On a warm August morning, Jason Walker crouched behind a young batter and a little catcher, eyes intent on the invisible rectangle of the strike zone, a mask limiting his view. Some of the umpires in this league braved home plate without the mask, but Jason's parents had insisted he wear one. Based on the symptoms Jason had described back in June, doctors had concluded that a concussion must have initiated the mysterious disappearance that ended when he showed up at a farmhouse in Iowa, claiming he had no recollection of the prior four months.
The small pitcher went into his stretch. He glanced at the runner on third, then at the runner on first. The pitcher was in a tight spot. It was the third round of the summer league playoffs. His team led by one run, this was the final inning, there were two outs, and the count was three balls, two strikes. The pudgy kid at the plate was the second-best hitter on the opposing team.
The runner on first was taking a huge lead. The pitcher stepped off the rubber and winged the ball to the first baseman. The runner dove to make it back to the bag, then asked for time so he could stand.
The pitcher got the ball back. Again the runner on first took a greedy lead. The pitcher threw to first again, but the first baseman dropped the ball. Although the baseball did not roll far, the runner on third dashed for home. The batter backed away.
"Throw home!" the pitcher yelled as the first baseman grabbed the ball.
The ball streaked through the air to the catcher, who had the runner beat. The runner dropped his shoulder, plowing into the catcher as he got tagged before stepping on home plate. The little catcher flopped backward into the dirt, the ball dropping from his mitt.
"You're out," Jason called, pumping his fist.
The players on the field cheered. The coach of the opposing team, a skinny man with a dark suntan and a darker mustache, charged over to Jason. The coach was already hollering before he reached home plate, eyes bulging, spittle flying from his chapped lips. "What's wrong with you, ump? What kind of call was that? This is our season! Are you blind? He dropped the ball!"
Taking off his mask, Jason stared at the outraged coach. Within the past six months, Jason had confronted a giant bloodthirsty crab, outfoxed a brilliant chancellor, dueled a vengeful duke, and defied an evil emperor. He was not intimidated by Coach Leo. The coach kicked dust at him and gestured wildly. Veins stood out in his neck. Apparently he was emulating the tantrum of some major league manager he had seen on television.
Matt, the first base umpire, hurried over. He got between Jason and the furious coach. "Hey, settle down," he insisted.
"It's okay," Jason said, stepping around his friend. "Look, do you want to listen to me or get banned from this league?"
The coach closed his mouth, hands on his hips, eyes smoldering. His expression warned that nothing Jason could say would appease him.
"The rules of this league demand that the runner slide for a close play at home."
"What kind of rule is that?" The coach remained angry, but sounded less certain.
"A rule to prevent nine-year-old catchers from being hospitalized. If your runner had beaten the throw, I'd make an exception, but he was tagged and only made it home because he didn't slide. Next season, learn the rules, then teach them to your players."
"Ump's right, Leo," the scorekeeper drawled from behind the backstop.
The coach sneered but had no reply. He glanced around at the parents staring at him from the aluminum bleachers, then turned to glare at Jason, as if blaming him for the embarrassing display.
Jason raised his eyebrows.
The coach returned to his dugout.
"Good job," Matt said, clapping Jason on the back. "Way to keep cool."
"I have to remind myself these guys are just somebody's dad, desperate to see their kid win. In a way it's nice that they care."
"Sports turn a lot of people into hotheads," Matt said.
Jason took a deep breath, trying to dismiss the incident. "Should we get out of here?"
"Sure." They started walking toward their bikes. The teams huddled up to shout cheers. "Are you coming to Tim's party tonight?"
"The pool party? I don't know. Maybe."
"Come on," Matt urged. "It'll be fun. It won't stay warm forever."
"Which means no," Matt sighed. "At some point you should consider rejoining the living."
