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If it was her, so what?

Mechanically, Eric Banyon went through the motions at the après-concert Artists’ Reception, standing around an overheated room with a glass of seltzer in his hand along with the other soloists, featured performers, and those who’d paid money to meet them and each other. Politically, it was the most important part of the show—at least if you were aiming for a paying gig in the hothouse incestuous world of classical music. There were many other job openings besides Featured Soloist or Touring Superstar—to name just one example, there were chairs in any number of orchestras, from the Boston Philharmonic to the Hudson Valley Symphony Orchestra, that always needed to be filled with the best, the brightest, and the most underpaid. Music scouts made careers out of tracking the progress of new young talent the same way other talent scouts cruised college athletics. Eric had already been approached about a few spots—Composer in Residence in an artists’ retreat in someplace called Glastonbury, New York, various “sure-thing” grants from one program or another, even a booking agent who swore to him that Juilliard had nothing to teach Eric and it was time to look at professional gigs. As if I haven’t heard that song a lot lately, with all of its verses. . . .

Eric had turned them all down politely. For one thing, none of his reasons for returning to Juilliard were about worldly fame and power—as a Bard, he already had more of both than most people could imagine. For another, he couldn’t get Ria out of his mind enough to give any of them serious attention.

He was glad he hadn’t been pressured into wearing a tie to the concert tonight. He’d already unbuttoned the neck of his tab-collared shirt—it was that or strangle in the tropical heat of the reception room. He hoped he looked raffishly artistic—it was one of the reasons he’d left his hair long. Image isn’t everything. It’s the only thing. Or so they say.

His flute in its case was slung over his shoulder; Eric didn’t delude himself that everybody at Juilliard loved him, and a musician’s instrument was an easy target for jealousy. Better to keep it with him than bespell it to keep it from sabotage and risk harming somebody unintentionally.

Once I never would have worried about that. Give me the power and I would have used it any time it benefited me, and de’il take the hindmost, as my old Irish grandma would have said. I guess this is maturity—taking the responsibility of protecting idiots from themselves.

I bet Ria wouldn’t think twice about something like that. She’d say it was their own fault for messing with her in the first place.

He frowned. That had been true once. Was it true now? He gave up trying to ignore the inevitable and devoted some ðserious thought to the question of the hour. It wasn’t impossible for Ria to have been here tonight. She wasn’t either dead or in a coma—in fact, the last time he’d talked to Kayla and Elizabet (though between juggling Underhill and World Above time zones, he wasn’t quite sure when that was), they’d said Ria was on her way to making a full recovery.

They also said she’d acquired a conscience and morals, but dammit, what does that MEAN in real-life terms? They said she was still Ria—memories, Gifts, and all—so it’s not like she’s been Touched by An Angel or something sappy like that. She’s still the same Ria I knew, and the Ria I knew was ruthless.

But not vicious. She didn’t care what happened to other people, but she didn’t go out of her way to hurt them. Not like Perenor. Not that it mattered a lot if you happened to be the person who got in her way. . . .

All the while his brain kept turning over that unanswerable question, he smiled and made meaningless conversation with men and women in expensive clothes. Lovely concert, yes he was very pleased with his performance tonight, no he hadn’t really made plans for what he’d do after he graduated. Round and round they circled, drawn to Eric by something they probably didn’t even understand—the aura of Power that a fully trained Bard wore like an invisible cloak—though the other performers got their fair share of attention as well. It was a little like being in a shark tank—but Eric wasn’t afraid of any of these particular sharks.

There’s nothing they can do to me. None of them is pointing a gun at my head or offering to torture any of my friends. They’re all just looking for some way to use me. Once upon a time that would have driven me crazy with righteous indigðnation. Now it just seems kind of sad.

He circled around behind the buffet. It was pretty well denuded by now—only some cheese and fruit remained—and the ice-sculpture centerpiece was so melted it was now impossible to tell what it had originally been. Eric reached out and placed his hand against it, savoring the coolness. You’d think they could just open the doors and let some December in, but apparently nobody’d thought of that.

“I’m not going to let you ruin your future over some silly girlish tantrum.”

The voice was low and furious. Eric glanced up in surprise. Lydia Ashborn was standing backed into a corner by a tall man in a very expensive suit and an even more expensive haircut. Eric recognized Marco Ashborn, Lydia’s father.

“Do you want to be a bit player all your life, just some faceless unknown musician without even a separate credit? You should have had a solo tonight, and you know it. Don’t you want to record and tour in your own right? Why are you trying to piss it all away? Is this about me? Is that what this is all about, Lydia?”

Man, does it all have to be about you? The uprush of anger was automatic, stemming from still-unhealed scars. He’d been in Lydia’s position once: a Trophy Child, treated as nothing more than a playing-piece on the parental chessboard. An accessory. A thing, not a person. And that was wrong on so many levels.

Eric saw the glitter of tears as Lydia ducked her head and fought to control his anger. Discipline above all things, Dharinel had told him. A Bard’s displeasure could wound. A Bard’s anger could kill.

“Don’t you look away from me, dammit!” he heard Marco hiss. Marco grabbed his daughter’s arm roughly, and Eric saw Lydia’s face go white with the pain.

That’s enough.

Eric reached for the stillness within that Dharinel had created in him with all those long months of training, and composed his face into a simple harmless expression of hero worship as he walked over to the two of them.

“Hey, excuse me, but aren’t you Marco Ashborn, the violinist?”

The burly man turned toward Eric, irritation warring with the game face that every public performer learns to assume at need.

“It’s an honor to meet you, sir,” Eric went on, blithely ignoring the emotional undercurrents swirling around Marco and Lydia. “I’ve enjoyed your work so much.” That, at least, was true—though how much he’d ever like Marco’s playing now that he knew what a goon the guy was in real life was an interesting question. “Lyd’s certainly inherited your talent—I’m in some of her classes as well as her chamber music group.” Eric held out his hand, still radiating peaceable obliviousness. “Eric Banyon.”

Marco’s face cleared. He recognized Eric, and more, he responded to Eric’s calm confidence, his assumption of being someone whom the famous Marco Ashborn would want to know. It was the simplest sort of magic—and not really magic, because in its own way, it was true.

“I saw your performances tonight. Both of them. That solo was most impressive,” Marco rumbled.

“Thank you, sir,” Eric said. “I was pleased with our ensemble work. Lydia made me look good,” he went on, deliberately misunderstanding the other man’s words. “You must be very proud of her.”

He could almost see the conflict between the desire to administer another put-down to his daughter and the instinct to appear praiseworthy chase themselves around Marco’s face, but the older man, as Eric had expected, went with political expediency. You didn’t get to where Marco was on talent alone. A career was built on a network of relationships. Prima donna attitude might make good news stories, but professionalism and tact built a career that lasted.

“Yes, I am,” Marco said, gazing into Eric’s eyes with deep sincerity. “I only wish her mother could have been here to see her.”

Eric felt rather than saw Lydia dart an angry glance at her father, hating him for his hypocrisy. Eric sent out the tiniest tendril of Power, willing someone to appear who could end this deadlock before Marco could resume taking Lydia apart again.

“Marco—darling! I’ve been trying to get you alone all night. Hello, Eric—you were wonderful this evening. You must come and play for us some time soon. Now, this won’t take a moment—” The tall grey-haired woman—Eric had spoken to her earlier, but didn’t remember who she was—expertly claimed Marco for her own and led him off. As Eric had hoped, Marco was too much a manipulator to want to carry on abusing Lydia with witnesses present. That sort of emotional torture worked best when no one suspected it.

Well, I suspect it. For a moment he was tempted to cast a geas on Marco that would keep him from ever being cruel to Lydia again, but Dharinel had emphasized, over and over, that use of the Power was like a stone thrown into a still lake—ripples spread out from every action, and the smallest uses of Power could have the largest—and most unforeseen—consequences. Unless he was certain of what would happen, he’d better leave the matter alone—at least magically.

Eric glanced at Lydia, who favored him with an effortful smile before turning blindly away. He knew he hadn’t done much to help, but at least he’d done something. And undoubtðedly Marco Ashborn would be jetting off to some exotic foreign city soon to leave his daughter in peace.

For a while. But maybe a while will be enough.

After a few minutes more, Eric was able to make a graceful exit from the Artists’ Reception and head over to the student party in the dorms. The celebration there was a lot noisier and a lot more honest—everybody was blowing off steam, filled with relief at having gotten through the all-important Winter Concert without absolute disaster.

There was a “No Alcohol” rule for the dorms, honored except by those few who simply had to break any rule just because it was there. But this party was proctored, and after the performance high of the concert, nobody really needed anything other than soda and fruit juice to get really rowdy anyway.

“Hey, Eric!” Jeremy shouted, waving. The young bassoonist was balanced on the end of the battered couch in the Student Lounge, his pale hair damp and standing up in spiky cowlicks. He looked like a goblin-child from a Victorian children’s book.

Now where the hell did THAT simile spring from?

“Hey, Jer,” Eric said, coming over. There was a big cooler beside the couch. Trust Jeremy to take up a strategic posiðtion by the refreshments. He was as savvy in his way as Kayla, Elisabet’s young Healer-apprentice, was in hers.

