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Chapter One

Chichén Itzá, Winter, the Present

Sharon Geary crept unsteadily up two dozen of the ninety steps leading to the top of El Castillo, her supposedly fit and toned muscles already cramping from monotonous effort, her lungs fighting for every breath of the thick, still air.

Something doesn't want me here, she thought.

Apart from supernatural factors, she considered the supreme lack of wisdom in scaling a pyramid at any time, but particularly now, in the dead of night.

Not my choice. His. 

She'd lost sight of Neal Rivers hours ago when the sun was strong, while tourists swarmed, oblivious to his threat beneath its glare. No matter. She knew he was not likely to leave until he'd accomplished his errand.

Errand, indeed. She repressed a snort, using the energy to haul up another few steps, legs pushing, arms pulling. God, but the angle was steep, and you didn't dare look down or the sharp pitch would make you dizzy. You didn't dare look out across the vast esplanade below or the height would...

Shouldn't think too much. Shouldn't think about it at all. 

She hated heights. Airplanes were not a problem, and just as well, but to be on something tall that was so solidly connected to the ground gave her a sick-making sight line straight to disaster. Better not to look.

Sharon paused to rest, reminding herself that thousands of sightseers made this climb and were no worse for the wear. And long before their chattering, guidebook-oriented, camera-toting modern-times invasion the ancient priests of the Mayans had done exactly the same. The show-off buggers had probably clambered the harsh steps at all hours of the day or night, nimble as mountain goats. Well, if they could do it

Thirty-eight, thirty-nine...

She perversely counted steps. It both distracted and annoyed her, ideal factors to keep her moving and from wondering too much about what awaited at the top.

Oh, but wonderful old Stonehenge was a much easier tour. Flat. Not as exhausting, not nearly as perilous.

Well...not precisely. That had been a different kind of peril, more hidden than the obvious threat here of taking a bone-breaking tumble. When she'd seen Rivers' work at the Henge, seen what he'd done to it, what he'd left of it, the physical risk she courted now was negligible. Compared to some things, it was wholly preferable.

She whooped in a viscous draught of the heavy air and gained another few feet. God, it was like moving against the wind, only there was none stirring to cool her. The stones were still warm from the day's sun, the heat working through her bare hands into her arms, weighing them down. Sharon ignored the added burden and the sweat pouring from her and kept going, up and up and up.

Forty-four, forty-five...there. The halfway point, that wasn't so bad. People handed over fortunes to posh gyms to get this sort of workout. Wasn't she the lucky one?

Forty-six, forty-seven. No reason to turn back; she'd finish it out for sure now. Have a little rest at the top, find out how and why the bastard does it, but above all stop him. Ohvery importanttry to forget about the increasing distance to the ground. What was it to the top? Seventy-five or eighty feet? That wasn't much, no, not when one was inside a building. Outside it's a whole different perception of vertical distance. And was it the actual height of the structure or the measure of the length of the steps set into its slanted sides? The guide books she read on the plane flight from London hadn't been consistent, nor had they mentioned just how difficult a climb it would be.

But they all agreed it was ninety steps times four sides, with the top being ninety-one, a nice, tidy Mayan year. Imagine building this great bloody thing just to keep track of the planting season. Combine the stifling heat hereeven in the winterwith the hangover humidity that was part and parcel with the surrounding jungle and she wondered why a sane person would want to raise so much as a lean-to in such a climate, much less anything so massive. Simply climbing the thing was intense, exhausting work, what must it have been like to build under such conditions? Sharon didn't want to visualize that depth of detail. Too humbling.

Fifty-seven, fifty-eight. The backs of her thighs and calves burned. Oh, yes, she was now the pride of every aerobics instructor and film star who had ever put out a keep-fit video. They were always fresh and bouncy in their skin-tight costumes and perfect hair, not a hint of damp about them. Sharon would have been driven in disgrace from the video set in her faded black T-shirt, baggy-kneed, sweat-crumpled army surplus BDU pants and sturdy combat boots. Hardly Hollywood chic, but very practical for hanging about in jungles, particularly with the green camouflage pattern. The Yanks weren't using this style anymore for their active military, but it still worked well for concealment. She'd not expected to have to hide, but had come prepared. Just in case.

Earlier that day she'd drifted in with a tourist group, moving at their speed, but searching for him in the other groups. Futilely, as it happened.

Neal Riversthe name by which she knew him; he had othersshould have been easy to spot with his crooked arm and the eye patch, but a number of men matching his general build were clad in loose, long-sleeved shirts and sunglasses. And hats. Everyone sensible wore a hat against the sun. Certainly she'd kept hers on to conceal her too-memorable mane of red hair. She'd never had direct contact with him, but he might wonder at seeing the same tall redhead so soon after his gutting of the Henge.

She'd slipped from the main swarm of vacationers to pick a hiding place within the trees and settled in to wait for nightfall. If he repeated what he'd done at Salisbury, he would want darkness.

Except for the stifling heat and keeping an eye out for snakes and unfriendly insects, she'd been almost comfortable with her spare canteens of water and protein bars. The hours until sunset had gone slowly, but she could be patient for a sufficiently worthwhile goal. From cover she searched the knots of wandering tourists with her field glasses for a recognizable if unsettling face and form.

And finally spotted him.

He'd been at the northeastern foot of El Castillo, standing disrespectfully close to one of the carved stone snake heads at the base of the steps. During the equinoxes, when the sun was right, angled shadows cast from the main body of the pyramid onto the outside wall of the steps created the illusion of the serpent god's undulating back as it descended from the top. Quite an impressive slow-motion show it was, too; must have pulled in droves of worshipers, same as today.

Rivers stood nose-to-snout with Kukulcan's head, almost as though speaking to it, which was ridiculous. Perhaps he'd made faces. She'd heard that sort of cheek was to be expected from him.

Then he abruptly straightened, turned in her direction, and for a few awful seconds seemed to look straight down through her field glasses into her soul. At such a distance he couldn't possibly see her, but it was startling enough to make her jump. By the time she refocused, he'd vanished into the mob and never showed again for the remainder of the day or during the after-dark light show. Quite inconsiderate of him to be sure.