Jason was unsure how to respond. How could he explain what was really troubling him? His friends assumed that his reclusive behavior was due to his newfound infamy following the four months when he had dropped off the map. His disappearance had made the national news, as had his sudden reappearance after most had assumed he was dead. True, his absence had created some serious hassles. There had been dozens of interview requests. While some reporters were supportive, others had accused him of faking the incident, of deliberately hiding. Plus, the lost time had complicated his schooling. After counseling with his parents and teachers, Jason had spent much of the summer finishing packets of work that would enable him to advance to the next grade in the fall.
His real problem was not being able to tell anyone the truth. He had been to another world. He had made friends there, and enemies. He had risked his life and had accomplished great deeds. And he had returned home against his will, leaving behind tons of unfinished business. He had left a girl from Washington stranded there. And he knew a vital secret that would change how the heroes of that world tried to resist the emperor Maldor.
How could he explain any of this to Matt? To his parents? No matter what evidence he produced or details he supplied, nobody could possibly believe him. These burdens had to remain private. Although his experiences in Lyrian consumed his thoughts, if he tried to share what had really happened, he would wind up in a mental hospital!
Of all his friends, Matt had tried the hardest to be there for him. After returning from Lyrian, Jason had quit playing baseball. His prior goals as a pitcher had seemed insignificant compared to his new concerns. But he still loved the game, so he had volunteered during the summer as an umpire for a couple of the younger leagues. The volunteer gig carried little pressure and required much less time than actually playing and practicing. Matt had volunteered as well, just to hang out with him.
"I'm sorry," Jason said. "I'm no fun anymore. I've warned you, my head is a mess. I wish I could explain."
"Don't worry about it," Matt said, grabbing his bike. "Who wouldn't feel a little different after all you've been though? Nobody minds. Nobody who matters. If you could just relax, you'd see that not so much has changed. Who cares whether you pitch or not? Everyone wants you around again."
"Thanks," Jason said, stuffing his umpire gear into a sports bag. "I'll try to come."
Matt studied him. "We could go together. Want me to swing by?"
Matt nodded knowingly. "How about some lunch? You hungry?"
"I'm good. Maybe I'll see you tonight."
Matt shrugged. "Have it your way. Catch you later."
Matt pedaled away on his bike. Jason climbed onto his own bike and headed home. If he wasn't careful, soon he'd have no friends left. Was he deliberately pushing everyone away? Having unfinished business in Lyrian did not guarantee he would find a way back there. Like it or not, he might need to start living an actual life in this world again. After all, school would resume in less than a month. A regular schedule would make it much tougher to behave like a hermit.
When Jason got home, he left his bike in the garage and looked out back for Shadow, his Labrador. He came up empty. Nobody was home. His parents had grown closer to the dog during Jason's absence and had probably taken him for a walk.
Jason retreated to his room. He had spent a lot of time there lately. He went to his closet and got down a shoe box from the top shelf. From a drawer he collected a spiral notebook and a pen. Removing a pair of rubber bands, he opened the shoe box and took out a human hand. The severed wrist revealed a perfect cross section of bone, muscle, tendon, nerves, and blood vessels.
H-E-L-L-O. Jason traced the letters on the palm. He set the hand down and picked up his pen, ready to transcribe.
Not now, the hand spelled hastily in sign language.
Ferrin must be in some sort of trouble again. Jason had established contact with the displacer not long after returning from Iowa. He had taught Ferrin the sign language alphabet using a book from the public library. The tedious communication was his only link to Lyrian, and Jason had faithfully logged all of their conversations.
Jason felt grateful for the living hand. It represented his only tangible evidence of all that had happened. Without it, he wondered if he would eventually have come to believe his months in a parallel universe had been an elaborate delusion.