“Have a drop of the pure,” Jeremy said, lifting the lid of the cooler and pulling out a bottle of Glacéau.

It was spring water flavored with various fruit essences, and was a great favorite with the elves: Eric’s refrigerator at Guardian House was full of it. Eric twisted the cap off and chugged the bottle, relishing the shock of cold. The reception had taken more out of him than he’d thought it would. He felt grimy, like a window so covered with smudged fingerprints that the light barely shone through.

Dharinel told me there’d be days like this. “Nothing comes without a price,” he always said. Being a Bard makes you vulnerable to influences most people never even notice, while at the same time it gives you power most people can never imagine.

Jeremy handed him another bottle without even asking. “You looked better backstage before we played. So. How many propositions did you get?”

Eric stared at him blankly. Do you mean that the way it sounds? Jeremy was 17, but he was short and round-faced, and looked much younger. The boy’s face twisted, and for a moment it wore a bleakly cynical expression that Eric had never seen before. “You know. The ‘I could do so much for your career with just a little private tutoring’ line?”

Funny. Isn’t that the phrase Ria used once?

“Oh, you know,” Eric said lightly. “The usual nebulous job offers. But nothing like that.”

“You’re lucky,” Jeremy said, then looked guarded, as if he felt he’d ruined his Captain Cool image by saying too much.

If he’d been someone else, Eric would have urged Jeremy to tell him more, to report incidents like that to his Student Advisor. But Eric already knew that offers like that were rarely made openly. It was all interpretation and innuendo, impossible to prove. And the act of bringing the accusation could bring an end to a promising career before it even started.

“Yeah, well,” Eric said. “Nobody rides for free. Isn’t that what they say?” Everything comes with a price. Too bad they don’t always tell you what it is going in.

“That’s what they say,” Jeremy said, obviously relieved that Eric wasn’t going to go all over Adult and Role Model on him.

“Hey, Eric!” someone called. It was David, another of the soloists, calling him over to congratulate him on his playing. Eric turned away, the second bottle of Glacéau still in his hand.

He’d only meant to look in at the after-concert party, pick up his jacket, and then go on home. He didn’t have any classes tomorrow, or even any rehearsals, but he did have a big assignment in Music Theory that had to get done Real Soon Now, and that meant making time for work instead of socializing.

But the next time he thought to look at a clock—watches didn’t work well Underhill, and Eric had never been much for timebinding at the best of times—he realized it was after midnight and the party was starting to break up.

By the time he stepped out onto the street, Lincoln Center was deserted, the cafes and restaurants that abounded in this high-living area mostly closed for the night. If someone wanted a set for New York After The Bomb Dropped, they couldn’t pick a better place than right here, right now. Eric shivered, even in the dark-red leather jacket he wore, as he juggled his options. He had to get home somehow. It was too cold to walk, and he hated the subway. The Center was usually a good place to pick up a cab, but since the Mayor’s new policy on medallion licenses, cabs were in short supply everywhere. He looked up and down the deserted street, and decided to chance it.

Putting his fingers to his lips, he whistled loudly and shrilly, a few bars of her signature tune forming in his head as he summoned his elvensteed to him. The tune was “God Bless The Child,” a Billie Holiday song. He’d named Lady Day for The Lady of the White Camellias, and the song was his surest link to the elvensteed. He felt her acknowledge the call, and a few moments later—far too quickly for a vehicle that had been paying any attention at all to the posted speed limits—he heard the deep growl of Lady Day’s engine and saw the gleam of her lights as she suddenly popped visible.

The elvensteed pulled to a stop in front of him and waited, engine thrumming. She looked almost smug, and so she should, having figured out all by herself how to get here while drawing the least attention to herself. If any mortal had enough Talent to manage to glimpse her as she drove by, he wouldn’t have seen a riderless motorcycle—and if he had, well, people had a way of editing what they saw until it made sense.

Eric patted her gently on the gas-tank, and heard a ghostly whicker of amusement inside his mind. He climbed aboard, retrieving his helmet and gloves from the back of the saddle and putting them on. As he settled into the saddle, Eric realized that he’d been neglecting Lady Day these past few weeks, taking cabs and subways to school and even walking, and a good run was just what they both needed. A little magic would take care of the cold, and there was nothing on earth more sure-footed—or sure-wheeled—than an elvensteed.

“What do you say, girl? Want to go for a run?” He squeezed the throttle experimentally, and was rewarded with a wail of glee from the elvensteed’s engine.

A few turns, and they were headed up Riverside Drive, going north. The enormous bulk of the George Washington Bridge towered above him, and for just a moment, riding through the night, Eric felt a flicker of temptation to just keep on going, let the road take him away from all pressures and responsibilities and everyone he knew. But the thought quickly vanished—not out of any artificial sense of other-imposed responsibility, but because he’d already done that dance in all its many variations. The footloose existence of the open road no longer held any enchantment for him.

I’ve already done that. It’s part of the past, not who I am now. But the past doesn’t go away neatly, does it? It’s always there, like the key the music is written in.

All unbidden, an image of Ria as he’d seen her—or thought he’d seen her—at the concert tonight rose up in his mind, vivid as a Sending. Unlike the rest of his old life—the drinking, the drugs, the running away—she still had power over him. That was what had been nagging at him all evening, driving him to do everything but think his problem through. Like it or not, he and Ria Llewellyn had unfinished business.

But what? And how? And is all this—seeing her and the rest of it—just what Bethie’s old therapist would have called “displaced anxiety”? Juilliard is rough—no secret about that—so maybe I’m just trying to come up with reasons to quit without having to blame myself for quitting.

It was a valid point, and Eric realized he needed somebody to talk it over with. Someone he could tell the whole story to, without editing out the magical parts—a sounding board of sorts. Right now he felt as if an invisible trapdoor had opened up beneath him and left him standing on air.

:Eric. Bard, do you hear?:

It was Kory’s voice in his head, and if Eric had actually been driving a motorcycle rather than being a passenger aboard an elvensteed, Lady Day would have gone down and he would have been kissing asphalt.

:Kory?: Eric Sent back. :Kory—what’s wrong? Is it Bethie?:

:She is well, Eric. But come to us here. We must speak.:

Unbidden, an image formed in his mind, and Eric knew where to go. Lady Day continued northward, much faster now that Eric had a true destination in mind.

Sterling Forest State Park was larger than just the few acres the Faire covered every year. The park was nestled in the gently-rolling Ramapo Mountains—known for centuries to be filled with haunted places and strange creatures, and for good reason. If he hadn’t known that NYC was 90 minutes away, Eric wouldn’t have been able to guess from the surroundings. He rode through the gates of the park, heading away from the long-gone Faire encampment—the Faire had already closed two months before—and a few moments later saw the pale flicker of a Portal open before him.

Kory and Beth were waiting for him just inside. At a quick glance, the place where they stood looked just like the park—grass, trees, dark sky above. But the air here was warm and perfumed, the trees were in full leaf and the grass was green and soft and lush. He could see clearly, even into the darkest shadows, and nothing in the mortal world had the rich perfection of the meadows and forests of Underhill.

Kory had shed the glamourie which protected him in the World Above. Now he appeared as himself—an elven knight and Magus Minor, with pointed ears and jewel-bright eyes, dressed in the silk and gold and baroque armor of a warrior of Faery, with a faint glowing nimbus of magic all around him.

Beth was dressed in elven-kenned clothing that was a mix of Earthly and Underhill styles in soft deep greens and russets. She was visibly pregnant now, though the baby wouldn’t be born for some months yet—her cheeks were rounder, and in the magic-laden air of Underhill she glowed with the power of Life and Creation. When she saw him she gave him a cocky “thumbs-up” salute, looking pleased.

“Looking good, Banyon.”

Eric grinned back. Whatever the reason Kory had summoned him here, the trouble couldn’t be as bad as all that if Beth was in such a mood. Of the three of them, Beth had always been the one to see the trouble from farthest away, the one who planned for the future, even when a future for any of them seemed most unlikely.

He glanced toward Kory, and his attention was almost immediately captured by the Sidhelord standing beside Kory—one whom Eric had, quite frankly, never expected to see again once he’d left the halls of Elfhame Misthold: Dharinel, Master Mage, Elven Bard, and Prince of the Sidhe. Dharinel looked about as happy as a wet cat.

Eric swung himself off Lady Day’s saddle, pulled off his helmet, and bowed formally to his teacher—however much you could let slide in the World Above, in Underhill proper form and due courtesy were absolutely indispensable—ðbefore turning back to Kory and Beth. He’d said there was nothing wrong with Beth, which meant the baby was okay too, and Beth’s cheeriness seemed to underscore that, but seeing Dharinel here, Eric desperately wanted to know why he’d been called.

“There is trouble in your city,” Kory said, looking pretty troubled himself. “We have come to warn you.”

“Warn me?” Eric risked a glance at Dharinel. My city? New York? Try as he might, he could not imagine his teacher caring whether or not Manhattan sunk into the ocean or flew off into space. There weren’t any elves there, and Dharinel thought mortals were a waste of time. “About what?”

Beth started to answer, but Kory put a hand on her arm, silencing her.

