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Return to the Shadows

RETURN TO THE SHADOWS

 

By

 

Angie West

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

 

Copyright© 2016 Angie West

Published at Shakespir

 

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced electronically or in print without written permission.

The Shadows Trilogy

 

Shadow Cave

Return to the Shadows

Shadow Borne

 

Also by Angie West

 

Spirit of the Wolf

Incubus

The Fifth Hour

Jaxson’s Song

The Game

Dedication

 

To Mary Lou…kindred spirit, confidant, best friend, Mother.

Chapter One

Quiet Places

 

A flame to light the path; gateway to all things past. A door from which there is no going back.

Born in truth; forged in lies. Never betray the secret…forever shielded from human eyes.”

 

It had been a hell of a year. A year chock full of firsts and new and a blessed normalcy that was both comforting and strangely terrifying; one would think that a return to a normal pace would be a welcome change. But it wasn’t, at least not for me. Trouble was, I wasn’t sure I knew what “normal” was anymore.

I was back in my home, surrounded by my family, working at the same job with the same people I had worked amongst for several years. Yet nothing was familiar. It took a while to realize the unsettling truth; they hadn’t changed. I had. But then, I was in good company…Terlain had changed a lot of people. I closed my eyes, letting the memories wash over me.

I grew up in the heart of Washington, in a town called Edmonds, the middle child of what could only be termed “an artistic power couple.” Mom worked as a high profile wedding planner for over twenty years, and Dad had been an architect for as long as any of us kids could remember. So, like I said, three of us kids grew up there. My brother Mike was the baby of the family, and my junior by a couple of years.

The two of us had always been close; he shared my love of science, my coloring, and obviously we were close in age. But that was where the similarities ended. Where I was casual, he was Type A. Where I was calm, he was tense. It had always been that way. Our family used to joke that even though he was the younger brother, he never got the memo. He was part watchdog to Megan and myself, part baby brother.

When he was not harassing all of us about safety, or in the field, he could be found in his home away from home—hard at work at the historical museum of archaeology.

As for myself, I was a botanist. I graduated from college a few years ago and had worked in pharmaceuticals ever since. I was employed by a company called The LanTech Corporation. Like my brother, I got most of my looks from my father. There used to be a time when I wished for my mother’s dark hair and green eyes, and later, for true blonde hair. Basically, anything other than my own shade of not-quite-blonde-not-quite-brown.

My sister Megan was the oldest, and the prettiest, of the bunch. She took after our mother that way. If she hadn’t been such a great sister and all around good person, I probably would have envied her classic beauty and natural charm. But that was always the thing with Megan; beauty and grace just came naturally to her. Simply put, she couldn’t help it. As a young child, her interests had centered on music and art; as she’d grown older, boys had begun to take center stage in her life. She married young and divorced after only a few years. Praise the Lord. We had all hated her husband, especially me. But then, why wouldn’t I?

After all, he had tried to kill me.

It all started six years ago, on a typically hot and dusty afternoon in Zaire, Africa. My brother had been in the country on assignment—a dig in a location that went undisclosed to the general public. He’d been part of a team tasked with excavating the remains of a newly discovered African tribe. That’s when he found the key.

An ancient relic and the cornerstone of a centuries old legend, we were unaware of how the item he unearthed would forever change our lives. For reasons only Mike could fully explain, he did something completely and totally out of character; rather than turn the key over to the African government, he kept it for himself.

Mike spent the five years that followed researching the Legend of Terlain. As the story goes, a band of ancient high priests forged the disc-like key using stone from their holy land during a ritualistic ceremony. The elder priest, a man whose name remains unknown even to this day, saw visions of the “other” world, to which the key belonged. Four men entered the Cave of Shadows to find the portal to Terlain; three men came out. The remaining three priests documented their findings using a combination of written and oral transcript. They told tales of warlocks and demons, strange creatures, and even stranger surroundings.

Most bizarre of all, they told the tale of ordinary people, ordinary people fighting a losing battle against a force so powerful it threatened all that it touched. No mention was ever made regarding the fate of the fourth priest. Still, in the end, the remaining three made a conscious decision to destroy the key to the land they called Terlain. They felt it posed such a threat to humanity that it must never be found.

Yet found it was. The elder priest entrusted with the task of destroying the key fell victim to the most basic weakness of man; he found himself unable to fulfill his obligation and, rather than destroy the key to Terlain, he buried it deep in the earth, where it remained for centuries.

Five years after my brother found and subsequently took possession of the key, he was ready to make his move. He was undoubtedly anxious to prove, or disprove, the legend that had captured his attention and fascinated him since childhood. It was this fascination that severely clouded his judgment…if you ask me.

What he possessed in ambition, he lacked in financial backing. It was LanTech he approached with his request. More specifically, he asked John Hanlen, our sister Megan’s dear ex-husband, for the money to fund his one-man project. Mike was eager to bag the find of a lifetime. As strange a choice as it may seem, Mike had precious few options for scraping together funding and sponsorship for such an expedition. Even with his careful documentation, he would have been laughed out the door of the foundations and museums that normally put up the capital for archaeological expeditions.

John Hanlen must have seemed like the perfect last-ditch option. He was familiar with Mike and his work, and he had access to a large supply of cash. Unfortunately, he was also greedy and a cold-hearted bastard. John had a different agenda. He meant to plunder and pillage Terlain to his heart’s content. His plan was to eliminate my brother once he was able to prove that Terlain existed and ultimately lead the way to the portal.

Mike was set to return home in six months’ time; he never made it. Unknown to John at that time, Mike had been captured in Terlain by the guardsmen of Kahn, a dark warlock determined to rule Terlain with an iron fist.

When my brother failed to return in the allotted six-month period, John, fearing he’d been swindled, did a little research of his own. That is, if you can call breaking and entering “research.” He stole several boxes containing Mike’s notes, and was attempting to find a way to track him when a golden opportunity presented itself. Me.

Written in the back cover of one of Mike’s notebooks was a personal message to me. I was summoned to John’s personal office and conference room early one morning, where I was briefed on the situation, shown Mike’s coded notebooks, and “asked” to aid in finding my missing brother. I was shocked to say the least; first to learn of Mike’s involvement with John, and then to hear a wild story about a priest and a warlock.

In the end, what was a girl to do? I set out on a six-week long quest to find Mike and the fabled land known as Terlain. I wouldn’t say that John made it an easy feat, because he didn’t. I’d never forget the hours I spent painstakingly decoding Mike’s notes and trying to retrace his steps. Believe me, I encountered more than my fair share of stumbling blocks along the way.

The first came just after I received my big break in the case. Arriving late one evening to Mike’s apartment, I learned that it had already been scoured and searched from top to bottom. But John and his men had overlooked one very important detail…Mike’s computer. For all they’d probably tried, they had been unable to crack the password that would have granted them access to his most private files. Let’s just say I had better luck. I guessed the coveted password in a matter of minutes and, lo and behold, found a file with my name on it.

Too bad I hadn’t counted on the apartment being wire tapped. John and his minions heard enough to realize I had found what they had been unable to get. I was officially expendable. Even worse, I had become a liability…just another unfortunate soul who knew too much. In short, as far as John Hanlen was concerned, I was better off dead, and he did his level best to make that happen.

They were waiting for me that night when I returned home, three of them. Men who lurked in the shadows. Men who waited for me with a sinister plan. They had been sent to carry out my execution, but as luck would have it, at least one of the men wasn’t too bright. Had they not waited for me in complete darkness, the night probably would have had a very different ending.

That first night, I had driven as far as the end of my street when I noticed two very important things, the first being that I was certain I’d left the living room light on before I had taken off for my brother’s apartment. I stopped for a moment, and would have shrugged it off and chalked it up to stress causing me to be forgetful, but a split second later, the living room curtains moved a fraction of an inch. Even better, the man behind the curtain hadn’t bothered to lower his flashlight before shutting the drapes. He was probably wondering why his quarry was idling in the middle of the street and trying to get a better look at my car. Yet, in doing so, he had alerted me to his presence.

I sped off into the night, finding a hotel to hole up in for a day or so while I read through the file and figured out just what I was going to do next. Initially, I felt an overwhelming sense of relief on managing to evade a direct confrontation with the men who had taken up residence in my house. That relief turned out to be woefully short-lived.

Mike’s notes to me were specific, explaining his motives, warning me what I was up against in both Terlain and Seattle, and instructing me on what I had to do next in order to survive. Oh, and apologizing profusely for dragging me into a situation that had a high potential to get me killed within a week’s time.

His instructions were explicit. My orders were simple; find the key and destroy it if he had not returned within six months. Not for so much as a second did I actually consider following his orders. I’d like to think he would have done the same for me had our situations been reversed.

When he’d left to find Terlain, he had taken only half of the key. The other half was hidden in a warehouse, and I would need to retrieve it before I could continue my quest. The key was meant to be used in pairs, so to speak. It was a fail-safe carefully designed by the old tribal priests, who believed that no one man should wield such a power, or enter Terlain alone. Once I was in possession of the other half of the key, I could retrace Mike’s step and find the portal.

That, or find Mike himself. For all I knew, he may not have ever made it to the Cave of Shadows that housed the portal. The African wilderness was rough terrain to travel, even for someone with Mike’s level of experience. He had been gone longer than six months. It was more than enough time for him to have succumbed to any number of natural or man-made threats, Heaven forbid. I’d had to consider the possibility that he had never made it to the cave, that he could have been lying dead somewhere along the trail.

“Mom?”

The soft voice broke through my dismal reminiscing, causing me to blink momentarily while I tried to regain my bearings.

“Ashley, what are you doing out of bed, little love? Come here.” I enveloped the warm six-year-old in a tight embrace, inhaling the scent of baby powder and strawberry shampoo, a heady scent that was exclusively Ashley…my daughter.

“I can’t sleep.” Her Cupid’s bow mouth pouted and she gazed at me with liquid blue eyes fringed in jet-black lashes.

“I see. Well, why don’t you sit here on this couch with me for a while and tell me your troubles?”

“Okay. I guess I could do that.”

“Did you have that dream again?”

“No.”

“Are you hungry?” I tried, grasping at straws. When Ashley was in a mood, it was usually a long and cumbersome process to get her to open up.

“Can I have a cookie?” She looked almost hopeful.

“No, you can’t have a cookie at ten-thirty at night. Sorry, baby, no deal.”

“Then I’m not hungry.” There was steel in her little voice and a defiant tilt to her chin. She was scared, I realized as I studied her defensive posture.

“You can have a banana, if you’d like,” I offered.

“Can I have ice cream instead?”

“Now if I wouldn’t let you have a cookie, why on earth would I say yes to ice cream?” I sighed.

“Fine. I’ll have the banana,” she relented, climbing down from my lap to follow me to the kitchen.

“Do you want a glass of milk with this?” I sliced the banana in half lengthwise, just the way she liked it, and handed her the plastic Kermit the Frog plate that was her favorite.

“Sure.” Her thin shoulders rose in a shrug as she slowly munched on the fruit.

“You know you can talk to me about anything.”

“I know.”

“I just need to remind you of that sometimes. You’re pretty special to me, just so you know.” I smiled and fluffed her dark hair.

“I love you too, Mama.”

“I’ll never let anything happen to you. I can promise you that. I’ll always keep you safe and sound.”

“Because you carry a gun in your purse.” She nodded. “I know, Mom.”

“Ah, well, that too, but—hey, wait—I do not carry my gun in my purse. I keep it in the—” I stopped the awkward tirade, abruptly realizing what I had been about to say. Ashley had paused in eating her snack and was staring at me with blatant curiosity.

“Never you mind where I keep it. Anyway, that’s not what I meant,” I quickly explained before she could ask any questions. “I meant that because I’m your mom, I will always love and protect you and keep you safe. So you don’t have to be afraid at night.”

“Sometimes I get bad dreams at night. Scary dreams,” she confessed in a quiet tone. It was obvious to see what it cost the child to speak the words out loud, and the knowledge tore at my heart.

“Do you want to tell me about the one you had tonight?” I struggled to keep my voice level.

“No.” She shook her head emphatically and bit down on a section of banana.

“Are you sure? Sometimes it helps to talk about these things.”

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Okay. That’s okay, honey. You don’t have to talk about anything you don’t feel comfortable talking about. Do you want to sleep in my room for the rest of the night?” I offered as casually as I could manage.

She nodded.

“Come on, then. We’d better get some sleep. You have school tomorrow and I have work.”

***

The morning dawned clear and bright. Ashley and I went through our usual morning routine with a chipper efficiency that belied our mostly sleepless night. A quick breakfast of cold cereal, a cup of juice for her, a mug of strong coffee for me, and we were out the door en route to start our respective days. I was smiling as I walked through the heavy lead glass doors of LanTech Corp after depositing Ashley at school. If I had my way, our routine would be changing soon.

I’d been keeping a secret from my family for weeks, and for the time being, it would stay that way.

The big news? I was expecting to get a call from the human resource department of Plant and Herb. The widely circulated magazine was looking for a new columnist with my background and qualifications. My first interview had taken place two weeks ago, followed by a lengthy second interview a short three days later. By all appearances, it looked like the job would be mine if I still wanted it. I smothered a grin.

There was no way I wouldn’t jump at the chance to work for Plant and Herb. It was a tremendous opportunity; only a complete idiot would pass on it, and I’d always prided myself on my common sense.

The hours were the biggest selling point. My position would be salaried with an independent contractor’s flexible hours. It would allow me to stay home with Ashley about three days a week, plus weekends. What could possibly be better than a two day work week? How about a pay raise? Plant and Herb was talking about a full twenty percent pay increase from my current position at LanTech. To my way of thinking, it would be a win-win situation. I had been thinking about making some changes for the better part of the past year. Ashley was a huge motivating factor in my decision to re-prioritize and restructure my life.

Mike and I had returned from Terlain with her a year ago. Since then a lot had changed for me.

Ashley and I had fought hard to overcome a ton of obstacles in order to have the lives we had today. The first in our year-long string of battles came in the form of her legal adoption. Even though I went into the adoption process knowing full well that it wouldn’t be easy, I was unprepared for the turmoil that ensued.

Adoption is a difficult process under the best of circumstances; it’s nearly impossible when the child has no identification. No birth certificate, no social security number, no finger or foot print on file anywhere. The fact that I was a single woman who worked a full-time job did not reassure the state that I was the best possible caregiver for Ashley.

Those first weeks were the hardest to bear. Child and family services placed Ashley in a foster home while the police made every effort to find the family of the little girl my brother and I “found” while on vacation. Ashley, Mike, and I were interviewed repeatedly during that time. Our answers were consistent, and Ashley, bless her, would only tell the police that her parents had died a long time ago, and that I had found her wandering near the woods.

For the most part, what Ashley had said was true. Her parents were dead and I had found her in the woods. After that, things became a bit more complicated. At any rate, Ashley didn’t have to spend much time in the temporary home before a judge ordered her returned to my custody. There were regular home visits and more questions and interviews, but finally, eight months later, the adoption was officially finalized.

Of course, we had settled into a routine long before the final paper was signed, stamped, and sealed.

Still, having that piece of paper was a weight off my shoulders. Mike and I felt bad about having to lie to the rest of the family about Ashley’s background, even though we both understood it was completely necessary to do so. We consoled ourselves with the knowledge that our lie had little to do with Ashley herself. She was a beautiful, healthy, intelligent, and lovable little girl, no matter where she may have come from.

Now, finally, she was a little girl with a big, loving family. My parents had accepted her unconditionally from the start. Both of them had proven to be wonderful grandparents. They spent a lot of time with Ashley, and much of that time was spent doting on the girl. They weren’t just willing to spend time with their new grandchild. They relished the chance to spend time with her. Their devotion to my daughter never failed to bring tears to my eyes. Since the day I’d brought her home, they had instantly taken to her and her to them. Not a single week had gone by in the past year where my parents had not visited Ashley or at least called her on the phone.

My brother was another regular visitor in our home and an important figure in Ashley’s life. Ashley absolutely adored her uncle Mike. The feeling was definitely mutual. He was fiercely protective of her, often reminding the rest of us of a mother hen.

Megan had bonded with Ashley on a level that, while personal, was not quite to the depth of our parents and Mike. The two were close, but unfortunately were unable to spend much time together. Ashley spent maybe one day each month with her Aunt Megan, though to be fair, Megan’s work schedule was the polar opposite of Ashley’s school schedule. That too was about to change.

My sister had remarried six months ago; their first child was due in October, only a few short months away. To the family’s collective relief, Megan’s obstetrician had ordered her to take her maternity leave of absence now. There was no immediate threat to Megan or the baby. In fact, Megan had sailed through the bulk of her pregnancy with ease. She hadn’t suffered the fatigue or the nausea that seemed to plague so many pregnant women. In Megan’s case, that was actually the problem. She hadn’t experienced any of the body’s typical responses telling her to slow her daily pace, so she hadn’t. With her son’s birth looming closer, she was starting to swell through her legs, and the doctor—not to mention the rest of us—was becoming increasingly concerned.

Today would be Megan’s last day at work for the next six to eight months. While she was less than thrilled with the prospect, her husband Juan was immensely relieved, and I was ecstatic. We would finally have the time to get some serious baby shopping done, plus the nursery still needed to be decorated. I could hardly wait for my nephew to be born. I imagined all of the fun we would have together, Ashley and little Aaron and me. Best of all, if I’d managed to snag the Plant and Herb job, I would be able to split babysitting duties with my parents. I absolutely loved babies, and there was no question that Ashley would benefit from having another child around.

She was very well behaved both at home and at school, but she tended to keep to herself. A lot of the time she seemed unsure how to act around other children, and large groups of children or adults seemed to overwhelm her. As much as it broke my heart to see her struggle with anything, I had to remind myself that things could have been much worse. I may not have known much about what her life had been like before Mike and I found her, but I knew a little about how harsh life could be in Terlain. And life for an orphan in Terlain? I shuddered. The reality was grim at best. It was a miracle that the child had not suffered more trauma than she had. Hell, the fact that she was alive was a miracle. I had a lot to be thankful for, I realized. I had a great family, a beautiful daughter who was healing a little each day, a nice house, and a good job. So what if there was one thing that would always be missing?

***

Dinner was usually a casual affair at our house, at least during the week. Soup and sandwiches, TV dinners, grilled meat and frozen vegetables were the typical fare. But every Friday we ate out or ordered in. Tonight was no exception. Ashley had opted to go to McDonald’s for a Happy Meal and an hour in the play area.

I sipped on a Styrofoam cup of hot mocha coffee while I watched her navigate colorful slides, ropes, tunnels…and one serious ball pit. I tried not to cringe, finally having to look away. I hated the things.

Don’t get me wrong, they did look like a lot of fun, even to a grown up like myself. It must have looked like the Taj Mahal of the playground to a little kid like Ashley. But, to me at least, it also looked like a gigantic germ pool, hepatitis and meningitis and tetanus co-mingling in sickening harmony. But it was important to Ashley, so I sighed and packed the hand sanitizer, vowing to keep my phobias to myself. Such is the life of a parent.

After dinner, playtime, and a hot bubble bath, we went through the motions of our bedtime routine.

We read a story, talked about what the coming day would bring, and Ashley settled into her own bed for the night. Whether she would stay there for the duration or if the dreams would plague her sleep always remained to be seen. I honestly didn’t mind; the nightmares were becoming less frequent with each passing month.

I was locking the front door and setting the alarm like I always did each evening when a movement outside caught my eye. I did a double-take, peering out through the living room window to the darkness beyond. Whatever had been out there was gone, I realized after a moment. A faint chill washed over me. It wasn’t the first time it had happened since our return from Terlain. And like the other times, I shrugged it off and went to bed.

 

Chapter Two

Windfall

 

Three days later, the job was mine. I could hardly believe my good fortune. I would be writing a two-page spread for the monthly issues of Plant and Herb to start. The hours were flexible and the pay was obscene. What more could anyone possibly ask for? I would finally have more time to spend with Ashley, and I wouldn’t have to work so hard all of the time. Or in such a creepy environment, I added silently. Even though it made sense for laboratories to be located on the lower levels of buildings that housed them, working in a basement was still a gloomy existence.

The scene in the lab played through my mind again, and I wrapped the ends of my sweater around my waist and shook my head. I was beginning to get jumpy again, which was ridiculous. There was absolutely no reason to worry. John was serving a lengthy prison sentence, and our lives had been quiet and mostly uneventful for an entire year. Unheard of for the Roberts, I knew, but there it was. There was only one logical explanation for the way I was feeling now. I was becoming paranoid.

And who knew? Maybe a little case of the nerves now and then was normal after what I had been through, after seeing and hearing things that most people only dreamed of—both fantasy and nightmare.

Still, hearing footsteps in the lab the week before and automatically assuming I was being stalked for the kill? No, I was pretty sure I had gone to an extreme with that one. There was no real reason to believe I was in danger, I reminded myself as I finished loading the dishwasher. Just the dreams. But I knew that didn’t prove anything, only that I had a wild imagination. And the trip to Terlain had probably given me enough material to fuel that imagination for the next fifty or sixty years. I smiled wistfully and wondered what Marta would have to say about everything. She’d be sarcastic for sure and would toss in a wisecrack or two. That was her way. And Lord, how I missed her. I wanted to know what they were doing tonight—Bob and Marta…and Mark.

More often than not, I found my thoughts drifting to Mark. I imagined them all together, like they were the last time I had seen them, and the longing grew to painful proportions. I had always meant to see them again…to see Mark again. But life had a way of moving forward, and plans changed, sometimes whether we wished them to or not. It still shamed me to think that getting back to Mark had been put right next to “cleaning out the garage” on my list of priorities. Something I meant to do, but in all likelihood would never get around to.

Sure, I had plenty of good reasons to avoid Terlain like the plague. First of all, it was not safe for me to go there. I was on the equivalent of an America’s Most Wanted list over there since my last visit, having managed to piss off Kahn, the guards, the Shadow Man, and everything else I had somehow managed to evade. Going back would mean putting my life in danger, and I couldn’t put Ashley through that kind of torment. She had already lost one set of parents. She wouldn’t understand. Even if I somehow managed not to get myself killed, how could I possibly explain why I had to leave her for several weeks?

She would be devastated. I promised I would never leave her.

The alternative to that was obvious—I could take her with me. A laugh bubbled at the mere thought of that one. No. Things had to be the way they were and for good reason. My daughter had a life in Seattle and I had no right to jeopardize or disrupt that. Maybe later—some far off day when things were different—I would see them again, Mark and Aries and Faith. I thought about Aries almost as frequently as I thought of Mark. It was impossible not to hope that she was safe, to pray every day that the guards had not caught up with her that day.

I poured yogurt into a plain white bowl and took a seat at the kitchen island. It was just after nine in the evening, and Ashley was safe and sound in her bed for the night. I briefly thought about calling Mike, but just as quickly decided against it. If anyone was capable of understanding how I felt and what I had been through, it was my brother. After all, he had lived through it with me. But even a year later, I still knew better than to bring up Aries around him. She had remained a sore subject between the two of us. I suspected that he was in love with her, but—

“Hey, Claire, are you home?”

“Well speak of the devil. I’m in the kitchen, Mike!” I called out.

“You forgot to lock your front door again,” Mike admonished as he popped his head around the kitchen doorway.

“So? I’m still awake. What’s up?”

“I was just on my way home from the museum and figured I would stop in to see how you and Miss Ashley are faring.”

“We’re faring just fine.” I couldn’t help but smile. “Help yourself to a snack; I’m having one,” I offered, gesturing to my yogurt.

“Don’t mind if I do. So I heard you quit your job at LanTech today.”

“Good news travels fast. Megan?”

“She called me earlier. Is it true? Did you really quit today? Without notice?”

“You bet I did. I got an offer that was too good to pass up. It’s a lot more money than I was making at LanTech.”

“Since when have you cared about money, Claire?”

“Hey, I like money,” I protested around a mouthful of vanilla yogurt. “No, I love money. So there.” I waved the spoon at him triumphantly.

“You don’t care about the money and we both know it.”

“No. You know it. Rather, you think you know. Which you don’t. In fact, you can leave now if all you’re going to do is stand here and criticize me in my own kitchen.”

Mike ignored the invitation to leave, just as I figured he would. Instead, he parked his rear end in one of my kitchen chairs and calmly lit a cigarette.

“You can’t smoke in here. When did you start smoking?”

“I don’t smoke,” he shrugged.

I shook my head, exasperated, and held his pack of cigarettes high in the air. “May I present Exhibit A? Really, Mike, I thought you had quit.”

“I did.”

“Well so did I. Mostly. Now get that thing out of here. I mean it. It’s not good for Ashley.”

“I’ll take it outside, calm down.”

I poured two cups of coffee, added liberal amounts of cream and sugar to both mugs, and followed him out to the front porch.

“Thanks.” He sipped his coffee and gazed at the star-strewn sky above my house. “You want to tell me what’s really going on?”

“Not really, no.”

“Smoke?”

“Why not?” I sighed, and shook a cigarette out of his pack, lit up, and leaned back to prop my feet on the porch rails.

“Claire, just tell me that you’re okay. Tell me that you’re happy. That this is what you want. That’s all I’m asking.”

“It’s the best thing for us. For me and for Ashley. She needs me at home more often.”

“Agreed. But what would have been wrong with cutting back on your hours at LanTech? You make a good salary there. And you had a lot of time on that job. You know we will help take care of Ashley. Me, and Mom and Dad, Megan and Juan. We are all here for the two of you.”

“Thank you, Mike.” I gave his knee a sisterly pat. “But I’ve made my decision. Writing for the magazine will be…fun, I think.” I shrugged and drained the last of my coffee. “Different at least. And I’ve been ready for a change for a long time. Despite what you may think, the money is a motivating factor for me. It’s never too early to start saving for Ashley’s future. I want to be able to send her to a good school.

Help her get a car and a house someday. This job can help me do all of that. And the hours are flexible. If Ashley gets sick or hurt at school, I can be available for her.”

“I just want you to be satisfied, Claire. You know that.”

“I know you do, Mike. And I will be. I am.”

“You really love her, don’t you?” he said softly.

“Yes. I love you too, little brother, just so you know.”

The wind blew in the distance and a movement at the edge of the yard caught my eye.

“Mike, did you see that?” I leaned over the porch rail and peered into the darkness.

“Where?”

“Over there by the bushes. No, to the right. Do you see anyone?”

“I’ll check it out. Stay here.” He was up and moving in an instant.

“Wait—” But he was already heading across my well-manicured lawn. I hugged my arms to my chest and took a step forward, waiting.

“Claire, go get a flashlight, will you?”

“Oh, Lord. Okay, hang on.” I darted into the house and grabbed the light and my cell phone, stopping to check on Ashley before heading out the front door again.

“Here. What did you see?”

“I’m not sure. Let’s see…yes, right there. Look. The grass is smashed down.”

I knelt down to get a better look at the patch of lawn he had illuminated in a triangle of light.

“Does that look like a footprint to you?”

“I can’t tell, Claire. It could be. That or a large animal. What did you see when we were on the porch?”

“Just a shadow. I guess it could have been a dog. Maybe. But it looked tall to me.” I scratched my head and glanced down the deserted tree-lined street.

“I told you to have these hedges trimmed. Anybody could hide over here. It’s too good of a cover.”

“I’ve been meaning to get around to that,” I admitted. At his stern glance, I sighed. “Tomorrow. I’ll have them done first thing tomorrow. Scout’s honor.”

“Has anything unusual been happening lately?”

“Like what? Perverts casing the house?”

“Sure, like that.”

“No.” I didn’t tell him about the dreams, or the feelings of being watched that had persisted since our return from Terlain. It was most likely nothing, and would only give him cause to worry. Mike worrying was not a pretty sight. He had a tendency to go over the top and straight into paranoia-land.

“Well, why don’t you go on inside and check on the baby? I’ll take a look around out here. Check for footsteps around the house.”

I smiled in the darkness. “Fine, but don’t let Ashley hear you refer to her as ‘the baby.’”

“Oh right, I keep forgetting she goes to school now.” He grinned.

“Exactly, and don’t you forget it.”

“I’ll be in soon, okay? Don’t worry.”

“You want me to put on a fresh pot of coffee?”

“No, that’s all right. I can’t stay much longer.”

I shook my head, knowing full well how the rest of the night would play out. Mike would find a twig out of place and come bursting through the front door in roughly ten minutes and announce that he was calling the police. If I was able to talk him out of it—or wrestle the phone away from him—the family would at least be spared some embarrassment. If I couldn’t, he would call 911 and they would laugh at him all the while telling him to call back once a real crime had been committed. After that, Mike would insist on spending the night. I headed into the kitchen to make the coffee Mike had declined. Because he couldn’t stay, of course. Yeah, right.

Nine minutes later, I dried my hands on a dishtowel and began the countdown. “Five, four, three, two—”

“Claire, I’m calling the police!”

“And there it is.”

“Claire!”

“In the kitchen! And keep your voice down, Ashley is sleeping.”

“We have to call the police.” He was already reaching for the phone.

“Wait! Why do we have to call the police? What’s wrong?”

“Come look. No, wait. I have to check the house first. Lock the door and get your gun.”

“Mike, what the hell?”

“Just trust me please. Where’s the gun?”

“In my room, but—”

“Go get it.”

“Fine. Just…fine. But you had better have a damned good reason for this,” I warned as we strode down the hallway where the bedrooms were located.

“I do.”

“I don’t suppose you’d like to tell me what it is,” I grumbled.

“In a minute. First, let’s secure the house.”

“You first.” I waved him out of my bedroom doorway. He started at the back of the house, methodically checking each room, Rambo-style. Next he checked the living room and the den, and finally, the bedrooms, saving Ashley’s room for last.

“Oh, no. You are not going in her room.”

“I need to check her bedroom,” he argued with a hard edge to his voice.

“Well, I don’t want you taking that gun in there. If she wakes up and sees that, it will terrify her.”

“You’re right. You take it. Keep it where you can get to it quickly.”

I took the weapon and tucked it into the waistband of my jeans as we crept into her room. We peered into the closet and behind the door. Mike even looked under her bed.

“Mommy?”

“Shh…go back to sleep,” I whispered.

“What’s going on?”

“Everything is fine, sweetie. Your uncle Mike is just acting like a nut-job. Go back to sleep.”

“Okay. Hi, Uncle Mike,” she murmured sleepily.

“Hi, honey. Go to sleep now, you’re safe.” He need not have worried, her eyes were already drifting closed as we shut the door.

“Okay, we’ve checked out the entire house. Now what in the hell is going on?” I demanded.

“Come outside and take a look for yourself.” He led the way out the front door and around the side of the house, stopping just outside of Ashley’s window.

“Look at the grass by the hedges.”

“Mike, you said yourself that could have been an animal.”

“And look up here, at her window.” He swung the flashlight up to about chest level to the windowsill. The blood rushed to my head and a metallic taste filled my mouth. Scratches bore into the smooth white trim of the window, around the bottom, and halfway up the windowpane near the lock.

“What…?”

“Look at the glass, Claire. Right there.” The light switched to both sides of the window in turn, and I gasped when I noticed the handprints.

“Oh my God.”

“Someone tried to get into this window.”

Long moments ticked by as the implications struck home. We stared at each other; anger and dread met and held.

“I’m calling the police,” I announced.

***

“So you didn’t actually see anyone leaving the yard?”

“No, not exactly. I saw a shadow, and some movement, but no, I can’t say for sure if it was a man or not.”

“Why do you refer to the alleged as a man?”

“How many women do you know that lurk about and try to break into houses in the night?”

“You would be surprised, ma’am,” Officer Jones informed me. I disliked him instantly and I was pretty sure the feeling was mutual. He had a cocky air about him that I didn’t find one bit appealing. Or reassuring. I got the impression that we were little more than a case number to him. It was a lot like talking to one of those automated phone systems you had to wade through in order to get a live person.

“Is there anyone you know who would be angry with you, or want to hurt you or your family?”

“Yes.” I sighed.

“Yes?”

“Unfortunately, several people come to mind.”

“Old boyfriends? Co-workers?”

“No. Old bosses. You must be new.” I rubbed my eyes. “Last year, my house was turned into a stake out location. My old boss, John Hanlen, paid men to hide out here and wait for me.”

“Why were they waiting for you, ma’am? Did you call the police?”

“They were probably waiting to kill me. And no, I didn’t call the police. I dropped off anonymous evidence of my boss’s money laundering at a police station and went into hiding.”

“And you did this anonymously, you say?” He looked skeptical.

“Yes, I was scared at the time.”

“What’s changed?”

“He’s in jail now.”

“How do you know there were men in your home, Ms. Roberts?”

“Because your boys found one of them laying in my backyard. Looked like they had turned on each other, or a third party had attacked them. I really don’t know what happened. The police never said.”

“So what you’re saying is you have enemies.”

I didn’t like the way he said it, like it was my fault. “No more than most people, I suspect. But I haven’t had any trouble since John was arrested. Until now.”

“Any other incidents you want to tell me about?”

“No. Nothing else has happened before tonight.”

“Thank you, ma’am. We will call you if we have any more questions. If you have any further trouble, don’t hesitate to call again.”

“What about the prints on the window, Officer?”

“Don’t worry, we’ve already had them lifted. They’ll be analyzed by a lab technician. It could take up to a week. But hopefully we can get a positive I.D. on the set. It’s a good set of prints. It all depends on the alleged being in the data base currently.”

“You mean if he has a prior criminal record.”

“Or if he—or she—holds a government job. But I have to warn you, no break in has occurred, and none of your property was stolen or damaged…although the scratches on your window frame could potentially fall into the category of vandalism.”

“I understand. Thank you for coming out to take the statement, Officer Jones.”

“Lock your doors and keep your cell phone handy. We will be in touch.”

I did as he suggested and locked the door behind him, setting the alarm for good measure.

“Mike, did you get all of that?”

“Yes. How do you feel?”

“Exhausted. It’s after midnight and Ashley has school tomorrow.”

“Go to bed, Claire. I’ll stay up for a while.”

“Sounds like a plan. Set the alarm before you leave, please.”

“No way. I’m staying the night. I’ll sleep on the couch.” He stretched out on my sofa and tucked an arm beneath his head.

“If you think it’s necessary.” I smiled. My brother, the guardian.

“I’ll feel better if I stay here, yes. Now go get some sleep.”

“Goodnight, Mike.” I padded down the hall and made quick work of my bedtime routine, changing clothes and washing my face in less than three minutes, secretly grateful that he had insisted on spending the night. I checked on Ashley one final time before climbing into bed. It was a miracle that she had slept through the turmoil of the evening.

“Just a kid playing a prank,” I mumbled, wrapping the thick comforter snugly around myself. Too bad I didn’t really believe it.

***

The smoke was so thick it was hard to breathe. The pale curtains Marta had sewn for my room erupted in bright flame as the glass in the window began to pop and crack. I could see myself in the heated glass, my reflection distorted and horrified. In the next instant, it shattered with a hiss and a spray of shards. I had to get out of the house. I had to get to Bob and Ashley and Marta before the whole house went up like a torch. I stumbled from room to room, calling for them in turn, desperate to find them, but they were gone….

They must have made it out of the house, I thought in a numb state of shock. I all but fell through the front door, gasping and choking. Where was my family? I searched the front of the grounds to no avail; they were gone and I was frantic. And then the smoke cleared. Blue mist rose from the street in front of me in wisps that curled into the warm night. The stores, the library, the streets of Grandview were all familiar to me. Light glowed in the distance and I ran in that direction to investigate, only to stop short halfway across the square. The fences were on fire.

“Claire, wake up.” Mike was shaking me, and it was a wonder I didn’t leap from the bed in shock.

“I’m up. I’m up. You can stop that now!” I shoved him away from me and tucked my hair behind my ears.

“That must have been some dream. Care to share?”

“Mhhh.” I yawned. “What time is it?”

“Six-thirty. Your alarm hasn’t even gone off yet.”

“Thank God I’m not late.”

“No, you’re getting an early start to the day, if not a pleasant one. What were you dreaming of?”

“Grandview…I dreamt there was a terrible fire in Bob and Marta’s old place. Next thing I knew, I was in Bell Ridge by the town square and the fences were on fire.”

“The protected fences?”

“Yes.” I nodded. “Do you think a fire would destroy them?”

“Hard to say. I doubt it though. The protection spells that were cast on those fences were supposed to be very powerful.”

“True,” I agreed as I unfolded myself from my bed and crossed to my closet. “The fences that enclosed the protected zones had a shimmer, both on the actual wood and around it, remember?”

“Yes, and if I recall correctly, none of Kahn’s beasts could even get through that barrier to the wood of the fence beneath.”