Back in June, soon after receiving word from their son, Jason's parents had driven from Colorado to pick him up in Iowa. His father had good insurance, so not long after Jason related his story of a four-month blackout during which he had somehow traveled hundreds of miles to awaken wearing filthy homespun clothes in a cornfield, he was referred to a neurologist. Jason affirmed to the specialist that he recalled nothing after reporting for work the day he was tagged in the head by a baseball, resisting the temptation to fabricate a horrific tale of alien abductors, sterile lights, and invasive probes. When asked how he got to Iowa, Jason had theorized that he might be a narcoleptic sleepwalker.
After an MRI, the neurologist confirmed that if the blow had resulted in a concussion, as she assumed based on the symptoms Jason had described, it had left no lasting visible damage. Jason was diagnosed with some form of anterograde amnesia, which the neurologist explained as an inability to remember events subsequent to brain trauma.
Jason had a hunch that the neurologist didn't wholly believe the story, but she never went so far as to call him a liar. His parents had been perplexed that given all the media attention Jason's disappearance had received, nobody had noticed him wandering the country for months as an amnesiac. They had insisted that Jason see a therapist, who had blatantly tried to investigate whether Jason was telling the truth about his lost months, but all Jason confessed to was a dream involving many of the details from Lyrian. In the end, the scrutiny had finally subsided.
Jason had considered confessing everything to his parents and trying to use the severed hand as evidence. But he had finally decided that although the lively hand was an inexplicable oddity, it was far from concrete proof that he had journeyed to another world. The hand would only raise a more lingering batch of unanswerable questions.
After putting the hand back into the shoe box, Jason went to his computer and turned it on. Besides the hand, he had one other source of evidence that his trip to Lyrian had actually happened. He went into his photos folder, then clicked through a maze of folders within folders until arriving at one marked "Rachel."
Inside that folder, he found images of Rachel Marie Woodruff, a thirteen-year-old girl from Olympia, Washington, who had gone missing in Arches National Park the same day that Jason had vanished. Jason had acquired the images from sites all over the Internet.
Apparently wealth and connections mattered, because Rachel's parents had managed to turn her disappearance into one of the biggest news stories of the year. The case was particularly baffling because the family had been alone with a guide in such remote country. Rachel had vanished quickly and quietly. The huge team of hastily summoned rescuers had found no body and no trace of violence. Her tracks had led to a natural stone arch where all evidence abruptly ceased.
For earning media exposure, it also didn't hurt that Rachel was quite photogenic and her family had dozens of recent pictures to display. Not to mention that her father had offered a no-questions-asked million-dollar reward for information leading to her recovery.
Jason studied a color photo of Rachel looking up from a canvas she was painting. Another showed her beside a skinny blonde, both of them wearing track uniforms. A third was just her head and shoulders, taken in a studio. She looked like the cute girl next door, but with a little extra style, both in her haircut and her fashion.
Jason had considered making an anonymous call to her parents, just to let them know that he had seen her and that she was all right. But such contact posed several problems. First off, Rachel might not be okay anymore. Last Jason had heard, she had been on the run with Tark, pursued by imperial soldiers. Secondly, if her parents somehow traced the call to him, he had no alibi. He had gone missing at the same time, which would make him a very appealing suspect if he was ever connected to the case. And lastly, he had no idea if Rachel would ever make it home, so it might be cruel to give her parents false hope.
Switching off his computer, Jason rose and started pacing. He hated being the only person in the world who knew where Rachel had gone. He hated being the only person in the world who might be able to bring her back. He hated being the only person in the world who knew that the secret word that could supposedly destroy the wizard Maldor was actually an elaborate hoax meant to distract and measure his enemies.
Jason undressed and took a shower. After drying off and dressing, he stood and stared at himself in the mirror. He had not regained much of the weight he had lost in Lyrian. In spite of his absence from baseball, Jason had exercised vigorously ever since returning home. He threw pitches in the backyard. He jogged. He did sit-ups, push-ups, and pull-ups. He bought books on karate and practiced in his room.
"You know where you're going," Jason told his reflection. "You always go there when you're feeling like this. No point in waiting around."
