Midsummer Three Years Ago…

The Guardian

MIDSUMMER DAY had hardly begun to cool in Black Creek Ravine when Hank George took up his station outside the cavern known as the Doorway. His waist-length, iron gray braids fell heavy in the humid heat, but that didn’t account for the way he felt, as though stones weighted his chest and shoulders.

Inside the rock, the luminous halls of the cavern led to a series of tunnels. The Road Between, it was called. Many generations past, the Others had come to Earth by that dark path. Decades later, they’d traveled the same route back to the world that was their home.

A Guardian had watched at the Doorway ever since.

Hank had been watching for more than fifty years. Countless days he’d listened to the ethereal song of the breeze sighing through the cavern. A strange sound always, but never before had it raised the hairs on the back of his neck. He sat down on his favorite stump just outside the cave’s entrance; though he remained outwardly calm, tension thrummed through his muscles like voltage through power lines. He rose and took a step toward the entry. A blast of air colder than January cut through his thin shirt and blew back his braids. Perhaps anticipation seized him, maybe dread.

Something was coming. Something was about to begin.

The Wizard

ALONE IN his dilapidated wooden tower, gray-bearded wizard Thurlock leaned out the west window to survey the hundreds of partygoers making merry in the vale that dipped between the Sister Hills. He tried to laugh at toddlers’ antics, dancing couples, and smiling old folks tapping arthritic feet to the music of fiddles and pipes. He watched Luccan run across the grassy North Rise, where he and L’Aria, his friend for life, endeavored to fly their new kites. He tried to enter into the prevailing Midsummer joy.

He failed miserably. This was Luccan’s twelfth birthday, the day the boy should have received his cardinal name so he could begin to gather the strength it would impart. Knowing a little of what his fortune might hold, the wizard thought surely the youngster would soon need all the strength he could find.

Across the vale stood the neat, sunlit windows and varnished logs of Sisterhold Manor, Luccan’s home. Beyond that, in the near distance, Oakridge rose from the hillside like a monument to history. When Luccan was only two hours old, Thurlock had brought him out into the summer dawn and fumbled him into his father’s strong but equally fumbling hands. The man had carried his child to the sun-sparked granite on the ridge and whispered a name into his ear, a powerful name known only to them, witnessed solely by the wind.

Now, because of what Thurlock had not done then, disaster threatened—for Luccan, for Sunlands, perhaps for all the world of Ethra. The infant, of course, had forgotten the name. His father had become lost. And the Gods’ Breath, fabled dawn wind of the Sunlands, kept its secrets.

The Witch-Mortaine

PRIVATELY, ISA thought it would be best to kill the boy and have done. Granted, the recent strange behavior of time brought opportunity. And true, the boy’s unformed powers might boost her own—in the service of her master, of course—if she could subvert them.

Yes. She would bow to the wishes of the Ice-Lord, Mahl, and alter her course. The boy would live, long enough at least to determine if he could be put to use. If the costs in time and effort grew too vast, the boy’s death would destroy the enemy’s hopes, and Mahl would be appeased.

She took stock of her image in the looking glass. The light filtering through the icy walls of her keep lit her eyes with blue fire and emphasized her long bones and sharp angles. The reflection pleased her. Gone was the soft-faced girl of ages past, the girl who had been a fool. Staring back from the silvered glass was a woman of power, a witch who could wait for reward.

Yes. She would sow seeds now for the Sunlands’ defeat. Later, when she reaped vengeance against the one man who mattered, the fruit would be that much sweeter.

From glass shelves holding bottles, boxes, and vials, she gathered the bits she would need for the spell.

Midsummer stood on the cusp. The moment for cold, hard magic had come.

Part One:

Luccan Lost and Found

Chapter One:

Pale Blue, Wicked Cold

In the present day….

WHEN LUCKY stepped off the asphalt at the end of Twelfth Street and into the weeds, it was twilight, a time of day that should have stretched at least an hour on June 21, which was, after all, Midsummer. But Lucky only made it halfway across the mile-wide strip of open land that separates Valley City from Black Creek Ravine when night took him by surprise. It had fallen way too fast.

