Jane and her tired companions seek only refuge from a thick, mysterious fog, but someone has darker plans for them. Those plans lead them to the burnt-out remains of an old building complex where the past doesn’t lie peacefully below the surface. Jane somehow feels drawn to the strange place with its air of dark mystery and is compelled to touch the ruins.
The next thing they know the charred remains vanish and they stand in the middle of a pristine garden. They’re also surrounded by fox shifters bearing weapons and old-fashioned garb. A pointed question reveals that the group has been thrown back in time some one thousand years to just before the complex was destroyed.
As Jane learns more about the past and grows to care about the many lives under the roof of the grand house, she’s faced with a daunting dilemma. The past has already been written, but might they rewrite those events? And if they change the past, what will happen to their future? Will they remain trapped in the past forever, or worse, cease to exist at all? And yet even with those dangers, can she stand by and watch so many kind souls perish in the tragedy that is destined to come?
My companions and I were once again thick in one of the many forests that covered the Shifting World, and we were lost.
"You said you've been everywhere,” Caius reminded my grandfather as we four trotted along atop our two shared unicorn steeds.
"And we have,” Sage insisted as he leaned forward and squinted over the top of my grandmother's head. "But it is difficult to ascertain where one is when one can hardly see beyond the nose of their steed.”
"So you're saying we're lost?” I guessed.
"In a word, yes.”
The damp chill of the misty air sank deeper into my bones. I snuggled up against the warm chest of my dragon shifter and heard a faint grunt behind me. I leaned my head back and grinned at him. "Problems?”
"Only if you keep squirming like that,” he grunted. "Unless we find an inn. And then it's completely different.”
"This is one conversation to which I would rather not be privy,” Sage spoke up.
Bee snuggled against his chest and leaned her head back to smile up at him. "A warm place to stop would be nice, dear.”
He grunted and frowned at her. "Traitor.” She gave him a wink before he looked at our surroundings. "And were such a place to be found here, we may miss it in such a dense fog.” He leaned forward and squinted. "In all my years I have never seen the likes.”
Midge let out a twitter and Bee shook her head. "I haven't, either.”
"So we're lost in the thickest fog either of you have seen without any way to see anything,” Caius mused.
I stiffened and squinted at the darkness just ahead of us. "Is that a lamp?”
My companions followed where I pointed and watched a light appear out of the mist. It drew near enough for a wagon to emerge from out of the fog. The lamp hung on a bent stick just ahead of the driver, and a sorry nag pulled the small vehicle with all the exuberance of a turtle. The driver was hunched over and buried in a dark cloak so that the lamp didn't reveal their features.
At coming close upon us the animal pulled up and snorted. The figure raised their head and revealed themselves to be a man of middle age with a thick beard and dark eyes. His face was as pale as the fog around us and when his sharp gaze fell on me a chill ran down my spine.
"Hello, there,” Sage called to him. "Could you tell us where we are?”
He man slowly nodded his head. "Aye, I can, but you might be better off not knowing.”
"Why?” Caius spoke up.
The stranger eyed him with a hint of a smile beneath that mass of hair. "Because this place is haunted.”
I grinned. "Oh, that's okay. We've dealt with that before.”
The man closed his eyes and shook his head. "Not in the way you think, miss. These aren't the spooks and goblins of the past, but something worse. Something evil.”
Sage arched an eyebrow. "Evil in what way?”
Our new acquaintance studied us with his sharp eyes. "Mayhap you'd like to find out for yourselves, eh?”
"Not at the present time,” Sage assured him as he looked around us. "We would be happy with a warm room in a familiar inn.”
"Ya'll would, would you?” the man mused as he swept his dark gaze over us. His stare settled on me. "Especially you, miss? Wanting to be far away from here, eh?”
I furrowed my brow, but shrugged. "That's where we're trying to get to, anyway.”
A slight chuckle escaped his lips. "Is it now? Well, perhaps I can help.” He nodded over his left shoulder. "There's a bend there that'll take you to where you need to go. Just follow it for a mile and you'll get there. Now if you'll be excusing me.” He cracked the reins and the sorry animal clomped past us. Soon the fog had swallowed nag and driver.
Sage cleared his throat. "Yes, well, that was quite an interesting conversation.” He turned his unicorn in the direction the man had pointed. "Let us follow our dark fellow's advice and perhaps we may yet find a warm fire before the night is out.”
