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In this forest it was always night. A red moon hung eternally overhead, its scarlet light turning the landscape below to ebony and blood, hiding the brambles and pitfalls that could trap a running man. The damp air resounded to the call of hunting horns and the howls of the pack. Whatever mortal encountered them was doomed, for they were the hounds of the Wild Hunt, and once set upon a scent, they never failed to take their prey.

He had seen them succeed four times before. He was the fifth and last, and sometime in this eternal night his end would come in the same way as that of all the others.

He did not know how long any of them had been here, suffering the tender mercies of their tormentor. Weeks or months—or maybe even years. The old stories said that time ran differently under the Hollow Hills than it did on Earth. But the time of year was the least of his worries.

Staying alive as long as he could—and dying well—was what mattered now. Was all that mattered now.

He stopped for a moment, his back to the trunk of a tree of no earthly species, alert for the sound of the Hunt. If he could survive until dawn, he was free. That was what they'd told Hauman, and for a while all of them had hoped to escape—until they realized that in this world, dawn never came.

His antlers caught in the tree's branches. He shook his head irritably as he freed them. They were another part of the trap. There was no way to remove them. Once Aerune had strapped the gleaming silver antlers to your head, only death would release you. That was one of his tricks, and the Sidhe lord had a lot of them. Elkanah Youngblood had sampled them in plenty during his captivity.

Had the blonde bitch known what Aerune would do to them when she'd abandoned them here? Elkanah hoped so. It made Ria Llewellyn easier to hate, and hate was the only thing that gave him the strength to go on. There was no point in hating Lord Aerune—it would be like hating a mountain, or the sea, or the night itself. Aerune was too inhuman to hate, but Elkanah could fear him, and he did.

Too late now to wish he'd never followed Lintel's orders back in the day, nor followed the path that had brought him to the outlaw life of a hired gun. Too late to wish he'd died before Robert Lintel had magicked them all into Aerune's court with his captive espers. Too late to wish he'd turned his own gun on himself while he still could, before he'd become Aerune's prisoner. All that mattered now was surviving as long as he could without going mad. Or maybe going mad was better. Elkanah didn't know.

The one thing he did know was that it was marginally better to be ripped apart by the hellhounds pursuing him than to fall into the hands of the huntsmen. Liverakos had made that mistake. He'd held off the dogs until the Hunt had joined them. He'd hoped for clemency, or for a clean death. Instead, it had taken him hours to die, flayed alive slowly by creatures who fed on human pain.

And all of them—the surviving Threshold mercs—had been forced to watch.

Elkanah didn't know how often Aerune held these hunts. Time had no meaning here. There was being asleep, and being awake, and sometimes it was hard to tell the difference between the two. When Aerune got tired of his petty torments, then it was time for another hunt. They'd never known who'd be chosen next to wear the silver antlers. Elkanah had that small advantage over those who had gone before him. When the last of the others had died in the hounds' jaws, he'd known he'd be next. Maybe that was why Aerune had played him as long as he did, tormenting him with the hope it wouldn't end for him the way it had for all the others. But this morning—it was impossible not to use the word, even though it was meaningless in this world—Aerune had summoned him to the throne room, and Elkanah had known his time had come.

And now he was here in the bone-wood.

The bone-wood was filled with bare, leafless trees like nothing on Earth. Even when there was no wind, the branches moved, rubbing against each other to produce a sound eerily like human whispering. Maybe if you listened long enough, you could understand what the trees said. Elkanah hoped he'd be dead before then.

Though he suspected spring and autumn never came to this place, the forest floor was covered with dead and rotting leaves. Thickets of leafless bramble grew between the trees, a trap for unwary prey, and somewhere beyond the bone-wood itself was a meadow—covered with sere dry grass that had never been green—and a river. He'd used every moment of the other Hunts to try to make a map of the territory in his mind, hoping it would serve him when his own time came.

Except for the silver antlers upon his head, Elkanah was as naked as any other hunted animal. They'd given him a head start before they released the hellhounds—the Unseleighe Sidhe had a warped notion of fair play—and he'd had a long time to plan for this day.

There was no way out of the forest, and no point in waiting for a dawn that would never come. The only hope he had—and all it amounted to was a choice of deaths—was to make the hunt last as long as possible, so that the rade got bored and didn't follow the pack very closely. Then he could be sure that the pack would tear him to bits before the hunters reached him. Until that time, he needed to confuse them, lay a maze of false trails, and use every way there was to throw them off the scent. The times he'd ridden with the Hunt to watch the others die would help him there. He could almost say he knew this forest.

