For Shawna Keys, the world is almost perfect. She's just opened a pottery studio in a beautiful city. She's in love with a wonderful man. She has good friends.
But one shattering moment of violence changes everything. Mysterious attackers kill her best friend. They're about to kill Shawna. She can't believe it's happening--and just like that, it isn't. It hasn't. No one else remembers the attack, or her friend. To everyone else, Shawna's friend never existed....
Everyone, that is, except the mysterious stranger who shows up in Shawna's shop. He claims her world has been perfect because she Shaped it to be perfect; that it is only one of uncounted Shaped worlds in a great Labyrinth; and that all those worlds are under threat from the Adversary who has now invaded hers. She cannot save her world, he says, but she might be able to save others--if she will follow him from world to world, learning their secrets and carrying them to Ygrair, the mysterious Lady at the Labyrinth's heart.
Frightened and hounded, Shawna sets off on a desperate journey, uncertain whom she can trust, how to use her newfound power, and what awaits her in the myriad worlds beyond her own.
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Karl stumbled through the door, spun, slammed it closed, then slapped his palms against the rusty steel. Blue light crackled across the metal, briefly outlining the KEEP OUT: DANGER sign, faded red paint on white, that hung at eye level.
He rested there for a moment, breathing hard, then straightened and turned to see what kind of world he had entered.
He stood in a dark, rough-hewn tunnel of stone, narrower at the top than at the bottom, shored up by beams of dark wood. A dim light bulb, hanging on a twisted pair of rubber-coated wires, glowed overhead, swaying from the gust of warmer air that had entered this world along with Karl. The swinging bulb cast shifting shadows up and down the walls and across the floor, but he could see well enough to make out two metal rails, spanned by rotting wooden ties, running along a rubble- strewn floor toward the faint outline of another door. The gray light seeping around its edges spoke to him of twilight, though whether morning or evening he did not yet know.
He turned to look at the door he had just closed. On this side, it was made of rusty steel and set in a barrier of corrugated metal. Bits of broken chain scattered the floor beneath it, and a shattered padlock lay near his feet. No lock or chain could hold against the opening of a Portal.
No light spilled from beneath the door, even though he had come through it from the common room of a torch-lit inn. No sound came through it, either, though the inn had been bustling. The man who had been following him, who had started running through the common room, shoving people out of his way as Karl opened the Portal, had been too slow. By the time he opened the wooden door he had seen Karl pass through, he would find nothing beyond it but the inn’s pantry.
That should have been the end of pursuit, but Karl had thought the same when he’d entered the world he’d just fled . . . and somehow the Adversary had followed him into that world, even though he had closed the last Portal behind him exactly as he had closed this one. Which meant, if the man who had been following him was a servant of the Adversary—as he almost certainly was—soon enough the Adversary would come to this Portal, and perhaps force it open as well.
Which meant his time was limited. He needed to find this world’s Shaper, see if this one might be strong enough to do what Ygrair required, and if so, convince or coerce him or her to accompany him.
He had no reason to hesitate, and indeed, every reason to hurry, but hesitate he did. He had entered many worlds, yet this one gave him pause. Without taking so much as a second step into it, he knew from the flavor of the air, from the way its gravity tugged at him, from the faint echoes of his breath and movements back from the tunnel’s stone walls, that this world was similar . . . very, very similar . . . to the First World, the one from which Ygrair had taken him . . . how long ago had it been?
An old way of thinking, that. Time flowed differently from world to world within the Labyrinth. How could you measure time when some of worlds you visited did not orbit suns, but were orbited by them, or were lit by flaming chariots drawn by fiery flying steeds, or were not lit at all, except by the moon and the strange glow of the eldritch stones that paved their roads and formed the walls of their strange, twisted buildings?
Each world in the Labyrinth was Shaped, to a greater or lesser degree, by a singular imagination. This one had been Shaped less than most, so that it closely resembled the First World—but it was not the First World. Just another world in the Labyrinth. Nothing special at all.
He glanced back once more at the metal door. In any event, if the Adversary were able to enter this world as he had the last, it would soon be re‑Shaped . . . unless its Shaper was, at last, the one Ygrair had sent him to seek.
