Lin sat on the pinewood kitchen table with her feet on the bench seat while Thaddeus treated her wounds, which were numerous, but not severe. I tried to question her about where she'd been and what had happened to her, but she stopped me with a look that was sharper and more menacing than the gigantic sword she carried around. I pretended to lose my train of thought and looked away.
The Professor laid out a light meal of sandwiches and beer and we ate in silence while Thaddeus worked and Lin stared into space with an expression that was unreadable. Once her injuries were bandaged and our appetites sated, Lin insisted we leave immediately.
No one braved to object.
We gathered a few provisions and left the Compound sometime after midnight, following Lin's directions from Wyoming back down into Colorado. With very few cars on the road that late at night, we made good time, and after four hours of driving we pulled into a rusted out gas station in a town called Twin Lakes, Colorado. From there, we parked the minivan and continued on foot.
Our path took us off the road, venturing into rugged foothills along a poorly marked trail which I doubted had ever been included on any hiking map. Lin had stowed the severed head in a backpack and she carried it on her back like the worlds' most disgusting picnic lunch. It bounced obscenely in front of us as we trekked behind her through a crisp December morning. A conquering sun rose to reclaim the sky at our backs and we made our slow way up into the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains.
The going was rough. None of us were accustomed to climbing at high altitude and we stopped often to catch our breath. As we climbed higher, intermittent patches of snow grew larger and more frequent, hiding treacherous footing in the form of unseen cracks and holes in the trail. Lin seemed to have no problem with the climb. She was clearly impatient to get where we were going, but she kept a slower pace without complaint, catering to those of us who'd spent our entire lives in rural Ohio farm country.
During one lengthy rest, Lin found a seat on a bench-high boulder, and Lara wandered over to sit next to her.
"So, what is it?" Lara asked, pointing a delicate finger at the backpack where it rested on the ground near Lin's feet.
I listened from a few feet away, trying to appear as if I wasn't paying attention. If anyone besides my sister had asked that question, I doubted they would have received any response other than a scathing look. But Lara was Lara, and after a stiff moment of silence, Lin sighed, deflating a bit and resting her elbows on her knees.
"It's called a Mǎmiàn," she said, nudging the backpack irreverently with the toe of her boot. "The ancient Chinese believed these creatures to be guardians of the underworld. In reality, they're servants of The Nameless Dark corrupted by their use of its power."
"Like the Wasted?" Lara asked.
"A little like that, yes. But these monstrosities are far older. The Wasted are weak willed fools who tampered with a power they did na' understand an' became little more than puppets controlled by the Nameless Dark. The Mǎmiàn are necromancers, an' they're far too smart to be subverted so easily."
"What the hell is a necromancer?" Samuel cut in, scuffing his way over with his hands in his pockets and looking bored.
"Something like a cross between a dark sorcerer and a mad scientist," Lin said, climbing to her feet and slinging the backpack onto her shoulders. "They toy with death like a play-thing, walkin' along the border between this life and the next, feedin' off the sufferin' of their victims and prolongin' their own lives until they're no longer recognizable as human."
"So why take one of their heads?" I asked, my voice dry and dull in the still mountain air. Lin's eyes met with mine for the first time since that night in the woods, and I felt that same spark dancing in my chest, drawing me to her like a gravitational pull. She held my gaze for a moment before replying, and something like pain or regret flashed from behind their glassy walls, then disappeared into a wave of stubborn defiance. This time Lin pulled away first, breaking eye contact with me and moving away.
"We needed it to open the door." She said, starting up the trail again.
I looked around at the mountainous landscape, empty of any human structures.
"What door?" I said. "And how does a severed head help us open it?"
"Why not shut yer bloody gob and follow me if you want to find out."
We continued our climb into the mountains, following Lin's lead, and I struggled to keep my mind on the task at hand. I had no idea what awaited us when we found Graver, and the uncertainty was a nagging tick in the back of my mind. There was no guarantee he wouldn't simply kill us on sight despite our association with his adoptive daughter. Still, my hope was that Lin would be able to persuade her surrogate father to help us, and that he would know of a way to contact the other Families. Lin and I weren't exactly skipping along holding hands at the moment, but I still felt we could count on her when it really mattered. She had gone to great lengths to help us so far, and she seemed as committed to our cause as any of us.