The horns sounded again, closer this time, and he could hear the baying of the hounds. They were huge, monsters, like a wolf in a nightmare: four feet at the shoulder, with ivory fangs as long as his thumb and pupilless red eyes that glowed with the light of hellfire. His daddy'd been a jackleg preacher when he wasn't hard at work at his real job, and in his youth Elkanah had heard all about Hell and its creatures. He could say he knew the territory. If this wasn't Hell, it was the next best thing.

He turned, and began moving away from the pack at a slow, ground-eating lope. The river was near here. He could wade along it for a few hundred yards, then cross over and double back on his tracks. That should confuse them for a while. Later he'd find a tree to climb, move from branch to branch. Anything to throw them off the scent. He could even pretend that he hoped he could make it to the edge of the forest—assuming it had an edge. Hope could keep you alive, or it could kill you. Right now, hope and determination were the only things he had.

He heard the river long before he reached it. He had to force his way through a thicket of thorns to reach it, and he was bleeding from a hundred scratches by the time he made his way to the water. The surface of the water shone balefully red in the moonlight, and for a moment he worried about what might lay beneath its surface. The river was wider than he remembered, but the far bank was an easy slope. But Agel had made it across before he died, and Aerune's Hunt had forded it without difficulty. He had to try.

When he stepped into the water, it was as cold as liquid ice. The scratches on his body burned, a silver tracery of fire, before the cold numbed them. Gritting his teeth, Elkanah forced himself deeper, striking out with powerful strokes for the center. The current would be faster there, and do some of his work for him. Always providing the Hunt wasn't awaiting him downstream, knowing he would do precisely this.

Indecision is your worst enemy. On the battlefield, even a bad decision is better than none, he told himself grimly. You've made your plan, now stick to it. 

The cold sapped his strength and made his heart hammer madly. He let the current carry him downstream as long as he dared before striking out for the far bank, knowing he had to save some of his strength to battle his way there. He didn't dare try to drown, though surrendering to the water's chill kiss was tempting. Aerune's healers were too skilled for him to risk it. He'd seen them work on the others, bringing a man back from the edge of death to be tortured again. The death that was his only way of winning this game had to be certain . . . and final.

But it was almost a greater effort than he was capable of to drag himself out of the water, and for long moments Elkanah crouched in the thick grass of the bank, gasping and shuddering with the cold. Only terror and determination forced him to his feet to stagger onward through the wood again. All around him the trees seemed to whisper to themselves as he passed, and he no longer cared if what he saw and heard was real or imaginary. Anything might be true here. The only thing he had going for him was the fact that the Unseleighe Sidhe didn't like to have their games spoiled. Nothing in this forest would hinder him as he ran, or do anything to cheat the Wild Hunt of its sport.

At least, they never had yet. He'd seen some of the other things that lived here—black horses with cloven hooves and ram's horns, small silvery fox-things that sobbed and cried like children, glowing women as insubstantial as mist. Creatures of nightmare, only here the nightmares didn't end with waking.

Each time he stopped to rest it seemed like only moments before he heard the hounds again, baying close behind as they followed his trail. He crossed a second, shallower stream, and Elkanah spent several minutes circling back and forth through it, making a tangled scent for the hounds to follow, before forging onward. The ground began to rise, and he realized that the trees were becoming smaller and farther apart.

This was a part of the Night Lands he'd never seen before on any of the Hunts. Perhaps if he reached the top of the ridge ahead, he might find sanctuary. A cave to hide in. Something. He had to hope, had to fool himself that he wouldn't die tonight. It was the only way he could manage to get through this, and put himself at last beyond Aerune's reach.

His entire body trembled with exhaustion, and his throat and lungs burned with each rasping breath he took. He didn't know how far he had run—miles, maybe—and he knew that he couldn't fool himself much longer. He was at the end of his strength, and the hounds were closer now. He could hear them. For the last few minutes he'd just been running flat-out, too stupefied with fatigue to turn and dodge and confuse the trail. This was open country, anyway. Backtracking wouldn't do any good. The hounds could see him, and unlike other hunted animals, he had no convenient burrow to hide in.

He risked a look back, and to his horror, he saw that the hounds were not alone. He could see the torches of the Hunt, the glow of the riders' bodies. Against all hope, this time the rade hadn't lost interest in the chase, had followed the pack closely.

Of course. Aerune would want to be in at this last kill. He might even deny the hounds their pleasure, saving Elkanah for some new torment.

Behind him, he heard the horn blow victory, the prey in sight. From a view, to a kill.

At that thought, Elkanah's last shred of control snapped. He could not—would not—die as Liverakos had. He ran, heedless of the stones that cut his feet, up the sloping ground toward the ridge.

