No, any attack that was to succeed would have to come from within.
With one last glance, he flew down in a long arc, gliding between the trees. Spreading his wings, the bird became the man, and Blue Jay stepped down out of the sky to stand beside Wayland Smith.
Li turned his great, burning tiger around, staring at the trickster with cinder eyes. Blue Jay beckoned to him, even as Cheval cantered up behind him. Grin slid from the kelpy’s back, and with a wet, cracking noise, she took on her alluring female form once more.
“We’re near the end of the jungle,” Blue Jay said.
Smith watched him calmly.
“This isn’t the same approach we used the last time,” Cheval Bayard said, her accent lilting. She shook out her silver hair, but there was nothing sensual in the action, or in the grim expression on her face. On their last journey to Palenque, her companion, Chorti, had been killed in battle with the Perytons and the other Myth Hunters.
“Right,” Grin agreed. “If I’ve got it sussed, we’re coming in from the northwest this time.”
Li said nothing, the crackling of fire his only audible contribution.
“Remember the mountainside on the west end of the city, with the homes built right into the slope?” Blue Jay said. “We’re going to come in right at the top. The city will be down below.”
“It will not be a simple thing to climb down unseen,” Cheval said.
Blue Jay turned to look at Smith. “There isn’t an approach to Palenque where we could go unnoticed. But that’s why you’re here, isn’t it, Wayfarer?”
Wayland Smith arched an eyebrow and ran a hand over his full beard.
With that, he raised his fox-headed cane and opened a path through the Veil. For the second time in as many days, their strange quintet crossed through into the ordinary world.
On the other side, Blue Jay spun around, staring in every direction, eyes wide in confusion.
“It’s exactly the same.”
And it was. The jungle, the trees, the insects.
“What the hell’s this?” Grin demanded. The bogie rounded on Smith, staring up at him with a warning in his eyes. “We haven’t gone anywhere.”
Li tapped the tiger on its shoulder and it lowered its flaming head so that the Guardian of Fire could reach down and touch the ground. He felt the dirt between two burning fingers.
“Actually, we have. This is the human world,” Li said, looking around at them with those eerie, furnace eyes.
Smith said nothing. He turned and continued southeast through the jungle. They all followed, moving more slowly and warily now. Soon, however, they emerged from the trees and found themselves gazing out across a breathtaking vista. There were mountains in the distance, and hundreds of miles of rain forest.
But twenty yards ahead, they found themselves at the edge of a cliff, staring down at an ancient ruin. All but two or three small structures were unrecognizable as buildings. Walls were little more than strewn stone and earth. But it was clear—once, this had been a city.
“What is it?” Blue Jay asked. “Incan? Mayan?”
“Atlantean,” Smith said.
The trickster stared at him. “What?”
The old wanderer actually smiled. “They had ambassadors in ancient days as well, my friend. This was a colony. Before they became treacherous and were driven from the world.”
Then he turned his back again. When he began to descend the long slope, where indents in the face of the mountain showed that once there might have been caves, they had little choice but to follow.
Smith led them to the nearest of the three remaining structures and through the arch that might once have been a door before more than a thousand years of erosion had been at work.
There was no exit.
Cheval’s green dress swayed around her as she entered, the last of them to follow. Grin rested, apelike, on his fists. Li knelt to whisper to the burning tiger and then slowly reached out his hands and reabsorbed the creature’s flames into himself.
Slowly, they all stared at Smith.
“Well?” Blue Jay asked. “What next?”
“Now you cross over.”
“Us? What about you?” the trickster asked, suspicion flaring in his mind.
“I’ve told you from the beginning I wouldn’t be going with you. Nothing has changed. Your infiltration begins now. If you are fortunate, and as clever as I think you are, you will return with the Bascombes.”
Grin snorted. “Is that supposed to cheer us up?”
Wayland Smith looked at him, thunder in his ancient eyes. “No.”
For a moment, they were all quiet.
Li was the first to raise his hand and pull at the fabric of the world, opening a passage for himself through the Veil. He stepped out of the realm of the ordinary, and back into legend.