“First you must know its history,” Dharinel said, glaring in a way that warned Eric not to interrupt, no matter how impatient he got. “As you know, many centuries ago as mortals reckon time, the World Above and the World Under Hill lived together in harmony, until elvenkind was faced with a harsh necessity: either to seek new lands beyond the sunset, or to withdraw from the world altogether into the Fairy Lands Beyond.

“This necessity fell upon both Courts, the Dark and the Light, equally, for all that many believe that the Unseleighe Sidhe draw much of their form and power from morðtalkind, being shaped in the image of your fears and hungers—” Dharinel didn’t quite sneer, but Eric was used to that. The origin of the Dark Court, and the reasons for its difference from the Bright, was a topic of endless discussion among the elves, and Dharinel’s theory was a common one.

“And so it was that the Sidhe, Seleighe and Unseleighe alike, came to the West, planting their Groves and shaping their Nexuses as they had in the Old World, gracing the tribes of Men with their puissance and their strength—in the case of the Bright Court—and shaping mortals in accorðdance with their own base nature—in the case of the Dark.”

Eric fretted, trying not to let it show, but Dharinel would not be rushed, as he knew from bitter experience.

“But there were always places that all the Sidhe avoided, for good and sufficient reason. Places belonging to neither Court. In some of those places mortals have built great cities, where their own natures flourish without influence. Others, mortals had the good wit to avoid, until recent times. You have gone to such a place.”

New York? Eric thought, even as he boggled at the thought of calling the city “recent”—the Dutch had first settled Manhattan back in the 1600s. Still, he supposed almost four centuries was recent by Underhill standards.

“Yet before you did so, another came here before you, and now, he seeks to take this mortal place and make it his own. This Unseleighe Prince is subtle and patient, and did we openly oppose his works, it might be . . . inconvenient.”

“Inconvenient,” Eric knew, meant that the network of treaties and promises that bound the Elfhames, and even the Dark and Light Courts, together in an unbreakable web of favors, customs, and obligations, would be severely strained by such interference, maybe even broken. And that would mean a war that nobody in either Court wanted.

“Elves are invading Manhattan?” Eric asked, just to make sure he had it clear. Beth snorted. Well, it did sound kind of funny when you said it out loud.

“One elf,” Kory corrected, looking unhappy. “But he is very powerful, very old . . . and very Unseleighe.”

“He wishes to build a Nexus there,” Dharinel said shortly. “As you know, it requires great power to open a Gate between the Worlds. It is his way that he will seek others to provide it.”

“Others like me,” Eric said, and surprised a chilly smile on his old teacher’s face.

“There are no others like you, Sieur Eric, and I trust that after all I have taught you, you would recognize the traps he would lay for you, and have the mother-wit to run for your life. Others will not, for our legend has become less than a nursery-tale for mortals in this time, and as you know from your own experience in the World Above, many will not believe the evidence of their own senses . . . until it is far too late. And so it has been decided in Council that in order to protect the mortals from the consequences of their own folly, you will carry this warning to the Guardians, and instruct them to take steps to save the mortals under their care from this threat.”

“I— But— Wait—you know about the Guardians?” Eric floundered.

Again that look of amusement from Dharinel, as though he were greatly enjoying Eric’s discomfiture. “Once we knew them quite well, Bard, though undoubtedly they will have forgotten over the years. Humankind has always had its defenders, paladins of the Light. Some are great warriors, whose exploits are known to all: Launcelot, Roland, Beowulf. Others work in secret, for the knowledge of the forces that they fight would do as much harm to the mortals they choose to protect as those forces themselves. Once we fought side-by-side, brothers on the field of battle. Now they fight alone. But we remember those days, even if they do not. Tell them what you must to arm them against this foe, and warn them well.”

Eric sighed, knowing that babbling more questions would only irritate Dharinel when he was in a mood like this, and not get Eric anywhere. Neither Dharinel nor Kory had named the Unseleighe enemy that was causing all this trouble, but Eric knew that to do so in Underhill—and even in some places in the World Above—would be like shouting a warning of their intentions in the Unseleighe Lord’s ear. And it wasn’t as if Eric would be confusing his new enemy with some other Sidhe Lord trying to turn Manhattan into his own private fief.

“Do only that, send them fair warning, and nothing more,” Dharinel warned. “Do not let yourself be drawn into the battle against this opponent. It might well be that this is the very thing he looks for to complete his plans, and that your involvement could spell disaster.”

“I’ll remember that, Master,” Eric said.

Dharinel grimaced. “And you will follow your irresolute mortal heart despite anything I may say. I am finished here,” he said abruptly. A moment later, he was gone.

Eric blinked at Kory. The young Sidhe smiled, and shrugged sheepishly—a human gesture he’d picked up from Eric—as if to say “you know how he is.”

“C’mere, Banyon,” Beth said, now that the three of them were alone. She enfolded him in a fierce hug. He could feel the baby pressed between them, a daughter that somehow belonged to all three of them at once.

“God, I’ve missed you!” she said, letting him go at last. “How are you?”

“I— Well,” Eric said, and stopped. How to compress the last two months into a comprehensible tale? He wasn’t sure how to bring up the topic of Ria to Beth, either, and he wasn’t at all sure this was the right time, anyway. Beth had other things on her mind right now.

“How’s the baby?” he asked he asked instead.

“Impatient,” Beth said with a grin. She took Eric’s hand and placed it against her belly. He felt a flutter of movement against his hand, and stared at Beth, eyes wide.

“Yep, that’s her,” Beth said proudly.

Hello, little one, Eric Sent gently. He felt a flurry of unfocused response—happiness, eagerness, amusement—and withdrew his hand. Beth’s eyes were shining.

“You see how she is,” Beth said. “Just wait till she’s born—we’re going to throw the biggest party Underhill’s ever seen!”

And she’ll have Power. I can already tell that. And she’ll grow up in a world where that kind of thing is understood and accepted. She’ll never be an outsider, never have to wonder if she’s going crazy because she can see and do things most humans can’t.

“Be sure to send me an invitation,” Eric said. The thought brought his mind around in a tight circle to the reason Dharinel had called him here. “But right now, this thing with Dharinel . . . it must be something pretty important for him to come all this way,” Eric said. And to care about what happened in the World Above at all. Another threat, this time not a quarrel between the Sidhe that humans blundered into, but one of the Fair Folk seeking out humans to use them in some plot of his own.

“Yes,” Kory said. “It is a matter that is not a new one, I fear. This Lord is very old, and very cunning, and has long blamed humankind for his own misfortunes. But if he seeks human allies now, it is a matter for great concern. But Master Dharinel is right in this, Eric: this must not become your fight. We think he seeks to work through human agents, and so it must be the Guardians’ work to protect them. I know you must warn them—but once you have, won’t you come back to Elfhame Everforest with us? Surely you have spent enough time in the World Above?”

“Hey, I haven’t even gotten up to mid-terms yet,” Eric said, trying to downpedal Kory’s plea by turning it into a joke.

“Aw, he just doesn’t want to leave his new girlfriend, whoever she is,” Beth said. “What about it, Banyon? Had any hot dates lately?”

Of all the times for Bethie’s erratic Sixth Sense to kick in! It’s true there’s a woman in my life . . . sort of. But not the way she thinks.

“Too busy studying,” Eric said lightly, turning it into a joke once more. “But I’ve made some new friends. One of them’s a gargoyle.”

Beth stared at him for a moment before deciding he was serious. “Only you, Banyon!” she said. “A gargoyle? That’s a new one on me.”

“His name’s Greystone. He’s a friend of these Guardians. Did you know that my whole apartment building’s, well, sort of the equivalent of an Elfhame, only for humans? Everybody who lives there is special in some way, and some of them are actually magicians. Like these Guardians.”

“You learn something new every day,” Beth said wryly. “But hey, no reason to stand around here like strangers waiting for a bus. Kory brought a picnic. Kick back for awhile and tell us all the news. We’ve missed you. Not that you were ever the world’s best letter-writer, as I recall, and anyway, e-mail doesn’t work that well Underhill.”

“As if I could figure out how to use it,” Eric groaned. “I can barely get the thing to spit out my classwork assignments.”

He looked around. Lady Day was getting reacquainted with Beth and Kory’s elvensteeds. Since the other two were Underhill most of the time, they’d reverted to their “natural” form as horses. Bethie’s mount was a glorious palomino, with a silvery mane and tail and a coat like dark gold. Its mane and tail were braided with tiny silver bells, and Eric remembered the old tales that the Seleighe Court would braid bells into their horses’ manes when they went out riding.

Kory’s elvensteed was a little more startling—it had the form of a horse, but still retained the markings of its motorcycle form, maroon with black and silver lightning bolts along its sides. Both of them watched Eric with a certain amount of equine amusement.

When he looked back to the others, there was a blanket spread out on the grass, and Kory was kneeling beside a picnic hamper, unpacking savory dishes. The odor made Eric’s mouth water—he’d been too nervous before the performance tonight to eat much, and his stomach was reminding him that he’d missed dinner, lunch, and midnight snack as well.

As Kory spread the feast before them, Eric helped Beth to sit down—the pregnancy made her a little awkward at things like that—and for awhile everything was like the best of the old times Underhill when the three of them had been happy together. But the present merriment only served to underscore how much things had changed, as well.