He turned away from the closed Portal for good, then, and strode toward the door into the outside. It opened with a push, and he stepped out into the fresh air of a mountain evening. He took a deep breath, enjoying the scent of pine, then looked up at the starry sky. The constellations were the same ones he had seen as a child, lying on his back in the yard of his father’s farm, dreaming of the day he would be old enough to leave it. The Earth’s great cities had seemed like different worlds to him then, and he had longed to see them all: New York, London, Paris, Berlin.
He’d done it, too, traveling to those and so many more. He’d even created his own worlds, after a fashion, on stage and with his words. But then Ygrair had literally fallen into his life . . . and he had learned just how stunted his understanding of new worlds had been.
And she has promised, he thought. Someday I, too, will have a world to Shape.
But only if he succeeded at the daunting task she had set him. Which I had better be about. Lowering his gaze, he strode into the darkness.
* * * * *
I could feel the coming storm in my bones.
“Can’t you guys work any faster?” I called up to the two young men standing on the scaffolding outside my two-story shop/apartment, right in front of my bedroom window. I wondered if I’d remembered to close the blinds. I hoped so, because I’d not only failed to make my bed, I was pretty sure I’d left underwear on it.
Neither one looked at me, probably because they were trying to bolt a big capital W made of brushed steel to the century-old building’s worn red bricks. “Don’t worry, lady,” called down the older of the two, although older in this case meant he’d been shaving for maybe six years, as opposed to three. “Should be done by lunch.”
“What’s it going to say?” said a voice behind me. I glanced around to see a pixie-ish college-aged girl, blond hair piled up in an oh‑so‑casual-yet-terminally-cute fashion, with just the right number of stray strands falling across her forehead above her bright blue eyes. She wasn’t looking at me, though: she was looking up at the young men, although I wondered whether it was really the sign that had drawn her interest, or the unique view available from this angle of the fit young men in their tight blue jeans. (Not that I’d noticed . . . okay, I’m lying.) The girl held a tall, blue-and-white-checkered paper coffee cup, topped with a bright-red plastic lid, trademark of the Human Bean, half a block away and just around the corner.
“Worldshaper Pottery,” I said.
“Kind of long,” she said, never taking her eyes off the men. “A lot of letters!” she called up.
“Tell me about it,” shouted down the younger of the two. Pretty college girl, he looked at.
“Careful!” the other man snapped, as the W slipped a notch.
The younger man turned and lifted it again. “Sorry, Al!”
“So, you do pottery?” College Girl said to me, though without expending the effort to actually turn her head. “What sorts?”
“All sorts,” I said. “Anything in clay. Pots, plates, mugs, vases, cups, saucers. You name it. I have a card, if you’re—”
“Cool,” she said, in that absentminded tone you use when you’re responding to someone whose words just went in one ear and out the other. She sipped more coffee and kept watching the workmen.
I sighed and turned my own gaze west, up the street, toward the distant line of mountains. Their snowcapped peaks, sparkling in the sun in the crisp autumn morning air, were dwarfed by the towering piles of cloud behind them: white on top, a menacing dark blue beneath. I didn’t like the look of them one bit. They looked like any other line of storm clouds, but in some weird way, deep inside, they felt . . . wrong.
The weird thing was, over the past couple of days the forecast hadn’t said a word about a possible storm. It still didn’t. I’d checked the weather app on my HiPhone half a dozen times that morning: nothing. But then, the forecasters were based more than a hundred miles away in the state capital of Helena, and their inability to accurately predict what would happen in our little city of Eagle River was so well-known that local residents joked about planning their day’s activities based on the exact opposite of the forecast weather.
What surprised me more than the lack of storm warnings was the fact that no one but me seemed worried. I glanced at College Girl. “Those clouds over the mountains look nasty,” I said conversationally. “Don’t you think?”
She finally looked at me, then at the mountains, then at me again. She shrugged. “They’re just clouds. Anyway, a little rain would be nice.” She turned her attention back to the young men.
A little rain? I frowned at the mountains. Torrential rain with damaging wind, hail, possible tornadoes, serious lightning, and flash flooding, if I were any judge. In fact, the clouds had risen visibly higher just in the short time I’d stood there, and beneath their white heads and shoulders, their hearts were black as night. Okay, that might be bit overdramatic, I thought. I studied the clouds some more, then shook my head. No, it isn’t. I looked back up at the workmen. “Please hurry!” The guy who had grinned at College Girl finally looked at me, but all I got was a teenaged-boy‑to-nagging-mother eye roll.
