Wherever we were, it was daytime there, and a lot warmer than Chicago. I took a second to look around. Trees. Grass. I heard water running somewhere nearby.
"Don't waste time," said Thomas's mother's voice in my head. "Move. Head downhill, and turn right when you get to the three boulders. Don't get too close to the stream when you see it."
"Where are we?" I muttered, not wanting to attract attention.
"Summer," she said. "This is the surest way back to the Knight's house, but not without peril. Go quickly, but don't run unless I tell you to. Don't speak, and don't touch anything."
I nodded and started walking down the grassy slope. I didn't exactly trust her (she'd abandoned a five-year-old to House Raith), but she was the only guide I had, and she did seem at least somewhat invested in Thomas's and Harry's survival.
The light was golden like sunlight, but I couldn't see the sun; it was as if the entire sky were one big light source. Maybe it was just some odd sort of overcast I'd never seen before. There were shadows, but they didn't look right; some things had more than one, some seemed not to have any. The wind rustled in the bushes and grass and trees, and the water gurgled, but there were no other sounds. Birds, or things that looked like birds, flicked across the bits of open sky between trees, and little black and silvery shapes like insects zipped by, but there was no chirping or buzzing.
As I walked, I braided my hair (still dark; Molly's glamour had apparently survived the trip into the Nevernever) and wrapped it around my neck to hide the bit of my tattoo that showed above the neck of my scrubs. Walking around Summer uninvited, wearing Winter's insignia, seemed like a bad idea. I made sure Harry's pentacle was tucked under my shirt.
"Keep following the stream, but stay well back from the verge," said Thomas's mother. I nodded again. A couple of times I heard a musical cloop sound over the background chatter of the stream, but I avoided looking at it. Anything here that wanted my attention was going to have to work for it.
Already I was seeing flickers of light and motion out of the corners of my eyes, and random arrangements of light and shadow, leaf, bark and stone, that invariably looked like faces until I turned my gaze toward them. I was used to seeing faces in random shapes—the grain of a wooden door, stains on a brick—but these were everywhere. I shivered a little and tried not to keep looking, but it was difficult. My heart sped up and I felt a fleeting yearning for Thomas. He can't help you any more, I told myself. Help him instead. While you still can.
There was a distinct path now, down by the very edge of the stream. I stayed off it. To my left the ground sloped up sharply. Dense bushes, ten or fifteen feet tall, crowded the steep hillside, filling in nearly all the space between the trees. In the deep shade, their leaves looked almost black. Looking ahead, I could see that what little open ground remained would soon disappear. I'd either have to squeeze through the tightly-woven branches (probably leaving blood behind that could be used to track me, enchant me or just kill me), take the ever-narrowing path right next to the stream and whatever lived in it, or turn back, head up the slope and try to find a way around.
And as soon as I thought that, there they were, unavoidably blocking my path: three slim, grey-brown girls with deep green hair who looked about ten years old—if you ignored their eyes.
"Hail, stranger," said one of them in a lovely, musical voice. I bowed my head slightly, but stayed mute.
"She who would pass through our lands must pay toll to us," said the second. I nodded.
"What have you to offer us, pretty mortal?" said the third.
I bent and pulled the knife from my boot—slowly, with only two fingers. I held it up and then laid it flat on the ground, point toward the stream, hilt toward the rocky slope, so that it threatened neither the girls nor me.
The first girl picked up the knife and nodded. "Well-wrought," she said, "and not of mortal make. For my part, you may pass. But my sisters remain."
Thomas's mother remained silent. I reached up under my braid and palmed the pentacle as I unfastened its silver chain. I kept the pentacle clutched tightly in my hand as I unthreaded the chain and laid it on the ground in a neat spiral. Clockwise, for luck. Spiraling outward, for escape.
"Pretty," said the second girl. "And it savors of the Art." She picked up the chain, unwinding the spiral methodically, and fastened it around her neck. "For my part, you may pass. But my sister remains."
"One gift that was yours to give," said the third girl. "One lent by another, that can yet be spared. What else do you have, I wonder?"