No matter. Though he was out of sight, she felt his presence. Very odd, that. This particular quarry was dangerous, far more so than any other she'd ever gone after, and on levels well beyond the ordinary.

His touch was cold, the only hint of chill possible in this climate, and rather than sensed as a freezing whisper on her skin, she felt it in her heart and beyond. It went down to the marrow, that feeling. Sharon took it to be a serious warning and gave it her most strict and unsmiling attention.

She never used to trust in such insubstantialities. That eccentricity began only after the business with Richard Dun, her one-time friend and lover.

And teacher. In his own way. He'd opened other doors for her besides the one to his bedroom. Not on purpose, that had happened simply by being with him.

Sixty-five, sixty-six...keep going...

You'd think there'd be some wind by now. But the night sky was stingy even at this height. Or holding its breath? She could believe it. In the last few years she'd come to believe in quite a number of extremely improbable things.

It was all Richard's fault, of course.

Well...not completely. He'd been more of a catalyst than an instigator. It was as though contact with him had awakened a strange insight in her. Sharon had always had intuition a-plenty, combined with boundless common sense, but nothing like this. It was right out of her gram's stories of the women in their family having the Sight. The old lady did possess one hell of a sharp shrewdness about people, though. She'd always been able to tell truth from a lie, know when someone was in pain or happy, and whether it would be a boy or a girl long before the mother knew she was expecting. Both blessing and curse, Gram had said, mind how you wear it.

Sharon thought the idea quaint, a way of making an old tale more interesting. What a shock it had been the day she first noticed auras on people. They were exactly as Gram described, so it wasn't too terribly frightening. Took a bit of getting used to, that, but Sharon had adapted with curious quickness. It was as though she'd always held the potential within and only just needed to be reminded to make use of it.

He had brought it out. Unknowingly. Richard. A very pleasant distraction she'd chosen not to linger with for long. He'd asked her to stay with him having freely confessedwonder of wonders in a modern manthat he was in love with her. She believed him, but weeks before their parting she'd determined she would have to eventually move on.

Sharon tried to let him off as gently as possible, putting on a bravado face mixed with tenderness and giving him her "itchy feet" speech. Richard wasn't the first man who'd ever wanted to settle down with her, so the words came easily and smoothly, but with a hollow tone to them. They'd sounded so painfully brittle and false and overly rehearsed in her own ears. She half expected him to tell her to shut up and come out with the real explanation, but he'd quietly bowed to her reason to leave. No denials, no anger, no demands, no insisting that she reconsider, no offers of a home and security and true-blue hearts-and-flowers devotion for life...just sad disappointment. And acceptance. That was the amazing part of it. He accepted her decision and off she went.

She'd finally met a man who understood her need for freedom and by the time she comprehended the rarity of that quality it was too late to go back to him. She boarded the plane and returned to her previous existence, giving herself a wobbly inner congratulation of having made a successful escape.

A rather narrow escape. He was one hell of a man, after all.

But no regrets she'd told herself. Richard was a warm and happy pause in her life, nothing more. If they ever met again, they would still be friends, and, if he was still available, perhaps again become lovers. For a time. Always and only for a time. She neither needed nor desired anything permanent. "Wandering Star," her Irish gram had pronounced over her more than once, smiling.

It was only after Sharon had left Richard that she came to realize his crashing and unexpected impact on her life. That little adventure they'd shared had changed her. Seeing auras wasn't the half of it.

After auras on people, she began to see them associated with places. It took a bit of practice and study to sort out the accumulation of colors, feelings, and even shapes. Some were terrifying, while others were a delight. That spot in Canterbury Cathedral where Thomas á Becket had been cut downnasty place, all muddy black and blood red, but then there was that lovely shining glow around the main altar, as though in some way they balanced each other out.

So she'd taken to visiting other historical sites, reading the truth of messages absorbed by earth, brick, stone, and wood, seeing the feelings left behind by thousands of others. She liked the holy sites the best; it didn't matter what religion, they all had something going for them, like...well, like different flavors of ice cream. She wanted to sample them all.

Then toward dusk only yesterday she'd gone to Stonehenge on a whim. She'd been there before, drinking gratefully from its energy, and finding comfort in its ancient strength. Having finished up a minor problem for Lloyd's of London ahead of schedule she could spare the time from her freelancing to loaf. It was on her route back, so why not? She pulled off the A303 into the car park and walked in with other late arrivals to the monument, her inner senses open and receptive.

But she'd found something was happening there, a wrong kind of something. The sonorous visual music coming from the ancient stones competed with a powerful instrument playing determinedly out of tune. An alien element had been introduced into their chorus that made her skin crawl. She first took it to be a weather problem, having seen similar disturbances before, but soon concluded this was nothing to do with the voice of wind and cloud over the land. There was a specific source to the problem, which she eventually tracked to one of the lingering tourists, a stockily built balding man standing casually next to a Saracen stone. His hair, combed straight back from his high brow, was shot through with gray and not a few streaks of pure white, the same as his beard and moustache.

His black eye patch and the scars under it were the most immediately noticeable differences setting him apart from the crowd. Then she noticed his crooked right arm, as though it had been badly broken and never properly set. The shape of the twisted bone showed through the sweater he wore.

That's what tripped her memory. She'd never seen him, but knew him from Richard Dun's description. The man could only be Neal Rivers, professor, an expert on Arthurian legendthe Holy Grail in particularand when going by the name of Charon, one of the most successful and deadly assassins on the planet. He'd spooked even the mostly unflappable Richard, which was saying a lot.

Rivers in person was quite a few steps beyond what she'd heard about him. The impact of his presence was extraordinary to her changed senses. He wore human form like a disguise. It concealed the truth from the unaware. His flesh was a flexible shell, protective coloring allowing him to blend with the rest of humanity. A hunter herself, she instantly recognized another predatoror as she came to learna predator and parasite in one.

Sharon shut down her Otherside hearing and kept her distance, observing. Now that he had her attention she noticed small things about his body language, the sort of nuances that set off her internal alarms. She finally identified them as an absolute and overpowering confidence. Certainly it was attractive, but somehow askew by a few crucial and creep-making degrees. Richard Dun had a similar eerie confidence about him, but in a positive sense. This man was his opposite number and into overkill about it.

