Travis Wilder and Grace Beckett have returned to modern Earth to get medical help for Beltan, a knight from the otherworld of Eldh. But as Beltan lies unconscious in the ICU of a Denver hospital, a shadowy organization plots to kidnap him, and sinister forces of dark magic cross the boundary from Eldh in a murderous search for Travis and Grace.
Meanwhile, in Eldh, a young baroness, her witch companion, and their mortal and immortal friends journey to a dying city, there to confront a nameless evil that has begun to annihilate the very gods.
Somehow Travis and Grace must save Beltan and themselves, then make their way back to Eldh. For only there can they hope to defeat a demonic enemy that can shatter time, devour space, and turn existence into nothingness.
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It was in the final, burnished days of summer -- when cool mornings gave way to languid afternoons under hazy skies, when the wheat bowed in the fields, shafts heavy with fruit, and all the land was still as if drinking in one last, long draught of gold -- that the Mournish came to Ar-tolor.
Through the window of her chamber, Aryn watched the line of wagons creep along the road that led to the castle. At this distance the wagons were smaller than toys, but the young woman's blue eyes were sharp, and she could make out many of the fantastical shapes into which they had been wrought.
There were swans with high, curving prows and snowy wings folded against their sides, and snails painted pink with small round windows set into their spiraled shells. A lion crouched low to the road, as if ready to pounce on a hart crowned by tree-branch antlers, while an emerald frog bounced behind. More wagons rolled into view: tortoises, fish cresting carved blue waves, lizards, tawny hares, and a dozen other creatures that Aryn had never seen before, except perhaps coiled along the edges of pages in old books.
One by one the wagons vanished beneath the green curve of the hill, and the road was empty again. But even at that moment, Aryn knew the wagons were coming to halt in the field outside the village, opening painted doors to release the spicy scent of incense, the cool clink of silver, and the undulating rhythms of music.
The young woman turned from the window, her sapphire eyes bright. "Let's go see the Mournish!"
Lirith, who sat in a chair on the other side of the small sitting room, did not look up from her embroidery. "And then let's get tossed in the dungeon and make the acquaintance of a few dozen rats. For you know as I do, sister, that Queen Ivalaine has made it plain she wishes no one in her court to associate with the wandering folk. Their entertainments are for villagers and farmers."
Annoyed, but not surprised, Aryn indulged herself in a particularly noxious frown.
"And what a fine baroness you'll make after your face freezes that way, sister," Lirith mused, her dark eyes still focused on the embroidery hoop in her lap. "Even bold dukes and proud knights will quail before you."
"As well they should," Aryn said. Although she smoothed her features and made a quick glance at a silver mirror on the wall nearby to be sure she hadn't done permanent damage.
"I saw that," Lirith said.
Rather than reply, Aryn gazed back out the window. The most interesting sight she saw now was a flock of sheep dotting the side of a distant hill like flowers. She amused herself for a few moments, imagining plucking tiny sheep from the grass, weaving them into a squirming, bleating chain, and placing them around her neck. Then she considered the smell, and that fancy passed.
"I'm bored," she said, not caring how petulant she sounded. She felt petulant.
"All the better reason for you to stay and work on your embroidery."
Aryn scowled at the black-haired witch. "I know perfectly well that you loathe embroidery, Lirith."
"Indeed. And my loathing keeps me well occupied, so that I do not become bored. Now sew. Sister Tressa will be here soon, and she'll expect to see some progress."
Aryn turned from the window, pulled close the wooden stand that held her embroidery hoop steady for her, and did her best to pretend that sewing unicorns was really more fascinating than buying packets of sugared nuts, laughing at performing monkeys, and watching men who swallowed knives and burning brands.
Yrsaia knows, you should be more grateful for your boredom, Aryn of Elsandry, she scolded herself. Where are Grace and Goodman Travis and Lord Beltan now? Sitting in a comfortable chair in a safe castle with a cup of sweet wine at hand?
She sighed, and Lirith looked up, an expression of concern on her face.
"I am certain they are well, sister. It is to their homeland they have journeyed. And no one has power to heal as does Lady Grace. I imagine Sir Beltan is telling bawdy jokes and drinking ale even as we speak."
Aryn wished she had such a good imagination.
It had been a month since they had begged their leave of Queen Inara and set out from Castle Spardis. They had left the seat of Perridon in good order. The young queen had rescinded all of the usurper Dakarreth's proclamations, and with the help of the Spider Aldeth -- who was making a steady recovery from his injury -- had cemented her position as regent to her infant son, Prince Perseth. While there would continue to be plots against the queen -- this was Perridon, after all -- Aryn expected Inara to rule long and well.