There was a path cut into the hillside, leading up to the top of the ridge. Earlier he would have avoided it as a matter of course. Now it seemed to provide some haven, and he followed it unthinkingly. Twice he fell to his knees as his strength failed him, and twice he forced himself to stagger onward as the pack howled eagerly behind him. He could hear the riders now, shouting and laughing as they closed in, their horses scrabbling and slipping as they were forced up the steep narrow track. He grabbed one of the loose rocks as he ran. It was a poor weapon, but all he had. He would not give up without a fight.

The trail flattened out as he reached the top of the ridge. The wind was colder here, blowing steadily. He looked around, trying to see where the trail led now. There was a cave ahead. No—he paused to claw the sweat from his eyes—not a cave, just two rocks, leaning against each other to form the shape of a crude doorway. He should have been able to see through the opening to what lay beyond, but all he could see was blackness, blackness that shimmered and twisted like an oil slick on water. A Gate—he'd learned about them in his captivity. But to where?

But he had hesitated too long. The first of the hounds reached him, springing silently to the attack.

He went down beneath its weight, fighting to keep its jaws from his throat. He lowered his head and swung it fiercely back and forth, using the antlers as another weapon. The hound snapped at them, snarling, and that was enough to allow him to bring up the rock he still clutched in his hand, smashing it into the beast's head.

It yelped at the pain, sounding almost doglike in its surprise. He hit it again, and heard the crunch of bone. It squealed and scrabbled back, glaring at him with those mad red eyes. But it didn't attack again. It didn't need to. The pack was only moments behind it. He scuttled backward frantically with hands and feet, not daring to take the moment to stand or to turn his back on the hound. He heard the riders behind them, and fury banished his weakness. He'd been so close, so close. . . .

He felt rough stone at his back, and something more. Something like dark sunlight, a raw electrical tingling that made his bones vibrate. The Gate. With the last of his strength he thrust himself sideways, kicking out to propel his body through to whatever lay beyond.

It didn't matter what was on the other side.

* * *

The Hunt reached the Portal seconds later. The hounds milled about the stones, whining and yelping their displeasure and confusion at their quarry's sudden disappearance. The huntsmen dismounted and waded into the animals, driving them back with whips.

Aerune rode slowly forward, through the confusion of hounds and huntsmen. Behind him, his courtiers waited in silence for the explosion of his wrath. No one had expected this. Never in a thousand Great Hunts had the prey ever made it this far, nor should the Gate have opened for them if they had.

But Aerune did nothing. He gazed at the Portal for a long moment in silence, and then turned back to his men.

He was smiling. It was a sight more terrifying than his anger.

"Now," Aerune said with quiet satisfaction. "Now, the hunt can begin. Now I have set my hunter upon the scent."

* * *

When Eric woke up on Sunday morning, he was clear-headed and full of energy—and it occurred to him that although he had made the plan to meet Hosea at the Y for a rehearsal session tonight, the Y might not be the best place to hold it. The walls of those little rooms were notoriously thin, and a flute tended to have a certain piercing quality. The neighbors might not appreciate their playing—or worse, might like it too much.

On the other hand, he had a perfectly good apartment here, with thick walls and unflappable neighbors. Why not bring Hosea here? They could play as long as they liked in peace and comfort, and Eric could run the Appalachian Bard past the House, just to be able to reassure Bethie that he wasn't going off half-cocked here. So, once again he cleaned like a mad thing—polishing away the remains of last night's party and taking several bags of paper plates and cups down to the trash cans. He realized he wanted to make a good impression on Hosea, and the thought made him smile. There was a time when he would have dismissed a concern like that as sheerest hypocrisy. You've come a loo-o-o-ng way, bay-bee, he sang lustily and off-key inside his head. Though he didn't have Greystone to help him tidy, at least there wasn't nearly as much to do.

Two cleaning sessions in two days. Am I turning into Mr. Mom or what? 

When he stepped out onto the street around four, the day's stored-up heat hit him like a hammer. He'd been luxuriating all day in his Bard-crafted winter weather (a lot more appealing in July than in February), and the reality of a New York City summer was brutal. The streets outside his Riverside apartment were the next best thing to deserted; in summer New Yorkers tended to retreat into their air-conditioned shells—those who had them, at any rate.

It took him a little over an hour to make it crosstown to the Y—not one, but two trains died the death and had to be taken out of service—and he was hot and sweaty when he got there. But if he'd been looking for relief, he didn't find it in the lobby of the YMCA. It was only marginally cooler.

Maybe going back to my place was a better idea than I thought. 

He didn't bother to check in at the desk, since he already knew Hosea's room number. The elevator was slow and creaky, with absolutely no air circulation. He was glad to get out.