He went and removed the hand from the shoe box and placed it in a plastic grocery sack, which he wadded into a black backpack stocked with provisions. He wore a gray T-shirt and tied a lightweight jacket around his waist. He put on a new pair of sturdy boots, zipped a disposable waterproof camera into a jacket pocket, shrugged into the backpack, and slipped a pocketknife into his jeans pocket, just in case today would be the day.
At the Vista Point Zoo, Jason pulled the season pass from his wallet and flashed it to get inside. Ignoring the crowds, he strode directly to the hippo tank. As he had done on more than twenty occasions since returning to Colorado, Jason took up his regular position leaning against the guardrail.
The first time he had revisited the zoo, Jason had intended to leap into the tank and get swallowed by the hippo again. But as he stood staring at the lethargic beast, doubts had begun to assail him. What if the hippo was no longer a gateway? It could have been a one-time occurrence. What if the hippo refused to swallow him? What if it mauled him after witnesses watched him intentionally enter the tank? He would get locked up.
Jason sighed. Every time he came to the zoo, he wore his boots and brought the hand, the backpack, and the pocketknife. And every time he just stared at the hippo until he eventually went home.
He had considered trying to find the stone archway that had brought Rachel to Lyrian. All he knew for sure was that it was somewhere off in the middle of the Utah badlands. The way Rachel had told the story, it sounded like the gateway was only open for a brief time. He also worried that searching for the arch could end up connecting him to Rachel's disappearance.
One way or another, he had to return to Lyrian. His friends needed the information he knew about Maldor and the fake Key Word. He needed to show Rachel how she could return home. His current life seemed unbearably mundane and insignificant when weighed against the duties awaiting him elsewhere.
Last year, Jason had not understood why Matt's older brother, Michael, had wanted to enlist in the military. Jason and Matt had argued that the decision was impractical and dangerous for a guy with so many other options, but Mike had been determined. He had joined the marines a month after graduation. It had been something Mike had wanted to do, in spite of the potential hazards and inconveniences. Now Jason had discovered something about which he felt much the same way.
Perhaps he could learn to ignore his experiences in Lyrian, to pretend that the information he knew was not crucial to the destinies of countless people, including many he cared about. But Jason had no desire to forget what had happened. He had become involved in a struggle much larger than himself, he had people depending on him, he had found a cause worth fighting for, and just when he had gained information vital to that cause, he had been forced to return home.
The hippo was his best hope for returning. He lay at the bottom of the tank, motionless. Jason sighed. Just because he needed to get back didn't mean the hippo would comply.
A little redheaded kid stood beside Jason on his tiptoes. "Make it come up, Mommy," he complained.
"The hippo's resting," the woman behind him explained. "He can hold his breath for a very long time."
Jason clasped his hands together. Should he go for it, just dive in? Maybe. At least he would wait until he was unobserved. Even though the zoo was fairly crowded today, an opportunity would eventually arise.
Secretly, though he hated to admit it, he knew he would not jump. He had already passed up countless opportunities. It was just too uncertain.
"What's that music, Mom?"
Jason glanced at the kid and then listened.
He heard a distant, basso melody, much like a tuba, but somehow richer. Jason's hands squeezed the railing. How long had it been playing before he had noticed it? The resonant melody was gradually increasing in volume. He looked at the woman beside him.
"You hear that?"
The woman nodded, her brow furrowed. "Is it coming from the tank?"
"I think so." Jason bit his lower lip. He could have elaborated that the music was originating from a separate reality through the hippopotamus.
Jason felt his heart hammering. Here was evidence. The gate was open. If he was ever really going to do this, the time had arrived. He would be foolish to expect a more obvious opportunity. He gripped the railing more tightly.
Did he really want to go? How would his family feel? He wasn't much closer to his parents than he had ever been. They had made a real effort after his return, although the attention had mostly made him feel like a psych patient being handled with kid gloves. He appreciated the intent, and had tried to show it, but he and his parents had never really been on the same wavelength. Once the excitement of his return had faded, the same old patterns of life had resumed. Still, a second disappearance would certainly be hard on them. Poor Matt would be stunned.
