As a Knight of the Word, John Ross has struggled against the dark forces of the Void and his minions for twenty-five years. The grim future he dreams each night-- a world reduced to blood and ashes--will come true, unless he can stop them now, in the present.
The birth of a gypsy morph, a rare and dangerous creature that could be an invaluable weapon in his fight against the Void, brings John Ross and Nest Freemark together again. Twice before, with the fate of the world hanging in the balance, the lives of Ross and Nest have intersected. Together, they have prevailed. But now they will face an ancient evil beyond anything they have ever encountered, a demon of ruthless intelligence and feral cunning. As a firestorm of evil erupts, threatening to consume lives and shatter dreams, they have but a single chance to solve the mystery of the Gypsy morph--and their own profound connection.
He stands at the edge of a barren and ravaged orchard looking up from the base of a gentle rise to where the man hangs from a wooden cross. Iron spikes have been hammered through the man's hands and feet, and his wrists and ankles have been lashed tightly in place so he will not tear free. Slash wounds crisscross his broken body, and he bleeds from a deep puncture in his side. His head droops in the shadow of his long, lank hair, and the rise and fall of his chest as he breathes is shallow and weak.
Behind him, serving as a poignant backdrop to the travesty of his dying, stands the fire-blackened shell of a tiny, burned-out country church. The cross from which the man hangs has been stripped from the sanctuary, torn free from the metal brackets that secured it to the wall behind the altar, and set into the earth. Patches of polished oak glisten faintly in the gray daylight, attesting to the importance it was once accorded in the worshipping of God.
Somewhere in the distance, back where the little town that once supported this church lies, screams rise up against the unmistakable sounds of butchery.
John Ross stands motionless for the longest time, pondering the implications of the horrific scene before him. There is nothing he can do for the man on the cross. He is not a doctor; he does not possess medical skills. His magic can heal and sustain only himself and no other. He is a Knight of the Word, but he is a failure, too. He lives out his days alone in a future he could not prevent. What he looks upon is not unusual in the postapocalyptic horror of civilization's demise, but is sadly familiar and disturbingly mundane.
He can take the man down, he decides finally, even if he cannot save him. By his presence, Ross can give the man a small measure of peace and comfort.
Beneath a wintry sky that belies the summer season, he strides up the rise to the man on the cross. The man does not lift his head or stir in any way that would indicate he knows Ross is present. Beneath a sheen of sweat and blood, his lean, muscular body is marked with old wounds and scars. He has endured hardships and abuse somewhere in his past, and it seems unfair that he should end his days in still more pain and desolation.
Ross slows as he nears, his eyes drifting across the blackened facade of the church and the trees surrounding it. Eyes glimmer in the shadows, revealing the presence of feeders. They hover at the fringes of his vision and in the concealment of sunless corners, waiting to assuage their hunger. They do not wait for Ross. They wait for the man on the cross. They wait for him to die, so they can taste his passing from life into death--the most exquisite, fulfilling, and rare of the human emotions they crave.
Ross stares at them until the light dims in their lantern eyes and they slip back into darkness to bide their time.
A shattered length of wood catches the Knight's attention, and his eyes shift to the foot of the cross. The remains of a polished black staff lie before him--a staff like the one he carries in his hands. A shock goes through him. He stares closely, unable to believe what he has discovered. There must be a mistake, he thinks. There must be another explanation.
But there is neither. Like himself, the man on the cross is a Knight of the Word.
He moves quickly now, striding forward to help, to lower the cross, to remove the spikes, to free the man who hangs helplessly before him.
But the man senses him now and in a ragged, whispery voice says, Don't touch me.
Ross stops instantly, the force of the other's words and the surprise of his consciousness bringing him to a halt.
They have poisoned me, the other says.
Ross draws a long, slow breath and exhales in weary recognition: Those who have crucified this Knight of the Word have coated him in a poison conjured of demon magic. He is without hope.
Ross steps back, looking up at the Knight on the cross, at the slow, shallow rise and fall of his breast, at the rivulets of blood leaking from his wounds, at the shadow of his face, still concealed within the curtain of his long hair.
They caught me when I did not have my magic to protect me, the stricken Knight says softly. I had expended it all on an effort to escape them earlier. I could not replenish it quickly enough. Sensing I was weak, they gave chase. They hunted me down. Demons and once-men, a small army hunting pockets of resistance beyond the protection of the city fortresses. They found me hiding in the town below. They dragged me here and hung me on this cross to die. Now they kill all those who tried to help me.