In answer, I stepped slowly forward, bent down, and kissed her. Her arms twined around my neck and locked there, like smooth, strong branches warmed by the sun. She tasted like honey with a tang of something bitter and harsh, and her kiss was not at all childlike, despite her size. My lips tingled slightly. Eventually she let me go, but as she stepped back I caught her wrist and turned her palm upward. She had a strand of my hair between her finger and thumb. I looked a question at her.
She smiled, displaying teeth too sharp and white to be human. She offered the hair to me and I took it, wrapping it around my right thumb while keeping the pentacle enclosed in my hand.
"A perilous gift," she said, "yet not as foolish as might be. Pass, pretty one."
I bowed without taking my eyes off them, and so I saw them vanish into shafts of sunlight, leaving a sparse cloud of little drifting motes behind. Like the leaves, the dappled shadows, the ripples on the water, the tiny particles made faces that shifted and blended into more faces, always changing, moving, staring. I made myself look away, but anywhere my eyes rested, the faces thronged around the edges where I couldn't quite see them. I bit my lip, and the pain helped me focus a little better. The bitten place felt numb, vaguely wrong.
"Thomas might have chosen worse," murmured his mother in my head. I looked up-slope and then down the path, and shrugged.
"Keep moving," she said. "Take the path, but go quickly."
Faces surrounded me; and now there were voices too, murmuring and jeering in the water, hissing in the rustling leaves. My heart pounded and the palm of my right hand, tightly clutching Harry's pentacle, was sweating. Something nagged at my memory: I had been here before, somehow. Suddenly I got it, and I laughed out loud. The sound echoed off the hillside, and in its wake there was a sudden, stunned silence. The voices stopped; the faces wavered and blurred.
This is just like home, I thought, and I bared my teeth in a defiant grin. You're just like the Raiths. Look all you want, whisper all you want. If you could just walk up and take me, you wouldn't waste time with this crap.
"Good," Thomas's mother whispered in my mind. "Get ready to run."
There was a series of rhythmic splashes behind me. I kept walking and didn't look back.
"Not yet," whispered Thomas's mother. "Not yet... go!"
I sprinted down the narrow path, as behind me there was a huge surge, like a breaking wave, then a scrambling, thudding sound that resolved into the pounding of feet. Hooves.
"Between the two oaks, ahead to the left. A hollow. See it?"
I nodded, and pushed myself into high gear. The hoofbeats were gaining rapidly. I dove headlong into the shady gap between the two huge trees, and I heard teeth snap at my heels, and then I was tumbling on wet asphalt in the dark, in the cold rain, and the sound of the Metra was loud in my ears. I scrambled to my feet, put my back to a dumpster, curled up in a tight ball and laughed and cried until I couldn't breathe.
My lips tingled. My hands tingled. My feet tingled. I looked up at the streetlight against the asphalt-dark sky, and it split into two and wavered drunkenly. I dragged myself to my feet, staggering a little, my balance uncertain. I checked my pockets. The cash and cell phone I'd stolen in the hospital were, miraculously, still there. I had to close one eye to see the phone keys clearly.
Three minutes. Five. Nine. The cab pulled up to the curb. I got up deliberately, carefully. It wouldn't do to look like a drunk or a junkie. In my bedraggled scrubs, at least "whore" wouldn't be anyone's first guess. I strolled to the cab, standing tall but not too tense, and I had the little sheaf of bills in my hand as the driver slowly rolled down her window.
She eyed me suspiciously. "Funny place to call a cab," she said, glancing around the dark, empty parking lot.
"I got mugged," I said. "They got my purse, but I had my phone and cash in my pocket."
The driver frowned. "You okay, honey?" she asked, and this time she sounded a little more like a concerned teacher and less like store security.
"I'm okay. I just need to get to my friends' house and get dried off and call the cops from there. Rough night, you know?"
The driver snorted. "I guess. Hop in."
I crawled more than hopped, and I gave her the Carpenters' address. I was dizzy and queasy, and the tingling in my fingers and toes was spreading up my arms and legs, getting stronger, progressing through pins-and-needles to numbness. By the time we got to the Carpenters' place, I had to grab the side of the cab to keep from falling when I shut the door.