“And after the baby’s born,” Beth was saying, “we’re kind of thinking of taking her around on the Faire circuit. Of course, that depends on . . . things,” she finished awkwardly, glancing at Kory.

It wasn’t hard for Eric to interpret that glance. Beth had talked about it with him in the time just after she’d first known she was pregnant. Beth wanted a large family, and she was hoping to have more children—Kory’s children. But even full-blooded elven children were rare occurrences among the Sidhe; it was one of the reasons that the elves were so fond of human children, after all, and spent so much time among them. And children born to a human and a Sidhe were even rarer still. Eric feared that Beth had set her heart on something that was almost impossible, and the worst part of it all was that she knew it.

And being Beth, refused to believe that anything was impossible if you wanted it badly enough.

Kory took Beth’s hand silently, looking wistful. There was an even greater problem that the young Sidhe lord faced than the problem of children. Korendil had centuries of life ahead of him—and Beth did not. Right now, it was easy for her to move back and forth between Underhill and the World Above, but eventually she would have to stay Underhill full-time, because humans who stayed in Underhill for too long didn’t age . . . until they stepped once more into the World Above. Then, all the years they’d cheated by living in elven lands caught up with them instantly, killing them. So in a few decades—a short time by elven standards—Beth would no longer be able to do the Faire circuit without instantly aging. In fact, Beth wouldn’t be able to come back to the World Above at all. But Kory loved the human lands . . . he’d hate to give up visiting them.

And he wouldn’t want to visit them without his human lover.

As if he knew what Eric was thinking, Kory glanced hopefully at Eric. They both wanted children. Kory didn’t want to lose Beth to death and age in an elven eyeblink. Both problems seemed equally insurmountable.

And the impossible was supposed to be his specialty.

A reputation is a terrible thing, Eric thought, looking back at Kory. When nothing’s ever been done before, how come everyone looks at me? But I’ll find a way, Eric decided, with sudden determination. I’m supposed to be this great ðmagical Bard. What good is that if you can’t help the people you love? And then, a wisp of inspiration: I bet Ria would know about the children. . . .

Eric forced a smile. He clasped Kory’s shoulder companionably. “Don’t worry so much about the future, Kor’. It gets here no matter what you do.”

“Yeah,” Beth said. “And I’m the one that’s going to be having the baby. All you have to do is pace outside the delivery room door looking worried. And think of names for her.”

“She will be a great warrior and Bard,” Kory said seriously. “We should name her Maeve. Queen Maeve was a great warrior in the human lands of long ago.”

Beth laughed, and the moment of sadness passed. “Maeve, it is, then. Who knows? Maybe someday Maeve Kentraine will have her own rock and roll band!”

At last it was time for Eric to go. Time in Underhill ran parallel to World Above time this close to a Gate, and though tomorrow—today, rather—was Saturday, Eric still had studying to do over the weekend. He ought to make time to check in with Jeremy to see how Lydia was ðdoing, too.

He called Lady Day back from frolicking with the other elvensteeds, and reluctantly prepared to depart. He walked Kory a few steps away from Beth, who was gathering up the remains of their picnic and tucking them tidily back into the basket.

“I don’t want you to worry about me—or anything,” Eric told Kory. “I promise I’ll stay out of this Sidhe Lord’s way. And who knows what tomorrow may bring?”

“ ‘Don’t borrow trouble, they give so much of it away free’?” the Sidhe quoted wistfully. “A true saying, O Bard. But the future is where mortals live.”

“ ‘Never their minds on where they are, what they are doing,’ ” Eric misquoted, smiling. “Yeah. I heard all about that from Dharinel, lots and lots. But it’s the way we are.”

“And I would not change you,” Kory said seriously. “Even if I could. Fare you well, Eric. Visit us again soon.”

“I will,” Eric promised, hugging Kory forcefully. Kory raised his hand in salute, stepping back. Beth blew him a kiss from where she knelt beside the picnic basket.

Eric swung his leg over Lady Day’s saddle and reached for his helmet, settling it on his head. The elvensteed wheeled and turned back the way she’d come, taking Eric through the Portal and back into the park once more, into the sudden darkness and wintery chill.

It was nearly two in the morning when Eric arrived back at the apartment house, so it was no surprise that Toni Hernandez’s first-floor front windows were dark, but what surprised Eric was the sense of absence he felt as he walked into the lobby, as if all the building’s tenants—not just the Guardians—had packed up and left while he’d been gone.

That’s ridiculous. After all, he’d seen a few lights on the upper floors as he came up the walk. Artists and writers tended to be a solitary, nocturnal bunch, given to working in odd scraps of time stolen from day jobs. So he knew that there were still people here. Had to be. It was just that . . .

It’s just that this place feels like Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, all of a sudden.

It had started to rain on the ride back—thick slow drops on the edge of becoming snow—and Eric rode Lady Day right into the courtyard, leaving the elvensteed to find her parking spot while he rushed inside. His leathers had turned most of the rain, but his dress slacks were soaked and his shoes were wet as well.

Impatient with the usual glacial pace of the elevator, Eric elected to take the stairs at top speed. He was panting and out of breath from his climb by the time he reached the top, but he’d shaken the fey humor that had possessed him in the lobby. No matter where his other friends in Guardian House were tonight, Eric knew someone who was always here and never slept.

“Greystone? Hey, buddy?” Eric called, flipping on the lights in his living room. He kicked off his shoes and tossed his jacket aside. It was still the same mess it had been when he’d left for the concert at four this afternoon: clothes, CDs, and empty bottles of designer water scattered around like the debris of a small whirlwind. Housekeeping had never been Eric’s strong suit, and he supposed if he was going to keep on living here he’d need to hire some kind of cleaning service, assuming he could find one that would pick up and put away his things . . . before he needed to hire an archaeologist to find the bedroom.

Maybe a house-brownie would like to live here and do the dishes. They’re supposed to come if you put out a bowl of milk for them, but with my luck, I’d probably just end up feeding half the neighborhood cats.

Despite the season, he’d left the living room window open so that his gargoyle friend would know he was welcome to come and go as he pleased when Eric was out. “Hey? Greystone?” Eric called softly. The curtains billowed, and Eric heard the soft click of stone against iron as the gargoyle climbed down from its perch.

“Well, if it ain’t O’Banyon,” Greystone said, in his odd mixture of Irish and Bronx. “And how was the concert, laddybuck? Hmpf—you smell like you’ve been rolling in magic.” The gargoyle wrinkled its nose and looked disapproving, much as if Eric had come home reeking with beer from the corner speakeasy.

“I took a little trip through the looking glass.” Eric shrugged. “The concert went okay, but the ending was a real killer. I’ll have the tapes in about a week and you can hear it then for yourself. At least I didn’t screw up my solo, so Rector must be spitting nails; half the school saw me on stage and there’s nothing he can do about it but give me a fair grade. And something really weird happened tonight—I saw Beth and Kory, and Master Dharinel asked me to pass on a message—and now that I get here, it looks like something really weird has happened here, too. Where is everyone? I kind of need to talk to Toni, but I’m not sure what I’m going to say.”

As he spoke, Eric walked into the bedroom. He pulled off his slacks and shirt, and shrugged into one of Bethie’s finds: a bathrobe of heavy cashmere. He began to feel warmer almost at once. From there he went into the kitchen and came back with two bottles of spring water. He offered one to his guest—Greystone was already crouched in his favorite spot in front of the TV—and flopped down on the couch, exhausted.

“What sort of a weird thing?” the gargoyle asked, ignoring the rest of Eric’s speech.

“Two things, actually. First, I ran into an old friend of mine,” Eric said. “Or else it was a really convincing hallucination. Either way I wanted to run it past some friends I could trust.” It’s not that I think Ria’s out to get me. It’s just that I . . . well, I don’t know. It’s Ria. I never could think straight when I was around her the last time.

A sudden tactile memory, vivid as a kiss, intruded in Eric’s mind: Ria in bed, wearing nothing but a seductive smile, her blond hair fanned out against the red silk sheets as she reached for him. . . .

“Yeah, well. . . .” The gargoyle seemed oddly embarrassed. “Toni and the guys . . . they’re going to be out for a while.”

Eric looked at him, jolted out of the unbidden erotic reverie by the tone in Greystone’s voice. “ ‘Out.’ Is this one of those things that Bard was not meant to know, or can you tell me something more? Dharinel sent me to warn them, so I’m wondering if this is tied up with that.” And did Dharinel pass on his warning too late?

Greystone shrugged noncommittally. “Might be a false alarm. It just seems that Something’s loose in the city, and they’re out there trying to find out what. I’ve seen a lot of cases like this before. Sometimes you never do find out what spooked you. Other times, it’s Gotterdammerung with a full orchestra.” The gargoyle shrugged again, unable—or unwilling—to tell Eric anything more. “But tell me what your mentor said. Ms. Hernandez will want to hear it directly from you, but it can’t hurt to tell me as well. And that way, I can tell her the minute she comes in. You might be asleep, you know.”

“More than likely,” Eric admitted with a yawn. Now that he was feeling more relaxed, the tension and stress of the earlier evening was catching up with him in the form of an urgent need for sleep. “Well . . .” Eric marshalled his thoughts. “You know how there are Good Elves and Bad Elves?” Unbidden, a scrap of one of his old movies came to the surface of his mind, Glinda the Good, in Oz, asking, “Are you a Good Witch or a Bad Witch?” “Well the short version is, it looks like one of the Bad Elves has the idea of moving into New York and setting up a Nexus here.”