Ross finds his attention drawn once more to the shrieks that come from the town. They are beginning to fade, to drain away into a deep, ominous silence.
I have not done well in my efforts to save mankind, the Knight whispers. He gasps and chokes on the dryness in his throat. Blood bubbles to his lips and runs down his chin to his chest.
Nor have any of us, Ross says.
There were chances. There were times when we might have made a difference.
Ross sighs. We did with them what we could.
A bird's soft warble wafts through the trees. Black smoke curls skyward from the direction of the town, rife with the scent of human carnage.
Perhaps you were sent to me.
Ross turns from the smoke to look again at the man on the cross, not understanding.
Perhaps the Word sent you to me. A final chance at redemption.
No one sent me, Ross thinks, but does not speak the words.
You will wake in the present and go on. I will die here. You will have a chance to make a difference still. I will not.
No one sent me, Ross says quickly now, suddenly uneasy.
But the other is not listening. In late fall, three days after Thanksgiving, once long ago, when I was on the Oregon coast, I captured a gypsy morph.
His words wheeze from his mouth, coated in the sounds of his dying. But as he speaks, his voice seems to gain intensity.
It is my greatest regret, that I found it, so rare, so precious, made it my own, and could not solve the mystery of its magic. The chance of a lifetime, and I let it slip away.
The man on the cross goes silent then, gasping slowly for breath, fighting to stay alive just a few moments longer, broken and shattered within and without, left in his final moments to contemplate the failures he perceives are his. Eyes reappear in the shadows of the burned-out church and blighted orchard, the feeders beginning to gather in anticipation. Ross can scorch the earth with their gnarled bodies, can strew their cunning eyes like leaves in the wind, but it will all be pointless. The feeders are a part of life, of the natural order of things, and you might as well decide there is no place for humans either, for it is the humans who draw the feeders and sustain them.
The Knight of the Word who hangs from the cross is speaking again, telling him of the gypsy morph, of how and when and where it will be found, of the chance Ross might have of finding it again. He is giving Ross the details, preparing him for the hunt, thinking to give another the precious opportunity that he has lost. But he is giving Ross the chance to fail as well, and it is on that alone his listener settles in black contemplation.
Do this for me if you can, the man whispers, his voice beginning to fail him completely, drying up with the draining away of his life, turning parched and sandy in his throat. Do it for yourself.
Ross feels the implications of the stricken Knight's charge razor through him. If he undertakes so grave and important a mission, if he embraces so difficult a cause, it may be his own undoing.
Yet, how can he do otherwise?
The words are thin and weak and empty of life. Ross stares in silence at the man.
Promise me ...
John Ross awoke with sunshine streaming down on his face and the sound of children's voices ringing in his ears. The air was hot and sticky, and the smell of fresh turned earth and new leaves rose on a sudden breeze. He blinked and sat up. He was hitch-hiking west through Pennsylvania, and he had stopped at a park outside Allentown to rest, then fallen asleep beneath the canopy of an old hardwood. He had thought only to doze for a few minutes, but he hadn't slept well in days, and the lack of sleep had finally caught up to him.
He gazed around slowly to regain his bearings. The park was large and thickly wooded, and he had chosen a spot well back from the roads and playgrounds to rest. He was alone. He looked down at his backpack and duffel bag, then at the polished black staff in his hands. His throat was dry and his head ached. A spot deep in his chest burned with the fury of hot coals.
His dream shimmered in a haze of sunlight just before his eyes, images from a private hell.
He was a Knight of the Word, living one life in the present and another in the future, one while awake and another while asleep, one in which he was given a chance to change the world and another in which he must live forever with the consequences of his failure to do so. He had accepted the charge almost twenty-five years ago and had lived with it ever since. He had spent almost the whole of his adult life engaged in a war that had begun with the inception of life and would not end until its demise. There were no boundaries to the battlefield on which he fought--neither of space nor of time. There could be no final resolution.
But the magic of a gypsy morph could provide leverage of a sort that could change everything.
He reached in his backpack and brought forth a battered water bottle. Removing the cap, he drank deeply from its lukewarm contents, finding momentary relief for the dryness in his throat and mouth. He had trouble fitting the cap in place again. The dream had shaken him. His dreams did so often, for they were of a world in which madness ruled and horror was commonplace. There was hope in the present of his waking, but none in the future of his sleep.
Still, this dream was different.