I looked ahead to where Lin led our little group along the rough path into the high peaks. She was a beautiful sight to behold; a creature born for movement, both powerful and graceful in every step she took. Even with the weight of her backpack and the solid steel of her broadsword slung across her back, her tall frame carried her up the trail with ease, the lean strength of her limbs propelling her higher with each motion. She moved like she'd spent a lifetime in these mountains. I fought to look away, returning my thoughts to the task in front of us. When all of this was over, however long that might take, I would try to patch things up with Lin. Maybe I could find my way back to that hillside where she'd held my hands and bared her soul to me through her incredible eyes.
Three hours into our hike, Lin brought us to a halt. We'd crested a particularly high ridge and the trail we'd been following dropped away in front of us, falling into a wide, boulder-strewn valley. The broken gray of mountain stone, shattered by centuries of erosion, cluttered the landscape in front of us and on the opposite side of the valley, a massive peak cut into the sky.
"Mount Elbert," Lin said. "Highest point of the Rocky Mountains. This is it, then."
"This is what?" I asked, confused.
"This is where we're going."
I looked out into the valley toward the towering mount beyond it, searching for any sign of a destination. There was nothing; only scattered rock, split at random by scraggly growths of brush and pockets of snow.
"I don't see anything." I said.
"Well, of course not," Lin answered, rolling her eyes at my stupidity. "You wouldn't be able to see the house from here because it's not technically there yet. That or it used to be there, depending on how you're looking at it."
"Wha...?" I glanced at Samuel. He looked as confused as I was.
"Graver's house isn't in this plane of existence," Lin explained. "He built it in a place and time right next to ours: a paradoxical intersection between what used to be here and what might exist here someday."
"And because it's not a part of this world," she continued, shrugging the backpack off her shoulders. "It can only be accessed by someone, or something, who is also not fully tethered to this world."
She unzipped the backpack and slid the gruesome severed head out, gripping the nasty thing by its hair.
"That's where horse-face comes in. The Mǎmiàn spend most of their time walkin' the line between life and death. They spend so much time toyin' with it that they lose their permanent connection to the land of the livin' and they exist in both places at the same time."
"One foot in this world and one in the next," I said, nodding as understanding finally crept its way into my thoughts.
"That's right," she said, holding up her grotesque prize. "This bugger is goin' to help us open a door to the place where Gravers house exists."
"Ah... I'm not sure he's feeling up to it Lynn." Samual quipped, nodding in the direction of the severed head. "That fellow there has seen better days."
"How is this thing supposed to help us if it's already dead?" asked Lara, wrinkling her nose in distaste at the sight of the head.
"As I've said, this creature exists in both the world of the living and that of the dead. He already was dead." Lin lofted the head up in front of us as if presenting it as evidence. "So, what makes you think cuttin' off his head is a problem for a creature like this?"
"Are you saying that thing is still alive?" I asked.
Lin just smirked, flashing me the same knowing look that I'd seen cross her face before as she enjoyed hoarding some secret knowledge for herself.
She walked a few paces away and leapt up onto a boulder the size of a small car. Gazing out into the valley below us, she held the head up as high as she could in one hand and closed her eyes.
I expected it to require a huge amount of power to open a doorway to some other world, but when I felt the gentle hum of Light, it was only a whisper of power, flowing directly from Lin into the severed head. It was as if she was speaking to it. Coaxing it out from some hidden place and calling it to re-join the land of the living.
After a long, breathless moment, a quick flash of light stole my sight away. There was a hissing sound like air escaping a tire, and when my vision cleared, I looked up to see thick, black smoke billowing from the mouth, ears, and nose of the severed head. The smoke seemed to act on its own, gathering in the air at a point further down the rocky slope toward the valley. It shaped itself into a roughly rectangular outline, then solidified into what looked like a filmy sheet of glass before melting into the air. For a moment nothing happened.
Then the air in front of us split in two like a like a curtain drawn aside.