We continued onward at a slot trot. Caius wrapped an arm around my waist and pulled me closer against him. I looked up and noticed his face was tense. "Is something wrong?”
"I didn't like the way he was looking at you,” Caius admitted.
"He did have a rather penetrating gaze,” Sage agreed, though his eyes never left the road that was rumored to be ahead of us. "Confound it, but I wish he had given us fewer stares and more directions!”
Midge let out a tweet and pointed his beak at something in the mist. Bee followed his beaker and nodded. "Are you sure of that?”
"What is it?” I asked her.
"Midge says he doesn't like the air that's coming up,” she explained. "There's something dark about it.”
Sage frowned. "Dark-” He didn't have time to finish as their unicorn violently reared. "Easy! Easy there!”
Caius grinned. "Can't handle your-” Our unicorn suddenly skittered back and threw its head. "Whoa! Easy!”
"Everyone get down!” Bee shouted.
"But they'll break loose!” Caius argued as he tried to keep us from being thrown.
“”She's right!” Sage shouted before Bee and he threw themselves onto the ground.
Caius and I followed suit, and a moment later I made the intimate acquaintance of the hard, damp ground. I rolled onto my back and my eyes widened as the unicorn vanished in the blink of an eye. Our bags dropped onto the road at our feet, but the saddles disappeared with the steeds wearing them.
I blinked at the quiet air before I looked to my grandparents. "What happened to them?”
"They sensed a great danger and returned to their stables,” Sage explained as he helped my grandmother to her feet.
Caius offered me his hand and helped me up. His eyes glowed a little as he looked around us. "I've known a lot of things that could scare a unicorn, and I didn't like any of them.”
Sage brushed himself off before picked up their own traveling bag. "Nor I, but what worries me more is that I myself feel no danger.”
"Is that important?” I asked him.
He pursed his lips as he studied the thick fog that surrounded us. "Bee and I have been through a great many adventures, but we have never failed to sense danger that forced a unicorn to abandon us. They were generally very loyal to their riders, and any entity that forced them into such a situation should be formidable indeed.”
"And yet none of us feels a damn thing,” Caius finished for him as he swung our bag over one shoulder. "I don't like it.”
"So do we keep going?” I wondered as I swept my eyes over the ground. The wide dirt road had narrowed considerably and weeds on either side threatened to swallow us.
Caius half-turned to look in the direction we had come and frowned. "We can't go back.”
"Why not?” I asked him as I looked at our trail. The fog had grown thicker and I couldn't see more than two feet in front of me.
"Perhaps we might see at what this man hinted lay ahead of us,” Sage suggested. "There may only be a simple inn, but that would be vastly superior to our current predicament.”
"Let's not forget anything,” Bee advised as she scooped up the bolt-and-bee box and brushed off the cover. "There. Good as new.”
We continued on our way down the narrowing road until it was hardly more than a dirt trail. Tall bushes squeezed us on either side and trees loomed out of the thick fog like monsters trying to scoop us into the darkness. The damp air grew chilly until I was near freezing.
Caius sidled up to my side and draped his coat over my shoulders. I looked him up and down with pursed lips. "You'll get cold.”
He patted his arm and I heard a hard clank. "Not with these.” He drew up his sleeve and showed off pale gray scales instead of skin.
I blinked at the scales before I looked back up at him. "You can do that?”
"When nobody's around to try to skin me for them,” he pointed out.
Sage stopped dead in his tracks and grabbed Bee's arm. "That may change.”
We squinted into the thick mist and I glimpsed a tall shadow lurking among the brush. Caius followed my gaze and studied the shadow for a moment before he burst out laughing. "I don't think I'll have to worry about a piece of wood robbing me, old man.”
The shadow did turn out to be a blackened eight-foot tall post that stood upright. I took a step toward it and the mist cleared enough for me to see more shadows. They stretched left and rightward in a long line.
My eyes widened as their purpose dawned on me. "A fence?”
"A rather large defensive wall, to be precise,” Sage corrected me as he walked up to a break in the wall that stretched across the path on which we stood. He brushed his hand against the blackened side and furrowed his brow. "This is very strange. The wood has been turned into glass.”
Caius frowned. "Is that even possible?”
"I thought not, but the proof stands before us,” Sage mused as he glanced down the long row of wood. "A wall of glass wood. . .”
"That sounds like that old story about the fox lady,” Bee spoke up.
Sage snapped his fingers. "That is just the thing, Bee! Bravo on remembering such an obscure legend!”
