Fresh from their adventures in a world inspired by Jules Verne, Shawna Keys and Karl Yatsar find themselves in a world that mirrors much darker tales. Beneath a full moon that hangs motionless in the sky, they’re forced to flee terrifying creatures that can only be vampires…only to run straight into a pack of werewolves.
As the lycanthropes and undead battle, Karl is spirited away to the castle of the vampire queen. Meanwhile, Shawna finds short-lived refuge in a fortified village, where she learns that something has gone horribly wrong with the world in which she finds herself. Once, werewolves, vampires, and humans lived there harmoniously. Now every group is set against every other, and entire villages are being mysteriously emptied of people.
Somehow, Karl and Shawna must reunite, discover the mysteries of the Shaping of this strange world, and escape it for the next, without being sucked dry, devoured, or—worst of all—turned into creatures of the night themselves.
Beneath the frozen, gibbous moon, allies, enemies, surprises, adventures, and unsettling revelations await.
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The new experiences travel offers are said to broaden the mind. I'd had rather more new experiences (and more mind-broadening) than I really cared for since exiting my own world, pursued not by a bear but by the Adversary, and I'd just added a new one I could have done without: being shaken awake in the dark inside a ruined thatched-roof cottage and told, "I think we're going to have visitors from the castle."
I admit, I didn't immediately know a) who was shaking me awake, b) why I was lying fully dressed between far-too-thin blankets on a cold wooden floor, or c) what castle? But it all came rushing back in a moment. In order, a) was Karl Yatsar, the mysterious stranger who first revealed to me that the world I used to live in was one I'd Shaped into existence (though I didn't remember doing it) and told me I had to flee it due to the encroachment of the aforementioned Adversary (who killed my best friend and would have killed me if I hadn't instinctively reShaped the world to save myself); b) was because, just a few hours previously, we had entered this world from the Jules Verne-inspired one we had just left, sealing the Portal behind us, and this cottage had been close at hand and offered at least a modicum of shelter; and c) was the castle across the valley, around whose towers we had seen mysterious winged things flying. "Visitors" from that castle seemed unlikely to be good news.
Unless . . .
"Is the Shaper in the castle?" I asked Karl. "Maybe he or she sensed our arrival. Maybe we should just let ourselves be captured. Or walk over there and knock on the gate."
Karl-in the dimness, just a dark form bending over me, outlined against the stars shining through the hole in the roof-straightened and turned away. "I do not know."
It was so rare for Karl to admit he didn't know something I almost stammered my response. "You . . . you don't know if . . . if we should let them capture us, or you don't . . .?"
"I do not know if the Shaper is in the castle." His silhouette against the stars changed shape as he turned back toward me. "I cannot tell."
"I thought you said you could always sense the Shaper's whereabouts when you entered a new world."
"I always have. This time I cannot."
I sat up, emitting only a minor, ladylike groan. "So what does that mean?"
"I do not know."
Two times in a single conversation. Utterly amazing.
"So why do you think we're going to have 'visitors'?"
"The flying things have been patrolling. One of them flew over, then turned and flew over again, lower. Then screamed and flew back toward the castle."
"That doesn't sound good," I had to admit.
"No. There could be more of them at any moment."
"Right, then." I got to my feet. I hadn't slept nearly enough, soundly enough, on a soft-enough surface, or with enough covers. But I'd slept, and our journey to the Portal in the world we had just left had been a leisurely one, so I felt I could function. I quickly rolled up my bedroll and tied it to the top of the backpack I'd brought with me from the last world. (It was nice to enter a world with clean clothes, food, and water, not to mention a good sharp knife and, at the very bottom of the pack, a pistol and ammunition, instead of arriving with nothing, like I had in the last one.)
We hurried out of the cottage. The road to the castle, covered with crushed, pale-white stone, shone in the moonlight.
Wait. What? I blinked up at said moon. It hung, full, and bright, in exactly the same spot in the sky it had been when we'd first entered this world, hours ago. That's weird.
And that wasn't the only thing that was weird. That moon was huge. Way bigger than it should have been. The way the moon looks when it's rising or setting, except that's an optical illusion. This one looked that big even though it wasn't too far off the zenith.