He tried to laugh it off, even joking aloud with himself, “All I did was blink!” But the darkness had already taken him, and now it crept up his spine, cold like something witched from its grave. He tried to convince himself he could handle the eerie feeling. “It’ll be okay, Lucky,” he said. “It’s been a creepy day, that’s all—and it’s almost over.”

The day in question—which happened to be his fifteenth birthday—had staggered by, every hour weighted down by Lucky’s sincere wish that it would move along and get itself over with. Now, as he made his way home, the wind moaned in the pines nearby, and the moon hung like a bloodred bubble in the sky between the rock spires known as Death of the Gods. Frogs and crickets went stone silent just ahead of his every step, and webs appeared out of nowhere, as if hungry spiders by the thousands rode in on moonlight to stretch traps in the grass.

Lucky stopped and leaned forward, hands on his knees, needing to catch his breath. He wasn’t sure what had him so winded. Was it because he had to lift his long, bony legs so high to get through the tall grass? Or was he spooked by the sinister night?

After a moment, he pushed back his exasperatingly thick hair—it was always in his eyes—and marched on. Before he’d gone ten more steps, Maizie, the big yellow mongrel he’d raised from a pup into a best friend, started barking. Lucky slowed, scanning the field around him and the shadowed trees looming ahead. He felt sure Maizie had seen, heard, or smelled something that didn’t belong. She never barked when he was coming home. She hardly ever barked at all.

“Chill,” he told himself, and then he started walking again. Seconds later, Maizie bounced out of the trees like a big ball of animated sunshine and greeted Lucky with her whining, toothy grin, just like every night. He had to laugh despite his mood.

“Okay, girl.” He dropped a bag of groceries so he could use a hand to fend off Maizie’s sloppy tongue and rough up her thick yellow fur. Her tail wagged hard enough to mow the weeds flat in a circle around him, and for those few seconds he didn’t feel quite so cursed.

But she bounded off toward home, and as he picked up his spilled groceries—mostly pouches of ramen noodles, precious even at three for a dollar—the shroud of unease dropped around him once more. He didn’t even try to shake it off. Hefting his grocery bags, he forged ahead through the whispering weeds until he reached the edge of the wood.

In the pines, an owl called “who.” In Lucky’s strange state of mind, it sounded like some sort of challenge, so even though he felt completely silly doing it, he answered, “It’s just me.” He almost wanted to laugh again, but that feeling didn’t last long. When he emerged from the trees and caught sight of the shack he called home, he stopped and stared while a chill prickled over his scalp like a tattoo needle made of ice.

Something wasn’t right.

Could he have somehow come to the wrong place?

For the comfort the sound of his voice might offer, he spoke aloud again. “Don’t be stupid, Lucky. You know your way home by now.”

He’d been living there for nearly a year. After about that same length of time sleeping in alleys and doorways—only occasionally sleeping in a bed, which was even worse—he’d been raveled to within a hair’s breadth of wanting to give up. Even now he didn’t want to think of what that might have meant. But he’d been truly lucky, for once, and happened on this old shed while he was looking for a place to hide from truant officers who’d spotted him trying to panhandle. He’d slept better that night than he had in a long time, and the next morning he decided to make the place his own. He’d swept away bugs and spiders, pounded loose nails, and even mended split planks, and within a few weeks he’d patched it up. Ever since, he’d shared the ten-by-twelve space with Maizie and a family of finches in the eaves, and he’d come to think of it as the one secure place on Earth.

The shack might once have been in the center of a pasture or field, but the walls of Black Creek’s infamous gorge had since crumbled, and now the structure squatted at the cliff’s edge, at the end of the flats. Ordinarily, that precarious location didn’t trouble Lucky. But tonight… tonight a mist rose from the ravine and pearled silver in the moonlight, twisting and twining like ghost flesh. The strange, swarming fog cut the cabin’s hulk off from everything beyond, as if the place he counted on as refuge now hunkered at the edge of oblivion, the brink of the world.

He shoved his hair out of his face and sighed. “You think too much, Lucky,” he said, trying to snap a leash on his imagination. He forced himself to take one step, then another, and strode to the door with Maizie close and quiet at his heels.