He climbed to his feet, strapped the backpack in place, picked up the duffel bag, and walked back through the park toward the two-lane blacktop that wound west toward Pittsburgh. As always, the events of his dream would occur soon in his present, giving him a chance to affect them in a positive way. It was June. The gypsy morph would be born three days after Thanksgiving. If he was present and if he was quick enough, he would be able to capture it.
Then he would have roughly thirty days to change the course of history.
That challenge would have shaken any man, but it was not the challenge of the gypsy morph that haunted Ross as he walked from the park to begin his journey west. It was his memory of the man on the cross in his dream, the fallen Knight of the Word. It was the man's face as it had lifted from the shadow of his long hair in the final moments of his life.
For the face of the man hanging on the cross had been his own.
SUNDAY, DECEMBER 21
Nest Freemark had just finished dressing for church when she heard the knock at the front door. She paused in the middle of applying her mascara at the bathroom mirror and glanced over her shoulder, thinking she might have been mistaken, that she wasn't expecting anyone and it was early on a Sunday morning for visitors to come around without calling first.
She went back to applying her makeup. A few minutes later the knock came again.
She grimaced, then glanced quickly at her watch for confirmation. Sure enough. Eight forty-five. She put down her mascara, straightened her dress, and checked her appearance in the mirror. She was tall, a shade under five-ten, lean, and fit, with a distance runner's long legs, narrow hips, and small waist. She had seemed gangly and bony all through her early teens, except when she ran, but she had finally grown into her body. At twenty-nine, she moved with an easy, fluid model's grace that belied the strength and endurance she had acquired and maintained through years of rigorous training.
She studied herself in the mirror with the same frank, open stare she gave everyone. Her green eyes were wide-set beneath arched brows in her round, smooth Charlie Brown face. Her cinnamon hair was cut short and curled tightly about her head, framing her small, even features. People told her all the time she was pretty, but she never quite believed them. Her friends had known her all her life and were inclined to be generous in their assessments. Strangers were just being polite.
Still, she told herself with more than a trace of irony, fluffing her hair into place, you never know when Prince Charming will come calling. Best to be ready so you don't lose out.
She left the mirror and the bathroom and walked through her bedroom to the hall beyond. She had been up since five-thirty, running on the mostly empty roads that stretched from Sinnissippi Park east to Moonlight Bay. Winter had set in several weeks before with the first serious snowfall, but the snow had melted during a warm spot a week ago, and there had been no further accumulation. Patches of sooty white still lay in the darker, shadowy parts of the woods and in the culverts and ditches where the snowplows had pushed them, but the blacktop of the country roads was dry and clear. She did five miles, then showered, fixed herself breakfast, ate, and dressed. She was due in church to help in the nursery at nine-thirty, and whoever it was who had come calling would have to be quick.
She passed the aged black-and-white tintypes and photographs of the women of her family, their faces severe and spare in the plain wooden picture frames, backdropped by the dark webbing of trunks and limbs of the park trees. Gwendolyn Wills, Carolyn Glynn, and Opal Anders. Her grandmother's picture was there, too. Nest had added it after Gran's death. She had chosen an early picture, one in which Evelyn Freemark appeared youthful and raw and wild, hair all tousled, eyes filled with excitement and promise. That was the way Nest liked to remember Gran. It spoke to the strengths and weaknesses that had defined Gran's life.
Nest scanned the group as she went down the hallway, admiring the resolve in their eyes. The Freemark women, she liked to call them. All had entered into the service of the Word, partnering themselves with Pick to help the sylvan keep in balance the strong, core magic that existed in the park. All had been born with magic of their own, though not all had managed it well. She thought briefly of the dark secrets her grandmother had kept, of the deceptions she herself had employed in the workings of her own magic, and of the price she had paid for doing so.
Her mother's picture was missing from the group. Caitlin Anne Freemark had been too fragile for the magic's demands. She had died young, just after Nest was born, a victim of her demon lover's treachery. Nest kept her pictures on a table in the living room where it was always sunlit and cheerful.
The knock came a third time just as she reached the door and opened it. The tiny silver bells that encircled the bough wreath that hung beneath the peephole tinkled softly with the movement. She had not done much with Christmas decorations--no tree, no lights, no tinsel, only fresh greens, a scattering of brightly colored bows, and a few wall hangings that had belonged to Gran. This year Christmas would be celebrated mostly in her heart.
The chill, dry winter air was sharp and bracing as she unlatched the storm door, pushed it away, and stepped out onto the porch.