"We must not stay on the road," Karl said. "If that flying thing returns with reinforcements, they will see us for sure."
The overgrown fields associated with the cottage lay on the side toward the castle. In the direction we turned rose a ridge, covered with a forest of towering pines whose tops glimmered in the moonlight but at whose roots pooled darkness, into which the white road plunged and vanished.
The forest did not look like the sort of place I wanted to be forcing my way through in the middle of the night. "If we leave the road, we'll be lost in no time," I pointed out.
"Are you saying we are not lost now? Do you know where we are?"
A fair point. I sighed. "All right. I guess the forest it is."
Fortunately, it wasn't as dark in the forest as it had looked before we entered it. The moon, shining between the spindly trunks, painted the needle-strewn floor with long streaks of silvery light, enough to show us our way. And although it's true we didn't know exactly where we were going, the direction we needed to take was abundantly clear-away from whatever might come out of the castle.
The ridge, though not terribly steep, was not not steep, either. I concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other and not turning my ankle on one of the fallen branches or loose, flat stones that littered our path, hearing Karl's steady breathing behind me. I remembered how much more out of breath than him I'd been while climbing a mountain pass back in my own world. Clearly, a few weeks of healthy outdoor activities like running for my life and being shot at had toughened me up.
I'd had no way of knowing, when we'd begun our journey, what time it was. "Middle of the night" seemed to cover it. But clearly it was more like "very early morning," because almost without my being aware of it, the forest became less black around us, the first hint of the coming dawn-though that full moon continued to shine, in exactly the same place in the sky.
Geostationary orbit? I thought. But that made no sense, for something the size of the moon. What would that do to tides?
Unless, in this Shaped world, the moon was much smaller . . . say, the size of the Death Star. (Not that I had any idea off the top of my head just how big the Death Star was supposed to be or how big it would look if it were in geostationary orbit. Once again, I missed the Internet.) But even then, weren't geostationary orbits only possible at the equator? Were we at the equator? Since I was distinctly chilled, I thought not. But this wasn't the real world, it was a Shaped world. So anything was possible . . . wasn't it?
A world lit by an extra-large moon hanging motionless in the sky sounded crazy. But so did the idea of a world based on the works of Jules Verne-a world where you could literally journey to the moon in a spacecraft launched from a giant cannon-and I'd just come from such a place.
The trees thinned and the light continued to slowly wax as we approached the top of the ridge. By unspoken agreement, we then paused and looked back down the way we had come . . . just in time to see four winged creatures alight in the yard of the cottage we had fled. Enough light now finally filled the sky that I could see them clearly. Though it was taking its own sweet time about making an appearance, dawn couldn't be far off.
My eyes widened as the creatures folded their wings and changed shape. Suddenly, four people stood by the cottage, all naked: three men and a woman. One of the men had dark skin, the others were pale. Two of the men disappeared into the cottage. The dark-skinned man and the woman stared up the ridge in our direction.
The snowy peaks on the far side of the valley to the west suddenly turned bright orange, as though set on fire. The sunlight had touched them, but it still had to crawl down them and across the valley floor before the sun itself rose above the peaks shadowing us to the east.
The men emerged from the cottage. A discussion ensued. Faces turned toward the sunlit peaks across the valley, then turned in our direction, looking up the ridge. They can't see us, I told myself. Not in this light. We're too low on the ridge to be silhouetted against the sky.
But I still got chills. "They can't see us, right?" I asked Karl, seeking reassurance.
"Humans couldn't," he said, which didn't exactly provide it, because although the naked quartet down there currently looked human, minutes ago they'd all been winged and furred.
"Can Shapers Shape intelligent nonhumans?" I demanded.
"Of course they can. I told you about the elves and dwarves I have encountered. And remember the giant wolf you saw when you first opened the Portal."
I wasn't likely to forget that monster running toward me along the white-stone road, eyes glowing red.
"You thought it was a werewolf," Karl said.
"Those things down there aren't werewolves."
