“Don’t look at the water!” Richard screamed, snatching Margaret away from the edge of the boardwalk. Her skin crawled with cold sweat. He pushed her forward. Her feet slipped on the slime that dribbled at the edges of the warping wooden planks of the boardwalk, which receded into the twilight mist like a road that led to the edge of the world.
"Are we almost there?” Elizabeth gasped, hugging herself, almost incoherent. “Please tell me we’re almost there.”
“How should I know?” Richard snapped. “I’ve never been here before.”
“Just follow the boardwalk,” Robert said, his tone unraised but constricted.
“We’ll never make it,” Elizabeth began to sob, a high-pitched keening sound. “He’s going to find us…”
“Shut up!” Richard turned on her savagely. “Just shut up! And why wear yellow? Of all things, why yellow?”
Elizabeth clutched her head through the daffodil-colored hoodie. Her shoulder-length black hair clung to her face where the tears had run.
“He’s not hunting by sight,” Robert reminded abruptly. “The Scribe said…”
“To Hades with the Scribe!” Richard spun again. “The sooner we reach the Sender, the better.”
“What if he can’t do anything?” Margaret’s lips were pale as she shuddered violently. “You know it’s only a matter of time.”
“Look, if you want to second-guess the plan, go ahead!” Richard spat. “Wait here until he finds you and do what he did to Tina. Or worse. Probably worse.”
“What’s that?” Robert leaped back from the edge of the boardwalk. Elizabeth and Richard screamed. The swamp and the mist swallowed their cries.
Richard recovered first and cursed. “Robert, you idiot! It was just a frog.”
Robert closed his eyes and swallowed hard.
“How do you know it was a frog?” Margaret challenged. “You didn’t look in the water, did you? Did you?”
“Don’t look at the water,” Elizabeth murmured, her hands on either side of her face like blinders. “Don’t look at the water. Don’t look at the water.”
Richard shoved past them, red-faced. “Curse the Sender! Why build a hut in the middle of a stinking swamp?”
“Because,” said a voice. “I prefer to be left alone.”
* * * * *
“That’s where the runes end,” RC murmured. “There’s nothing more to translate.”
“Are you sure that’s what it said?” his mother, Ellie, asked, her high cheekbones outlined harshly by the light of the rechargeable lamp, which had been placed in a slight recession in the wall. “That seems more like part of a story. It’s not consistent with ancient Fulmian thought patterns at all. Too much emotion. Too much fear.”
“I translated; this is what it said.” RC tapped his electronic pad with the stylus, irritated and vaguely disturbed.
“Greta? Your thoughts?” Ellie asked. “You’re the cultural expert, after all. I’m just an archaeologist.”
“It’s… I don’t know.” Greta’s rich alto voice came slowly, as she squinted at the runes on the stone door. “I agree. It doesn’t seem Fulmian. But… It’s strange. I feel that I’ve heard that story before, a long time ago. Maybe it’s part of a Fulmian legend I studied at the university.”
Ellie shrugged. “We’ll ask Bob when he gets back.”
“Ask me what?” Bob ducked as he descended the steps of gray stone into the narrow passageway. “Did you finish the translation, RC?”
“I did,” RC said, a little stiffly.
“Actually, ridiculously easy.”
“Hmm, that’s odd. I thought you’d at least get hung up on the compound words. I spotted quite a few of them. Syllabic languages can be tricky.” Bob’s puff of white hair and his well-groomed mustache caught the light of the lamp and threw it back at the darkness, ringing his face with a halo of light.
“Could you translate the first few lines, sir?” RC asked.
“A little self-conscious for a teenage genius, don’t you think?” Bob smiled, unscrewing the top of his thermos and pouring steaming coffee into the cap.
“You should go first. Impress me.”
“Just the first few lines, please.” RC tapped nervously with his stylus again.
Bob sipped, then shrugged. He pulled oval glasses out of his breast pocket and perched them on his nose. “Eh, let’s humor the boy. Let’s see. It starts off with ta-kum-ta go-ha—‘I the one and only warrior’—be-ya-tu-sa-yee. Now, depending on how you combine the syllables, you could get a number of different translations. Beya Tusayee would be Justice-bringer or Avenger. Be Yatu Sayee would be Gold of Death. Or you could have Beyatu Sa Yee: Mirror of Evil. What did you come up with, RC?”
RC reddened and lowered his e-pad.
“I’d like a little more time to translate, sir.”
Bob smiled a little and patted RC’s shoulder. “Go slowly, boy. Languages take time to learn well.”
Bob and Greta turned their attention to the door with the runes, and RC retreated to the steps. Ellie joined him.
“Honey, everyone makes mistakes…”
“It doesn’t make sense!” RC exploded. “I saw it. I went over and over it. That’s what the runes said. You think I’d make that up? Who wants to look stupid?”
“RC, no one is calling you stupid.”
“I saw it. But then Bob… And when he explained it… It’s like the runes changed.”
“Maybe we need better lighting.”
