The Lost Ones Page 2

Oliver shook his head. “You don’t know—”

Collette shushed him. All three of them stopped again to listen, and this time they heard a clanking of metal as the upstairs door to the dungeon was unlocked and swung open. Heavy boots clomped down the stone steps.

The guards were arriving with breakfast. The conversation was over.

For now.

Which was fine. Oliver needed to think. Maybe they were right; maybe it was time to make their own opportunity. It seemed far more likely they would be able to free Frost than that they could escape from the palace themselves. It might be their one chance at survival.

If Frost could be trusted.

Dark clouds hung pregnant above the battlefield just north of Cliffordville, but the rain did not come. The past few days had been blisteringly hot; rain would have been a blessing. But the gods would never bless an abomination such as this.

Blue Jay flew above the clashing armies, the humid air heavy on his wings. He heard the clang of blades on armor and the cries of the wounded and dying. The blood of humans and legendary alike stained the ground. In the distance, he could see the smoke rising from the ruin that the Yucatazcan forces had made of Cliffordville. Most of the residents had been evacuated before the enemy had arrived. Those stubborn few who had remained were likely charred corpses now, adding to the black smoke that furled upward from the remains of the town.

Some amongst King Hunyadi’s forces had wanted to lay in wait in Cliffordville and set a trap for the invaders. Neither the king nor his chief advisor, Captain Damia Beck, would hear of it. There would be no honor in such close fighting, and it would mean spreading their troops out into small pockets. If one side achieved the upper hand in the battle, the others would not be able to see what was happening. Hunyadi wanted his enemies to see what they were up against, when the time came.

As a trickster, Blue Jay liked the idea of springing a trap on the invaders, but he saw the king’s point. There were too many variables. Not that it was up to him in the first place. After all, he and his fellow Borderkind were only volunteer soldiers in the army of Hunyadi. More than anything, he knew that the king wanted him and his kin to be visible in the battle. In the two months since the war had broken out they had made every effort to spread the word into the south that the Atlanteans were the true enemy, that Hunyadi had not had any hand in King Mahacuhta’s assassination.

And nothing would show the human troops the truth more clearly than the fact that nearly all of the surviving Borderkind were fighting on the side of the kingdom of Euphrasia. Even Yucatazcan Borderkind had joined the troops of King Hunyadi. That ought to be evidence enough that the whispers about Ty’Lis were true.

Blue Jay let a gust of wind take him higher, and then banked west, toward the ocean. He came around in a long arc, moving behind the invaders, then descending until he flew less than eighty feet above the battle.

The combat had begun shortly after dawn, with the Yucatazcan force marching out of the ruins of Cliffordville, up a long slope to the northeast that would take them to Boudreau and Hyacinth, and then to the small city of Dogwood. Hunyadi’s forces had come down out of the hills and waded into the invading force. The Yucatazcans had suffered enormous early casualties, but now the battle had become a bloody melee with new corpses falling on both sides.

The little blue bird darted over the battle lines. He saw perhaps two dozen Atlantean soldiers amidst the humans and the handful of legendary creatures fighting on the side of Yucatazca. There were Jaculi amongst them, tiny but savage winged serpents. A small cadre of Battle Swine—tusked boar-warriors whose hair was matted with fur and gore—held firm. Not one of them had fallen as yet. A single Atlantean giant still lived. Two others had stood with the greenish-white-skinned monstrosity, but they were dead now. Archers took cover behind them and loosed arrows at the enemy.

At the center of the area that had become the muddy, bloody battleground, a sphere of death radiated outward from a strangely silent, elegantly choreographed skirmish taking place amongst magicians. Seven Mazikeen—the Hebrew sorcerers who had allied themselves with the Borderkind—stood arrayed in a semicircle, electric golden light crackling in arcs from their fingers and eyes, lancing across the open space that separated them from a quartet of Atlantean sorcerers, whose own spells and hexes burned the air in black and blue tendrils. Not a single living soldier or warrior—human or legend—came nearer than twenty feet from this war-within-a-war.

Blue Jay thought it appeared, for the moment, to be a stalemate. That did not bode well.