And sometime or other during her otherwise careful surveillance Neal Rivers vanished.

That nettled her. She was good at trailing people; having a stand-out, oblivious subject giving her the slip in such a controlled and confined area was unacceptable. He'd not left, of that she was certain.

Visiting hours came to a close, and the tourists were herded out, but if one was clever and quick one could hide from the caretakers. Sharon avoided them, finding concealment in one of the long ditches outside the stone circle.

She lay flat and very still, invisible as early winter darkness rolled over the land, and she ruthlessly ignored a voice inside that said this was a fool's quest. The worst that could happen was to be discovered by the management; embarrassing, but survivable. Or she might catch pneumonia. Her lumpy bed in the chalk was damp and icy cold despite her well-insulated clothes. To keep circulation going, she made scouting forays around the circle, taking it slow, her senses extending to pick up his presence.

But he must have been concealing himself. In more ways than one.

The car park was empty now, but for two vehicles: her own, and what looked to be a nondescript rental. Perhaps it belonged to a watchman, but she doubted it. She could assume that Rivers was aware another person might be lurking about.

So why was he at Stonehenge? Playing tourist? Not likely. He couldn't possibly be after the Grail again. Thataccording to Richardwas being well looked after in a safe and secret location. If Rivers was on the trail of some other historical holy object, he was flat out of luck. Decades of archeological excavations had picked this place clean. The most he could hope for here was a stray bit of pot shard or perhaps a fragment of deer antler left by the ancient builders. Sharon doubted Rivers would have much interest in their cast-off tools, which were all over the area. As for the stones, well, they were just too big for carrying away.

For a bad moment it occurred to Sharon he might be after her, but she dismissed it. Until a few hours ago she'd no idea herself that she would stop for a visit. He'd already been here, so he couldn't have followed her. No, this was one of those mad coincidences that sometimes just happen.

Richard Dun did not believe in coincidences, though. In the short space she'd been with him she'd learned he took such things very seriously, indeed. They were not always portents of grim events, but they were something requiring a certain amount of consideration depending on their level of intrusion and probability. The more improbable, the more important they must be, and how much more improbable could this one get?

I make a casual stopover and run square into a man that several dozen police forces would love to have chained and gagged in a dungeon, which they would gladly build especially for him. What are the odds? 

Richard would know the reply to that one. Too bad he wasn't here. He'd said he had certain unfinished and no doubt fatal business to conclude with Rivers.

Perhaps he would have his chance, if Sharon could find out Rivers' business without getting killed. She wished she had her Glock with her. The local law was indecently paranoid about allowing honest people to protect themselves...

She froze in midstep, then sank low with only her head above the level of the ditch.

Rivers emerged from his hiding place. He'd been hanging near the stones in the middle of the circle and appeared now as a shadow moving among them. He swaggered about as though he'd just bought the place, apparently unconcerned over discovery and eviction.

Then he climbed atop the Altar Stone in the center. Good God, even the most radical of the "Free Stonehenge" New Agers discouraged that sort of behavior. Not only did it add to the weathering and wear, but it was bloody disrespectful.

Neal Rivers stood tall on the great block and raised his arms to the night sky. Outlined against its leaden press she could clearly see the crooked twist of the right one.

But what was he doing?

Belatedly, she turned to her inner sight for an answer. She'd shut it down completely on the off chance he might be sensitive to it and notice her.

When she opened up, it was almost too much.

Instead of the occasional rush of cars passing on the nearby road she was all but flattened by a terrific Otherside howling that hit her ears like a basso supremo air-raid siren. It boomed and roared over and around the whole area of the monument, yet she could see no source. The stones shook from it, and smoke seemed to rise from them, though they couldn't possibly be on fire. Streamers thick as storm clouds flowed from their surfaces to rush in a clockwise current around her.

And there were things in that river of darkness.

What she glimpsed she had no description for: swirling shadows and sparks of light and half-perceived shapes flowing swiftly around andalarminglythrough her. Some seemed to be human in form, others were like animals, but they shifted too fast to be identified. She felt that many were harmless while others were beyond dangerous, both caught up by this strange squall. It was like a rout from a forest fire, where rabbits and deer fled next to wolves and mountain lions.

A few of the more nightmarish monstrosities, for they did not resemble anything familiar to her, slowed enough for her Sight to focus on. They seemed to see her in turn. They reminded her of the big predators in a zoo held safe behind their bars, and all is well until one of them picks you from out of the crowd. Those all-knowing and hungry golden eyes carry you back to the dangers of the ancient plains, and you know that your once important strivings in life are about to end, you've just been turned into food.

So it was here. Whatever those things might be, they were not only caught in the maelstrom, but held back by some barrier yet invisible.

It took an enormous amount of willpower to wrest her awareness from the Otherside gale to look at Rivers. Only then did she perceive that he was at its center.

He was laughing. She couldn't hear him for the row, but little else could account for his head being thrown back and his arms spread high and wide as though to receive...what?

The chaos menagerie, apparently.

Sharon gaped as the overwhelming and gigantic flow of raw power whirled around and around to finally sweep right into his chest.

It did not pass through; it went in and stayed.

He was...was feeding on it.

Oh, now that just wasn't right.

She thought she should do something, but didn't know what that could possibly be. Jump up and yell at him to stop defacing a national monument on the metaphysical level?

And get flattened into jelly. If he could cause this sort of disruption with the enormous primal forces of this place he could do just exactly that to her. Much as she wanted to stop him, this would have to be a strictly intel-gathering operation. Watch everything, then get out and decide what to do about it later. When he was locked up in a cell.

Make that "dungeon." Yes. For people like him a dungeon was just the thing. The only safe place to contain his threat was yards-thick impersonal stone with bars made from cold iron.

Of course, this assumed Rivers was up to no good, but she knew in her soul that evil was afootreal evilthe kind that couldn't be spin-doctored away with lawyer-speak excuses about an abusive childhood or disadvantaged environment or temporary insanity. This evil was the sickening, deliberately cruel, self-absorbed, old-fashioned kind that made dedicated atheists cross themselves.