The hallway had the smells of long occupation and illegal hot plates. Several of the doors were open, and as Eric walked by, he could see that some of the windows were open as well, filling the hall with the smell of burnt asphalt and baking brick. Hosea's door was closed. Eric stopped before it, but as he raised his hand to knock, Hosea opened the door.

"I heard you coming up the hall," he said, stepping back to usher Eric inside.

The room was smaller than most of the dorm rooms Eric had seen lately. There was a twin bed and a battered dresser, a wooden chair and a fold-down shelf that served as a desk. The window opened onto an enchanting view of the airshaft, and the battered air conditioner in the window was doing its noisy best, but not making a lot of difference to the temperature. Despite his surroundings, Hosea looked as if he'd just stepped out of a bandbox: he was wearing a white T-shirt and neatly-pressed jeans. His banjo lay in its open case on the bed, which was made to Marine Corps standards of neatness. Hosea held out his hand and Eric shook it, but despite the fact that Eric's hand disappeared into Hosea's, the larger man's grip was firmly gentle. Here was a Bard who knew a great deal about control; Eric had the feeling that Dharniel wouldn't have much to teach him there.

"Glad you could make it," Hosea added. "Would you care for something cold to drink?"

"You've got something?" Eric asked in surprise. He hadn't seen any sign of a refrigerator.

In answer, Hosea reached under the bed and pulled out a large plastic sack. He opened it, revealing a selection of containers—Cokes, bottled water, and a carton of milk—nested in a couple of pounds of slowly-melting ice. "Easier than running down to the corner store every couple of minutes." He pulled out a bottle of water and handed it to Eric, who accepted it gratefully. "Cheaper when you buy them at the supermarket, too."

Eric twisted off the cap and chugged the water gratefully. It was as cold as the ice that had surrounded it, like drinking winter. He wondered if Hosea might have used a little Bardcraft on it, but he wasn't sure of how skilled in magic Hosea might be. Playing on people's emotions was a lot easier than affecting the physical world.

"You haven't brought your flute with you," Hosea observed, when Eric set down the empty bottle. Hosea picked it up and placed it fastidiously into the battered plastic trash can.

"There's been a change of plans. I think we'd be better off practicing at my place."

"Ay-ah, the walls do seem to be a mite thin here," Hosea said, echoing Eric's earlier thought. "Though I haven't noticed anyone ever going to bed at all," he added ruefully.

"The city never sleeps," Eric agreed, quoting an old advertising slogan.

"I've noticed that. Can't imagine how you folks get on."

"You get used to it, I guess." As he said the words, Eric realized that in fact he'd done just that. When he'd moved here a year ago, he'd thought that the noise and constant bustle would drive him crazy. Now he hardly noticed it.

Hosea greeted this remark with a silent—though eloquent—expression of disbelief. "Well, if we're going back to your place, just let me get my traps together. No point in putting temptation into the path of some poor weak-willed critter, is there?"

"No point at all," Eric agreed readily, since this was fitting in very nicely with a nebulous half-plan of his own. It took Hosea only seconds to return all of his possessions to the worn duffle bag and lock his banjo into its case, and only slightly longer to pour the ice-melt out the window and tie the bag full of ice up neatly. On the way out he knocked on a closed door, seemingly at random, and thrust the bag into the hands of its surprised occupant.

"Here you go, Leroy," Hosea said. "You share that with your friends, you hear?"

Leroy smiled, and said something quick in soft Spanish. Hosea smiled and continued down the hall.

"You speak Spanish?" Eric asked. Somehow it wasn't an accomplishment that seemed to go with his picture of a banjo-playing hillbilly Bard.

"Nope," Hosea answered easily. "But it ain't too hard to figure out what most folks mean, no matter how they put themselves."

They hit the street and headed for the subway. At Hosea's urging, rather than wait to get back to the apartment and phone for pizza, they stopped and picked up dinner on the way.

"Save a little that way," Hosea pointed out practically, and it did mean that once they reached the apartment, they wouldn't have to wait around for food to arrive. They stopped at the same place Eric had ordered the pizzas from for the party last night—ought to just open a charge account here—and ordered. The heat had pretty much killed Eric's appetite, but Hosea studied the menu for a moment and ordered three super deluxe sausage calzones, a kind of Moebius pizza with the crust on the outside and the topping on the inside.

"If I ate like that, I'd look like a city bus," Eric said ruefully, all too aware that a relatively sedentary lifestyle and a few more years had stepped his metabolism down a notch from his freewheeling RenFaire days. Hosea just grinned as he picked up the bag from the counterman.

"I'm a tad bit bigger than you are," he pointed out. "Reckon it comes from having to wrestle bears before breakfast," he added, grinning even wider.