This trip to Lyrian didn't have to be permanent, though--he knew a way back. Sure, deadly enemies awaited him. There was a very real chance he would get killed and never make it home. But what he needed to accomplish was worth the risk. He had to let Galloran and Tark and the others know that the Word was a fraud. And he had to rescue Rachel.
Jason glanced back at the Monument to Human Stupidity, a glass case displaying items careless people had tossed into the hippo tank. If the hippo mauled him instead of gulping him into another world, maybe they could hang his corpse in there.
If he succeeded in being swallowed before the eyes of this woman and her son, what would his family and friends think? Surely they'd assume he was dead. They would probably decide he had succumbed to depression and lost his mind. How would people explain the hippo swallowing him whole? Though large, the animal did not look big enough for such a feat.
Then again, as long as he made it back to Lyrian, who cared what others thought? It might be a little harder to explain his reappearance next time, but he could stress about that later.
The volume of the music continued to increase, still just the deep notes of a single instrument. The placid hippo did not stir from the bottom of the tank. Jason rubbed his palms together. He looked over at the woman, who was leaning against the rail, attentive.
She met his gaze and then said, "Isn't that peculiar?"
"Yep. I'm going to investigate." Taking a deep breath, Jason flung himself over the railing and plunged into the water. He stroked down to the hippo, which remained motionless. Hesitantly, he touched him on the snout, receiving no reaction.
Jason surfaced. The woman was screaming and her son was crying. A few people were hustling over, attracted by the commotion. Last time the hippo had swallowed him spontaneously. How could a person coax a hippo into doing something like that?
Jason dove under again. He tried to slap the hippo, but could not get much force behind the underwater blow. He jabbed his fingers deep into the animal's wide nostrils, and prodded at his eyes. The great head suddenly jerked to one side, making Jason flinch involuntarily. The head swung back and forth before becoming still again. Jason gave him a final poke in the nostril, then swam up for air.
Quite a crowd had gathered. The woman continued shrieking. "Get out of there!" a man shouted. "What's the matter with you?"
Treading water and feeling deeply embarrassed, Jason realized how insane all of this must appear to bystanders. He had a feeling there would be more visits to the therapist in his future. The sluggish hippo evidently had no interest in him, and could not be antagonized. But Jason would try one more time.
Something brushed Jason's leg. He glanced down. The hippo was rising rapidly from directly beneath him, jaws agape. As the bloated brown pachyderm broke the surface of the water around him, Jason was already mostly swallowed. Huge jaws clamped shut amid a chorus of horrified screams, abruptly terminating Jason's view of the onlookers.
Sliding feetfirst down a slick, rubbery tunnel, Jason heard the screams recede as the volume of the low-pitched melody increased. All was dark until he came to a jarring halt, his legs protruding from a gap in a dying tree.
He lay inside the hollow trunk, staring up through the top at the stars, his clothes soaked. The deep, resonant melody continued.
Jason scooted out of the gap, his backpack making it awkward, and recognized the scene--the tall trees, the dense shrubs, the wide river. He was back in Lyrian.
He hurried to the riverbank. The night was balmy, so his wet clothes did not really bother him. A gibbous moon hung in the clear sky, illuminating the river. A small craft drifted on the dark water. A single figure stood on the humble raft, wrapped in an enormous horn.
"Tark?" Jason called in disbelief. "Tark!"
The music stopped. "Who's there?" replied a gravelly voice.
The figure on the raft stumbled. "Lord of Caberton?"
"Are you … his shade?" The voice sounded awestruck.
"No, it's really me. I'm back." Jason could hardly believe it himself. "Come over here."