So Sharon kept her head down, waiting out the storm, until the terrific howling diminished and finally died.

She wasn't used to absolute silence, in either world she walked in. The ordinary Sussex countryside was mute, with not even the swish of a passing motor to break the hush. She tapped one ear to make sure she'd not gone deaf and heard the light thump, but nothing else.

The same went for her Otherside hearing. She knew that wasn't right, but just how wrong was it?

Then Rivers crowed, letting rip a shout of triumph and joy mixed with laughter. It was like a drunk cursing in a church, so loud as to make her wince. She lifted just enough to see.

Sweet heavens, but he was glowing. It was an unhealthy light, though, like something from a fifties scare-cinema to show radioactivity. He was happy enough about it, positively gloating before he hopped down from the Altar Stone and went striding off toward the car park. Good. Her cell phone was in her own vehicle. Once he was gone, she'd start the police to tracing his plate numbers. With any luck they could nab him before

She ceased planning as the surrounding devastation gradually impressed itself on her inner eye.

Of course the Henge on this Side was intact. There was damned little that could influence those monuments into moving.

But the Otherside...She blinked, disbelieving.

It was utterly gone. The great stones were crumbled to rubble and dust no more than ankle high, as though they'd been struck square on with a bomb, lots of bombsor one really big one. The destruction was so thorough that she couldn't tell where anything had stood before; she had to superimpose the view of one world atop the other, and they still didn't match. Everything was gone.

And dead. Whatever life, good, bad, or neutral, had been in the circle was missing. The lights, the shadows, the movement of existence itselfhad been sucked into that...thing. Rivers. The disguised thing in a suit of flesh.

No number of police would be able to stop him. Rivers wouldn't even be slowed, not with that kind of power to command. She could make a call, but it would only get people needlessly killed. Her intuition told her that if he could drain life from a place he could just as easily take it from living beings.

Richard Dun might know how to deal with him on such a level, but for that to happen she'd need Rivers's location.

As soon as it was safea relative term, nowshe dashed shakily to her car and followed his rental as it ran toward London. She kept her distance, but never quite lost sight of his taillights, not that she needed them. All she had to do was lean into her Sight and there he was blazing away like a Guy Fawkes effigy.

Rivers went straight to Heathrow, which did not bode well. He was apparently booked and all the arrangements made. He turned in his car, collected a bag from a storage locker, and headed for an overnight flight with the final destination being Cancún in the Yucatán.

* * *

Seventy-two steps, seventy-throh, hell...relax a moment. Her heart was making a good run of it, but another break wouldn't hurt. If only the air wasn't so souplike in her straining lungs. Good grief, she'd seen flabby old ladies weighed down by suitcase-sized purses and shopping bags going up this thing at a faster pace. All she had was a single canteen, a machete strapped to one leg, and the Glock.

What's your problem, girl? 

Jet lag, perhaps. After the chaos at Stonehenge she'd hardly paused, booking on the next flight out. There'd been barely enough time for a hasty stop at an airport shop to snag some necessaries, then pelt away again. Tight timing and a lot of speeding, but she'd done it, making her plane and arriving in Cancún only hours behind him.

There'd been no spare moment to phone Richard then. She'd eventually managed that from the plane, but he'd not been home. This was not the sort of news one could easily leave on an answering machine. Hallo, love, I've found Charon. He's off to a tropic vacation in Cancún after metaphysically destroying Stonehenge. Would you mind dropping everything and come lend a hand down here? His aura looks like a black hole on steroids, so I wouldn't mind the help. You can reach me at this number...

What a look she'd gotten from her seatmate. Who had asked to be moved to another part of the plane. Stuffy cow. No matter, Sharon made herself at home on both seats and tried to sleep.

It hadn't worked. She kept seeing the Henge turned into moonscape. The things that had lived there, that had given the place itswellmagic, were gone. Were they dead? Could they die? She was very vague about Otherside life, if that's what it was. Energy, perhaps?

She could use some for herself. The summit of El Castillo seemed miles above her.

But she was used to swift air travel; her body had to be reacting to something other than a different time zone and latitude. She clung tight to a step, drew a deeper breath than normal, and went still, her eyes half shut.

It only took a moment to see, then several more to even begin to take in the magnitude of it.

Though the heavy air pressing close upon her was statue-still, on another plane, in that place where she could see auras, high winds were ripping about the pyramid in a hurricane turmoil the same as before but on a vastly larger scale. Enormous shapes rode the currents, spinning so quickly she could only see their trailing shadows. Her imagination supplied images to fill in the blanks, an inhuman eye here, a gaping mouth there, like a moving Rorschach test constantly turning itself inside out.

Dear God, what was going on here?

It was growing in power, too. Energies from the other monuments in the area were being drawn in, stripped violently away from their accustomed place in the universe.

If there was a source for the disturbance it was at the top of El Castillo. She thought she saw a more stable, slower patch of shadow there, but when she blinked it went away. Rivers? Had to be. He would have climbed the pyramid from the northeastern side, the only one with the twin serpent heads flanking the stairs. After all, hadn't he been talking to one of them earlier?

Right. So...what were her options?

Ordinary world: Take herself down from here as quickly as possible, get hold of someone in authority and see about pulling Rivers into custody for trespassing after hours, then fix him in place with the international warrants for his arrest. She liked the option of putting some distance between them. It made the bit about possibly being arrested herself seem rather attractive.

Otherside world: She could complete her trip to the top and see what the devil he was up to and this time stop him. Oh, yes, bags of fun trying that, but after the devastation at Stonehenge she couldn't let him get away with it again. She had no doubts he intended to commit the same ravaging here. Her instincts told her he was only just getting warmed up for...whatever it was he did, and that would be something very bad indeed. What next? The Vatican? The Wailing Wall? Ayers Rock? No, that couldn't be allowed.

One thing in her favorshe hopedwas that flesh-suit he wore. Obviously he needed it to function on this plane, and a body was a body was a body. Vulnerable to damage...and death.

