The Myth Hunters
Snow poured through the opening in the window and swirled and eddied about the parlor as though there were no difference between outside and inside. The storm had knocked, and now it had come in, uninvited. In a steady stream the blizzard slid through the inch-high gap between window and sash and raced around the room. Cold and damp, it slapped against his reading lamp and the bulb exploded, casting the room in darkness save for the light from the fire, which guttered weakly, only the iron mesh curtain keeping it from being doused completely.
Oliver gasped, sucked icy air into his lungs. His eyes were wide as he gazed about the room. He was too cold for this to be a dream, and his stomach hurt from the gust of solid air that had knocked him down. Splayed there on the carpet, he felt a sense of wonder but it was tainted by a primal fear that welled up from somewhere deep within him.
The storm began to churn and then to spin more tightly at the center of the parlor. The fire surrendered and went out, smoke sifting from dead embers and being sucked into the white ice whirlwind that knocked knickknacks off the coffee table and twisted up the rug beneath its feet.
Oh, Oliver thought. Oh, shit. What the fuck am I still doing here?
It was as though the frozen wind had numbed his mind as well as his body. No longer. He scrambled to his feet and ran across the parlor, bent to one side to fight the wind. His cocoa mug slid off a side table and shattered on the floor.
As he ran for the door, a gust of wind rushed past him, nearly knocking him over again, and blew it shut.
Oliver stood unmoving in the middle of the parlor, staring at the door. There had been purpose behind that wind. He was not alone. The storm was here, but it was more than just a storm.
He turned slowly. The vortex in front of the dark fireplace was changing, taking shape. Through the snow churning within that whirlwind, Oliver could see a figure, the same as he thought he had seen outside moments ago. A man, or so it seemed, made from ice, his body all perilously sharp edges, dagger fingers, and hair that swung and tinkled musically like a crystal chandelier.
Its eyes gleamed pale blue and with every twist of the vortex, every swing of its arms, it stared directly at him. At first Oliver had thought it was dancing but now he saw that it was carried by the snow, the storm.
“God, please, no,” Oliver whispered, shaking his head. “What the hell are you?”
The vortex slowed and then stopped.
The snow fell to the floor, blanketing the wood and carpet and furniture.
The winter man stood, chin proudly lifted, and cast a cold, cruel eye upon Oliver. Then he staggered, icy tread heavy upon the floor, and his sharp features changed. Pale blue eyes narrowed with pain and exhaustion, and Oliver saw that there was a chink taken out of his left side, like someone had chipped away a large sliver of ice.
“Help me,” the winter man whispered, in a voice like the gusting wind.
Then he fell hard, jagged features scoring the wooden floor. He lay half on the wood and half on the carpet. Where his wound was, water dripped onto the Oriental rug. Mind in a frantic tumult, Oliver stared at that spot and wondered if the winter man was melting.
You have got to be fucking kidding me.”
Oliver took a step closer to the figure that had collapsed on the parlor floor. Fragments of shattered lightbulb crunched beneath his shoes. The wind had died, the windows no longer rattled, but he could not tear his gaze from the still form of the winter man to spare a glance out the window. Snow or not, it seemed clear that the real storm had not been driven by nature but by the being who lay at Oliver’s feet. A wet spot spread on the rug around the winter man as though he were bleeding out, dying right there.
But it was melting ice, not blood. And this thing could not die, for it could not possibly be alive. Things like this did not exist. They did not whisk through barely open windows, dancing on snowflakes. This kind of shit just did not happen in real life.
The winter man twitched.
Oliver held his breath, afraid to move for fear that he would draw its attention. Help me, it had said. Even if Oliver knew how to do that, he doubted he would have the courage to try. After several moments, when the intruder had not moved again, Oliver let himself take the tiniest of breaths. His eyes had adjusted to the darkness of the room, only a faint glow from the embers of the extinguished fire providing any light at all. Still, he could see that the snow in the room was melting.
He risked a look at the parlor door— the door that had been slammed shut by the will of the storm itself. His mind backtracked to the loud rattling of the windows, the explosion of the lightbulb and scattering of knickknacks onto the floor, the muffled thud of his own fall, and at last the slamming of that door. Where was everyone? Had no one in the house heard all of that noise or were they simply assuming his pre-wedding jitters had driven him into some sort of tantrum?
