the first one to descend into the dark.
But she followed.
Her father had never asked her for anything except to come home and see him from time to time, but she had failed him in that. Ted Halliwell had his shortcomings, no question. But Sara had spent the last few months coming to terms with the truth, that he had not been the only one at fault.
She needed to tell him that.
Sara blinked as her eyes adjusted to the dark. The stairs led straight down and then turned right. Her fingers trailed along the granite walls as she took each step, just in case she stumbled. The presence of Sheriff Norris in the passage below her only made it darker, blocking out any light that might have come from below.
“It’s this way,” Robiquet said, his voice echoing back to her from somewhere ahead.
Then she reached the bottom step, turned left, and found that the three of them had entered a chamber that must once have been a part of the prison. The walls were featureless, windowless stone, save for one in which a doorway led out into the huge, grassy staging area inside the fort. Whatever door had once hung there had long since been removed, leaving only a crumbling frame.