I didn't see or hear Sanya approach; he was just there, suddenly, a strong hand under my arm. I heard the rumble of his voice as he thanked the driver, but I couldn't make out more than one word in three. I closed my eyes against the swirl and tilt of the landscape as my stomach lurched. The cab drove off, its exhaust nearly making me gag.
"Thomas," I said, and my speech was slurred, my tongue numb. "The White Court has him. Warehouse on Cermak. Near Halsted. Not your fight, I know. Tell Molly. Or Harry."
"What happened to you?" the Knight asked. I tried not to stumble on the walk up to the front door. It was hard, even leaning on him.
"Poisoned, I think," I said. My legs went out from under me, and if he hadn't been ready to catch me I'd have fallen face-first.
"Here," he said, and started to scoop me up in his arms, but I shook my head. "Wait."
I had to use my left hand to pry the fingers of my right open. The pentacle fell to the walkway with a dull clink. "Harry's," I said. "Don't touch. Dangerous." I looked up at him to be sure he understood, and he nodded. He pulled out a handkerchief and wrapped it around the pentacle and stowed it somewhere. Then he scooped me up like an armful of laundry, and started up the steps.
"No," I said, and shook my head hard though it made me sick and dizzy. "Not inside the threshold. Outside. In case he comes back."
"You need tending," he said, but he set me down on the small front porch, mostly out of the rain.
"Won't make any difference, I think," I said, but I was probably too garbled to understand. The visions started then, and I gave up on everything but breathing and trying not to scream.
Again, the world was full of faces and voices, but this time I knew them all. Madrigal. Madeleine. Lord Raith. Bianca. Nicodemus. The skinwalker. Maeve. My first pimp. My mother. My father. And my own personal demon, the voice of my fear and despair, the voice that even Thomas couldn't silence for long.
Stupid. Worthless. Filth. Trash. There is no help. There is no god. There is no place but Hell.
"Thomas loves me," I whispered.
Thomas is dead, torn to pieces and dead, tortured, bleeding and dead, abandoned and dead. Eaten alive, slowly. You ran away and left him and he died. You should die too.
Faintly behind the malicious whispering I heard Sanya call "Michael!" and I felt my heart slow and stutter.
"Thomas loved me," I mouthed, but I had no breath to say it. The faces sneered, the voices laughed. Behind them, in the shadows, I saw one form I didn't recognize, not moving, a solemn, slender, dark-skinned shape that could have been male or female, old or young.
"Who are you?" I asked. My lips didn't move. I was so tired.
"Your escort," the dark one said quietly. "When this is over I will take you where you should go."
When this is over, the voices jeered, there will only be more of the same. The pain, the shame, will go on and on and on.
I ignored them as best I could. "Thomas," I said. "Take me where you took him."
The figure shook its head. "I cannot."
"I cannot," the dark one repeated firmly. "Thomas Raith has not yet died."
I sucked in a deep breath, maybe the first in a long while.
He'll be dead soon, the voices said. And he will die again and again. You will watch him die ten thousand times. He will scream for you, and curse you when you don't answer.
I tried not to listen. "I'll stay," I told the dark one. "I'll stay here." Here was the floor of ice in Mab's ballroom. A troll had me pinned with one tree-like arm, crushing my chest to the ground, and Thomas lay beside me, sightless eyes open, arms torn off, bleeding, but he was still bleeding, his heart was still beating. My own heart struggled to beat against the pressure. I had no breath. My vision swam, dark clouds like blood in deep water, and there was a confused noise and I thought I heard someone counting, breathlessly, and I felt my ribs crack, and then there was a white roaring—
The babble of hatred and contempt, the leering, taunting faces, came back again, but now they were like a washed-out movie with a scratchy soundtrack, playing on a screen a long way off, while around me, behind me, normal voices spoke softly to each other. I strained to hear them, the voices that weren't talking to me.
Thomas's voice, strong and sure, said This is my house.
Karrin Murphy, matter-of-fact, businesslike: In aikido we say, if your enemy has a weapon, then you have a weapon.
A cool, regal voice, Mab's voice, said Power itself is only a tool; it is the hand that wields it that matters.
Waldo Butters, annoyed and frustrated, snapped Molly, if you don't get out of my way I'll staple you to a goddamn chair, and an older, calmer voice said, Better do what he says, little sister, I wouldn't put it past him.