“See?” he said, glancing at Maizie as he pushed open the shed’s door. “It’s exactly the way we left it.” Blankets, toothbrush, half-empty bag of kibble, everything remained in place. Nothing was moved, nothing mussed, nothing touched. “Nothing’s wrong at all.” It was a lie. Lucky knew that even as he said it, and like all lies, it hurt him like ice in his bones.

His sanctuary had ceased to be safe.

He sat down hard on the shelf he called his bed, hung his wearied head in bruised hands, and stared at his knees. Instead of seeing those scarred joints, though, he watched in his mind a replay of the day’s events. He tried to pinpoint the moment when things had gone from bad to worse. He wanted to figure out why an ordinary day had become a nightmare. But then, it was Midsummer, it was his birthday, and his birthdays were never ordinary. Possibly this hadn’t been his worst Midsummer ever, but it had been close.

The morning had started with a dream about a key he had in his possession, one of a handful of inexplicable objects that were all that remained of his childhood. And a woman with golden hair and eyes shaped like Lucky’s but green rather than coppery brown—he’d dreamed about her before. She had pushed the key into his palm and flung him some cryptic advice he could no longer remember. Then she’d vanished, shrieking, and some cold, dark, horrible thing had taken her place. Lucky screamed himself awake and bolted upright, smacking his head on the shelf above his bed. He’d been left with a lump the size of a duck’s egg on his forehead.

It throbbed, and it had turned purple by the time he reached the bus stop at Twelfth and Main an hour later.

He sat down to wait for the number sixty-eight bus, wishing for shade. With his arm draped over the back of the bench and his feet sprawled out nonchalantly, he hoped he looked cool despite the heat wafting from the asphalt. When an old man trundled up wearing gray sweats and combat boots, he ignored the fact that the stranger looked weird, even for downtown Valley City.

After waiting some time, Lucky wondered if maybe he was late and the bus had already come and gone. He turned to the old man, hesitated, but then said, “Excuse me, sir. Do you know the time?”

“Time? Excellent question.” He fished in a jacket pocket Lucky never would have guessed existed and brought out a pink paper bag, then opened it to show crullers with maple frosting melting in the heat. Lucky inhaled deeply but tactfully refused the implied offer. When the old man set the bag on the bench between them, it rolled itself up. That couldn’t possibly be true, of course, and briefly Lucky wondered if the bump on his head had affected him more than he’d thought.

Then the stranger said, “I’ve brought enough for both of us,” which seemed an unlikely thing for him to say, considering they’d never met. While Lucky debated whether to respond, the man brandished a huge yellow umbrella and flourished it open over their heads just in time for rain to begin falling from the still cloudless sky. “Eight forty-six.” Out of the same invisible pocket that had produced donuts, he’d pulled a large clock with a glass housing, gears whirring and clicking inside quite independently of each other, and hands, but no clock face.

Lucky fought the hypnotic effect of the device, forced his gaze away, leaned his elbows on his knees, and cradled his throbbing head.

The old man asked, “Not feeling quite yourself today?”

What the hell does he mean by that? Lucky didn’t answer the old man; instead he stared out into the street, which had gone strangely quiet. He ran a hand through his hair, as if getting his hair out of his eyes could clear the weirdness from his vision. One car, a hulking Ford Crown Victoria, idled at the stoplight. By some trick of the light, its white paint reflected bloodred, and the windows were tinted a blue so dark the driver looked like a ghost.

Without warning, the odd old man dropped the umbrella in front of Lucky’s face. When he snapped it shut a moment later, the white car had vanished, the traffic had returned, and the rain had ceased.

LUCKY’S DAYS, generally, were built on routine. Unlike most fifteen-year-old people, he worked for a living—self-employed. Valley City was small, but he wasn’t the only teen living on his own. For the first year, he’d done what the others did, namely live on the streets and find any way he could to get a few bucks for food and necessities. Except he couldn’t lie or steal—not wouldn’t, couldn’t. He didn’t want to be a thief, but he would have done it if he could—it seemed to work for other people, and sometimes he’d been really hungry. But the first time he tried to steal, he got horribly, stupidly, embarrassingly sick. That seemed a cruel blow by fate, all the more so because nobody could explain it. Maybe he would have an explanation if Hank had still been around. Hank had been the closest thing Lucky’d had to a grandfather, but he didn’t like to think about Hank anymore. That was a sickening story all on its own.