“If Bob can read it, I can read it!” RC rose abruptly and charged up the steps. Bob and Greta glanced at Ellie in surprise, their conversation clipped in mid-sentence. Ellie raised her hands in exasperation.
“Let him be,” Bob said gently. “Growing up takes time too.”
“Maggie had another bad dream last night,” Aunt Betty murmured over the tinkle of silver spoons on ceramic bowls. Dick’s spoon dipped again into the steaming peach pudding and rose to his mouth.
“They’re getting more frequent,” Aunt Betty pointed out.
Dick swallowed. “So send for a doctor. Find out what’s wrong.”
“People aren’t like things, Dick. You can’t just fix them. They’re complicated.”
Dick dabbed his mouth with a spotless white napkin, the lines around his mouth half-hidden by his full mustache. He met her eyes.
“What do you want me to do? If a doctor can’t fix her, I can’t.”
“Maybe it’s something…subconscious. The dreams terrify her. Maybe it’s because of your long trips away. Maybe she needs you home.”
“She’s got her brother.”
“Ribs is only seven. Two years younger than her. But you’re her father.”
Dick rose and two attending servants appeared, one who lifted a black coat ceremoniously and a second who proffered a high-topped hat. Dick turned, thrust both arms into the satin-lined sleeves of the coat, and shrugged the coat over his shoulders. He lifted the hat from the servant’s hands and placed it firmly over his curly dark hair.
“Aunt Betty, little girls have to grow up sometime.”
When he was gone, Aunt Betty hobbled over the multi-colored mosaic floor to the wide, curving staircase that glittered like gold and ivory. Evidence of the master’s trade lined the walls and floor—a stone half-nude cherub playing a panpipe, a framed depiction of some mythological battle between a man and a monster, an exquisitely curved vase of lapis lazuli, and many more exceptional specimens of art through the ages.
“It is not a home for children,” she muttered under her breath as she mounted the stairs, laboriously. She passed her own portrait on the stairwell, a pose from her younger days when her hair was black and her back straight.
She found the children huddled in a window-seat overlooking the frozen pond in the center of the sleeping garden.
“Maggie’s been crying,” Ribs announced. “I gave her a handkerchief, but she won’t stop.”
“Go away,” Maggie snapped, her voice muffled. Only her honey-brown curls were visible behind the moist cloth handkerchief. “Where’s Papa?”
“He’s meeting a man on Courthouse Street. Apparently the party has a very important piece of art to sell.” Aunt Betty’s emphasis laced the words with acid.
Maggie’s face, swollen and flushed, emerged from behind the handkerchief.
“I wish he would come home. He’s not safe.”
“Now, Maggie, why would you say that?” Aunt Betty groaned a little as she lowered herself to the cushioned window-seat and gathered Maggie in her arms. Ribs, not to be ignored, quickly occupied the space on the other side of his great-aunt.
“We’re all unsafe,” Maggie hiccupped. “He’s coming after us.”
“Who is coming after us? Darling, is this from your dream?”
“Honey, you should know it’s just a dream. No one wants to hurt you in real life.”
“But it’s true,” Maggie insisted. “We’re going to die.”
A chill seemed to descend upon the room, as though a draft from the wintry garden had entered through the window. Aunt Betty hugged her great-niece tighter.
“Why should we die?”
“Because,” said Maggie, her tears reflecting Aunt Betty’s pale face. “We did something awful. We did it and we have to pay.”
He waited for them at the foot of the Hanging Tree, an ancient gnarled oak that dominated the treeline, draped with the remnants of frayed ropes that swung like dreadlocks in the late spring breeze. The stubble of a beard outlined his strong jaw, his cornsilk eyebrows almost invisible over eyes the color of deep ice. He wore oval spectacles; an odd thing, for a woodsman to possess weak eyes. Were it not for his pale features, his patched clothing would have melted him into the thick greens and opaque browns of the Old Forest.
He scanned them as they approached.
“Peggy,” said the woman, a little breathlessly, middle age etching the corners of her expressive green eyes. “You must be our guide.”
“Bert,” said the man bluntly, glancing past her at the others. “Half now.”
“What? Oh.” Peggy’s chin lifted and her gaze upon him sharpened. “Excuse me, please.”
Bert ignored her as she sought the modesty of some undergrowth. Like all wise traveling women, she did not carry her money where it could be seen.
The next arrival, a girl no older than twelve, struggled to the top of the hill, her cheeks flushed with exertion.
“Hello,” she mumbled, her eyes downcast, her black hair straggling from underneath her shawl.
Meekly, she counted out the sum from a stocking she had tied to her belt. Her toes peeked from her ragged shoes and she shivered a little, though it was a warm enough day.
Bert took the offered coins, then flicked one back at her. She caught it reflexively, as though accustomed to dodging missiles.
“Too much,” Bert said. He turned as Peggy emerged from the forest and paid her own due, the tilt of her head a little less angular, her eyes gentler.
She had seen the transaction.
The last traveler arrived in a fit of coughing.
“Just the ol’ lungs starting up again,” the newcomer attempted a wobbly grin. “It’s a grand day for a walk.”