The short, robust figure struggled to unburden himself of the cumbersome instrument. Once free of the sousalax, he sculled over to the bank, peering forward suspiciously. The raft bumped against the shore. Tark hesitated. "Come forward so I can see you better."
Jason realized he had been standing in shadow. He stepped sideways into the moonlight.
"How can this be?" Tark gasped. "You were taken by the emperor."
"I escaped to the Beyond. Now I'm back."
Tark sprang from the raft and fell to his knees in the mud before Jason, hands clasped over his broad chest, tear tracks glinting on his cheeks in the moonlight. "My heart is going to rupture with joy," he proclaimed. "How did you escape?"
Mildly stunned at the exuberant reception, it took Jason a moment to answer. "I had help. Where's Rachel?"
"We parted ways," Tark said. "A strategic move, suggested by Drake."
"Drake? Was this before or after he freed me on the road to Felrook?"
"He helped us before and after. Our enemies dispatched a lurker, so the only way to stay ahead of our foes was constant movement."
"A lurker?" Jason exclaimed. "Ferrin told me that lurkers are really bad news."
"The lurker made matters much worse. Eventually we split up to confuse and divide our pursuers. Drake and Rachel took horses one way, I rode off in another direction, leading a second mount, and we set loose a few other horses for good measure."
"What about Jasher?" Jason asked.
"I delivered the amar of the seedman to his people, at one of the gates to the Seven Vales. He should have been planted weeks ago."
Jason stared down at Tark. "Why are you here alone, playing your sousalax?"
Tark looked away. "Not my sousalax. Mine is long gone. I got this mediocre substitute from a pawnbroker. You see, once I assured the safety of the seedman, I kept running, and eventually found my way home. I had no idea how to rejoin Drake and Rachel. I could only hope that the lurker had deserted them to follow me."
"They're also called torivors, right? I don't know much about them, except for what Ferrin told me."
Tark shuddered. "The common name is lurker. Since splitting from the others, I've glimpsed a dark presence in the distance from time to time, but never got an honest look."
"So the lurker followed you?" Jason said. "Rachel and Drake may have gotten away?"
"No way to be sure," Tark replied. "Having never met a torivor, I can't be certain what exactly tracked me. I pray that I drew away the worst of Rachel and Drake's pursuers. For the first couple of nights at home, no longer on the move, I expected to be taken. But no enemies ever appeared on my threshold. Instead, I began to stew. My guilt hollowed me out. I would never have left you behind, Lord Jason, had you not entrusted me with the amar. I would have fought to the death at your side."
It took Jason a moment to realize that Tark truly felt bad for leaving him at Harthenham. "You did the right thing, Tark. We had to give Jasher a chance at survival. And you had to help Rachel. You did what I wanted."
Tark's eyes remained downcast. "I couldn't shake the certainty that in abandoning you to be captured, I had performed my culminating act of betrayal. Not only had I let the Giddy Nine sacrifice themselves without me, I had forsaken the person who had revived my dignity and granted me renewed purpose. Part of me wanted to mount a solitary assault on Felrook, but the undertaking felt too hopeless and too grand. So I purchased a secondhand sousalax, built this small raft, and tonight intended to finish what I started months ago with my comrades."
"You were headed for the falls? Tark, you have to overcome--"
Tark raised a hand to interrupt. "Waste no words. Even I can read signs this obvious. You are a specter descended from realms ethereal, and for some unfathomable reason you have condescended time and again to rescue me from self-pity."
"I'm just a regular person."
Tark snorted a laugh. "Whatever you may be, you are no regular person. Do not protest. In gratitude, I formally vow to serve you until my dying breath." He prostrated himself further on the muddy bank, bowing his head low. "I pledge to you my fealty. All I have is yours." The final words were uttered in profound solemnity.
Jason felt touched by the display. He also felt awkward. "Get up, Tark."
Somewhat troubled, Jason folded his arms across his chest. "Look, there's something I need to tell you."
Jason cleared his throat. "It might affect how you feel about me."
