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BLACK ICE COATED EARTH FROZEN HARD BY NIGHT temperatures that had dropped below freezing, a thin skein of slickness that challenged the grip of his toughened- rawhide boot soles. Yet the Gray Man stepped with grace and ease across the treacherous smoothness, not oblivious to the danger so much as accustomed to it. He passed through the woods along the snow line close by the valley’s rim, only slightly less transparent than the wraiths to which he was so often compared. Amid the dark of the trunks and limbs and the deep green of the conifer needles, he was another of night’s shadows. Until you got close enough to realize he wasn’t a figment of the imagination, but as substantial as the rumors that tracked him in whispers and long silences, and then he was something much more.
Through the night’s slow retreat he passed, watching daybreak lighten the sky above the eastern rim of the valley, so far away it was little more than a hazy glow. He had been walking for several hours, his sleep ended early. Each day found him someplace else, and even though he followed the same route over and over, tracking the rim of the valley from mountain peak to barren ridge to escarpment and back again, he was never bothered by time or speed; only with order. It was given to him to navigate the heights from one mountain pass to another, one valley’s passage to the next, always in search of an opening that led out—or in. The mists that had sealed the valley since the time of the Hawk had not yet receded, but that would change and it would do so in his lifetime.
His dreams had told him so.
The wall that kept the survivors of the Great Wars safely sealed in, and the things that roamed the world beyond locked out, would not hold forever, although there were many who thought differently. The wall was a conjuration of power unlike any he could imagine, although he wielded considerable power of his own. But nothing was permanent; all things must change. And no matter the beliefs of some and the wishes of others, life had a way of surprising you.
A hawk screamed from somewhere high above, soaring across the snowfields and rocky promontories, and something in the sound of that cry reminded the Gray Man that time slipped away and the past was catching up.
He quickened his pace, moving silently through the deep woods, his tattered robes trailing from his lean form. He did not stride through the trees so much as flow, a spectral creature formed of bits and pieces of color and smoke, of aether and light. He touched things as he went, small brushings and tiny rubs of fingertips, nothing more, reading from each something of the world about him. He sniffed the air and studied the look of the tiny ends of branches. Everything spoke to him. A Koden had passed here. There was fresh springwater not far away over there. Fledgling ravens had departed the nest last summer and flown off to breed families of their own. A family of black squirrels lived within that stand of blue spruce, perhaps watching him as he passed. It was all there for those who might read it, but he was one of only a handful who could.
After all, it was in his blood.
He was tall and rangy in the way of mountain men and long- range Trackers from the communities of Men and Elves alike, and broadshouldered and hard in the way of the Lizards, though not burdened with the armor of their skin. He was quick when he needed to be and slow when quickness could get you killed. He was dangerous all the time. There were stories about him in every settlement, every village, every safehold and way station, and he had heard them all. Some were partly true, though none told all his tale. He was one of a kind and the last, as well—unless he found the next bearer. It was something he thought of now and then. But time allowed for little deviation from his duty, least of all seeking out and training the successor whom he fervently hoped he would not need for some years to come.
His hands tightened about the black staff that marked him for who and what he was, conscious of the deep carving of its runes and the pulse of the magic they commanded. He did not call upon the power much these days, did not have cause to do so, but it was comforting to know that it was there. The Word’s magic was given to him by his predecessor and before that by his, and so on over a span of five centuries. He knew the story of its origins; all those who carried the staff knew. They passed it on dutifully. Or when time and events did not allow for an orderly passage, they learned it another way. The Gray Man was not familiar with the experiences of those others who had borne the staff; he knew only his own. He had never been visited by the Lady who served as the voice of the staff’s maker. She had never come to him in his dreams as she had sometimes come to others.
Ahead, the trees thinned as the valley slope lifted toward a tall, narrow gap in the cliff face farther up. There, hidden within the rocks, the pass at Declan Reach opened through to the larger world. He had stood in its shelter at the edge of his and looked past into the gray nothingness beyond, wondering what that world might look like if he could pass through. He had attempted passage once or twice in the beginning, when he was young and not yet convinced that things were as everyone claimed. But his efforts were always rebuffed; the mists turned him around and sent him back again, no matter how straight he believed the path on which he had set his feet, no matter how determined his attempt. The magic was inexorable, and it refused all equally.