"Yeah, right." Eric snorted. "Pull the other one." Hosea worked his country-cousin veneer like a wolf with a designer sheepskin. It was protective coloration, but not exactly the whole truth. They continued up the block, and turned the corner onto Eric's street. Hosea's eyebrows rose when they stopped in front of Guardian House.

"Being a subway minstrel must pay better than I thought," Hosea drawled, gazing at the impeccable Art Nouveau exterior.

"I get by," Eric said, leading him inside. After this long, he could enter the ten-digit security code almost as a matter of reflex.

Hosea regarded the fragile-seeming brass elevator cage. "I reckon I'd rather take the stairs, if it's all right with you."

Eric grinned. "It's stronger than it looks, but it takes forever. That's why I usually take the stairs."

One more ten-digit code later, the two men were inside Eric's apartment. Hosea sighed appreciatively at the cool—he probably attributed the lack of a window a/c to central air—while Eric got napkins and plates, and a couple of bottles of ice water.

"I'm gonna have to let her set for half-an-hour or so before we do any playing," Hosea said, indicating his banjo. "This weather purely plays hob with her tuning."

"Banjos are kittle cattle," Eric agreed, setting down his burden on the coffee table. Hosea opened the sack from the pizza place and began tucking into his calzones.

"Listen, I've been doing some research, and did you know that the whole banjo modality and a lot of the tunes are derived from bagpipe music?" Eric asked. "Apparently it was hard to manufacture bagpipes and reeds and whatnot in the Appalachians when the Scots and the Irish immigrated there, so musicians borrowed an African instrument—the ancestor of the banjo—and set it up for the kind of music they were used to."

Hosea stopped chewing. "Seriously? Didn't know that."

Eric grinned. "Well, flute and bagpipe aren't exactly what I'd call natural duetting material, but that means we can probably pull off a lot of the Celtic and folk stuff I know, since that's Celtic modality."

Hosea nodded. "You play a tune a couple times, I can pick it up, Mister Bard."

"Same here." Eric chuckled. "As if you didn't know. Mister Bard. Ready to give it a shot? As soon as your lady is tunable, I mean."

"Suits me." They cleaned away the debris of the meal and spent a happy half hour going through Eric's CD collection, then got out their instruments and put them in mutual tune. It took Hosea quite a while to get his lady tuned—no professional kept tension on the strings when the instrument wasn't in use—and Eric remembered the old joke about the instruments' notorious temperament. Q: How do you know when a banjo's in tune? A: It never is. Having silver strings rather than catgut helped a lot, though, and after a little doodling around, they began working out a playlist.

There wasn't any magic involved in what they were doing, or not overt magic, at any rate, but there certainly was a level of "enchantment" that Eric hadn't felt since he played with Bethie's old group, Spiral Dance. In fact, when he compared that experience to this one, it was like predawn and glorious sunrise—which in itself was kind of odd, since according to Dharniel, in the old days, Bards had been, well, tetchy was the word the Elven Magus had used. Easily irritated, and subject to extremes of professional jealousy that would make a modern pop diva turn green with envy.

But in the old days they were regarded as the equivalent of kings, Eric reflected, as he played "Smash the Windows" for Hosea, while the latter listened with a concentration that would have been intimidating to someone who wasn't accustomed to that sort of reaction at Juilliard. They were treated like nobility, so they acted like brats. Guess having to busk on the sidewalk for their dinners might have cured them of a little of that 'tude. Certainly there was nothing like professional antagonism between him and Hosea—and the way the country boy had pitched right in and helped with the cleanup after dinner without being asked spoke well for Eric's other embryonic plan.

But it wasn't until well after dark, when both of them were satisfied that they had a solid list of audience-pleasing pieces—including one of Eric's favorites, almost a personal anthem, Billy Joel's "The Entertainer," which had a killer banjo part built right in—that Eric put the last test in motion. Greystone, of course, had been skimming his thoughts, and only waiting for his signal.

"Well," Hosea sighed, detuning the banjo and placing it with great care back in the case, "This's been more fun than I've had in a long time, Eric, but I reckon I'd best be getting back."

Eric nodded slightly at the window. "Would you mind meeting a friend of mine before you go?"

With a quizzical look, Hosea turned around to look behind himself, and froze.

"Y'all pick a pretty neat banjo, theah, boyo," Greystone drawled, with a wink to Eric. The gargoyle climbed in through the window and stood in front of Hosea.

Hosea thawed a trifle. "Thank you kindly," he said, punctiliously polite, then cocked his head to one side. Eric sensed little feelers of Bardic magic creeping cautiously towards the gargoyle. Greystone grinned, and opened his wings, just a trifle. "Reckon you may look more than a bit like Old Nick, but you ain't nothing unchancy—so what are you?" Hosea asked, with more composure than Eric had expected. "Besides Eric's friend, that is?"

