Blue Jay said nothing. After a moment, the Wayfarer nodded.
“The walk will take some little time. Minutes. Be patient, but also, be ready. When we arrive, it will be suddenly, and there is no way to know what will be waiting for us.”
“Get on with it,” Oliver said. “We’ve been spoiling for a fight for a long time.”
Wayland Smith held his cane in one hand and Blue Jay’s grip in the other. Smith took a single step forward. Jay felt his hand jerk slightly to the right, and then the world fell away around them.
“What the hell?” the trickster muttered.
“Don’t let go!” he heard Kitsune cry.
Smith paused and glanced back to be sure no one had been lost. Blue Jay felt his stomach twisting with the terrible sense of dislocation. He had not even taken a step himself. He’d lifted one scuffed cowboy boot and when it came down, he’d been here, wherever the hell here was. Gray mist drifted around them. The path was solid beneath his soles and his heels didn’t sink in the way they had into the rain-sodden hillside.
“Follow,” Smith said, and he started off.
Stunned into silence, perhaps afraid, no one spoke a word. Their strange parade followed along behind the Wayfarer without argument or hesitation. They passed hundreds of side paths, little ribbon trails that led off either side, into the mist. The first few times that Smith guided them into one of these turns, traveling paths that seemed barely there, Blue Jay tried to keep track, but soon he could not. Lefts and rights blurred together.
The place unnerved him with the weight of its possibilities. What would happen if he did let go? How far would they wander? Where did all of those other paths lead? Smith had said something about worlds, but there were only two—the ordinary and the legendary. So if Jay walked along one of the side paths, another ribbon, and tried to pass through the mist back to a tangible world, where would he emerge?
He decided he did not want to know.
Just when the claustrophobia of the place—odd, given there were no walls at all—had nearly driven him to scream, Smith slowed and glanced over his shoulder. The others might not have sensed it yet, or seen it in the Wayfarer’s eyes, but then the graybeard spoke.
“—here,” Smith said.
Oliver flinched, gripping the hands of the Nagas on either side of him, and began to look around, on guard.
Even as he did, the thick fog of the Gray Corridor simply vanished. Sunlight enveloped them all and Oliver had to throw up a hand to shield his eyes from the brightness. He staggered back a step.
A large hand clutched his arm in a painful, iron grip.
Oliver blinked the sun from his eyes and saw it was Grin who’d grabbed hold of him. He turned around to find himself standing on the very edge of a building over a hundred feet high. Below, the central plaza of the island city of Atlantis spread out. The ground had been tiled in a cascade of color so that it appeared to be a whirlpool in the midst of a red-and-blue ocean.
“Holy shit,” he said, the words little more than an exhalation.
“Watch your step, mate,” Grin said. “That’s a long drop.”
Oliver nodded. He glanced around to make sure everyone else had made it. Kitsune moved to the center of the roof, fur cloak tight around her, not at all pleased with their precipitous arrival. Blue Jay and Frost stood together. Li watched solemnly as the Nagas took up posts along the edges of the roof, bows at the ready, prepared to defend against an onslaught.
But it didn’t look as though any attack was imminent.
Fish and eels slid through the air, but most were far closer to the ground and those who might be high enough to spot the intruders were far away, nearer the harbor and the outskirts of the city. There were weird, dangling jellyfish as well, but not a single octopus. They had all been brought to war, it seemed.
Very few people were out and about. Smith had reported seeing troops massing and sorcerers walking in the open, not to mention giants. No evidence of the war effort remained in the city center, but in the distance, at the harbor, he could see a single giant standing with his arms crossed, protecting Atlantis like some living Colossus of Rhodes.
“Quickly, all of you, this way,” the Wayfarer barked, striding to one corner of the roof. From there, they could see an even taller building with a spiral dome, a breathtakingly beautiful thing that appeared, like the structure upon which they stood, to be made of a kind of obscure glass.
Sea glass, Oliver thought.
“The Great Library of Atlantis,” Smith explained. “Where I found the prince upon my last visit. I’d wager he’s there now. We’ll cross—”
A gust of icy wind made Oliver shiver.