The old man who stood waiting was dressed all in black. He was wearing what in other times would have been called a frock coat, which was double-breasted with wide lapels and hung to his knees. A flat-brimmed black hat sat firmly in place over wisps of white hair that stuck out from underneath as if trying to escape. His face was seamed and browned by the wind and sun, and his eyes were a watery gray as they blinked at her. When he smiled, as he was doing, his whole face seemed to join in, creasing cheerfully from forehead to chin. He was taller than Nest by several inches, and he stooped as if to make up for the disparity.
She was reminded suddenly of an old-time preacher, the kind that appeared in southern gothics and ghost stories, railing against godlessness and mankind's paucity of moral resolve.
"Good morning," he said, his voice gravelly and deep. He dipped his head slightly, reaching up to touch the brim of his odd hat.
"Good morning," she replied.
"Miss Freemark, my name is Findo Gask," he announced. "I am a minister of the faith and a bearer of the holy word."
As if to emphasize the point, he held up a black, leather-bound tome from which dangled a silken bookmark.
She nodded, waiting. Somehow he knew her name, although she had no memory of meeting him before.
"It is a fine, grand morning to be out and about, so I won't keep you," he said, smiling reassuringly. "I see you are on your way to church. I wouldn't want to stand in the way of a young lady and her time of worship. Take what comfort you can in the moment, I say. Ours is a restless, dissatisfied world, full of uncertainties and calamities and impending disasters, and we would do well to be mindful of the fact that small steps and little cautions are always prudent."
It wasn't so much the words themselves, but the way in which he spoke them that aroused a vague uneasiness in Nest. He made it sound more like an admonition than the reassurance it was intended to be.
"What can I do for you, Mr. Gask?" she asked, anxious for him to get to the point.
His head cocked slightly to one side. "I'm looking for a man," he said. "His name is John Ross."
Nest started visibly, unable to hide her reaction. John Ross. She hadn't seen or communicated with him for more than ten years.
She hadn't even heard his name spoken by anyone but Pick.
"John Ross," she repeated flatly. Her uneasiness heightened.
The old man smiled. "Has he contacted you recently, Miss Freemark? Has he phoned or written you of late?"
She shook her head no. "Why would he do that, Mr. Gask?"
The smile broadened, as if to underline the silliness of such a question. The watery gray eyes peered over her shoulder speculatively. "Is he here already, Miss Freemark?"
A hint of irritation crept into her voice. "Who are you, Mr. Gask? Why are you interested in John Ross?"
"I already told you who I am, Miss Freemark. I am a minister of the faith. As for my interest in Mr. Ross, he has something that belongs to me."
She stared at him. Something wasn't right about this. The air about her warmed noticeably, changed color and taste and texture. She felt a roiling inside, where Wraith lay dormant and dangerously ready, the protector chained to her soul.
"Perhaps we could talk inside?" Findo Gask suggested.
He moved as if to enter her home, a subtle shift of weight from one foot to the other, and she found herself tempted simply to step aside and let him pass. But she held her ground, the uneasiness becoming a tingling in the pit of her stomach. She forced herself to look carefully at him, to meet his eyes directly.
The tingling changed abruptly to a wave of nausea.
She took a deep, steadying breath and exhaled. She was in the presence of a demon.
"I know what you are," she said quietly.
The smile stayed in place, but any trace of warmth disappeared. "And I know what you are, Miss Freemark," Findo Gask replied smoothly. "Now, is Mr. Ross inside or isn't he?"
Nest felt the chill of the winter air for the first time and shivered in spite of herself. A demon coming to her home with such bold intent was unnerving. "If he was, I wouldn't tell you. Why don't you get off my porch, Mr. Gask?"
Findo Gask shifted once more, a kind of settling in that indicated he had no intention of moving until he was ready. She felt Wraith stir awake inside, sensing her danger.
"Let me just say a few things to you, Miss Freemark, and then I'll go," Findo Gask said, a bored sigh escaping his lips. "We are not so different, you and I. When I said I know what you are, I meant it. You are your father's daughter, and we know what he was, don't we? Perhaps you don't care much for the reality of your parentage, but truth will out, Miss Freemark. You are what you are, so there isn't much point in pretending otherwise, though you work very hard at doing so, don't you?"
Nest flushed with anger, but Findo Gask waved her off. "I also said I was a minister of the faith. You assumed I meant your faith naturally, but you were mistaken. I am a servant of the Void, and it is the Void's faith I embrace. You would pretend it is an evil, wicked faith. But that is a highly subjective conclusion. Your faith and mine, like you and I, are not so different. Both are codifications of the higher power we seek to comprehend and, to the extent we are able, manipulate. Both can be curative or destructive. Both have their supporters and their detractors, and each seeks dominance over the other. The struggle between them has been going on for eons; it won't end today or tomorrow or the day after or anytime soon."