Of course the locals here were almost as paranoid about firearms as the place she'd come from. She never transported a gun on flights anymore, too much trouble and forms and delays and notice. When needed, it was better to buy one upon arrival, whatever the legality or lack thereof, which she promptly did. Sharon had a wide experience dealing with all sorts of people on both sides of the law and in between, and she knew how to ask the right questions in four different languages. Within hours of reaching Cancún she had a Glock comfortably weighing down the cargo pocket on her right hip, along with spare magazines of ammunition. For good measure she also purchased a third- or fourth-hand machete and scabbard, well used, but with a sharp edge and decent weight. It even fit into her backpack without showing. The shady gentleman she'd bought it from had overcharged her outrageously, but he'd not asked questions, so she chalked it up to being part of the service. God, but it was good to deal with professionals on her own level. Almost homey.

Rivers, she had to be honest about it, was very much beyond her in a number of areas, though she still had surprise on her side.


When he was busy...feeding...she'd have her opportunity.

First-degree murder the Yanks called it, though she didn't see it that way. The chance had fallen to her to deal with this threat, and she wasn't the sort to flinch. It was like those times when Gram went into a "what if" mood. What if you had the chance to shoot Hitler or Stalin before they really hit their stride. Would you do it?

Not of that generation, Sharon was unsure about either of them because of historical impact factors, but she had no hesitation over this particular target.

It was that important.

Enough rest, get going. 

Seventy-three, seventy four...

And on and on. Passage was marginally easier now, as though opening her other senses allowed in a fresh breeze. Maybe in a very small way she was also feeding on the power here. The way it's supposed to be done, in small polite sips, not a gluttonous frenzy.


Near-invisible things screamed around her. Whatever was out there was in a panic. She couldn't blame it. Them.

God, I'm really not prepared for this kind of emergency; just thought you should know in case this doesn't turn out well. 

Then pace it, one step at a time. Literally. Don't look down.

Eighty-four, eighty-five...take it slow. He could have armed himself, too.

She moved quietly. Just because the row had deafened her, didn't mean Rivers was similarly restricted. She lowered the volume on her perceptions. The noise was really quite over the top. Distracting.

Speaking of the top...ninety, ninety-one. Wonderful. She'd made it. Give the girl a coconut. She eased onto the flat walkway, adjusting to the change and watching her feet, for the ledge was too narrow for her own comfort. The nine large inwardly diminishing steps that made up the general shape of the pyramid had to do with the regions of death in the Mayan universe. Sharon worked very hard at not wondering what the topmost one symbolized, suspecting it was nothing she needed to dwell upon just now. Instead, she wiped sweat from her brow with her boonie hat, then stuffed it out of the way in a pocket. She drained off the water bottle and wished for another from her backpack, but that was where she'd left it in the trees. At the time it seemed best not to carry its extra weight for the climb.

Creeping over, she put her back against the huge structure that rested on top. She couldn't remember what the guidebooks called it, and you got no sense of the size from mere pictures. The walls rose up perhaps another three stories. On this side a single wide door in the center yawned, and at night the effect was a little too ominous. It would be the worst rotten luck if Rivers was inside and saw her silhouetted against the sky. Since he was more likely to be lurking on the north-northeast face to her left, she edged to the right, intending to take the scenic way.

Sharon pulled the Glock out, tucked the spare magazines under her belt so they'd be handy, and quietly made sure a round was ready in the chamber.

She put the first corner behind her, standing where the south-southwest face of the pyramid overlooked forest. The tallest trees remained respectfully dwarfed in its presence. The steps leading down to them were in a shocking state, not repaired like the other three sides. One whole section had no steps at all, but a smoothed-over surface like a great slide. Dangerous. It reminded her of a stage set for a play. So long as the bits facing the audienceor in this case touristslooked good that's what mattered.

Another centrally placed door to the inner mysteries was on this side. She slipped past it, her heart in her mouth for a bare second. Damn, the weight and solidity of the Glock in her hand should have been more reassuring.

She paused before taking the next corner in her circuit, listening. Nothing on this side. No birds called from the trees below. They must have known something was up and sensibly bolted. Good for them.

Could use with a set of wings myself. Preferably the rotating kind. Attached to a fully armed Blackhawk helicopter with night-vision goggles and a load of those other lovely, expensive-but-totally-worth-it tech toys and an experienced flight crew to aid and abet her quest. She'd stand for all the beers afterward.

From this vantage Sharon could see across the esplanade to the One Thousand Columns. The pale stones glowed faint in the starlight, a silent army marching in a T-shape toward Highway 180. The columns had supported a roof once upon a time that might have shaded a huge marketplace. Impressive, certainly bigger than the average shopping mall. Maybe it had been a mall or a temple or housing. If she knew which, it might put off the nasty feeling that she was looking at gravestones. Clever people, the builders, but really too fixated on that death business for her taste. It was catching.

Smokerather, something like smokerose from each of those thousand columns, from the ground they rested on, from the buildings next to them. It hurried toward Kukulcan's pyramid, joining with the new-formed Otherside storm that circled its base. Within its shadows and in the air she saw the predator monstrosities again. They were different from their English cousins, but no less dangerous. Again she sensed a barrier holding them back, preventing them from entering her own prosaic world, but now she thought that protection might be getting weaker.

Things were changing. Rivers was making them change. For the worse. She knew it in her bones.

Another wide door, a breath of hot, humid air from the interior, then farther along the outside wall. She drew a mirror from a pocket and used it to get a view of what was around the final corner.

The small image jumped in her unsteady hand, showing a flare of sickly light, then settling. He was there, planted solidly in the center of the platform walk at the top of the steps, looking out over the esplanade. The opening to the temple behind him was much wider here, the span supported by two fat columns, giving the initial impression of three doorways. Sharon thought she could ease close along the wall then use the nearest one as cover. She could hit him at this distance, but wanted to be sure. Point-blank range would make the kill certain. She thought she would only get the one chance.

Shoving the mirror back in a pocket, she put her head around; with any luck she'd be on his blind side. She couldn't remember which eye was covered by the patch. Odd, that.

His attention was outward, his arms up and wide as before. He wasn't taking anything in just yet, only working on the...well, it must be a summoning. It was one hell of a show. Literally. The wild, spinning dance below began to rise like a pool slowly filling with water. Within this one's depths were curious gaudy colors, shreds of light, and bloodred darkness. Lots of that. The memory of those killed in violent sacrifice seemed to take form as thousands of small shadows merged together into a roiling mass.

