“If you try to escape again, I will kill her. The High Council wants you and your sister left alive, for now. But this one…there is no need for her to live. I could strip her flesh and shatter every bone. I could bathe in her blood and they would not care. I could give her to the guards or, better yet, to one of my giants. I keep her alive only for leverage.”
The sorcerer tossed Julianna aside. She crumbled to the ground like a rag doll, gasping for air. Two Atlantean guards dragged Julianna into the cell with Collette and left her there. As they departed, she sprang up and charged at them, mad hopelessness in her eyes.
They slammed the door in her face, expressionless.
Ty’Lis moved his face to within inches of the grated window in Oliver’s door. Oliver wanted to thrust his hands out, to tear at the sorcerer’s eyes or throat, but he did not dare.
“Behave,” the monster whispered, that stench wafting into the cell from his nearness, making Oliver gag.
Ted Halliwell tried to tell himself he wasn’t dead.
He could see and hear, though both only dimly and distantly, as though he was submerged in shallow water. At times it seemed he broke the surface and those two senses became sharper.
For the most part, those were his only senses. Yet there was a third—the tactile—that troubled him. Perhaps it would be more accurate to call it a sensation. He could see hands reach out—long fingers with sharp talons—but he could neither control their movements nor feel what they touched.
In the dark, he approached a small military encampment. Horses grazed nearby, and they whinnied as he passed, a shiver running up their flanks. They snorted, spooked as hell, and the terror in their eyes was wild. But he passed by and the sounds of their skittishness faded.
Tent flaps danced in the breeze, as did the banners flying the colors of King Hunyadi. Halliwell had met the king, once, and had felt an immediate loyalty to the man. He had been strong, yet fair and wise—a man Halliwell himself would be willing to follow into war. In another world. In another era.
Now he couldn’t follow anyone.
He could only drift along behind the eyes of another. What troubled him most, however, wasn’t what he couldn’t feel, but what he could. There was no weight to him, none of the burden of flesh he’d felt all his life. But he still felt as though he had substance, and within that substance, he could feel sand, shifting. It eroded his bones, sifting against his insides.
Impossible, of course.
Ted Halliwell couldn’t be the Sandman.
But he felt as though he existed only behind the monster’s putrid lemon eyes. Somewhere within the creature’s mind, he could feel a third presence. He knew that it could only be the Dustman.
Halliwell had come upon the brothers while they were attempting to destroy one another. Like a fool, he had interfered.
Now he slid through the night toward the military encampment. Sentries marched the perimeter but did not see him. If they heard anything, it was a whisper on the breeze. Through the Sandman’s eyes, Halliwell saw a sentry yawn, widely, and he wondered if this was the presence of the monster or mere coincidence. For this was no storybook Sandman, gently easing children off to sleep. It was the savage fiend of older stories who punished little ones by plucking out their eyes and eating them.
Halliwell tried to tell himself that he was alive.
He was aware. From that bit of information, he deduced that he couldn’t possibly be dead. In the ordinary world—before crossing the Veil in pursuit of the answers he’d thought Oliver Bascombe could give him about a series of murders and disappearances—he’d been a sheriff’s detective. Now his old life had been erased and he wished that he had not needed those answers so desperately. Trapped beyond the Veil, Halliwell had come to care only about returning to make amends with his estranged daughter, Sara. They had fumbled their relationship badly, and Halliwell wished for another chance.
But he couldn’t go back.
That truth had broken something inside of him, so that when he finally caught up to the Sandman, he had attacked the creature on his own. The Sandman had been in the midst of a savage battle with his brother, the Dustman. Halliwell had gotten between them.
The biggest mistake he had ever made.
He could still feel the way the whirling sand and dust had scoured his flesh, stripping meat from the bones. He had tried to scream, sand rushing down his throat. Then, for the longest time, nothing.
Awareness had returned slowly. At first it had all been darkness, and then he had begun to see, and to hear. From time to time that skittery whisper of the Dustman had come to him as though from the black shadows at the bottom of a well.