A dark smudge appeared at the rift, the shadow of a hand that wasn't really there pulling open a doorway that couldn't exist. The door widened and a shadowy head and shoulders joined the hand to peer at us from around a non-existent corner. The shadow creature had no distinguishable features, just a vague shape. It was more like the ghost of a thing that might be there than an actual presence, and as it stepped through the doorway it had rent in the air.
I felt an ominous stirring in the atmosphere around us, as if something unidentifiable, but utterly wrong, had just entered the world, and I stood directly in it's path, like a sapling bending in the wind and waiting for a hurricane to come ashore. A chill ran up my spine and I clenched my fists to drive the tremor from my hands. For the thousandth time, I wished Aaron were beside me. Or my father. I couldn't shake the sensation of inadequacy that clung to me like wet clothes, pulling at my limbs and drowning my confidence in waves of bitter fear. I reminded myself again that my father and uncle were not going to save us. We would have to find a way to be enough.
Lara gripped my arm, eyes locked on the shadow creature, staring her defiance at whatever this new threat was, and Samuel stepped up to stand beside me, calling up Light to spark at his fingertips.
"Wait," Thaddeus said as he joined us, placing a restraining hand on Samuel's shoulder. "I think that thing is here because Lin called it."
The ghostly creature stayed in the doorway, standing so still that I would have thought it was an actual shadow if I hadn't just seen it move. Behind the shadow creature, the impossible doorway revealed a world that appeared similar to this one. If Lin was telling the truth, this was a place that somehow existed alongside our reality, but was outside of it. The scenery on the other side of the doorway looked very much like our world but at the same time, subtly different. An inquisitive part of my mind cut through the fear to spark a sudden curiosity at the strange sight. Was I actually staring into another world? A parallel dimension of some kind? I couldn't stop myself from indulging in a geeky excitement at the thought of stepping into another world like some character from a sci-fi movie.
Lin jumped down from her boulder, advancing toward the doorway and the thing that had opened it.
"You've done yer part, beastie," she called in a voice full of iron. "I'll keep my word as well."
She swung the severed Mǎmiàn head and tossed it underhand in the direction of the shadow figure. I expected the head to pass right through the insubstantial thing, but somehow the phantom creature caught the disgusting object in two ghostly hands. It wrapped its arms around the head, cradling it into its dark form, then it seemed to look up, directly at Lin. Twin points of red flashed once where its eyes would be, a warning perhaps, or a threat of some kind. Then the creature began to fade. Little by little, it disappeared into thin air until the entire thing had vanished, severed head and all.
Lin brushed her hands together, her body language suggesting that a tiresome chore was now complete, then turned to find the rest of us staring at her.
"Um... uh," I stammered. "Was, ah... was that—?"
"Yes," Lin explained, not waiting for me to finish the question. "That bloody beast wanted its head back bad enough to act as doorman for us."
"Well," Lara said, sounding just as shocked as I was. "That's one way of getting leverage."
"We should move on," Thaddeus said, glancing at the sky to where the sun was climbing higher by the minute. "We'll want to get where we're going well before dark."
Lin nodded in agreement. "Let's get on with it, then."
She led us the short distance down a slight decline to the doorway in the air. Pausing, she looked back at us.
"Last chance to turn back," she said, locking eyes with each of us one at a time. "Once we're through the door, you'll be in Graver's world. Whatever happens next will be up to him."
I nodded my understanding. "He's the best chance we have of contacting the other Families and finding Aaron. I'm in."
"Me too," Lara said. "For Aaron."
"Let's do this." Samuel added, fire crackling at the edges of his words.
"Thaddeus?" Lin turned to the man who had become like family to us over the past few weeks.
"Lead the way." He said, his deep voice resonant with confidence and authority.
We stepped through the doorway one at a time and into the unknown place beyond. As I passed through the door, the temperature dropped, and the light seemed to dim. Looking around, much of what I saw was the same. The landscape mimicked that of the Colorado Rocky Mountains we'd just come from, but there were subtle differences in the sizes and positions of various landmarks, as if the passing of time effected the stone of the mountain differently here. Colors were slightly askew here as well. It was as if the entire spectrum of light had been shifted half a degree to the left, tinting the landscape like a badly exposed photograph. The combination of familiar and foreign created an uneasy tension in the pit of my stomach as we began our climb down into the rock strewn valley below.