“So the fences wouldn’t ever catch fire, would they?”

“In theory, no, they should not be able to catch fire. Unless the protection spells were to somehow wear off or be removed.”

“Do spells wear off?”

“You’re asking me? Now how would I know a crazy thing like that? Really, Claire.” He sauntered from the room, laughing at me as he went.

“Oh, sure— that’s crazy!” I yelled after his retreating form.

I took my time dressing for the day in casual clothing and low heels. After I dropped Ashley off at school, I had to go to Plant and Herb’s downtown headquarters to do a formal meet and greet with the staff and get my first assignment. The day was a polar opposite from what I had been doing for the past several years, and I found myself welcoming the change of pace. Despite the previous night, my spirits were high as I pulled up in front of Ashley’s elementary school an hour later.

“Who’s picking me up from school?”

“I am. I will be here at two-thirty to get you.”

“What about your job?” Ashley questioned with wide eyes.

“I got a new job, remember? Now I can pick you up from school every day.”

“Yay!” She bounced in her seat and graced me with a gap-toothed smile. “Can we go out for ice cream after school?”

“We’ll see,” I grinned. “Now go on before you’re late. Your teacher wouldn’t like that, would she?”

“Nope. Bye, Mama!” The car door clicked loudly as she slammed it and practically flew up the walkway and through the elementary school’s wide double doors. I couldn’t help but be proud. She was such a different child from the one I had found wandering the streets of Haelport over a year ago. She was a happier child. More secure, and thus, more outgoing and sure of herself.

Even though Ashley’s transformation hadn’t come overnight, but gradually by hard won degrees, it still amazed me. She had been so quiet, scared, and depressed at first. Could a six-year-old be depressed? At any rate, she barely said two words to anyone during the first three months she had lived among the Roberts clan. She’d wet her bed frequently and had nightmares several times a month. Normal bad dreams, near as I could tell. Monsters and chasing and dogs with giant teeth. Although, I reasoned as I swung into Plant and Herb’s parking garage, there might have been something more to the “dogs with giant teeth” that used to run through her dreams. It made me wonder if, at some point, she had seen the Retrievers in action.

I shifted the car into park and closed my eyes for a moment, letting the memory wash over me. We were speeding along a darkened street, so many nights ago….

Do you know what the Retrievers are?”

No.” Silence.

Do you want to know what the Retrievers are?” he asked slowly.

Not really, no.” More silence.

Well, they are not as bad as the Naule.”

Huh.” I shifted in my seat and pressed my lips into a thin line, having had enough for one day. At that moment, I did not want to hear another word about Kahn, the Naule, scavengers, or any other beast. I was covered in scrapes and bruises and had gravel lodged in places that were better left unsaid. I just wanted to go home and take a hot shower.

We were halfway through the forest when the first howl sounded in the distance. I jerked forward in my seat. “What was that?”

Shit. Hang on.” Mark hit the gas and the car shot forward past the trees. I dared a glance at the speedometer and immediately wished I hadn’t. We were at ninety miles an hour and the needle continued to climb. I took a deep breath and fixed my gaze on the center console. Anything was better than watching the trees fly past in a green blur. I was careful not to look at the speedometer again too, and added “how fast we are going” to my mental list of things I did not want to know. Two more mournful howls sounded in the approaching night and I cast another worried glance Mark’s way.

What is that?” I shouted over the noise of the engine.

The Retrievers.”

Wolves?”

No.”

Dogs.”

Not exactly,” he hedged.

Oh, man.” I was fast learning that when the people of Terlain did not quite know how to describe something, it was usually very bad.

The small dog in the middle of the road took us both by surprise. It was a golden-furred animal with round dark eyes in an even rounder face. Actually, it was very cute.

Don’t hit it!” I cried out.

Mark swerved around the animal, nearly losing control of the car in the process. We missed a large tree by a matter of inches and I was thrown roughly against the dash as he struggled for control of the vehicle.

Ouch!” I rubbed my bruised wrist for a second before resuming my death grip on the door handle. “Hell with it—hit it next time!”

That is a very bad idea!” he yelled back.

I was alarmed all over again when he glanced in the rear view mirror and went pale all of a sudden.

Mark? What is it? What’s wrong?” I craned my neck to see what had spooked him so bad.

What’s the matter? It’s just the dog. He is trying to follow us. He must be lost. I think that we can slow down now.” Before you kill us both, I silently added.

That’s no dog. It’s a Retriever.”

I turned back to get a better look at the animal, noticing that it looked remarkably similar to the golden retriever breed of puppy that was so popular in my world. Of course, it was much smaller and rounder in the face than a true golden retriever.

That tiny thing? You have got to be….” I trailed off and gripped the back of the seat as the dog began to take on an entirely new and sinister shape. The tiny muscles along its back began to bulge and shift. Its soulful howl became a bone-chilling snarl as it transformed before my eyes. The animal’s head elongated and its eyes became black slits in its lean face.

Oh my God….”

Don’t look at it, just hang on.”

It’s half the size of the car, Mark!” It was also fast and gaining ground on us by the second. I dropped back into my seat and held onto the armrests until my knuckles turned white.

Plan?” I managed to croak.

We just have to make it to the fence.”

A break in the trees ahead revealed a telltale shimmer. “How far?” I swallowed.

A hundred yards to the north, give or take.”

We are never going to make it. Slow down.”

Have you lost your mind?”

I’m serious! Slow down to sixty-five or seventy and get off the road. It will have a harder time following us if we put trees between it and us.”

Mark glanced in the mirror again and nodded. “You’re right.” He eased his foot off the gas pedal and the car began to slow. “There should be a spot up ahead where the trees break off.”

Hurry, Mark!”

There!” He steered the car toward the empty space to the left.

A beast appeared seemingly out of thin air in front of us. Its massive paws thudded against the ground in front of the car, effectively blocking our path. The beast that had been chasing us stopped behind the car and began to casually lick its paw. There was nothing else for Mark to do but hit the brakes. Swerving in either direction would have meant crashing into a tree at fifty-five miles per hour.

His hand gripped the steering wheel while I still clutched the dashboard.

What now?” I whispered without taking my eyes from the beast in front of us.

Before Mark could answer me, the Retriever at the front of the car bared its teeth and lashed out with one paw. I screamed as the entire front bumper gave way.

Get out of the car!” Mark ordered. “Get out now!”

I reached for the door handle without a second thought and had one foot on the ground when I felt Mark pull me back. The animal lunged at the car again and the next thing I knew, we were airborne.

Get down!” He wedged me into the driver’s seat next to him and we hit the ground with enough force to knock us into the back seat. Blood pooled to my head and I was disoriented for a minute before reality set in. The car was upside down.

Mark! Are you okay?”

Are you?”

I think so.” But not for long , I thought in horror as I watched the Retrievers approach.

Come on, we have to go now. They’re coming for us.”

***

“How was the meet and greet?”

“Good. Informative.” I passed a basket of rolls across the table to Ashley as I prepared to answer Mike’s twenty questions about my first day on the job.

“Did you get your first assignment?”

“You have homework like me, Mama?”

“Not exactly,” I laughed. “I get paid money to write for the magazine. It’s work, not school.”

“Did you go to school?”

“I did. I went to school for many, many years.”

“Years?” Ashley was awed.

“It’s not as long as it sounds, dear,” Mike was quick to reassure.

“What about you, Miss Ashley? How was your day at school? Did you have lots of fun?”

“Yes, I made a friend today.”

“That’s great. What’s her name?”

“It’s a boy.”

“Oh.” I blinked in surprise. Mike tried to hide a grin. “That’s great, honey. There is no reason why boys and girls can’t be friends. So, what’s his name?”

“Earl.”

“Is Earl in your class?” I didn’t remember any little boys named Earl being in Ashley’s class at school and thought he might have been new.

“Earl isn’t in my class. He was on the playground. He’s a big boy. He’s nice. He said he knows you.”

My silverware hit the plate with a clatter and I glanced first to Mike, and next to my daughter. “Is Earl a big boy like your cousin Tomas, or like your uncle Mike?”

“Big like Uncle Mike. Is Earl really your friend?”

“What side of the fence was he on, Ashley?” Mike cut in. “In the playground area with you, or outside by the street?”

“Outside by the street.”

“What did your teacher say?”

“She didn’t see him.” Ashley continued to eat her dinner, unconcerned.

“Ashley,” I said slowly. “Remember what we talked about? I don’t want you talking to strangers.”

“It’s not safe, I know. But he’s your friend, so it’s okay, right?”

“No. I don’t know anyone named Earl,” I told her as gently as I could manage.

“He lied?” She looked upset at the thought.

“Maybe not. Maybe he only thought he knew me.”

“But he knew my name and everything!”

“A lot of people are named Ashley, sweetheart. But you see? Even if people say they know me, or know your name, they could be mistaken. And that’s not safe. You know what I want you to do next time?”

“Get a grown-up?”

“That’s right. You’re a smart girl, you know that?”

“Yep, can I go play now?”

“Yes.” I watched her run into the living room and turn on the television. SpongeBob was on and Ashley grabbed a puzzle and settled in front of the TV.

“What are the odds, Claire?”

“Not very. I’m calling her teacher to make sure she didn’t see anything. Keep an eye on Ashley, will you?”

***

That night, I double-checked the doors and windows, setting the security alarm earlier than usual.

Mike had insisted on staying another night with us, and I had to admit, I did feel safer with him in the house. For Ashley’s sake, of course. I poured the customary mugs of evening coffee and found Mike sitting in front of the fireplace. He turned to look at me as I entered the room.

“Is Ashley asleep?”

“Fast asleep,” I sighed.

“Good. I didn’t want to talk about what happened today in front of her.”

“Neither did I. It’s a miracle she’s not scared to death already. I know I am.”

“You might not always be able to shield her from the truth,” he pointed out.

“You mean if this gets any worse?”

“Maybe.”

“Yes, I know.” I bit my lip and contemplated the fire as I spoke. “Her teacher didn’t see anyone talking to her on the play yard today.”

“Not even walking by the playground?”

“No, nothing. But Ashley wouldn’t make something like that up.”

“I don’t know, Claire, she goes to a good school. They keep a good eye on those kids. What about an imaginary friend? She’s the right age and she has certainly been through a lot.”

“That’s true, but I doubt it in this case. The timing is off. Something just…feels wrong here, Mike. Maybe if last night…I don’t know. But something is not right. I can feel it.” I was well aware that I was rambling and yet, couldn’t seem to stop. “Who would want to hurt a little girl?” I shivered.

“Who would want to hurt your little girl?”

“You think someone is really trying to get to her?”

“I don’t know, Claire. Maybe someone is trying to get to you through her.”

“I thought of all that, too, last night.”

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said anything.”

“No, it’s okay. I guess we’ll know for sure in a week, when those prints come back from the lab.

That is, if they get anything.”

“They will. Don’t worry.”

But that was easier said than done.

 

Chapter Three

The Dead Walk

 

As it turned out, we didn’t have to wait long for answers.

“I’m looking for Claire Roberts.”

“May I ask who is calling?” I cradled the phone between my ear and shoulder and carried the basket of towels to the kitchen table.

“This is Officer Lance Jones, ma’am. I responded to a nine-one-one call at your residence on the fifteenth.”

“Oh, yes, I remember.” I shook lint from a towel onto the floor and began folding the thick terry cloth into fourths. “What can I do for you?”

“The results of the finger print analysis made its way across my desk this morning. You’ll need to come into the station, Ms. Roberts.”

“Come to the station?” I dropped the neatly folded towel back onto the table and put a hand on the telephone. “What for?”

“I need to discuss the lab results with you and ask a few questions.”

“So, I need a lawyer?” Did I mention that I don’t particularly trust the police?

“Nothing like that, Ms. Roberts. When can you make it in to the station?”

I checked my watch, noting that I still had another hour and a half before I was due to pick Ashley up from school. “I can be there in fifteen minutes.”

“Fine. Check in at the front desk.”

“See you then.” I hung up and rushed to grab my purse and shoes.

The drive to the police station took longer than it normally would have after I took the wrong exit on the highway. I wasted ten minutes doing an illegal U-turn and circling back around. I guess you could say I was a little bit on edge. Then again, who wouldn’t have been under the circumstances? I was about to find out who had tried to get into my daughter’s bedroom window.

As I threw the car into park and climbed the steps to the station, I told myself to be grateful to the police for finding the man. Or woman, as Jones would have put it. Personally, I had never heard of a woman attempting to break into a child’s bedroom in the middle of the night. An ex-husband or a boyfriend? Sure, that I could see. But a woman? I shook my head and thought about making a side bet with Officer Jones before quickly scratching the idea. Considering he knew who had been in my yard that night, the odds were decidedly stacked against me.

“Don’t bet the house,” I muttered before pushing through the plate glass doors. Or in this case, don’t bet the police station. I got the feeling I would lose.

“Can I help you?”

“I’m here to see Lance Jones.”

“Do you have an appointment?”

“Yes, he is expecting me.” Since when did you need an appointment at the police station?

“Take a seat. I’ll let him know that you are here, Ms…?”

“Roberts.”

The receptionist nodded and punched a button on the intercom system.

Lance appeared about a minute later and ushered me into an office near the back of the station.

“Good afternoon, Claire.”

“Good afternoon. You said the results came back from the lab this morning?”

Officer Jones pulled a file from the sizable stack that littered his desk, opened it, and slid the papers in front of me.

“Do you recognize this man?”

I peered down at the grainy photograph he had placed before me. It was a mug shot, and an older one at that. There was something vaguely familiar about the man, but I couldn’t seem to place him. I said as much to Officer Jones.

“Don’t you have a better picture of him? I just can’t be certain….” I trailed off and raised my hands in an apologetic shrug. “Sorry.”

He shuffled through the papers in the file again and handed me a second image. “Do you recognize this photograph?”

It was a full color print of the man in the mug shot. The image was a close up head shot that showcased every roughhewn detail of the man’s facial features in garish detail. Wheat-colored hair, pale skin, eyes closed.

“Oh my God!” I jumped out of my seat and pointed at the photograph as though I were attempting to ward off evil.

“Something wrong, Claire?”

“Is something wrong?” I parroted in disbelief. “Is something wrong? Are you serious?” I demanded incredulously.

“Do you recognize him now?”

“Please tell me that the man in that photograph is sleeping. Tell me that you did not just hand me a picture of a dead man.”

“I apologize if you find this upsetting somehow.”

“Somehow?” I snorted.

“At the present time, these are the only two images that I have in Mr. Atkins’ file.”

“Who?”

“Earl T. Atkins.”

“The corpse?”

“Yes, Ms. Roberts, the corpse.”

“No. I’m sorry, but the name isn’t familiar to me. Neither is the…picture.” I forced myself to take a seat at the desk and folded my hands in front of my lap. “Why are you asking me about this man? I came here to find out who was sneaking around my property.”

“And I have just told you. The fingerprints that were taken from your window have been identified as Earl T. Atkins.”

“Well I’m sorry, but I have never seen that man before in my life. And I hate to break this to you, but I don’t suppose he will be bothering my family again anytime soon. Now, if you will excuse me, I have to get my daughter from school.”

“We aren’t finished here, Ms. Roberts.”

“Excuse me, officer, but that man is dead,” I spoke slowly.

“Yes, that man is dead.”

“Well I don’t see how—” I broke off as the meaning of his statement finally hit home. “You think I killed him.”

“Earl T. Atkins died last year, Ms. Roberts. What I want to know is how a dead man managed to walk through your property last week and then vanish without a trace.”

***

“How was school, peanut?” I asked Ashley an hour later. I gave myself a pat on the back for somehow managing to keep a light tone of voice and a steady hand while going through her backpack.

There were two perforated ABC 123 homework sheets that her teacher had torn from a workbook.

“That’s my homework!” she chirped.

“I see that. Do you know what you have to do?”

“Yep. It’s matching. I’m good at that. Mrs. Harris said so.”

“I know you are.” I sighed. “Today it’s matching, tomorrow it’s Stanford.”

“Your school?”

“My school.” I grinned. “You remembered that story?” It was difficult to keep the surprise from my voice. I had only mentioned my alma mater once before to Ashley and that had been more than eight months ago. I shouldn’t have been surprised. My daughter had a fantastic memory. Her ability to recall both events and conversations was becoming somewhat legendary in our family. My mother frequently consulted Ashley on a number of important matters. Where she put her car keys, for instance. Or what was written on the disappearing grocery list. Their newest game, television remote finding, had begun over last Christmas break.

Megan had suggested having I.Q. tests administered, but I was reluctant to do so…not so soon at least. The past year had been hard enough on her. I wanted to give her the chance to have a real childhood.

The chance to be a normal kid. To run and play and watch cartoons, and take hour long bubble baths.

From what I could discern, normalcy had been a rare commodity throughout most of Ashley’s young life.

But for the most part, her past remained a mystery. Strangely enough, she couldn’t seem to remember much of it. It was as though her early years were a slate that had long since been wiped clean. She had told me that her parents were dead, killed by the “bad men,” and that a woman had been caring for her.

But she claimed not to know the caretaker’s name, what the woman had looked like, or even where they had lived. My best guess was that she had come from Haelport, where I’d found her on the streets. After all, how far could a child her age get on foot? Especially in Terlain, where the dangers to children left unattended were multiplied tenfold. At any rate, for a child who had a photographic memory, she couldn’t remember a lot. I had suspected from day one that she was simply too scared to say where she had come from or how she had gotten her bruises. In the early days, she had been quiet and withdrawn. Now she was blossoming. So maybe it was better if she did eventually forget her past.

“Mama?”

“Yes? Sorry I was thinking about something. What were you saying?”

“I’m gonna go play outside, okay?” She was already reaching for the sliding glass doors that led to the back patio and yard.

“No!” the word burst forth vehemently. I took a deep, calming breath and tried again. “What I mean is, I had other plans for this evening.”

“But I always play on the swing set after school on Fridays.”

“I know you do, but I need to drop some things off at your Aunt Megan’s. How would you like to go see Grandma and Grandpa tonight?”

“Why can’t I go with you?”

“Because I’ve got grown up business to go over with Aunt Megan, that’s why.”

“Oh. Okay.” Bless her heart, she didn’t question it beyond that.

“Why don’t you get your bag and some toys and books?”

“Sure.” She ran down the hall and into her room.

“Take your homework too!” I called after her.

“I’m ready!” she announced several minutes later.

“Me too, let’s go.”

I called my parents en route and told them I would be dropping off Ashley. The next call I made was not to Megan but to my brother.

“Can I meet you at the house in twenty minutes?”

“Yours or mine?”

“That’s right, twenty minutes.” I glanced in the rear view mirror at Ashley. There was silence on the other end of the line.

“Your house, then?”

“Yes.”

“Is everything okay?”

“No,” I replied breezily.

“I’ll be there.”

“See you then.”

We pulled into my parents’ circular driveway ten minutes later. Bret and Angel Roberts may not have had the largest house on the block, but what it lacked in size, it made up for in character. Although the home was by no means small, it didn’t possess the same towering qualities of the majority of homes in the upper class neighborhood. Morrisbrook was one of the oldest sections of town and it showed in the graceful lines of the neighboring homes. The lots in the neighborhood were absolutely enormous and the homes for the most part were original. All had been well maintained and many had been updated over the past hundred years. But the original designs had remained largely unchanged. Two-story colonials and three-story Victorians graced the landscape as far as the eye could see. Eighteenth century moldings and towers stood as proud reminders of days long gone. Ashley always called them castles whenever we drove past.

And then there was the Roberts’ house. Dad was an architect; Mom was now an architectural designer, and it showed in every inch of their property. My parents bought the house at 404 Elm in 1978, and to the neighbor’s collective horror had the original structure razed to make room for their dream home—a single-story masterpiece that Mom referred to as “neo Spanish Colonial.” I never did quite understand what that meant, but the house had always reminded me of a Spanish villa with its red slate tile roof and white stone walls. The grounds were beautifully landscaped and professionally maintained.

Growing up, the yard had been my favorite part of the property, my own private sanctuary. While Mike had been poring over National Geographic and Megan had been playing softball, I had been outside memorizing every detail and nuance of every bit of plant life I could get my hands on.

The Japanese maple trees with their red-purple spring blooms were always my favorite, because no two were ever the same. The pushia tridentate was another favorite with its white flowers in the summer.

I used to call them “wedding flowers.”

“It’s beautiful here, don’t you think?” I opened Ashley’s door and lifted her from the car, swooping her into a hug as I did so.

Mom and Dad’s red front door opened almost as soon as our feet touched the porch.

“Well, I was wondering when you were going to show up!”

“Grandma!”

“Hi, Mom. I can’t stay. I’ve got some business to attend to, but I’ll be back tonight to get Ashley.”

“Take your time, dear. We’re going to have lots of fun here, aren’t we, Ashley?”

“Yep! Bye, Mom!”

“Love you, be good.”

“I’m always good.”

“I know you are,” I whispered, long after the front door had closed behind them. “I know you are.”

***

Mike was waiting for me when I returned home. He was leaning against the porch smoking a cigarette when I came up the walk and waved a hand through the thin smoke that curled around him like a halo.

“Puffing away again, I see.”

“You want one?”

“Yes,” I groaned in misery.

“You sound like you’re having a rough day.”

“Oh, you could say that.” I exhaled.

“Where’s Ashley?”

“I dropped her off with Mom and Dad so we could talk in private. Come on, let’s talk inside.”

“Coffee?”

“Sit down; I’ll make a pot, but thanks for offering.”

“What happened today that’s got you so on edge?”

“I went to the police station this afternoon,” I replied, measuring three scoops of ground coffee into the basket and depressing the switch. “Lance Jones—the officer who took our statements last week—called today with the lab results.”

“Then why the trip to the station? What’s wrong?”

“No, he only called to tell me that the results from the fingerprint analysis were in. He asked me to go to the station to discuss it. And everything is wrong.” I plunked myself down onto the stool across from Mike and reached for another cigarette.

“Don’t keep me in suspense. Did they find anything?”

“You could say that.” I blew out a thick stream of smoke and looked away. “The prints on the window belong to Earl T. Atkins.” I eyed my brother while he digested what I had just told him.

“Earl Atkins….” He frowned. “Who is Earl Atkins?”

“He was thirty-two. He died a year ago in the—”

“Backyard!” Mike blurted. “Earl Thomas Atkins, right? You beat him to death with a garden shovel. I knew the name sounded familiar.”

I glared at my brother across the table. “Yes, that would be the Earl Atkins to which I was referring. But he died in Bethesda Hospital, not in my backyard. And I did not beat him to death with my gardening shovel. I only hit him with it and he passed out…and, well, all right maybe he died after that, but if I hadn’t hit him, he would have done a whole lot worse to me.”

“I know. I’m sorry, Claire, that was insensitive of me. You know I didn’t mean it that way.”

“Oh God, I shot that man in the cave too.” I moaned and buried my head in my hands.

“Yes, and he would have killed you too if you hadn’t.”

“I know! So why doesn’t that make it any better?”

“It makes it a hell of a lot better.” Mike was incredulous.

“I’m a monster, Mike, that’s what it makes me.”

“A monster? Claire, you brake for squirrels. You’re not a monster. And if anyone is to blame, it’s me for getting you mixed up in that mess to begin with. Now pull it together and tell me what the police said. Are you sure it was Earl Thomas Atkins’s prints that were found on that glass?”

“Yes. They showed me two photographs of Earl when I went in. The first was an old mug shot. At first I really didn’t know who he was. He looked somehow familiar, but I couldn’t place him. Then Lance Jones pulls out this photo that, if I had to guess, came from the mortician.” I made a face and jumped up to pour two mugs of steaming coffee. “Cream and sugar?”

Mike ignored the question. “Jones showed you a picture of a dead man?”

“Yes, and it was definitely him. And then I remembered the name. That night, well, that night is hard to forget, if you know what I mean.”

“I can imagine.” Mike scrubbed a hand over his face. “So what does this mean?”

“That he’s not dead?” I shrugged. “I don’t know. I’m in shock right now. Damn it, I thought this was over a long time ago.”

“Are they sure it’s him?”

“They seemed certain enough. As much as I would love to believe that this is all some horrible mistake.”

“You don’t believe it’s a mistake.” It was a statement, not a question.

“No, it’s not a mistake. He was here. Earl Atkins was in my yard again last week. He was at Ashley’s school. God, he went to Ashley’s school and all but gave her a message for me.”

“Why now?” Mike’s face was drawn tight with anger. “How long has he been sneaking around and spying? Why is he trying to get to you after all this time?”

“Revenge? I’ve been thinking about it all day, and it’s the only thing that makes any sense. Think about it. He’s not trying to get to me so much as he’s trying to get at me, for the moment at least. He’s showing that he can. He’s playing a game.”

“For now.”

“Yes, for now.” I took a deep breath. “But I can’t afford to assume he won’t take this thing all the way.”

“He’s already taken it too far,” Mike declared with murder in his eyes. “He took it too damn far when he set foot on your property the first time.”

“Well, the police are investigating now. Jones wouldn’t tell me what they planned on doing, just that a patrol car would make the rounds past my house once each night for the next few days. Stay inside, keep the doors locked. The usual, I guess you could say.”

“I just thought of something, Claire.”

“What’s that?” I added liberal portions of cream and sugar to my coffee cup and focused on my brother.

“What if revenge isn’t the motive for Earl coming back here? Or at least, what if it isn’t the only thing motivating him?”

“I don’t follow. What else is there?”

“What else? Money. Who paid him to go after you before?”

“Well, they weren’t able to prove it, but I think we all know who to thank for that one.”

“John.”

“Exactly. The worm. If you ask me, fifty years wasn’t a long enough prison sentence for that man.”

“He will probably be out on parole in ten years,” Mike snorted.

“That’s our luck lately, isn’t it?” I sighed. “Do you really think he is still trying to get to us, Mike?”

“I don’t know, Claire, but it’s worth looking into, don’t you think? The prison where he’s serving his time is not all that far away. What do you think?”

“I think if he could be trusted to tell us the truth, it might be worth our time. But John is a liar and has been from day one when he was married to Megan.”

“Maybe you’re right.”

“I know I’m right on this, Mike. As tempting as it might be, seeing John would accomplish nothing.”

“Actually, it’s not all that tempting.”

“Yeah, I don’t relish the thought of spending my Friday night in a prison either.”

“We still have to do something.”

“Like what? Investigate ourselves? Amateur sleuth work?” I shook my head. “No, let the police handle it. That’s their job. Besides, we already know what happened. Obviously someone made a mistake last year. Earl Atkins didn’t die at that hospital. And apparently he is holding a grudge. But who makes a mistake like that? The police were involved in that case too.”

“They investigated his death as a homicide. I remember.”

“That’s right, but the case was closed without ever having been solved. The best they could figure was that Earl was killed when the other men who were in my house with him turned on him for some unknown reason. My name was never mentioned, thank God.”

“What about the other one? The one you shot.”

“They never found him. No blood. No gun. Nothing. But there were two other sets of prints found in the house besides Earl’s.” I frowned.

“No, not that. I meant the man that you shot, where is he? Where has he been all this time?”

“What am I, clairvoyant?”

“Funny. But don’t you ever wonder where he is?” Mike leaned forward anxiously.

“No,” I was quick to assure him. “I try not to think of him at all.”

“What if he is a part of this thing that’s happening now?”

“I don’t know. And short of him knocking on the door and announcing ‘here I am,’ I don’t see how we could ever find that out. But we know that Earl was definitely here. As for the third man, well, I never even saw him. So I doubt that he has any reason to be angry with me. At least, not angry enough to want to harm me or Ashley.”

“Unless he was Earl’s brother. Either one of them, half-brother, maybe. Or gay lover.”

I very nearly choked on my coffee and quickly shoved the mug aside. “Gay lover?” I wheezed, trying to remember if I’d ever heard of a pair of assassins that would match that description.

“Okay, so maybe that is a stretch.” Mike interrupted my thought. “But you have to consider the possibility that the two, or three, of them were connected somehow, which would lend itself to our motive for revenge theory.”

“Oh!” I pressed cool fingers to my temples. “No, I do not. You’re giving me a headache.”

“Sorry. I’m just trying to figure this whole mess out. I want you and Ashley to be safe.”

“I know you do, I’m sorry. It’s just that this has me a bit on edge.”

“Understandable.”

“I’m worried about you too, Mike,” I told him in a quiet tone.

“Why?” His brow furrowed.

“You were in this too. Last year. Maybe you didn’t attack anyone like I had to, but you found that place. You found the key to Terlain. What if they’re not just after me?” I asked pointedly.

“It’s possible but not likely. We told John that we destroyed both halves of the key. What point would there be to sending someone after me now? He never cared about the historical implications of a find like Terlain. He wanted nothing more than to pilfer the land.”

“True. Anyway, I’m the reason he is doing hard time. As far as he knows.”

“Claire.” Mike was wary. “I still wish you had let me clear that up with the police.”

“There was no point in the police questioning both of us. It was easier to let them think that John tried to have me hurt because he was angry I had found evidence of his corruption through his position at LanTech.”

“Between you and me, I half expected him to spill the whole sordid tale when they arrested him.

How I found the artifact and the old legend. All of it.”

“Hah. Well if nothing else, it would have made for a fabulous insanity defense. Personally, I’m a little relieved that he kept his mouth shut.”

“It wouldn’t have mattered either way,” Mike shrugged. “They never would have believed him.”

“Some days I can hardly believe it myself.” I toyed with the handle on my coffee mug. “Do you ever think about it?”

“We’re talking about it right now.” He was ever evasive.

“No. Do you ever think about Terlain? About being there?”

“No. It was a mistake.”

“Was it? Do you honestly believe that it was all just a big mistake?” I searched his face for the truth.

“Claire, how can you even ask me that? Because of me, because of that place, you and your daughter are in danger. And how many times did you cheat death last year? All because I didn’t leave it alone. I should have walked away, but I didn’t. Even worse, I dragged you right into the middle of it. And you’re still paying for it. You and Ashley. So, yes, I do honestly believe that it was a mistake.”

“I don’t.” My quiet admission stunned Mike into silence. “At first maybe I did. And most of the time that I spent searching for you, all that I could think about was getting back home.” I felt as though the words were being dragged from me and I sounded forced even to my own ears. I pressed on anyway, needing to finally get the words out. “I know you don’t like to talk about it. But something happened to me over there. Something good, and I can’t just pretend it was all a dream. Maybe you can, but I can’t, God knows I have been trying. Partially out of respect for your feelings, but mostly for Ashley’s sake, because she deserves a normal, stable life. But I can’t make it any less real. Terlain gave me my daughter. Terlain gave me a lot.” I looked away.

“What was his name?”

“Mark,” I murmured. “His name was Mark.”

“Is he…?”

“No, he’s alive. At least he was when I left.”

“Was it serious?”

“Yes. He was a good person. I hope he still is.”

“I don’t mean to be insensitive, Claire, but what’s this about? Why are you thinking about all of this now?”

“I think about it all the time,” I replied with a trace of bitterness. “I’ve been having these dreams lately. They started a couple of months back. Dreams of Terlain and danger. I think they’re in trouble over there. Or they will be. I know I’m in trouble again….” I trailed off.

“And?”

“Maybe it’s not a coincidence. Maybe someone is trying to tell me something.”

“I think you have an overactive imagination.”

“Me?” I sat back hard against the seat, astounded. “You dig up a relic in another country and go realm hunting and I’m the one with the overactive imagination?”

“Point taken,” he grumbled. “The fact remains, I don’t see how the two can possibly have a connection. The dreams are from stress, Claire. Stress and anxiety over leaving your…Mark. There was no closure.”

“No, there wasn’t,” I agreed wistfully.

“I’m sorry.”

“He wanted me to stay, you know. He was willing to follow me here.” I peeked from beneath the bangs that had fallen into my eyes to gauge his reaction.

“We can’t go back,” he gently reminded me.

“Aries would have come back too. She was waiting for you.”

“Claire—” He exhaled sharply and walked to the window above the sink. I waited. “Don’t think I don’t miss her. Don’t think that I didn’t care about her.”

“What if you could go back? Would you do it? Or would that be a mistake too?” I grilled.

“That would be pointless to think about. What’s done is done.”

“What happened to you over there?”

“It’s done, Claire. We can’t go back. No one can ever go there again. It’s just a story now, as it should be.”

“Right,” I snorted. “And you still haven’t answered the question. What if there was a way that you could go back?”

He turned slowly to pin me with a wary eye. “What are you saying?”

“I’m saying….” I cleared my throat. “I’m saying, maybe there’s a way.”

“There was only one key,” he stated flatly.

“So the story goes.”

“We destroyed both halves of that one key. We burned them to ashes.”

“Yes.”

“Claire.”

“Yes, we destroyed them,” I hedged, hating that I had to lie to him. “I’m simply saying maybe there’s another way in.”

“Well, there isn’t.” He started for the door with purposeful strides.

“Where are you going?”

“To the hardware store. I want to get some alarms for the windows.”

“We have a security system. What do we need with window alarms?”

“You can never be too careful, especially in light of recent developments. I want to stop off and pick up some surveillance equipment too.”

“Cameras.” I nodded. “Now that’s a good idea.”

“Are you picking up Ashley?”

“At nine,” I confirmed.

“I’ll be back before then.”

“Do you need money?”

“No, I got it,” he tossed over his shoulder.

“Thanks.” I winced as the front door shut behind him. “That went well.” I exhaled. Actually, I had to admit, it had gone exceptionally smooth. But I knew my brother enough to know he wasn’t thrilled to think of Terlain and other access points to the land. I thought of the key tucked safely away in my bedroom, and wondered what Mike’s reaction would have been had I told him the whole truth about what really happened to the key. The phrase “worried to death” popped into my head.

There was no need for Mike to worry, though. Not really. My initial reasons for keeping the key hidden at the bottom of a drawer were still valid. I would put my daughter first at all costs. Not to mention she still had three weeks of school left before break. The adoption process had been a grueling ordeal, and it was nothing short of a miracle that we managed to finalize in a matter of months. No way would I do anything to jeopardize that. No, I conceded, the key would stay where it was…for now.

 

Chapter Four

Hunted

 

The thin, shrill cry split the silence of night, jerking me from a sound sleep. Ashley.

“Mom…” she whimpered from across the hall.

I was on my feet and trudging into her room immediately, groggy but steady and coming more awake by the minute. She must have had another nightmare, I realized, taking a deep breath and entering the room slowly so as not to startle the child in her already distressed state.

“Hey, baby doll. Is that you making all the noise in here?” I gently teased.

“I had a bad dream.” Her voice wavered in the dim room, her Dora the Explorer nightlight doing little to banish the deep midnight shadows that clung to the room.

“We’ve got to get you a brighter nightlight,” I muttered, more to myself than Ashley. “I’m turning the big light on, okay?”

“I’ll close my eyes,” she replied, her tiny little voice growing a bit stronger.

“There we go. Goodbye darkness. Now,” I began, moving her small form over and squeezing into the pink ruffled twin bed with her, “do you want to talk about your bad dream?” I steeled myself against the disappointment I knew was coming when she would refuse to discuss the monsters that sometimes ran through her dreams in the night. I was determined not to press her to talk about it if she didn’t want to, but I couldn’t help but feel the sharp sting of disappointment and the feelings of helplessness that went along with that rejection. I was sure that if we could just talk about the dreams, we could make them go away, together. But as I was constantly forced to remind myself, Ashley was her own person. Sometimes she was willing to talk about them, but sometimes she preferred not to drag her fears out into the open. Me forcing her to open up wouldn’t do anyone any good. Tonight, however, was one of those rare nights when she chose to open up a bit.

“I dreamed that Earl was chasing me through the streets and I told him to leave me alone, but he wouldn’t so I ran into the park to hide because he had his knife instead of his gun and I’m really scared of knives,” she blurted in a mad rush, pausing halfway through her account to take a breath.

“Okay.” I nodded, mentally struggling to keep up with the child.

“So I ran into the park to hide because the park has great big giant trees, and I was going to climb up one and get away, but when I got to the park, all the trees were made of water and they were see-through, and I couldn’t climb them because they were all water. So I ran to the playground to hide in the big yellow curly slide, but it was made of water too, everything was. Even the swings,” she finished, turning fearful eyes to me.

“Oh, well see? Swings can’t be made of water.”

“Yeah, and if I touched them they went ‘poof’ and all of the water just fell on the ground. Like a water balloon. Only there was no balloon. Just the water in the shape of the swings and slides.”

“Wow. Well, that proves it then, see? It was definitely just a….” I stopped as the full weight of her words hit me. “Ashley, did you say that Earl had a knife, but not his gun?”