I was not old enough to be his mother.
But if I was, I would have grounded him on the spot.
Giving up, I turned to College Girl again. “Want to come in and have a look at the shop? First day open!”
She gave me a perfunctory smile. “Nah, I’m good.” She tossed back the last of her coffee, took one more appreciative look at the workmen, then walked on down the street, throwing her cup into a blue recycling bin as she went.
“Come back any time!” I called after her. She raised her left hand and wriggled her fingers, but didn’t look around.
Not a great start to my first day in business, but it was early yet. While College Girl and I had been “talking,” a dozen other people had hurried past without stopping to look up at the sign or its installers, or (more to the point) into the shop windows. Then again, the scaffolding wasn’t doing anything to make the shop look inviting, and anyway, it wasn’t even nine o’clock. The people passing weren’t shoppers, they were on the way to work. Once the sign was up and the scaffolding gone, no doubt customers would pour into Worldshaper Pottery.
They’d better, I thought, thinking of the size of my lease. I yawned and rolled my head, trying to ease a kink in the back of my neck. I hadn’t slept well for two nights, and the reason why made me turn and survey the people strolling, striding, or—in the case of the teenager looking at her smartphone—stumbling along the cobblestones, between spindly trees, flower planters, and decorative benches.
Worldshaper Pottery had an ideal location—I’d been incredibly lucky to get it—on Blackthorne Avenue, which was pedestrian-only for four blocks. My shop was on the north side of the street at the far west end, half a block from busy 22nd Street (which the Human Bean fronted) and only a block from one of the public parking lots where people visiting the pedestrian mall left their cars while they enjoyed a stroll over the cobblestones. The “Shoppes of Blackthorne Avenue,” as the local business association styled itself (apparently there’d been a sale on pretentious silent Es) catered to the artsy foodie crowd: galleries, boutiques, restaurants, brewpubs, and coffee and tea shops. (Sorry, “shoppes.”) To paraphrase Ol’ Blue Eyes, if I couldn’t make it here, I couldn’t make it anywhere.
Normally Blackthorne Avenue was deserted in the early morning, once the last of the craft-beer drinkers had headed home. But for the last two nights, it hadn’t been.
It had started Sunday night. Brent, my tall, blond, handsome and awesomely fit boyfriend (I know, I know, he sounds like something from a romance novel, but what can I say? I lucked out) had just left, after spending the day helping me set up the workshop. Normally he might have stayed over—normally I’d have insisted he stay over—but he’d had to work early the next morning and I was too tired to think straight, my libido as exhausted as I was.
As a result, I was alone when I clawed my way up out of sleep, only to find that I wasn’t alone, that someone was standing at the foot of my bed, a tall figure, just a shadow barely visible in the darkness of my room, though I could tell it wore a long coat and a broad-brimmed hat. Beneath that hat glinted two cold sparks of light, reflections from the eyes staring down at me. I tried to scream, but could only manage a strangled moan; tried to sit up, but couldn’t move a muscle. I could only wait, helpless, for the intruder to do whatever horrible thing he intended . . .
And then he had vanished, and I was really awake. I gasped, sat up in bed, and snapped on the lamp on the side table. I touched my HiPhone and it lit to show the time: 3:10 a.m.
There was no one in the room with me. There never had been, of course—I knew that. It was just a dream. No, sleep paralysis, that’s what it was called, where you think you’re awake but you can’t move and you hallucinate someone standing by your bed—or in some cases, a monster sitting on your chest. I’d read up on it once because I’d experienced it before—not often, but often enough to recognize it.
But this one had seemed, somehow, more real than the other incidents I remembered, and so even though I knew it was silly, I got up, pulled on my warm, brown terry cloth bathrobe, and checked the apartment. No one there but me, of course, and the door was locked.
A cool breeze through the open window lifted the curtains. Though I was on the second story, and the window was much too high above the sidewalk for anyone to have climbed through it without a ladder, I decided I’d feel better if it were closed and locked for the rest of the night.
As I reached out to pull it shut, I saw someone standing in the middle of the cobblestoned street, in a shadowed spot ill-lit by the old-timey wrought iron streetlamps: a tall man, wearing a long black duster and a cowboy hat. While neither of those were unusual apparel in our western town, the sight stopped me cold, hands frozen on the window frame, because I suddenly realized the figure in my dream had been wearing the same thing.