Beyond the Pale: Book One of The Last Rune

Beyond the Pale: Book One of The Last Rune

by Mark Anthony

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A strange rift in ordinary reality draws saloon owner Travis Wilder and ER doctor Grace Beckett into the otherworld of Eldh--a land of gods, monsters, and magic that is sorely in need of heroes. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307795403
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/22/2011
Series: The Last Rune , #1
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 640
Sales rank: 466,758
File size: 3 MB

Read an Excerpt



Sometimes the wind blowing down from the mountains made Travis Wilder  feel like anything could happen.

He could always hear it coming, long before the first telltale wisps of  snow-clean air touched his face. It would begin as a distant roar far up  the canyon, nearly and yet not at all like the ancient voice of a  stormswept ocean. Before long he could see it, rushing in wave after wave  through the forest that mantled the granite-boned ranges that encircled  the valley. Lodgepole pines swayed in graceful rhythm, while cloudlike  aspen shivered green, then silver, then green again. Moments later, in  abandoned fields just outside of town, he could hear the witchgrass  rattle a final portent as it whirled around in wild pagan circles.

Then the wind would strike.

It would race down Elk Street--Castle City's broad main avenue--like an  invisible ghost-herd of Indian ponies. Past McKay's General Store. Past  the Mosquito Café. Past the abandoned assay office, the Mine Shaft  Saloon, the Blue Summit Earth Shop, and the faded Victorian opera house.  Dogs would bark and snap at passing newspaper tumbleweeds. Strolling  tourists would turn their backs and shut their eyes to dust devils that  glittered with gum wrappers and cigarette-pack cellophane. Dude-ranch  cowboys would hold on to black hats with turquoise-ringed hands while  their dusters flew out behind them like rawhide wings.

Maybe he was the only one in town crazy enough, but Travis loved the  wind. He always had. He would step outside the buckshot-speckled door of  the Mine Shaft Saloon, which he had the dubious distinction of owning  these days, and lean over the boardwalk rail to face the gale full-on.  There was no way to know from where the wind had journeyed, he reasoned,  or just what it might blow his way. He would breathe the quickening air,  sharp with the scents of cold mountain stone and sun-warmed pine, and  wonder whose lungs it had filled last--where they lived, what language  they spoke, what gods they courted, if they courted any at all, and what  dreams they dared dream behind eyes of a hundred different shapes and  hues.

It was a feeling that had first struck him the day he stepped off a  mud-spattered bus--a flatland kid raised between the straight and hazy  horizons of Illinois--and drank in his virgin sight of Castle City. In  the seven years since, the sensation had come to him with surprising and  comforting regularity, never lessening in potency with time. Facing into  the wind always left him with an ache of wordless longing in his chest,  and a feeling that he didn't have to choose between anything, because  everything was possible.

Still, despite his many musings, there was no way Travis could have  imagined, on a chill evening caught in the gray time between the  gold-and-azure days of fall and the frozen purple of winter night, just  exactly what the wind would blow into Castle City, and into his life.  Later, looking back with the empty clarity of hindsight, he would sift  through all the strange and unexpected events to pinpoint the precise  moment when things began to change. It had been a small happening, so  small that he might not have remembered it had it not been for the fact  that afterward things would never--could never--be the same again.

It was when he heard bells.

Afternoon sunlight fell as heavy as gold into the mountain valley as  Travis Wilder piloted his battered pickup truck toward town. Faint music  crackled on the AM radio in time to the squawking dashboard. A paper air  freshener shaped like a pine tree bobbed on a string beneath the rearview  mirror, all the fake pine smell long since baked out of it by years of  the high-altitude sun. The engine growled as he downshifted and swung  around a curve at precisely twice the speed recommended by a nearby road  sign: a yellow diamond so full of shotgun holes it looked like a chunk of  Swiss cheese.

"You're late, Travis," he said to himself.