Noise. That hideous howling began to build as before. Rivers seemed aware of it and might not hear the scrape of her combat boots on the stone.

Now or never. She inched forward, got within reach of the nearest pillar...

And hands like iron grabbed, lifted, and threw her hard against the wall. She managed to hold on to the Glock, but the surprise took the breath right out of her and forestalled the pain.

He had help...? She hastily turned, raising the gun to this second threat.

But the man she faced was Rivers himself...but he'd been standing over there

Gone. No others were on the platform.

Just himself, then. Moving preternaturally fast. Oh, lord.

Rivers broke into a big friendly grin. "Hey! Sharon? It's Sharon Geary, right? You dated Dickie-boy for awhile. You don't mind that I checked you out, I hope? In my line it's a good thing to keep tabs on certain people. I've so been looking forward to meeting you, sweet cheeks."

She didn't think, only pulled the trigger. He was five feet away, and the bullets hit him square in the upper center of his chest just the way she'd trained. She emptied the magazine.

He rocked back, hands clutching, and staggered dramatically. "Oh! Ouch! Ow! Oh! You got me! Ow-ow-ow! Bang, bang, I'm dead!"

There's no blood, she thought, staring at his insane miming.

He straightened. "Aw, gee, did the bad man sell you blanks when you bought the piece?"

No blanks. There were holes in the shirtjust not the flesh beneath it.

Rivers kept grinning. "Come on, Sherrie-pie! Did you think it'd be that easy to take me out? I been watching you since Salisbury." He gave her no time to reload. In an eye-blink he was behind her, arm fast around her neck, his free hand pressing her head painfully to the side. "Chill out, little mama, or I'll play exorcist with you. One twist and you'll be able to see where you've been walking from."

She froze against the pressure. Another ounce of force at this angle and it'd be game over, forever. She fought to breathe.

"You know something?" he gently husked into her ear, intimate as a lover. "I really liked this shirt, and now you done ruined it. What say you drop the toy? 'Cause if you put holes in my pants I might get cranky."

He shifted his balance. A tiny movement, but it made an opening. She dug an elbow into his gut, rammed a heel into one of his shins, slamming it down hard on his instep.

That made him grunt. Right, he wasn't totally invulnerable. Physical assault could damage him even if bullets didn't, figure out why later. With the slack gained she cracked the empty gun against his knuckles. Though famous for its polymer frame and grip, there was plenty of steel in the weapon to hurt him. He jerked, giving her more freedom of movement, which she used to break his hold.

No time to pause and assess, she spun and crashed her heavy boot into one of his knees, full force, intending to blow it out. He yelped and retreated, but the shock didn't last long. A step, then two, and he was nimbly dodging and dancing like a boxer.

The bastard's playing with me. Whatever hurt she did, he was either faking injury or healing incredibly fast.

He smirked. "Come on, baby doll. Let's work up a sweat. I heard you chicks liked foreplay."

Trying to make me mad. Which wasn't going to happen. She had the idea anger was exactly the sort of thing that would help him here. She looked around for alternative weapons.

Rivers paused as though reading her mind. "What's next? Handcuffs? No bedposts here, sorry. Maybe a club? Nah, who would join? What about some holy water? You can't beat a classic."

Trying to distract me. From what?

From that. Her Sight picked up on the sickly radiation glow that outlined his body, which was otherwise dark. It was much dimmer than she recalled. He was using it up...yet replenishing. She glimpsed a spider-thin thread of light leading into one of his hands from the growing storm around them. If she could cut that line...

Whether her machete was made from cold steel or not, she rather thought in this case the symbolic intent would be as important as a sharp edge. She pulled the weapon from her leg scabbard, swapping it with the Glock.

Rivers struck a defensive pose, but held to a smart-ass face. "Oh, you are really getting to me now, warrior princess. I tell ya, I could so do that babe. Hope you're not jealous if I fantasize a bit while we"

He ducked when she made her first slicing attack. Wary about his uncanny speed, she kept her back to the wall to deny him the option of gettting behind her. That was when she noticed the bizarre gleam on her own form. It ran along her limbs and right out to the knife blade. What did it mean? That she had power, too? God, but it was bright. Silvery compared to his corpse-light green.

"Oooh, sweet. How'd you do that, cutie, take a few lessons from Spielberg? Or maybe your last boyfriend's special lady gave you some pointers about converting latent energies?"

What was he on about? Richard?

"Of course you know you weren't the only woman in his life. Or did you believe him about all that 'I love you' crap?"

What? How'd he know that? No, Rivers was guessing. Still trying to rattle her. Shotgunning taunts, hoping to find a weak spot. None today, thank you.

"I tell ya, he's batted those baby blues at thousands of chicks just like you and fed them the line and, hoo-boy, did they swallow it. Know what I mean?"

She laughed. A sound of pure delight in her ears mixed with contempt for him, and not the reaction he expected.

Though he kept hammering. "There's only been one babe for him, though. He ever take you to meet her, get her approval? They got this open relationship thing going, though I don't know what they see in each other. Hey! Easy there! Mind the cojones, I'm gonna want 'em laterso will you, I think."

Her feint to his crotch had surprised him. Couldn't blame him for that, but he'd retreated out of range, and she couldn't complete the follow-through upswing toward his hand.

Oh, hell. She had let him distract her. Belatedly, it occurred to her that she need not cut the thread close to his body. Any point where it trailed toward him from the chaos should do just fine. Well, then...

Another feint toward his head, then she side-stepped and slashed strongly downward. Was there resistance to her blade or had she imagined it? No matter, it worked. Rivers roared pain and this time wasn't play-acting his stagger. He fell against the side of the building, going down on one knee with a grunt. The glow about him faded radically.

"Jeeze, woman, you nuts? You got no idea whataw, shit." He looked past her, eyes wide.

Not about to fall for that one, she backed off a few yards, then spared a glance in that direction.

Holy Mary and all the saints, I SAID I wasn't ready for this.