“Earl has a gun under his coat. Like the cowboys on TV.”

“He was wearing it in a holster?”

“Uh-huh,” she nodded. “Can we watch TV in your room? I want to watch SpongeBob.”

I fought to stay calm. “Ash, why didn’t you tell me and your uncle that Earl was wearing his guns last week?”

“No.” She shook her head. “Not last week. He had them on yesterday.”

“Yest-yesterday?” I stammered.

“Yes. He was mad.”

“Mad? Ashley, honey, why didn’t you tell me you saw him yesterday? It’s very important that you tell me these things.”

“But you said not to talk to him and I didn’t.”

“I also said to tell a grown-up right away if you did see him, or if any other stranger tried to talk to you.”

“Oh.”

“What happened yesterday?” I kept my tone light so that she didn’t get scared and clam up.

“He was at school.”

“No one else saw him this time?”

“My teacher talked to him. And the other kids did too. He’s gonna give us ribbons on Friday, but I don’t think he’s gonna give me one because he’s mad at me.”

“Earl was inside your school? Are you sure?”

“Yes. Are you sure he doesn’t know you? He’s really mad. He tried to talk to me when my teacher had to go to the office to answer the phone.”

“Your teacher had a telephone call and Earl was in charge,” I repeated slowly, trying to piece everything together. “She left him in charge of your class?”

“Yes, and he tried to talk to me, but I didn’t talk to him because you told me not to. He got mad. Well, he smiled, but it wasn’t a nice smile. And he leaned forward, and that’s how I saw his guns.”

“What did he want to talk about?” My fingers twisted around the edge of her bed sheet.

“I don’t know, but he said he would see you soon, and he smiled his mean smile again. Then my teacher came back and he left. But he is coming back to school tomorrow. Do I have to go to school tomorrow?”

“Ah. No.” I pressed a hand to my forehead.

“Yay!” She was practically bouncing with excitement.

“Are you sure it was the same man who tried to talk to you by the playground?”

“Yes.”

“And you’re sure that he said his name was Earl?”

“Yes. Can we go watch SpongeBob now? I can stay up late since I don’t have school tomorrow, right?”

“No and no. SpongeBob is not on right now, and it’s already the middle of the night. We will put something nice and boring on the TV. But first I want you to do something for me.”

“What?” She sat up straight.

“I want you,” I rummaged around in her nightstand, “to draw me a picture of Earl.” I produced a box of colored pencils and a writing tablet. “Can you do that?”

“Sure. Then can I watch TV?”

“Then you can watch TV,” I confirmed.

“Okay.”

She made quick work of the rough sketch and glanced up at my sharp intake of breath. “Mama?”

“I…” I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t think, couldn’t focus. For a moment, it was impossible to process what I was trying my best not to see…what I desperately wished I was not seeing. Lance. Officer Jones. Ashley had not drawn Earl at all. She had sketched Lance Jones.

The room spun, and then abruptly cleared. I had to stay focused and remain calm if I was going to be of any use to Ashley, or anyone else for that matter. Besides, the last thing I needed was for Ashley to catch on to the fact that I was borderline terrified and begin to panic. Quite frankly, I was panicked enough for the both of us, and I seriously doubted my ability to calm a panicked child at the moment. If for no other reason than that, I had to keep it together. I knew this. Still, it took no small measure of grace to hold onto my composure and clear my head in order to think clearly and rationally.

“Ashley, are you sure this is who you saw?”

“Yes,” she responded slowly, confused.

“And you’re sure he told you that his name is Earl?”

“Yes. Why?”

“No reason, sweetie,” I replied brightly, hoping for a nonchalant tone of voice, my mind racing.

“Listen, I need to make some calls in the kitchen. Why don’t you wait here for a minute?”

“But—” she began to protest.

“You can leave the light on. Here, I’ll put on your TV too, okay? I’ll be back in one sec.”

“I guess.” She still didn’t look convinced, but apparently decided not to question it further. I walked calmly into the hallway before my nerves got the best of me and I bolted into the kitchen. Who to call first? I stared at the phone, contemplating the deceptively mundane decision. It wasn’t a mundane no-brainer at all. Who I called first would set the tone for how I handled the situation and ultimately, for how it played out. I had to choose wisely, because something about the situation didn’t add up.

The police, I decided, reaching for the wall phone before stopping to reconsider that move. Was calling the police on a cop, on a decorated lieutenant, a wise move? No, I decided. I could not take the chance of calling the Seattle police department. I could call another police department or the state police.

I could even try calling the FBI, although admittedly, I hadn’t the first clue of how to actually contact the FBI. I was pretty sure they weren’t listed in the yellow pages. Either way, I had a feeling that calling the Seattle police department would only put us in more danger. I would start with a phone call to Mike. Tell him to get his ass over here, I decided. I punched in number three on the speed dial and drummed my fingers on the wall next to the phone.

“Come on, Mike, answer the phone,” I muttered.

“Claire?” he mumbled groggily on the fifth ring.

I paused at the sudden click and dead silence that filled the line. “Mike?” I pressed the buttons on the phone, hung it up, and quickly snatched it back up. Nothing. No dial tone buzzed in my ear. Silence. I shivered. The line had been cut. I whirled around and scanned the kitchen. The blinds were closed, the curtains drawn tight. The kitchen was dark. I had not bothered with the light on my mad dash to the phone.

There was a phone in the den. My cellular phone was in the drawer of my nightstand. It seemed an odd coincidence that my phone went dead right as I was trying to call for help. And I didn’t much believe in coincidence.

The line had been cut and I knew it. The timing strongly indicated that whoever cut the phone line was watching and knew that I was attempting to use the telephone. But how could anyone have seen me try to use the phone? And why now? Why cut the lines right this minute? Unless…I hung my head and bit back a curse. Unless they weren’t watching. What if they were listening? It made perfect sense. Ashley’s dream, her drawing, me running down the hallway in the middle of the night. They had heard the entire thing. No, not they. Officer Lance Jones. It was the most plausible explanation.

But how? I thought back to the night he’d been here with his partner, the night he took our statements, and walked through the house to make sure we were safe. I snorted. He must have planted the bugs that night. I looked around sharply and hoped like hell that bugs were the only thing he had planted in my house. I had not seen any video surveillance cameras besides my own. Although, some of them were so tiny, but no, I reasoned.

He hadn’t had time to set up video surveillance. And even if he had somehow managed to bypass my security system and reenter the house at some point, I would have known about it. The private monitoring company for the system always called the owner and mailed out a form whenever the alarm signaled or the service was interrupted, tampered with, that sort of thing. So I was ninety-nine percent sure that there were no video cameras tucked away to carefully record our every move.

I took a deep breath and considered my next move. I had to get Ashley and get out of the house.

Priority number one. The rest could be dealt with later. I thought about the best way to get out safely and came up woefully short. Although my first instinct was to grab Ashley and get in the car, I rejected the idea immediately. It was probably the worst thing that I could do. Lance Jones, not to mention whoever else was waiting out there with him, would be expecting that. I felt it was pretty safe to assume the men who waited outside had guns. No, I could not risk either one of us getting shot.

I shivered again and tried to think fast. The bugs would probably pick up any sound I made. I didn’t even know where they had been placed. Hopelessness washed over me in sickening waves and I gripped the doorframe with white knuckles. We were not going to die tonight. We were not trapped in the house.

There was always a way out. Think, Claire, I silently commanded. Step one, get Ashley and gather some supplies. Quickly. I knew that we probably had no more than ten minutes before they came in after us.

Fifteen if they waited for Mike to show up and took care of him first, because he would surely be panicking and on his way by now. I had to get out of the house. I had to warn him.

I flipped the kitchen light on and went back to Ashley’s room.

“Hey, peanut. You know what? How would you like a quick snack? Then we can drive over to your uncle Mike’s house or Grandma and Grandpa’s. Would you like that?” I smiled and very quietly knelt down to pull her sketch pad toward me.

“Mom?”

I held a finger to my lips and motioned for her to be quiet while I wrote a quick message on the pad.

“Would you like that?”

“Okay….” She squinted to read the message on the pad.

There are men waiting outside. Don’t cry. Don’t make a sound. Please. We are going to my bedroom. We have to be very quiet.

Her eyes widened, but she made no sound. Bless her, she caught on quick.

The bad men? She scribbled.

Yes. But we won’t let them hurt us. I promise. Let’s go.

What?

Go to my room. Put my gun and bullets in my bag that’s in the nightstand. And our shoes. And one sweater. But don’t make any noise. Can you do that for me?

Yes.

Good. Let’s go now. Hurry.

She nodded, slipped off of her bed, and quietly down the hall. I forced myself to walk casually down the hall to the kitchen while Ashley went the other way and slipped into my bedroom without a hint of sound. Normally, the thought of my first-grader handling a loaded gun would have been enough to have me breaking out in hives, yet tonight it was wholly necessary for her to do so. I needed to create a diversion in the kitchen…bang pots and pans around and move about as if I were fixing a snack. Ashley was not tall enough to trade places with me. The lights would cast a silhouette in the window. If I wasn’t in the kitchen, the entire plan would be thrown off. We would have precious little time once everything was packed. The man—rather, the men—outside would make their move, either before we left or as soon as Mike showed up. They couldn’t afford not to.

Mike. I stopped suddenly and it hit me that I still had to get a message to Mike. I was loathe to use a cell phone…the call would be heard. But I could send a text message. I walked calmly to the bedroom and slipped my cell phone out of the bag, pausing to give Ashley a quick thumbs up and a reassuring smile before returning to the kitchen.

Don’t come after us. We are leaving tonight. I need to see him again. Under the light of the Sycamores. I hit send and slipped the phone into my pocket, hoping my brother would be able to decipher the message. It was all I could do. The last thing I needed was for anyone to think that Mike knew what I knew. He would become just as much of a target as Ashley and I were. Of course, I reminded myself grimly, that was assuming we all managed to live through the night.

The clock on the wall stuck three. The witching hour, how appropriate. And oddly enough, reassuring in its own way. Mike would have been knocking on the door already if he were coming, which meant he had understood my text message. One hurdle down, I breathed. Getting out of the house was another matter entirely, and it mostly depended on sheer luck. I was not comforted by the knowledge.

Closing my eyes, I began to count. One, two, three, four, five… The lights went out. Dead silence filled the house…no whir of a ceiling fan, no hum of a refrigerator. It was time.

“Oh, that damn breaker again,” I cursed loudly. “Stay here, Ashley; I’m going to the basement to fix it.”

I darted into the hallway and burst into the bedroom, surprising Ashley. Shh, I motioned and quietly locked the bedroom door. Sliding the dresser in front of it felt like a nerve-wracking waste of time that we didn’t have, but it was necessary. We needed every advantage we could create for ourselves. I knew that the security system would be the next thing to be disarmed. The police would be notified within minutes when the security company failed to get me on the telephone. I quickly turned off my cell phone and slipped it into the bag, then took out the gun and twisted the silencer onto it. They would be fast. We had to be faster. And very, very quiet.

The front door opened a second before the basement window shattered; the sound was muffled by the neighbor’s dog barking next door. You would think the dog would have reassured us…that Fido’s canine antics would alert the entire neighborhood to our plight. The big, burly guy on the corner would come rushing over with his double barrel shotgun and save the day.

I wished. In truth, the dog next door wasn’t named Fido. His name was Muffin and he was a five-pound Chihuahua mix. He also had a tendency to bark all night long. No one would pay the least bit of attention to Muffin’s shrill alarm. After a while, it was barely noticeable. And my neighbor on the corner wasn’t burly, although he was pretty tall. But he worked the graveyard shift; and anyway, I was reasonably sure that he didn’t own a sawed off shotgun. In short, we were screwed.

“Mom?” Ashley whispered brokenly.

“It’s okay, honey. Stay close to me.” The window opened in one swift and smooth movement. Ditto for the screen. I poked my head out and saw nothing on either side of the house. Could it be so easy? I wondered. “One way to find out.”

“What?”

“Nothing. Me first, okay? Climb up here and get ready to follow.”

Luck was on our side that night. We were out the window and carefully concealed among Mrs. Flores’s evergreens a full minute before three men crashed into my bedroom cursing and muttering.

Ashley shrank deeper into the shadows, but did not utter a sound. I motioned for her to stay silent one more time, and then slid backward until we hit the gate that led to Mrs. Flores’s back yard. Tall shrubs rimmed the fenced-in space. We would be completely hidden from view back there.

I carried Ashley to the edge of the yard and cut across the alley to Ridgeway Avenue. From there we stayed in the shadows and made our way six blocks over into one of the older neighborhoods of Seattle…a large cul de sac that was eerily quiet, especially at such a late hour; or at such an early hour. I supposed it depended on whether you were a night person or a morning person. Now, me personally—

“Mom?”

“Sorry, here we are, peanut.”

“Here? Why?”

“Because your uncle Mike is going to pick us up right here.”

“How do you know? I don’t see him.”

“When I grabbed my cell phone, I sent your uncle a text message. A secret message to tell him to pick us up right here in this very spot.”

“Why this spot?”

“Because this is far enough away from the bad men, but still close enough for us to get to in a hurry.”

“Are the bad men gonna come looking for us?” She sounded six years old right then, and scared. I knelt down to hug her close.

“The bad men don’t know that we’re here.” I shivered and looked around, wondering where the hell my brother was, and what could have been taking him so long. Had I been too vague?

“Look, Mama! There’s Uncle Mike’s truck!”

Sure enough, Mike was turning the corner and speeding toward us. I breathed a sigh of relief as the Land Rover skidded to a stop in front of us. I strapped Ashley into the back passenger seat before hopping into the front next to Mike.

“I was afraid you hadn’t gotten my message, or that you hadn’t understood what I was trying to tell you.”

“Message received loud and clear. Under the Sycamores. The corner of Syracuse and Ridgemont.”

“Ted Matherson,” I confirmed.

“Nineteen-eighty-seven.” He nodded. “It took me a minute, but I was pretty sure that’s where you wanted me to go. The question is, where are we going now?”

“Back to your apartment,” I sighed, and scrubbed a hand over my face.

“Mom, who is Ted Masserton?”

“Matherson. He was a boy I had a crush on in junior high. We were going to meet one night at that corner back there. The corner of Syracuse and Ridgemont. When I was little, I called that street Sycamore because I couldn’t say Syracuse.”

“The name stuck and our family has always called that street Sycamore instead of Syracuse,” Mike put in.

“At the time it was cute.” I shrugged.

“What happened to Ted?” Ashley wanted to know.

“He never showed up, so we never ran away together.” I smiled at the memory.

“And she was heartbroken.”

“That’s enough, Mike.”

“So. You want to tell me what that was all about?”

“Who knows? I was fourteen.”

“I meant tonight. You call. You hang up on me, then send me a cryptic message and show up on foot. Are you guys okay?”

“More or less.” I rubbed my temple.

“He came after you, didn’t he?”

“Earl? No. Not that I saw, at least. Ashley woke up around two in the morning.”

“I had a bad dream,” she piped from the back seat.

“Right. She had a dream about the man who showed up at her school and told her that he knows me.”

“Earl,” Mike nodded, and turned left onto Sepulveda Avenue.

“No.” My voice was quiet. “Not Earl. I asked her to draw a picture of the man who told her his name is Earl. She drew a picture of Officer Jones instead.”

“Shit,” Mike swore.

“That’s a bad word,” Ashley chastised.

“You’re right. I’m sorry.”

“He showed up today at her school. As the D.A.R.E officer for her class.”

“Jesus Christ.”

“Mom, is that a bad word? Because it kind of sounded like it. But I don’t know that one.”

“Mike,” I warned.

“Sorry.”

“I think he bugged my house, because after I tried to call you, my phone lines were cut. A few minutes later, we lost power. They disarmed the security system after that.”

“They?” Mike’s hands tightened on the steering wheel.

“Don’t creeps always travel in packs? We were ready for them. I suspected what was going on as soon as the phone line was cut. We staged a diversion and escaped out my bedroom window as they were coming in. We hid in the neighbors hedges long enough to see three men burst into the bedroom. I don’t know what happened after that, but I imagine they left shortly after. The security company would have notified the police when they couldn’t get ahold of me. I imagine Officer Jones and his cohorts would have known that. Anyway, we slipped into Mrs. Flores’s backyard, through the alley, and headed straight to Sycamore.”

“Were you followed?”

“I don’t think so.” I bit my lip. “No, I’m certain we weren’t. If we had been followed, we wouldn’t be here right now.”

“You think that’s what they were there to do?”

“Who else goes to the trouble to break in during the middle of the night?”

“Unless….”

“Unless?”

“What if they wanted something else?”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know.” Mike shook his head and frowned thoughtfully. “But I find the timing to be strange. If they were listening to you, and chose the exact moment when they knew their cover was blown…”

“I see what you mean.”

“So what did they want?”

“I don’t know.” The denial hung in the air between us, because suddenly I did know. “Oh no,” I breathed.

“Claire?”

“I think I know what they may have wanted.”

“And?”

“Don’t get mad,” I warned.

“Wha-oh no. No.” Mike shook his head. “I know that look. Damn it, Claire. That’s why you were asking so many questions about Terlain, wasn’t it?”

“Well…”

“Tell me I’m wrong. Please, tell me I’ve got this all wrong, Claire. We destroyed those keys. We burned them last year. I still have the ashes. They’re gone. Right?”

“Yours is gone.”

“And yours?”

“No.” I swallowed hard. “Mine is not gone.”

“How? I saw you toss your half of the key into the fire.”

“No, you saw me toss a carefully crafted copy of the key into the fire. I had a metal worker a couple of towns over make a copy as soon as we got back. After you said we had to destroy the key.”

“Well, that explains how Jones knew you had the key.”

“I know. I just thought of that. John was probably still having me followed.”

“Right.”

“Damn it.”

“You left the key, didn’t you? It’s still in your house, isn’t it?”

“Yep.” I let my head fall back against the seat.

“That’s two more bad words,” Ashley announced. I glared at Mike.

“Mama, is this what you’re looking for?”

“No, it’s something I left at the house,” I responded automatically as I leaned back to see what she was holding out. “Oh my God.”

“What?” Mike glanced my way.

“That’s it. The key.” I took the ornate half circle from Ashley. “How did you know where this was? How did you know to pack this?”

“I found it in a drawer under a bunch of stuff. It was glowing so I took it. Is it important? Can I keep it?”

“Glowing?”

“Are you sure, sweetie? It was glowing?”

“Yep. That’s how come I saw it. The drawer was glowing. It was so bright.”

“Did yours ever glow?” I turned questioning eyes to my brother.

“No. What does that mean?”

“I don’t know. Maybe…”

“Claire, don’t even think it. Tell me you’re not thinking of going back there.”

“What else could that mean?”

“I don’t know. But not that.”

“Maybe it means exactly that.” I sat up straight, my mind racing.

“And maybe it doesn’t.”

“Well, the fact is Ashley and I aren’t safe here.”

“You think you’ll be any safer there?” Mike was incredulous.

“At least I know who not to trust over there.” I twisted around in my seat to face him. “Mike, one of the men with Officer Jones was Grant Hillson. I didn’t recognize the other man.”

“Grant Hillson? Are you sure?”

“Yes. The new chief. How far up does this go? And why were they after us? For this key? Do they even know what it is, what it means? Are they simply John’s hit men? Why?”

“I don’t know. Damn, I’m getting sick of saying that.”

“Me too. So who do we call? Where do we go? How am I supposed to make sure we’re safe here?” I demanded in frustration.

“We’ll call another department. We’ll go higher up.”

“And how do we know they haven’t been bought too?”

“Fine,” Mike bit out. “But I’m going with you.”

“To Terlain? No, I need you here. I need you to figure out what’s going on.”

“And you and Ashley need to disappear for a while?”

“Exactly.” We pulled into the parking lot of Mike’s apartment.

“What are you going to do?”

“We’re going to catch a flight this morning. Or pay someone with a plane to take us. I have some cash, our passports. Credit cards.”

“They’ll be able to trace the cards and the flight.”

“They will probably figure out where we are going soon enough anyway. We’ve got a head start. And I know the way. We can stay a step or two ahead of them. Once we’re there, I can find people who will protect us.”

“What about the guards? They know where the entrance port is now. You’ll be ambushed this time.”

“It’s been over a year. It won’t be heavily guarded by now. And if it is…” I trailed off and patted the bag that held my gun.

“Are you sure about this?”

“Yes. See what you can do about the mess here, okay? But don’t let them know you know anything. Tell them you got a message from me that made no sense, and that when you woke up, your car was gone. Tell them I stole your car. File a report if you have to.”

“Okay. When are you coming back?”

“Three months. That’s when Ashley is supposed to start school again.”

“Well, that’s one hell of a summer vacation.”

“Tell me about it.” I sighed. We were going back to Terlain.

 

Chapter Five

No Ordinary Voyage

 

Traveling with a child was never an easy task, or so I’d always been told. By the end of the next day, I felt that I could safely confirm that particular statement. I could not imagine what some parents went through, for I knew that Ashley was a good little traveler and mature beyond her years.

Even so, getting us to Africa was no easy feat, I reflected later the next day. Our encounter with Officer Jones and his men the night before was a shock that was hard to overcome. Although to my way of thinking, the events of the previous night really shouldn’t have come as a surprise. I was getting used to being the hunted. But one look at my daughter reminded me that I had to stay strong. There was always a way out and I made a silent promise to her that I would find that way. The decision to take her back to Terlain was not one that was made lightly, even if I had felt—for a long time anyway—that Terlain was where I wanted to be. And it seemed that every step I took tied me to that strange place even more, invisible silken threads that twisted and turned and pulled until the moment was upon me. That it had all led to this moment. To Terlain.

Yet the logical part of my brain insisted it had been sheer luck that we’d escaped with our lives the first time around. I briefly wondered if we were crazy for going back. What’s done is done, I reminded myself as I watched Ashley sleep in our hotel room. We had arrived in Zaire only hours before, thrust into the middle of heat and light and the dust.

I was still counting my lucky stars that we had managed to escape the previous night with—for the most part—everything we needed. I considered us extremely fortunate to have not only my purse and our passports, but also cash, credit cards, and a weapon. Truth be told, I was doubly thankful for the weapon.

We had driven early into the morning, arriving at the congested, overcrowded airport just after daybreak. Our good fortune had further held when I’d found a private pilot, albeit a shady-looking one who appeared to be in his mid-forties and wore darkly tinted glasses, and arranged for him to fly us to Zaire. The rate was reasonable and he had not asked too many questions. I’d found him skulking around the outskirts of the airport, schlepping his pilot services for cash, and I had the feeling that he wouldn’t have welcomed prying questions any more than I would have at that particular moment. No matter. It was what I had been hoping for all through the long, desperate night, and was probably the best option that we’d had available to us. I hadn’t wanted the hassle that would have gone hand-in-hand with a commercial flight, not to mention booking a flight with the airline would have left a paper trail.

A record of our activities was the last thing I wanted to leave behind. Although it was inevitable that we would eventually be tracked, it was always best not to blatantly invite trouble. Plus, we would need all the time we could get. In situations like this, every second truly counts, I thought with a hint of dread, remembering my first trip to Zaire, and the terrifying trek to the Cave of Shadows. I had been followed that night, deep into the cave, by John’s hired guns. The fact that people had been sent to kill me, had been paid to literally snuff out my life, still weighed heavily on my mind at times. I figured it to be a pretty normal reaction, though, all things considered. Who wouldn’t be a little on edge after something like that?

One of the many men who had been sent to trail me that night had caught up with me during the last leg of my journey, in the two-mile long tunnel that was too narrow to stand in. I remember crawling the duration of the confined space with fear and uncertainty dogging my every move. I was grabbed as soon as I had entered the chamber that housed the carvings and the hidden portal. John’s men could have nabbed me at any time that night, but following strict orders, they had waited and stalked and watched, holding off until I had led them to the cave and its elusive inner chamber. At that point, I was of no use to John Hanlen if I were dead. At least not before I had led him to the portal to Terlain and he had taken what he wanted from me. That would not be the case this time around, I reminded myself, resigned to the unfortunate fact. John was serving a prison sentence that meant he would likely live out at least the next twenty years of his life in a jail cell behind a set of thick steel bars. Terlain and its riches held no real value for him, not anymore. Sure it was always a possibility that one of his hired killers would have heard of the legend and realized the significance of our location, of what we had in our possession, but I was forced to admit that the scenario was highly unlikely. A more probable outcome would be something along the lines of me and Ashley taking a bullet behind the ear should we allow ourselves to be tracked and cornered. Maybe the key would even be hocked at some pawn shop for the equivalent of a new television and a case of beer, maybe a gold watch or a set of cuff links. Most likely, the man, or men, sent to do us in this time would have only been given the traditional fifty percent of their pay up front and one very simple set of instructions; kill us both and dispose of our bodies, which wouldn’t be all that hard to do in the African wilderness. We couldn’t afford to let anyone get close enough to get a shot at us. Period.

Even though it was unlikely, I knew that had we taken a flight through the airline, Lance Jones and the others who were after us could have traced us in a matter of minutes and been waiting when the plane touched down at Zaire International. We would have been cornered and defenseless.

Finding a hotel had been a cakewalk as well. I used a fake name and even paid in cash for good measure. We checked in at three twenty-five in the afternoon, and even as Ashley had protested being forced to take a nap, her eyes were closing. I knew the signs; she was on the verge of exhaustion and fighting it to the bitter end. I was near collapse myself, but didn’t dare close my eyes and go to sleep. The journey ahead of us would be long and physically taxing. I also knew that at some point Ashley would have questions about the night before and if I knew my daughter at all, I was banking on having to answer those questions sooner rather than later.

I drew the curtains tight against the window and gazed down at her sleeping form, long lashes resting against her heart-shaped face, her mouth curled into a tiny crescent-shaped bow. So peaceful; so still and not a care in the world. It was soothing to see her like that. And then I thought about how she had looked the previous night, and a sigh broke free at the memory of the fear and shadows that had played in her wide dark eyes. She had reacted swiftly, doing everything I’d asked of her. And while it was true that she wasn’t the average child, I knew her well enough to know that she had been terrified.

I stroked baby soft dark hair away from the smooth skin of her forehead and for the tenth time that day, wished like hell I didn’t have to take her on this journey with me. But there was no choice. Leaving her behind was definitely out of the question. She was not safe. For that matter, neither was I. I knew that, had accepted it even, but somehow, it still didn’t make it any easier. You see, survival was a way of life to Ashley. One that I had hoped to change for her.

“What’s past is past,” I muttered with a shake of my head, vowing not to dwell on things that I knew I didn’t have a shot in hell of doing anything about. At least, not right then. More importantly, there were other things, more pressing matters, that required my immediate attention, things that I actually had some control over, no matter how minuscule and fragile that control may have been.

As usual, there was little else to do but pick up the pieces and move on. I stretched and smothered a yawn, all the while wishing I could lie down and get some rest. The double bed looked both warm and inviting. I stood up and crossed to the small sink that sat at the edge of our room and made a fresh pot of coffee instead. We were set to leave that evening, and a quick glance at the wall clock told me there was a little over an hour left before I had to wake Ashley. We would take time to eat a quick dinner somewhere, but after that we would have to be on our way, I acknowledged with a sense of foreboding. Night would have fallen by then and we had a long way to travel.

Despite the fact that I still remembered the way to the Cave of Shadows, it was still long, hard travel over increasingly rough terrain. Ashley was only six years old. I couldn’t very well expect her to make the entire fifteen-mile journey on foot. It was a sad fact, but she would have to be carried most of the way.

Once we reached the cave…well, I was trying not to think about that.

***

We left the hotel at eight o’clock on the dot. I glanced around the lobby of the average, middle-of-the-line type of place we had chosen as our resting and regrouping spot, disheartened. I don’t know what I had been expecting to see. A sign? A familiar face? Anything that would have eased my frazzled nerves and served as some small form of reassurance that I was doing the right thing, that I wasn’t on the verge of making a terrible mistake.

There’s no going back, I reminded myself for what had to be the tenth time that evening. Ashley was looking well-rested and totally adorable in the new outfit we had chosen and purchased upon our arrival in the country. She was decked out in mini hiking boots, a pair of tan cargo pants, and a lightweight coarse pale green canvas top. I was not sure if baby explorer would ever become the new haute couture, but she was still quite the sight to see in her new travel gear and snappy ponytail.

“Are you ready to go?” I asked as gently as was possible.

“Yes,” she nodded, ever my brave little soldier. “Where are we going?”

“I told you, love, we’re going on a very long walk to a very special place.”

“I know. That’s what you said earlier. But why are we waiting until it’s dark outside? I thought you always said it wasn’t safe to take a walk in the dark. That we only take walks in the daytime.” Her lower lip stuck out and it was obvious she was trying not to pout.

I sighed and placed a hand on her tiny shoulder, trying hard to think of something comforting to say. I gave her what I hoped would be seen as a reassuring smile, hugging her close as we walked out the door.

“That’s right, Ash, Mommy did say that. And usually it is better to wait for the daylight to take a walk, especially a long walk like the one we are about to take, but I promise you we’re going to be perfectly safe. Do you trust me?”

“Yes.”

“Good because I don’t want you to worry. I am going to take care of everything. We are going to be fine. You’re safe now and you always will be.” I led her firmly from the room, not wanting to risk discussing our plans in the middle of the hotel lobby, even deserted as it was at such a late hour. Although I had not seen Jones, his men, or any other suspicious-looking people lurking about, and even though I was reasonably certain we had not been followed, I was still on edge and chose to err on the side of caution. I kept a watchful eye on our surroundings as we moved farther away from lights and civilization, each and every step taking us deeper into the shadowy, sketchy, predatory world that made up the wilderness at night.

We had walked a little over a mile when Ashley’s steps began to slow. Her thin shoulders drooped and I could tell that the poor thing was getting tired. I could only imagine what she must have been feeling.

The heat was not as intense as it would have been in the bright, sweltering light of day, but we weren’t accustomed to the significantly warmer climate and had a long way yet to go.

“Would you like to sit down for a minute?” I asked, halting our travel.

“Yes. Can I have some water?”

“Of course.” I set my pack on the ground and plunked her down on top of it, uncapped one of the bottles I had packed for our journey, and handed it to her. It was not only hot, but muggy and humid outside, and she drank nearly half of the bottle in three enormous gulps.

“I’m sorry I drank so much.” She was embarrassed.

“That’s okay. We have plenty of water. Trust me when I say we’re in no danger of running out anytime soon. Besides, we should get where we are going a lot faster than that,” I assured.

“Where are we going?”

“Well,” I took a deep breath. “We are going to a place called the Cave of Shadows.”

“It sounds scary.”

“Yes, perhaps it does,” I agreed. “The Cave of Shadows is a very old place. Ancient, really. It is documented to be over five hundred years old. Do you know how old that is, Ashley?”

“Older than Grandma?” She was awed.

I couldn’t stop the sudden spurt of laughter that escaped at her response. “Well, I don’t know about ‘older than Grandma,’” I joked. “But to answer your question truthfully, yes. Five hundred years old is definitely older than Grandma. There’s a very interesting story about the Cave of Shadows. Would you like to hear it?”

“Okay,” she nodded eagerly.

“Should I use the flashlight?” I switched the hand-held device on and held it under my chin the way I had seen her do with her friends when they told ghost stories before bed. “Five hundred years ago, an ancient high priest had a vision. And based on his vision, his dreams, really, the tribe’s elders forged a very special key. To this day, how they did it remains a mystery. But the fact is that the key was forged—created. They soon found that it led to a very magical place.”

“The place from the man’s dreams?”

“That’s right.” I nodded approvingly. “You catch on quick. Yes, the key led to the very place that the priest had seen in his vision. It was a magical place, full of strange and wonderful things. And although not all of them were good, there were wonders in this land beyond what anyone could ever have imagined.”

“So what happened to the priest?”

“No one knows. But at least one of them returned from the strange land and passed through the Cave of Shadows. And for five hundred hears, the story of the priest’s vision remained just that, a story. A legend really.”

“A legend is an old story, right?”

“More or less,” I acknowledged, impressed anew with her razor-sharp mind. “Anyway, the priest returned, and soon after they decided it was wrong of them to make special keys to special lands. So they buried the key deep in the earth.”

“Why was it wrong?” she asked with innocence that only a child could possess.

“Well now, that’s a hard question without a simple answer. Maybe it’s because they were afraid of change. Or maybe some people have a natural tendency to fear the unknown. Maybe it went against the religious code of the time. Heck, maybe they thought it just wasn’t a normal thing to do and that it would have scared people—and they would have probably been right in that assumption. But whatever their reasoning, the outcome remained the same. They buried the key, and for nearly five hundred years to the day, it remained hidden. Until the day your uncle Mike found it.”

“Did he find it at his job?”

“Yes. As a matter of fact, he did find it at his job. He was out on a site digging for his job. He was trying to find ancient artifacts for the museum so that scientists could study them and learn all they could from them, and so that people like you and me could come to the museum and learn about them as well. Artifacts from long ago people are very important pieces of our history, and we should learn all that we can from the special ones that are found.”

“Things that long ago people leave behind,” she helpfully supplied.

“Right. Things that the ancient people left behind. And that is when he found the key. Well, your uncle Mike, being the history buff that he is, remembered the story of the legend. He remembered hearing the story of the priest with the visions who had forged the key. So he read and he studied and he vowed to find the magical land. And do you know what? He did.”

“Did he go to it?”

“Yes, he did go to it. He passed through the Cave of Shadows and into the other land.” I swallowed past the lump in my throat. “He didn’t tell anyone where he was going, though, and I became very worried. So I found his books and papers and I figured out where he was going. I went there to try to find him,” I explained.

“You went to the magical land?” Ashley was awestruck.

“You bet. I did go to the magical land. And the most wonderful thing ever happened while I was there. Do you remember what that thing was?” I paused, peering through the darkness, trying to catch a better glimpse of her face in order to gauge her reaction. From what I would see, she looked confused. “I found you, Ashley,” I said quietly. “You came from the magic place. Do you remember that?”

“I really came from the magic place?”

“You most certainly did. And that is how I know it’s magical.”

“I don’t like the magic land.” Ashley hunkered down and whispered after a lengthy silence, drawing her knees to her chest and wrapping her arms around her legs.

“You remember it then?” I pressed on.

“A little.” The admission was followed by more silence.

“I see. You know…it’s not something that you and I ever talk about. But I would like to.”

“I didn’t know that the magic land is where I came from.”

“You did come from there, sweetheart. In fact, I’m pretty sure you were born there. You don’t remember anything about those days?” I queried, studying her face in the dim glow cast by the flashlight and a spattering of stars high above our heads.

She merely shrugged in response. I kept trying. “Do you remember anything at all about the magic place?”

“No, just the bad men,” she confided in a hushed tone.

“Like the bad men who came after us last night?”

“Yes, I guess so. But these bad men were different. They all wore the same clothes.”

“Uniforms.”

“They all had a funny drawing on the clothes. Right here.” She pointed to her right shoulder. “It was dark yellow and looked like a bunch of curly q’s and circles. I think.” She frowned. “Well, maybe I can’t remember.”

The Mark of Kahn. The mark of evil. I shivered in the thin night air. “Ashley, did the bad men ever hurt you? The bad men in the magic place.”

“No, not me.”

“Your mom and dad, then?”

“I guess my old mom and dad. I don’t really remember. I just remember the mean people.”

“You mean the men with the uniforms? The guards?”

“No, the mean people were friends with the bad people. They took me to them when I was little.

Well, I’m little now. But when I was really little.”

I cocked my head to the side and regarded her thoughtfully. It was the first time she had spoken of the “mean people,” whoever they had been. The people who ran the orphanage? I wondered. It was hard to say and doubtful I would ever find out for sure one way or the other, but it didn’t hurt to try.

“Ash, who were the mean people?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well…was it a woman and a man? Or a group of men?”

“A man and a lady. The bad men took me to them so they could take care of me.”

“What happened?” I leaned forward on the hard-packed ground, the flashlight forgotten as it hung limply from my fingers, brushing against my leg and plunging us into deeper shadow.

“They didn’t like me. They said I was bad,” she whispered.

“Was that who hurt you?”

“Yes. I had to sleep downstairs if I was bad. Or outside. I liked sleeping outside best because of my friend.”

“Friend?” I sat up, alarmed. “Was there another child with you?”

“No, a dog.”

“Oh.”

“I left the mean people and walked a long time. But I just remember it was dark. Then I saw you. Now you’re my mama.”

“Yes, I am.” I sniffed, raw emotion threatening to take over. “And I’m going to take very good care of you. Forever and always. You got that?”