Halliwell had no idea if the Sandman knew he was alive, inside. All he knew was what the monster felt, and that was hatred. Oliver and Kitsune had turned his own brother against him and then, for a time, destroyed him. Now the Sandman wanted vengeance. No matter what his former masters asked of him, he had no desire other than the murder of Kitsune and Oliver Bascombe.
And now he hunted.
The Sandman cascaded across the ground between tents, peering at the few of Hunyadi’s soldiers who sat in a tight circle, smoking cigarettes and sharing the grim talk of war. How far they were from the battle front, where this camp was in relation to the few other places he’d been in the Two Kingdoms, Halliwell had no idea. Not that it mattered. The Sandman moved from place to place with a hideous ease. His sandcastle still existed in multiple locations through the kingdoms, replete with doors that allowed him to travel to a thousand points on both sides of the Veil simply by passing through.
Through the monster’s eyes, Halliwell saw a tent ahead. The king’s banner flapped overhead. For a terrible moment, Halliwell feared that this would be the tent of King Hunyadi himself, but then he sensed what the monster knew, and understood that this was simply the tent of the commander of this battalion.
With a swirl of dust around his feet—and it could have been that just for a moment this was not sand, but dust, because after all, the Dustman was in here as well—he paused at the rear of the tent. The night seemed quiet save for the distant susurrus of conversation and the flapping of the tents. The Sandman reached out a clawed hand and sliced the fabric. It split like flesh, pouting open.
Halliwell wanted to scream, to try to shout through the Sandman’s mouth in hopes that the commander would hear him. But he didn’t dare, for certainly the Sandman would hear him, too.
So he kept silent. Just in case.
No. Act. Stop him, the Dustman whispered in his head.
Halliwell ignored him but could not prevent himself from hearing. Just as he could not prevent himself from entering the tent. As the Sandman twisted his body to duck through the tear in the fabric, he felt the grit scraping against his bones again, felt the sand all around him, and wished the Dustman could understand.
He was powerless to do anything but bear witness.
He wondered if his daughter, Sara, was asleep somewhere in another world, and he prayed that she had found some peace.
The commander was not sleeping. As the Sandman entered, the man looked up, forehead creased in a frown at the intrusion. Realization shot like lightning across his face and he started to rise, opened his mouth to shout even as he reached for his sword.
Halliwell felt hatred and disgust well up within him and tried to exert some kind of control, to reach his consciousness out into the Sandman’s hands and stop what was to come.
He could do nothing.
The monster clapped a hand across the commander’s mouth, forestalling any cries for help. With his other hand he disarmed the man, breaking bones in his wrist and arm.
“You know what I am?” the Sandman whispered.
The commander, wincing in pain, nodded. Halliwell wondered if he recognized the Sandman from his legend, or was merely aware that death had come for him.
“Excellent,” the monster rasped. He bent and darted out his tongue, running it over the commander’s left eyeball. The tongue was rough with grit, like sandpaper, and the commander screamed into the hand covering his mouth.
“You will tell me, sir, of the war between the Two Kingdoms, and especially anything you know about the Legend-Born filth called Oliver Bascombe, and Kitsune of the Borderkind. You will speak softly. If you fail in either of these, I will suck the eyes from your face and chew them while the nerves are still intact.”
The commander whimpered.
The Sandman pulled his hand away.
The man trembled as he began to speak.
When it was over, the Sandman did precisely what he had threatened. The commander had not disobeyed him, but the monster simply could not resist.
Halliwell had spent weeks on the precipice of madness. He teetered there once again.
Kitsune stood on the corner of a cobblestoned street in the Latin Quarter of Perinthia. Loose stones and cracks made the road treacherous. Since the last time she had come to the city, only months before, this neighborhood seemed to have crumbled even further into ruin.
Most truly old cities in the ordinary world had their equivalent of the Latin Quarter—a bit of self-contained ancientness that predated the rest of what sprawled around it. Perinthia was the capital of the kingdom of Euphrasia, and the city reflected its origins. It was a mishmash of bits and pieces, of cultures and legends from all over Europe and Asia and North America in the human world. Far to the east there were places in the kingdom of Euphrasia that were older, but in the capital city, the Latin Quarter was it.