"Oh, now that is a long story," Greystone replied, dropping the drawl. "Could take a couple of hours at least to tell it." Greystone turned to Eric. "The House likes him," was all he said, but that was all Eric needed to know.

"Listen, Hosea," Eric said, waving a hand to get Hosea's attention away from the talking gargoyle. "You just passed a couple of—well, tests. You need a better place to stay than that steam bath, I've got a perfectly good couch here that won't cost you anything, and you've already got all of your stuff here. Want to stay the night and hear what Greystone has to say? If you'd rather go back to the Y after that, no problem, but I've got this big old place with only me rattling around in it, and there's no reason why you can't move in for a little bit until you've got a stake for a decent place of your own. If you're planning on staying around New York, of course."

Hosea looked from Eric to Greystone and back. "Huh," he said, finally, clearly making up his mind. "Well, I came up here looking for new things; reckon I'd be pretty dumb to run off when what I was looking for shakes my hand and says howdy."

"Good enough," Greystone said, genially, and lowered his bulk onto the bench Eric had bought just for him. "Well, the story starts like this. . . ."

* * *

She had spent the last six months looking for a place to hide, and here in the mountains of West Virginia she'd found it. She'd lucked into Morton's Fork while cruising the Appalachian Chain on Lady Mystery. Hillfolk, as a rule, were even more suspicious of the government than she was, and as closemouthed as the dead. Somewhere in these hills she'd hoped for a bolt-hole, and she'd found it here. No one would be looking for her in Morton's Fork. The town was barely a wide spot in the road. The last excitement in Lyonesse County had been the 1924 WPA project that had left a string of cabins behind. The nearest library was twelve miles away, the nearest supermarket, twenty. There wasn't even television or radio here—the guy down at the general store said there was something about the area that made it impossible for the signals to get through.

That suited Jeanette Campbell just fine. She'd set up housekeeping in one of the old WPA cabins, and for the last several weeks she'd been here, considering her next move. She'd cached her bike and most of her supplies under a tarp in the ruins of an old building about a mile up the hill—she'd found it by following one of the winding deer tracks that crisscrossed the mountain. She didn't like having Lady Mystery so far away, but the old sanitarium was the closest thing to a bolt-hole and a back door she could manage. And Lady Mystery would attract attention wherever she went—a big flashy cream-and-maroon Harley touring bike with all the extras, Jeanette's one extravagance from her time at Threshold. She didn't want to lose her.

When she'd bailed out on Robert last December, she hadn't known whether or not it was for keeps. Robert had been the one who'd found her as an outlaw chemist and rescued her from the Feds to head up a secret R&D project at his pharmaceutical company. She'd been chasing a dream—a drug that would unlock the psychic powers inherent in the human brain. Robert's dreams had been grander and darker, of a secret army of psychic ninja, loyal to him alone.

They'd both gotten more than they'd bargained for. The one hundred fifty-seventh compound of the sixth year of trials—T-6/157—had actually worked. You gave it to people and they manifested psychic powers: psychokinesis, telepathy, thought projection, teleportation, healing. . . .

Of course, it also killed them within hours, but neither she nor Robert had been too worried about that at the time. Neither had Aerune mac Audelaine, when he'd come riding out of Elfland to claim the drug—and the Talents—for his own.

And Robert, like the idiot he was, had decided to declare war on the kingdoms of Faerie.

Jeanette hadn't stuck around to see how that turned out. Everything she'd ever read told her that starting a fight with the Sidhe was all kinds of a bad idea. She'd taken a stash of the experimental drug, her guitar, some money, and her Harley and taken off before she got caught in the cross-fire. A copy of Time magazine she saw a few weeks later confirmed that she'd made the right decision.

There'd been a blonde woman on the cover, executive chic. She'd been wearing an expression indicating she was bucking for Pope, and the banner on the cover had said something about New Corporate Ethics. The caption identified the woman as Ria Llewellyn, owner of Threshold Labs. That had been bad enough. The story inside had been worse.

Threshold had gone down big time. Robert's black project was the lead story, along with Llewellyn finding out about it and taking full responsibility (and credit) for stopping it. There was even a photo of Jeanette's former lab assistant Beirkoff, "Llewellyn's man on the inside." Now there was a laugh. Beirkoff had been Robert's creature first and last, but apparently Robert wasn't on the game board any more. The article listed him as "missing." She only hoped Aerune had gotten him: it would serve Robert right. This was all his fault.