Blue Jay cast one final, doubtful glance at Smith, and then went through after him.
The sun had crept nearly to the horizon, with dusk less than an hour away, when Damia Beck heard the shrill whistle of her advance scout. She spurred her horse forward and raced along beside the infantry soldiers in her command. At the outset of the war, only weeks before, she’d begun with two cavalry regiments under her. King Hunyadi had hesitated to part with Damia, but had recognized that she would be more use to him in the field. With the assassination of one of his commanders, the king had given her command of a company of infantry as well. Now, after her performance in the Battle of Cliffordville, the king had transferred an additional three companies to her control, making her the only captain in the history of the King’s Guard ever to be made commander of an entire battalion of the Euphrasian army—one thousand men.
Some of her fellow commanders, particularly Maggiore and Boudreau, had made their disdain for her promotion clear. Others had welcomed her. Sakai and Alborg had gone so far as to salute her. And then they had all gone off to war. Word had come that Maggiore had already been slain by some kind of Yucatazcan monstrosity. Despite the way he had treated her, she regretted his passing. He had been a capable commander.
In addition to her original two cavalry regiments, Damia had a platoon of legendary warriors taking orders from her. There were five ogres who had come down from the northlands, a storm spirit called Howlaa, a trio of Naga archers, a Japanese oni called Gaki, whose red skin and horns would have given him a demonic air even if he did not have the head of an ox and a hideous third eye in the center of his forehead.
The last of the legendary platoon was an ancient, twisted-looking Englishman with ruddy cheeks called Old Roger. His legend had something to do with apples, and from what she understood, he’d been one of the Harvest gods, once upon a time. He had since fallen out of their good graces. Blue Jay had told her that the Harvest gods would fight the Atlantean conspiracy, but thus far, poor Old Roger was all she had seen of them. What help he might be in battle she could not say, but she appreciated his loyalty.
How many of them might be Borderkind, she did not know. The distinction between the legendary who were anchored on this side of the Veil and the Borderkind was mostly lost on her. Oh, she knew the difference, but not on sight. To most of the Lost Ones—both newcomers and those like Damia who had descended from humans who’d crossed the Veil in centuries past—there were humans and nonhumans. Whether they could or couldn’t cross the Veil was an issue that concerned only the legendary, because the Lost Ones could never go home.
A smile touched her lips as she rode past the troops. She had been near the back when the scout’s whistle had reached her. Dust swirled up from the dirt road, raised by the tramping boots of her soldiers. She wiped grit from her eyes and cleared her throat.
Home. What a strange way for her to think about a place she had never been—never seen. Neither had her mother, or her mother before her. Damia descended from a Nubian mother and a Euphrasian father, but they themselves had ancestors who had crossed the Veil from Africa and from America. Her mother’s people had been Sahelian and her father’s Sioux, many generations ago.
Yet she still thought of the human world as home.
They all did. How could they not, when the legendary never called them anything but the Lost?
Which made her wonder if what everyone was saying about Oliver and Collette Bascombe was true. Were they Legend-Born? Would they lead the Lost Ones home? And if they could, would she want to go?
Again, she cleared the dust from her throat. Men and women looked up from the ranks as she went by and some saluted, though it certainly wasn’t required when the commander was merely riding past. They were courageous and loyal, and she knew they would fight to the death. The rest of Euphrasia might not yet believe that an Atlantean conspiracy was behind the breaking of the Truce and the war between the Two Kingdoms, but the army had no doubt.
King Hunyadi had declared it.
Blind obedience to any leader was unhealthy, but Hunyadi had earned it from them, and from her.
The only thing missing now was Blue Jay. Damia had grown up fighting. Her mother and father had both been soldiers, loyal to Drago Hunyadi, the grandfather of the present king. Love had always been a secondary concern to her. She had taken men into her bed, but never her heart. It had never even occurred to her that a man could set up residence there, or that his essence could fill her so completely. Even had she imagined it, she would never have thought that she could love a legend. And a Borderkind, no less.