After only a day of traveling they had bid farewell to Melia and Falken, for the bard and the lady intended to journey north to find their friend Tome -- who, like Melia, was a former god. Aryn would have liked to see the golden-eyed old man again; he had the power to make her laugh no matter the sorrow she felt. However, Inara had already sent a messenger to Ivalaine. Aryn and Lirith were expected in Ar-tolor, and Durge had agreed to escort them there.
Although Lirith was her friend and teacher, and Durge was good -- if sober -- company, the ride across Perridon and Toloria seemed lonely. Grace and Travis had returned with Beltan to their world in hopes of healing the knight's old wound. Melia and Falken had their own journeys. Even Tira was gone.
Except that wasn't true, was it? For sometimes, when Aryn woke in the gray dawn, she glimpsed a star as red as fire low in the southern sky. She still didn't understand what had happened in Spardis, when Travis gave Tira the Stone of Fire. But Melia said the red-haired girl was a goddess now, and Melia should know. Aryn supposed that, in a way, Tira would always be with them.
They had reached Ar-tolor with little event, and Aryn had been more glad than she expected to see its seven spires soaring over fields of jade. Queen Ivalaine had welcomed them with a rare smile, and at once dispatched a man to Calavere to inform King Boreas that Aryn would be visiting at the court of Ar-tolor for a time.
"You shall resume your instruction with Sister Lirith at once," Ivalaine told her that first day in the castle, and Aryn had not disagreed.
The weeks since had passed pleasantly -- walking the castle grounds, sewing under Tressa's attention, reaching out with the Touch to grasp the magic of the Weirding as Lirith whispered calm instructions in her ear. And if at times it all seemed dull compared to their desperate journey east to the Keep of Fire, Aryn knew she should be grateful for that dullness.
With the Necromancer Dakarreth's scourge of fire ended, the land had recovered more quickly than she had believed possible. Crops had been hastily resown, flourishing under golden sun and gentle rain. Now Keldath was nearly over, and there would be a good -- if late -- harvest this year. It seemed a wonder, but perhaps there was a lesson in it; perhaps she should never underestimate the power of life.
Then don't underestimate Beltan's life. Or Grace's or Travis's. They're going to be fine. So you might as well stop worrying.
However, Aryn might as easily prevent the stars from spinning in the night sky. And she knew it gnawed at Lirith and Durge as much as it did her. They all feared for the others, who were beyond their reach now.
Which was precisely why a diversion like the Mournish caravan was in order.
A knock sounded at the chamber door. Aryn bit her lip. She had hardly sewn three stitches all morning. What would she tell Tressa? The queen's counselor seemed to have a vastly inflated notion of the importance of sewing.
The door opened. It was not Tressa who stepped into the room, but rather a short, deep-chested man with drooping mustaches and somber brown eyes.
Lirith rose from her seat. "Good morrow, Lord Durge."
He nodded to her. "My lady."
Aryn thought about it for less than a moment, then leaped to her feet.
"Durge, we're going to see the Mournish."
Lirith glared at her, but Aryn ignored the look. It was a mean trick, but she had learned a bit about tactics from her days as ward to King Boreas of Calavan. When blocked on one front, advance on another.
Durge's perpetual frown deepened. "That is a perilous idea, my lady. The Mournish are a queer folk. They make no homes save the wagons they travel in, and it is said the music of their flutes can drive a man to wildness."
Aryn groaned. That was hardly the response she had hoped for.
Lirith folded her arms over the bodice of her rust-colored gown and glanced at Durge. "She has it in her head to go down and see the wandering folk, even though Ivalaine has forbidden it."
"She didn't forbid it," Aryn countered. "Not precisely, anyway. Ivalaine merely discouraged us from going. Besides, I'm weary of moping about this castle. I think we all are. It would do us good to get some fresh air." She held her breath, looking from knight to witch.
Durge stroked his mustaches and gazed at Lirith. "I believe she means to go no matter what we say, my lady."
Lirith sighed. "Aren't chains an option?"
"A temptation, to be sure, but I fear not. It is best if you and I accompany her to see that she does not fall into trouble."
If she had possessed two good hands instead of one, Aryn would have clapped. "Now that's the sensible Durge I know." She stepped forward and kissed his craggy cheek.
The knight blinked, his expression bewildered, and Lirith's brow furrowed with displeasure. Aryn didn't care if she had been too familiar. For the first time in days she felt her spirits lift. The others would see that she was right -- this was exactly what they needed.