He had spent most of the afternoon on the roof of the ramshackle hunting  lodge he called home, nailing on tar paper and replacing shingles torn  off by last night's windstorm. It was past time to be getting ready for  the snow that the fat, red-furred marmots foreshadowed. When he finally  thought to look up, the sun had been sinking toward the wall of mountains  that ringed the valley. Travis never had been good with time. But then,  he never had been good with a lot of things. That was why he had come  here, to Castle City.

The regulars would start straggling into the Mine Shaft Saloon by  sundown, and there were usually a few hapless tourists who had taken a  wrong turn off the highway and had ended up in Castle City by accident.  Legions of them cruised the twisting two-lanes this time of year, to ogle  the gold splendor of the mountain autumn from the heated comfort of their  rental cars. To make matters worse, Moira Larson's book club was meeting  in the back room of the saloon that evening. The topic:  Nineteenth-Century French Novels of Adultery. Travis shuddered at the  thought of facing a dozen book lovers thwarted in their hell-bent desire  to discuss implications of class structure in Flaubert's Madame  Bovary.

A nervous whistle escaped his lips. "You are really, really  late."

Of course, Max would be at the saloon.

Max Bayfield was Travis's one and only employee. Max was supposed to be  working the day shift today, although more likely he was poring over the  saloon's books, trying to find money between the lines. Travis supposed  that was what he got for hiring a refugee accountant from New York, but  at least there would be someone there to pour a drink if a customer  asked. Then again, it wasn't really a great idea to let Max wrangle the  bar on his own during busy hours. Travis could only hope Max wasn't  hovering around the jukebox again, telling customers that while listening  to classical music temporarily raised one's IQ, country-western  songs--with their simplistic melodic structure and repetitive rhythmic  schemes--did just the opposite.

His sense of urgency redoubled, Travis punched the accelerator, and the  truck flew out of the curve like a rock out of a slingshot.

He was about a mile from town when a dilapidated shape flashed past the  truck's cracked windshield. Hulking beside the road were the remains of a  house. Although he had passed it countless times, like always, Travis  found his gaze drawn toward the ruin. The old place had burned years ago,  long before he had come to Castle City, yet somehow he knew that even  before it caught fire, this had been an ugly building. It was squat and  sprawling, with rows of small windows that stared like hateful eyes at  the beauty of the mountains. Now the structure was nothing more than a  shell, the husk of some gigantic beetle that had died next to the  road.

According to the stories Travis had heard, the house had been an  orphanage once. Built during the days of the Great Depression, the  Beckett-Strange Home for Children had endured for decades as one of the  largest orphanages in central Colorado, but about twenty years ago the  place had burned. By then orphanages were well out of fashion, and the  Home was never rebuilt. Travis couldn't say he was sorry. There was  something . . . wrong about the ruin. He wasn't sure what it was,  but often when he passed it he found himself thinking dark thoughts.  Thoughts about fear, or suffering, or mayhem. Maybe it was just that he  knew people had died in that fire. Not any of the children--they had all  escaped--but several of the Home's workers had been trapped in their  rooms, and they had all been burned alive. At least, that was what the  rumors told. Travis didn't know if the stories were true, but if there  was ever a place for ghosts, it was the remains of the Beckett-Strange  Home for Children.

The old orphanage slipped out of view, and Travis fixed his gaze on the  road ahead. This was the time of day when deer were inexplicably  compelled to leap out and fling their bodies in front of moving cars. He  kept his eyes peeled. Except a moment later something caught his  attention, and it wasn't a deer. He downshifted, his hurry forgotten.  Gears rattling in protest, the pickup slowed to a crawl.

It was a billboard.

Tires ground on gravel, and the truck rolled to a halt on the shoulder  of the road. Travis peered out the driver's side window. Like so many  wooden artifacts in the high country, the billboard was bleached and  splintering but curiously intact. The thing had to have seen a good sixty  or seventy mountain winters in its existence, and even the most recent  advertisement plastered across its face was long faded. However, he could  still make out the ghostly shapes of people wearing clothes that had been  fashionable two decades ago, laughing as they sucked smooth, delicious  smoke out of white sticks propped between long fingers.