There were narrow alleys and several broad boulevards, but most of the buildings lining the streets were partially collapsed. Some were entirely ruined. Others only stood like withered corpses, their windows the sunken orbits of desiccated skulls. Columns lay fallen across the roads. Plants had grown up through cracks and in amongst the ruins. These buildings came from the legends of ancient Greece and the Roman Empire, and had been shifted from the ordinary world to the realm of the legendary when the Veil was raised.
Despite their appearance, however, it was not safe to assume that the buildings were deserted. No one quite knew how many people still lived in the Latin Quarter—no census had ever been successfully taken.
Kitsune had thought that the Quarter seemed sparsely populated the last time she had been there. Now, though, it felt deserted. From the corner where she stood—at the end of a street with no name—she could see stalls and awnings and wagons that had once been part of the marketplace. Wooden boxes were scattered about, some of them shattered, and there were the pulped and rotting remnants of fruits and vegetables on the cobblestones. As for vendors, however, she could see only a single, lone girl with a small cart, its meager offerings of apples and oranges hardly enough to feed even her.
Impatient, the fox woman looked over her shoulder, down a curving alley to her right. Coyote stepped from the shadows, zipping up his pants. She wondered at his brazenness. Like her, he was a trickster. Like her, he had senses far greater than a human’s. By scent alone he would know that the buildings and ruins weren’t as deserted as they appeared to be. So why he would risk the wrath of the Latin Quarter’s denizens by seeming to mark his territory so publicly was a mystery to her.
“Can we continue now?” she asked, looking down her nose at him.
Coyote raised an eyebrow and glanced at her. Taking his time, he reached into the pocket of his battered leather jacket and withdrew a small cigarette case. Coyote rolled his own, of course. He pulled out one he had fixed that morning, tucked it between his lips, and then produced a lighter. It flared briefly and he inhaled, then let out a long swirl of smoke from each nostril.
Kitsune didn’t even see him slip the cigarette case back into his jacket.
Months in hiding, stewing in guilt and mourning her own image of herself, had dulled her senses. Or perhaps she simply didn’t care so much anymore. Her black clothes were loose beneath her red fur cloak, and her hood shaded her eyes. In her heart, she knew that anyone looking at her would not see the mischief that had once danced in those eyes. She simply did not feel it anymore.
Her cunning might remain intact, but she found no merriment in its ownership.
Coyote drew in a lungful of smoke from his homemade cigarette and blew it out, then started down the street, boots clicking on cobblestones. Given their origins, some might presume a similarity between Blue Jay and Coyote, but the two could not be more different. One was a proud spirit, soaring overhead, and the other was a scavenger, preying on the weak.
They kept close to the western side of the street, slinking along as though they might remain unobtrusive in a place where even a mouse would be conspicuous. Kitsune caught the scent of cooking meat on the air, and spices and garlic, and she knew that their journey had not been for nothing. The knowledge sped her along and lightened her heart a bit—a difficult feat of late.
Coyote tipped his nose to the sky. “I smell sex,” he said, with a predator’s grin.
Kitsune frowned, but then understood. He could not have missed the scent of cooking, but there was, indeed, a musky, sexual smell in the air beneath the stronger odors of food.
“That building, there,” she said, nodding toward a rundown palazzo ahead on the right. “It’s a brothel.”
Coyote laughed softly. “More life in the Quarter than I’d begun to fear. People have to satisfy their hungers. But still, it doesn’t mean there’s much society here.”
“We don’t want society. We don’t want the people at all.”
“Speak for yourself. The smell of the veal frying’s got my stomach growling. I’d be more than happy to eat some people right now.”
Kitsune glanced at him, presuming he was joking, but didn’t bother to call him on it. If Coyote was serious, she didn’t want to know.
They moved down the nameless street, surrounded by buildings with darkened windows. The fox-woman felt the skin prickle at the back of her neck and glanced around at the rooftops. They were being watched, but she could not locate their observer.
Past the whorehouse stood a building with open windows and accordion doors that could be drawn back on pleasant days. Once upon a time it had been a Roman bathhouse. In the center, Kitsune recalled, was a patio where patrons could dine beneath open sky. Smoke rose from the chimney at the rear where the stove must be.