Bert did not even have to ask; the coins cascaded into his outstretched hand with a harsh clink.
“You take silver, I hope?” the newcomer asked, squinting up at the guide from a breathless half-crouch.
“I prefer gold, but silver will do.”
“Good. Can’t stand gold. It’s so heavy. Like a coffin.”
Peggy half-grinned, perplexed, then shrugged as Bert motioned to them, turned, and melted into the shadows of the forest.
“I didn’t catch your name,” Peggy said, dropping back to accompany the old man. “I’m Peggy.”
“Where are you headed?”
“The northern coast.”
“That is a far way through the forest on foot. Surely it would have been easier to go by ship around the point.”
“I prefer to go by foot. Water is evil. Things can look back at you in the water. Things you don’t want to see you.”
“I’m not sure I understand.”
“You know it and I know it. So long as we stay away from them, we are safe. We can live forever.”
He laughed a short, barking laugh. “I haven’t looked in a mirror for my whole life. I don’t even look in other people’s eyes.”
Peggy frowned, the polite smile slipping from her face. “I’m afraid you’ve lost me. Stay away from what?”
“Don’t you know?” Ricky halted suddenly, as if in surprise. Then he leaned in close, and his voice dropped to a chilling whisper. “From the reflections.”
Tomb of Ancient Fulmian War-Leader Found, blazed the headline of the online journal, followed by the glowing press release announcing the work done by Bob and his team. In the warmth of their shared RV near the tomb site, Ellie, RC, and Greta gathered around Bob’s tablet to read the account of their exploits in the mountains once occupied by the ancient Fulmian tribe. A color photograph of the runes on the door accompanied the article, with a summary of the translation.
“Isn’t it a little early?” Ellie worried. “We’re not even sure on the dating, and we haven’t found any records of this warrior in any other Fulmian source.”
“We’re working on that,” Greta murmured, typing rapidly on her laptop as she rested in the corner.
“You’ve been working on that for weeks,” RC grumbled. Greta frowned at her screen and did not answer.
“Quite the colorful account,” Bob raised his white eyebrows. “I didn’t know I had a degree from Jacob Ericson University.”
“I’m not comfortable with the publicity,” Ellie muttered.
“When the press smells a story, the press prints the story,” Bob shrugged.
“Premature, perhaps, but it keeps public interest, which keeps the funds flowing.”
“We should open the tomb soon,” RC suggested. “I’m dying to see what’s inside.”
“In good time,” Bob agreed. “First, we must…”
A sharp cry from Greta stifled all conversation.
“What is it?” RC leaped toward her.
“It’s the… What in the…?” Greta stopped. “I apologize. I didn’t expect…”
Her voice faded and she seemed to collect herself. She gestured toward her screen.
“I’ve been researching other records that might shed some light on our Fulmian warrior, using the names Bob identified as possibilities: Avenger, Justice-bringer, Gold of Death, and Mirror of Evil. I’ve researched in every Fulmian document in the database. I’ve tried every variation I can think of. I’ve even broadened my search to include other area tribes, since the Fulmians might have given a courageous enemy warrior a Fulmian burial out of respect. But I found no results.”
“Until?” Bob prompted.
“Until I threw out the idea that it was Fulmian at all. I’ve spent the last 12 hours scanning the entire interworld archive for any keywords associated with our warrior’s titles. I got thousands of results. Thousands.”
“Hmm, looks like you need to narrow your search,” Bob murmured.
“You don’t understand. The results don’t relate to thousands of possibilities through which we’ll have to sift to find the right one. They all point to the same entity. I’d say that every major ancient culture on every major world has a record somewhere of our warrior.”
“That’s impossible!” RC’s teenage voice cracked, but he ignored it. “That’s saying he’s been on hundreds of worlds and done enough notable things on each one to earn recognition in thousands of ancient records. That alone would take dozens, if not hundreds, of lifetimes! It’s impossible!”
“We’re assuming a single individual,” Bob said. “Let’s suppose that the identification given on this tomb is not a name, but a title. Perhaps a kind of dynasty, or even a tribe. The Avenger may have been some kind of ancient inter-world policeman, who passed on his title to his successor upon his death. I’ve never heard of such a thing, but it’s always possible.”
“The title says, ‘I, the one and only warrior,’” RC reminded dubiously.
“A statement of preeminence, of superiority,” Bob guessed.
“If there are so many records already,” RC asked, “Why hasn’t someone cataloged this guy by now? Why is everyone silent?”
“No one believed the ancients capable of inter-world travel, thus I doubt anyone has ever cross-referenced all the records of ‘the Avenger.’” Bob’s upraised hand prevented RC’s next protest. “It will take time to unravel all of the potential implications. Still, it raises many fascinating questions. Greta, I most warmly congratulate… Greta?”
Greta wiped her eyes hastily with her sleeve and slapped her laptop shut.
“What’s wrong, honey?” Ellie slid an arm around the other woman’s shoulders. Greta rose, thrusting Ellie’s arm away, and stepped out of the RV into the palpable dark of the night mountains.