We reached the top of a particularly steep drop and Lin paused, allowing us to catch up with her.
"There it is," she said, pointing across the valley toward the massive mount beyond it. "Graver's house."
I looked to where she pointed and felt my jaw drop in disbelief.
A castle, an actual freaking castle, crouched among the iron gray mountain peaks, at home with the surrounding stone. It was like some massive, god-like hand had plucked the thing up from feudal Europe and dropped it in the middle of the modern day North American Rockies. It was a solid, compact structure built with massive, chiseled stone blocks. Clearly it had been constructed as a fortification of some kind, with parapets running the length of its walls, and an iron gate barring its only entrance.
"Holy crap," I said.
"Yeah," Samuel agreed. "What he said."
"Few livin' souls have seen this place," Lin said, speaking without a hint of irony. "And few who have are still alive. You'll need to wait here while I enter the valley alone. Graver's guard dogs know me, and they've been instructed not to harm me. If they catch any o' you lot, they'll tear y'ta ribbons before y'can blink."
"Ok, then," Samuel said. "How about this: we'll wait here, while you go down alone."
Lin glared at him, then turned to the rest of us.
"I will lead the puppies away from the main path to the house," she said. "When the way is clear, you climb down and cross the valley as quickly as y'can."
"Lin," I interrupted, stepping toward the downhill slope for a better view of the valley. Something below had caught my eye. "I don't think we'll need to worry about the guard dogs."
"What?" She asked, turning her attention back toward the valley as well. "What are you—?"
She stopped. She'd seen them too.
In a flat pebbly area on the floor of the valley, the bodies of some sort of large, furry animals were piled on top of one another.
"No," whisper Lin. She threw herself headlong down the hill, skidding on hands and feet toward the valley below.
The rest of us followed as quickly as we could without falling and breaking a limb. When we caught up with Lin, we found her standing like a statue beside the bodies of three, freakishly large timber wolves. The enormous animals were piled together, cast aside like so much garbage. Graver's wolves had been majestic creatures, with sleek bodies and heavily muscled limbs covered with soft fur in various shades of gray and brown. Each one was easily the size of a horse, with massive, saber-like claws curving from paws as large as my chest. While alive, they had been beautiful and terrifying creatures. I couldn't imagine a more effective guard dog, but now they'd been reduced to large mounds of motionless bulk. Dried blood crusted the fur around each pointed ear and tapered muzzle, and each wolf had clearly sustained multiple broken bones. Whatever had done this to these animals must have been incredibly powerful.
"This can na' have happened," Lin said as I stood beside her. I'd never seen her this rattled before; she always seemed so confident and sure. Now she looked to be on the verge of tears, her eyes wide with shock and glistening.
"We need to move on," Thaddeus prompted, his hand on the gun at his side as he scanned our surroundings, searching for any unseen threats.
"Lin," I said, slipping my hand into hers, "we have to go. If whatever killed the dogs is already at the house..."
She turned and met my eye.
Lin took off at a run.
"Shit," Samual moved to follow and the rest of of joined him.
As we stepped away, Lara's eyes lingered on the broken bodies of Graver's noble pets.
"This is all my fault."
"What are you talking about?" I said. "You had nothing to do with that."
"Not just that." Lara quickened her pace to keep up, her short legs flying through twice as many steps as our taller companions. "All of this. I started it all. None of this would have happened if I hadn't gotten myself into that situation with Trent."
I wanted to comfort my sister, but my own guilt rose up at her words, choking the reply from my throat. I'd struggled so much with my own failures, it never occurred to me that Lara might also be wrestling with the same guilt.
"No need to be selfish, sis," I patted her shoulder once, my voice tight, "there's plenty of blame to go around. Maybe if we can all get through this alive, we'll have a chance to set some thing right."
"I hope so."
We trailed along behind Lin, following the tall, nimble girl across the oddly colored landscape toward whatever new horrors waited for us inside Graver's home.