“And how will we cross?” Frost asked. The winter man drifted across the roof to stand beside Smith. “I could carry one or two, but not all.”
Anger flashed in the Wayfarer’s eyes. He reached his cane out over the edge of the building and swept it back and forth like a blind man. To Oliver’s astonishment, it struck something solid. Wayland Smith looked down at the place where his cane had stopped, raised it, and tapped it down twice on clear air. His mouth formed words Oliver could not hear and from the side, it appeared for a moment that his gray eyes had turned oil-black.
The air became solid in a narrow bridge across empty space, from the roof upon which they stood to a huge, arched library window.
“Go,” said the Wayfarer.
No way was Oliver going first.
He had changed dramatically. He felt it in his bones and the way his hands seemed always ready to defend himself. The power of his touch, the destructive magic he could summon, resonated within him. These past few days had made Oliver believe that in his heart he could be a hero. But there was a vast difference between heroics and stupidity, and the idea of stepping off the roof of that building onto thin air seemed vastly idiotic.
“Hurry, you fools!” Smith barked.
Blue Jay stepped off the roof onto the solid air bridge. He could have transformed into a bird and flown across. Instead he walked quickly but carefully, barely looking down, even though Oliver found it difficult to see the edges of the bridge.
Li followed at a run, practically bounding across like one of his fire tigers. Seeing him, Oliver awoke at last to the reality of Smith’s fears. They could be spotted at any moment, imperiling their mission. He swore under his breath and went to the edge. Cheval had already started across, grand and elegant as always, her dress gliding over the bridge like a ballroom floor. Grin paused three steps out. Terror lit his eyes and he gripped the edges of the nearly invisible bridge.
“Cross, stupid boggart,” Smith snapped at him.
Grin sneered at him. “Sod off, you silly git.”
Still, it got the boggart moving.
Oliver went next. He held his breath as he stepped off the roof. From above, the parameters of the bridge were obvious. That hardened air had a different texture and hue. It was simple enough to make out its edges, but that wouldn’t stop a stiff breeze from knocking him off. Carefully, arms out as though on a tightrope, he went after the others.
Despite the heat, he felt a shiver go up his spine, and then a gentle gust of cold wind blew past him on the left, snow and ice swirling. Frost moved swiftly and then materialized on the window ledge, ice forming on the glass of the window.
As the Nagas slithered after him, arrows still strung at the ready in their bows, Oliver picked up his pace. At the end of the bridge, Blue Jay slid out of the way to let Li pass. The trickster winced at the heat that billowed from inside the charred ember flesh of the Guardian of Fire. Then Li reached the window and stood beside Frost.
Fire and ice.
Li put his palm against the window. Flames spread out across the glass and its frame, which seemed also to be some kind of glass or mineral. The heat blossomed outward, warping the air around it, and the window began to melt. The Guardian of Fire pushed inward and it collapsed in a dripping, wilting, burning mess on the floor inside the window.
Frost stepped through the window and with a gesture, snuffed the flames. A layer of ice formed on the melted remains of the window and frame, and then one by one they all entered the Great Library of Atlantis. Oliver knew he could have made the window simply fall apart—any of them could have broken it open—but working together, Li and Frost had made their entry nearly silent.
Wayland Smith was the last through the window. When he stepped down from the window ledge, the air shimmered behind him and Oliver saw that the bridge had disappeared.
“Always something new,” Oliver said.
Smith hushed him. Oliver wanted to tell him to fuck off. The guy’s arrogance could have driven a saint to violence.
They were in a roughly oval-shaped room with only one door. Cheval had gone to the door and opened it. She glanced out through the crack, then quietly closed it.
“Coast clear?” Blue Jay whispered.
Cheval nodded. They gathered by the door in nearly the same order they had crossed the bridge. The Nagas would watch their flank.
Eyes turned toward Oliver. For a moment he shifted uneasily at this attention, until he realized they were waiting for him to give the word. Frost had always been the one everyone turned to when he had traveled with the Borderkind before, and now Wayland Smith seemed to have taken control. But Smith had only been their transportation, their Traveler. Now that they were in the midst of things, they were all ready to defer to him. It had been his idea, after all.