Stealing was out, so he was left with panhandling or letting people pick him up and pay him to do things he didn’t want to think about—not in that context. He got pretty good at panhandling—surprising what people will give you if you tell them the truth—but when he was desperate, he did what he had to do to stay fed and warm. The so-called adults who’d wanted to touch him made him sick too, but that was way easier to explain than vomiting every time he tried to lie.

After he settled in his shack, though, Lucky started to think he should try to find another way to make a living. The fact was, Lucky was different from the other teens on the street—even more lost if that were possible. Not because he was gay… or bi, probably, if he was being honest. Some of the friends he shared street corners and dumpster sandwiches with were straight, some were gay, some were too hungry or too messed up to care. It wasn’t the most important thing. All of them were on the street because their families had put them there, one way or another. They all came from crap homes, and they all had crap choices for getting help or doing anything about their situation at all.

But all the others had one thing Lucky didn’t have—an identity.

Someday, with luck, they would become adults. Their adult lives would surely be an upstream swim, but the possibilities remained: they could get an education, they could work, they could rent homes, they might have a future.

Lucky’s circumstances were different. He didn’t remember a crappy home or a mean parent; he didn’t remember home and parents at all. He couldn’t remember anything before his twelfth birthday. He had no ID, no school records, no birth certificate, no last name. He thought he had something in common with the migrant workers who came to the valley to work. Most worked on the farms, but some got jobs in private homes, and ultimately Lucky took his cue from them.

His first customer had been unintentional: Safianu, a man from Cameroon with a delightful, joyful accent and a history of drug addiction. No longer addicted, he was old—maybe sixty—and sick, so finally the state thought him worthy of food and shelter he didn’t have to lie or steal for. Lucky hadn’t been thinking of a job when he’d cleaned up Saf’s apartment. He’d been thinking of helping an old friend. But Saf had been the kind of generous man who would share whatever he had, including both money and hard-won self-esteem.

“Lucky,” he’d said, his accented speech musical in a way that commanded attention while at the same time tickling something inside, “you are a good person. I will pay you for your work.”

“Saf! You don’t have enough money to pay people. I’m doing this because I want you to be a little more comfortable. Anyway, you already fed me twice. That’s plenty.”

Saf slammed a hand down on the table, making Lucky jump and look up. “You will not disrespect me. You work, you will be paid—at least what little I can manage!” He took Lucky’s hand and laid a crisp ten-dollar bill across his palm. “Finish here. Come back next week.”

What Lucky liked about that first job was that it felt clean; it was work he could do and not wish at the end of every day that he could escape his life. Sure, not all his customers were as worthy as Safianu, nor as beautiful. Lucky had seen pictures of Saf as a young man—oh my! But lots of people made enough money through vice or petty crime to pay him a few bucks—and everybody likes clean clothes and made beds. In very little time, he’d set himself up in business as a chore boy to Valley City’s low-level underworld, usually making at least enough money to feed himself and Maizie.

So Lucky wasn’t aimlessly wandering the city on his fifteenth birthday, and he wasn’t waiting idly for bus sixty-eight. He needed to get out and drum up some business. Getting up late and smacking his head on the shelf had already set him back, and he didn’t need some crazy old loon with a strange clock and a yellow umbrella to screw things up even worse. He needed to get his day back on track—find some customers, and avoid police, social workers, and the truancy patrol. When the sixty-eight finally rolled to a stop and the doors popped open, Lucky practically leapt aboard and swung into his usual seat on the curb side and two back from the driver, whose name was Rob.

“Hey, Lucky,” Rob said after pulling away from the curb.

“Rob,” Lucky answered. “How’s it going?”

“You don’t look so good today. Who’d you get in a fight with?”

“A wooden shelf,” Lucky answered and then smiled when Rob laughed.

Conversation went on hold while they waited at the next stop to pick up a mom with uncooperative twin toddlers and let off a beat-up looking man who smelled like sweat.

As they pulled back out into the street, Rob spoke over the engine’s whine. “Cops pulled a vice crackdown last night, Lucky. Thought you might want to know. Streets are pretty empty today.”

