Jane and the others have left behind the Island of Shadows, but they can't leave behind the lingering consequences. She now holds the magick of darkness within her, and slumbering as he is there is still danger in traveling with such a powerful companion.
That danger arrives on the heels of torrential rain and whipping winds. A storm for the ages traps them in a remote town where the locals cast suspicious glances at them. They soon learn that other outsiders have come with demands for the ancient automata harbored within their metalus mines.
One of the villagers, a young historian, takes a liking to them and offers them shelter in his tiny abode. There he regales them with tales of a mighty hero who protected the village many millennia ago. The other villagers ridicule his love of the past when their future is so perilous, but the historian assures them he has a plan. That plan involves Jane, and as the storm worsens and new foes arrive she finds herself caught in a web of lies and greed, a web in which she must break free, or die trying.
Lightning flashed. Rain fell in torrential sheets of damp, cold wetness. The road was a mudslide waiting for one unwary foot to slip into its deep muck.
And from the darkness there were eyes that watched.
I couldn't notice those eyes, though, not when I was in the middle of that terrible storm and trying not to become a victim of the slip-n-slide the world had become. Around us was a world of trees, but they, like us, were trapped in a narrow valley that was surrounded on all sides by steep, craggy mountains.
I huddled beneath Caius' wings as the wagon bounced to and fro, and sometimes the wheels slipped and the sorry nag would give a neigh of fright.
"Easy there, Maurizia!" the driver shouted as he pulled his nag away from the muddy ditch. "Do you want us to be going into that mess? Eh, you foolish horse?"
My grandparents sat opposite us in the long back of the wagon.
Bee was cuddled up against Sage and tucked under her chin was the frazzled Midge. They were bundled under a tarp so full of holes it looked like a city street after a couple of decades of neglect.
Caius eyed Sage with a look of bemusement mixed with annoyance. "The south lands are sunny this time of year? Isn't that what you said?" he called out, and his words were followed by a peal of thunder.
Sage shuddered as a slop of rain ran down the back of his neck. He huddled deeper under the tarp and glared at Caius. "The south lands are generally nice this time of year, but I am no weather forecaster, nor can anyone predict a storm that strikes once every millennium or two."
Our driver was a burly fellow with a broad-brimmed hat and a heavy poncho. His features were hardened by the hot sun, but there was a twinkling in his eyes that showed that a long life of labor hadn't affected his humor.
He looked over his shoulder and nodded. "Aye! I haven't seen the like of such a storm in all my years, and I'm sure my father has not, either, nor his father! Bless his soul." He crossed himself and bowed his head.
"How much farther to the port, Signor Abano?" Sage asked him.
At that moment the cart decided the road was too boring and tried to slip into the ditch. The sides of the road dropped off some two feet and into thick brush. The nag gave a shrill whinny as its hooves slid backwards with the cart.
"Whoa! Dig those wonderful hooves into that mud, you lazy animal!" he shouted as he lashed a thick rope around the sliding side of the cart.
Abano leapt over the opposite side and landed in the middle of the road as we edged toward the drop. He gave a great pull and his nag whinnied, and together the pair pulled us out of danger. Abano walked up to the horse and stroked her shivering neck.
"You did good, Maurizia," he soothed as he patted her neck. "Very good. Wonderful, even, my little one." The horse snorted and nuzzled his coat. "Yes yes, you deserve it," he agreed as he removed a piece of carrot and gave the treat to his steed.
"Not bad, even for a tusk shifter," Caius complimented him.
Abano looked up at us and gave us a smile between his protruding white tusks. His skin was slightly grayer than a few moments ago and his eyes shone with a faint yellow hue. "Thank you, kind sir!"
"Even elephant shifters. . ." I murmured to myself.
Bee smiled and nodded. "A shifter for all animals, and all animals for a shifter."