“Can’t be done,” Greystone said promptly. “Too much iron—and everything else—here. New York goes down as far as it goes up—did you ever take a good look beneath the surface of the streets? There’s a whole city under the city!”

Eric shook his head. “I know. That’s why the closest Nexus is up in Elfhame Everforest in Rockland County. But what Dharinel told me is that this guy—he didn’t give me a name, but I guess that doesn’t really matter—really doesn’t like anybody very much, elves or humans, and thinks he can use humans to take over the local territory. To top it off, he’s supposed to be pretty powerful. So I’m supposed to tell Toni and the gang to be on the watch for something . . . er, unusually elvish.”

“Hrumph. Been down to the Village lately?” Greystone snarked. “But what has this got to do with that old friend you said you ran into tonight? From what you’ve said, this Master Dharinel of yours doesn’t exactly qualify as an old friend.”

“Not quite,” Eric said, grinning as he tried to imagine his mentor here in his living room hanging out with his new friends. “I don’t think the two events are connected, but you never know.” Although he doubted that Ria’s presence in the city, even if she did mean harm, would be enough to set off the Guardians’ alerts in the way that something obviously had. “I told you about a woman named Ria Llewellyn, right?”

“The half-Blood that kept that elf-lord from doing in all the Sun-Descending elves and ended up in a coma?” Greystone asked helpfully.

“That’s the one, yeah.” Suddenly he couldn’t even keep his eyes open. He leaned his head against the back of the couch, half-mumbling with tiredness. “Only I saw her at the concert tonight, and I’m wondering—if I didn’t imagine it all—what she was doing there. All her corporate stuff is out in L.A.”

“I take it she isn’t a music lover?” the gargoyle said drily.

“No. I mean yes—I used to play for her. But . . . I don’t know.” Eric sighed, and reached up to pull the tie out of his hair. He shook his head, making the long chestnut strands—his natural color, restored by the same elven magic that had once turned it black as a disguise—spill across his cheeks.

“Yes, you do,” Greystone said unexpectedly. Eric opened his eyes and looked at his friend in surprise. “You’re a Bard. You see into people’s hearts. You know whether she’s a threat or not.”

“But what if I’m wrong?” There, at last, was the thing that had been bothering him all evening, brought out into the open. What if I’m attracted to her for all the wrong reasons? What if I can’t trust my own judgment? Leaving aside, for the moment, what HER reasons were for coming to the concert tonight. What if she’s working WITH this Unseleighe guy?

“Do you think she could fool you that easily?” Greystone asked.

Yes. No. Maybe. Dharinel once said that stage illusionism and true magic have this much in common—that the glamour only really works if the subject WANTS it to on some level.

I guess it’s not really that I don’t trust her. I guess, deep down inside, I don’t trust myself. Maybe all this growing up makes me nervous. Maybe I’m looking for some way to pack in all this maturity and adulthood and go back to being what I was. Even if that isn’t what I want on the surface, who knows what I want underneath? Caity’s always saying “your mind is not your friend.” Maybe this is what she means?

“No,” Eric said with slow reluctance. “Not if I don’t want to be fooled.”

“You’re a Bard now,” Greystone pointed out unnecessarily. “That might not have been true the last time you two tangled, boyo, but it is now. ‘Trust your feelings, Luke.’ ”

“So you think I should believe in myself?” Eric asked, yawning again. “Is that the answer, Master Greystone?”

“I think you should go to bed,” Greystone said. “You look all in. You can tell me the rest of your troubles tomorrow. Because if there’s one thing I do know about mortals, it’s that they don’t function well without sleep or food.”

You can say that again, buddy. Eric got to his feet, conscious of how tired he was. Sleep sounded like the best idea anyone’d had in quite a while.

“Don’t wait up,” Eric said, stumbling toward the bedroom. He heard Greystone chuckle as he closed the bedroom door.

* * *

He discovered that he was walking through a forest. No, not walking. Almost like swimming; pushing the branches out of his way and pulling his body along afterwards. The slippery black bark was cold and silky against his fingers, reminding him unpleasantly of polished bone. The association was so peculiar that he stopped, holding the branches away from his face as he tried to clear his thoughts. How had he gotten here, to this weirdwood, anyway?

I’m asleep, Eric realized. Dreaming.

With the ease of practice, he held himself in the lucid dreaming state, not intending to wake up until he found out what had summoned him here. Was this another warning message from Underhill? Half the elves he knew would have just sent him an e-mail, and Master Dharinel had already told him everything he was going to.

So this must be something else—one of those odd visions-cum-premonitions that Bards apparently got from time to time. But who was warning him . . . and about what?

Ria? But even as he thought the name, Eric realized this was none of her doing. Ria had always been more straightforward than this in her dealings with him. This was something else, and he’d better find out what. Feeling a great reluctance to do so, Eric forced himself to study his surroundings.

The bonewood he was in was lit with the sourceless silvery illumination that Eric associated with all things Underðhill, but there the resemblance to the familiar Elfhame Misthold ended. Everything around him was in shades of silver—even the bark on the trees was not truly black, but the deep grey of tarnished silver. Swags of what looked like Spanish moss festooned their bare branches. Mist lay on the forest floor like a thick carpet, and in the distance the bone-trees faded to a pale grey in the hazy air before vanishing entirely.

There was no life in these woods. No birdsong, no small scuttling forest creatures, none of the playful life he associated with Underhill. Yet this was Underhill, his instincts told him, even if it was an Underhill much different than any he’d ever known.

This must be what Underhill would be like if the elves were all dead. But that can’t be. Dharinel and Kory both told me that without the elves, there is no Underhill, just Chaos Lands, so some of the Seleighe Sidhe must be around here somewhere or this place wouldn’t have any shape at all.

Cautiously, but with renewed determination, Eric forced himself onward through the dreaming wood. The sense of artifice—of being an actor moving across a well-dressed but artificial stage—was very strong, and Eric wondered once again what purpose had summoned him here. It wasn’t that he was in the least worried about being able to defend himself. If things got hairy, he could just force himself to awaken. The dream had only as much power over him as he allowed it to have, but he did feel the need to find out why he was having it, especially coming as it did on the heels of Ria’s appearance and Dharinel’s warning.

It seemed as if he had walked for hours, when slowly Eric became aware that the character of the weirdwood had changed. He began to hear faint scuttlings behind him—they stopped each time he turned around—and now there were faint ghostly shapes flitting about at the edges of his vision: things with eyes that gleamed like faint red embers. And at last Eric realized why this place seemed so familiar to him.

“The sedge is withered by the lake/and no birds sing.”

This was Keats’ haunted wood, home of La Belle Dame Sans Merci. With a lagging sense of danger, Eric remembered that the Bright Court weren’t the only elves inhabiting Underhill who might be sending him messages. The Unseleighe Sidhe had their home here, too . . . the Dark Court that had been the stuff of human nightmares ever since humankind had crawled out of the caves.

Okay. Fun’s fun, but this isn’t going anywhere I like. Time to wake up now, Eric told himself.

But he couldn’t.

Jeanette Campbell came back to Threshold late that afternoon, and spent several hours in her private lab mixing up enough T-Stroke to waste a large percentage of the population of New York and the five boroughs. When it was finished, she trundled the cart and its several pounds of white powder—all neatly packed in large brown plastic pharmaceutical jars—to the Dirty Lab, where Threshold drones would have the unenviable labor of packaging it up in five-gram doses for the street. There was little need to bother with laboratory protocols or sterile conditions down in the Dirty Lab; it was used mostly for scutwork and mass production, and the people who administered the drugs Jeanette made weren’t overly concerned with sanitary conditions or the safety of their users. By tonight, T-Stroke would be the new hot ride in everyone’s pocket. By tomorrow morning, Robert would be able to start harvesting the Survivors.

And then they’d start getting an idea of how it worked.

Afterward, too keyed-up to sleep, and not willing to go back to her high-priced high-rise crackerbox, Jeanette went down to her office. Her guitar was waiting for her there in its shiny black case. She sat down in her chair, not bothering to turn up the lights, and took it out, running her fingers over the strings. Maybe a little time spent here would help her shake the headache she’d been running all day. Like many former users, Jeanette scrupulously avoided everything, even aspirin. She forced herself to concentrate on her instrument.

It was acoustic, strung with silver, just like the instruments in all the old legends. Once upon a time she’d thought that would make a difference. Now she knew that all she could reasonably expect from silver strings was a brighter sound and a little decoration. But maybe that was enough.

Music had always been her refuge. When the pain got too bad, when even thinking hurt, she could turn to the discipline of music and wipe it all away. She’d even transposed some old Celtic Harp pieces to guitar, and her fingers moved automatically into one now. Silvery rills of music filled the office, painting a vision of a future in which she could be happy and free, where the person she’d always wanted to be and the person she was would match. Where she wouldn’t have to brace herself every time she caught sight of herself in the mirror.

If T-Stroke works . . . if we can figure out how to keep it from killing people . . . what happens then?