The mad flow of Otherside shadow had risen nearly level with them. Seeming to swim in the strange storm was something...big. Really big. Its head was the same size as the stone snake heads at the base of the stairs. In fact, it looked quite a lot like those heads. But alive. The huge eyes were jet black and glinting and aware and directed at her. A vastly long body undulated in the stream, the length of its spine topped with a diamond-shaped pattern in bright jewel-colored scales. Each scale was larger than her open hand.

"Now you gone and done it," said Rivers wearily. "You shouldn't of chopped my control. Kukulcan is one god you don't wanna piss off."

The serpent"snake" just didn't cover itswung its attention toward Rivers. Its jaws opened, showing impossibly long fangs, and it rose high, apparently to strike and swallow him.

"Oh, no you don't." Rivers raised one hand, then the other. "No hissy fits from you, wormy. You hump back to your little hole in the wherever. Misbehave and I will so burn your ass."

Sharon gaped, every hair of her body on end as the thing kept rising from the chaos. She shrank toward the temple doorway, thinking to hide in the shadows there.

Daft idea, this is its HOME.

With all that size would it be able to squeeze inside?

It's a god, why not? 

But for the moment it was interested in Rivers, who seemed able to hold it at bay. It swayed around him as he faced it, countering each of its moves with a smaller one of his own. Must have been work for him, too. Sweat poured off his face, which was pinched and pale with concentration. She used the breather to drop the machete and reload the Glock, which took twice as long because her hands shook so much. There, a fresh magazine and a round in the chamber. Certainly useless against the serpent, probably useless against Rivers, but it made her feel better all the same. She picked up the big knife again and thought about throwing it at him, but she'd never been much good at that parlor trick.

Perhaps while he was involved with company...she could try a head shot. He might not shrug it off so easily.

Brace, balance, two-handed grip, and squeeze, don't jerk the trigger, double-tap, double-tap again.

What the hell...? The ejected casings arced clear, tumbling... slowly.

She saw the bullets individually tearing from the muzzle, bright as tracer fire.

So did Rivers. He threw a glance her way, gave a short chuckle, and simply moved clear of their spinning path. They continued out into the night sky, vanishing in the distance.

The serpent made a try for him then. It was amazing anything that huge could move so fast, but he was faster, and as the head overshot him, he slapped it, his bare hand cutting the scales like a hot razor, making a long deep wound that bled...light? The glow around it dimmed; Rivers was absorbing power from its streaming blood. The creature made no sound as it convulsed clear, but Sharon recognized pain.

And rage. It arched high, and a thickening of the skin behind its head suddenly flared into a great feathered crest of many colors almost too brilliant to look at. Light came from the thing like a beacon in fog. Sharon felt its heat.

"Come on, who's the big Chee-ken in Eetza?" Rivers called, laughing. He'd resumed his connection to the energies, but instead of a thread, it was a thick rope as big around as one of his own arms, leading right into his back. The serpent's white blood dripped from his hand and down. He flexed his fingers.

His crooked arm was straight again.

Rivers stared at the healing. "Whoa, buddy! Didn't know you could do that. Thanks a mil for the favor! Guess I was taking the long way around." He tore off his eye patch and swiped his hand over the damage there. "Oh, yeah, talk to me, baby! Go for the money! That's it. That's it. That's so IT!"

Not only was his ruined eye restored by the blood, but the gray fled from his hair and beard, turning them black again. Some of the weathering melted from his face. He drew the length of his arm across his mouth, tasting the blood. His body flinched and shuddered as if in orgasm, and he threw his head back. His laughter boomed across the esplanade.

"Wormy, you are my new best friend!" he yelled up at the god.

Who wanted no part of it. The huge being shifted swiftly around and lashed its tail at Rivers like a whip. Sharon ducked and rolled as the wall of scaled flesh slammed against the pyramid, shaking it. Otherside stones shattered to dust, pelting her. She missed what happened next, but when the thing moved off it showed fresh wounds, while Rivers was still on his feet, making a banshee-like scream of triumph.

Where gods and angels fear to tread, then send in the Irish, she thought, shifting the machete to her right hand again.

Rivers, busy gloating and feeding, didn't see her. He felt her attack, though, if his shriek was anything to judge by. She cut through the cord leading into his spine, then made a swift back-handed slice at his kidneys, connecting. The blade bit deep into his side and was almost pulled from her grip when he whirled on her.

Her turn to grin at his bafflement.

Which was only temporary. He fell away, yanking clear of the knife. Once the steel left his body he regained his shark's smile. He put the back of one hand to his mouth and licked at the glowing blood until another spasm of shuddering tore through him. His eyes took on that same glow, but not in a wholesome way. The wound she'd caused knitted up.

"Whoa. The blood of a god. Now that's a rush! You oughta try it sometime, chickie-girl."

Extending one arm sideways a tendril from the chaos leaped to his hand, merging with flesh. The power poured into him and bolstered him up. His outline was almost too bright to look at, but the bulk of his body remained stubbornly in shadow.

He clapped loud, rubbing the palms together. "Okay, honey, sorry to keep you waiting, business, y'know, but now I'm all yours. What say we skip the dinner and a movie part and get right to the screwing over?"

She'd tried to take advantage of the machete's design, using it as a chopping rather than a thrust weapon, but her fencing training was with epée, not saber. Well, too bad and do the best you can. For an effective hit, she had to get in close. Perhaps if she cut his hand off along with the cord...

And then he was behind her again, moving too fast to track. How the devil

Something hard banged against the side of her skull, there was a hot stabbing in her lower back then shoulders, and her legs abruptly stopped working. She hit the stone surface like a bag of sand. When her mind cleared she could hardly stand the barrage to her senses. They were wide open, no barriers to shield and filter; the assault of noise and sight and touch and smell from the Otherside were drowning her. Everything was too sharp, too loud, too much, and ongoing. She shouted, trying to negate at least the sound with her own feeble voice.

It was a relief when Rivers framed her face in his two hands and smiled lovingly down at her. His chill touch seemed to blunt the worst of it. Or absorbed.

"Oh, baby, I just knew you'd be a screamer not a moaner."