“Okay, but why are we going to the magic place with the bad men if we are trying to get away from bad men?”

“Well…” I trailed off, struggling with the question. “I guess all I can say is…we’re going there because it can also be a safe place. There are some very important people there. Some very good people who can keep us safe and help us get rid of the bad men,” I explained.

“I’m still scared,” she admitted, not looking reassured in the least by my explanation and logic.

“I know you are, sweetie. Look at it this way. The magic place is just like anywhere else. There are good people and bad people.”

“And we’re gonna find the good people?”

“Yes.” I nodded and smiled for the first time that night, truly starting to believe that.

***

The remainder of our travel was smooth and blessedly uneventful. It was also remarkably fast. I alternated between carrying Ashley and letting her walk for the first five miles of the trip. The remaining ten miles was another story altogether. I chose to carry her piggy-back style since the ground was so hard and uneven, with roots jutting here and there. I didn’t feel that it was a good idea to let her try and navigate the rough terrain; she didn’t seem to mind the decision and merely clung quietly to my shoulders till we reached the cave. It loomed black and imposing in the distance and I forced myself to breathe normally as we came upon it.

I took the entrance that lay to the right, stopping to explain that the rest of the journey would be through the cave. That no matter what happened, we had to keep going. It was every bit as dismal and dank as I remembered it. But if nothing else, the trek through the cave went twice as fast as it had the first time around, and thank God for that. The thick spider webs that I had not been able to get out of my head for a year and a half still hung from the ceilings like a bad Halloween prop. Ashley paused and gasped upon seeing them, then promptly hid behind my legs. She had flatly refused to take another step, and it had taken a good five minutes for me to convince her that there were no giant spiders lurking about. I finally reminded her that should we happen to encounter any spiders, I still had my gun.

“So if we see a big spider, you can shoot it?” Her voice was tiny yet echoing in the cavernous space.

“That’s right.” I nodded, and we moved deeper into the cave. We reached the fork in the cave in under an hour, crouching down to fit through the small doorway that led to the long tunnel. It was the last leg of our journey, and the one most likely to cause us the greatest amount of discomfort. The passage was so low and narrow that the only way to pass through it was to crawl the two miles on all fours. I took the short length of nylon rope I had stowed in our pack and used it to fashion a tether that went from Ashley’s wrist to my ankle. She still had plenty of room to crawl freely behind me, yet would still be securely attached to me at all times.

Two hours later, we crawled through the opening and into the mountainous chamber that stood at the end of the tunnel. The doorway was directly in front of us, a simple hole surrounded by etchings. I felt the chill creep across my skin as I deftly steered Ashley around the crimson stain on the floor and approached the back wall of the cave. I closed my eyes and ran my fingers over the warning that was etched into the stone.

Long, harsh-looking lines had been carved into the rock in a circle formation. The carvings were so deep it looked as though the rock had been viciously slashed over and over again. A chill crept across my skin, refusing to be held at bay. There was a deep gash in the smooth center of the carving. Above that was a tiny picture. Someone had carved what looked to be a picture of a rudimentary, unadorned coffin.

There was a single long straight line above the coffin and a sun several inches above that. A representation of the ground, I assumed. A spiral cut through the line and into the coffin.

With a final glace around the rest of the cave, I took a deep breath and pulled the key from my bag.

Ashley stood close by, her eyes widening as she took in our less than homey surroundings. “Mom, what are all those lines and drawings all over the walls?”

“I don’t know,” I responded semi-truthfully. “I never did figure that out. Ancient writings of some sort, to be sure. As for what it says, I wish I knew. Okay, Ashley, I’m going to put this key in that lock and it’s going to take us to the magical land.”

I picked her up and settled her securely on my hip, instructing her to hold on tight. In one hand was the key; in the other, the gun was loaded and at the ready.

“Mama, are you scared?” Her face was pressed tight against my throat.

“No, of course not,” I immediately lied. There was no way I could have ever admitted to her that we were about to be transported and dumped into an unprotected area of Terlain. No way to tell her there might be guards waiting for us in that forest. Though, honestly, enough time had passed, I didn’t think they would be waiting for us. Still, I tightened my grip on the gun, took a deep breath, pressed the key into the stone, and turned.

The darkness engulfed us.

 

Chapter Six

Broken

 

We were on the forest floor. Much like the first time I had crossed the portal, I hadn’t a clue as to how much time had elapsed. And just like the time before, there was no way to know what waited to greet us in the woods. It was a disconcerting feeling to say the least.

“Ashley?” I whispered, attempting to gently rouse the child. She lay next to me on a blanket of pine needles, her tiny hand still clutching mine. Thick, dark lashes were motionless against her baby soft cheek.

“Ashley, you have to wake up now,” I continued to whisper, unwilling to disturb the relative silence of the forest that surrounded us. There was no breeze here. The tall trees with their golden leaves effectively blocked out both light and wind.

“Mama?”

“Yes, I’m here. Are you feeling okay?”

“I feel strange.”

“Strange how?” I asked, instantly alarmed.

“I just feel funny.”

“Do you feel sick? Are you in pain?”

“Maybe a little sick.” She clutched her midsection.

“Do you feel sick like you’re about to throw up, or sick like you’ve been riding an elevator?” I questioned.

“Elevator,” she said, then nodded. “A giant elevator.”

She was disoriented, I realized with some small degree of relief. The effects of crossing the portal were mostly the same for me both times. Still, I had been stressing over what the possible effects would be for Ashley. It was a relief to know she was largely unaffected.

“Do you think you can walk a little bit?”

“Yes.”

“Good girl.” I smiled and set about thoroughly surveying our surroundings. There was no one in sight. I was surprised and elated all at once. Perhaps Kahn’s guards had tired of guarding these forests.

Even better, maybe Kahn had been defeated and had taken his evil army with him. I doubted that very much, but it was still a comforting thought.

I raised the gun from my pack, motioning for Ashley to stay close to my side as we made our way through the woods. The cold steel served as a harsh reminder of the very real danger we could face. I still hated having to bring a gun on our journey. Guns didn’t exist in Terlain. Swords, knives, bow and arrow, and spears were the preferred weapons of choice for the people here. One false move and my weapon could fall into the wrong hands. I held in my hand the potential to change the entire course of history in Terlain.

I shuddered to think of any one of Kahn’s guards in possession of a firearm; the citizens of Terlain wouldn’t stand a chance. Kahn’s men were brutal enough without any outside help.

“Are there bad men here?” Ashley’s voice was barely audible.

“I don’t know, baby,” I answered in truth.

She promptly hid behind my denim-clad legs, apparently not finding my answer to be even the least bit reassuring. I didn’t blame her; the truth was all too often a harsh reality, but I considered it a necessary evil. Besides, I rationalized, recalling my brother’s words, it was better for Ashley to learn how to deal with problems, and telling her that danger didn’t exist wouldn’t accomplish anything. I had to admit that Mike was right on that point. She would only end up disappointed and, worse, unprepared when life’s inevitable mishaps fell upon her. Although, really, our situation was beyond unusual. Most people did not have to face and defend against repeated attempts on their life. Normal people didn’t, as a general rule, find themselves in alternate…what? Dimensions? Realms?

Twelve months later and I still didn’t quite know what to call Terlain. The “magic place” did have a nice ring to it, I decided, navigating through the gold-trimmed forest with ease now. I wondered if we would see Faith’s dog Wilson again. So far he hadn’t made himself known to Ashley and myself. He must have been in the yard, maybe even in the house, I realized. I hoped that he was still alive. Even though a year had passed, Wilson hadn’t looked to be all that old, so chances were good that he was still enjoying good health. The canine would forever hold a special place in my heart—he was the first friend I’d made in this strange new land.

The trees were thinner here; soon we would hit the clearing, and Faith’s ranch-style house would be due north at the far edge. The town of Lerna would be just beyond the ridge behind the house. While it would probably never be called a bustling metropolitan hub, Lerna was not exactly tiny either. It was one of those family friendly places that had managed to find a happy medium between overcrowded and middle-of-nowhere. If Faith and her husband couldn’t be located at the house, for whatever reason, Ashley and I would be able to find food and lodging for the night in town. From there, we would move on, taking the safe-zone avenues to Grandview where, with any luck, we would find Bob and Marta…and Mark. We would be safe with them, I knew, shoving all thoughts of Mark aside for the moment. Screw John Hanlen and his band of merry, crooked cops, because for all intents and purposes, Ashley and I had just dropped off the face of the Earth.

It was harder not to worry about Mike; maybe we had managed to evade danger back home, but my brother had remained in the thick of it. He had the dual task of not only sorting through the mess, but cleaning it up. I prayed that he would get through the experience in one piece. Logically, I knew enough about survival and teamwork to say my quick but heartfelt prayer and mentally move on, pushing all thoughts of the family who waited back home—and the trials they faced—from my mind. Worrying wouldn’t do them one bit of good, I knew from experience, and in fact, it would distract me at a time when I desperately needed to keep my wits about me. So I had to trust Mike to take care of himself and do the same for Ashley and myself.

A break in the trees up ahead signaled the end of the forest and I exhaled silently, remembering that we were, quite literally, not out of the woods yet. A large tree that looked to be a maple on steroids provided adequate cover, and I tucked Ashley between the base of the tree and my own body, quietly instructing her to stay low and stay silent while I carefully perused our surroundings. Nothing could be heard throughout the forest. No leaves crunching underfoot, no swish of blades hacking through foliage, nothing. It looked as though we were alone. The guards had evidently decided to move on. Not surprising, I reasoned. After all, it had been a year. They probably figured we wouldn’t be bold—or foolhardy—enough to return to Terlain, but if Kahn found out we were here… I squelched the terrifying thought before it could be fully formed. Kahn wasn’t going to find out. He would never know we had dared return to Terlain, I vowed, pressing closer to Ashley and easing out of the forest, away from the cover of the towering, gilded vegetation, taking the first step into the open meadow.

“Ashley,” I whispered. “Do you see the house on the hill? The blue house with the yellow flowers lining the walkway?”

“Yes.”

“That’s where we’re going, but we have to be quick about it. When I say, we run for it and we don’t stop until we’re at the front door.”

“No, please, I don’t want to go back to that house again.”

“It’s perfectly fine, I promise—” I halted in mid-sentence, mid-step as the impact of her tearful whisper hit home. “What do you mean ‘again’? You’ve been to that house before?”

“The bad men took me here, to the man and the mean lady…the ones who were supposed to take care of me. I slept downstairs a lot. I didn’t like it there. It was dark.” Her lip quivered.

Downstairs. My blood began to boil as I regarded Faith’s single-story home through narrowed eyes.

Unless homes were built drastically different in Terlain, I could only assume that “downstairs” was synonymous with “basement,” or even “crawlspace” or “cellar.” No matter what one chose to call it, it was in no way a suitable place for any sane person with a shred of humanity within them to put a child.

Faith…I thought, glaring at the deceptively tranquil homestead across the meadow. I had rescued my daughter from a woman I had confided in, trusted, and considered a friend. No wonder Kahn had found it so pitifully easy to track my whereabouts last year. He’d had inside information, I now realized bitterly.

Anger burned bright and hot within me, and I wondered briefly what price had made it worthwhile for the blonde devil to betray a confidant, and worse, an innocent child?

“Mama, I don’t want to go to that house. Please don’t leave me with them.”

“Leave you?” I shook away my rage and knelt down to take hold of her thin, trembling shoulders. “I am never going to leave you. Ever. I didn’t know Faith and her husband were the ones helping the bad men, the ones who took you from the orphanage. But now I do know and you’ll never have to see those people ever again. Come on, let’s get away from here, Ash. I know another way to the city. Back into the forest we go.”

“Okay,” she nodded, relief evident in her tiny form.

We skirted a wide path around the meadow, walking the forest’s edge, staying within sight of the open meadow but still well within the cover of tall trees that edged the woods. The detour cost us nearly an extra half hour of walking on feet that were already aching, but I considered the added time and effort well worth it. It wouldn’t do at all for me to run into Faith and claw her eyes out in her own front yard, in plain view of my daughter, no less. I was still seething inside over what she had done to Ashley. It was inconceivable to me how anyone could bring such harm to a child, and the slight was not one I was inclined to let go of anytime in the near future. No, what Faith and her husband had done was simply unforgivable.

We walked on in silence for another half mile or so, each absorbed in our own thoughts and focused on putting one foot in front of the other in order to reach our destination. Finally, we came upon Lerna’s edge, cresting the hill and pausing to look down at the town not far below. It took all of two minutes to realize something was off with the scene that greeted us.

“Is that it?” Ashley spoke up from beside me, pointing to the deserted streets of the town.

“Yes, this is it, but…” I trailed off, taking in the eerie silence and lackluster appearance of what I remembered to be a brilliant city.

“It doesn’t look like much of a town. Where are all the people?”

“I don’t know.” I frowned.

I noticed the fence almost immediately. The low countryside-style fencing that had once glowed with magic was dim, plain, and ordinary in the harsh light of day. The spell cast so many years ago by the Matrons was supposed to be infinite and very strong. During the war of years past, the surviving townspeople had erected the rudimentary fences to surround their towns and many of their roadways.

Blessed by the Matrons, the fences shimmered and glowed with a life of their own, forming an impenetrable barrier against Kahn and his beasts and the wild things that lived deep in the woods. None of the evil the people of Terlain had fought so valiantly could touch them after that, so long as they stayed within the boundaries of those fences, or protected zones, as they were commonly called. How had the spell cast by the powerful elder Matrons been broken? Had they removed the protective barrier themselves and, if so, why? More important, what had become of the city?

My head spun as Ashley’s question and observation hit home. She was right, there were no people milling about the streets below.

“Come on, we’ve got to get a closer look.” I pulled her along beside me, stopping to trace the carvings in the fence, becoming all the more alarmed when I felt no tingling sensation along my fingertips.

Something was very wrong in Lerna.

***

The city was ruined. We stood in the center of what served as Lerna’s Main Street, or rather, what used to serve as the town square, I reflected with a sick sense of disbelief. The place had become a ghost town. There simply wasn’t much left, I grimly acknowledged. It looked as though a tornado had ravaged the city; that or an army, and personally, I was betting on the army. Windows were shattered all along the street, shards of glass littering the once neatly swept walkways. Entire store fronts were ruined, their contents ransacked.

Looting…Kahn’s men had been here, I realized in an instant, fear pooling in my stomach. It was hard saying what else had ambushed the city; enormous three-toed prints were visible in the dirt, plants hopelessly crushed under what must have been unbearably heavy footfall. I didn’t want to know what weighed probably upwards of three hundred pounds and had three giant toes, and certainly didn’t intend to stick around long enough to find out. But the fact remained, Ashley and I needed supplies and I desperately needed rest.

Taking in the massive street sign pole that hung snapped in two in the middle of the road, I mentally kissed six hours of restful sleep goodbye. In fact, the chance of getting off my feet at all in the near future was looking slim. But at the very least we would need to eat. The field rations I’d packed at the start of our journey were running low, and Ashley would need a more balanced meal very soon. Not only that, I admitted with a resigned sigh, but we were nearly out of water. Running in the other direction was simply not an option. Hell, I thought, traveling on foot is not an option, not without the protection the fences would have afforded. We would have to steal a car…if there was one left behind that hadn’t been ruined.

If it had fuel. If it had the keys in it.

I rubbed my temple with the hand that Ashley wasn’t clinging to like ivy, feeling a headache forming behind my eyes. Too many ifs…I didn’t like this one bit. We moved silently through the deserted streets and I half expected to see tumbleweeds blow across the broken road in front of us. We crossed to the sidewalk, trying to stay in the shadows cast by the tall trees that graced the once prestigious residential neighborhood we found ourselves wandering through. This, I decided, was likely as good as it was going to get. Any one of the tall houses that lined the street would contain the food and other supplies we would require. But which house to break into? They all appeared to be long since deserted, grass overgrown, gardens untended, dark, dingy windows facing the street.

The cars, I considered, coming to a stop and gathering Ashley close to my side, would determine which house I ultimately forced my way into. We needed something reliable, not too old, no bright colors, and it had to be sturdy. A tank, I thought with renewed enthusiasm, peering up and down the block. Failing that, an SUV would have to do, I decided as I spotted the midnight blue sport utility vehicle about six or seven houses down. It even came equipped with a brush guard, I noted on closer inspection. Hopefully it had plenty of fuel in the tank, enough to get us at least fifty or sixty miles away from Lerna. Ideally, the tank would be full, eliminating at least one potential problem. If the roads and towns all the way to Grandview looked anything like this place, we wouldn’t be able to stop and fill the tank.

Starting out with a full tank meant we could make the trip to Bob and Marta’s without stopping. It could mean the difference between life and death. If Grandview had been affected…well, I didn’t want to think about that, not just yet anyway. Truth was, if Grandview had been affected, if their fences had failed too, we would be screwed. Well, maybe not screwed, necessarily, but it would certainly complicate matters.

I turned my attention to the house after trying the handle on the SUV and finding it to be locked.

Great, I thought dismally, I have to find the keys, too, in addition to breaking into the house quietly and gathering the required supplies. I could only hope the people who used to live here were neat freaks, or at least religiously hung their keys in one spot each and every time. The old adage “don’t borrow trouble” flitted through my mind.

“Ash, I need to go into that house and pack a few things that we’ll need for the rest of our trip,” I began, unsure of how to explain to the child that she was about to see me carry out acts that, back home, would have landed me in a jail cell.

“But nobody’s home,” she protested, pointing at the darkened property looming before us.

“Right,” I nodded, waiting for comprehension to dawn on her.

“You’re going to steal stuff from that house?”

“Yes,” I patiently explained. “But it’s okay—just this once—because we have to. Do you understand the difference? The people who used to live here look to be long gone; they don’t need anything that was left in the house, and I doubt they’re coming back for any of it anyway. We, on the other hand, are here now, and we need food and water and a change of clothes.”

“But we have clothes,” she said with a frown.

“We need clothing from here, from the magic place. The people here dress differently than we do and we should blend in, don’t you think?”

“I guess so.”

“So.” I smoothed the hair back from her forehead. “We need to take a few things, which normally would be wrong; but right now, under the circumstances, is okay and perfectly acceptable. Does that make sense?”

“Not really.”

“Okay, let me put it another way. Do you want to stay here in this city?” I calmly asked.

“No.” Her response was automatic.

“Neither do I. So we’ll do what we have to in order to get out of here, and soon,” I added, noticing the sun sinking lower on the horizon. I had to move quickly if we were going to be out of Lerna by nightfall. “You’re going to stay here while I go in, Ash.” I broke the news to her in a tone that booked no argument. “I want you to duck into these bushes right here next to the porch,” I continued smoothly, walking with her to the thick cluster of shrubbery gone wild.

“Do I have to?”

“Yes. And you are not to move from this spot for any reason, no matter what you see or what you hear.”

“Fine,” she pouted, minuscule but mutinous.

“I mean it; I can’t stress enough how important this is—”

“Yeah, yeah, I get it—stay put,” she sighed, climbing into the vegetation and wrapping her arms tightly around her knees.

“Right. Good girl,” I nodded, diplomatically opting not to take her to task for her attitude. Truth be told, I was relieved that she hadn’t yet broken into hysterics, which, while not her usual style, wouldn’t have been an unnatural reaction to all that she’d endured in less than forty-eight hours. Dramatics wouldn’t even have been an abnormal response to what I was currently asking her to do. Hating the fact that I had to make her hide in a tangle of overgrown landscaping to wait for my return, I arranged the foliage around her until I was satisfied that she was well hidden from view before stepping back onto the porch, promising to hurry as I wrapped stiff fingers around a brass knob and turned it, testing.

As I had figured, the knob turned only a fraction of an inch, if that. It was locked.

“No surprise there,” I sighed, eyeing the wide window that faced the porch. From the looks of it, that particular window would get me into what appeared to be some sort of living room or parlor. If luck held any favor at all for me today, the window would not be locked. I realized that it probably was, but I couldn’t help but hope for the small miracle. The less noise I was forced to make, the better. The town looked deserted, and it very well may have been, but it was always better to err on the side of caution, and intuition told me that we weren’t the only living things skulking about the city. If we had been detected, we would have been attacked by now, I reasoned, calming myself by degrees while I applied increasing pressure on the dusty window frame. Although some beasts, I remembered, only came out at night. Though I couldn’t recall the name right then, they were Terlain’s answer to Earth’s mythical vampires. Except vampires were creatures of legend, stories passed down from generation to generation that made for some good, spooky entertainment but little else. Terlain’s “vampires,” on the other hand, were very real and very dangerous.

Though not typically found so far north, it was hard to tell what creatures were where, considering the breach in Lerna’s fence. With no way of knowing if the breach was an isolated incident or if other places in Terlain had experienced similar glitches, it was impossible to say what was where at this point.

As far as I knew—and my knowledge on Terlain was admittedly limited—the beast had always been native to southern regions like the coastal city of Coztal. The million dollar question was, did the beasts remain in their typical warm climate out of necessity or geography? Had they once been indigenous to other parts of Terlain and been trapped in the southern hemisphere at some point for some reason? If the fences failed to keep them repelled would they—could they—make it this far, and more important, could they survive? If so, for how long?

I exhaled and then took several deep breaths as my efforts finally paid off; the dingy window slid up in its casing with a screech that seemed to ricochet through the unnatural stillness that permeated the once vibrant neighborhood. As noise levels went, it was probably the lesser of two evils, I admitted, wincing at the shrill sound. At least I had not been forced to break out the heavy pane of glass. If there was anything out there roaming the city in search of blood, then glass shattering would have been the equivalent of hanging out a welcome mat to every predator within a two mile radius. If the beasts were inhabiting the city, I thought with renewed fear, then it wouldn’t matter how much noise I made or didn’t make. We would have already been spotted. If they had found their way to Lerna, they were probably watching us right now. Ashley’s hiding spot would prove useless, and I had no idea if my bullets would stop them. Logically, it should work, but I’d long since learned not to take anything for granted in this strange land. In Terlain, the phrase “expect the unexpected” took on a terrible new meaning.

I considered this and more, hoisting one leg through the window and swinging easily over the sill, paying little attention to the smears of dirt that rubbed off onto the thighs of my snug jeans and the palms of my hands. Gun held steadily forward, I swung into the room, immediately dropping into a crouch below the window. Keeping perfectly still and poised on one knee, elbows down and gun held firmly in both hands, I let my eyes do a couple of sweeps of the dark room. Only when satisfied that I was alone in the musty-smelling space did I allow myself to relax and do a more thorough inspection of my surroundings.

The room was bathed in shadow and full of plump, artfully placed furniture. Plastic coverings protected the living room set. It was next to impossible to discern much beyond the general shapes of the pieces; a couch, an overstuffed love seat, two recliners, and a couple of coffee tables complete with high back chairs. I imagined the set was some sort of Victorian style; one elegantly-patterned sofa arm stuck out from under the plastic. A row of tiny polished brass buttons marched up the front edge of the piece of furniture.

The strong odor of mildew clung to the stale air; I leaned out the open window I’d just entered through and took a deep, cleansing breath before continuing through the silent house. Each filmy window I passed was a grim reminder that the sun was setting and would soon relinquish its position to the moon. I had to hurry. Time was running out and we couldn’t afford to get caught on the streets after dark. Not here in this ruined place. Even one weakened beast would be deadly, and that wasn’t taking into account the other…things…that we had the potential to encounter.

Moving swiftly into the kitchen, I made quick work of locating several plastic grocery sacks, mentally berating myself when, out of habit, I reached out to flip on the switch for the overhead light.

Silly. The electricity in this house was long gone. That much was appallingly obvious when I opened the stainless steel refrigerator that sat in a little alcove in the far corner of the kitchen. What possessed me to open the fridge door, I can’t say. Of course, I knew that any perishable food left behind would be beyond spoiled, and how many people stored non-perishable items in a refrigerator? Even if the owners of this house did store such items in the icebox, the dry food would have been contaminated by mold by now, if the fuzzy lumps on the shelves that used to be food were anything to go by. The space was a breeding ground for a bacterial infection. I shuddered, closing the door and trying the freezer with trepidation.

Nothing but spoiled meat and the congealed remains of what probably used to be ice cream. I sighed.

A thin shaft of light from the kitchen’s large bay window caught the glint of silver a split second before the freezer door closed. Silver? Pulling the door wide open, I stood on the edge of my toes for a closer look. A pile of slender silver cards was stacked in the left hand corner of the freezer. Razor thin and plated in one hundred percent genuine silver, I immediately recognized what the cards were; besides the answer to my prayers, the cards were the equivalent of credit in Terlain. The silver could be scanned by the machines in most stores and restaurants around the territories in exchange for goods and services.

Unlike a traditional credit card, however, these cards bore no name across the front, only a thin blue strip on the bottom and the official round emblem of Terlain in the upper right corner; they came pre-loaded with whatever amount of money one had added to the card, and thus were fully transferable. Ashley and I could use the cards.

I closed my eyes and squeezed the pile of cards until my fingers ached. “Thank you,” I whispered to the empty room. We could buy clothes. We could buy fuel and anything else we needed. The minuscule amount of gold we had brought with us from Africa would have seen us through our journey—barely. But the rules had changed. Compared to the cost of buying our own fuel as opposed to paying for a buggy ride or a chauffeured vehicle, the small pile of gold in my backpack seemed a paltry amount. We would be hard pressed to handle any financial emergencies or anything beyond the short term with my provisions alone.

With the silver cards, however… I did a little two-step around the kitchen counter and began to root around the glossy oak cabinets for food and anything else useful. Maybe the celebration was a bit premature; after all, I was not even sure there was money loaded onto the cards, but was ninety-nine percent sure there would be at least a little currency left on them. Why else would they have been tucked away in the back of a freezer? They had probably been some sort of emergency fund for the family that had owned this house. I felt the pang of an emotion that was part sympathy, part guilt when I thought of the people who used to live here. Despite what I’d told Ashley about our actions being socially acceptable for the circumstance we found ourselves in, I had misgivings about taking the cards. What if the family returned to their home at some point? Sure, this was probably not going to happen; they wouldn’t have fled to safety without their vehicle. Bottom line, they were not coming back. So why did this feel like I was looting? I supposed that, in a way, I was.

A howl in the distance brought my attention back to the present and more pressing matters. The fierce sound echoed in the distance, closer now. I froze, the blood in my veins turning to ice. I had heard that sound before. The Retrievers were coming. I hastily shoved a few more packets of granola into my bag, wiped my hands across my jeans, and made a mad dash for the front door. The sense of panic didn’t stop me from making a careful perusal of the street, no matter how bad I wanted to rush onto the porch, grab my daughter, and run. I knew that she must be frantic after hearing the animals—if one could call Retriever wolves “animals.” I shuddered.

Seeing that nothing obvious lurked beyond the porch, I scurried out the door and down the steps, frantically whispering to Ashley even as I hauled her from the bushes and down the walk to the car. The keys. Shit. Hell. Damn.

“I forgot the keys,” I uttered, closing my eyes, feeling the cool exterior of the SUV press against my forehead.

“That’s not good, is it?” Ashley bit her lip, peering around the vehicle to the street beyond.

“It’s fine. I remember seeing them on a peg in the kitchen.” At least I hoped the set of keys I’d seen had at least one belonging to the car. If not… I swallowed audibly as I watched the shadows continue to deepen around us, day turning inexorably to night. If not, I was pretty sure I would be the one in hysterics.

“Come on, you can come with me this time.”

“It’s getting dark.”

“I know, we’ll be out of here in two minutes. The kitchen is at the back of the house,” I whispered as we hurried across the threshold.

Luck had graced us for a second time that day because, after dashing back to the SUV, heavy key ring in hand, we found that one of the keys did in fact belong to the midnight blue set of wheels. We sped through Twelfth Street a moment later, bags tossed into the back seat, the last rays of the sun disappearing in the rearview mirror.

 

Chapter Seven

To Find a Warrior

 

The forest beckoned, trees thick on either side of the narrow path, their long, spindly branches reaching out like gnarled fingers. I thought about turning around, giving serious consideration to finding another way to get to Grandview. It was a tough call to make. The last thing in the world I wanted to do at the moment was get lost and wander aimlessly on some dark treacherous back road. On the other hand, I didn’t particularly relish the thought of going into labyrinth Muerta either. I could only imagine why it was so named.

Letting the engine idle for a full two minutes, I chewed on a fingernail, hoping to gain some sudden insight on the best course of action. I had never taken this road before and really had no idea what to expect, although if the name and appearance were any indication, the smart thing to do would be to whip the car around and speed off into the night—in any direction but forward! But where would we go? This was the only road that I knew for certain would take us to Grandview.

I tightened my fingers around the leathery material that covered the steering wheel and sighed. We would have to take the path. The alternative was to double back around and take the left fork in the road back toward civilization, if you could call the demolished cities that made up the county “civilization.”

The further away from Lerna we had driven, the more distant the Retrievers howling had become, so going back would be risking a run-in with the devil dogs and quite possibly the Scavengers as well, for one creature was never very far from the other. The Scavengers were usually the first to be seen. They used their paralyzing venom to incapacitate their prey before the Retrievers stepped in and either took the unfortunate soul to Kahn or disposed of the body on their own. It was not a risk I felt willing to take, not with Ashley and not with myself. I hadn’t forgotten my last encounter with the Scavengers and Retrievers, and probably never would. Underestimating them was another sin I vowed to avoid repeating, for I knew firsthand how quickly they could team up and put a person out of commission. No, I decided, we would continue forward and hope that anything out there in this godforsaken forest was either sleeping or otherwise occupied.

I knew that it was probably too much to hope for, but I prayed Ashley would remain asleep until we were well out of the woods, especially if we were unlucky enough to encounter trouble along the way.

The tapping sound on the window had me jerking around in the driver’s seat, startled. A scream rose in my throat when I came face to face with the ghastly white thing pressed close to the window only inches from me. Heavily pitted skin the color of bleached flour stretched over teeth that were bared in an obscene grin, sharp teeth and round bulging eyes making a perverted mockery of the expression of joy. I knew immediately what I was staring at, its name suddenly crystal clear in my mind—Coatyl.

I sat transfixed and unmoving, not daring to do so much as breathe, even though every fiber of my being cried out for me to flee. Time froze in a sick sort of suspended animation. The beast raised one hand, his long fingernails catching the moon’s rays and reflecting them like light on a steel blade before slowly, deliberately bringing the knobby fingers down and scraping them along the side of the SUV. The screech of metal being sliced away broke the terrified spell I seemed to have been trapped in, my breath caught on a sob. I slammed my foot down on the gas pedal without further delay and shot down the road, a spray of dust obliterating the view of the road behind us. Slow, I mentally cautioned about a mile down the pitch dark road, abruptly discovering why a dirt road would be called a labyrinth as the path cut sharply to the right. The car’s wheels spun out wildly for a heart-stopping moment, tires struggling to regain traction while I wrestled with the steering wheel for control. I narrowly avoided ramming the vehicle into a thick groves of trees and half dead vegetation several more times before the harrowing journey was over and done with, but finally, we reached the end of the path. Surprisingly, nothing else materialized out of the darkness, although I imagined I saw menacing creatures around every corner.

I peered from the inky black forest that surrounded us. In my head they were always only a hair away from leaping out at us and I remained on edge until, at long last, we emerged from labyrinth Muerta, frightened but otherwise unscathed. Rather, I was rattled. Ashley had somehow managed to sleep through the horrifying midnight ride, and for that I was profoundly grateful. The relief intensified ten-fold when I spotted the telltale shimmer in the distance. “Oh thank you, Lord.” The lights of Grandview burned low but bright in the dark, the gentle glow of the fence bathing the town in a halo of liquid gold. “We’re safe now. We’re safe,” I whispered to a sleeping Ashley, needing to speak the words aloud, seeking to reassure myself more than anything else that maybe, just maybe, things would turn out all right after all.

I drove around town for several minutes, letting the gentle illumination of people and life and normalcy wash over me. So acutely aware was I of my stress dissipating, evaporating into the night, that I was hesitant to put the moment to an end. I knew that the minute I did, my sense of peace and solitude would end. Maybe it wouldn’t be tonight or tomorrow, or even the night after that, but at some point, a whole new set of problems would inevitably present themselves, and when that happened, I knew my hard won peace would come crashing down like a house of cards in a hurricane.

There was another reason why my hands went cool and clammy as I deftly turned the SUV down the long, winding tree-lined lane that led to Bob and Marta’s sprawling estate. I was about to see Mark for the first time in a year. The slender trees that rolled past on the ascent up the paved road would have, under normal circumstances, captivated my attention, their dome-shaped tops swaying in the light breeze.

Pale pink blossoms fluttered lazily to the ground, a few buttery-looking petals coming to rest on the hood of the car, their pastel hue providing a sharp contrast to the deep blue of the SUV’s hood.

Tonight, however, the beauty of the scene was a pale imitation of the real thing. My mind was on other, more imminent matters, such as what I would say to the three unsuspecting residents of the house that came into view as we crested the hill. What would they say to me? It was hard not to be nervous about our upcoming meeting; after all, I was about to spring not only myself, but a six-year-old child upon them in the middle of the night.

A year had passed since I had vanished from their lives without so much as a goodbye, see you later, and it was impossible not to worry about their reaction. They probably assumed that I was dead, I thought with a cringe.

Ashley began to stir almost immediately once the car stopped its forward motion, coming to a smooth stop on the gravel driveway that lined the side of the immense house. The porch light was every bit as bright as I remembered it to be, coming awfully close to turning night into day. Memories of sitting with Mark on those wide porch steps in the calm, quiet evenings long after the rest of the house had retired to their rooms brought a smile to my lips as I gently rousted Ashley. During those long ago nights, we had sat side by side and made fun of the intense glare of the double fixture porch lights, calling them floodlights and attributing their lighthouse-like beacon to Marta’s fear of “varmints.” Oh, how I treasured those nights. I could still remember feeling like nothing could touch us, not here, so long as we stood together, daring fear and uncertainty to try and do its worst because, together, we were solid, and for the most part—unshakeable.

I snorted. “Shows how much I know,” I muttered, shifting Ashley’s weight higher onto my hip. She had fallen asleep once again somewhere between exiting the car and being carried up the stairs. That was probably a blessing, I decided, taking one last look around the enormous whitewashed porch and drawing strength from its gleaming brilliance. Taking a deep breath, I exhaled and stabbed a finger against the brass doorbell before I could lose my courage and do something foolish, like hop back into the car and bolt.

The five-minute wait for someone to answer the door was almost more than my nerves could take; when Marta answered the door and said, deadpan, “Oh it’s you,” it was almost anti-climactic.

“Hi,” I mumbled, for lack of anything better to say. “Uh. Can we come in?” I asked, wishing she would stop looking at me as though I were something that even the cat wouldn’t have dragged in; no matter that, at the moment, I did look the part. Long moments passed while we stared each other down, facing one another like gun fighters in the street. But finally, the older woman’s shrewd eyes shifted to the sleeping child cradled in my arms. “Well, I suppose you might as well come inside.”

I murmured a thank you at her retreating form, although it was doubtful that she heard the quiet words. Understandable. I had given her quite the shock and she hadn’t slammed the door on us; Ash and I would have a clean, comfortable place to sleep for the night, and we were safe for the moment. When I would have been tempted to bristle under Marta’s less than gracious treatment, I reminded myself that the present outcome was more than I had hoped for only a few short hours earlier.

“You can sleep in your old room. The one you used the last time you were here,” she spoke crossly, leading the way past the formal parlor, beyond the floor-to-ceiling stone hearth, and up the curved staircase to the second floor.

“I remember the room.”

“Here it is,” she announced, flipping the light switch. “Lay the child down on the bed and I’ll help bring in your luggage.”

A single light burned in the foyer by the time I descended the stairway to join a neutral-faced Marta. I stumbled into the room to greet her, courtesy of missing the last step. Way to make an entrance, Claire, I mentally chastised.

“You been drunk driving tonight?” Marta demanded, eyeing me warily from across the room.

“No,” I groaned, righting myself and then taking a seat on the stair tread that had just tried to kill me.

“I have not been drinking. I almost wish I had been. But I’m just tired, Marta. It’s been a while since I’ve slept.”

“Well, you looked like you might be drunk.” She shrugged.

“Well, I’m not.” I frowned.

“You show up here in the middle of the night with bloodshot eyes and you nearly fall down the stairs, and you take offense that I think you’re drunk.” The cross woman shook her head, as though she didn’t know what to make of the situation.

“The truth is, I had a hell of a time getting us here…”

“You’ve been to Lerna, then,” she correctly assumed.