Would she take it? It was a long way from 16 to 31. She’d always thought her dreams hadn’t changed, but that was before they’d come within reach. Now the thing she’d hoped for most was about to happen, and the thought both frightened and delighted her. The goal that had obsessed her for more than half her life—having Power, real power, invincible power—was almost in her hands. She’d done what she’d always dreamed of doing. She’d found it. She’d found the key to do what the fantasy novels she’d devoured as a teen only hinted at—a way to unlock the Talent that would set her apart from everyone else, make her special.

Give her revenge.

The music in her hands turned darker, mocking and warning at the same time. What revenge would ever be enough for all the disasters of her life? Where could she begin?

A sudden flood of light blinded her, and she pressed her hand against the strings, stifling the music into silence. Past and present jangled against each other, and she almost flinched before she remembered where she was. Jeanette had a lot of problems these days, but getting ambushed and beaten up wasn’t one of them.

“I thought I’d find you here.”

“It’s customary to knock,” she said icily. She winced at the light, squinting up through the glare to find Robert standing in the doorway of her office. She’d used to respect Robert in a way—he was so much more ruthless than she’d ever dared to be—but lately that respect had faded. She’d never really trusted him to protect her from prosecution the way he’d promised he would back at the beginning, but now she didn’t even trust Robert Lintel to have his own best interests at heart. He was in danger of believing his own publicity, she realized with a flash of insight.

But he was still a dangerous man. And right now, he wanted something from her. She knew the look on his face, the one that told her he was going to try to talk her into something—but so close to her goal, Jeanette was feeling a little bit forgiving, and was pretty sure she’d agree to whatever he came up with. It was the easiest thing to do, and in her own peculiar fashion, Jeanette had always taken the easy way.

“They’re packaging the stuff up now,” she said before he spoke. She set her guitar back in its case. Robert always made fun of her music. There wasn’t any power to be gained from music. Or so he thought.

But a protest song can start a riot. End a war . . . or start one. Great musicians live forever.

“That’s great,” Robert said warmly, oozing false charm from every pore. It must work on his bosses, whoever they were, but it’d never worked on her. And Robert was too self-obsessed to see that. “We’ll be able to start distributing the stuff tonight, and have our next batch of subjects rounded up by the end of the week. I wanted to talk to you about developing protocols for the second round of tests, the ones on the Survivors.”

“Sure.” Jeanette grinned without mirth. “But don’t you think it should wait until we have guinea-pigs to test it on? Anyway, I’m not sure what re-dosing the Survivors will do. Maybe it’ll just kill them. In terms of practical applications you’ve got to remember that this stuff wears off fairly quickly. Twelve hours and it’s out of the system—and from what we’ve seen with the chimps and the first round of people, the overt effects only last for an hour or two.”

Robert smirked at her, sure he knew things she didn’t.

“Well, that’s just the thing. We could get started on that second round right now. We’ve still got that live one from the last round, and we’ve got plenty of T-Stroke. Why don’t you shoot her up again and see what happens?”

The sadistic glee in his voice made her wince inwardly. Jeanette knew that all their human victims were going to be TTD—Tested to Destruction—and that none of them were going to be allowed to survive, but down deep inside somewhere she also thought that they should be treated with respect. Whether they’d chosen to be lab-rats or not, they were heroes. But Robert saw them as nothing more than toys.

And Robert liked breaking toys. She already knew that.

“She’s the one who healed herself, right? Fat lot of good that is, for your purposes,” Jeanette said grudgingly. She couldn’t resist slipping the needle in, even if only a little. What if the only thing this stuff was actually good for was healing impossible-to-cure diseases? Not much power for Robert in that. Too bad if that’s true, party-boy.

“Yeah. Ram says she had stomach cancer. I was thinking a higher dose might, I don’t know—do something else,” he said, too casually.

If there was anything Life had taught her, it was that trying to save anyone else only got you hurt. She’d sold folks down the river before. One more couldn’t matter. Jeanette shrugged. “Worth a try, I suppose. And if her head explodes we can dump her somewhere like all the others. Okay. Tell Beirkoff to get her prepped and bring her down to my lab and we’ll see what we can do. Oh, and Robert? Strap this one down real good, okay? I don’t want to spend tomorrow cleaning the place up.”

Robert grinned and saluted her from across the room, a faux-macho gesture he’d picked up from some movie or other. Jeanette grimaced—she’d always particularly detested it. But Robert didn’t notice. He’d already gotten what he wanted.

After he left, she rummaged through her paper files until she found the one she was looking for: the intake report on Ellie Borden, the sole survivor of the first run of trials. The black hooker’d had the lowest body weight of any of the test subjects, and so the dose she’d gotten in the cells had been proportionately higher.

Was that the reason she’d survived? Would a small dose of T-Stroke kill, but a large one liberate the mind from its fetters?

We’re going to get a chance to find out, aren’t we? Jeanette thought with grim humor. Her headache was worse than it had been all day. See? You’re going to do someone else down. And it doesn’t hurt at all, does it?

They had to let her go. God had given her a second chance, and Ellie Borden didn’t intend to waste it.

She knew she was in some kind of trouble. Her head was clear for the first time in many, many months, the disease wasn’t hanging over her head like a flaming sword, and she knew that wherever this place was, she was not in the hands of the police.

Everyone she’d met here had treated her with distant kindness. A little while after she’d woken up whole and well, alone in that padded cell, a woman wearing a black uniform had come and escorted her to a bathroom with a shower, given her a rolled towel that contained a toothbrush and soap, and told her to wash. When she’d stripped, she found two disks glued to her skin—one under her ribs, another high on her back—but try as she might, she could not pick them free, and the guard had ordered her to get into the shower and stop wasting time. The water was hot, and beneath its stream Ellie had luxuriated in being clean, really clean, for the first time since she’d been turned out onto the streets.

She might still have been in the shower if the woman hadn’t told her to come out. When she had, she’d found her clothing was gone, and she’d been given a set of blue surgical scrubs to wear, and a pair of soft slippers for her feet. The connection between these clothes and those given to prison inmates did not escape her.

“Where am I? Can you tell me that? I know this isn’t the Tombs4 . . . I need to get out of here. I promise I won’t cause any trouble.”

But the woman had only stared at her with hard-eyed pity, and refused to answer any of her questions.

After her shower was over, Ellie was taken down a long white corridor to yet a third cell. It was an improvement on the first two: it had a fold-out table, a chair bolted to the floor, a bunk, and a sink and toilet, like an upscale designer version of a prison cell. There were cameras in all four corners of the ceiling, and an overhead fluorescent light protected by a metal grid. The room had no windows, and she heard the heavy sound of multiple locks being thrown as the door closed behind the guard.

That was when she really began to be afraid. Because this place was like a prison, but it wasn’t a real, official prison. And that meant that the people running it could just make people . . .


After awhile—not more than an hour, Ellie thought—an Indian man in a white lab coat came in, accompanied by another guard and a trolley full of medical equipment.

“Where am I?” she’d asked them, hating the sound of terror she heard in her own voice. “I know this is . . . could you just tell me what you want? Please?”

“If you’ll just cooperate, I’m sure all your questions will be answered later. This is just a routine medical examination, Ellie. We want to know how you’re doing,” the doctor answered. His voice was soothing, professional, but Ellie had taken a look at the sleepy-eyed guard standing behind the man in white and stopped asking. The guard was a tall bronze-skinned man, in the same black uniform the guard who had taken her to the shower had worn. The nametag on his shirt said Elkanah—a Biblical name, a good name, but she didn’t think Elkanah was a good man. He had a full equipment belt—nightstick, walkie-talkie, gun, pepper spray, handcuffs—and there was something about him that made Ellie submit to the doctor’s examination in passive silence. It had been very thorough and puzzling to her, though she was drearily familiar with medical procedures from the time she’d started getting sick. The doctor removed the two silver disks—spraying the places they were stuck to her with something very cold first—and somehow that frightened her even more, as if she’d suddenly lost whatever value she might possess in these strangers’ eyes.

Once the doctor was finished—he’d taken blood samples, hooked her up to an EEG and an EKG, and a few other things—he let her dress again.

“Someone will feed you soon.”

The words were meant to be kindly, she knew. He hadn’t had to say anything, after all. But they’d only made her feel even more like an animal in a cage. She hadn’t been able to look at him when he left.

In a few minutes, another of the hard-faced guards had brought her a sandwich and coffee, obviously from a local deli. She’d taken one sip of the creamed and sweetened coffee but found it gaggingly bitter and poured it into the sink, using the cup for water instead. She’d thought she was too frightened to eat, but instead she was ravenous, finishing the sandwich in only a few bites and wishing there were more.

Then all there was to do was pray, huddled up on her bunk with the blanket wrapped around her shoulders, hoping against hope that what she feared so much wasn’t the truth.

The sound of her cell door opening jarred Ellie awake—somehow, despite everything, she’d fallen asleep. What she saw in the doorway made her cringe back against the far wall. Elkanah was back, this time with a white guard who looked just as intimidating. They were wheeling a hospital gurney with them. Four thick leather straps were laid loosely across it.

“Please . . .” she heard herself whimper.

“Get on the table.” The white guard spoke. His voice was harsh and indifferent. Ellie shook her head, too frightened by the sight of the straps to comply. “Do it,” he said, a thread of irritation coloring his voice.