There was a silence, then a rhythmic creaking that went on for a time. Then an old, old voice, bitter and tired, spat viciously, Oh, that will end well—you are what you eat.
Another voice, warmer though no less ancient, said Nonsense. What is eating but transformation, life into death into life?
The creaking stopped suddenly, and the first voice said, Someone is listening at the door. Take this word home with you, least of my children: Margaret LeFay did better than she knew. The stars know both her sons.
Then, in my ears and not my mind, a weary voice, Michael's voice, strained and anxious, said Justine, stay here, stay with us, hold on—
And Sanya's warm bass, a little breathless, said Michael, look!
And Michael said Move back—
—and Thomas, my Thomas, was there, strong and cool and reassuring, and he touched my cheek and said Justine. The pain dwindled, the voices faded. My heart skipped, skipped again, then settled into a steady beat and I breathed in and out, almost without hurting at all.
"Stay," I said. I was too tired to open my eyes. "He's always afraid you'll hurt me, but I know you won't."
"I will stay," he said, and I sighed and slept.
I couldn't have been out for long. When I woke up the sky was lighter; I guess the sun had risen because my hair was white again. I was still on the porch, lying on my side, wrapped in an old wool blanket, scratchy but warm, with a throw pillow under my cheek. Thomas's Hunger was curled up against me, nestled against my breasts. Sanya was sitting with his back against the front door, watching us, as the Hunger watched him in turn, bright eyes unblinking.
"He wouldn't let us bring you in," the Knight said, "even though we offered to let him come in with you."
"That's okay," I said. "Thank you." I pushed back the blanket and sat up, cradling the Hunger in one arm. I felt weak, but nothing hurt. I suspected that was because it wasn't being allowed to.
"You should rest," Sanya said, frowning.
"I can't," I said. "I have to go help Thomas. The other part of him."
The Hunger hissed quietly.
"You shut up," I told him sternly. "We're not leaving him there. The two of you can settle your differences later. Either help me, or go back to wherever you were hiding."
"I was not hiding," said the Hunger. "I was hunting."
"I think we will all be happier if I ignore that," said Sanya. "Justine, you have broken ribs. If you get hit, even lightly, it could puncture a lung."
"I hear you," I said. And to the Hunger: "Can you use me anyway? I mean, is there enough to work with?"
It hissed again.
"I'll do it without you if I have to."
"Firearms," it spat. "I can aim for you. I will not help you break yourself."
"Has there been any word from Molly?" I asked.
Sanya shook his head. "We know that she arrived safely and that Harry is still alive, but that was the last we heard."
"Just us, then," I said, and I got cautiously to my feet. The Hunger ducked behind my neck and clung there.
"No," Sanya said. "Not just you."
The door opened (the Hunger and I both flinched back from the threshold) and Michael and Charity stepped out. Charity was tightening the shoulder strap on her Kevlar vest. She had a web belt with a pistol on the right and a machete on the left. Michael handed her the heavy duffel bag he was carrying, and kissed her forehead.
"Take care," he said.
"You too," she said. "I'll try not to total your truck." She glanced over at me. "I wasn't sure what weapons to bring for you, so I brought an assortment. You can look through them while I drive. There are sweats in there too, that should fit. They're Matthew's. Ready?"
"This isn't your fight," I said to her.
"It most certainly is," she said. "Thomas helped us get Molly back from Arctis Tor, and all of you got Michael and Molly and the Swords back from Nicodemus. The Knights may have a very specific mission, but I'm not one of them."
"Thank you," I said.
"You're welcome," she said. She checked a pouch on her belt and made a little sound of annoyance. "Michael, would you look in the safe and see if there's one more clip in there?" she asked.
"Of course," he said, and went back in the house.
Charity turned to Sanya. "He forgets to eat when he's grieving," she said. "Don't let him."
Sanya looked alarmed. "Do you know something we don't?" he said.
"No," she said. "I just like to plan for contingencies. Keep it in mind."
"I will," he said.
Michael came back with the clip; Charity stowed it and kissed him, a quick peck on the cheek as if she were headed for the grocery store. Then she hefted the duffel bag's strap over her shoulder and gestured me toward the truck.
"Let's go," she said.