"No. But if within this world there is one nonhuman, intelligent race-werewolves-there may very well be . . ." His voice trailed off as the woman broke into a run in our general direction and leaped into the air, body reshaping itself in an instant into one of the bat-like creatures, arrowing toward us.
"Run," suggested Karl, and I didn't argue.
When we had entered this world the night before, we had sought shelter immediately in part because of a weird, winged thing in the sky, whose chilling, wailing cry had echoed across the valley. Now we heard that cry again, from the weird, winged thing pursuing us. That keening call stabbed itself into my brainstem, the limbic system, the "lizard brain," and would have sent me scrambling away and up the slope even without Karl's urging.
I knew the instant the thing flew overhead. We were screened from the sky by trees, but I still felt the terror of its passing, a brief surge of unreasoning fear that would have driven me to my knees to hide my head beneath my arms if it had gone on a moment longer. As it was, my heart pounded. If this world had seemed more Tolkienish, I would have guessed it was a Nazgul.
And then . . . it was gone. The sky felt empty . . . clean. "Why didn't it land and attack?" I gasped out to Karl as we hurried on through the forest. "And what was it?"
"I do not know," he said.
That, I thought, is becoming tiresome.
We topped another ridge. Looking back, I could no longer see the cottage where we had spent the night. Four winged creatures were hurrying away from us in the direction of the castle, the highest tower of which the sun chose that moment to limn with gold. "Maybe it's the sun." I blinked. "Whoa. Winged bat-like things that don't like the light, in a world where werewolves are real . . . are you thinking what I'm thinking?"
"I am not a mind reader," Karl said.
"I'm thinking vampires."
Karl shrugged. "Anything is possible." He turned away from the castle. "In any event, since whatever they are, they do not seem to like the sun, I suggest we make the most of the day, and get as far away from the castle and whatever those were as we can while the sun shines."
"We have to find the Shaper," I said. "Can you tell where she or he is yet?"
"No," Karl said shortly. "I cannot sense anything."
"I do not know," he said again. "Nor do I have a clue why I do not know."
He started down the slope. I followed a few steps behind. Great, I thought. Last world I entered, my all-knowing guide was missing. This time I've got him, and it turns out he's not all-knowing after all.
"I've got a bad feeling about this," I muttered.
Eventually, the sun rose above the eastern peaks.
The sky turned blue.
The moon stayed right where it was.
After descending the ridge, we hurried on through thinning trees, trying to put as much distance as possible between us and the patrol from the castle. Just because we couldn't see them didn't mean they weren't following. We entered cleared land, though it was so overgrown it was obvious no crops had been planted there for years. We passed more ruined cottages. We didn't talk much because what was there to say?
And still, as the morning passed, and the sun climbed, the moon didn't move. It hung in exactly the same spot in the sky where it had hung all night: pale, washed out, but visible. "What's with that?" I finally asked Karl, when we paused to eat some of the dried meat and fruit and drink some of the water we'd brought from the last world. It wouldn't last long, but I'd already seen several streams and larger bodies of water, and with snow-capped mountains surrounding us on every side, it seemed unlikely water was going to be a problem going forward.
What would be a problem going forward, of course, was figuring out what the hell was going on in this world. It looked not all that different from parts of Montana-a fertile valley nestled among mountains, although these mountains put the Rockies to shame-but in my world, and presumably in the First World, the moon rose and set.
"I do not know," Karl said, looking up at the pale sphere in the bright blue sky.
Stop it, I thought.
"Clearly it is something the Shaper wanted," he continued.
"Well, duh," I said. And then I suddenly felt like an idiot. "Of course! This must be a werewolf world. Werewolves can only change when the moon is full, so the Shaper made this a world where the moon is always full."
"Perhaps," Karl said. "A reasonable supposition, at least."
Thanks, professor. "Still no hint of where the Shaper is?"
"I do not have a clue," he replied, which at least made a nice change from "I don't know."
He lowered his eyes from the moon to the valley, peering into the distance. I followed his gaze. There was nothing to be seen we hadn't already seen: more ruined cottages, more abandoned farms, more overgrown fields. "What do you think did all this?" I said.