“Hey, Angel. You gotta understand people’s limitations,” Elkanah said. “Now, Miss,” he went on, speaking to Ellie for the first time. “Nobody’s going to hurt you. We have to take you somewhere. You have to get up here on this gurney. Can you do that?”

To Ellie’s horror, she began to weep. She shook her head, trying to explain how afraid she was, how unfair it was that this should happen now, just when a miracle had turned her life around—had given her a life instead of the death she had expected.

Elkanah took no notice of her tears as he approached her. He pulled her gently to her feet and removed the blanket from her shoulders, then led her over to the gurney. ðBefore she could react, he had scooped her up in his arms and laid her down on it, and the man he’d called Angel was buckling the straps across her legs.

She began hopelessly to struggle, but Elkanah held her shoulders down and stared into her eyes. “There is no point to this,” he said firmly. “Do you understand?”

She’d turned her head away then, giving up, letting them do what they would. Uncontrollable shudders racked her as all four straps were buckled tight. The leather creaked as she breathed. She knew better than to ask for mercy. The streets had taught her that much.

Once she was strapped down, the two men wheeled her quickly through a disorienting series of corridors, until she arrived at a brightly-lit room that smelled of chill and disinfectant. There were two people there waiting for her.

One was a white man in his forties. He wore an expensive three-piece grey suit and looked to Ellie like a lawyer, one of those irritable important people who had inhabited the fringes of her world in the days when she’d been a good citizen. He was frightening, but his companion scared her even more—a short dumpy woman with mouse-colored hair wearing a rumpled lab coat, sneakers, and jeans. She had the pasty complexion of someone who spent all their time locked away from the sun. The woman’s eyes were the flat pale blue of the winter sky, and there was no humanity in them.

“Well, this is an improvement over chimps,” the man in the suit said. His companion smiled thinly and ignored him.

“Hello, Ellie,” she said. “I’m Jeanette Campbell. Do you know why you’re here?”

“Oh, for God’s sake, Campbell. You don’t need to talk to her,” the man snarled.

“Of course I do, Robert. That’s the whole point of this, isn’t it? Lab rats that can talk? If you want data from her, she’s going to need a context.”

Campbell turned back to Ellie, coming closer to the side of the gurney. Elkanah and Angel had backed away like respectful servants, going to stand beside the door.

“When you were brought in here, you had cancer, and you were addicted to something. What was it?”

“P-Percodan,” Ellie managed to stammer. Her mouth felt dry as salt.

“Okay. Percodan’s a good drug. Highly effective, highly addictive. But you haven’t had any in about four days. How do you feel now?”

“I feel—oh, please, let me go! I haven’t done anything!” Ellie pleaded, hating herself for begging when she already knew it would change nothing.

“But you have done something, Ellie. You’ve contributed to Science. You see, when you were first brought in, you were given an experimental drug. And now you don’t have cancer any more. And you don’t need Perc. And we want to know what happened to you. So we’re going to give you some more of what we gave you before—intravenously this time. And I want you to tell me everything about what happens to you then.”

“If I— If I do that, will you let me go? I won’t tell anybody about this, I promise, oh, just let me go, please, let me out of here and I’ll never tell, I swear—”

“Now, Ellie.” Campbell’s voice was remote, faintly chiding. “You know we aren’t going to let you go. But you don’t have any place to go anyway. That’s why we picked you. If you cooperate you’ll be well treated for the rest of your life. That’s more than you could expect on the streets.”

But I’m well now! I have my life back! Helplessly, Ellie began to struggle against the straps. Campbell reached into her pocket and produced a needle and a bottle of milky fluid. She swabbed down Ellie’s arm with cool efficiency and began probing for a vein.

“How do you know you’ll get the same effect with an injection?” Robert said.

“I don’t.” Campbell sounded almost amused. “What I do know is that this will work faster and more of the drug will reach the brain. And that’s sort of the whole point here, wouldn’t you say?”

The needle stabbed into Ellie’s arm with a lancing pain that seemed to strike at the roots of her soul. Eyes tight shut, she could only moan in protest as Campbell gently squeezed the plunger home, injecting the drug directly into her bloodstream. She felt a rush of warmth so intense it was as if she’d been lowered into a hot bath, and when she tried to open her eyes again, she couldn’t.

Once Ellie passed out from the drug, Jeanette glued contact pads to her temples. Their wires led to an electro-encephalograph—an EEG—and instantly the displays lit up, displaying the rhythms of deepest sleep, a sleep verging on coma.

“What do we do now?” Robert asked edgily. “Wait six hours for her to wake up?”

Jeanette leaned back against the counter, watching the green waves of Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta roll across the EEG display behind Ellie’s head. Something was happening there, down inside where she couldn’t see.

“It should go faster this time,” she said absently. “And I gave her twice the dose. What I want to know is, what’s she going to be able to do when she wakes up?”

Less than fifteen minutes later, Ellie’s eyes opened. She stared around herself wildly, as if she’d forgotten where she was.

“Ellie?” Jeanette leaned over her.

She saw Ellie’s eyes widen, as if she were seeing things no one else could. Jeanette reached out to touch her forehead, and in that moment a pulse—Jeanette had no other word for the sensation—passed between them.

Jeanette recoiled, and suddenly realized that the nagging headache she’d been fighting since she got up this morning was gone as if it had never existed. “Robert,” she said thoughtfully, “come over here. Touch Ellie.”

“Why?” Robert said suspiciously.

“It’s an experiment.” Because you’ve got an ulcer and I want to see what happens.

He did as he was told, clasping her wrist above the strap, then jerking away as if he’d been burned. “What the hell?”

“I bet your ulcer isn’t bothering you now,” Jeanette said sweetly. Robert shot her a narrow look, not pleased.

“My headache’s gone, too. It makes sense. Ellie, what do you feel?”

“Hurt,” the woman moaned, in a tranced petulant voice. “It hurts. I can’t let it.”

“First she heals herself. Now she can heal others,” Robert said thoughtfully. His eyes were alight with a dangerous fervor. “We have to test this.” He turned to the waiting guards. “Go find Dr. Ramchandra. Bring him here.”

* * *

He could not wake himself up—and worse, he’d lost all control over the dream. Helplessly, Eric’s dream self pushed on through the forest, surrounded by slinking red-eyed shapes out of nightmare and the Chaos Lands. Where he was going—and what would happen when he got there—were questions he found himself unable to answer, and that powerlessness fed a sort of angry fear.

This isn’t right. I’m dreaming and I know it. Why can’t I wake up?

At last the unchanging forest of stark bonelike trees began to thin. Eric found himself drifting to a halt at the edge of a clearing. The open space ahead was perfectly round, and the bone trees that circled it gave it the appearance of some sort of temple. The floor of the clearing was carpeted with a silvery moss, as thick and smooth as an expensive carpet, and at one end of the clearing was the first artificial thing Eric had seen in this tulgy wood—the back of an enormous throne, its high back blocking the occupant (if any) from Eric’s sight.

The strange throne was as black as the trees, and seemed at the same time to be both insubstantial and terribly solid, as if perhaps it were forged from something alive that hadn’t finished growing yet. Eric knew now that this dream was a message, a warning—but of what? And from whom?

Or was it a trap that had somehow penetrated Guardian House’s defenses instead? The fear he’d begun to feel when he lost control of the dream blossomed into outright panic. As he struggled to wake, the throne began to turn, slowly, so that in moments Eric would be brought face to face with its occupant. Somehow, Eric knew that would be a disaster of an even greater magnitude than his present situation, one that he must avert at all costs.

With all his strength he called upon the Bardic Gift within him, setting the bright humanity of his music against this ghostly moribund wood of silver and shadows. He built in his mind an image of his own safe bedroom in Guardian House, its walls garlanded with the invisible wards of familðiarity and good wishes.

You have no power over me! I reject you! I dismiss you! Go AWAY!

It worked.

Eric struggled upright in his own familiar bed, gasping with relief. Not a trap, not a warning, it had been a particularly vivid nightmare, nothing more after all. He stared around at the walls of the familiar bedroom, imprinting its images on his mind, forcing himself to breathe deeply and slowly, banishing fright. It was still night outside. Despite the fact that he seemed to have spent hours in the dream-wood, he’d probably only been asleep for a few minutes.

Can’t sleep after that. He flung back the covers and swung his legs out over the side of the bed. His feet sank into the fluffy flokati rug and he wriggled his toes appreciatively. He remembered that sometimes in the old days, Bethie’d had nightmares like this (though nothing, a small voice inside told him, could be quite like this), and when she had, they tended to come in chains that destroyed a whole night’s sleep. Elizabet had always said that the best thing to do was make a clean break with the dreaming state—get up, move around, have a cup of tea, connect with the waking world—before trying to sleep again.

Tea sounded like a good idea right now. He wondered if Greystone were still in the living room. Maybe the gargoyle would like a cup as well.

Eric had left the curtains open when he went to bed, hoping that the morning sun would wake him before he slept the day away. As he headed for the kitchen, he glanced casually back that way, wondering if it was raining outside. There was an odd glow shining in; probably the reflection of one of the skyscrapers off the clouds. . . .