In a matter of weeks, Blue Jay had stripped away all of the presumptions she had ever made about her own capacity for emotion. They had fought side by side, arguing all the while, in the moments following the assassination of Commander Kharkov and the attempted assassination of the king himself. And Damia had found herself catching her breath every time she looked at the trickster. His eyes danced when they looked at her, sparkling with mischief.
Tricksters were known for their cunning, she told herself. For their deceit.
But she could sense no deceit in him on the night they had first kissed. The light in his eyes when she took him to her bed was no more than joy. She trusted him, in spite of all she had ever heard of tricksters.
Gods, how she wished he were here with her now. Not to fight alongside her—not because she felt she needed his help—but simply because she missed him.
Her horse began to slow and she spurred him on faster. The Oldwood was just ahead and, once they reached it, the horses would be able to rest a while.
Damia rode past three companies of infantry and both cavalry regiments. When she came abreast of the first line of cavalry she raised a hand. Her lieutenants did the same, calling orders back amongst the ranks, and the command rippled through all her gathered warriors. The platoon of legendary had been at the rear of the march all along, sometimes straying but always returning, watchful for ambush or spies.
Soon the rolling thunder of hooves and boots came to a stop. Lieutenant Fee, a grimly serious blond woman who led the Dawn Regiment, dismounted at the same time as Commander Beck. Damia handed the reins over to Fee and nodded as the lieutenant saluted.
They had come to a stop forty yards from where the road narrowed and disappeared into the cool, quiet shadows of the Oldwood, where the most ancient, most primitive, and most stubborn legends still lived wild.
Her scout, a swift-footed legend called Charles Grant, stood just out of reach of the last rays of sunlight. Dusk was now only perhaps forty minutes off, probably less.
“Hello, Charlie,” Damia said as she approached, her hands in full view, her sword and guns banging against her hips, still sheathed. Charlie could be skittish.
He watched her guns warily. There were very few guns in Euphrasia. They were the sort of thing the Veil tended to screen out, somehow. From all she had heard of the ordinary world, Damia had long since figured out that there were a lot of things the Veil kept out, even when Lost Ones wandered in.
“Charlie?” she ventured.
The fleet-flooted boy gave a low toot on his whistle. That instrument—carved of bone—was the only method of communication she had ever heard him use. She didn’t know if he could talk, but no one she had ever asked had heard his voice.
“Is he there?” she asked.
The boy nodded.
“Waiting for me?”
Charlie gave the tiniest blow of his whistle, looking out of the corner of his eye as though he was afraid the forest itself would come creeping after him.
“All right,” Damia said, glancing up to study the darkness of the road through the Oldwood and the thickness of the forest on either side. The master of the forest had answered her summons. Now she had to go and speak with him. “Go and wait with—”
A breeze rustled her black cloak.
Commander Beck blinked when she realized that Charlie Grant was gone. Arching an eyebrow she turned to see the boy already standing with Lieutenant Fee, running a hand along the flank of her horse.
Taking a deep breath, Damia entered the Oldwood, wondering if she would ever come out.
Music played low on the radio in Jackson Norris’s car. Sara had ridden with the sheriff several times since coming back to Maine, and she’d never gotten used to that. Sure, his police radio squawked, but there was nearly always music playing as well. In the movies and on TV, the cops never had their regular radios on.
Sting’s song “Fields of Gold,” began. The irony was there, in the back of her mind, but she had to concentrate for a second before she dredged it up. Right—Sting had been the front man for the classic rock group the Police. There you go. Irony.
Sara earned strange looks whenever she got out of the car with its cop paint job and the light bar on the top, never mind the Wessex County Sheriff’s Department logo on the doors. But at least she wasn’t riding in the back in cuffs.
Not that she gave a shit what people in Kitteridge, Maine, thought.
She didn’t care about much, these days.
“You know you don’t have to go back to Atlanta,” Sheriff Norris told her, his tone gentle.
“You know I do, Jackson.”