It listed her as "missing"—and wanted—as well. Jeanette Campbell, the science behind Robert's ambition, wanted for questioning in connection with several hundred deaths last winter. There wasn't a photo, but thanks to Beirkoff there was a pretty good police artist sketch. She'd cut her hair immediately and dyed it black, but that wouldn't help if anyone took a close look—and with rich-bitch Llewellyn and all her money and power screaming for Jeanette's head, people would look and keep looking until someone found her. Jeanette's only hope was to lie low and keep moving, but for that she needed cash money, and her emergency stash was almost gone.

She could have headed south, into Mexico, or made a run into Canada and hooked up with some of her contacts from the old desperado days. There was always work for a good outlaw chemist, and after her years at Threshold, Jeanette had gone from merely good to the best of the best. But leaving the U.S. would make her visible in a way she wasn't now, and she didn't want to take the risk if she didn't absolutely have to. She wasn't sure how long LlewellCo's reach was, or how personal Ria Llewellyn meant to get, and Jeanette still had a lot left to lose.

Her choices were few. On the one hand, she could turn herself in to the authorities and cut some kind of deal. On the up side, if Robert was missing-presumed-dead, he wouldn't be able to say much to contradict whatever story she had to tell. On the downside, with Robert missing, the authorities would need a scapegoat. Jeanette didn't have a lot of interest in spending the rest of her life in a Federal pen.

On the other hand, she could turn herself over to Aerune, if she could manage to find him. Aerune. A genuine, impossible-but-real Lord of the Sidhe. He had a use for the Talents Jeanette created with T-6/157—T-Stroke—and whatever had happened to Robert, Jeanette was pretty sure Aerune hadn't given up his plans. Once upon a time she could have asked for nothing more out of life than to meet a real live elf, but now the thought of ever running into Aerune again gave her nightmares. She'd used one of Threshold's Talents to tap his mind, and Vicky Moon had called Aerune "the Lord of Death and Pain." Jeanette had seen him up close. She believed it.

But though the idea made her shudder in revulsion, it had marginally more going for it than the first one did. Aerune would have a use for her, and from all she'd seen, he wouldn't care how many people her drugs had killed, so long as he got what he wanted. The only problem there was that she wasn't entirely sure what it was he wanted, and if she couldn't give it to him, the penalties were apt to be a lot more severe than a long life in a small cage.

The third choice, which had a certain horrible fascination to it, was to try the T-Stroke on herself and see what happened. That was why she'd wanted to create it in the first place, wasn't it? To give herself the powers she'd always dreamed of, the powers that would pay back everyone who'd ever teased and tormented her? She'd had a long time to go over her notes on her human test cases, and she thought she might have solved the sudden-death problem. T-Stroke didn't seem to create these powers, only develop the latent ones that were there. Her subjects had died because they burned themselves out, like an electrical circuit when you put a penny in the fuse box. It was as if they only got halfway through some kind of transformation—the body needed to tap into some outside source of power to use the Talents instead of cannibalizing its own resources, but it couldn't manage that before the initial dose of the drug wore off.

But if she used massive megadoses of T-Stroke over a period of days or even weeks, would that give the subjects the ability to control their newly awakened abilities and use them without burning out?

Maybe. And the only thing that was stopping Jeanette from testing her theory was the fact that only one in ten people seemed to have any innate Talent at all. It would be the blackest joke of all if she, who'd always thought of herself as so special, was a member of that humdrum ninety percent. And if you didn't have Talent for the drug to work on, it killed you outright.

It was like a game of Russian roulette with five of the revolver's chambers loaded.

Decisions, decisions. But a little long green makes them all easier. . . . 

Jeanette looked around the little one-room cabin. The walls were papered with yellowing sheets of what passed for the local newspaper: The Pharaoh Call and Record, Published Weekly for Lyonesse County, including the townships of Pharaoh, Morton's Fork, La Gouloue, Bishopville, and Maskelyne. Heat was a wood-burning stove; water came in bottles from the general store. Her cot was in one corner, along with a folding chair she'd bought from the store and an end table made out of a wooden crate. She had a table, courtesy of the previous tenant, and her provisions were stacked around the walls in battered cardboard boxes. It wasn't a lot, considering what she'd started with.

But she could still make a living if she dared. She could go back to what she knew best—dealing. She'd always been on the production end before, not the street end, but she supposed she could manage. Only that would make her more visible, and probably put her on a collision course with whoever already had a corner on the local action. So that was her very last resort, when every other option had been exhausted.

This is the scene where the heroine pages through her address book and decides to look up some old friends. Only I guess I'm not the heroine of the story, and I sure don't have any old friends, Jeanette thought grimly. She'd cut all her ties to people and places long ago—not that she'd ever had many—and now she was alone, her back to the wall. She could turn herself in to the Feds, turn herself over to Aerune, or take the T-Stroke and see what happened. Maybe under its influence she'd be able to see a way out of her problems, or at least a way to fix the formula.


