The burnt wind blew out of nowhere, scorching the mountains to their bones.
Dry weeds rattled in the ditches along the empty two-lane highway, all life baked out of them before they could really begin to grow. April had sublimated under the indifferent sun, May along with it, and in June the high-country valley was as brown as in the waning of September. Summer had smothered spring in her crib; the green child would not come again that year.
A man stepped out of the haze of grit and heat, like a dark flake of ash from the rippling air above a fire. The dust devil tugged once at the black shreds of cloth that draped the man's wasted body, then danced away behind him. He staggered forward.
"Where are you, Jakabar?"
The words were the croak of a vulture, and his blistered lips bled as he spoke them. He lifted his head and peered at the wavering horizon with obsidian eyes—orbs without irises, without whites. He lifted a withered hand to shade the craggy desert of his face.
Something stirred in the coruscating air ahead.
The shape gathered its outlines behind the distant silver membrane that spanned the road, then punched through and hurtled toward the man.
The beast approached with hateful speed, growing larger with each fluttering of his heart, until it filled his vision and a roar deafened him. Sunlight glared off armored crimson hide, and the thing clung low to the ground, as if ready to pounce. Its eyes flashed twice, and it let out a keening wail that pierced his skull and rooted him in place. He abandoned motion, waiting to feel the beast's jaws close around him, to feel bones pop and flesh part.
Acrid wind ripped at him, and stones pelted his skin. The hollow grasses bent down, slaves before a terrible emperor, then rose as the world fell still. The man craned his neck to look behind him, but the creature already grew small and distant as it sped away.
He turned his gaze forward and forgot the beast. Again the fever rose within him, cauterizing thought and memory, burning away everything he was. He could envision the flames dancing along his papery skin. Soon. After all this time, it would be soon now.
He started to move once more but met resistance from the ground. He strained, then lifted a foot. Black strings of tar stretched from the sole of his scuffed boot to the pit where it had sunk into the surface of the road. He tugged his other boot free and lurched forward. He did not know what strange land he had found himself in. All he knew was that he had to find Jakabar.
"Beware," he whispered. "It will consume you."
The man staggered down the mountain highway, leaving a trail of footsteps melted into the asphalt behind him.
Now that he was back, it was almost as if he had never left.
"It's coming," Travis Wilder whispered as he stepped out the door of the Mine Shaft Saloon.
He leaned over the boardwalk railing and turned his face westward, up Elk Street, toward the pyramid of rock that stood sentinel above the little mountain town.
Castle Peak. Or what he thought of as Castle Peak, for over the years the mountain had borne many names. In the 1880s, the silver miners had called it Ladyspur's Peak, in honor of a favorite whore. According to local legend, when a gunslinger out of Cripple Creek failed to pay his bill, Ladyspur shot him dead in a fair gunfight in the middle of Elk Street. She died herself from cholera not long after, and she was buried how she had lived and worked: with spurs on her high-heeledboots.
Before that, on maps drawn in St. Louis—fanciful documents meant to lure dreamers across the tall-grassed prairies—it was named Argo Mountain, although the only gold ever found on Castle Peak was the warm light of sunrise or sunset.
For a few years prior to the gold rush of 1859, the name Mount Jeffrey had hung over the mountain, a name it had shared with a minor member of the Long Expedition of 1820—a lieutenant who one afternoon climbed to the summit with a bottle of whiskey. By the time Lieutenant Schuyler P. Jeffrey died of septicemia in a Washington, D.C., tenement five years later, his name had tumbled off the mountain. Although the empty whiskey bottle he had cast down was still there.
The Ute Indians, who from forested ridges had watched Long's party stroll through the valley, had had their own name for the mountain: Clouded Brow, for the wreath of mist that often girded the summit. However, if the people who dwelled here before the Utes had called the crag anything, then it had passed with them. And before that . . . no names.
One mountain. Many names. But eventually the peak and the town had both come to wear the name of Mr. Simon Castle—who made his fortune in publishing back East and who came west with a dream of constructing a grand new kingdom. He built the Silver Palace Hotel and the Castle City Opera House, then returned to Philadelphia eight years later, after his wife perished of tuberculosis and his sandstone mansion outside of town was struck by lightning and burned to the ground.
Castle Peak. The name fit for now, at least until a new name came along. And after that, when once again there were no people here and the valley dreamed alone, then it would be simply the mountain once more.
Travis gripped the railing. Behind wire-rimmed spectacles he pressed pale eyes shut as he pictured it: high up the slope the first aspens quickening, leaves whispering silver-green secrets, then moments later the low thrumming as the canyon cleared its throat and the lodgepole pines circled in a graceful tarantella. It was coming.
On any world, Travis could always tell when the wind was about to blow.
"I knew you'd come back," Max said that white January day when Travis stepped into the Mine Shaft, still clad in the travel-worn clothes of another world.
It had been morning, and the saloon had been quiet and empty save for the two men.
"I knew it, Travis, even though . . . even though Jace said you died with Jack in the fire. I kept everything going for you—the bar, the mortgage, the books. . . ."
Max's words got lost somewhere in his chest then, but that was all right.
"It looks wonderful, Max," Travis said as he hugged his friend. "It all looks wonderful."
And that was how Travis had come home.
The days that followed were strange and fragile. In some ways he felt as out of place as he had on Eldh, traveling in the company of Falken Blackhand. Things like indoor plumbing and electric lights and pickup trucks all had an exotic sheen. But just as he had on Eldh, he knew he would get accustomed to them. All he needed was a little time.
Unlike the inquisitive bard, no one in Castle City asked Travis for his story—where he had been for more than two months and why he had come back. Then again, people in Castle City didn't usually ask a lot of questions. It didn't really matter where you had been, only that you were here.
Jacine Windom came the closest to prodding Travis for information, and even the deputy's questions, while sharp as the creases steamed into her khaki trousers, were narrowly directed.
x"Were you at the Magician's Attic the night of the fire?" Jace asked one afternoon at the saloon, straight-backed on her barstool, notepad and pencil in hand.
"I was," Travis answered.
"Do you know what caused the fire?"
"Jack was struggling with an intruder. I was outside the antique shop—Jack told me to run. When I turned around, the place was in flames."
"Did you get a good look at the intruder before you fled?"
"No. No, I didn't."
It hadn't been until later that he came face to face with them. In the White Tower of the Runebinders he had looked into alien eyes and seen death. But he didn't tell Jace that.
Travis waited for more questions, but Jace flipped her notepad shut and stood up from the barstool.
"I think that's enough, Travis. I'll call you if Sheriff Dominguez needs anything else." The deputy started for the door.
"Did you find him?" Travis looked up and met Jace's brown eyes. "Did you find Jack?"
The deputy pressed her lips shut at that, then gave one stiff nod. "There's a stone for him in Castle Heights Cemetery."
"I'll go see it, Jace. Thanks."
The deputy headed for the door, although not before glancing back at Max. The look the two of them exchanged told Travis he had been right about one thing: Jacine had roped her stallion. Max was wearing Wranglers now.
But maybe it wasn't such a bad thing to remake yourself for another. Sometimes Travis thought he might like to have the chance, although he could never really picture what he'd become, or for whom he'd change. Or did it even matter? Maybe it was just the act of changing itself that was inportant.