"I can't imagine holding you in higher esteem."
"That's not what I'm worried about."
Tark huffed a quick chuckle. "Nothing could make me think less of you."
Jason gave a small shrug. "Remember that night when eight of the Giddy Nine plunged over the waterfall?"
Tark scowled. "How could I forget?"
"Your music summoned me from the Beyond. And once I entered your world, I tried to prevent you from going over the falls!"
Tark sputtered, clutching his head with both hands. "Wait, hold on, you were the accursed interloper who tried to rescue us?"
"I was." Jason knew that Tark blamed the wannabe rescuer for ruining what was supposed to be a majestic sacrifice by the Giddy Nine.
In the moonlight, Tark's rugged countenance slowly became illuminated with comprehension. He spoke like a man beholding a vision. "Then we succeeded." He thrust a finger at Jason. "You were the hero the oracle told Simeon he would summon. And our destruction was not a prerequisite to our success. Quite the contrary … you arrived before any of us had perished, and you tried to save us from our folly."
"I'm not sure I'm a hero."
Tark waved the comment away. "This is no occasion for false modesty. I believed that by surviving, I had spoiled the prophecy and hindered the arrival of the hero. But I didn't." He paused. "And they needn't have died." His jaw quivered, and then clenched tight. He swiped his forearm over his eyes.
Jason laid a comforting hand on Tark's sturdy shoulder.
"Wait!" Tark whispered in alarm, slapping himself on the forehead. "I am a buffoon! Quick, onto the raft."
"Hurry, my lord," Tark hissed. "I'll explain on the water."
Jason climbed aboard the small vessel, feeling it rock alarmingly beneath his weight. Tark shoved off, sloshing in the water before vaulting onto the raft, trousers soaked to the thighs.
"Stay down," Tark cautioned in a low, urgent tone. Jason crouched beside the sousalax. Tark sculled away from the bank, staring hastily about, narrowed eyes searching the night. "I can't be sure I ever lost the being that has been stalking me."
"The lurker?" Jason whispered, the night seeming suddenly chillier.
Tark glanced at Jason. "We don't want to take any chances. It's a dark, slippery creature. Last time I glimpsed it was yesterday evening. If I were its prey, the villain has had ample opportunities to fall upon me. Perhaps the fiend hoped I would lead it somewhere … or to somebody. To you, I suspect, seeing as you've escaped."
"What do you know about lurkers?"
Tark shivered. When he continued, his whisper was barely audible. "They're foul personages. Unnatural. Nobody really knows much. Drake advised us not to discuss them."
"If it might be after me, I need to know."
"I'm not sure myself. Folks say that if Death took a physical form, he would be a torivor. Whatever has followed me looks like a living shadow, best I can tell."
Jason furrowed his brow. "What should we do?"
"We must separate. You can't afford a lurker on your tail. They're difficult to shake. Believe me, I've tried. Drake tried too, and that seedman has forgotten more about woodcraft than I'll ever know. If we have any luck, the fiend may not yet realize you accompany me. I hesitate, but I think I'll drop you on the far bank."
"Why do you hesitate?"
Tark frowned. "Nobody goes into the forest north of the river. They say giants dwell there, and that few who enter ever return."
"So why send me that way?"
"It's the last place you would be expected to go. And the last place you would be followed. Aside from the shadowy presence, whatever it is, I have noticed soldiers paying unusual attention to me of late. For all I know, some may be trailing me now. I should have paid closer attention. I wasn't overly concerned. I thought I was going to my death."
They were past the middle of the wide river. Jason studied the approaching bank, lined with trees and ferns and shadows. "What about the giants?"
"I have ventured twice into those woods. Not overly far, mind you, but Simeon, our former leader, was curious. There was a man who relished exploration! Anyhow, we went in on two independent occasions for the better part of a day and saw no giants nor any sign of them. There are stories of the old hamlets near the forest being raided, but once the hamlets were abandoned, the stories ceased. Could be the giants moved on. Could be they never lived there."