Collette. Where was Collette? Certainly she had not yet gone to sleep. In his mind he pictured the bedroom his sister still slept in when she visited their parents. All of the family’s rooms were on the north side of the house and Oliver realized that it was entirely possible that, with their doors closed, neither his father nor his sister would have heard the sounds of discord from below.
His gaze ticked back toward the dim form of the winter man. Good, he thought. They’re safer if they stay where they are.
Though the embers grew dimmer in the fireplace and the darkness gathered closer around him, Oliver took a step nearer the fallen man. If man was indeed what he was. He seemed almost transparent in the gloom of that room and he stirred not at all; not even to breathe.
A light gust shook the windows. With a sharp intake of breath, Oliver snapped his head up to gaze at the cracked glass and beyond. The snow was still falling heavily, though the wind had lessened considerably. Still, every bit of bluster against the windows was likely to make him jump.
Oliver turned his attention back to the figure on the floor.
The winter man was staring at him.
The last of the embers began to die and the room faded to black. Oliver felt as though he himself were frozen, swallowed by the cold blackness of that room— that room that had only moments before been his one retreat in his father’s house. Quickly he shuffled backward several steps, trying to re-create the shape of the room, the placement of the furniture in his head. The love seat and chairs, the Gaudí floor lamp, the plants, the bookcases. He closed his eyes and took a steadying breath.
But inside his head he could still see those pale blue eyes staring at him in the glow of the fire’s last embers.
“Oh, Jesus,” Oliver whispered.
Something scraped the wood floor and Oliver snapped inside. He rushed for the parlor door, feet sliding in the melting slush beneath him, fearful that at any moment he would bark his shins on some forgotten table and fall over. He held his hands out in front of him and in seconds they struck the door; he jammed the index finger of his right hand and hissed in pain as he grabbed the knob and pulled the door open.
Dim light flooded in from the hall.
“Wait,” a voice called from behind him. “Please.”
His voice. The voice of the winter man. It was stronger now, or at least it seemed so, as though he spoke just beside Oliver or the air carried his words like snowflakes.
“Help me,” he said again.
Oliver paused on the threshold. Slowly, he forced himself to turn around. The light from the hall cut a swath across the parlor and in that light he could see the winter man clearly. He was on his knees on the carpet, one clawed, frozen hand upon the wound at his side, the other supporting him as he struggled to rise.
“I ask for little enough,” the winter man said, wincing with pain as he stood, icicle hair clinking together like wind chimes. “Safe passage from this house and to the ocean—”
“The— the ocean?” Oliver stammered, heart beating wildly. He was torn between the desire to flee and the plea of this proud being. Torn between terror and wonder yet again.
“It is Borderland,” the winter man said. Then he shook his head impatiently, annoyed— though with himself or his host, Oliver could not determine. “If you will help, it must be now. I barely escaped the Falconer and dare not tarry.”
Safe passage. Falconer. Borderland. With the pressure of the winter man’s urgency, Oliver could not interpret any of it save the idea that this intruder wanted to get out of the house and to the ocean without anyone else seeing him.
Icy brows knit in consternation. “Please.”
“Okay, okay, just wait. Just wait a second,” Oliver said.
Father and Collette were in their rooms. It was late enough that Friedle had probably retired to the carriage house by now. Oliver shook his head, blew out a long breath, trying to collect his thoughts. All right, get him out the back door and to the bluff. How hard can that be?
What the hell am I thinking?
Oliver reached out and clicked on the hated Gaudí lamp, then gently shut the door, once again closing himself in the parlor with his unexpected visitor. The many colors from the glass shade cast a rainbow of antique hues upon the sharp facets of the winter man’s frozen form.
“What are you?”
The winter man staggered slightly, dagger fingers still clamped to his side. He lowered his chin and glared dangerously at Oliver, an eerie fluorescent light in those pale blue eyes, now narrowed to slivers.
“I’ll help,” Oliver heard himself say, stunned by his own words. “I will. But tell me that, at least.”