Hinges groaned, and the truck's heavy door swung open. Travis climbed  out. Cold air sighed through clumps of dry weeds, and he was glad for his  thick sheepskin coat. Beneath this he wore faded blue jeans and a tan  work shirt. Travis was a tall man, just on the lean side of big, but he  had an unconscious tendency to hunch his broad shoulders. At thirty-three  years his face was boyish, and when he smiled, his crooked grin suggested  a mischievousness that was not altogether misleading. His hair was the  exact color of dull yellow sandstone, but his beard, which he sometimes  let grow against the winter cold, or simply out of sheer laziness, had  sparks of copper and gold in it.

Travis adjusted the wire-rimmed spectacles that perched in front of his  pale eyes. Jack Graystone had given him the spectacles a few years back.  Jack owned the Magician's Attic, an antique store on the west side of  town, and he was one of Travis's oldest friends, maybe even his best. The  spectacles were over a hundred years old, and once they had belonged to a  young gunslinger named Tyler Caine. Jack always said the best way to  understand the here and now was to gaze at it through the eyes of a  distant time and place. Sometimes Travis thought Jack was the wisest man  he knew.

Travis approached the billboard, his scuffed boots crunching against the  hard ground. There--that was what had caught his eye. Last night's gale  had ripped away a piece of the old cigarette ad. He drew in a cold  lungful of air. Through the hole in the advertisement he could see what  appeared to be a painting of a rugged landscape. Only it didn't quite  look like a painting. It was too real, more like a photograph,  breathtaking in its perfect clarity. He could just see the edge of a  snow-covered peak, and beneath that the hint of an evergreen forest.  Without even thinking, Travis reached a hand toward the billboard, to  peel off more of the ad's colored paper.

That was when he heard them.

The bells were faint and distant, yet clear all the same, and  crystalline. The sound made him think of sleigh bells on a winter's  night. His hand fell to his side, and he cocked his head to listen. Now  all he heard was the low moan of wind over granite. He shivered and  remembered he needed to get to the saloon. Whatever the sound had been,  it was gone now, if he had ever really heard it in the first place. He  started back for the truck.

The wind shifted and brought with it, fleeting but clear, the chime of  music.

Travis spun back around. Once more the bells faded into silence, but  this time he could tell from which direction the sound had come. His gaze  traveled across a sere expanse of grass until it reached a dark hulk a  few hundred yards away. You don't have time for this, Travis. But  he was already walking across the field, hands jammed into the pockets of  his coat.

A minute later the orphanage loomed above him, taking a bite out of the  blue-quartz sky. He had never been this close to the ruin before. Now the  windows seemed more gaping mouths than staring eyes. Lichen clung to  scorched clapboards like some sort of disease. Even after all these years  a faint burnt smell emanated from the place, acrid and vaguely menacing.  Travis held his breath: the eerie voice of the wind, and silence, that  was all.

He pushed his way through a patch of dried thistles and walked around  the side of the house. Behind the place was a pair of outbuildings. They  were far enough away from the main house that the fire had not gotten  them. Dull paint peeled from their walls, and their doors were sealed  shut with rusted padlocks. Storage sheds of some sort. Between the  buildings was a narrow run, almost like an alley. Had something moved  there in the dimness?

He took a step into the space between the sheds, and in the murk he  glimpsed a pile of scrap metal and an old rain barrel. That was all. He  was about to turn away when he noticed a glint of light by his feet. He  squatted down and saw tracks in the ground. Water had seeped from the  earth to pool in the tracks and reflect the waning daylight. The prints  had been made by small, cloven hooves, probably a mule deer. They  wandered all over the valley. With a shrug, Travis stood and turned to  head back to the truck.

This time the bells were closer. Much closer.

Travis whirled around. There. Something had moved--a dim form by  the rain barrel.

