The Myth Hunters
Snow swept past his legs and out over the precipice. Oliver went down on his knees, two feet from the edge, Frost lying against him. The mist that leaked from the winter man’s eyes was like cloud tears.
Frigid, frozen, filled with a kind of terror he had never imagined, Oliver turned one final time to glance toward home. A dim glimmer of Christmas lights was all he could see through the blizzard. The huge silhouette of the Falconer had risen, head and shoulders and wings a dreadful void in the heart of the storm. It opened its beak, this cruel hunter, raised its taloned hands, now empty of any forged weapon and yet no less terrible, and the Falconer shrieked once more.
“You must come,” Frost whispered weakly, and Oliver heard him as though the words had been spoken inside his head. “Otherwise you will die.”
Throat raw, Oliver stared down at the winter man, so still in his arms. Now he saw a glimmer of blue light in those diamond eyes.
“Where?” Oliver rasped, feeling as though to speak the word had cost him his final breath. Yet somehow he knew.
The Falconer shrieked and lunged, wings battling the storm.
The winter man grasped his arms around Oliver’s waist with the last of his strength and kicked out with his legs, driving them both over the edge. They tumbled from the precipice and Oliver closed his eyes, a single warm tear burning his cheek as he went over. Together they fell. Oliver did not scream. He did not have the heart or the breath. He let go of the winter man but Frost clutched him all the tighter.
Oliver opened his eyes. The rocks were rushing up to meet him. The waves crashed against the base of the cliff, obscured by the curtain of snow, falling as Oliver and the winter man fell. They had become part of the storm, merged with the blizzard itself.
He turned over in the air and saw, above, that the Falconer had not given up the hunt. The thing streaked down after them with its wings pulled tight against its body, its arms outstretched, talons ready to catch them, capture them, tear them. But Oliver felt no fear. Instead, his entire body was filled to overflowing with one single, powerful emotion. He was crippled with regret.
The Falconer shrieked again but now it was far away, like a distant church bell, the ghost of a sound.
The scream of the hunter was cut off abruptly. Oliver cried out as a blue light erupted across the sky, enveloping everything. A spike of pain ripped through his chest as though something had been plunged into his flesh . . . or, more so, like something had been torn out. Blinded for the moment by the brilliance of that blue flare, he could see nothing. He could feel nothing save the arms of the winter man around him.
Together they struck water, sinking fast and deep.
But there were no rocks. And the water was warm. Frost let go and Oliver kicked out his legs, limbs heavy, winter clothes soaked through, dragging at him. Fighting that weight he struggled to reach the air, eyes still stinging from that light, mind awhirl with impossibility.
His head broke the surface and Oliver found that he could see again. But what he saw . . . a clear sky bright with the largest, palest pearl of a moon he had ever seen and stars too few, too large, too close. A snow-covered mountain rose up in the distance. Water, yes, but not the ocean. There came a splash to his left and Frost appeared in the water perhaps ten feet away. They were in a huge lake, so enormous that on three sides Oliver could not see the shore and on the fourth, below the mountain on the horizon, he could only just make it out. With a sudden flash of terror he looked up at the sky again, but there was no sign of the Falconer.
“Where?” Oliver asked, and he heard the echo of his own voice, the word he had spoken only moments before, when the world was still real and solid and knowable.
Frost did not smile. Jagged-edged face above the water, the winter man stared grimly at him. “Home. We are on the other side of the Veil now. It was the only way we both might live. Yet by drawing you here, I have surely doomed us both.”
The night sky seemed to go on forever, stretching across the horizon as though it cradled the entire world and the sun would never return. A gentle breeze rippled the surface of the lake. The water was warm, proof that the sun had shone that day, but the wind was cool. Droplets of water slid down Oliver’s face and the back of his neck from his wet hair, but he hadn’t the strength even to lift a hand to wipe them away. The winter jacket he had put on . . . it seemed like days ago, somehow . . . was saturated and it began to drag him down. Oliver managed to unzip it, shrug out of it, and doff the gloves he had worn. At last he uncoiled the damp snake that his scarf had become and let that slither into the water.
Freed from those heavy clothes, he still had to contend with boots he was too tired to remove. He could only float there, alternately staring at Frost and then glancing about at their surroundings. The land seemed preternaturally pure. Pristine. The air itself filled his lungs with a kind of tingle and his strength began to return.
“The other side?” Oliver asked. He glanced around once more, took in the snowcapped mountain in the distance, to what he gauged must be north, and the vastness of the lake to the east.
Frost did not answer. He was staring up into the night sky, moonlight gleaming off his frozen form, eyes narrowed with worry. After a moment he nodded to himself, seemingly reassured. Oliver was not thinking clearly and so barely recognized the purpose of the winter man’s vigilance at first. Then a tremor of fear passed through him and he pictured their pursuer’s flaming sword, the twisted image of the falcon’s head on a human body . . . wings spread out behind him.
“Do you see him? Is he—” Oliver said, glancing upward.
“No. His kind cannot cross the border. He will have to find a Door, and there are very few of those.”
Oliver nodded as though he understood this far better than he did. It was enough, in that moment, to know they were not being pursued. Then another thought struck him and set off a fresh rush of alarm.
“But it’s . . . wait, that thing is still back there? Collette’s there. My sister. And . . . and my father.”