“Yes. What’s happening here?”

“I wish I knew,” she frowned, then shrugged. “We’re safe enough here. For now. So,” she commented after a moment of tense silence, “you’re back.”

“Yes…I know this must come as a surprise,” I said, fighting through my fatigue to refocus on the conversation.

“You can say that again. Who’s the kid? Is she yours?”

“Yes, she’s mine. I adopted her this year. She’s a wonderful little girl.”

“She’s a pretty little thing,” Marta conceded, softening a little.

“I’m sorry I left so suddenly before,” I blurted, suddenly wanting to get everything out in the open, seeking to dispel the awkward tension in the room.

“It’s not me who needs to hear that.”

“I didn’t want to leave things the way that I did.” I struggled with the apology. “If there had been any other choice, any other options…that day…” I held my hands out, appealing to the stone-faced woman who sat before me.

“The last time I saw you, we were standing in my kitchen and you grabbed a box down from a high shelf for me, read the address on the side of the carton, and tore off out of here saying you would be back by nightfall.”

“And I never came back. I know. I’m sorry.”

“What trouble did you manage to find in Keogh?”

“You knew that’s where I had gone?”

“What can I say? You’re not a good liar. I never did believe a word of that ‘I’m going to scout some leads’ business that you tried to hoist on me that afternoon.”

“I was afraid if I told you I was going to an unprotected zone—to a guard base—that you would try and stop me, and I didn’t want you to worry.”

“Worry? We thought you were dead. We searched for months, Claire. We organized search parties and came up empty every time. Mark tore up every inch of ground between here and Coztal looking for you. He was frantic.”

“Where is Mark?” I leaned forward, glancing up the stairwell. “How is he?”

“I don’t know,” she muttered. “I don’t even know if my boy is alive.”

“What?” The word felt as though it were torn out of me.

“When he couldn’t find you, he left. We haven’t seen him in nearly eight months.”

“What are you talking about? He just up and left without saying where he was going? Why?” I demanded, firing the questions at her in rapid succession.

“He told Bob and I that he couldn’t stay here anymore. He was devastated. We haven’t seen him since,” she answered, her voice catching before she appeared to rein the emotion in, her face once again becoming a stern mask of disapproval. It was clear to me that she held me personally liable for Mark’s absence. And hell, maybe, in a way, I was. It was a bitter pill to swallow, sitting across from Marta. For a moment, it was difficult to look her in the eye. While Marta may have begun as the housekeeper, once Bob’s first wife Pamela—Mark’s mom—had run off, Marta had become a mother to him, raising him in addition to her other household duties.

I scrubbed my hands over eyes that felt gritty from lack of rest, and filled her in on the events that had transpired the day I had disappeared from Terlain and the subsequent year I had spent in my own world. I was careful to leave out the finer points of Ashley’s adoption, glossing over the details and making no mention that I had found the girl that day in the woods near Keogh. I wasn’t sure how that particular bit of news would be received by Marta, and I wasn’t on her top ten list of favorite people as it was. Plus, it really wasn’t anyone’s business but my own, I reasoned. I had rescued the girl, legally adopted her, and been a good mother to her for the past year. To my way of thinking, that was what really counted, but I wasn’t positive that Marta would see my not returning the child to her own land as such an acceptable act, and we had enough tension between us as it was.

“You’ve had quite an ordeal yourself,” she sighed when I had finished my retelling of events.

“I suppose.”

“So your boss is trying to kill you again.” She shook her head. “Do you have to work to attract this much trouble, or does it come to you naturally?”

“It would seem that I have a penchant for it,” I responded glumly.

“You and your daughter are welcome to stay here with us for as long as you require. You should be safe enough here.”

“Thank you. You don’t know how much it means to hear you say that. I’ll pull my own weight around here; you won’t have to do for us, I promise.”

“Hmm. Well, it might be nice to have a child in the house again. I suppose she’s an early riser?”

“A little. She’ll probably be up earlier than usual this morning since she slept the whole way here,” I answered, smothering a yawn.

“You look like you could use more than a few hours of sleep. I’ll get up with the girl. Now, off to bed with you.”

***

I slept for a full twelve hours before Ashley and Marta decided it was time to rouse me from my slumber.

“There’s coffee in the dining room. And there’s someone here to see you,” Marta informed me, looking much less intimidating in the late afternoon sunlight that lit the pale yellow walls.

“Mama, there’s a lady downstairs!”

“There is?” I frowned. For the briefest of moments, my spirits had lifted in the hopes that Mark had returned.

“She looks like a real fairy!”

“A fairy? Well, my goodness. I had better go and meet her right away.” I smiled at Ashley before looking quizzically at Marta.

“She says she knows you.” The older woman shrugged. “You want us to stall her while you take a shower?”

“No, I’ll go down now—the bath can wait.” The familiar raven-haired beauty with the exotic pixie face was like a jolt to my system when I entered the dining room. “Aries! Is it really you?” I cried, launching myself at the taller woman without waiting for an answer. Of course it was her.

“Claire,” she laughed, returning the embrace. “I can’t believe you’re really here. Where have you been? I’ve been looking everywhere for you. The pixies and the sprites formed a search party after a man came to see us about a missing woman with honey-colored hair called Claire who had come here in search of her brother. We knew it was you the man spoke of even before he said your name.”

“Aries, I have so much to tell you. I was so worried about you after that day we’d been captured.”

“You saved my life that night.”

“So you did get away then.”

“Yes. I went back to my people. We went back to find you only to learn you had been taken to auction. There were no leads after that. Not until the man came to us. Are you all right?” She held me at arm’s-length.

“Perfectly fine,” I assured my old friend. “Did you say a man came to find me? When?”

“He was tall with streaked hair. I think his eyes were green. He showed up about eight months ago.”

“Mark,” I whispered.

“I think that was his name, yes.” Aries cocked her head. “Is he important?”

“Yes, but I’m afraid that we’ve got bigger problems at the moment.” I sighed, stepping closer. “The fences are failing, Aries. From Lerna to Oxbrough, and that’s just what I know about firsthand.”

“I know. There’s a large group of us who’ve been trying to assess the damage across Terlain and bring any survivors to safety. I’m afraid we’re not much of a match for Kahn and his guards, and especially not for some of the creatures that have taken free rein across the land.” Her tone was laced with a bitterness that had grown roots that went deep.

“So we’re all screwed.” Marta sauntered into the room.

“We might be,” Aries acknowledged. “But there just may be hope yet.” Her silk-and-honey voice became low and dramatic. “There’s been talk of an army that’s forming, high in the mountains, not very far from here. People talk of a man without a name, the warrior of the ruins, who’s to lead a powerful army.”

She turned to me. “They say he’s tall and strong, with jewel green eyes and light hair.”

“Sun-streaked—” I broke off, my heart beginning a slow flutter.

“They say his heart was broken and he took the mountains, some think to avenge his lover’s death.

But he means to take out Kahn’s empire, and most people think he can do just that.”

“When did this talk begin to circulate, Aries?” I asked, holding my breath.

“About eight months ago, maybe less,” she confirmed.

“Dear heaven, Marta, I think she’s talking about Mark. Do you suppose?”

“The timing is right,” she nodded, tears forming in her blue eyes. “The description too. So that’s where he’s been all this time.”

“It’s possible. Very possible.” I swallowed, excitement beginning to build. “We have to find him.

Can we get there, to the mountains?”

“Their training camp is in the ruins near the ranges. It won’t be easy, but we can get there. He might be our only hope.”

“We have to make the journey,” I decided. “Marta, can you watch Ashley for a few days?”

“Yes,” she nodded. “Don’t you worry about your little girl. She’ll be safe here. You go find my boy. Bring him home.”

***

We had been climbing for days and I was beginning to have serious doubts about the wisdom of our latest task. Okay, so maybe “doubt” was not technically an accurate description of my feelings. In fact, several more accurate and colorfully descriptive words came to mind. Stupid. Foolish. Dumb-assed—

“Do you need to break?”

“Break what?” I tried not to look as hopeful as I felt.

“No, I meant do you need a break?”

“As in rest?”

“Yes, as in rest, Claire.” Aries was looking down, a wry smile touching her lips.

“You’re trying not to laugh at me, aren’t you?” I pointed an accusing finger at her.

“Who, me? Nope, I wouldn’t dream of laughing at you.”

“Liar.”

“Here, let’s sit for a while.”

“Are we safe here?”

She scanned our surroundings with a watchful eye before dropping down to a ledge that jutted from the side of the mountain. “We should be safe enough. But we need to get moving again soon.”

“Great,” I muttered, taking a seat beside her. The rock was cold and sharp, even through the thick denim I was wearing. The heavy cloth had been a major hindrance during the first day of our travels. The temperature below the mountain was a balmy seventy-three degrees and the thick material had slowed us down. At least it had slowed me down. Aries appeared to have been largely unaffected by the heat and exertion.

“How are you doing that?”

“How am I doing what?”

“This.” I waved my arms in front of us. “All of this. You never sit. You don’t get cold or tired.

What’s your secret?”

“I get tired,” she protested.

“Well, you can’t prove it by me.” I thought of how she had lit up the trees in her forest and how one touch, one breath from her and the other nymphs had given me strength, and figured her super human stamina must have had something to do with it. I couldn’t begin to break that down into scientific terms so I didn’t even try. People were just different here, I acknowledged.

“Drink this.” Aries waved a silver flask in front of my face and flashed an indulgent smile.

“Is it a magic potion?”

“No, it’s just plain water.”

“Then I don’t want it.”

“Claire—”

“Oh fine, you’re right,” I sighed as I took the drink she offered and gulped it down. It was good and cold, if nothing else.

“You’re nervous about seeing Mark again, aren’t you?”

I thought about the question for several moments, unsure how I felt about seeing him again. And it was not for lack of trying. The best way that I could hope to explain it was confusion, which was a word that I loathed, by the way. It was so indecisive; it told you nothing. But every time I had pictured seeing Mark again, I felt something different. In the days immediately following my return home, I felt like I was still with him. Like he had gone to the store and would return at any moment, almost as if I were in denial about leaving him in Terlain. As crazy as that sounded, I felt as though my return home was little more than a weekend trip, that I would be back soon. When had I begun thinking of Grandview as home? I couldn’t say, yet there it was. It felt good to be back, if not a tad unsettling. Life had a way of going on whether you’re there or not, and a lot had changed in Terlain. I had my work cut out for me. I was determined to find out why the fences were failing, and also to try to get a search and rescue started for the missing townspeople that encompassed an area the size of the Western hemisphere. I had to find the Warrior of the Ruins, who, in all likelihood, was Mark. I had to accomplish all of this while taking care of Ashley. Most important of all, I had to ensure the child’s safety…meaning I had to go about all of the above and stay alive while doing it. A pretty tall order when one thought about all the ways to get killed in Terlain, which I personally did not care to ponder. Suffice it to say, I had to stay alert at all times. Alert and armed.

Once again, I second-guessed my decision to bring my daughter with me to Terlain. If I had taken her with me out of some selfish need to keep her with me…. No, I decided, my actions were strictly focused on what was best for Ashley. Nothing more. Except that I loved her. She loved me too, and I was all that she had. Okay, so maybe that wasn’t technically true anymore. She had my parents, her uncle Mike, and her aunt Megan. She had her new uncle, and soon she would have a brand new baby cousin. But I was her mother now. The only mother she could remember, I silently amended. The child’s memory loss still bothered me, but that was another matter.

“Claire?”

“Oh, I’m sorry. I was thinking about…a lot actually.” I laughed nervously.

“I noticed.”

“I might be a bit unsettled about seeing Mark again. We have a history. A very short one, but a history nonetheless.”

“I assumed as much from your conversation with Bob and Marta. And from Marta’s general disposition.”

“She certainly knows how to grumble, doesn’t she?”

“Right up there with the best of them,” Aries heartily agreed. “So am I to assume that things ended badly with Mark?”

“You could say that. But if you asked Mark, he would likely say that things never ended at all. And, no, that does not mean there is anything between us now. He has probably forgotten all about me by now.”

“Do you really believe that?”

“No. At least, I hope not.” I wiped damp hands over my jeans and stood up to pace. “You know, I must have gone over that day a hundred times. At first I told myself that I did what I had to do. I didn’t have a choice. I had to save Mike and Ashley. Especially Ashley,” I added gently.

“What happened that day? The day you left Terlain.”

“It was early in the day. I had spent the night with Mark and, well, I won’t go into detail about that, but—”

“Oh, don’t leave anything out on my account. Self-expression, you know.” She winked and studied her nails.

“Aries!”

“Sorry,” she grinned, looking anything but. “Go on with your story.”

“As. I. Was. Saying. The next morning, we had planned to divide our time. Mark was going out to see what he could find about Kahn and about my brother’s disappearance. I was going to finish going over the books in the library. The plan was to meet up at home later that evening. Bob and Marta’s house. We were going to compare notes and decide what to do. We knew we had to move quick and…”

“And?” my companion prompted.

“I was going to wait for him. I really was, Aries. Marta called me into the kitchen sometime after he had gone. She needed help getting a heavy box down from a shelf in the pantry. When I set the box onto the table, I noticed the information printed on the box flaps. It was a company called Triniti Supply, and it gave an address.”

“Triniti Supply? Never heard of it.”

“Not many people have. The company used to be a big deal. It was located in a small village called Keogh. What’s left of it anyway. The place became a ghost town years ago, from what I could tell. Marta told me some of the town’s history on my way out the door.”

“You went to Keogh alone?”

“Yes. You know the town?”

“I know of the town. It’s one of the main guard stations now.”

“Yes,” I confirmed.

“But why did you want to go there?”

“I had a hunch that I would find Kahn there.” I bit my lip and considered how much to tell her. Even though Aries was my friend, I hesitated to tell her about the vision in the Bellevue library, and the shadow man that led me to Triniti Supply, and Keogh, in the first place. For some reason, I thought it sounded crazy.

“Anyway, I figured that where I found Kahn, I would find my brother. Before I saw that box, all I had to go on was the name of the company—Triniti Supply. So you can imagine how excited I was to find an address.”

“I’m still not sure I follow, but go on.”

“I was going to wait for Mark. I wanted to wait for him before I checked out my new lead, but I only had so many hours of daylight left and, at that point, I was too excited to sit and read in the library. My plan was to go to Keogh and simply take a look around, from the safety of Haelport’s fences.”

“But that’s not what happened?”

“No,” I sighed. “It didn’t work out quite like that. I found Ashley that day.”

“Wait, I thought you said you adopted her.”

“I did adopt her. But first I found her. She was wandering the streets at the edge of the fence.”

“At the Haelport/Keogh border?”

“Yes. But then she left the fence and went into the woods, into unprotected territory. I called to her, told her to stop and come back. But she didn’t hear me, so I followed her down this path.” I still shuddered at the memory.

“What is it?”

“The path I followed her down….”

“What about it?”

“There were ghosts there. Ghost girls. They lined the path on both sides. I’ve never seen anything like it.” I shook my head to clear away the memory.

“The dolls,” Aries breathed. “You’ve seen the dolls.”

“Other people have seen them too?” That was a relief.

“Yes. The woods of Keogh are believed by many to be haunted by the spirits of the children who died there. Or were taken from there.”

“I don’t understand.”

“There was an orphanage in Haelport years ago. It used to sit on the edge of town.”

“Where I found Ashley?”

“Sounds about right, yes. The children in the orphanage began to come up missing. The sad truth is, at first, no one thought much of the disappearances. It was not uncommon for orphans to run away, or to wander off. The children’s homes are not the best places to live, and as a rule, they aren’t very well staffed. But more and more children began to disappear. Sometimes as many as two or three in a week’s time.”

“Where did they all go?” My heart was thudding painfully against my rib cage as I waited for the answer.

“Well, it was never officially confirmed, but there was talk of the brothel owner, Lydia, and her girls, luring the children into that forest. The girls went to work in her brothel. The boys were delivered to Kahn to build his army.”

“Oh Lord.”

“The ghost girls are believed to haunt the forest there to warn people away from the woods. And from Lydia and the Lauhuel.”

“The Lahuel? Who are they?”

“You mean what is it?” Aries shivered in the cool breeze of the mountain. “The Lahuel was a demon warrior who was in charge of delivering souls to Kahn. He was often portrayed as a god of war. But most of the people in the villages just called him the Shadow Man.”

My head snapped up at that last part. “The Shadow Man? Why do they call him that?” I demanded.

“I don’t know. Maybe because of his appearance. Maybe because he operated in secret, in the shadows. Who knows?” Aries eyed me cautiously. “The point is, he’s bad news.”

“I see.” I swallowed hard and made a mental note to find out everything I could on the Lahuel as soon as we returned to Grandview.

“So what happened after you saw the dolls?”

“Why do they call them that?” I murmured, looking up to the clear sky above.

Aries shrugged. “Something about their clothing making them look like dolls. Why do you ask?”

“No reason, I guess. Where was I?”

“You met the dolls on the path.”

“Oh, right.” I nodded. “I followed Ashley down the path and into the woods. She was still just sort of wandering aimlessly. I saw a group of guards not far from us. It’s a miracle they didn’t spot us.” I pushed a lock of hair from my eyes. “My brother was with the guards. They had him tied in the center of their makeshift camp, in a small clearing. When they slipped up and left him unguarded for a few moments, I hid Ashley in some bushes nearby and slipped into the camp to rescue him. For the most part, he was unharmed. We left the woods and drove to Lerna, where Mike had buried his key in the woods…the spot where both of us had crossed over into Terlain from our own world. That’s when everything went bad, so to speak. We were ambushed in those woods, right after we retrieved his key. The guards had us surrounded and we had no weapons, no help…no one even knew where we were to start looking for us. So we crossed back to our own world. And we took Ashley with us,” I finished. Aries was still regarding me in absolute silence.

“I know we shouldn’t have taken her. The original plan was only to bring her back to Bob and Marta. To leave her with them so that they could locate her parents, or at least find her a safe place to stay. I thought about taking her back to Haelport, but I didn’t want her to wander off again. Not to mention, I hadn’t a clue where she belonged. That’s why we decided to take her to Bob and Marta. Then the guards found us.”

“You couldn’t leave her in the woods with them,” Aries agreed in a comforting tone.

“No, we couldn’t. It would have been a death sentence, or worse.”

I was relieved that Aries understood why we had taken Ashley home with us. The first several weeks after we had returned home, while Mike and I were deciding what to do, I had lived in a constant fear of being arrested on kidnapping charges. Which was, of course, ridiculous. But still, the decision to keep her was not one that I took lightly. “Right after we left Terlain, I had planned to take her back, the first chance I could. But then, we noticed the bruises all over her, and she confessed that her parents were dead. Killed by people she called ‘the bad men.’”

“The guards?”

“I’m assuming so, yes. So that’s when Mike decided it was best that we destroy our keys and I adopted her.”

“I’m glad you didn’t destroy your key, Claire.”

“So am I. I just…couldn’t bring myself to do it. I should have come back before now, though. I never said goodbye to Mark, or anyone else.”

“I’m sure he will understand. More than that, I’m sure he will be glad to see you.”

“You really think so?”

“Of course. You heard what Bob and Marta said. He practically tore the lands apart looking for you. He was grief-stricken.”

“Grief-stricken enough to take to the ruins in the mountains and start his own army?”

“I think so. Don’t you?”

“Yes,” I nodded decisively. “Yes, I do. The timing, the description, everything matches up and points to Mark.”

“Right. So don’t be nervous. Are you rested enough to go on now?”

I stood to follow her up the craggy mountain path, my energy restored for the moment. “Let’s do it.”

***

It was several hours later and pitch dark when we stopped for food and sleep. We were nearly to the top of the mountain and the ruins. Had it been daylight, we probably could have pressed on rather than stopping for the night. But the dark made the mountain treacherous and difficult to navigate, for me at least. Aries seemed to have better night vision than I did. What a surprise.

“Chicken or beef?”

“What does the chef recommend?” I asked her wearily.

“Honestly? Neither.”

“Chicken it is.”

“Fine. I’ll take the beef.” She smiled and sat cross-legged in the brush across from me.

“Where do we sleep?” I questioned between bites of cold chicken. It actually was not all that bad for canned chicken.

“Over there.” She pointed to a thick spot of brush. “Tuck yourself underneath it as far as you can. It should provide adequate cover. I’ll be on this ledge keeping first watch.”

“You’re taking first watch? Are you sure?”

“Yes. Get some sleep. I’ll wake you if anything happens, don’t worry.”

I didn’t tell her that waking me if anything should happen was the least of my worries. Her not being able to wake me was what I was more concerned about. That didn’t exactly make for a decent night’s sleep, or a decent few hours’ sleep, I should say. I dozed on and off for about three and a half hours before I gave up and took Aries’s spot on the ledge.

I heard the faint scratching sound close to three in the morning. I knew it was three in the morning because the faint shimmer of dawn was approaching; the sun rose earlier here in the mountains. I had been thinking about the Shadow Man—Lahuel—and how three in the morning was considered by some to be the “witching hour.” So the hairs on the back of my neck were already standing up by the time I heard the rustling to my left. Well, technically, I didn’t have hair on the back of my neck. I waxed every six weeks.

The point was, I was already on edge, so I thought I had possibly imagined the scratching sounds.

“Aries, wake up.” Better safe than sorry, I figured as I knelt down to rouse her from her spot under the brush.

“What is it?” She was instantly alert.

“I think I heard a noise. It came from—”

“Right behind you!”

“No, actually, it was a little to the left around the—”

“No, behind you! Get down!” In one fluid motion, she shoved me aside and rolled out of the brush.

“Stay back, Claire!”

My eyes widened in an equal mix of shock and horror when I saw the bird. At least, I thought it was a bird. It was big, easily twice the size of an ostrich. Its coat was jeweled in a rich myriad of colors, and it was angry. Or hungry. I swallowed and scrambled for my gun as the thing lunged at Aries. The thin gray light of day was beginning to creep over the mountain and chase away the shadows; I could see a dark substance stained the bird’s claws and razor-like teeth. Blood. I fired the gun twice before the creature fell to the ground in a shiny, feathery heap. Aries had fired a weapon of her own into the thing—a lethal-looking bronze-tipped arrow.

“What the hell was that?” I gasped, feeling unsteady on my feet.

“Aragazzi.” She handed me my pack and slipped into her own.

“Aragazzi,” I repeated dumbly.

“It means, ‘guardian of the mountain.’”

“It had blood on its claws and teeth…should we go check if anyone is hurt?”

“No. We should get moving. Right now.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes. They travel in packs. We have to get out of here now.”

“Enough said. Let’s go.”

 

Chapter Eight

The Ruins

 

The fog was thick. I watched his shadow move through the mist. There were others with him, and I drew in a sharp breath of thin mountain air, staying still and silent in the gloom. I knew we were hidden from view of the group that danced before us…warriors that moved in such a way as to be termed beautiful. Most carried a sword or what looked to be kendo sticks. It was difficult to see much more than basic outlines at that distance.

“Aries, that’s him; it’s really him.” I couldn’t drag in enough air. I couldn’t seem to help the sudden case of nerves. “It’s Mark,” I whispered. She didn’t respond and I didn’t look back at her. It seemed I couldn’t take my eyes off the man in the shadows.

I would never be able to say how I knew it was him, but I did. I had dreamed of him, of the moment I would see him again, for so long that I half expected to wake up at any second. I would find that this had all been a dream. The sunlight would be streaming through the tall windows and spilling over the Navajo rug in my bedroom like it always did. Ashley would be snuggled at my side because she’d had another bad dream and had climbed into bed with me sometime during the night.

But when I opened my eyes, Ashley was not there and neither was my bedroom. I blinked hard against the fog. The ruins rose majestically in the distance where the men had ceased their practice. I took an instinctive step back, nearly bumping into my companion. Mark was advancing through the mist, and I hastily turned around and pushed Aries toward the path that lay behind us.

“He’s coming, let’s go!” I hissed.

“We came to find him,” she reminded me.

“Well, now we have. Let’s go.”

“No.” She turned me around and gave me a gentle nudge toward the ruins. Toward Mark. I gulped and took in a pair of muscled legs clad in dark leather, a nude chest, and finally, a pair of eyes that held all the warmth of ice as they stared back at me.

“Claire.”

“Hello, Mark.” If I had hoped that Mark would be glad to see me, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Because Mark didn’t exactly look thrilled at my presence. If anything, he looked quite the opposite. I felt like something under a microscope as he continued to stare me down in silence. It was hard not to think about turning around and walking back down the mountain, but I quickly discarded the idea. For one thing, I knew that Aries wouldn’t let me. Not to mention I was tired and not at all eager for another run-in with God only knew what on the treacherous mountain trails. Besides, Aries was right. We had come to find him. More than that, we had traveled a long way to find the Warrior of the Ruins, and for good reason. I thought of Ashley and the fences, and of Bob and Marta, and I met Mark’s eyes with a steady gaze of my own.

“You look good, Mark.”

“What are you doing here?”

“I came to find you. We came here to find you,” I explained, gesturing behind me to Aries.

“It’s been over a year. You’re the last person I expected to see here.”

Now what did I say to that? Memories of the two of us standing together in Marta’s kitchen the morning we had been separated stood between us; a lifetime had lay ahead of us. I could still see his eyes as he told me he would be back soon. As he asked me if I thought he could ever belong in my world. Or better yet, if I would stay in his. He left that morning expecting…

“I asked you what you are doing here, Claire.”

Aries stepped forward then, effectively saving me from having to answer Mark’s question.

“There have been some changes since you left Grandview. The attacks are becoming more frequent and the fences are failing, Mark.”

His eyes cut to her immediately and I could feel the tension that surrounded the three of us.

“Bob and Marta?”

“Are doing fine,” I was quick to reassure. “The fences are still intact in Grandview. So far. But failures have occurred further south from Coztal to Bellview. Grandview will be next, Mark. Along with a lot of other places.”

“How did this happen? Where are the Matrons?”

“We don’t know. But we need your help. And the help of your men.” I gestured to the ruins behind Mark where his men had gathered, watching and patiently waiting.

“Will you go back and fight with us?” Aries didn’t bother to mince words.

“What of the towns that were left unprotected?”

“Lives were lost,” she told him quietly. “Some of the people are believed to have taken to the woods or the cliffs in hiding.”

“But they won’t last long without help,” I added.

“We leave tonight, as soon as the moon rises. Come on, you can rest in our camp until then.”

Was it my imagination or did his voice thaw a degree? Imagination, I decided as he turned swiftly and led us through the ruins and across a flat, grassy plateau. The area was more narrow than wide, and the only foliage looked to be little tufts of crab grass scattered across the ground. He nodded to his men as we passed them, and they automatically turned to follow us.

“How many men have gathered here?”

“More than one hundred were already here when I arrived.”

“One hundred men will be of great use.” Aries nodded her approval.

“We have since recruited two hundred more.”

“Three hundred men,” I gasped, astonished. A quick glance of our surroundings revealed maybe fifty men tops, and I wondered where the other two hundred and fifty were hiding. The mountain didn’t look all that big.

“Yes. Three hundred men.” It was hard not to miss the contempt in Mark’s voice as I swung back to him.

“For the battle, of course,” I quickly added. One of the men behind us snickered, and Mark and I turned as one to glare at him. Aries seemed to develop a sudden fascination with her fingernails.

“Camp is this way,” he bit out, and our procession through the flatland continued.

We stopped at the edge of the mountain, where a narrow opening was partially hidden by coarse brush.

“Watch your step and stay close together,” Mark warned us. “The cave cuts to the left, and there are two sets of steps that will take us around the side of the mountain and down to the camp.”

“Do you wish us to change guards now, boss?” one of the men questioned from the entrance.

“Yes. Full staff at the ready. We leave tonight. Be ready,” he emphasized and turned to lead us through the wide opening in the side of the mountain and through a crudely cut tunnel that probably would have incited claustrophobia in most of the broad-shouldered soldiers that occupied the camp, had they been the sort to let such things bother them. As it was, I was willing to bet that Mark’s men didn’t let much of anything get to them. Mark himself had grown a hard shell since the last time he and I had been together.

I remembered with startling, vivid, bittersweet clarity the young man who’d rescued me from lake monsters and slain demons in my honor. Well, maybe he hadn’t actually done any demon slaying, but he would have, had there been any. He had rescued me from danger more than once, though, and had offered his aid—and repeatedly put himself in danger—when he really hadn’t been required to do so. And…he was sweet. At least he had been. This new Mark, who led us through set after set of steeply winding stairs that cut through the interior of the mountain, looked more like the demon than the gentle-hearted slayer who had occupied my dreams for the past year. There didn’t appear to be any softness in him now. He was bigger, harder, and…meaner than I remembered. I didn’t know what I had expected to find, really, but the almost imperceptible nod from Aries as we continued our descent told me that I probably shouldn’t have been all that surprised to find…well, a warrior.

My mind struggled to come to grips with the past thirty-six hours. It was true—the Warrior of the Ruins was Mark. Of course he had changed, I tried to reason, my eyes squinting against the darkness that rendered the single torch Mark carried all but ineffective. Time had passed, hadn’t it? I had changed, Aries had changed. Of course Mark would have changed as well. Still…he seemed so different, such a polar opposite from the man I had once known. And loved.

Well…

I lifted my chin and looked straight ahead for a brief moment before once again fixing my gaze on the narrow stone steps in front of me, concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other. There didn’t appear to be any tender feelings in Mark at all now, let alone when it came to me.

After what truly seemed like hours, but in all likelihood was no more than thirty or forty minutes, Mark halted in front of us and I nearly bumped into Aries on the last step.

“This way,” he ordered, ushering us down yet another poorly lit crude hall that some long ago people had carved into the belly of the mountain. The stone was cold and damp and the air smelled dank. I took a deep breath and reached out to catch the tail end of Aries’s shirt, suddenly anxious for human contact.

“This is yours to use while you’re here,” Mark informed us a moment later, showing us into a slightly less damp eight-by-ten stone box of a room. It was still cold, but at least the chamber sported two halfway comfortable-looking cots and a handmade dresser, complete with ornate brass knobs. There were even two large wall sconces, one by the door and another on the opposite wall between the two cots. Mark lit both off his torch before turning to go back the way he came.

“Wait,” I blurted, without knowing what to say.

“Yes?” His eyes met mine, and for a moment, something flickered in their cold depths.

“How long are we staying here?”

“Like I told my men, we leave this evening. Neither of you are prisoners here, you can come and go as you please. This room is yours to rest as you see fit until we leave here. We eat in a couple of hours.

I’ll send someone to fetch you and your companion then. Unless you would rather eat in this room.”

“No,” I quickly told him. “Aries and I will go back to the surface and eat with the men.”

“Of course,” he snorted, turning to go.

“Because it’s cold down here,” I told his retreating form a second before the door shut firmly behind him.

“Well,” Aries said brightly. “We found him. How about that?”

“Yeah,” I muttered, sinking down to the cot nearest the door.

“Are you okay?”

“Yes.” I cupped my hands and blew into them. “I’m fine. We found him and that’s what matters. Lord, it’s so cold in here!” I shivered and rubbed both hands together, not wanting to talk about Mark and his surly attitude right then. Not when I was still reeling with it. No, I decided, it was better to stay on safe, normal subjects—like freezing to death. “Aren’t you cold?” I demanded, glaring at Aries. She wasn’t even shivering.

“Yes, it is chilly down here.” She exhaled, and I took small, petty comfort in the icy puff of breath. I wasn’t the only one that was damn uncomfortable.

“I don’t suppose there are any blankets stashed down here.”

“No, it doesn’t look like it,” she smiled apologetically. “Unless you want to go investigate?”

“Not on your life.” I shook my head. “The last thing we need is to get lost inside this mountain, or run into who only knows what. No, I guess we won’t freeze to death in two hours.”

“Let’s hope not.”

We spent the next couple of hours in silence, each of us seemingly lost in our own thoughts and half-heartedly trying to sleep; though of course, neither of us did. But we did get some much needed rest…or rather, Aries probably did. While my body got some badly needed down time, my mind was anything but restful. My thoughts churned with an inner turmoil that made it difficult to concentrate on any one thing and all but impossible to hold still for more than a few minutes at a time. It seemed I was constantly shifting around on the cot in a hopeless attempt to get comfortable, and things didn’t improve when later that night, we sat across a clearing from Mark, surrounded by his men, to share the evening meal. I could feel all eyes upon us as we dined as a group, cross-legged around several small fires. A few times I thought I felt Mark staring at me, but when I turned to look at him, he was never so much as glancing in my direction. It was as if I had ceased to exist for him. No matter, I told myself, a trace of iron creeping into my spine.

Who needs him anyway?

***

We were nearing a small cluster of villages; it was impossible to determine our exact location, but I could see groupings of peaked roofs and chimneys down below. The clouds weren’t quite so thick here.

Every mile traveled away from the mountains meant drastically clearer surroundings to behold. Once the urge to vomit passed, I had to admit the scene below was truly amazing. The sight directly around Mark and me wasn’t bad either. Jeweled birds as far as the eye could see, carrying an army of warriors and Aries, looking every bit the warrior princess.

Mark had been clearly amused at my reaction when, with a strange call, he’d gathered the mass of Aragazzi to the top of the mountain. I’d gasped and taken a hasty step toward Aries—well, clutched her arm in terror really—so certain was I that we were about to face retribution for killing a member of the bejeweled flock on our way up the mountain. But no attack came; these birds, Mark had explained, had been tamed and were perfectly safe. In fact, they were our transportation off the mountain. I’d made Aries climb onto hers first.

She looked at home on the bird, among the soldiers. The half-naked soldiers, I suddenly reflected with a wry smile. Marta would have a fit. There were two things that she hated with a passion—heathens and things that pooped in her grass, and in a matter of minutes we were about to land one hundred or so five hundred pound birds right on her immaculate front lawn. Plus, over two hundred men.

“This will not go well…” I muttered.

“What did you say?”

“I wasn’t talking to you,” I snapped.

“Don’t you talk to me that way.”

“I said I’m not talking to you.”

“Fine.”

“Fine.”

“Hey, look, there’s Bob and Marta’s house.” I pointed suddenly, leaning forward for a better view.

“I thought you weren’t talking to me.”

“Just land the damn bird, Mark.”

One by one we descended, landing smoothly in a long row on the expanse of lawn in front of the sprawling two-story house. I climbed down to stand on legs that felt like rubber, surveying the group.

“Marta’s going to have a heart attack.”

Mark simply shrugged, turned on his heel, and stalked away from me.

“Where are you going?”

“To check on my men,” he tossed over his shoulder, “Not that it’s any business of yours.”

“You know what you are?” I started forward, indignant.

“Well, that answers my question,” Aries broke in before I had the chance to tell Mark what I thought of his sour attitude.

“What question?”

“I was going to ask how it’s going with Mark.”

“He’s about as warm as a grizzly bear, that’s how it’s going,” I muttered, still trying to reorient myself with solid ground.

“I see that.” Her remark was light, but there was empathy in her gaze.

“It doesn’t matter. I’m not here to socialize with the man,” I replied defensively, but before I could say anything further on the matter, I was interrupted by a loud screech—several of them, in fact.

“My boy! You’ve come home at last!”

“Mama, you’re back!”

“Hello, Marta.” Mark stepped forward to accept the woman’s embrace just as Ashley rushed forward and caught me around the knees.

“Hey, peanut, were you good like I told you?”

“Yep,” she nodded, only to fall silent a mere second later, her eyes growing big as saucers as she stared up at the sky. “Birds!” she shouted, her little face lighting up with excitement. “Look Mama, birds—big ones!”

“What—” Marta began to sputter, shoving her long lost “son” away from her and turning to gape at the sky.

“Oh boy,” I muttered. “Here it comes.”

Silence reigned as ten birds on the lawn became more than one hundred. Marta’s eyes bulged a little more with each landing and subsequent squawk until finally, her eyes narrowed dangerously on all of us.

“What is going on here? Why are those…things…on my lawn?” she demanded.

“Mama?” Mark echoed, his dazed expression shifting between me and Ashley, who was still latched onto my legs, jumping up and down and yelling, “birds!”

“What is going on here? Well? Answer me. Someone had better explain this right now. Mark, what is this…this vermin doing in the yard?” She gestured angrily to the mass of birds that stood looking over the scene with casual interest in their shrewd eyes. Marta treated each one to a fierce scowl before turning back to Mark.

“They’re not vermin. Those are war birds,” he said by way of explanation before turning to treat me to a scowl that rivaled the one Marta had leveled on the birds. “I need to talk to you, Claire.”