They were nearing the far bank. Jason clenched his fists. How was he already in such trouble, not five minutes after returning to Lyrian? Then again, what exactly had he expected? With all of the potential danger, he was lucky to have found a friend so soon, even if they needed to part ways. Jason had an urgent message to share with Galloran, and Tark might be able to help ensure that the message would get delivered.
"If this is our plan," Jason whispered, "I need you to do something for me."
"Do you know where to find the Blind King?"
"Certainly. Fortaim. Same place as ever."
"I've got to tell him something. The secret is so dangerous, I probably shouldn't share it. But it's incredibly important."
"Have no fear. I am your man."
"Only repeat this to the Blind King. Let him decide who else should know. Tell him Lord Jason got the entire Key Word. I used it on Maldor. It's a fake, meant as a diversion. Also tell him I escaped from Felrook."
"You came before Maldor?" His voice was filled with grim wonder. "You used the Word?"
"Yes. It failed. The Word is meant as a distraction. Can you remember the message?"
"Absolutely. We'll have to warn Rachel as well. I shared the syllable you relayed to me. She has the entire Word."
"Exactly. We have to find her. Hopefully, the Blind King can help us."
"If you don't mind my asking, why the Blind King? I mean, he gives good advice, but what do you really expect from him?"
"Maybe he'll tell you. It isn't my place."
Tark tapped the side of his nose. "More to him than greets the eye, I take it. Have no fear, no matter who is hunting me, I'll find a way to deliver your message."
The small craft ran aground. Jason and Tark both hopped out to crouch in the bushes near the shore. Jason eyed the dreary forest.
"So where do I go?"
Tark rubbed his chin. By the change in his expression, Jason saw an idea strike him. "I'll send you to Aram. Set off to the northeast. Stay on that course until you reach the coast on the northern edge of the peninsula. Do you know the lay of the land north of here?"
"I don't. Except that we're on a peninsula."
"Follow the seashore east toward the mainland until you reach the first big town. That will be Ithilum. Near the southwestern extremity of town, right on the wharf, you'll find the Dockside Inn. Aram works nights there."
Tark snickered. "A huge fellow, toughest bruiser I've ever met. Used to do a lot of mercenary work. Now he keeps things quiet at the Dockside. Our group performed there regularly. We became good friends. He owes me a couple of favors. Tell him Tark sent you. If anybody can keep you safe, he's the man."
Tark began rummaging through his pockets. He brought out two drawstring bags.
"This has some money," he said, giving one of them a little shake. He then opened the second bag. "And this has some keepsakes from Harthenham."
Jason peered inside. It was full of jewels.
"Despite my recommendation, Aram may resist lending you aid. Though still strong as a bull and no older than I am, he considers himself retired. But every man has a price."
"So I offer him the jewels?"
"Not all of them. A few should be plenty. Keep them hidden. Carrying that much wealth can be fatal, particularly in a town like Ithilum."
"What should I do after hiring Aram?"
Tark scratched his cheek. "Have him escort you to a village called Potsug. It's on the Telkron River, and has a couple of ferries. After I deliver your message, I'll either rejoin you there or send someone to meet you. I'll only stay away if I still have enemies after me. The stableman Gurig is trustworthy. Mention my name to him, then await help in his home."
Jason repeated the names and instructions Tark had related.
"That is right." Tark heaved a sigh. "I'm overjoyed to see you, Lord Jason. Don't dally in the woods. Now I must away. Safe journey."
"Let me shove you off."
Tark climbed in and Jason pushed him away from the shore. Tark remounted the sousalax on his shoulders and began playing while skillfully manipulating the long oar. Jason swept his eyes along the riverbank, looking for living shadows or hidden soldiers. All appeared still. After one last look at Tark, Jason crept away from the river, into the gloom of the trees.