He stepped forward, kindly face set in a condescending smile that did nothing to hide the threat behind it. "But one day it will end, and the Word will be destroyed. It will happen, Miss Freemark, because the magic of the Void has always been the stronger of the two. Always. The frailties and weaknesses of mankind are insurmountable. The misguided belief that the human condition is worth salvaging is patently ridiculous. Look at the way the world functions, Miss Freemark. Human frailties and weaknesses abound. Moral corruption here, venal desires there. Greed, envy, sloth, and all the rest at every turn. The followers of the Word rail against them endlessly and futilely. The Void embraces them, and turns a weakness into a strength. Pacifism and meek acceptance? Charity and goodwill? Kindness and virtue? Rubbish!"
"No, no, hear me out, young lady. A little of that famous courtesy, please." He cut short her protestation with a sharp hiss. "I don't tell you this to frighten you. I don't tell it to you to persuade you of my cause. I could care less what you feel or think about me. I tell it to you to demonstrate the depth of my conviction and my commitment. I am not easily deterred. I want you to understand that my interest in Mr. Ross is of paramount importance. Think of me as a tidal wave and yourself as a sand castle on a beach. Nothing can save you from me if you stand in my way. It would be best for you to let me move you aside. There is no reason for you not to let me do so. None at all. You have nothing vested in this matter. You have nothing to gain by intervening and everything to lose."
He paused then, lifting the leather-bound book and pressing it almost reverently against his chest. "These are the names of those who have opposed me, Miss Freemark. The names of the dead. I like to keep track of them, to think back on who they were. I have been alive a very long time, and I shall still be alive long after you are gone."
He lowered the book and put a finger to his lips. "This is what I want you to do. You will have no trouble understanding my request, because I will put it to you in familiar terms. In the terms of your own faith. I want you to deny John Ross. I want you to cast him out of your heart and mind and soul as you would a cancer. I want you to shun him as a leper. Do this for yourself, Miss Freemark, not for me. I will have him anyway, in the end. I do not need to claim you as well."
Nest was buffeted by so many emotions she could no longer distinguish them. She had kept quiet during the whole of his noxious, execrable presentation, fighting to keep herself and an increasingly agitated Wraith under control. She didn't think Findo Gask knew of Wraith, and she did not want him to discover Wraith was there unless that became unavoidable. She needed to know more of what was going on first, because she wasn't for a moment thinking of acceding to a single demand he had made.
"John Ross isn't here," she managed, gripping the storm-door frame so tightly with one hand her knuckles turned white.
"I accept that, Miss Freemark," Findo Gask said with a slight dip of his flat-brimmed hat. "But he will be."
"What makes you so sure?"
She could see in his eyes that he believed he had won her over, that she was trying to find a way to cooperate with him. "Call it a hunch. I have been following his progress for a time, and I think I know him pretty well. He will come. When he does, or even if he tries to make contact another way, don't do anything to help him."
"What does he have that you want?" she pressed, curious now.
The demon shrugged. "A magic, Miss Freemark. A magic he would attempt to use against me, I'm afraid."
She nodded slowly. "But that you will attempt to use against him, instead?"
Findo Gask stepped back, reaching up to touch the brim of his hat. "I have taken up enough of your time. Your Sunday worship awaits. I'll look forward to your call."
"Mr. Gask," she called to him as he started down the porch steps toward the walk. He turned back to her, squinting against the bright December sunlight. "My grandfather kept a shotgun in his bedroom closet for duck hunting. When my father tried to come back into this house fifteen years ago, my grandmother used that shotgun to prevent him from doing so. I still have that shotgun. If you ever step foot on my property again, I will use it on you. I will blow away your miserable disguise and leave you naked in your demon form for however long it takes you to put yourself back together and all the while be hoping to God you won't be able to do so!"
Findo Gask stared at her speechless, and then his face underwent such a terrible transformation that she thought he might come at her. Instead he turned away, strode up the walk to the roadway without looking back, and disappeared.
Nest Freemark waited until he was out of sight, then walked back inside and slammed the door so hard the jolt knocked the pictures of the Freemark women askew.
Reviews"That is Brooks' way of casting spells--transporting his readers into plausible realms where sorcery is alive, whether those places are in other ages or right in the middle of our own. As a result, he's reaped more than a few magical moments . . ."
"Superior to most of the fantasy fiction being published today."
--Rocky Mountain News