“Someone had better tell me what is going on,” Marta threatened. “Right this minute.”

“Aries will explain everything. Claire and I will be back shortly.”

“Okay, I’ll just get Ashley settled—”

“Now.” There was steel in his voice.

“In a minute,” I countered, standing toe to toe, glare for glare.

“What’s your name?” he asked, bending down to Ashley’s level.

“Ashley.” She regarded him through wary eyes.

“Ashley, would it be okay if I talked to your mom for a minute?”

“I guess so.”

“Thank you. I’ll bring her right back. Can you stay with Marta until we return?”

“Yes.”

“Let’s go.” I spun around, leading the way into the blessedly cool silence of the mansion.

“Yes, let’s,” he snapped, taking the lead and marching straight to the library at the back of the house.

“Mark, what in the hell was that out there? What’s this about?” I demanded angrily once he had firmly shut and locked the door behind us.

“Why don’t you tell me?” His voice was deadly calm.

“Tell you what?” I fired back. “That you scared my daughter? That you’re acting like a Neanderthal right now? Sure, I would be glad to tell you all about it. Now suppose you tell me what your problem is?”

“You want to know what my problem is?” His tone was incredulous.

“You know what? Now that I think about it, no, actually I don’t want to know.”

“She called you mom.”

“Ashley?” I frowned, thoroughly confused by the turn of the conversation and wondering at his accusing tone.

“Yes. Ashley.”

“She’s mine.” I spoke slowly, enunciating clearly as though speaking to a very young child.

“Your daughter.” His frown deepened.

“Yes. My daughter. She’s six years old. She’s not yours,” I added sarcastically.

“No kidding.”

“So what are you getting at?”

“Who’s her father?”

“Who is her…are you serious? Is that what this is about?”

“Who is he, Claire?”

“I don’t know,” I answered truthfully.

“You don’t know?” Mark’s brows shot skyward.

“No, I don’t know. Not that it’s any business of yours,” I said, using his words against him and gaining immense satisfaction in the process.

“It damn well is my business!” he roared.

“Since when?” I yelled back.

“It’s my business when you’re sleeping with me!”

“No, Mark, not ‘sleeping’ with you—slept,” I stressed bitterly. “I slept with you—past tense. That makes it still none of your business.”

“What else did you conveniently ‘forget’ to tell me about, Claire? Are you married? What did your husband think about you spending your nights beneath me?”

My jaw dropped in shock at his tirade and I thought about telling him to go straight to hell and marching out of the library. Two things stopped me from giving into the sudden impulse. One, I had the feeling I wouldn’t get very far, and two, I couldn’t in good conscience let him think that I was married.

Letting him think that our time together had been a betrayal would have been cruel and completely untrue.

He didn’t deserve that, even if he was acting like a world class jackass.

“I’ve never been married.”

“Then how is it you have a daughter? And one who is six years old at that? Why didn’t you tell me about her before?”

“There was nothing to tell. I’ve only been Ashley’s mother for a little over a year now. I don’t know who her father is because I adopted her. I don’t know who her mother was either; both of her parents are dead.”

“I-I’m sorry, Claire.” He paused, and after several long moments, scrubbed a hand over his face.

“She’s from here, from Terlain.”

“How?”

“I found her the day I…left.”

“I see.”

“Yes. So…yes.” I exhaled, at a loss for words and desperately searching for something to focus on besides Mark’s intense gaze. “Well, no,” I blurted. “No, you don’t see. I found my brother the day I…disappeared. We were under attack by the guards and we had to escape with Ashley, so we crossed the portal. I’m sorry you thought I was dead.” I murmured that part quietly.

“I have work to do,” he stated with an abruptness that shattered the quiet of the library, startling me.

“Wait,” I said on impulse, immediately wishing I could take back the word.

“Wait? That’s rich coming from you, Claire.” He laughed humorlessly.

“That’s not what I meant,” I argued.

“What could you possibly have to say now? I think we’re done here.”

“I guess we are,” I managed. Why had I thought my explanation would make any difference to him now? It was obvious that, to him at least, the damage had already been done. In his mind, there was nothing that I could say to fix this.

“It sure looks that way,” he coolly replied.

“That’s what I just said,” I snapped, irritated with him for being stubborn and rude. In truth, his reaction on the mountain still stung. He hadn’t even looked relieved to discover I was alive.

“Fine,” he shot back, slamming the door on his way out.

“Ignorant jackass,” I muttered.

***

“And just how am I supposed to feed all of those men?”

“I don’t know, Marta,” I sighed wearily, wishing for the night to be over and done with already. I had the beginnings of what promised to be a raging headache creeping up on me, and as far as I was concerned, bedtime couldn’t possibly come soon enough.

“Don’t worry about feeding them, Marta,” Aries reassured the old woman.

I flashed my friend a grateful smile for coming to my rescue yet again and continued marking the map I had laid out before me on the kitchen table.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Marta scoffed. “Just because they’re heathens doesn’t mean I’m going to let them starve to death.”

“I meant only that the men are very capable. I’ve already set them up in the guest quarters at the rear of the property. They can hunt for themselves and cook their own meals.”

“They are still going to need some basic foodstuffs,” I pointed out. “Coffee, flour, salt—things to cook with.”

“My guess is they’ve made do with less, but when you’re done with the map, we can go shopping. If you’re up to it that is,” she offered, fanning her long black hair away from her neck.

“I’ll be lucky to finish this within the next decade.” I sighed and set my pen aside for the moment. “There are so many different cities and townships and territories in Terlain. That’s not even counting the unincorporated areas. And I’m not all that familiar with which areas started out as protected zones and which were not.”

“It’s okay.” Aries touched my shoulder. “Just do the best you can. I’ll make sure you have a continuously updated list of every area with a reported zone failure.”

“Okay,” I nodded. “But I still wish there was more I could be doing.”

“Nonsense. You’ve got one of the most important tasks there is in this operation. It is vital for us to have a record of which fences have failed and where so that we can dispatch rescue teams to those locations. You’re the glue that holds us all together, Claire. You’re saving lives just the same as the rest of us. It is a thing to be proud of.”

“That’s another thing, I wish we knew why the fences are failing. I didn’t think the protection spell cast by the Matrons had an expiration date,” I remarked.

“They don’t. At least, they’re not supposed to.”

“Maybe something has happened to the Matrons?”

“Possibly.”

“But you think it’s unlikely.” I could hear that much in her tone.

“Honestly? Yes, it’s very unlikely that something could have been done to even one of the Matrons, let alone all of them. Not even Kahn is that strong, unless the Matrons took a whole lot of stupid chances, and they don’t take chances. Ever.”

“What sort of chances would they have to take?” I asked, casting worried eyes in her direction.

“Let’s put it this way. In order for Kahn to have taken out all of them, they would have all had to split up and walk down a dark alley, alone, in an unprotected region, and even then Kahn would have his work cut out for him.”

“They’re really that powerful?” I was stunned.

“Yes.”

“So why the hell aren’t they putting a stop to this insanity?” I grumbled rather uncharitably. Wasn’t that their job?

“Maybe it’s time for us to come together as a people and stand on our own.”

“We might as well go with that. It looks like that’s exactly what we are going to have to do.”

“It’s fortunate that Mark and his men have made the decision to stand with us and fight.” Her eyes met mine over the short utility table in the kitchen.

“So I shouldn’t anger him or otherwise do anything that would make him want to rescind the offer?”

“That would be wise, yes.” She ducked her head, eyes twinkling under the fluorescent overhead lighting.

“If you insist,” I deferred. “I can’t look at these maps anymore right now. I’m ready to go to the store whenever you are.”

We found Ashley and Bob in the garden at the west end of the property, taking a minute to join in their fun and games before jumping into Bob’s closed-in Jeep lookalike and heading down the drive.

“Ashley seems to be adjusting quite well to life in Terlain—again, that is,” she quickly added.

“I think you’re right. At first she was more than a little scared to come back here, and you can hardly blame her. I mean, she hasn’t exactly had good experiences up to now, not in Terlain. But she does seem to be coming around,” I agreed. “I told her this is a magic place.”

“It is that.” A smile played along the corners of her lips as she navigated the car around a tight turn, taking us out of town and into a densely wooded area. “Mark seems to be coming around too.”

“I doubt that.”

“Don’t fret. He will soon enough.”

“I don’t care if he does,” I retorted, waving away the thought. “Mark can do what he damn well pleases. We’re both adults and all of us are here to do a job. Mark and I share a common goal, but that’s it. We are not required to like each other.”

“Only to love each other?”

“Hah,” I snorted, twisting around to stare mutinously at the forest we were passing through.

“Fine, deny all you want. But you’re forgetting one thing.”

“Oh yeah? And what would that be?”

“I know you and now I’ve met Mark for the second time. The first time, by the way, he was out of his mind with grief at your absence. You love him, and he is crazy about you.”

“He was crazy about me—past tense. A lot has changed since then.”

“So you do love him.”

“Oh fine, yes, I love him. I never stopped. And don’t you dare tell him that. Believe me when I say he wants nothing to do with me now.”

“You’re wrong about that, but of course I wouldn’t ever discuss your personal feelings with him. Still, Claire, I think that you should.”

“I’ll consider it,” I hedged, knowing that it would probably be a long time coming, if such a meeting of souls occurred at all.

“So.” She exhaled, her eyes on the rutted dirt road as she took us deeper into the forest. “How is your brother?”

“Mike? He’s okay. He works a lot.” I shrugged. Privately, I had been wondering when she would bring up my brother. “He thinks about you all the time,” I told my friend in a hushed tone.

“I…miss him,” she admitted, sparing a glance in my direction. “I miss him a lot.”

“He hasn’t found anyone else, Aries. The man hasn’t even dated anyone since we returned from Terlain.”

“Tell him…” She seemed to struggle with the words. “Tell him to move on with his life. Tell him to be happy.”

“That’s up to him. It’s not hopeless, you know.”

“I doubt if I’ll ever see him again.” She shook her head sadly. “You and Mark, now that’s different. Fate brought the two of you together again for a reason. Trust me, Claire, talk to him.”

 

Chapter Nine

Branded

 

The sun was setting by the time we pulled into the hard-packed dirt parking lot in front of the wood frame general store. We sat in the car for long minutes, taking note of the peculiar and foreboding surroundings. Ours was the only vehicle in the parking lot of a store that was the only one of its kind in roughly a thirty-five mile radius.

“Business is usually booming.” Aries frowned, her eyes narrowed and focused on the brightly lit log cabin style building. “I don’t like this. Something’s wrong.”

“I agree. The lights are all on, but the owner’s car is gone. Of course, he may have gotten dropped off.”

“Hmm. Maybe. Only one way to find out.” The creak of the car door sounded like a shot ringing out in the subdued night air.

“Where are the birds?” I whispered, hurrying to match Aries’s long strides. “They were chirping when we left the house, weren’t they? And I’m pretty sure I heard them a few miles back, when I had the window down.”

“I noticed that too. Something is wrong here. I can feel it. Stay close and stay behind me,” she instructed, drawing a short but still lethal-looking jagged edge knife from her bag.

Hinges groaned ominously as the door swung shut behind us. I took a deep breath, inching close to Aries as we put our backs against the wall next to the plate glass door.

“Should we call out for the owner?” I breathed in a barely audible whisper.

“No.” She nodded toward the counter, to the sticky red mess that oozed around the corner of the bricks. Blood.

“Oh no. It’s wet, Aries. Do you suppose he’s still alive?”

“I doubt it. That’s a lot of blood. Damn. Stay here—watch my back.”

I kept watch as she moved behind the counter, skirting the blood that was still spreading slowly across the white tile floor. Nothing moved, but I didn’t dare relax my guard. Blood that hadn’t even yet congealed meant a recent kill. Despite the absence of vehicles in the lot, the odds were good that the killer still lurked in the store. I shivered, willing my companion to hurry so we could get the hell out of the store. Every minute we spent inside upped the chance of harm coming to Bob’s automobile, eliminating our chance for escape.

“He’s dead,” she reported a minute later.

“Are you sure? Of course you are,” I sighed when she continued to stare at me. “Let’s get out of here.”

“No, we still need supplies. But we have to be very careful and we have to be quick. Whatever did this could still be in here.”

“There’s nothing we need that bad,” I argued, dreading what we might find lurking in the neatly organized aisles of the general store.

“Claire.” She gripped my shoulders, one hand holding the knife out to the side.

“What?”

“Breathe. Now come on, I need you. Grab a couple of sacks and a cart and let’s get moving.”

“Okay.” I nodded, struggling to pull myself together. “Grocery sacks. Check. Cart—check.”

“Good. We stay together. Let’s start with this aisle right here. You fill a bag with baking powder, I’ll fill a bag with flour. No,” she amended. “We’ll need more flour than that for so many men, and big men at that. I’d better pack two sacks. Hand me another one, will you?”

“Sure,” I complied before turning to the shelf at my right and shoveling plain brown boxes that read premium baking powder into the enormous burlap sack. It was beyond me how Aries could be so rational despite the danger we were facing. I envied her competent assurance. The knowledge that blood-thirsty…things…could leap out from around a corner and viciously attack us at any given moment was never far from my mind, and my hands shook as I tied the heavy sack at the top and shoved it into a corner of the cart that sat between us.

“What’s next?”

“Start on the sugar. One bag. From there we’ll move to the coffee and tea. It’s two aisles down. After the paper products.”

“Okay,” I mumbled, tensing at the idea of moving. It felt like I was rooted to the spot.

The dry goods we hastily packaged filled one cart to brimming, and we were forced to cautiously backtrack to the front of the store and exchange it for an empty one. Cured meat filled ten more huge sacks; butter and lard and molasses filled several more.

“What about fruits and vegetables?”

“No, they’re in the produce section along the back wall. It’s too close to the stock room entrance.

There’s no telling what could be hiding back there. Too risky. They’ll have to make do with what we’ve got. Besides, there’s an apple grove not far from Bob and Marta’s place. We need to go now.”

“You don’t have to tell me twice. I’ll grab the other cart.” I spoke rapidly, pulling the dry goods cart behind me and holding the door open for her to pass through ahead of me.

“The car’s still there, that’s a good sign. Let’s hope it hasn’t been messed with,” she muttered.

I was halfway out the door and nearly out of the danger zone when the growl sounded behind me.

White-hot pain pierced my shoulder blade a moment later. I saw Aries whip around and draw her knife, yelling for me to get down. She needn’t have worried; I was slumping to the ground in an ungracious heap before she had even finished the harsh command. Fire burned through my back, clouding my vision and making it difficult to breathe. A loud thump sounded before a heavy weight fell to the floor beside me.

Fight through the pain, I silently ordered through gritted teeth. I had to make sure Aries was okay. I had to help her. Forcing my eyes open brought me face to face with a chalk-white creature, its mouth open in a grimace that revealed a row of sharp, pointed teeth that were stained red at the ends. Coatyl.

“Aries,” I managed to gasp.

“I’m here. It’s okay, it’s dead.”

“No—”

“It’s dead, Claire. I promise you it’s dead. Can you walk?”

“Yes. Oh God, it hurts,” I moaned, forcing myself upright. I wasn’t sure if I could actually walk or not, but it was impossible to miss the urgency in her voice.

“Good, because there are more coming. Get to the car.” She yanked the double doors closed, whirled around, grabbed a large branch from beside the door, and hurriedly shoved it between the door handles to create a makeshift bar.

Somehow, I made it to the car, leaning over the front handle of the cart and using it to stabilize my movements. That and sheer force of will kept me on my feet and in forward motion until I made it to our vehicle, barely noticing the dent that formed in the metal when I failed to stop the cart from ramming into the side of the car.

“Don’t worry about unloading the cart, just get yourself in the car.”

“No.” The word was slurred. There was no way I was leaving her to load our hard won and badly needed supplies by herself. My vision may have been hazy, but I could see enough to know that less than fifty feet away, locked in the store, at least five coatyl beat and scratched at the door. Aries needed all the help she could get at the moment and I wasn’t eager to stay here any longer than was absolutely necessary.

My movements were uncoordinated and stiff, but somehow, I managed to get most of the bags in the backseat. Aries proved much faster in the task, hurling her packages in through the side door and then sprinting around the short length of the vehicle to shove the last of the sacks in my cart to join the rest, creating a virtual burlap mountain behind our seats. We wouldn’t be able to see out the back window.

Then again, I wasn’t sure I wanted to.

“Get in and hurry! That stick isn’t going to hold the door for much longer and those things are fast.”

I slumped against the seat, scarcely managing to pull my door shut before Aries was behind the wheel, tires spinning furiously as we careened out of the parking lot and sped along the forest. She didn’t slow down until we were safely within Grandview city limits, shielded by the gentle illumination from the fence’s border.

“Are you okay? Shit, I can’t believe he got you. I should have heard him before he ever got that close. Shit.”

“I knew teaching you cuss words was a mistake.” I tried to smile.

“Are you okay?” She alternated nervous glances between me and the road.

“I’ve felt better. What did that thing do to me?”

“He scratched you.”

“A simple scratch feels like this?” I groaned.

“It’s not that simple. Their nails are incredibly sharp and the tips are covered in a neurotoxin. The effects should wear off by morning. Hopefully the scratches aren’t too deep. Are you in very much pain?”

“It’s hurting pretty bad.” I tried to flex by shoulder in an attempt to gauge how deep the wounds were. “I can’t really move it; it’s stiffening up.”

“That’s normal. Don’t try to move around so much. We’ll find out soon enough—we’re back at the house.”

“Already?” I hadn’t even been aware we’d turned down the lane that led to the drive.

“Come on, warrior princess, let’s get you inside.”

The first thing we saw upon entering the house was Mark, pacing the front entryway.

“Where the hell have you been?”

“We went for supplies,” Aries replied by way of explanation. “Help me get her in the living room.”

Mark paused then blinked, abruptly registering the way I was leaning heavily against Aries. “I’ll take her.”

In the next instant, I found myself swept up and carried close to Mark, his long, even strides taking us to the formal living room and the plush green couch in the corner. “What happened to her?”

“We were attacked by a group of coatyl. One of them came up behind us and cut her shoulder.”

“Where are they now?”

“Back at the store. I killed the one that hurt Claire and trapped the others. But I’m certain they’ve managed to get loose by now. They might be staying close to the store. It’s hard to say.”

“How many?” Mark kept up the conversation as he peeled my shirt from my stinging back and carefully slipped it over my head, leaning close when I hissed in pain.

“I counted ten, not including the one I killed.”

“Damn.”

“I saw one on the way here. After we left Lerna, that first night we were here,” I mumbled, swaying a little.

“Then the coastal towns have been breached.”

“It looks that way.” Aries nodded. “How is she?”

“The scratches aren’t deep enough for stitches. Claire, how do you feel?” he asked.

“It hurts. I’m so tired. I have to take care of Ashley.”

“Marta put her to bed an hour ago. Don’t worry about anything right now. I need to clean your back and then I’ll let you rest, okay?”

“Mhmm.”

“I’ll go get the first aid kit,” Aries offered. “It’s in the kitchen?”

“No, Marta keeps it in the bathroom off the kitchen. The one under the stairs.”

Aries retrieved a small white box containing an array of bandages and something in a clear glass bottle that smelled like alcohol before leaving me in Mark’s capable hands. “I’m leaving at first light to lead a search party of the cities near the general store.”

“Take any of my men that you need. And…thank you for taking care of Claire.”

“Where’s she going?” I mumbled, not even wincing anymore when the cool, wet pad scraped against the wound in my back. Everything felt fuzzy, off somehow.

“Upstairs to bed. Which is where you’re going in a minute.”

“I can’t move.”

“I’ll carry you.”

“I just want to go to sleep, Mark.” My eyes closed on their own.

“Then we’ll sleep right here on the couch.”

“We?” My eyes popped open.

“I’m not leaving you alone tonight.”

I might have argued, but the blanket he tucked around me was like being wrapped in a cloud, and his warm weight curled around me felt nice. I might even have questioned the change in his attitude toward me, but I was quickly losing the battle to keep my eyes open.

“I won’t be able to stand it if anything happens to you, Claire. I can’t lose you again.” His voice was husky in my ear. It was the last thing I heard before falling sleep, and the sweetest thing I’d heard in a very long time.

***

I woke in the morning to the scent of strong coffee and something…sweet. I opened my eyes to investigate, even though I immediately registered the pain in my shoulder. What I really wanted to do was close my eyes again and curl into a tight ball in my bed—no, not in bed, I realized, blinking rapidly. I was downstairs on the couch. And then I remembered the events of the previous night. Coatyl…so many of them.

My mind replayed the scene in the grocery store, the pain of the coatyl’s long, sharp nails in my shoulder, Aries, and our escape. And…something more. Sitting up took more effort than I felt ready to give at the moment, but it was the only way to reach the hot coffee that someone had left on the end table. It was a bold, strong brew, just as I’d suspected. Good.

I continued to sip at the hot liquid while I fought to remember the very last part of the evening, the elusive hint of a memory that seemed faded now. Mark had tended my wound, that much was clear enough, but for some reason, I was also pretty sure he had spent the night on the couch with me. Not talking or even moving, just…there, almost as if he’d stood guard throughout the night. Other things were less clear. For a moment, I thought I could recall Mark’s voice in my ear, a low murmur of words that were at direct odds with his usually cool attitude toward me. Then again, his spending the night on the sofa with me was out of character as well—at least it was now. Maybe I had imagined the whole thing, I reasoned. I must have, because Mark didn’t want much of anything to do with me. Did he?

I stretched and finally shed the thick blanket that was still tangled around my legs, rose from the sofa, and, still cradling the mug of coffee, made my way slowly and carefully to the kitchen. The discomfort in the back of my shoulder had become more of a dull, throbbing ache, and I realized that I was hungry. I wasn’t sure what time it was, but a glance out the window showed a sky that was tinged with just a hint of purple; it was early then. Marta would be awake, Bob would either be on his way downtown already or barricaded in his home office for the day, and Ashley would soon be waking up.

But it wasn’t Marta I found in the kitchen, elbow deep in what looked to be pancake batter—it was Mark.

“I hope you’re hungry,” he told me without turning around from the hideous mess he was in the process of making. I cringed, thinking about what Marta would say when she spied her kitchen, her domain, in such shape. Batter dripped from several places on the countertop, hitting the floor and pooling there. The countertops themselves were a white, sticky mess—ditto with the tile backsplash.

Wide-eyed, I said the first thing that came to mind. “Marta is going to kill you.”

Mark chuckled. “Yes, she probably will. Everyone’s gone and I thought you might be hungry when you woke up. Guess it’s been a while since I’ve cooked in an actual kitchen.” He frowned. “I promise these will taste better than they look.” He dropped six circles of batter onto the stovetop griddle and turned to face me.

I doubted that very much but was too polite to say so. “It’s a little early for everyone to be gone. Did something happen?”

“No, nothing like that.” He tossed a quick smile in my direction and flipped his masterpieces over.

“Marta and Bob took Ashley to a pancake house in town.” One of his pancakes stuck to the hot surface of the griddle and broke apart when he tried to wedge the spatula beneath it. “Maybe it’s not too late for us to catch up to them.”

“No, I’m sure those will be, uh, wonderful,” I lied, and vowed to eat them anyway. After all, pancake mix was pretty standard, wasn’t it? Even if he’d used too much water, or forgotten to grease the pan, they would still taste more or less the same, right?

A minute later, when he placed an extra large plate of his creation in front of me, I found out I was wrong.

“They aren’t good, are they?”

“They’re very…salty,” I managed.

“Don’t eat them,” he sighed, and moved to take the plate. “We’ll go out for breakfast.”

“No. This is fine,” I insisted. They really weren’t fine at all, but I was too hungry to care—much—and I didn’t feel like going anywhere right then. Especially not out in public among people. So I smothered the salty, part overcooked-part raw in the middle pancakes in syrup and drank three more cups of coffee to get rid of the aftertaste.

“You didn’t have to do that.” Mark smiled and refilled his own cup.

I shrugged. “Thanks for cooking, anyway. Thanks for taking care of my shoulder last night, too.” I watched his face carefully.

“It was no trouble. How do you feel?”

“It hurts. I’ll be all right.”

“There’s some pain medication in the bathroom upstairs.” He began to rise.

“No, I’ll get it in a minute. I want to go up and take a shower.”

“Okay.” He fell silent, drinking his coffee and staring idly out the kitchen window.

“Mark, did you sleep on the couch last night with me?” I finally asked in a rush.

“Yes.”

“I see.” So I hadn’t been dreaming, then. It took a moment to process that.

“I didn’t think it was a good idea for you to be alone.”

“Did you…” I paused and looked away, unsure of how to phrase my question.

“I didn’t touch you, Claire.”

“No, not that. I know you didn’t…you wouldn’t…”

“No, I wouldn’t.”

“The thing is, I had this crazy dream that you spoke to me last night.”

“Really?” He leaned back and regarded me thoughtfully.

“It wasn’t a dream, was it?” I asked, certain from the look on his face that he really had spoken those words the night before.

“No,” he admitted without taking his eyes off me. “When Aries came through the door with you last night—” He took a deep breath and shook his head. “Claire, will you tell me what happened that day?”

“You mean the day I disappeared?” I asked after a moment, though I was certain he could only be referring to that particular day.

“Yes. You tried to tell me before and I…well, I’m sorry that I acted as if I didn’t want to hear it. I’d like very much if you would tell me now, though. I think I’m finally ready to listen.”

***

“Someone should have gone with her.”

It was late afternoon, and I was pacing the dining room for what must have been the hundredth time in three hours.

“I’m telling you, Mark I don’t like this. Look at my arm.” I held it out for his inspection.

“Goosebumps.”

“How’s your shoulder feeling now?”

“It’s a lot better since the shower,” I responded, rotating my arm to make sure. “Hardly hurts at all.”

“Good, then put on a sweater.”

“Very funny. I’m telling you it’s a sign. Something is wrong. I just know it.”

“Aries can handle herself. That’s what you told me. She’s very capable, isn’t she?”

“Oh, I suppose that she is,” I mumbled grudgingly. But that did not mean I didn’t worry about her. It was impossible not to remember a night a little over a year past. A night I was sure I would never forget. I didn’t dare tell Mark why I feared for my friend. That was the thing about friendship. Sometimes you became a guardian to their secrets. What had happened to Aries definitely fell into the category of not my business to tell. I fervently hoped that wherever she was right now, she was safe.

“Why don’t you sit down and try to relax? Bob has Ashley occupied. You should take advantage of the peace and quiet.” He pulled out the chair next to him at the table and flashed me an inviting smile.

“Well, now, you’ve got me there.”

“You must get busy back home,” he pointed out.

“I do. I love Ashley with all my heart, of course. But, yes, kids are a lot of work. Plenty of joy, but they can also be a bit on the high-maintenance side. And then there’s work. My job, I mean. Although that’s gotten a lot better as of late.”

“I thought you loved your job. What do you mean by better?”

“Wait. You actually want to hear about my job? I’m shocked.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I thought you weren’t interested.”

“That’s not true,” he said quietly. “Claire, I understand why you had to go. Now. I just…want you to know that. I know that we talked this morning, but I need to make sure we’re clear on that.”

“I never stopped thinking about you,” I told him suddenly, needing to remind him that he’d never been forgotten.

“I’m glad to hear it. And yes, I want to hear about your job. I want to know everything about you. Always. So catch me up on the last year. What was so horrible about your job?” He leaned back and smiled.

“The hours mostly. My boss went to prison. That helped a lot with the work environment,” I joked.

“Prison?”

“Turns out he embezzled a lot of money in addition to…a lot of other things.” For the second time that night, I held my tongue, albeit for different reasons. I was surprised that Marta had not said anything to Mark about the trouble Ashley and I were in. A second later, Marta appeared in the doorway as if I had conjured her up.

“Has Aries come back yet?”

“Not yet. Here, I made a fresh pot of coffee. The two of you look like you could use it. Especially you.” She wagged a plump finger in my direction.

“How kind of you to notice,” I said dryly.

“You haven’t been getting enough sleep, have you?”

“I get plenty of sleep, Marta.”

“Marta, don’t start in on her,” Mark teased as he poured his coffee.

“And you!” The old woman was clearly exasperated. “Don’t get me started on you. A haircut is what you need. But then what did I expect, you running around doing who knows what with those naked heathens?” She was still muttering under her breath as she left the room.

We burst out laughing the minute she was out of earshot.

“Naked heathens.”

Mark was gasping for breath.

“Do I really have bags under my eyes?”

“Not at all,” he reassured.

“I don’t believe you.” I grinned. “Where’s a mirror?”

“Sit down, Claire. Have some coffee with me. You look fine, by the way.”

“Do I really?”

“Yes. A little stressed maybe.”

“Oh.”

“Are you?”

“Am I what?”

“Same old Claire.” He grinned. “Are you stressed?”

“Yes, but under the circumstances, who wouldn’t be?”

“Maybe.” He shrugged.

“We’ve got our work cut out for us, Mark,” I sighed, dragging us both off of personal ground and back to our present situation. “We still haven’t found all the survivors from the raids.”

“But we’ve recovered sixty people this week alone,” he reminded me. “That’s sixty lives saved. And we are going to find more, trust me.”

“He is never going to stop, you know.” I couldn’t get around that grim reality.

“Kahn? Probably not.”

“We have to get rid of him, Mark.” It felt callous to say it out loud. It simply wasn’t in my nature to speak in such a cavalier fashion about murdering someone. Is it really possible to kill something that isn’t alive? I shook my head. The point was I wasn’t used to speaking so matter-of-factly about…getting rid of someone…or something. But I knew that I spoke the truth. There were no words to accurately describe the sheer destruction that Kahn had wrought upon the villages of Terlain. When I thought of all the people he had hurt and the lives that had been destroyed, it sickened me. And to what purpose? The answer was simple enough. To prove that he could.

“We will get rid of him. Together. Never doubt it.” His hand covered mine and squeezed lightly.

“So.” I sat back and casually sipped my coffee. “We just have to…oh, I don’t know…save the world?”

“Right. Piece of cake.” Mark shrugged. “Is there any other reason why you’ve been on edge lately?” he asked, apparently determined to press the issue of my stress level.

“Not really, no. Things are fine. Great. I love the new job. Did I tell you about that? I write for a magazine now.” Or I had before I took an extended leave of absence after three weeks on the job. It will be nothing short of a miracle if there is a job to go back to, I thought in despair.

“So what’s wrong?”

“Nothing that you don’t know about.” I looked away. “Like I said, things are great.”

“It’s okay, you don’t have to tell me right now.”

“Excuse me?”

“The trouble you’re in.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I told you I just thought it was time to come back. The dreams, the ones I told you about earlier…had me worried.”

“Ah. You came back because you were concerned with my safety?”

“Not just you—conceited.” I felt another pang of guilt and looked away.

“I’ll get it out of you eventually, Claire. For now at least, you and Ashley are safe. Just so you know, I intend to keep it that way.”

“You really mean that, don’t you?” I regarded him thoughtfully. Before he could answer, Aries strode into the dining hall. I ambushed the poor girl, unable to stop myself. “You’re alive!”

“Yes?” She laughed and returned the embrace.

“Claire was a little worried about you,” Mark explained.

“And it’s no wonder, walking around half naked the way you do. You’d think you were raised with the heathens,” Marta groused as she bustled into the room carrying a tray laden with sandwiches.

“Hello, Marta.”

“Hello yourself. Put some pants on.”

“Marta!” Mark and I turned on her, horrified.

“I’m wearing pants,” Aries calmly pointed out.

“Oh, well excuse me,” the old woman bowed dramatically, “I thought you had fallen into a vat of paint.” She left the room, parting shot delivered, still grumbling under her breath.

“Well! Is it just me or is she in a mood tonight? More than usual, I mean.”

“I think she was worried about you too,” I confided. “Now, come sit down and have something to eat.”

“Thanks, I will. I’m starving.” She dug into a turkey sandwich with obvious glee. “I didn’t see Bob or Ashley when I came in,” she remarked.

“They’re out back catching lightning bugs. So, what’s the word?”

“Were you able to find out anything?” Mark propped his elbows on the table and leaned forward anxiously.

“As a matter of fact, I did. I found five more survivors in the woods near the old auction site. A family.”

“Thank you, Lord,” I breathed. “Where are they?”

“I took them to our safe house before I came here. I had to travel back to Oxborough, but I wanted to get them to a secure location right away.”

“Exactly.”

“Good thinking, Aries.”

“Anything else?”

“I dispatched a rescue team to Fort Azores. The family I picked up fled from the city two weeks ago. They said there were others who had taken refuge with them. With any luck, we’ll be able to recover those people too, and bring them to safety.”

“Let’s hope,” I agreed, leaning forward and crossing my arms under my chin. “Any other news?”

“Nothing yet from the coastal regions. That’s going to take a few more days. However, it just so happens,” she paused for a sip of coffee, “there is something interesting going on in Oxborough.”

“Well, don’t keep us in suspense.”

“The masquerade ball is coming to town.”

“A ball? You want to go to a ball at a time like this?”

“The masquerade ball isn’t exactly a town social,” Mark explained. “Every year, Lydia holds the event in Oxborough. The location is always the same; it’s the date that differs from year to year. It’s an initiation for her…newly acquired girls.”

“You’re joking,” I stuttered, flattening my palms against the tabletop.

“Unfortunately, no.”

“But that’s sick. Someone should put a stop to that. In fact, someone should put a stop to Lydia altogether,” I said vehemently.

“Yes,” Aries smiled mysteriously. “Someone should stop them.”

“What have you got in mind?”

“I know the date the ball is being held this year. Three days from now, the party starts at sundown.”

“We may never get another opportunity like this.” Mark rubbed his jaw. “Let’s do it. What are you thinking?”

“We crash the party.”

“Wait. You guys are going to infiltrate the ball?” I frowned. “Isn’t that dangerous?”

“Oh, no, I can’t go. I’d be recognized immediately by the guards, and there’s no way I would blend in anyway, even in costume,” she admitted.

“So…?” I turned questioning eyes to Mark.

He grinned at me from across the table.

“It looks like we’re going to the ball, Claire.”

 

Chapter Ten

The Masquerade Ball

 

The ivory-handled hairbrush stung as Marta brought it down onto the top of my head. “Stop moving.”

“Ouch! Damn, Marta, stop it,” I grumbled, reaching a tentative hand to inspect my head for lumps—or any other injuries. Tentatively, because Marta had been rather heavy-handed this afternoon. I wouldn’t have been surprised in the least to find an oozing gash from the repeated bludgeoning the older woman had zealously delivered over the past hour. However, my fingertips encountered only smooth hair that had been gathered and piled high on top of my head in a style that would have been an elegant up-do if not for the damage Marta was repeatedly inflicting on it each time she told me not to move. It was hard to say who was doing the most harm to the hairdo—me by moving, or Marta by flattening it every fifteen minutes. Still, I had to give credit where it was due, the woman was downright lethal with that hairbrush.

If I was ever called upon to do battle or otherwise defend life and limb, I fervently prayed to have Marta at my side, preferably in a hair salon. Or a kitchen. She was just as lethal with her cast iron cookware.

I yelped again as she yanked hard on a strand of hair that had escaped its confines. “You do realize you are messing up my hair each and every time you hit me, right?” I pointed out the obvious with an eye roll, one that I was secretly grateful she couldn’t see.

“Well,” she huffed, temporarily removing her nimble hands from my hair. “I keep telling you to hold still. It’s your own fault if you’ve got a headache.”

“I never said I had a headache,” I muttered, though, of course, I did. “I said you’re messing up my hair.”

“I’m almost done. Just another minute yet,” she sighed, reaching for what had to be the one hundredth tiny opaque hair pin in an effort to tame my long mane, all the while bitching about my overabundance of light brown hair.

“My hair is the same as the last time you saw me.” I felt obligated to defend the abused tresses. “I’ve only grown it out a few inches. And that’s only because I keep forgetting to have it cut.”

“Uh-huh,” she spoke around hair pin number one hundred and one before shoving it into place. “Well, it’s still a pain in the ass, much like yourself, which only makes sense, as it’s your hair.”

Ouch. “Gee, I love you too.” I winced as she delivered another tug that I was sure was harder than necessary. “Lord, are you about done? How long does it take to do one woman’s hair?”

“Well, now, that depends. If said woman wants to ruin the most important night of her life, then it takes twenty minutes. If you actually want to make tonight a success, then shut up, hold still, and stop asking me if I’m done yet. It’ll take as long as it takes.”

“I see.” I didn’t, although I understood the hidden message in, “shut the hell up” well enough. “I don’t know about this being the most important night of my life, though. I was hoping to save that title for my wedding day. Besides, I’ve been to plenty of dances. I think I know what to do.”