“Crap.” Rob knew how Lucky made his living, and he knew downtown very well, having driven this same route for years. What it meant when Rob said the streets were empty was that apparently a bad dream, a crack on the head, and a strange old man hadn’t been trouble enough; the day would also be tough, businesswise. Most of Lucky’s usual employers would likely be eating cheese sandwiches and waiting to see the judge.

Lucky scraped for work most of the day, made no more than a few dollars, and finally in desperation went out to the Langdon brothers’ uptown bungalow to see if they could use some help cleaning up after last night’s party. The brothers, Benny and Johnny, were always flush with cash, and they partied every night. Lucky had no doubt they’d have a humongous mess. They always did, because they and all their friends used any drug they could lay their hands on and generally courted insanity. Lucky guessed there was no such thing as a quiet night at the Langdons’ house.

Not long after he arrived, Lucky stood in the center of the cyclone-struck kitchen, waiting for any special instructions and preparing to wrangle for money. “There’s barf in the green bathroom,” Benny Langdon said, his eyes mostly closed against the sun beating down from the skylight. He riffled his blond hair, either trying to wake up or scratching some itch, and shook out a rain of blue glitter. “Did you bring gloves?”

Of course he had. After a year in the laundry-and-chores business, Lucky had certainly learned to come prepared for the gross and the yucky. He had other things on his mind. The Langdons’ sprawling house was always sliding into chaos, and though Lucky was sure they had every intention to keep their word, working for them was risky business. Lucky had to be sure nothing came between him and his money.

“Pay me now.”

“Half,” Benny said, patting at his jeans pockets. “The other half later.” His brow scrunched in a puzzled look and then cleared as he apparently clicked on a mental link. “Oh… yeah, my cash is in my jacket. Wait a minute and I’ll find it.” He started to work his way around the room, shifting bottles, cans, and pizza boxes on the counter and kicking at piles of litter on the floor.

Silent, dark-eyed Johnny—the other Langdon brother—had been standing by, looking a bit like a zombie. But now he picked up a Frisbee-shaped object, which was leaking ketchup and had pickles poking out the sides, and found a stash of limp bills on the table beneath it. He pinched a twenty and a ten in his fingernails and held them out. His stiff, sour face dared Lucky to object.

Lucky needed groceries. Maizie needed a flea collar. Cash was cash. He rinsed and blotted the bills, folded them in a paper towel, and stuck the packet in the hip pocket of his cutoff cargo pants.

Three hours later, he congratulated himself for having had the foresight to insist on the advance. The job had gone fine until he’d disturbed one of the Langdons’ friends, a young, burly woman with a black Mohawk and serpent tattoos for bracelets. Lucky thought she was striking and even thought he could be attracted to a woman like her, but only if she wasn’t crazy. She happened to be lurking behind a closed door doing… who knows what? She took offense when the vacuum cleaner bumped the door one time too many, yanked it open, and started yelling. When she stopped yelling and reached for him, Lucky ran.

He was blocks away and still running when his shoe broke and he fell down an embankment. At the dusty bottom of a dry wash, he lay low among litter and tumbleweeds and took the opportunity to catch his breath, hoping also to give the woman time to lose interest. Fifteen minutes later, give or take, he climbed up to street level and picked his way through a forest of sticker bushes and signs telling him who should get his vote and what herbal remedy could help him lose twenty-five pounds fast. His pursuer had gone, but his relief was short-lived. Beyond belief, the blue-glassed Crown Victoria that had been stopped at the light when the strange old man was messing around with his umbrella crept by just then.

Like an omen.

“I hate omens,” Lucky said, talking to himself again. Omens were never normal, and he desperately sought normal. And that car! Everywhere he’d ventured all day, he’d encountered the big sedan with its bug-eye windows, through which he could just make out the driver’s wild-haired, haggard, hook-nosed profile.

Later, as the sun began to sink, with his broken sole slapping annoyingly on the pavement, he trudged from the Twelfth and Main bus stop across the parking lot to the Quick-Shoppe on the same corner, calculating what he could buy and what he and Maizie would have to do without. He now sported enough bruises for the Guinness book, a headache thumping like the bass in a gangster’s car, and a rare but heartfelt nasty mood that did not improve when he saw the Crown Victoria cooling in the market’s parking lot.

Seriously, he thought. Enough is enough.