Jeanette sighed, and went over to pick up her guitar. Music was the only thing that had never failed her, the only thing she could love unconditionally. She brushed her fingers across the silver strings, listening to the whispery chords. She'd play for a while. Nobody would hear her, and maybe she could figure out what to do.

All I have to do is figure out which is the lesser of three evils. . . . 

* * *

Greystone had told his story, all the while managing to entirely sidestep the subject of the Guardians, a feat of verbal terpsichore that Eric could only admire. If Hosea got the notion that the House had been built, and Greystone carved, to assist a group of protectors that no longer existed, Greystone had certainly never said so explicitly. And he'd certainly filled his narrative with a number of amusing anecdotes he'd never mentioned to Eric—like the night the Statue of Liberty had decided to go for a walk, why construction on the Second Avenue subway had been stopped, and the real reason the dirigible mooring tower on the top of the Empire State Building was never used. The gargoyle was a born storyteller, and he'd rarely had as appreciative an audience as Hosea.

"Well, laddybuck," the gargoyle said, sitting back with a sigh of satisfaction around midnight, "that's my story, and I'm sure our Eric will tell you his, if he hasn't already. But what about you, Hosea Songmaker? How is it you come by your gift—and that banjo? And what brings you to the wicked city?"

Hosea smiled and shook his head. "Reckon I owe you the round tale, but I guess it ain't gonna be all tied up as pretty as yours." He sat back and stretched ostentatiously, obviously settling himself to tell his story.

"I was born and raised in a little place in the hills called Morton's Fork. I hear tell it's been a kind of a special place for as long as folks've lived there, but with everybody moving to the big city, the countryfolk are pretty much gone by now. My folks died when I was little, and I was drug up by my grandpappy and mammy. Grandpappy Jeb came by his shine honestly—got it from his daddy, and on back to where the first white folks came up into the Fork and settled down with the local folks. After he came back from the War—that'd be dubya-dubya-two—he settled down with my grandmammy Dora. They used to say she could play the devil up out of the ground with her fiddle; she was on the radio when she was a girl and everything. But she took one look at Grandpappy Jeb and said she hadn't any mind to making records and touring and suchlike, and Grandpappy, he said he'd seen enough working for Department 23—that's the OSS—to make him glad to settle himself in the place he belonged. Grandmammy said she'd got the banjo from her mammy, but she said it was just to hold it in trust, like. It's pretty old, and I guess just about every part of it's been replaced some time or another. She told me to always keep it strung with silver, and never to play it for any reason that was mean or unkindly."

The OSS! Eric sat up a little straighter. Dharniel had always hinted that WWII had been fought on magical turf as well as the mundane, and this seemed to confirm some of the Elven Bard's cryptic hints.

"So I'd guess you'd say I come by the music-magic naturally, but there wasn't no one in the Fork that could lesson me how to use it," Hosea continued. "Grandmammy had the music, and Grandpappy had the shine, but it'd take someone with the two of them together, he said, to really light me up, more than I could study out on my own account. So when I was growed, I went down to the flatlands to get me some more book-learning, but flatland folks don't know much about shining," Hosea said with a grin. "So I went back home to help out on my granddaddy's farm, as he and grandma was getting on in years. When she passed on last year, I knowed it weren't gonna be long afore he followed her, and so it wasn't. So I sold up for burying money, took me her banjo like she'd said to, and decided to follow my feet. I reckon somewhere in the world there's gonna be someone with the music-magic that can lesson me in what I need to know."

"Well," Greystone said in his gravelly voice, "it looks like you've come to the right place." The gargoyle got to his feet and stretched, his wings nearly touching the living-room walls on both sides. "I think you're going to find living here an interesting experience, Hosea Songmaker."

"Just about everything's interesting, if you come at it right," Hosea said. He stood, and offered his hand to the gargoyle. "It's been a fine evening of yarning, Mister Greystone."

The gargoyle chuckled and shook Hosea's hand. "Just `Greystone,' boyo. And now, if you'll excuse me, I'd better get back to me post before someone counts gargoyles and comes up one short." He waddled over to the window and stepped out onto the fire escape. Hosea watched him climb up the side of the building to his perch before turning back to Eric.

"Well, now, it's been a long day and you look plumb tuckered out, Eric. If you want to show me where to sleep, we'll call it a day, and maybe make us some music tomorrow," Hosea said.

"Count on it," Eric said. A warm glow of contentment welled up in him. Things were working out so well! He had another Bard to gig with, and Greystone and the house both liked him. He wondered if Hosea might see a "Rooms to Let" sign in Toni's window sometime soon.

As for him, there was a call he had to make, first thing Monday morning. . . .



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