She tried to raise a weapon, either of them, but couldn't feel her arms. All her strength and the adrenaline that had been pounding through her system to feed it were gone. He lifted her uphad to hold her uphis arms strong around her as he took a step toward the edge of the platform. She couldn't fight him, her legs dragged loose. It wasn't paralysis, that implied being frozen in place, this was absolute bonelessness.

Her head drooped to her chest, lolling. He grabbed her hair and pulled so she could look at him. "Sweetheart, this has been fun, but the plain truth is when it comes to mayhem, I've just had a lot more practice at it than you."

Looking into his cheerfully mad eyes, she could believe it. He turned her so she could see out. Her Sight showed her the ordinary esplanade and the Otherside version at once.

He whispered in her ear again, as though sharing a secret. "You are so privileged. Do you know that? What you're getting now is what the old priests used to see, layers on layers. They kept adding to it the same way their builders stacked a new building on top of an old one. With every heart they cut out, with every drop of blood that flowed down these stones, they added to the darknessall with the very best of intentions, of course."

Where was the serpent god? Had it left, or had he fed on it as well? She thought she saw a green and blue shimmer under the faux-water of the encircling storm. Its level was lower than before. How can one man burn up so much power? Where was it going?

"They'd get their best and brightestwhich is a good way to prevent some upstart from taking your jobfatten 'em up and promise 'em paradise, thenwham-bamcut out their plucky little hearts while they were still beating. Ah, the good old days!"

Something warm against her cheek. He let her see it: the flat blade of the machete, wet with his blood.

"So...what do you think about staging a revival? Glory hallelujah! Gimme some of that ol' time religion!"

She found she could still speak even when the blade kissed her throat. "Bite me," she grated.

"Yup, you're my kind of woman. Maybe a couple years ago I'd have taken you up on that, but I got bigger things going." He walked her closer toward the center.

The steep steps were just in front of her. If he let her go she'd

Don't look at them, then.

"But there's no need to cover old ground. I just get such a kick teasing people, one of my better qualities. A little terror energy is okay, and Death Magic has its uses, but you're not the most cooperative bitch I've ever been with. I don't think you'd digest too well on either count."

She looked beyond the stairs, trying to see past the creatures writhing in the storm. There was the serpent, worse for wear, drifting down, heading away from themor rather toward something else of interest. There were soft but very intense lights at the edge of the esplanade. They had form, were vertical, like the Thousand Columns...only these were slowly moving toward El Castillo.

He spun the machete one-handed like a juggler. "Don't get me wrong, this has been a trip, but I'm gonna have to leave, and I don't think wormy would like that. It's been ages since anyone bothered to wake him up, and sweetie, you did that. You shouldn't have severed my lines; it messed up my shields, threw things into red alert, and sent him slithering out to see who was messing around on his turf. I worked very, very hard to get myself to this point, and I'm not going to waste all that I've gained fighting my way out through the local guardian. I'm gonna need some help from you, like it or not."

One of those distant lights...figures...walked closer. It was a man, apparently unintimidated by the gigantic serpent coming toward him, much less the other strange beings that swarmed above him. Fewer of them now, and the wind was dying. Soon it would be the Henge all over again, but with dust and rubble and silence spread for miles.

Rivers went on. "You're not still a virgin are you? Nah, no way. Not with Dickie-boy Dun for your boyfriend. He does love the ladies. Virginity might have been an added plus here for an offering. On the other hand, I heard it has more to do with purity of heart than whether or not you dropped your cherry."

The man below was almost to the foot of the pyramid steps. He was big, with a short-cropped brush of blond hair. Hope leapt in her. She knew him, would know his face and form anywhere, even through Otherside veils. She took breath to call down and only at the last instant stopped herself. Rivers hadn't noticed him yet.

"But, sweetie pie, no one's fed old Kukie in so long he'll probably like just about anything. I think you'll taste pretty good regardless."

Other individuals coalesced out of the column-shapes, more and more; they shimmered ghostlike against the darkness. She didn't know them, but her heart told her they were here to help in some way. But they only stared up without any obvious reaction to her situation or to each other. Rivers had to see them now; there were so many down there.

She shouted at the foremost figure, who was facing the serpent. "Richard!"

Rivers jerked in reaction, turning her. "What was that? Wishful thinking or do you see something?" He looked out. There must have been hundreds standing below. His gaze passed right over them. "What is it you see?"

" 'Birnam wood do come to Dunsinane,' " she muttered, chuckling. The quote was not quite accurate to the circumstances, but close enough to shake him. Feeling was returning to her limbs. She knew the symptoms; he'd struck specific pressure points to certain nerve clusters. Nothing permanent. Given time she'd get that knife from him and ram it sideways down his throat.

Given time.

Rivers held his hand out and a last howling sliver of the wind raised high, tugging at them. Stinging sand was in it, debris torn from the other monuments...

Which were gone now on Otherside. Oh, bloody hell.


But it was Kukulcan who responded, seeming to leap, riding the wind as it gathered itself for a rush up the sides of the pyramid.

"Oh, no ya don't," said Rivers.

She almost had control over herself again, and if she could break free, she could hinder him.

Only Rivers didn't seem to know that. As though anticipating her move he swept her lightly up like a bridegroom ready to cross the threshold. She clawed at his face.

He pulled back and hit a nerve on her neck. She went slack, arms dangling. "Uh-uh. Not again. Been there, done that. You're a great date, Sherrie-pie. I'll call ya next week, okay?"

She tried to dredge up more fight, but he'd stolen her strength. There was no way Richard could reach her in time to help. Why hadn't he moved? What was wrong with him? With any of them?

Then it was all up. With unnatural strength Rivers lifted her over his head. She got a ghastly view of the stairs swinging unsteadily below with the serpent god charging up their length, feathered crest flared with rage, mouth open.

Oh, God, no, not now, it's not my time 

Rivers hurled her strongly toward it.

The stairs rushed at her...

Until the wind caught and swept her high into Otherside madness. She glimpsed the serpent god suddenly looming, diving toward her. Sharon screamed to Richard as she plunged into a glittering well of green, blue, gold, and red, but all she heard in return was Rivers.

"Hasta la Winnebago, baby!"

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