“Have you ever gone to one in order to plant a skirt full of explosives?” she countered, probably only half in jest.

“No.”

“Well, as far as I’m concerned, you’ve got a fifty percent chance of getting killed, quite possibly by blowing yourself—and my boy—sky high. Wedding day, hell. I say anytime a girl needs to get through an evening without getting herself killed, it’s the most important night of her life.”

“Maybe…” I frowned, catching my bottom lip between my teeth. She had a point. “Anyway, you’ll be happy to know I won’t be keeping the explosives in my skirt. They’ll be in my handbag,” I informed her when her fingers hesitated at my nape.

“You do realize it’s a clutch purse. A very tiny clutch purse.”

“So? I’ll just take a full size evening bag instead of the hand-held.”

“You clear that with Mark?”

“No, but I can’t see why he’d care, so long as I’ve got my share of the bombs with me. The thought of wearing explosives just doesn’t do it for me.” I barely managed to suppress a shudder that surely would have set Marta into another semi-brutal attack.

“You and me both. Okay, that’s as good as it’s gonna get,” she pronounced, stepping back and whipping the velvet cape from around my neck.

“You’re done?” My voice was thin with hope. Oh please let it be true…

“Stand up and see for yourself.”

I was out of the less than comfortable hard-backed chair without further ado. Hey, I was on the verge of a serious butt cramp—nobody had to tell me twice. I took a deep breath and spun around to face the enormous mirror that had been built into the gorgeous antique-looking dressing table—and gasped, wide-eyed, when I caught the full effect of my own reflection. I hardly recognized myself.

I was encased in a sky blue gown that seemed to shimmer with the slightest movement I made. That part wasn’t much of a surprise, as I had donned the exquisite garment two hours before when Aries had come bearing it and a small fortune in jewelry, and Marta had announced that it was time to get ready. But to see it in the full mirror left me speechless. It fit like a second skin through the bodice, was halter-style at the neck, and bloomed into a wide, full skirt that reached all the way to my ankles. Tiny diamonds encrusted both the bodice and the hem, adding to its glam. It was a dress fit for a queen, or a princess, of which I was neither, but right then it was hard not to get caught up in the moment. Right then, I felt like royalty. Never mind that by the end of the night I would be armed with enough ammunition to blow up half a kingdom. I forcibly shoved that unfortunate reality away, focusing instead on the magic Marta had worked on my hair and make-up.

Wide brown eyes stared back at me, thick-lashed and languid and shadowed just so. Smooth skin and full lips with just a hint of sheen completed the regal, fairytale princess look. Honeyed hair had been glossed to perfection and gathered high atop my head, with small tendrils left loose to curl around my nape and to frame my face.

“Marta, my God…” I whispered, bringing a hand to the side of my face, to my hair, yet not daring to actually touch the masterpiece that she’d created. I hardly even felt the headache anymore.

“Some of my best work, if I do say so myself,” she preened shamelessly.

“It’s…it’s…” I stammered, struggling to find the words without sounding overly vain.

“Beautiful.”

I turned suddenly at the sound of his voice, my eyes snapping to his. Mark lounged in the doorway, and evidently was not at a loss for words.

“Thank you.” I tried not to notice his intense once-over, turning back to the mirror to gaze at the total package Marta had created for this evening.

“Thank me, I’m the one that did it,” Marta groused. “And it wasn’t easy, I can tell you that much.”

This she directed at Mark’s grinning form.

“Claire is breathtaking all on her own.”

“Sure, but have you ever tried to get that girl to hold still?” She shook her head.

“No, I can’t say that I have,” he drawled. “I like her when she’s on the move. Then again, making her hold still could prove to be interesting.”

“Mark!” Marta was clearly scandalized. I groaned.

“I’ll just go downstairs now,” I said in a rush, hurrying past Mark, only to have him to reach a hand out to halt me before I could pass into the hallway. For the briefest of moments, nothing else registered except for long, tanned fingers wrapped around my arm. Not only that, but he smelled really good—great actually. As much as my inner voice repeatedly nudged me to move, or pull away, or just say something, I continued to stand there, frozen in place like an idiot. Well… I shrugged. At least I was an idiot in a thousand-dollar dress. Hey, things could have been worse. With any luck, or rather, lack of luck, things were going to get much worse tonight in short order. That sobering thought had me glancing up to find Mark’s eyes still on my face, and sparkling with amusement.

“If anyone gets to leave this room, it’s going to be me,” Marta announced, bustling past the two of us and shoving me into Mark in the process.

His smile deepened when I sucked in all the breath left in my body, which coincidentally wasn’t much since I had only stopped holding my breath about two seconds prior to being thrust into him.

“You look great, Claire.”

The emphasis he put on my name didn’t escape me. “It must be hard to get used to.”

“What’s that?”

“Calling me Claire instead of Annabelle.”

“Hmm.” He seemed to consider this. “It is, in a way. It’s still a little new. It’s been over a year, but I feel like it was only yesterday that you were Annabelle.”

“Well, I haven’t been back for that long.” I tried to smile, wishing all the while I could kick myself for saying anything in the first place. The subject of our parting was still considered unstable ground. At least, that was the impression I got. I knew it made me damn uncomfortable at least. Mark had probably made a show of saying my true name with the express purpose of goading me into a reaction, and a discussion about how I’d lied about my name, and who I was, and…well, a lot of things. Yes, he probably did it on purpose so he could blame it on me if we argue, I thought uncharitably. Men were just like that.

“No, you haven’t been back that long. You have, however, been gone a long time.” His eyes took on a guarded look. “But we’ve already talked that to death, haven’t we?”

“Yes, pretty much.”

“And, like I said before, I understand why you left. Really, at that point, what were you supposed to do? I get that you were out of options, so to speak. Truth be told,” he scrubbed a hand over his face, “I applaud you for acting as quickly as you did.”

“Yes, well, Mike helped…”

“I wish you had chosen to do things a little differently before your situation became that desperate, of course.”

“Uh…” Here we go.

“If I had been there, things might have gone in a different direction that day.”

“Yeah.” I set my teeth. “Straight to hell in a whole new direction.”

“You don’t know that.”

“No, maybe I don’t. But neither do you. And what happened to ‘we’ve already talked this to death?’”

I demanded, hands on my hips. I felt like telling him that he was being very unattractive with all this arguing. I was barely conscious of his scent or his nearness right then…almost.

“Fine.” His hands came up in defeat. “You’re right. So. How long are you planning on staying this time?”

“I don’t know,” I sputtered, feeling defensive—and with good reason. Mark wouldn’t shut up and let it go already. “I have no idea how long Ashley and I will be here. Which I already told you. What’s all this about?”

“What? I’m not allowed to talk to you?” He frowned.

“This has nothing to do with talking to me and you know it. Er. Wait.” I clutched my head, which was beginning to throb.

“You’re going to mess your hair up doing that.”

“Oh, honestly!” I fumed, too mad to care what the hell happened to my party hair.

“Okay. All right. It’s tonight,” he confessed.

“What about it?”

“I don’t want you to do this.”

“Mark, we’ve been over this. I have to do this. And I can do this. Jeez, I can’t believe you would think I can’t handle myself.” I shook my head, thoroughly irritated now.

“It’s not that, Claire. I know you’re capable of taking care of yourself. More than capable,” he admitted. “I think I’d rather have you at my back than some of my men.”

“Really?” My hands fell limp to my sides. He’d rather have me beside him than trained soldiers? Personally, I thought that was taking confidence a wee bit far….

“Yeah, well, you’re tough.”

“Yeah.” I smiled. “I am. I really am.”

“But that doesn’t mean I won’t worry about you all night long. If something happens to you—”

“Then it happens.”

“Sorry, but I can’t be so cavalier about that possibility.”

“It’s reality.” I shrugged. “Believe me, no one hates the thought of me ending up six feet under more than me. But I don’t see that we have many other options tonight, do you?”

“Sure, we can find someone else.”

“Not on your life. I’m going with you, and that’s final. Besides, it’s too late to get anyone else and get them ready. And that’s assuming there’s anyone else in Terlain who is crazy enough to risk being beaten to death with Marta’s beauty products. Which I highly doubt.”

“Yeah,” he snorted. “You know she only does stuff like that when she’s worried, right?”

“Uh-huh, I figured as much. So. Are we done here? I was kind of hoping I would be able to get a cup of coffee before we leave.”

“We have to be out of here in two hours, so I don’t see why you can’t. Just don’t let Aries or Marta see you drinking anything that could leave a stain on that dress.”

“Thanks for the tip.” I smiled and headed downstairs.

“Claire, wait.”

“Hmmm?” I murmured distractedly, my thoughts otherwise occupied by the blessed caffeine I was about to consume.

“We need to arm you.”

“What?” My eyes went wide as I took in the small pile of straps and disk-like objects that I could only assume were the explosives. Oh no…

“I need to get these on you first, okay?”

“I have to wear them? Oh no, see—”

“I’ve got to strap them to your legs. Sorry.”

“Can’t I just carry them in my bag?”

“No. Your purse is likely to be the first thing that gets searched by the guards on our way in. Standard procedure—never carry bombs in a purse.” He made an attempt at humor.

“Damn,” I swore, marching back into the room and hiking up my dress.

“You won’t even know they’re there,” he promised.

“Right.”

***

“Stop fidgeting, you look nervous.” Mark’s whisper cut through the night, dragging me out of the black mood I had fallen into immediately upon leaving the house.

“See now, there’s a very good reason why I look nervous—I am.” And I wasn’t afraid to admit it.

Really, was there any reason for me not to be shaking in my dress shoes? Saying goodbye to Ashley for what could very well turn out to be the last time was doing a number on my already frayed nerves. Not that she suspected we might never see each other again after this night; at least, I didn’t think she had any clue that all was not well this evening. Far as any of us could tell, my little angel really thought we were all just going to a ball, that her mother was having her first date in a very long time. She had stood on the front porch, sandwiched between Bob and Marta, grinning her innocent little girl smile and waving like mad, even running to the edge of the porch when we had reached the end of the yard and were nearly out of view to the trio chosen to stay behind and wait for our return.

Lord, God, just let us return—preferably in one piece, I prayed, putting one foot in front of the other. Not that the task required much focus; the night that felt black as sin was in fact a star-strewn landscape that seemed to stretch endlessly before us. Even in the thickest part of the forest, the moonlight seemed to filter through the canopy of trees overhead to light our path. With Mark walking solidly by my side, it would have made for an incredibly romantic scene. Except for the bombs strapped to my thighs like garter belts gone horribly wrong, and the fact that we were not alone by any stretch of the imagination. Even though we couldn’t see them, I was all too aware of the hundreds of pairs of eyes in the trees and on the ground. The fairies would guard us every step of the way from the woods near Bob’s house clear to Oxborough. There were soldiers on the ground too, I knew, although I was unable to make out any of them either. Seventy-five percent of our guard was armed, and heavily so. Aries, armed with a wicked-looking blade, would trail us as far as Oxborough’s border; after that, she would fall back and help coordinate the soldiers who had been assigned to phase two of our mission.

“Do you think this will really work?” I whispered.

“If we can get into that party, then yes. If not…” He shrugged without slowing our pace.

“If not?” I prompted.

“We need to get into that party, let’s just leave it at that.”

“Damn.”

“Hey.” His hand tightened on mine. “We can do this.”

“Right,” I nodded, smiling in the dark. “We’re almost there, aren’t we?” I hoped so at least. Anything over a mile in heels was insane, and I knew darn well the distance between Grandview and Oxborough was a lot more than a mile. But maybe we were nearing the end of our journey, since it felt like we had been on our feet forever and a day.

“About another mile and a half.”

“Ugh,” I moaned, slumping a little.

“If you had let me carry you in the first place, you wouldn’t be in so much pain right now, Claire,” he pointed out.

“No, I can walk.” I hoped.

“You can take your shoes off on the way back,” he offered, obviously trying to be helpful. “After we finish our business, it won’t matter if your feet get dirty.”

“Remind me again why we couldn’t take the car.” At least partway.

“Because,” he responded with considerable patience. “Cars make noise, and we don’t want to be seen.”

“I know.” I couldn’t quell the sigh that rose from deep within. “I’ll stop whining now.”

“You will not,” he snorted.

“Shut up, Mark.”

He acknowledged the thinly veiled threat behind my words with a toss of his head and a chuckle, and we kept walking. And walking. And walking some more until finally, thankfully, we reached the edge of the forest. I could see the cobblestone streets of the town and a large building at the end of the street. It looked curiously like an enormous warehouse that was lit up like an airstrip and surrounded by several smaller, considerably less well-lit outbuildings.

“Is that it?”

“That’s it. Behold the annual masquerade ball. Lydia owns all of those buildings.”

“They don’t look like much,” I commented, eyes darting around, scanning every inch of our new surroundings.

“The smaller structures probably aren’t. Those are mostly glorified guard shacks. But the main building is supposed to look as grand as any mansion, inside at least. You need a minute to rest?”

“No.”

“Sit down anyway. You’re limping.”

“You’d be limping too if you had just hiked a million miles in high heels,” I grumbled, but sat carefully on a nearby tree stump anyway. Mark was right; it wouldn’t do at all for me to walk into the ball with a noticeable limp, not when details meant everything tonight. We couldn’t afford to arouse even the slightest suspicion. Not only would we have no hope of getting past the front door, chances were good that we’d be killed on the spot and quietly disposed of. That wouldn’t stop the rest of our massive team from carrying out their part of the plan, but it would up their danger tenfold. And it wouldn’t make us any less dead. I shuddered, jumped to my feet, and took a few test steps, sans limp. All of a sudden, I was too keyed up to remain motionless. I wanted to get this over with, no matter the outcome, if for no other reason than the anticipation and the sense of doom hanging over my head were becoming unbearable.

“We can take more time, if you need it. Not much, of course, but we’ve got a few minutes.”

I could feel Mark’s eyes on me in the relative gloom that seemed to hang over the town, tangible even here at the edge. I shivered, though the night was not especially cool. That Mark would allow me ample rest time was obvious, but still, the desire to run was strong, and becoming more so by the minute.

No, it was best to get in, get out, and get the hell out of dodge.

“Let’s do this.”

Mark’s assessment of my bold statement lasted maybe another second before he finally nodded and silently took my clammy hand in his gloved one. A glance over my shoulder reassured me that we weren’t alone. I would have liked to think we would have been so brave as to undertake a mission like this even with just the two of us; after all, right was right and evil would always be there, waiting to be conquered by brave souls. Although I really didn’t consider myself brave, even knowing that there was an ever growing number of people who would have disagreed wholeheartedly with my self-assessment.

We walked along the all but deserted cobblestone streets of the town, and the click of my heels echoed back at me every step of the way.

“Where are all the people?” I whispered. I could have spoken the question at a normal volume, but on this particular night, Oxborough had a hushed, doom and gloom feel that seemed to permeate everything it touched, my own voice included. A rather dim backdrop for a lavish ball, unless you really stopped to consider the amount of sin that was slated to go on this night, the sheer magnitude of evil that was housed, for one night only, under one roof.

“Anyone who’s not already at the ball is smart enough to stay home tonight.”

“Except us.” I tried to smile.

“Hurry along now, Alia, we wouldn’t want to miss the first waltz.” Mark’s voice rose a few notches as two burly guards emerged from around the side of the small wood and tin outbuilding that stood closest to the main house. The two men stepped out of the shadows and I forced my breathing to slow, despite the fact that they paid us little attention aside from a cursory glance at our formal attire. Either they weren’t running very tight security around the place or they had quickly determined that we posed no threat. I supposed it would be too much to hope for the first option.

We made our way to the front door of the main house and I, for one, was astonished to find that it looked more like a house door than the typical utilitarian steel frame door one would expect to find in a warehouse. This door was constructed of thick solid wood and bleached a warm golden color that reminded me of honey. The night seemed to be full of surprises, I reflected, taking in the two guards that stood posted like sentinels at the entrance. These two were no less ugly than the pair we’d just passed on the sidewalk, but they were considerably more suspicious of Mark and me. Oh please, just let us in…

“Halt. State your business.”

Damn. “Why, we’re here for the ball,” I trilled, doing what I considered to be a fairly good impression of a high society lady. Moron number one didn’t look impressed.

“Good evening.” Mark inclined his head. “I am Lord Rothington and this is Lady Halsting. We have come to discuss a little business with the woman who runs this fine operation. And of course, to attend the ball.”

“What business do you have with mistress Lydia?” Moron number two was obviously skeptical. Not that I could really blame him—we were lying, after all.

“My companion and I run a highly successful brothel near the coast.”

“Well…” Both men wavered.

“Are we to stand on the street like beggars all evening?” Mark demanded.

“I am appalled, just appalled.” My voice rose the several notches required to play the part of an affronted queen-of-the-manor type, though the feat was not difficult. Just when I thought I would pass out from nerves, the real live queen of the manor appeared at the front door.

Lydia was stunning in—what else—her signature scarlet body-hugging gown. The hem swept the floor and the bodice was cut so slow that she looked like she was forever on the verge of a wardrobe malfunction. She shooed the guards aside with little more than a toss of her regal head before turning wide green eyes upon us.

“What seems to be the problem here?”

“We’ve come to attend the ball and speak to the mistress called Lydia,” Mark informed her, pretending to have no idea who she was.

“I run this establishment.”

“You’re Lydia?”

“I am.” Her eyes ran up and down the length of his form in a slow perusal that made my skin crawl.

“I didn’t realize you were such a lovely woman.” He bowed low before extending his hand. “My name is Lord Rothington, and may I introduce my companion and business partner, Lady Alia Halsting. We’ve come from Coztal to make your acquaintance.”

“Business partner?” Lydia graced us with a slow smile, though her eyes remained fixed on Mark.

“That’s right,” I said, then nodded, holding her gaze for a second when her eyes flicked to my own.

“You’re a long way from home,” she observed, inspecting me from head to toe. “What sort of business are you in?”

“Word of the annual masquerade ball has reached the coast. According to rumor, it’s an event that’s not to be missed. Lord Rothington and I run a brothel, the largest in Coztal. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?”

“A fellow business woman like myself, then.” Her lips curved in a sultry smile as she leaned closer to me. I fought to stay composed under her stare. Would she recognize me? I thought not. I knew that tonight I didn’t look a thing like the bedraggled, bruised, and dirt-covered girl she’d seen a year ago at another auction.

“We’ve come to discuss a business arrangement that could be very…beneficial, to both of us,” Mark broke in.

“Have you now? Do tell.”

“Lady Halsting and I are considering a merger, a partnership if you will, and we understand you run the largest operation in this region.”

“Well then, good evening and welcome to the ball. I do hope the security hasn’t given you too much trouble.”

“Thank you,” we both responded automatically.

“Come in then and have a drink. The main event is just getting underway,” she confided, ushering us over the threshold and into the house. “The auction. But have a drink first and then, if you will, we can discuss a little business.”

As we stepped fully into the room, I nearly stumbled on my heels. So engrossed was I in my new surroundings, I was barely aware of the door being closed behind us. Lydia plucked two flutes of sparkling blue liquid from a passing tray and offered them to Mark and me with a satisfied smile that bordered on smug.

“I see you admire the finer things in life, too.”

“This is…wow, this is truly something,” I managed, and meant every word. The house was spectacular and looked nothing like its plain exterior. Mansion didn’t even begin to convey the rich, glittering opulence that surrounded us at that moment. Expensive-looking crystal lighting hung from the high polished ceilings and reflected shards of light across an equally polished dark wood floor. “Are those real diamonds?” I asked, figuring that they were; diamonds weren’t a rare commodity here, although they were still considered lavish and somewhat expensive. It was too bad we were going to blow it sky high in less than an hour.

“Yes, they are,” Lydia preened.

What’s in the glass was my second question, but I hesitated to voice it and look like the novice that I was. Instead, I caught Mark’s eye and let my gaze rest meaningfully on his glass. Only when he smiled and raised his own drink to his lips did I taste mine. Champagne, I thought, feeling the cool rush almost instantly. Not bad, and certainly prettier than its amber-hued cousin.

A man in a jeweled mask came up behind us to put a hand under Lydia’s arm, and she left us then with instructions to drink, dance, and enjoy the party. She would be back later on in the evening—before the auction, I presumed—to discuss business.

“Would you care to dance, my lady?”

“Oh yes indeed,” I murmured, taking Mark’s outstretched hand and letting him lead me to the crowded dance floor. Really, the entire main level appeared to be a dance floor. A few heavily made up women stood against the wall, and several elegantly dressed gentleman could also be found on the outskirts of the large space that I guessed to be a living room or maybe a hugely oversized parlor. The rest of the occupants were paired on the dance floor, and all were decked out in formal attire. Most wore facemasks that glittered under the light from the chandeliers, but there were a few, like us, that sported bare faces. The men all danced with women who wore barely decent gowns and looked like pale replicas of Lydia. The girls were working tonight, then.

“We’re in.”

Mark’s whispered statement was warm against my ear and I closed my eyes for a second, wishing us to be anywhere else in the world, wishing for more time. A little privacy would have been nice too.

“What’s next?” I spoke the words against his throat.

“We dance, then we head upstairs.”

“What’s upstairs?”

“I have no idea.”

“Oh.” Wonderful.

And so it went. Around and around we twirled, weaving in and out among fellow couples. I stared from one face to the next; everyone glittered under the light from the cut prism diamonds of the chandelier.

But it was a facade. It was easier to see once I looked deeper than first glance. Most of the men’s eyes were over bright with anticipation and an emotion that I couldn’t name, but one that made my skin crawl just the same. Beneath the paint and the charm, I imagined that the women looked…resigned. They were harder to read than the men, though, so it was difficult to be certain.

Most everyone appeared to fall under the lull of the music that came seemingly from nowhere, and yet was everywhere. No one seemed to notice when, as the third waltz began, Mark and I slipped quietly away from the crowd and made our way up the wide curving staircase at the edge of the room. I smiled at some inane comment he made and moved a little closer to him, all the while keeping my expression light and playful, my steps unhurried. The most important thing was to blend in, to look as if we belonged wherever we happened to be at the moment. That was the trick to not getting caught up in our elaborate charade—to not arouse suspicion in the first place.

We reached the landing, and Mark pulled me to a stop, pressing me into the wall at the top of the stairwell, and leaning in for a kiss that left me breathless. He pressed me into the wall at the top of the stairwell.

“What was that for?” I murmured.

“In case anyone below is watching, there’s no question of why we’re up here. And we’re likely to be left alone.”

“Oh.” I was disappointed. Not that it wasn’t a sensible plan.

“Don’t think I couldn’t stand here and do this all night,” he grinned, reading my thoughts.

“But we have a job to do—yeah, I know.” I smiled back, trying not to show any hint of unease at the reminder.

It wasn’t long before we figured out what the upstairs was used for. The sounds of budding passion could be heard from at least three of the six bedrooms that ran the length of the hallway. The opposite end of the second floor opened into a large room with books lining one wall and a large floral print sectional sofa taking up an entire corner of the room. The ceiling was mirrored.

“Now this—this is class.”

“Hah,” Mark snorted, making quick work of placing two bombs in the darkest corner. One he attached under the wide ledge of the windowsill, the other he simply slid beneath the couch.

“Hallway?”

“Two on this end. One by the bathroom and the other just before the stairwell.”

“Okay,” I nodded, slipping from the room and pretending to use the restroom, then walking softly down the carpeted hall, looking for the perfect spot. There, where the stair railing curved over the wall a mere six inches from the landing. I slid the tiny disk-like device under the rail, my finger pressing in the button that would activate the bomb.

Mark met up with me in the hall and we made our way across the entire second story of the house, taking care not to disturb the occupied rooms. By the time we were ready to make our way downstairs, enough charges had been placed to blow the entire roof from the house.

“Mark, look.” I paused at the end of the hall, pointing to a large rectangle in the ceiling.

“An attic,” he nodded.

“Should we…?”

“No. Although I would love to know what’s up there. But there’s no time.”

“Yeah, you’re right. That would be overkill anyway.”

“We’d better head downstairs now. The charges are set to blow in twenty minutes. We don’t have much time left.”

Oh Lord. “Right.” I swallowed, heading for the stairs, only to stop a second later. “Mark.”

He raised a brow, but said nothing.

“The women up here…” I shivered. “We have to get them out.” But we wouldn’t—perhaps couldn’t.

I knew that even before he confirmed it.

“There’s no time.”

“But—”

“They made their choices just like the rest of us, and we can’t blow our cover. Now let’s go.” His face took on a hard edge, the expression of the warrior I’d encountered on the mountain.

I took a deep breath. “No.”

“Claire, we don’t have time for this.”

“Make time.”

“I can’t.” He glared.

“I’m not leaving them here.” I took a deep breath and bit my lip before taking a step toward the occupied rooms. “I’ll stay with them, then.” I wouldn’t, and I was sure he knew it too. But I was hoping that he also knew how important this was to me. I hated the fact that I was putting his life in danger, but leaving these women up here to die, without any hope—well, it wasn’t right.

“I can’t save them.”

“Please,” I begged. Then, when he shook his head, I lifted my chin. “Fine, then I will.”

“Damn it.” He turned his back on the stairway and stalked to the first closed door.

I followed behind him and watched as he strode into the room and quickly put the man out of commission. He bound the man with a set of shoelaces and used bedding to create a gag. I spoke softly but swiftly to the wide-eyed woman, who sat frozen in the middle of the double bed.

“Please dress and rejoin the party downstairs as quickly as you can,” I told her in a soothing tone.

Mark had another method of persuasion. “Unless you want to die, you’ll tell no one what you saw here, is that clear?”

And so it went for the remaining two rooms at the end of the hall. Three men were tied up and gagged, unconscious, and three women hastened to rejoin the ball on the main floor of the house, terrified to speak to anyone about what they’d witnessed. I stared at the clock. Six minutes had elapsed. We had to hurry, and I said as much to Mark.

“Claire, wait.”

I turned back, raising one brow in question.

“I’m proud of you, tonight, and for what you just did, even if it ends up getting us killed and ruins our entire mission. And…I love you.”

“You…love me? Oh no. You’re doing this now? Oh my God, we’re going to die, aren’t we? That’s why you’re telling me this now.”

“Hey, hey, stop that,” he chided, both arms circling my waist until his hands rested at the small of my back. “We’re not going to die. Okay?”

“Uh-huh,” I murmured, thoroughly unconvinced. I kissed him anyway before we made our way down the stairs at a steady pace. “Hey.”

“Yeah?”

“I love you too.”

Four minutes later, we were casually strolling the wide porch that wrapped around the back of the house, shielded from the road and from prying eyes in general. There were very few guards posted out here, and only a smattering of other couples were out enjoying the night air. Most were inside dancing, and the excitement was a palpable thing now, for both Mark and myself, and the occupants of the ball.

They were excited because the famous, or infamous, auction was about to take place in five short minutes.

We were nervous as hell because we were running out of time. To the casual onlooker, I could only hope that we looked sexually frustrated, and not like a couple of party crashers who were up to no good.

“Oh, would you look at that moon?” Mark took my elbow and steered us toward the south end of the porch, near the guard shacks.

“Oh my. It’s so big and bright tonight. Perfect for a romantic evening, don’t you think?” I gushed, resting my head on his shoulder and sticking a disk below the waist-high porch railing.

“Mmm,” he agreed, idly fingering the smooth wooden rail before smiling down at me and nodding toward the double doors that would take us back into the ballroom. “I wonder if Lydia’s free to discuss a little business.”

“I don’t know,” I mused. “The auction starts in a few minutes.”

“All the more reason to find her now.”

As luck would have it, she found us nearly the instant we walked through the door.

“I trust you’re both enjoying yourselves?”

“Oh yes,” I was quick to assure our host. “We’re having a lovely time.”

“We were actually just coming to find you. We’re hoping to steal you away from your guests for a moment.”

“The auction is about to start. I had hoped to catch up to you a little earlier, but we can talk after, in my study.”

“That’s what we were hoping to speak with you about,” I hastily added, improvising as we made our way through the ballroom and into a much smaller room where men gathered together over cards and cigars.

“Oh?” She faced me, and I got the sense, once again, that she was looking into me somehow.

“Yes, the auction is a fine tradition, of course.” I thought fast, knowing that we would need access to the girls who were set to be sold to the highest bidder. That was the final phase of our plan, unless we wanted to leave them to be blown up, which we didn’t. “But we were hoping to teach the girls a quick little musical number,” I finished, smothering a groan. A musical number? It sounded pathetic even to my own ears. Mark, bless him, didn’t move a muscle, but instead put on a smile and nodded next to me.

“A musical number?”

“A quick performance. It’s only a couple of steps really, and very erotic. In Coztal, it’s done for good luck.” I continued to bullshit, all the while praying my face wasn’t turning beet red. “Many believe it brings luck and good fortune to the auction.”

“Good fortune, hmmm…” That seemed to snag Lydia’s attention, as I’d hoped it would.

“It certainly showcases the girls’ assets,” Mark added with a wink.

“Yes, so if we may…”

“Oh, why not,” Lydia decreed, clapping her hands together and motioning for us to follow. “Can you do it in ten minutes?”

“Might we have the other girls as well?” I pointed to the large cluster of women who were lined up along the wall now that the dancing had come to an end. Three of the women stared at us with fearful expressions, but to my utter relief, it appeared that they had at least kept silent.

“Sure, why not. Go with them,” she addressed her staff.

“We only need a few minutes,” I told her, which was true enough. A glance at the clock told me that five minutes was all we had left to get the girls and get out before…bad things happened. Ignoring the cold, clammy feeling that washed over me, I followed Mark, who followed Lydia to a standard-sized white doorway at the rear of the house.

“The girls ready for the auction are gathered here in the kitchen,” she told us. “I’ll go and tell our guests that we’re in for a special performance tonight. Try not to take too long.”

She was gone. Mark tapped his wrist once as we pushed through the door and came face to face with what had to be a hundred girls. The message was clear enough. We were running out of time and would have to be quick.

The girls looked to range in age from preteen to maybe eighteen or nineteen. Young. All wore expressions of fear and mistrust in varying degrees. Most were holding it together fairly well, I thought, all things considered. I had been in their shoes and understood full well the fear and uncertainty they were feeling right then.

“Fucking hell,” Mark swore, and I spun around.

“Sweetheart, come here. It’s okay.” He was down on one knee, speaking slowly and calmly to a girl half hidden by a tall, thin brunette teenager. The child looked to be about eight or nine. Maybe. I cringed, disgusted to the depths of my soul. Focus on the child, I told myself. Think of her, see her, memorize every detail of her face. Don’t think about the nameless, faceless people in the other room. Remember what the monsters did to Aries. What they would surely do to the child Mark was trying to coax…to the rest of these girls, many undoubtedly stolen from their families. It had to stop. Tonight. Now.

“Okay, ladies,” I began when the last of the women from the parlor had filtered into the kitchen to stand with those waiting for the auction, addressing the large crowd while Mark picked up the skittish and terrified child. “Listen up and listen good. There are bombs—explosives—rigged all over this property. You all have,” I paused, “three minutes to get out and away from this house before it blows. Does that door lead to the backyard?” I nodded toward the back of the kitchen. Heads nodded.

“Great. Stay quiet, everyone, and go out that door. Run until you reach the edge of the forest. Don’t stop, don’t look back. There will be people waiting there to help you. Run straight back. Do not run by the guard shacks.”

“Two minutes, Claire.”

“Shit. Let’s go, people, and stay—”

The stampede of screaming girls was deafening.

“Quiet,” I finished lamely. “Shit, damn, hell!”

“Claire!”

“I’m sorry!” I yelled back.

“Not that! Let’s get out of here!” Mark shouted back, shoving a heavy mobile counter that was covered in crystal flutes toward the door, blocking, at least temporarily, anyone from entering the kitchen.

Blue liquid spilled from the delicate stemmed cups and sloshed over the rims of the ones that hadn’t been overturned onto the floor. I watched for a second as though frozen in place.

Then my mind seemed to scream one minute left! in panic. We ran, following the shrieking girls into the night, ignoring the shouts of guards that were running around the side of the house. Aries, ever true to her word, along with the other fairies, began to pick them off one by one from the edge of the forest. Soldiers emerged from the dark woods and were hastily ushering girls deeper into the forest, to safety.

We reached the trees edge just as the night burst into flames behind us. Everyone stopped to watch as bits and pieces of wood splintered and windows shattered. The guard shacks, the main house…all of it gone, along with its mistress.

Aries walked toward us, stopped at the edge of the yard, and watched it burn for a full minute before nodding and walking away.

“Let’s get these girls back to the shelter.”

“And the little one?” I indicated the little girl who stared, transfixed by the flames and thick black smoke that curled into the night.

“We should take her with us. For tonight at least. Until we can figure out where she belongs,” he sighed, shifting around to block the wreckage from her direct line of sight.

“Good plan,” I nodded, slipped off my shoes, and with a final look back at the damage we had wrought, followed our group into the forest.

 

Chapter Eleven

Promises

 

The trek back to Grandview flew by, literally, with the help of the fairies, and we hiked up the hill to Bob and Marta’s in what was probably less than twenty minutes. I pondered that as Mark, Aries, the little girl, and I took the porch steps two at a time and entered the house. It took about that much time to effectively put an end to Lydia’s entire operation, and to make a serious dent in the number of guards Kahn had spent years recruiting. It was still a lot to process, and there was no time to dwell on it right then.

We hadn’t even had time to close the heavy lead glass front door behind us before a small blur of purple, sporting dark hair, flew into us and clung for all she was worth.

“Mama! Mark!”

“Ashley, baby!” I dropped down to scoop her up.

“Eww, you smell like smoke,” she complained, her little nose wrinkled as she pulled away.

“Sorry.” I shrugged, unsure as to how to explain that one. I was pretty sure telling her we just blew up a whore house would have been a major parenting faux pas. “Are you still glad to see me?”

“Yes!”

“Well, it’s about time!”

“Hi Marta, Bob.” Mark stood behind us, grinning.

“I take it the night was a success?” Bob eyed us with equal parts concern and hope.

“Yes,” Mark told the small group that gathered around us.

“And who’s this?” Marta demanded, stepping forward.

“We found her at the party.”

“Son of a—”

“Will you take her to the kitchen to get something to eat?” Mark quickly spoke over Marta’s outrage.

“Of course. Give her to me. Come to Marta,” she crooned at the cowering child. “Everything’s okay now. You’re safe.”

“Is that my new sister?” Ashley wanted to know.

“Ah…” I glanced up at Mark.

“Maybe,” he told my daughter with a wink. “Would you like that?”

“Yep. You’ll be her new daddy too, right?”

“Maybe,” he answered. “We’ll see. She might already have a family somewhere.”

“What?” I demanded. “New daddy?”

“Uh-huh. Mark said he would be my new daddy. Isn’t that great?”

I spun around to face him. “You told her that?” I gritted through a smile that was for Ashley’s benefit alone.

“It was supposed to be a secret.”

“I’m going to kill you.”

“Hey, Ash, Bob says you have a surprise outside for your mom and Mark,” Aries called out from the dining room.

“Oh, yeah—come on, guys!” The child bounded from the room, all smiles and exuberant energy.

“Claire…”

“This isn’t over, Mark. Not by a long shot,” I warned him. The nerve of the man to tell my child such a thing, I fumed.

“Are you guys coming or what?” Ashley called from the back door.

“Yes!” Mark and I answered together.

“I mean to marry you, you know.”

“Mark,” I whispered, floored at the announcement, though maybe I shouldn’t have been. What flowed between us was…special. It had been from day one and nothing, not even time and distance, had really diminished that.

“Come on.” The words were soft spoken. “Let’s go see our big surprise.”

The backyard was filled with fairies and nymphs, and a picnic table had been set up under a cluster of trees in the middle of the yard. They took a step back and seemed to whisper to the trees, and in the next instant, the entire area was bathed in soft, twinkling light.

“Look, Mama! They’re real magic fairies! Just like Tinkerbell!”

“Ah…” I gripped Marks shoulder for support and decided not to tackle that particular comment right then.

“Ashley, did you plan this special dinner for us?”

“Yep, and I cooked it too. Steak and taters. Well, Marta helped a little,” she added slyly.

“Thank you, sweetheart. You’re the best kid in the whole world, you know that?”

“Ashley, come on inside and give the grown-ups a little privacy. It’s time for a bedtime story,” Marta called out from the back stoop.

“Coming! Goodnight, Mama! Goodnight, Mark!” she yelled, racing through the grass and up the porch steps with enthusiasm only a child could possess.