She blushed. "You're such a dear, dear.”
"What legend?” I asked him.
Sage smiled at Bee. "As you have remembered the legend, perchance would you like to tell the story?”
Bee stretched to her full height and cleared her throat. "Once a very long time ago, a lovely fox shifter ruled her people with a caring heart, but that couldn't keep an ancient evil away. The evil broke loose and attacked her home, turning everything to glass and killing everyone, including the lovely lady. The end.”
Caius frowned. "No wonder it's obscure. That doesn't exactly sound like a story people would tell their children before they went to bed.”
"Not all legends have a just ending,” Sage pointed out as he walked past the wall.
My eyes widened and I stretched out my hand to him. "Wait a sec! What if that evil is still here?”
He paused and half-turned to me with a teasing smile. "History takes some time to become legend. I am sure whatever destroyed this area is long gone.”
"Maybe. . .” I murmured as I reluctantly followed the others through the ruins of the gate.
"Be mindful of the glass grass,” Sage warned us.
The ground crunched beneath our feet as we stumbled through the ruins and mist. More standing posts emerged from the fog, and I glimpsed collapsed roofs and walls among the blackened sentries of a destruction long-past.
My dragging foot tripped on the ground and I would have fallen if Caius hadn't caught me. I sheepishly looked up at him, but his gaze lay on the ground behind me. "What is it?” I asked him as I looked over my shoulder.
My foot had tripped over a footprint in the glassy ground. Beside the footprint were the remains a small skull. I yelped and leapt against him.
"What is it?” Sage called from where Bee and he stood a few feet ahead of us.
"One of those victims Bee mentioned,” Caius replied.
They returned to us and Sage knelt beside the remains. He studied the features for a moment before he shook his head. "How remarkable. The bones appear to have been turned into glass at the time of death.”
"So whatever killed them stripped off their skin at the same time?” Caius guessed.
Sage stood and nodded. "It would appear so, and judging from the size of the skull I would say the victim was that of a child.”
Bee wrinkled her nose. "That's horrible, Sage.”
"Certainly, but our friend here has reminded us to watch our step,” Sage pointed out.
"Why are we even out here watching our step?” Caius challenged him.
Sage half-turned to the way before us. The mist had cleared enough that I could see thirty feet beyond where we stood. The remains of buildings stood on either side of us, and between them ran a wide road.
"I believe, per the custom of this area, that the great house would be not far ahead. A quick perusal through there, and we shall leave,” Sage suggested.
Midge twittered, and Bee stroked the top of his head. "I'm sure we'll be fine.”
We continued on our way and soon arrived at another tall fence of glass wood that divided the front half of the compound from the rear. Through the opening that showed a gate I beheld a large, low building, or the remains of one. A porch had once wrapped around the square structure, but had long ago fallen in under the weight of its own transformation. The peaked roof, too, had collapsed into the interior of the house.
A warm breeze floated past me and kissed my cheeks. I turned to my right where the wind had come from and glimpsed a smaller fence reached by a stone path. A sudden urge to look in there pulled me down the path.
"Jane?” Caius called to me.
"There's something over here,” I replied as, almost unbidden, my steps quickened in the fear that they would stop me.
I hurried through the opening that had once had a gate to protect the sanctity and found myself among a forest of glass bushes and trees. Even flowers in their beds had been changed to glass.
My companions joined me and Bee looked in awe at our surroundings. "What a beautiful garden.”
Sage nodded. "Even in destruction this garden shows some of its former glory.”
A particularly large rose bush at the center of the garden caught my attention. There were no thorns, but the flowers had been in full bloom at the time of the destruction. They hung on the branches, graceful beauty frozen in time by a catastrophe long since past.
I reached out for one of those flowers and brushed my finger against the surface. The glass was sharper than it looked and the petal cut my finger.
"Ouch!” I yelped as I drew my hand back.
In the same instance the fog was brushed away and the dreary world around us became awash in color. Torches burst to life and illuminated the night, and I gaped at our repaired and reinvigorated surroundings. It was like being splashed with a can of paint, only the oils were life. The rose bush in front of me burst with vitality and the bushes, once glistening in their glassy deaths, burst outward with colors of green and a vibrant red. The grass beneath us sprouted with life, and before us the wreck of a house was fixed anew. The collapsed roof stood tall and pointed against the night sky, and the walls, a mixture of wood and taught screen, stood proud beneath the eaves.
"Halt or you forfeit your life!”