Carefully the winter man moved to the fireplace and placed a hand upon the mantel to support himself. He cast a glance at the windows, at the storm outside, and when he turned his attention again to the question at hand, Oliver thought he saw fear in those haughty, jagged features.
“I have many names, but by your custom, I am known as Frost.”
Frost, Oliver thought. In his mind, something clicked into place. Tonight, this very night, had been the first snowfall of winter.
“Jack Frost,” he whispered.
Frost nodded curtly. “Now you must aid me, or I shall have to attempt to reach the Borderland on my own. The Falconer—”
“But,” Oliver interrupted, shaking his head, staring at the being he still half thought of as the winter man. “You’re just a myth.”
With a hiss, colors sliding over his translucent form, Frost lunged across the parlor at Oliver. The winter man did not so much leap as flow. Terror shot through Oliver and his heart thundered in his chest as Frost clutched him by the throat in a frozen grip, icy fingers like arrows embedding themselves in the wooden door, trapping Oliver there.
Frost sneered, showing glistening fangs like ice diamonds, and a polar wind seemed to wash from his open mouth as he spoke.
“Don’t ever call me that again. Nor any other of my kin. Many of the Borderkind would slay you for that. I might have as well, another day.”
Oliver felt his neck freezing, his skin sticking to the winter man’s hand. He stared into those frozen eyes and swallowed hard.
“I . . . I’m sorry. I didn’t know,” he rasped.
Frost glared at him another moment, then pried his fingers from the wood and pulled his hand away, the ice tugging at Oliver’s throat, leaving the skin seared by the cold.
“Will you aid me?” the winter man asked.
Frost exhaled a blast of misty, frozen air and seemed to diminish somehow. His eyes— lashes tiny spikes of ice— fluttered lightly and his hand slipped away from the gouge in his side. Water spilled from that wound in a small cascade that spattered Oliver’s pants. He could feel the freezing chill of that water, the winter man’s blood, soak into the fabric and numb his skin where it touched.
The winter man slumped toward him. Stunned, Oliver reached up to support him and his hands slid on the creature’s frozen surface, barely able to get a grip beneath his arms. Frost’s body was so cold that it burned to touch him. It was as though only his fear and rage had kept the creature going and now, whatever he was, monster or myth, this thing who claimed to be Jack Frost had surrendered to injury and exhaustion.
“Shit,” Oliver hissed at the pain in his hands. He spun around and propped Frost against the wall. “You’ve got to stand here. Right here, while I get . . . I don’t know, gloves or something. A minute. Just one minute. I’ll be right back, I swear.”
Those frozen breaths came shallower, but Frost’s eyes opened, still glowing ice blue, and he nodded. “Go. Quickly. I place my trust in you. What are you called?”
“Oliver,” he said quickly. “Oliver Bascombe.”
“Make haste, Oliver. Time is short. As long as I remain herein, you are in danger as well.”
Not liking the sound of that at all, Oliver backed away from Frost, blowing on his frozen hands, then rubbing them together. No way, he thought. But the feeling was coming back into his hands, and with it, the pain. There could be no doubt that this was real. Which meant that this danger, this Falconer, Frost was talking about must be real as well.
Oliver opened the door carefully and stepped out into the hall. It was dark save for a lamp in a corner just outside the dining room and the soft orange glow of Christmas lights in the windows. He shut the door behind him, then rushed along the hall with as much stealth as he could manage. The house was silent save for the loud tick of a grandfather clock as he entered the main foyer.
Oliver allowed himself a tiny sigh of relief and cautiously opened the door to the large coat closet built in beneath the grand staircase. It took him a moment to find a pair of thick ski gloves and a wool scarf striped red, blue, and yellow.
“Hello? Oliver, is that you?”
Like a thief caught in the act he dropped the gloves and scarf and backed out of the closet. Collette stood at the top of the stairs, clad in red cotton pajamas that made her look younger than ever.
“Hey,” she said with a sleepy smile. “What are you doing down there?”
“Nothing,” he replied, perhaps too quickly. From her vantage point, at least, she would not have been able to see exactly what he had been up to in the closet. “Just trying to find this old leather coat I haven’t seen around in a while.”