But now he had the dreams to consider, and the dreams told him that five centuries of what had once seemed forever were coming to a close.
He left the trees and began to climb. Fresh snow had fallen a day earlier, and its white carpet was pristine and unmarked. But he sensed something nevertheless, a presence hidden below, just out of sight. He could not tell what it was yet, but it was nothing he recognized. He quickened his pace, suddenly worried. He climbed swiftly through the rocky outcroppings and narrow defiles, testing the air as he went, trailing his hands across the rocks. Something had passed this way, descending from the heights. Two, perhaps three days ago, it had made its way down into the valley. Down, not up.
But down from where?
His worst fears were realized as he reached the entrance to the pass and found his wards not simply broken, but shredded. The wards had been strong, a network of forbidding he had placed there himself not a month earlier. Wards of the same strength and consistency he used at every such passage leading into the valley, wards intended to warn him of breaches in the wall, wards meant to keep the inhabitants safe from the unthinkable.
And now the unthinkable was here.
He knelt to study the area surrounding the tattered remains that still clung to the rocks where he had attached them. He took a long time, wanting to make certain of what he was sensing. There was no mistake. Something had come through from the larger world, from beyond his valley. More than one something, he revised. Two, he judged—a hunting pair come in search of food, huge, dangerous creatures from the size and depth of the claw marks on the rocks and the apparent ease with which they had destroyed the wards.
He stood up, shaking his head at the irony of it. Even as he had tried to measure the time allotted before the dreams would come to pass, they had arrived full- blown. In the blink of an eye, the past was upon them.
He looked out from his vantage point high upon the snow line to the spread of the valley. Mist and clouds hid much of it this morning, and it would be midday before that haze burned off enough to permit a view of even the closest of the communities. To which of these would the intruders go? It was impossible to say. They might stay high up on the protective slopes of the mountains. Whatever their choice, he would have to hunt them down and dispatch them before it was too late.
Which it might already be.
He turned back into the pass and with the aid of his staff began to rebuild the wards. He summoned the magic, holding out the staff before him and using the words of power and small movements of his hands. The runes began to glow, luminous against the still- dark early morning, pulsing softly in response to his commands. He felt the power flow from the staff into his body, and as always he was transported to another plateau of sensation, one that was too close to euphoria for comfort, a warning of an addiction he had already embraced too closely. The magic was an elixir, each time giving him such fulfillment, such satisfaction, that he could barely stand the thought of letting it go. But he had learned what the lure could result in, and by now, he knew the ways in which to keep from falling prey.
Or so he told himself.
He layered the pass with the wards, preventing the creatures that had broken through from escaping the valley without his knowing. It took him a while to complete the task, for he understood the importance of being thorough. But when at last he finished, the wards were set. He let the magic retreat back into the staff. The brightness of the runes faded, the glaze of the magic’s euphoria dissipated, and the world returned to normal.
The Gray Man stood where he was for long moments afterward, savoring the memories, and then he turned his back on the pass and the wards and set out along the valley rim, tracking the creatures. It was not difficult to do so. They were big and slow, and their tracks were distinct where imprinted in muddy patches on the rocks and within the snowfield. They were moving west now, opposite the direction from which he had come. They followed the snow line for only a short distance before dropping down to the deep woods and their protective cover. They were hunting still, the Gray Man guessed, but keeping close to the safety of the heights and some assurance of the way back. They were thinking creatures, though he doubted their ability to reason overrode their primal instincts. They were brutes, and they would react as such. A lack of caution did not make them any less dangerous. If anything, it made them more so. He would need to find them quickly.