“Come on, ladies, time to get some sleep; let these two have a moment alone,” Aries told her group.

“Wait.” I stopped them. “Why did you guys go to so much trouble? And when?”

“We set everything up earlier this afternoon before we left for Oxborough. We wanted the two of you to have a real date tonight,” Aries grinned.

“Thank you, all of you.”

“Goodnight.” The others waved before disappearing into the house, leaving Mark and me completely and blessedly alone for the first time all day.

“Dinner?” He winked, gallantly pulling out a chair for me.

“Yes, I’m starving,” I admitted. “I’m still mad at you, though.”

“Are you really?”

“No,” I sighed after a moment. “You shouldn’t have told Ashley something like that, though. You’ll get her hopes up. And if it doesn’t work out…”

“But what if it does?”

“I can’t stay here,” I reminded him. “Ashley and I will have to go back to our own world, eventually.”

“Then I’ll go with you and Ashley.”

“You don’t mean that.” I swallowed, not daring to hope.

“I’ve meant every word I’ve ever said to you. Every promise.”

“You’d go with us? What about your job here? The whole ‘warrior of the ruins’ gig—it’s kind of important, you know.” Honesty dictated I remind him of that, no matter how badly I wanted to say, “yes, follow us wherever we go.”

“You’re more important.” His answer was simple.

“I don’t know what to say.”

“Just say you won’t disappear.”

“Okay.” I nodded, feeling emotions I’d thought were only possibly to feel for my child and immediate family. Protectiveness, pride…love.

After the steak and two glasses of wine, Mark offered his hand to me for the second time that evening.

“Will you have a real dance with me, Claire?”

“Of course.” I followed him to a big maple tree that was lit by a thousand tiny golden lights and we danced underneath its lush canopy.

“You were amazing tonight.”

“So were you.”

And with that, the night melted away.

***

I woke to the sound of birdsong and Marta moaning and groaning about drunks. The first thing I noticed was that sitting up took considerably more effort than I was used to; the second revelation came in the form of grass wet with morning dew plastered to my backside. We were outside. Mark lay next to me, quiet and still and staring down at me with the hint of a smile forming on his mouth.

“Hey you.”

“Good morning. I think,” I told him, wincing and trying to sit up for several long, embarrassing moments. Finally, I was forced to admit defeat and execute a most unladylike turn and roll, climb to my knees, then lean back into a crouch before finally standing up. Mark, damn him, didn’t suffer any such issues with his own mobility. All he had to do was bend at the waist and push off the ground and he was on his feet. Then again, he was probably in better physical shape than I was, though I was in better than average shape myself. Yesterday’s excursion must have taken more out of me than I’d realized.

“Sore?” he asked, doing a slow perusal of my hunched over form. Then to Marta, “We aren’t drunk, or suffering the after-effects. Claire and I fell asleep out here, looking at the stars and talking.”

“Who falls asleep in the backyard?” Marta shook her head, bending to retrieve a forest-green cloth napkin that had blown off the table sometime during the night before.

“People who gaze at the stars under a full moon, people in love,” Mark told her, grinning like a fool.

“Uh-huh. I’m sure all that went on out here last night was star gazing. No, no don’t tell me. Mark, don’t you dare tell me,” the old woman warned as Mark opened his mouth to reply.

“I could really use a cup of coffee,” I broke in before the intimate details of my love life could be spilled all over the backyard in front of the woman who was, for all intents and purposes, Mark’s mother.

“Where’s Ashley?” I asked, feeling a little guilty for falling asleep under the stars and, if the sun being high in the clear blue sky was any indication, sleeping in while other people took care of my little girl.

“She’s in the kitchen with Sienna. They’re drawing pictures together.”

“Thanks,” I said a bit sheepishly.

“What are you thanking me for? I told you Bob and I would take care of her.”

“The other child’s name is Sienna?” Mark asked as we followed Marta through the back door and into the brightly lit kitchen.

“So she tells us. What are we going to do with her?” She lowered her voice, glancing pointedly at the pair of dark-haired children seated at the butcher-block table, a small array of colored charcoal pencils and two big sheets of paper between them.

“Hi Mama, hi Mark!” Ashley chirped without taking her eyes off the picture she was so diligently working on.

“Claire and I need to talk to the child,” Mark murmured, taking my hand and approaching the small table. Marta seemed to fade into the background, and from the corner of my eye I noticed her take out several mixing bowls and a large tin of flour.

“Sienna?” Mark knelt down to address our newest charge, sighing when she all but jumped from her seat in response. “My name is Mark and this is Claire.”

“I’m Ashley’s mom.”

“We need to talk to you, Sienna. Will you come into the study with us?”

Several tense, drawn out moments passed, and just when I was sure the child would refuse to go down the hall with us, let alone into the study, Ashley leaned close to her newfound friend and threw one tiny arm around the girl.

“It’s okay, Seena. My mom’s really nice, and Mark is going to be my daddy someday. They won’t hurt you.”

The heartfelt honesty in the reassurance, especially coming from another child, seemed to break through the last vestiges of resistance that Sienna was so obviously struggling with. She scooted her chair back and stood awkwardly in front of us. Mark and I shared a glance—she still refused to look directly at either one of us. What had been done to this child before we had found her? The possibilities were wrenching to consider.

“Don’t worry, I won’t let anyone touch your paper,” Ash promised, though who was even around to touch the half-finished picture of a sharp-fanged stick figure was beyond me. With a final glance at the crudely drawn but grisly portrait, I turned to follow Sienna and Mark into the study.

Sienna broke into a full run the minute she entered the room and the door closed behind the three of us, not stopping until she reached the sofa that bordered one wall. It was there that she plunked herself down, drew her knees up to her chest, and finally dared to look at us. The wary expression in her dark gray eyes nearly broke my heart, and a quick backward glance at Mark told me that he was affected in much the same way. That we would have to proceed cautiously with this one went without saying.

“Mark?”

“Maybe it would be better if you start,” he said with a nod.

“Sienna, dear, you’re safe here. I promise that no one will hurt you. We only want to talk with you, so that we can figure out where you came from and where you belong. Will you talk with us?” I asked the girl, keeping my voice light and easy and pulling one of the high-backed chairs over to the couch. Behind me, Mark did the same, but positioned his a good couple of feet further from the sofa than mine.

“Do you have any parents?” I questioned, forging ahead when Sienna remained woefully silent.

“Yes.”

“Oh.” I sat back, surprised for some reason. I guess I had expected the girl to have spoken up by now, to Ashley if not to us, if she had a mother and a father waiting for her…somewhere. If she had been stolen, as we had initially suspected.

“Well…they must be missing you like crazy right about now,” I said.

Mark frowned when Sienna merely shrugged and continued to look miserable.

“Maybe they miss me.”

“Oh…” What was going on here?

“How did you end up at the auction?” I asked, trying another approach, though I wasn’t sure if she was old enough to know that she’d been bound for the auction last night or be able to connect the dots and fully comprehend what that meant.

“My mom put me in it.”

Okay, so apparently she did know what I was talking about. And what kind of mother volunteered her own child for something like that? Somehow, I managed to suppress the rage that swept through my entire being like a hot flash from hell. One look at Mark’s stony expression told me we might not be so lucky to get the same silent acceptance from him. I shot him a warning glance, one which I could only hope said “don’t start ranting and scare the kid—at least not while she’s still in the room” before promptly turning my attention back to the little girl.

“Why would your mother put you in the auction?”

“She said it was time to earn a living, like her.”

Like her, I thought, stunned. So Sienna’s mom had been one of Lydia’s girls, then. I took a moment to digest that one.

“Do you know what your mother does for a living?” Mark asked in a voice that was at direct odds with the murderous rage in his eyes.

“Mark,” I muttered under my breath. “Too far.” But Sienna answered anyway, eyes downcast.

“Yes.”

“I see,” Mark nodded, looking thoroughly disgusted now.

“What about your father?” I had to ask, even though I felt that we could safely assume the answer to that particular question. It would be a miracle if the child knew who her father was. Then again, maybe the true miracle would be if she didn’t know her father. After hearing about the mother, it was almost scary to contemplate who Sienna’s dad might have been, assuming he was still alive, and that was if we could find him, or the mother for that matter. What a mess.

“I don’t know.” She answered much as we anticipated, and I nearly breathed a sigh of relief. One less problem to worry about.

“Okay,” Mark sighed and scrubbed a hand over his face. “That’s all we needed to know. You can go back to the kitchen now, if you’d like.”

“Yeah,” I chimed in, trying for a positive tone. “I think I smell cookies baking.”

“Okay…what’s going to happen to me?”

“We’re going to talk about that, I promise,” Mark told her, kneeling once more so that he was at eye level with the girl. “Claire and I need to discuss a few things first. But I don’t want you to worry about anything. No matter what happens, we will make sure that you’re very well taken care of. And safe.”

The answer seemed to satisfy her, and she walked from the room, shoulders slumped but looking less terrified than when she’d come in, and that was something, I figured. Right then, we would take any improvement that we could get, no matter how small.

The minute that we heard Sienna’s footsteps moving down the hall, and the subsequent return of normal conversation in the kitchen, both Mark and I allowed the our polite masks to fall away and proceeded to curse like sailors.

“Do you believe this?”

“That a prostitute would allow her child to be sold to the sex trade?” Mark slammed his palm against the wall. “Yeah, a real surprise.”

“I don’t know what’s more disturbing, that she sold the girl or that she was willing to work beside her, so to speak. What the hell?”

“I wish I knew, Claire. The whole thing is disgusting.”

“Yeah.” I couldn’t have agreed more. “But what are we going to do now?”

“Find her mother. If we can.”

“You mean if she wants to be found,” I muttered.

“Yes.” The word was clipped.

“Okay, so what are we going to do if we find this woman?” Not that I particularly wanted to hear the answer to that question. But since Sienna was our responsibility, even temporarily, then it stood to reason we should have a plan.

“We try and get her to tell us who the girl’s father is, assuming she knows.”

“And what if this…this woman wants Sienna? What if she wants to take her away?”

“I highly doubt that’s likely to happen.”

“What makes you say that?”

“Think back to last night, Claire. When we entered the kitchen.”

“No one tried to go to Sienna.” The light dawned and my heart bled a little more for the girl.

“That’s right,” Mark said bitterly. “And from the time I picked her up to the time we arrived back here, she didn’t act as though she recognized anyone in particular.”

“And she would surely know most of the women who worked for Lydia, but if she had seen her mother, she would have tried to run to her, or call out…something.”

“Right. So it’s probably a pretty safe bet that Sienna’s mother wasn’t in the building; it’s possible she didn’t work for Lydia, then.”

“True.” I bit my lip.

“Don’t you dare feel sorry for that woman, Claire. She made her choices, just like everybody else.”

“I know, but—” But it was hard not to feel sad.

“She sold her own child,” Mark reminded me, taking hold of my arm.

“I know.” I nodded, the remorse fading a little.

“No regrets?”

“No.” I managed a smile. “I guess not.”

“You guess not?”

“None about you, anyway.” I swiftly changed the subject. “How’s that?”

“I’ll take it. For now.”

“What happens next?”

“We could get married,” he suggested casually, though his gaze was fastened on mine.

“Just like that, huh? You aren’t going to get down on one knee? Recite a poem? Something?” I teased at his blank look.

“Is that how it’s done in your world?”

“No, only in books,” I laughed, throwing both arms around his neck.

“Is that a yes?” He buried his face in my hair, inhaling long and slow and deep.

“Yes,” I confirmed.

“I can recite a poem, if you still want me to,” he offered.

“Hmmm…tempting, but maybe later. What do you say we just go tell the rest of the family instead?”

“I’ve got a better idea. Why don’t we elope today?”

“Elope?” I croaked, pulling away from him. “That’s a joke, right?”

“I’m dead serious, Claire,” he murmured, tracing my bottom lip with one finger. “Let’s do it. Today. Right now.”

“But…I don’t have a dress.” The words were absurd, I knew, especially when weighed against everything else. Little insignificant things like getting married without my daughter—or my brother and sister and parents…I realized, shocked and a little shamed that it must have sounded to Mark that my loved ones had just been ousted in my personal ranking by a dress.

But Mark just slung an arm around my shoulder and laughed because, well…he knew me, I realized. Well enough to know that my family meant everything in the world—in two worlds—to me. And well enough to know when to take me seriously and when to laugh and shrug it off.

“Isn’t it…wrong…to get married without anyone there?”

“Maybe. But think what a surprise it will be for everyone when we get back.”

“Well,” I considered, longing to throw caution to the wind and just say yes, “you’ll follow me, and Ashley, everywhere?”

“We’ll never be apart, I promise you. Come on, Claire,” he whispered, low and husky. “Have an adventure with me.”

“Let’s do it,” I whispered back, and squeezed his hand. For better or for worse…

 

Chapter Twelve

Reprieve

 

We were married in the ruins in a little known, all but unfrequented spot high atop the mountain.

According to Mark—and the handful of townspeople who had insisted on accompanying the magistrate—we were standing, and would be wed, on sacred ground. Married. I was about to get married. The words whispered over and over again through my mind, a mantra that changed in tone and tempo on our way up the mountain, sometimes a constant litany and sometimes chanted silently in tune with each step taken until finally, we had reached our destination. Married…

No one knew better than I did that it was usually never too late to run if that was your best option.

But one look at the earnest hope that was plain for all to see in Mark’s eyes, and I knew that I wouldn’t turn tail and bolt—and it had nothing to do with the high probability of injuring myself or falling off the mountain in my heels should I have been tempted to run for it. Any bride would have been a little nervous to elope, right? I thought I remembered reading somewhere that the “runaway bride” that had been on the receiving end of so much media coverage several years ago in my own world had been one of those “long engagement” brides. I thought on this as the eager townspeople positioned themselves into a tight knit semi-circle around us in preparation for the ceremony. Maybe that was the difference between normal wedding jitters and fleeing from a church with an angry groom and massively confused wedding party in hot pursuit. Time. It made sense in a crazy sort of way. I mean, how many times has someone stopped in the middle of not thinking of the implications of one thing or another in order to have a change of heart? Almost never.

“Claire.”

“Hmm?” I glanced sideways at my intended.

“You’re doing it again,” he said in a tone laced with amusement.

“What?” I asked, struggling in shame to remember if he’d just asked me a pressing question, and shooting a fast look at the holy man, who, thankfully, was still arranging his ceremonial robes.

“That.” He traced a finger along my jaw. “You’re daydreaming. Not thinking of running, are you?”

“No,” I said, perhaps a bit too hastily. I hadn’t been considering it, not really. But still, once again, Mark seemed to get into my head and his question hit a little too close to home. “I was just thinking that people who elope usually don’t give themselves time to run,” I candidly admitted.

“I see.” His lips twitched briefly and he looked away, out toward the horizon off the farthest edge of the mountain ledge. “And would you run if you gave yourself enough time to think it over?” he questioned in a speculative tone.

“No.” I was truthful. “I don’t believe I would run if I had a million years to think about it.”

“Well, that’s good because you’d never make it off the side of this mountain in those shoes.”

“Mark!” I choked back the laughter and dared a glance at the magistrate before whispering, “What about you?”

“No,” he whispered back. “I don’t think I’d make it either. Face it, Claire, we’re just not dressed for it.”

I shook my head, then linked arms with him when we were motioned forward. The ceremony was about to begin.

“Mark and Claire, you wish to be joined together?”

“Yes,” we answered.

The elderly magistrate smiled his approval and asked us to join our left hands, and then he opened an old, faded brown leather book and began to speak in a language that I could not understand. Keeping my head bowed so as not to disturb the ceremony, I peeked up and to the side, catching Mark’s eye immediately and raising one brow in question. He smiled in answer and gave my fingers a light squeeze—apparently all was well. The man before us continued reciting from the book he held open with gnarled hands. Maybe it was Terlain’s equivalent to Latin, I speculated, keeping silent. The ceremony was no less beautiful because I couldn’t understand a word the magistrate was saying, no less special because of its haste. It didn’t take long before I was swept up in the magic. I let the words flow over me and through me, and the breeze was cool and crisp and cleansing all at once. I drank it in, wishing I could freeze time, take a picture, and remember all of it forever, to be relived over and over again. Every scent, every word, every sound was committed to memory in those precious seconds.

When the magistrate fell silent, Mark and I looked up expectantly, our hands still linked together. I was pretty sure that Mark looked up because he was familiar with the marriage ritual and whatever was to come next; I looked up because the man had stopped reading from his book, and everyone else seemed to be staring at him right then. What was next? Were we supposed to say something like we would have done back home? I do? I will? Maybe even just a simple “yes?” I didn’t have the slightest clue, so I stayed silent, smiling slightly at Mark and watching for an opportunity to take his lead.

The magistrate closed the book and set it aside on the ridge next to where we stood; he took my right hand and placed it carefully in Mark’s, and an old woman from the village came to stand next to him. She held the bloom of a giant white flower in her hands and she had the kindest eyes I’d ever seen. The woman cupped her hands around the blossom, clutched it tight, and raised both arms high above our heads. I leaned a little closer to Mark, uncertain, and in the next instant, the woman gave a joyous shout and opened her hands to release a burst of glitter that rained down upon our heads.

“Wow!” I exclaimed, grinning up into Mark’s face and gripping his shoulders with both hands.

“The marriage blossom,” he explained, brushing a fleck of glitter off my nose before pressing a kiss to my lips amid a backdrop of laughter and applause from our small crowd of witnesses.

“My wife,” he murmured, staying close.

“Mark…” My eyes widened. A large group was headed our way. I watched them materialize through the mist, becoming more solid with each step. Women, I finally noted, pulling away from my new husband long enough to grip his arm and turn him toward the procession. The magistrate fell silent, as did the townspeople. Even Mark watched the scene with a grim calm that was alarming.

“I don’t believe it,” he muttered, moving to stand in front of me.

“Mark?” I whispered, straining to see the women in black over his shoulder. They were closer now, almost upon us, but their faces were mostly obscured by the dark cloaks they were all garbed in. “Who are those women?” Visions of jealous old girlfriends danced absurdly in my head and I smothered the urge to laugh. Judging by the anxious, half-fearful expressions on the townspeople’s faces behind us, the situation was nothing to joke about.

“I think they’re the Matrons.”

“The Matrons,” I breathed, reverent and excited all at once. “Wait.” I frowned. “You think?”

“No one that I know of has ever seen them in person like this,” he explained, still radiating tension.

“Oh.” I couldn’t believe it. “Well, are they violent?” I asked, though from everything I had read last year in my brother’s notes, they weren’t reported to be.

“Not that I’ve ever heard.”

“Well, then quit blocking me!” I demanded, darting around his shoulder to stand next to him. “I want to see too.”

“Get behind me, Claire.”

“Yeah, right.”

“You might get hurt.”

“You just said they aren’t violent.”

“There’s always a first time for everything,” he insisted, trying to shove me behind his back once more.

“Stop,” the tallest black-cloaked woman intoned.

“See?” I muttered to my irate husband. “She told you.” As far as I was concerned, these Matrons were all right.

“Damn it, Claire,” he whispered furiously before falling silent.

“Shut up. You’re being rude,” I whispered back.

“Be silent, both of you!” the magistrate pleaded quietly from somewhere behind us.

There were twelve of them and they stood in two rows of six. I gasped when, as one, they all reached back to lower the hoods of their cloaks. All were older, but still very beautiful, and all had long bright hair that reminded me of liquid silver. They all wore identical expressions of calm efficiency that probably would have been downright scary had I not already been somewhat familiar with them; as it was, their unflappable statures and silence was still very much unnerving, but I stood tall and proud next to Mark, vaguely aware of him doing the same thing beside me. What were they doing at our wedding, of all places? Not that I wasn’t honored, but the Matrons were basically the ultimate high council of Terlain, though from what I could tell, they often deigned not to interfere with the people of Terlain. They had been notably absent during the most recent uprising of Kahn and his men, yet here they were at my wedding?

Somehow, I doubted it was a social call that brought the reclusive Matrons to the mountain, to us.

“There was a wedding here today.” The middle one spoke in a clear voice.

“There was.” I smiled at her, hoping that they couldn’t tell how nervous I felt. “You just missed it. You’re the Matrons, aren’t you?”

They nodded. “And you’re Claire Roberts.”

I nodded in return, feeling the anxiety bloom larger than the enormous wedding flower—hopefully, I wouldn’t explode in a flurry of glitter, although right at that moment I felt like anything was possible. So they knew me on sight. The Matrons had come to talk to me then. I felt the tension flowing from Mark in waves and his almost imperceptible shift toward me, and knew that I was correct in my assumption.

“You’ve come for me,” I stated, deciding to take the bull by the horns and just come out with it, get it over with.

“We’ve come to see the woman who’s caused so much talk in our world—and the man.” They spoke as one, perfectly in sync with one another. “It’s good to meet the Warrior of the Ruins. You’ve done well. The evil one’s flame is almost extinguished now.”

“Kahn?” I asked, addressing the question to the woman who stood front and center. She was the only one who had spoken without the others, so I felt safe in assuming she played some sort of leadership role within the group, though it was impossible to be certain without knowing more about their infrastructure.

“His army is all but obliterated,” the leader informed us. “The few that remain alive have scattered to the forests to run and hide.”

“The beasts still run rampant,” Mark countered, seeming somewhat less anxious.

“Yes,” the woman agreed. “There is much yet to be done.”

“The fences have failed,” Mark pointed out, his expression grim.

“Yes.”

“Why? I—we, the people of Terlain—thought the spell you cast on them was iron-clad, permanent. Can you tell us what happened?”

“Perhaps it was time for the people to fight,” she answered.

“But what about Kahn himself?” I boldly voiced the question before Mark could say something unwise about the countless lives that were lost, the villages that were heavily damaged or even destroyed. Kahn’s destruction covered a wide swath, and we were still trying to get an accurate body count.

“He’s gone to ground. For now.”

I sensed her response was deliberately cryptic and, more importantly, that she wouldn’t say anything more on the subject. Still, I had to try to glean what information I could from them. After all, it wasn’t likely that we would have a better chance, not with the Matrons anyway.

“He is still a formidable enemy. Although you’re safe for now, it won’t always be so. You must be ready.”

“Now when you say it won’t always be so…” I wet my lips. “Are we talking next week or next month, or maybe, say, twenty years from now?” I asked hopefully.

“Claire,” Mark sighed.

“Right. Sorry.” I bit my lip. “We’ll be ready for him, whenever that time comes.”

“We will stand against him,” Mark agreed, straightening his shoulders.

The woman inclined her head, the barest hint of a smile on her pale lips.

“Can you reinforce the fences?” I asked, almost afraid to hear her answer.

“Perhaps at some point.”

“Oh,” I said, momentarily deflated.

“You have both done very well for the people of Terlain,” she said, bringing us back to the original reason for their visit.

“Thank you.” Mark and I acknowledged the high honor with words that somehow seemed woefully inadequate.

“And thank you for coming here, on our wedding day, to congratulate us. It is an honor that we do not take lightly,” Mark assured the women.

“This is not the only reason why we have come here on this day.” The woman’s eyes zeroed in on me.

“Oh?” Mark queried.

“We’ve come to warn her.”

“Me?” I uttered stupidly. Like they could have meant anyone else.

“You skate between this world and another.”

“I—”

“And you have taken a child from Terlain,” she continued in the same even tone.

“She was an orphan, and I had to take her. And—and she’s mine!”

“Now wait a minute—” Mark began, only to be interrupted.

“The child belongs in Terlain.”

“And I don’t?” I asked bitterly.

“Quite the opposite. It appears you have many ties to our world.” The silver-haired woman regarded me solemnly. “You must choose one world in which to reside. To skirt the line between the two is foolish; the price for doing so is heavy. Consider how much you are willing to lose.”

“I see.” I nodded, wrapping both arms around my waist and feeling a cold chill seep into my bones where sunshine had resided only moments before.

“Now then.” She clapped her hands together and strode to stand before me. “A blessing on your wedding day. May you both enjoy good health and love for many a year to come.” Her fingers brushed lightly over my forehead and she smiled before she repeated the same process on Mark.

“Thank you, Matrons. May you be blessed as well,” Mark murmured, reaching down to take my hand as we watched them turn and walk back into the mist from which they came.

***

“Claire?” Mark eyed me for what had to be at least the tenth time since we’d hiked down the mountain and driven back to Grandview.

“I’m okay,” I assured him, surprised to find that, for the most part, I spoke the truth this time. The combination of physical exertion from the short hike and the drive back to Bob and Marta’s had gone a long way in calming my rattled nerves. Twisting in the seat, I smiled at Mark’s profile as he navigated the car through the grove of trees and up the long, winding driveway that led to the house. “Are you ready to tell everyone about the wedding?”

“I am,” he grinned. “You think they’ll be mad at us for not inviting them?”

“Hmmm,” I considered, tapping a fingernail against my bottom lip. “Well, Aries won’t be, and I’m mostly sure that Ashley will be more excited about having a father than disappointed over missing the wedding ceremony. I’m pretty sure that to a young child, the actual wedding is some boring grown-up thing. Anyway, she’s never been to a wedding, not with me at least, so she probably won’t spend much time thinking about it, other than to ask a question or two. Bob and Marta, now…that may be another story,” I warned him, though surely he had been aware of the fact well beforehand.

“Ouch. You’re probably right about that. I hope Marta isn’t cooking with those big pots and pans.”

“The cast iron?”

“Yeah, those are the ones.” He cringed.

“Don’t worry.” I patted his bicep and stared up at the house with trepidation. “She hardly ever uses that set…”

“Comforting,” he snorted, putting the car in park and leaning over for one last long, slow kiss before we had to face the music.

“Mark?” I stared up at him several moments later. “Ready?”

“Let’s do this.”

***

“You did what?”

“Now, Marta, calm down,” Bob urged, stepping between her and Mark as though he feared for his son’s safety. Hell, he probably did—Marta had a wicked left hook.

“Claire and I are married,” Mark repeated, bending down to catch Ashley when the child launched herself at him. Sienna watched from the edge of the room, wary as ever.

Marta’s anger seemed to ebb at the touching sight and she heaved a sigh, turning to address me.

“Don’t think I’m not happy. The truth is, it’s about time the two of you worked out your differences and finally came to the conclusion the rest of us had a long time ago—the two of you deserve each other. You’re…good for each other.”

“Thank you, Marta,” I said, truly touched by the sentiment.

“I still would’ve liked to have been there,” she grumbled. “And obviously Bob and I have some questions,” she told me, lowering her voice.

“Ah, yes,” Bob broke in. “And there’s the other thing.” He glanced at Marta.

“Yes, there is,” she agreed with a sigh. “I think it’s time.”

“What are you two talking about?” Mark climbed to his feet, holding Ashley with ease.

“Leave the children with one of those half-naked women who keep finding their way into my kitchen,” Marta instructed. “We’ll go into the library and talk privately.”

“Aries is in the kitchen?”

“No, the other two, they’re waiting for her to come back from some place or other.”

“Girls,” I said, bending down to talk to the children. “You heard Marta—into the kitchen for a few minutes okay? We’re going to talk grown-up stuff and then we can all sit down and talk about the wedding and whatever you like.”

“Okay!” Ashley chimed, and pulled Sienna along behind her down the hall. “Come on, let’s go get a cookie,” she said before they disappeared around the corner.

“Shall we?” Bob motioned us down the hall in the opposite direction, toward the library, ushering us into the room and closing the door firmly behind him when we were all seated.

“Okay, now what’s this about?” Mark demanded. “Why all the secrecy?

“Well, now, son, first off, I want to congratulate you and Claire on your marriage. Marta and I think that’s just wonderful. Don’t we, Marta?” Bob glanced at Marta, strain evident in his face.

“Thank you,” I replied graciously, scooting closer to Mark.

“But we can’t help but be curious about where the two of you, and your child—or children,” Bob amended, obviously thinking of Sienna, “will live. You’re all more than welcome to live here, of course,” he was quick to add. “The house is plenty big enough, and you know we would love to have you here, for as long as you want to stay—forever even.”

“What he’s trying to say is this; are you and your wife planning to live here, or in an alternate dimension?” Marta asked dryly.

“Oh, that.” I felt my face heat.

“We haven’t decided,” Mark told them cautiously.

“We’re keeping our options open,” I added, inwardly cringing over the words as the Matrons’ statements echoed in my mind. Mark and I had a lot to talk about later, that was certain.

“I see.” Bob stood and began to pace the room. Marta stared at the carpet, unusually silent.

“What? What are you not saying here?” Mark demanded.

“You can’t leave.” Bob stopped pacing to stare beseechingly at his son.

“Why can’t we leave?”

“Not Claire. You.”

“Claire and I are a package deal now, Father. I can’t believe you’re saying this.”

“I do realize you and Claire are joined together now, and I’ve felt that Claire is a daughter to me for some time now. But, Mark, if you leave Terlain, you leave your people without protection.”

“That’s ridiculous. I’ve created an army!” he protested.

“No, you still do not understand. The army won’t stand a chance against Kahn, not in a direct confrontation.”

“And I will?” Mark was incredulous.

“Yes. You’re the only one who can defeat him. The only one,” Bob repeated, looking his son in the eye as Marta and I remained silent.

“That’s nonsense.”

“No, it’s not.” Bob shook his head.

“Why?”

“Why?” Bob echoed, looking away.

“Yes, why? Why am I the only one who can stop Kahn?”

“Because you’re his son,” Bob stated with quiet dignity. Marta clasped her hands tighter in her lap.

“You’re lying,” Mark whispered, white-faced. “I’m nothing like that monster!”

“I didn’t say you were anything like him,” Bob shot back, every bit as fierce. “But you are his son.”

“How?”

“I found you, all those years ago, that’s true enough, but there’s more to the story. Your mother was with you, in that alleyway.”

“I don’t remember her…”

“No, I imagine not. You were little more than a baby. Four years old at the most. You…” Bob cleared his throat. “You were trying to find food for the both of you, yourself and your mother. I spoke to her, Mark. She took you away from Kahn. She was his prisoner, and she was very ill. She was dying and she wanted to make certain that Kahn’s evil never touched you. She wanted more for you, her son.”

“What was her name? What happened to her?” Mark asked.

“We took her with us, Pamela and I, but we couldn’t save her. She died within hours. I’m sorry, Mark. She never recovered enough to tell us her name. I’m sorry.”

“I can’t believe this.”

“I’m…sorry,” Bob repeated, seeming unsure of himself and at a loss for words.

“Why didn’t you tell me before now?”

“How could we have told you while you were young?” Marta found her voice. “You would have grown up thinking that you were like him, that there was a black mark on your soul.”

“Isn’t there?” he laughed humorlessly.

“Mark!” I gasped. “Don’t even think it.”

“No,” Marta insisted. “Nothing could be further from the truth. You’re the light where he is the dark.

You’ve become my son…just as much as Bob’s over the years.” she swallowed, struggling with emotion.

“And there’s nothing unwholesome about you.”

“You are his opposite. You have chosen to follow your birthmother’s path of good and right. I’ll never know what bravery it must have taken for her to escape with you. No, son, you’re nothing like Kahn save for one very important thing—you equal him in strength.”

“Oh,” I murmured, more to myself than to the others. “You’re Kahn’s kryptonite. I get it.”

“What?”

“Nothing, it just means you can beat him.”

“Claire, I’m sorry.” Mark turned to me. “I didn’t know who I was before I asked you to marry me.”

He looked miserable.

“Shut up, Mark. I know who you are and your real family is right; you’re nothing like Kahn. I would have married you anyway,” I told him, shocked and a little bit saddened that he would think otherwise, even if he’d just been delivered the surprise of a lifetime. No, I reconsidered, taking in his pallor. He looked like his entire world had just been turned upside down and shaken. He hung his head for several long moments before he finally nodded and squeezed my hand.

A knock on the door sounded before anything else could be said, and Aries poked her head around the corner a second later. Mark seemed to pull himself together; he and I took the opportunity of having the five of us all together in one room to fill her and Bob and Marta in on not only the details of our wedding, but our visit from the Matrons.

“Oh, my,” Bob frowned. “What do you think they meant by a price to be paid?”

“I don’t know.” I caught my lip between my teeth. “But I don’t think I should leave Terlain anytime soon. Rather, I don’t think that we should leave anytime soon,” I said, placing a hand on Mark’s sleeve lest he get any more stupid ideas about his blood not being worthy of mine.

“I’m thinking the same thing,” he admitted. “Damn, I’m sorry, Claire.”

“Shh. Don’t be.”

“But your family—”

“You’re all my family too, remember?” I forced a smile for his benefit, but thinking about my family was hard. “It’s not forever, only for right now. We’ll get it all figured out, eventually.”

“I hate to interrupt here, but I’ve got some news I think you’ll all be interested in. Especially you, Claire.”

“What happened, Aries?”

“One of the sprites spotted your brother by the entrance to the portal this morning.”

“What? ” my jaw dropped. “Are you serious? Oh my God, you are. You’re serious. But…how is that possible? Where is he now?” I jumped off the sofa. “We’ve got to find him.”

“He didn’t stay, Claire.”

“He didn’t…”

“He entered the portal and buried this box in the ground, and then left—back through the portal.”

“What in the hell…?” I sank back down next to Mark.

“Wait,” he pointed out, slipping an arm around my shoulders. “I thought you said there was only one key left.”

“There is. At least, I thought there was. Would the portal…stay open, for some reason? If one key is used and still intact in Terlain?”

“I don’t know.” Mark shrugged, glancing around the room to find three identical looks of uncertainty.

“None of us know then.” He exhaled. “I suppose it’s possible. But…I wouldn’t think so. Would you?”

“No,” I shook my head. “Aries, let me see what he left. Maybe he left some answers.”

“Here.”

I took a pocket knife out of my jacket and slit the flaps on the box, pulling the heavy duty cardboard apart to peer at a single sheet of paper and a small burlap sack that was tied with a string.

“He left a note.”

“Read it out loud,” Mark instructed.

“Dear Claire…I hope this note finds you and Ashley well and safe. I know that we agreed on you returning from Terlain in three months, but I’m writing to tell you that won’t be possible. Don’t come back right now.”

I looked up at the anxious faces around me. “He didn’t expect for me to find the package until Ashley and I went to the portal to go back.”

“Looks like. What else does he say?” Mark leaned forward.

“You’re probably wondering how I was able to get a message to you. I have a confession to make, Claire. I destroyed a hardened clay replica I’d made of my key that night. I’m sorry I kept that from you until now. What can I say, great minds think alike? I couldn’t bring myself to destroy it either.”

I glanced up at Aries before turning my attention back to the letter.

“What I wanted to tell you is, this thing with John runs deeper than we thought. I can’t even go to the police, or the FBI. I don’t know who it’s safe for you to trust, Claire. And I fear that the rest of us may be in danger too. If we’re not there with you, Mom and Dad and Megan and her family, by the time you’re reading this, don’t fret—we will be very soon. It looks like a fresh start may be in order. At this point, it’s probably that or the witness protection program. See you soon, Sis. Hug my niece for me and tell her I’ll see her soon too. I hope you’re both safe and that you’ve got what you need, but just in case, there are fifty sapphires in this sack. Sell them if you need currency. Love, Mike.”

“Well…that answers that question, and a few others,” Mark said.

“He’s coming here. My whole family is coming here,” I murmured, clutching the note to my chest like a lifeline.

“There’s something else too,” Aries said, standing up and walking to the door. “I found Sienna’s mother. She doesn’t want her back.”

“Oh!”

“You’re sure?” Mark asked.

“I’m sure. She didn’t even want to know where the child is staying. I’m sorry.”

“I’m not. We’ve got another daughter.”

“Yes, we do.” I managed a real smile then. “Hey, Aries, where are you going?”

“I’ll be back later,” she said shortly, then slipped out the door.

“Is she okay?” Marta hitched a thumb in her direction.

“Yeah, is something wrong?” Mark was concerned.

“She just needs a minute, that’s all.” I smiled ruefully, thinking of Aries and my brother. “I’m sure she’ll be fine.”

“Well, I guess we’ve got everything settled, then,” Marta said, looking eager to get the hell out of the library.

“Yes, looks like. Come on, Marta, let’s leave the newlyweds alone for a minute and go tell Sienna that she’s officially a member of this family.”

“So…what now?” Mark asked once we were alone. “We’ve got a little time before your family gets here.”

“Hmmm…how about a honeymoon?”

“Why, Mrs. Greer, I thought you’d never ask.”

 

 


Return to the Shadows

  • ISBN: 9781310420467
  • Author: Angie West
  • Published: 2016-01-07 05:20:12
  • Words: 63990
Return to the Shadows Return to the Shadows