It wasn’t.

He ran to the window and stared out, unable to believe what he was seeing. New York was gone.

No, not gone. Worse. Blasted to rubble, the twisted remains of the familiar Upper West Side buildings looking like the Judgment Day aftermath of nuclear war.

And out of their midst, a glowing tower, impossibly tall, rose in evil triumph over the ruined city. He felt a wrenching shock—

And then there was brightness, and Eric was struggling against something that wrapped him in inexorable unbreakable bonds. . . .

Eric awoke again—this time for real. The sun was high in the sky—that was the light—and he was wrapped tightly in the sweat-soaked bedsheets that had wound around him during his nocturnal struggles.

A dream. It had all been a dream, the weirdwood forest and his first awakening. Still gasping with the dream-induced panic, Eric struggled free of his bedclothes and ran to the window. All was as it should be. Everything was normal—wintery trees and pale December sky. No devastation. No dark elven tower raised by Unseleighe power to rule over what was left of the New York skyline.

Unsteady with relief, he staggered back to the bed and sat down heavily, waiting for his heartbeat to slow from its frantic racing. The dream and its aftermath of false waking faded, its insistent nightmare reality becoming less urgent by the moment. He was safe. New York was safe.

But if Toni and the others saw—felt—anything like my dream, no wonder they’re all out running around trying to round up the unusual suspects.

But had they? Did the dream—vision, premonition, whatever—have anything to do with whatever was alerting the Guardians? Or was it a message meant for him alone?

Of course, like Freud says, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

The joke fell flat, even in his own mind. Whatever it was that had happened to him, Eric couldn’t afford to just shrug it off. In the world of elven magic that he lived in, such things were never just innocent nighttime fantasies ralphed up by the collective unconscious. They were warnings—even if the warning came muddled and coded in symbols he couldn’t decipher just yet.

He’d have to pass on Dharinel’s warning to one of the Guardians as soon as he could, and do his level best to convince the Guardians this was something really serious. Somehow Eric knew that that wasn’t going to be a lot of fun.

The trouble was, the employees of Threshold were a generally healthy bunch. All Dr. Ram could come up with to test Ellie on were some mild allergies, a cold, a few strained muscles.

At Jeanette’s insistence, they’d unstrapped Ellie’s chest and legs and raised the back of the gurney up into a sitting position: Ellie could hardly escape, and her new powers seemed to have no aggressive capabilities. In the face of human pain—or even mild distress—Ellie could do nothing but react, healing the injured party as quickly as possible. She seemed entirely without the capacity of self-preservation, a totally vulnerable creature.

It’d be funny if it weren’t so flaming annoying. I finally get a lab rat who CAN talk, and she won’t say anything! If Ellie Borden had any insight into the process that had gifted her with these powers, she was doing a good job of keeping it to herself. In fact, the second dose of T-Stroke seemed to have reduced her to little more than an animal . . . an animal who could work miracles.

Robert was insistent that they find something that could really challenge Ellie, and they lucked out with one of the lab techs—Donaldson had spilled industrial solvent all over his arm the previous week. Fortunately he was at his desk, within easy reach, so Jeanette sent the two guards up to escort him down to the Lab. When Dr. Ram unbandaged his arm down there in the lab, the ulcerated skin was purple and weeping, an ugly sight. If Donaldson hadn’t been such a Type-A control freak, he’d have been home on medical rest with an injury like that.

As soon as he’d come through the door Ellie had started to whimper and reach for him. Jeanette was fascinated. The girl reacted to the presence of the sufferers as if someone were jabbing her with a red-hot poker—as if, in fact, she felt their pain more keenly than they did.

There was a word for that, Jeanette knew. Empathy. But what Ellie had was light-years beyond healing touch. Whatever was wrong, she fixed it. When they brought Donaldson over to her, all Ellie had to do was touch him, not even near the injury, and within seconds the skin on his arm was pink and healed.

“What’s all this?” The tech looked bewildered, staring from Ellie to the healthy new skin on his arm.

“Just an experiment in Healing Touch,” Jeanette said quickly. Donaldson was a good soldier. He wouldn’t ask questions. “You’ve been a great help. My department will get in touch with you later about filling out an incident report. It’d be great if you kept this to yourself until then, okay?” With an arm around his shoulders, she urged Donaldson from the lab and back into the arms of the Security who’d walk him back to his own turf. There’d be some gossip, she knew, but it wouldn’t go far. Threshold’s corporate culture didn’t encourage idle gossip about its projects.

“This is great—great,” Robert muttered, ignoring the byplay with Donaldson completely. “How much more can she do?”

“Do you want me to shoot someone so you can find out?” Jeanette asked, closing the door behind the tech.

She saw Robert start to agree, then catch himself. Yes, Robert would like that just fine, but Jeanette suspected it would play hell with employee loyalty.

Just then she had an idea.

“Does anybody know where Lawanda is? She ought to be here now. One of you guys,” she said to the hovering Secuðrity. “Go get her.”

Lawanda Dupre was Jeanette’s personal charity case. She had terminal ovarian cancer, and had come to Threshold through one of Robert’s other test programs—Jeanette didn’t know where he’d found her and had never actually cared enough to ask. When the test had run its course, Robert was going to cut her loose, but something about the woman had struck a spark in the wasteland of Jeanette’s soul, and she’d offered to continue running a private test program of her own with Lawanda, strictly under the radar. She was the one who’d come up with the idea of Lawanda working as a cleaning lady in the Black Labs, and Robert had no complaints of the arrangement.

Neither did Lawanda. Without the morphine, heroin, and methamphetamine cocktail Jeanette provided, she’d be lying somewhere in a welfare bed, dying in agony. With the twice-daily injection, she was still able to work. Robert thought the research might be a way to produce another kind of super-soldier: impervious to pain, oblivious to wounds. Jeanette didn’t really care. Treating Lawanda was one of the few things she did at Threshold that made her actually feel good about herself.

There was no denying that the drugs Jeanette gave her shortened the woman’s life. But they improved its quality, and let her die with dignity. That was more important, though Jeanette knew the FDA would hardly agree.

After a short wait, Angel appeared, herding Lawanda before him. The woman moved at a painfully slow shuffle. She was in her early forties, and looked sixty. The injections could mask the symptoms, but all the drugs in the world couldn’t cure the disease.

Ellie began to moan and keen before Lawanda had even gotten all the way into the room. Interesting. Jeanette knew that the cleaning woman was in very little pain—if any—but Ellie seemed to feel the presence of the cancer itself, not the pain of its victim.

“Did you want me for something, Dr. Campbell? It isn’t time for my shot yet. You aren’t going to stop those, are you?” Lawanda asked anxiously.

“No, Lawanda. Of course not. We just want to try something new in addition to the shot. It won’t hurt, I promise you. I just want you to come over here and let Ellie touch you.”

Lawanda Dupre laughed cynically. “You trying faith healing on me now, Doctuh Campbell?”

“Maybe.” Jeanette smiled. “Just come over here.”

Ellie strained against the restraints that still held her to the bed, reaching out toward Lawanda. The older woman approached her cautiously. “Sistah, what are you doing here?”

“Let me—just let me—please, it hurts so much,” Ellie groaned. Her hand darted out, fastening over Lawanda’s emaciated wrist like a clamp.

There was a sudden spark where the two women’s flesh met, an ozone-like tang in the air. Lawanda’s face had gone slack, as if in a sudden rush of ecstacy, while Ellie’s was contorted like that of a saint seeing God. Everything but Lawanda had ceased to exist for Ellie. That much was plain. But what did that mean?

“Something’s happening,” Robert said in a low excited voice.

“No force, Sherlock,” Jeanette muttered back. Whatever was happening now, it was on a much greater scale than the previous healings. This time, Ellie’s struggle was something Jeanette could almost see—a palpable force conjured into the little room.

Jeanette tore her gaze from the tableau of the two women and looked at the clock. The long red second hand swept magisterially around the dial. A minute passed. Ninety seconds. Longer than any of the previous healings.

There was a faint groan from the bed. Ellie fell back, limp, releasing Lawanda’s hand. The cleaning woman staggered away from her, blinking in astonishment. Jeanette could see that Lawanda’s eyes were clear, the yellow tint gone from the corneas. She looked years younger, and even stood straighter.

“Lord have mercy! I— What did she do, Dr. Campbell?”

“I don’t know,” Jeanette said slowly. Ellie had healed Lawanda—but how? Cellular degeneration at that level couldn’t be reversed. This wasn’t like the burn—not a case of speeding up what the body had the power to do anyway.

This was a genuine, bonafide miracle.

Or to put it another way, Jeanette had just seen magic. Real magic.

Robert made an impatient gesture, and Angel stepped forward again to usher Lawanda from the room. She went quietly, glancing back a few times at the woman on the bed.

Ellie still didn’t move. Filled with a sudden awful suspicion, Jeanette moved over to the gurney. Gingerly, she reached out to touch the girl.

Ellie’s skin was already cold to the touch, and the skin beneath the blue coverall lay slack over withered flesh. There was no pulse.

“She’s dead.” And oddly, the realization gave Jeanette a faint pang of guilt.

“Well, hell.” There was only self-centered regret in Robert’s voice.

4The Manhattan Security Detention Facility

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