The store’s sixties-vintage automatic doors tried his patience but eventually huffed open and admitted him to the familiar glow of fluorescents and the rattle, beep, and clink of the aging market’s interior. He accepted a cart from a teenage bagger with a red pimple, a salon haircut, and brand-name cross-trainers. And a real job. And a future full of everything Lucky could not look forward to, such as a driver’s license, high school graduation, and a scolding from a loving parent if he stayed out too late on Friday.

Envy began to smolder uncomfortably in his gut until it cut loose with a sharp jerk—strangely, he actually felt it happen, as if someone reached in and gave his personality a twist. Then he started feeling mean. Really mean. And for the first time ever, being mean felt good.

He almost ran down a little kid with his cart, and he didn’t even say he was sorry. A lady reached for the best, juiciest apple, and he snatched it right out of her hand. He knocked down a rack of Cuddle Soft toilet paper and made a point not to feel bad as the rolls bounced under an old lady’s bedroom slippers, tripping her up. While this was all going on, part of him stood back and wondered what was happening to him—he didn’t even recognize himself. Still, he felt so alive, energized, and it lasted right up to the moment when a tall, horrid woman cut off his progress down the pasta aisle.

When he saw her beak nose and frayed hair, he knew instantly where he’d seen her before—she was the shadow behind the Ford’s blue windows. He peered at her from the far end of the aisle, letting his thick hair fall forward to hide his gaze.

“Those have got to be the ugliest eyes I’ve ever seen,” Lucky said but only under his breath. She couldn’t have heard, yet suddenly she closed the distance between them and stopped, legs planted wide and hands on hips, less than two feet away. She stared, eyes wide, and Lucky drew back, horrified. What he’d said was true.

Her eyes were ugly, indescribably so: pale, pale blue, bloodshot, and wicked cold. Their chill bellied over his skin like snakes of ice and froze him to the spot. His throat closed as she slowly reached out a sharp-fingered hand toward his neck.

“Hate,” she said in a voice that could have crushed stone. “Anger. It’s good, isn’t it? Powerful—that’s how it feels.” She laughed, a slithering sound, and then whispered, “Don’t let anyone fool you, boy, and don’t try to fool yourself. You love that feeling of power. Everyone does.”

Her claw-fingered hand was an inch from his bare neck and creeping closer. That part of Lucky standing in the wings watching insisted This is not really happening in the grocery store, but the rest of him panicked. This woman seemed strong, immense, a giant, a glacier.

She could kill me with one squeeze, he thought and imagined the sound of his own neck bones snapping.

Her hand stopped. She leaned close to his face and whispered again, but this time softened her voice into something slick and glistening, a lure. “You know, boy, you could feel that kind of power all the time, every minute. Come with me, Luc—”

A crash and the shatter of glass cut off her words and broke the hold of her gaze. Lucky turned toward the sound and found the floor and his bare shins splattered with something red. The sight of glass shards poking through that shining liquid shifted his heart into high gear, and panic threatened to paralyze him. Finally, after a couple of time-warped seconds, the scent of garlic and basil got the message through to his brain. Not blood, spaghetti sauce.

He looked up from the mess on the floor and relief gave way to confusion. All he saw was a yellow disk. An open umbrella. The umbrella and the same old man he’d met that morning at the bus stop. Incredibly, the man stood there in the pasta aisle like a silver-haired swordsman, holding the umbrella by its round golden handle and thrusting its pointed end at the woman. Lucky stayed rooted to the spot, mouth open, staring while those two strange creatures sparred.

The old man lunged forward, back straight and arm outstretched, looking strong as iron. The umbrella fluttered and spun and, inexplicably, cool relief blew over Lucky like the west wind. In a flowing voice, steady and calm, the stranger said, “Isa, you shall not succeed.”

“And you will stop me, I suppose?” She followed the flinty words with a laugh.

Silence rolled in. No one moved.

In a voice barely audible yet strong enough to bust that stretched silence wide open, the old man said, “A word has been spoken, Isa, a Command. I’m yet strong enough to enforce it.”

The woman shrilled her response. “You will not keep him!”

Lights flashed, thunder cracked, and the air thickened with smoke and sulfur. Then the Quick-Shoppe went as dark as the back of the moon.