Sage sat up in the back of the wagon and looked around. "We must find shelter or we will have to swim to the city." A brilliant flash of lightning lit up the dark sky and was followed quickly by a thunderclap.
"There is a village not far from here," Abano spoke up.
"Were you going to wait until we were under water before you mentioned that?" Caius asked him.
Some of Abano's humor fled him as he shook his head. "No, but we will not find a warm welcome there. Visitors are not so welcome as they used to be."
"Why is that?" Sage inquired.
Abano patted Maurizia a couple more times and climbed back onto the box. "Men have come from far away to lay claim to their metalus mine and the automata within them. The villagers have nothing left but that mine, and so with each threat by these strangers they have grown more distrusting of anyone who comes into the village."
Another peel of lightning lit up the sky, followed by a thunderclap that shook me to my bones. "I think we'll risk it."
Abano nodded. "Very well. Come, Maurizia! Away we go!" He cracked the reins and the steed continued on her unhurried way through the thick mud.
Caius drew me closer against him and I looked up to find his eyes on me. "What?" I asked him.
"How are you feeling?" he wondered.
I shifted in his soft, warm grasp and shrugged. "Not too bad. The rain hasn't settled into my soul yet."
He shook his head. "Not that." He settled his hand over my chest. "That."
"Oh. . ." I lay my hand over his and bowed my head. "I don't really feel anything.."
"Not a single stir from our acquaintance?" Sage mused.
I shook my head. "No. I don't even feel the coldness like when he gave me his powers on the island."
"Good," Caius chimed in as he wrapped his arms around me.
"You don't think he's-well, dead, do you?" I asked my companions.
Sage smiled and shook his head. "I am sure he is merely resting."
I sighed. "Good. I hope he rests for a long time."
We bounced our way along the muddy road for another few miles before we spotted a cluster of lights peeking out of the sleet like stars. Maurizia pulled us down the main road of the small village of stone walls and metal roofs.
My eyes widened as I beheld those metal-topped houses. "They have metal roofs in this world?"
"Where metalus is plentiful, yes," Sage confirmed as Abano turned our carriage toward a two-story building well-illuminated against the darkness.
"Which isn't many places," Caius added as he glanced at the houses we passed. A few curtains shifted. "These people are curious, but not curious enough to show their faces."
"I am afraid I am not as knowledgeable of the metalus mines as I once was," Sage admitted as he shifted against Bee. "How many are left?"
Caius shrugged. "About half a dozen, and some of those are mining poor quality. The good stuff's too deep to reach by hand, and nobody can get the machines going."
"Here we are!" Abano shouted as he pulled us up to the large building. He hopped down and turned to us with a smile. "The Auto Inn is good for food and rest, and tomorrow we can take the road again."
"We could use both," I agreed as Caius helped me down.
The door opened and light spilled onto our little group. The figure of an older gentleman was silhouetted in the doorway. He stepped out onto the porch and squinted at us with all the hospitality of a bulldog intent on guarding its bone.
"Go away!" he snapped.
Sage stepped forward and smiled at the man. "We have come for rooms-"
"There are none to spare, so go away!" the man insisted.
I looked past the man at the empty lobby. "There have to be some to let."
"Not to strangers," the man informed us as he stabbed a finger down the road. "Now leave!"
"But you know me, Signor Gallo," Abano reminded him. "Will you not let them stay?"
Gallo shook his head. "No, nor even you, Signor Abano. There is too much at stake to-" He stopped and glared at us. "Enough! Leave now!"
Abano looked to us and shrugged, so we piled back into the wet wagon and continued our journey, but with even less enthusiasm than before. Even Maurizia had changed her pace from crawling to tiptoeing.
Sage sighed. "We must continue onward to the port."
"How far is that?" I asked him.
Caius frowned. "Another twenty miles." I shivered.
Just then Maurizia skidded to a stop and let loose a frightened whinny. There, standing in the middle of the road, was a huge monstrosity with glowing red eyes.