Nagas slithered on serpent bodies through the battle. Their upper halves were humanoid and they swung swords and fired arrows, cutting down whatever human soldiers got in their way. The Lost Ones of Yucatazca were not their focus, however. They were slaying as many of the enemy legendary as they could.

More blood spilled.

Pointless. A dreadful bitterness welled up in Blue Jay. He had always been a trickster, a mischief maker, but this was different. The schemers of Atlantis had manipulated the Two Kingdoms into this war so that they could reap the rewards. The Lost Ones on both sides were dying because they did not know the truth. They were all humans, no matter what part of the ordinary world they—or their ancestors—had originated from. To see them massacring one another was an abomination. To watch the legendary kill one another was even worse. There were only a few Borderkind still allied with the Yucatazcan forces, but what did that matter? Whether they could cross the border between worlds or not, legends were legends. Like the humans, they were all kin.

Taken together, the two armies had something less than a thousand sweating, stinking, exhausted soldiers remaining from the forces that had engaged in the battle of Cliffordville. Skirmishes had been taking place on the Isthmus of the Conquistadors—and on both sides of that thin strip of land that separated Euphrasia from Yucatazca—ever since the regicide in Palenque. But now the war had begun in earnest. Other Yucatazcan forces had already moved across the Isthmus and into Euphrasia, headed for locations to the far east and to the north, where they would find Euphrasian army detachments awaiting them under the command of Hunyadi’s top officers.

But this area had been the king’s focus. This attack route was the one whose path would take the enemy most directly toward Perinthia, Euphrasia’s capital. For symbolic purposes, this battle had to end in a decisive victory.

At the moment, that hardly seemed a foregone conclusion.

The Atlantean giant snatched a Naga from the ground, gripped the warrior by his serpent torso, and used him as a club to first sweep several Euphrasian soldiers aside, then to hammer at one of them, killing both the Naga and his human comrade in the process. Blood sprayed the giant’s face and the upturned, enraged countenances of the soldiers who attacked him.

Blue Jay flapped his wings quickly and rose into the sky. He scanned the dark clouds above him, still wishing for rain, but more important, wanting to be certain that none of the winged Atlantean hunters, the Perytons, would arrive as reinforcements. He also watched for Strigae, the black birds who acted as spies for Ty’Lis and his masters in Atlantis.

Atlanteans. Blue Jay’s feathers ruffled as he glided on air currents. The bastards are going to pay.

The smoke still rising from Cliffordville provided a dark backdrop for an odd phenomenon. The very fabric of the air began to tear, not in one place, but in a dozen, spreading out across the rear flank of the enemy troops. Long, shimmering slits appeared, starting from the ground and rising to varying heights, some only a few feet and others scraping the sky.

From the largest of the tears in the Veil there came a gigantic flying shape—a huge, white pachyderm with broad wings and tusks like ivory spears. Hua-Hu-Tiao had arrived, and many other Borderkind followed, flooding into the world, slipping from the ordinary realm into the land of their kin. Blue Jay saw so many that were familiar to him—monsters and giants, beasts and heroes. Chang Hao, the King of Snakes, slithered through and darted forward to snatch two Yucatazcan soldiers into his maw, swallowing them without chewing. Even from the sky, Blue Jay could hear them scream.

Blue Jay had friends amongst the newly arrived force. He saw Cheval Bayard, the kelpy, in her equine form. Her hooves thundered on the ground as she galloped toward her enemies, silver hair streaming. Leicester Grindylow sat astride her back, long apelike arms wrapped around her neck. He looked gangly and foolish atop the kelpy, but Blue Jay knew that Grin would be deadly the moment he leaped into the fray. His strength and swiftness were well-tested, and his savagery in battle was only equaled by his quiet courtesy to his allies and friends.

Then there came Li, the Guardian of Fire. Once he had ridden a beautiful tiger. But when his tiger had been killed by the Myth Hunters, Li had been diminished in some way that Blue Jay still did not understand. The fire in him burned nearly as strong, but he could not control it the way he once had. His flesh had burned away so that now he existed as a walking pile of embers, forged in the shape of a man. Li would never be able to pass in the human world again. But he was Borderkind, and he wanted vengeance on those who had murdered so many of his kin and slain the tiger who had been one half of his spirit and his legend.