"Who's there?" he called out. No answer. He took another step, deeper  in. Shadows closed behind him, and a new sound drifted on the air, a  sound almost like . . . laughter. It was high and trilling, the mirth of  a child, or that of an ancient woman. The rain barrel rocked back and  forth, then toppled. Water gushed onto the ground, dark as blood.

Travis's heart shriveled in his chest. He started to back out of the  alley. The mocking laughter rang out again. He bit his lip to stifle a  cry of fear, turned, tripped over his boots, and broke into a run.

He was brought up short by a tall, stiff object, and this time he did  cry out. He stumbled backward and looked up.

"Can I help you with something, son?"

The man standing before Travis looked like he was eighty years too late  for a funeral. His black suit of moth-eaten wool was archaic and oddly  cut, with a long hem and a high collar. The suit hung loosely on the  man's spare frame, while the shirt beneath had turned the yellow of old  bones, its neck bound with a limp string tie that flapped on the air. The  man snatched a hand up to keep his broad-brimmed hat from taking off on a  gust of wind.

"I said, can I help you, son? I mean, are you in need of some aid?  Forgive my saying, but you look as white as Lot after he slipped on out  of Sodom."

The man's voice was dry, like the rasp of a snake's belly against sand,  but coated with a sticky Southern sweetness. This was a voice to invoke  dread and devotion in one fell swoop. A grin split the man's face. His  teeth were the same dull yellow as his shirt, and his eyes glinted like  black marbles.

"You aren't simple, now are you, son? You can talk, can't you?"

Travis managed a nod. "I'm fine, really. It was nothing, just an animal  by the sheds."

Instinct told him to get out of here. The man gave Travis the creeps,  him and his papery skin and that skeletal smile. He had to be some sort  of vagrant, what with those thrift-store clothes. And there was something  foreboding about him. Not violent, but perilous all the same.

Travis swallowed hard. "Listen, I need to get going. I have . . . I  have something I need to do."

The man watched him with those black eyes, then gave a solemn nod.

"So you do, son. So you do."

Travis did not reply. He hurried past the other, kept his eyes fixed on  the ground, and hoofed it as fast as he could across the field without  looking like he was out and out running. To his great relief, he made it  back to the truck. He climbed inside, then cast one last glance over his  shoulder. The man in black had not moved. He still stood in front of the  ruined orphanage and clutched his hat while waves of grass surged around  him. He gazed at the horizon, like those dark marble eyes of his could  see something coming, something other eyes could not.

Travis shivered, shut the truck's door, and cranked the key in the  ignition. With a spray of gravel the pickup launched itself down the  road.

Travis laughed as the oddness of his encounter at the orphanage  evaporated in the mundane task of piloting the truck. Now that he thought  about what had happened, it no longer seemed so strange. There had been  some sort of animal between the sheds, and the man in black was just a  drifter, peculiar but harmless. As for the sounds--he could chalk those  up to wind and imagination. Either that or he was going insane, and there  was nothing at all special about that. He hummed along with the  radio as he drove.

A pointed shape came into view up ahead. As he drew closer, Travis saw  it was a big circus tent pitched in a field next to the road. Its canvas  roof was patched in countless places, and parked to the side was an old  school bus covered with a blotchy coat of white paint. He slowed down as  he passed the tent. In front was planted a crude sign. As always, it took  a moment of concentration to stop the words from roaming, then he reined  them in. The sign read: BROTHER CY'S APOCALYPTIC TRAVELING SALVATION SHOW
Ailments Cured--Faith Restored--Souls Redeemed
Come on in--we want to save you!
  It was an old-fashioned revival. Travis hadn't thought these sorts of  things still existed. He shifted into fourth, and the tent vanished  behind him. At least now he knew where the strange man had come from, and  he had been right on one count. The old guy was a nut, although not the  kind he had thought.

The battered pickup cruised down the road, and he turned his attention  to everyday matters--how many kegs of beer he needed to order for the  bar, who he had to call to get rid of that skunk holed up under the  saloon, and when he was going to find time to patch the leak in the  storeroom's roof.

Yet all the way into town, Travis couldn't quite forget the far-off  music of bells.

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