He considered for a moment the ramifications of their presence. It meant that after all these years, the wall was failing and their time of isolation was at an end. This would be difficult for many of the valley’s inhabitants to accept—Men, Elves, Lizards, Spiders, and those singular creatures that lacked a group identity. It would be impossible for some. The sect of Men who called themselves the Children of the Hawk, and who awaited the return of the leader who had brought them to the valley to protect them, would resist any suggestion of an end to the mists that did not involve his coming. Their dogma prophesied that the wall would endure until it was safe to leave the valley and the Hawk returned to lead them out again. Anything else they would call heresy; they would fight against it until the evidence stood before them, and even then they might not believe. Nothing anyone could say would change minds so settled; belief in the invisible, belief founded solely on faith, did not allow for that.
Yet he would have to try. There was no one else who would do so, if he did not.
He glanced downslope out of habit, recalling that the Seraphic who led the Children of the Hawk made his home in Glensk Wood. How ironic it would be if the creatures from the outer world were to somehow make their way to his community and introduce themselves. Would the members of the sect believe then?
Bittersweet memories flooded his mind in a sudden rush and then dissipated like morning mist.
The day brightened as the hours passed, and the sun broke through the clouds to warm the air. The brume clung to the higher elevations, catching on peaks and nestling in defiles, and shadows gathered in the deep woods in dark pools. Now that the creatures had left the snow, the Gray Man could track them less easily. But they left traces of their scent and surface marks so that following them was possible for someone with his skills.
By now he had concluded that he was at least twenty- four hours behind them. It was too long for creatures of this size not to have found something to eat. He had to hope that whatever they had found did not walk on two legs, and that was hoping for a lot. Trappers and hunters roamed these hills year- round in search of game. Some made their homes in cabins up along the snow line; some had their families with them. They were tough, experienced men and women, but they were no match for the ones he tracked.
It frustrated him to think that this was happening now, that the ending of the barrier had come about so abruptly. There should have been some warning, some hint that change was at hand. Wasn’t that what the Seraphic preached? But no one was prepared for this; no one would know what to do. Not even himself, he acknowledged. How do you prepare for the intrusion of a world you had escaped because it was too monstrous to live in? How do you prepare for an end to everything you had believed to be permanent?
He smiled grimly. It was too bad he couldn’t ask his predecessors, those fortunate few who had found a way to survive the horrors of the Great Wars when it had seemed survival was impossible. They would know.
The ground ahead had turned damp and spongy, the snowmelt trickling off the heights in dozens of tiny streams. The Gray Man studied the ground carefully as he went, seeking the tiny indicators of his quarry’s passing, finding them less quickly now, their presence faded with the changes in temperature and time’s passage. As he slipped silently through the trees, he could hear birds singing and tiny animals rushing about, and he knew that they would not be doing so if any sort of danger were present. He had not lost ground; he had simply failed to make it up. The creatures were traveling faster at this point, perhaps because they sensed the possibility of food. He increased his own pace, worried anew.
His worry turned quickly to fear. Not a quarter of a mile farther on, he encountered a set of fresh tracks intersecting with those he followed. They were so faint he almost missed them. He knelt to study the sign, making certain of what he was seeing. These new tracks belonged to humans. It wasn’t that the makers were trying to hide their passing; it was that they knew how to walk without leaving much to follow. They were experienced at keeping their passage hidden, and they had done so here out of habit. They had come up out of the valley, perhaps from Glensk Wood, two of them. They had found the tracks of the creatures, and now they were following them also.
He brushed at the two sets of tracks with his fingertips. The tracks of the intruders were more than a day old. The new tracks had been made less than three hours ago.
The Gray Man straightened as he rose, not liking what this meant.
It was entirely possible the two from the valley had no idea what it was they were tracking. They may have had enough experience to suspect the nature of their quarry, but it was unlikely they knew of its origins.
The best he could hope for now was that they appreciated the possibility of the danger they were facing so that they would be cautious in their efforts.
But he couldn’t assume anything. He could only hope.
He would have to reach them as quickly as possible if he was to save them.
He set out again, this time at a steady lope that covered the ground in long, sweeping strides.
Time was slipping away.