Blue Jay fluttered his wings, rising higher. The storm clouds seemed to hang lower than ever, yet still would not release the mercy of rain. He watched the warriors, gleaming with sweat and glistening with blood, as they became aware that the tide had turned. They were surrounded by their enemies. The Yucatazcans were filled with what they thought was righteous fury at the murder of their king, but they were not prepared for the Borderkind.

Without the legends that could cross the Veil, King Hunyadi’s troops might have driven the invaders back eventually. It would have been a near thing. Now the Yucatazcans had no chance. The Borderkind swarmed in from behind, burning and tearing and shattering the enemy, and the Euphrasian forces moved in from the front.

Only the killing remained.

Blue Jay wheeled away from the battle, turning back toward the top of the hill, where the tents of the commanders had been pitched in a sparse wood that had once overlooked the quaint little village of Cliffordville.

He scanned the tents and did not see the black cloak of Captain Beck. A tremor of anxiety went through him. Troubled, he flew quickly toward the hill and then spread his wings to slow himself. As he did, the trickster changed. Wings became a blue blur beneath outstretched arms. Blue Jay began to spin slowly, dancing on the air, and he alighted upon the ground with a soft tread, the bird replaced by the mischief man. The breeze rustled his long hair and the blue feathers he kept tied there.

Worried, he glanced around. Commander Torchio and two of his subordinates stood just inside the tree line, but there was no sign of Captain Beck. He started toward them, about to inquire, when the flap of the nearest tent opened and an ebony-skinned hand thrust out.

“Jay. Come in.”

A smile touched his lips as he stepped up and took her hand. The trickster slipped into the tent and into her arms. The thin cotton of her black tunic and trousers whispered as he pulled her against him. Her dark eyes widened but, before she could speak, he silenced her with a brush of his lips upon hers.

Then he whispered her name.


Captain Beck grinned, her elegant ebony features alight with mischief that made him feel she was a kindred spirit, even though she was entirely human. She arched an eyebrow.

“It’s lovely to see you back in one piece, Jay. But perhaps you might hold your enthusiasm a few minutes.”

He blinked, and only then did he sense the presence of another inside the tent. Blue Jay turned, as sheepishly as a trickster could manage, and found the imposing presence of the wanderer, Wayland Smith, filling nearly all of the available space. That was one of the many puzzling things about Smith. He always seemed larger than he was. Most of the tricksters called him uncle, treated him as one of their own, an elder. And yet if he was a trickster, he was from an earlier age, an earlier kind of legend. There were many names for him. The Wayfarer. The Traveler. All Jay knew was that he was a journeyman, wandering the worlds, as well as a magician, and that he could forge weapons that always found their mark. Or so his legend claimed.

Smith had not removed his broad-brimmed hat, though he had set aside his walking stick, which was capped by a brass fox head. His rust-colored beard seemed to have gone more gray than Blue Jay recalled. From the shadows beneath the hat brim came the glint of stony eyes.

“Hello, Jay,” said Wayland Smith, inclining his head.

“Wayfarer,” Blue Jay replied. “We haven’t seen you in more than a week.”

“It could not be avoided,” the wanderer said. “I have been searching for questions.”

The trickster cocked his head. “For questions?”

“You cannot find an answer until you have discovered the question.”

“Of course,” Blue Jay replied, bowing his head in respect. “And did you find what you sought?”

“I have a great many questions and, indeed, some answers as well.”

Damia Beck slid up beside Blue Jay and put an affectionate hand at the small of his back. “He says it’s time.”

Blue Jay saw the excitement in her eyes, then turned back toward Wayland Smith. “Time for what?”

Even through his thick beard, the wanderer’s smile was unmistakable. In the shadows under his hat brim, Wayland Smith’s eyes kindled with a lightness of spirit Blue Jay had never seen in that face before.

“Why, time to rescue them, of course. Frost and the Bascombes, and Oliver’s fair lady. Now that the war has begun in earnest and the eyes of Atlantis are focused on Euphrasia, it’s time to retrieve your friends and draw together the skeins of fate. Then we’ll have begun it, Jay.”

Blue Jay frowned. “Begun what?”

“The beginning of the end.”

“Damia,” Blue Jay said, reaching down to take her rough, soldier’s fingers in his own. “Do you understand any of this?”

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