“Smith,” he said, “you’re the only one who’s been here before. Lead the way. Get us to the place where you saw the prince. Kitsune, stay with him. If there are scholars or teachers or sentries around, you’ll catch their scent first. We’re going to do our best to take them down quietly if anyone gets in the way. When it all goes to shit—and it will—then we pull out all the stops.”
Oliver gestured toward the door. “Go.”
To his surprise, Wayland Smith did not argue.
Cheval opened the door and Smith went out. Kitsune followed, disappearing into her cloak and diminishing into a fox, a low-slung blur of copper-red fur. She trotted after Smith. Frost and Blue Jay followed. Oliver drew his sword—wishing for the familiar weight of Hunyadi’s blade—and went next. Cheval and Grin hurried after him, then Li, and finally the Nagas, their serpentine bellies making a low hiss as they slid across the floor.
The library seemed like something made of ice, as if the winter man had built himself a palace. They emerged in a short hallway and followed Smith to what appeared to be some kind of central shaft. Stairwells rose up the inside of the shaft in great swoops of sea glass. Wood and stone were part of the design but the wood was like black ironwood and the stone smooth and contoured as though by centuries of ocean erosion. The architecture had latticework and arches that made Oliver think of beehive honeycombs and spiderwebs, its beauty both breathtaking and unnerving.
As Smith began to step into the atrium at the core of the library tower, Kitsune growled low and soft, a fox’s warning.
Oliver snagged Smith’s sleeve. The Wayfarer shot him a dark look but Oliver only returned it and gestured to the fox. Wayland Smith seemed troubled, but then the entire group took a step back into the shadows of the corridor as a small group of Atlanteans emerged on the same floor, across the open atrium, and started up the winding sea glass staircase. They were robed like sorcerers or teachers.
Smith’s eyes narrowed. He glanced around the atrium, then back the way they’d come. Neither option seemed to please him.
At length, he beckoned for the Nagas to come forward.
As the serpentine bowmen moved past him, Oliver knew he ought to protest. The men and women on the stairs might be Atlantean, but as vicious and cunning as Atlantis had turned out to be, killing teachers in a library was not his idea of war. But even as these thoughts filled his mind, he considered the repercussions of failure and the benefits of their success.
The Nagas slithered up to the fluted balustrade, raised their bows, and let silent arrows fly with hideous accuracy. Whoever they were, scholars or sorcerers, they fell upon the stairs, some slumping on top of the others, twitching.
“Go,” Oliver whispered.
He didn’t want to have to look at those corpses longer than necessary.
They hurried past the Nagas and Smith led the way up the stairs. In a bustle of copper fur, Kitsune returned to her female form, hood hiding her features. Oliver wished she would turn so he could see her eyes. He wondered if she felt the same hesitations he did. Frost and Blue Jay looked grim as they went upward.
More quietly than he could have hoped, they moved through the Great Library of Atlantis, along latticework balustrades and up sea glass stairs and through honeycomb corridors. Sunlight streamed through the atrium from above, casting the entire place in the cascade of soft colors Oliver associated with the stained glass windows of a church.
Distant voices reached them several times and they had to pause, taking cover, or hurry on into a side corridor. Whispers and echoes seemed to travel through the place like some haunted cave. The first sentry they came upon died easily and without a sound. Kitsune slit his throat with her claws and his blood pooled thickly on the floor. Oliver’s nose filled with the low-tide stink of an Atlantean’s blood, and he tried from then on to breathe through his mouth.
Frost killed the second sentry, freezing him to death just inside a corridor archway. The pain must have been exquisite, for the expression on his face beneath the layer of ice that enveloped him was one of agony.
Time’s running out, Oliver thought. Any moment bodies will be found. Any second, they’ll be on to us.
He considered saying this aloud, but realized his companions did not need to be told. They knew. Minutes had passed and they seemed to be moving aimlessly through the library. They had come upon four different chambers that seemed to have been occupied by scholars at some point. Shelves and tables and glass cases showed scrolls and bound books upon display, many spread out as though abandoned in the midst of being examined, but they had found no sign of the prince.