“The Hunter will not trouble them. He would not dare reveal himself to ordinary humans.”
“He revealed himself to me.”
“Yes.” Frost gazed at him, but he had turned now so that the moonlight threw his face into shadow.
There was such import in that single syllable that Oliver at last recalled the winter man’s words only moments ago, when they had first burst up from the water. Frost claimed to have doomed them both. Oliver shuddered. There were so many questions he knew he had to ask. But the thought of the answers that might come in response sent dread spider-walking up the back of his neck.
He wasn’t ready for the answers. Not yet.
Emotions skirmished in his heart. Terror was the undercurrent, but overwhelming it was a strange giddiness. None of this was possible. This could not be happening. He was getting married in the morning. Julianna was asleep at home right now, or maybe still fussing over her dress despite the lateness of the hour. His father had invited half the firm. This isn’t real . . .
Yet he had felt Frost’s icy claws on his throat, had seen the Falconer and felt the adrenaline surge through him, had careened off that ocean bluff with the winter man and tumbled down and down and down to the waves. He felt the water warm around him now, and his palms and fingers stung from where he had touched Frost bare-handed before. He smelled the air of this world, felt the rivulets of water running down his face. His tongue snaked out and he tasted it. Salty. Like tears.
“Oh, my God,” he whispered.
He stared at Frost. The winter man did not seem to even be treading water but simply floating there, a dozen feet away. Now he raised a hand to push dangling spikes of icy hair away from his pale blue eyes.
“There are many gods here, you will find.”
Frost seemed more alert, somehow restored by his return to this world beyond the Veil. And I can’t even believe I’m thinking in such terms, but what others are there? How else do I think of this and not lose my mind?
Slowly shaking off the lethargy that awe had wrought in him, Oliver began to swim toward shore. With his clothes and shoes on, it was slow going, but the lake was calm and the land was not far. He felt disconnected and unreal as he turned his back on Frost. The winter man did not speak or pursue him. Only after Oliver had reached a depth where his feet could touch the bottom and he had stood and begun to wade toward shore did Frost follow.
Oliver walked up onto the hard-packed dirt and scrub grass on the shore and sat down hard, not quite steady on his feet. Whatever the winter man really was, whatever these Borderkind were capable of, one glance around made it clear that there was no easy way out of here. Water in one direction and open land in the other. No vehicle, no sign of civilization. He glanced upward. They had tumbled out of the sky and into that lake, somehow slipped behind the Veil, behind a curtain between worlds . . . but there was no ledge up there, no ocean bluff, no house. They had just fallen out of thin air.
“There’s no Falconer, either. That’s a plus.”
It was all surreal. The words themselves seemed to numb his lips as he spoke them. Yet a smile crept across his face, a mad little grin of amazement and of strange victory. Not only the triumph that they had survived, but that the tiny spark of hope he had nurtured all of his life, that somehow one day he would find a bit of magic in the midst of the ordinary, had been rewarded.
The winter man emerged from the lake. Whatever water clung to him froze on his icy skin, dripping not at all. Frost glanced upward as though to follow Oliver’s gaze and then he turned his pale blue eyes upon his savior, spiked, frozen hair chiming.
“I told you. We’ve escaped him for the moment,” said the winter man. “But we had best be moving on. If there is one Hunter after me, there will be others. I’d heard rumors that the Borderkind were in danger, but lent them no credence. If such sinister deeds are indeed afoot, there must be more trouble in the Two Kingdoms than I had realized.”
“Others? What others? And what Two Kingdoms?”
“There are things you must learn if you are to survive here. But first, we ought not remain by the lake. One never knows what lurks beneath still waters.”
Oliver stood up and brushed off the seat of his jeans as he glanced around again. Something splashed out on the lake in the moonlight, sending a circle of ripples rolling outward. He knew nothing about this place. Nothing at all.
Frost took a step and flinched, hissing through his teeth. He clamped a hand over the wound in his side, and when he took those jagged fingers away, the opening that had been there was sealed with new, bright blue ice. The gash was closed, and no longer weeping ice water . . . what passed for blood in the winter man’s body. He was healing.
Oliver furrowed his brow and stared. Something inside him gave way in that moment. His mind had been turning over the events of the past— could it really be only minutes?— like a jeweler studying the facets of a diamond. He’d confirmed the reality of it, accepted it. Or, at least, he thought he had. But somehow in the back of his mind he had still perceived it all as some strange fantasy. Or lunacy. He was under stress, wasn’t he? Getting married in the morning—Jesus, in the morning! Julianna!— to a woman he knew he was going to wed for all the wrong reasons. The pain was enough to tell him it wasn’t a dream.
But he’d been lying to himself when he thought he’d really accepted the reality of his situation.
Seeing the wound on the winter man’s side now healing up, the blue ice so much like new pink skin that formed where a scratch had been, or a scar would be . . . that was the instant in which he really knew it was real. The feeling of surreality he’d had before evaporated.
“Shock,” he said, laughing a bit madly. He stared right at Frost, marveled at the creature as though seeing him for the first time. Jack Frost. Jack fucking Frost. He might have veins that bled water, but he was made of ice and snow. He was . . . no matter how offensive the term might be to his kind . . . a myth.
Oliver’s eyes were wide and he felt pain in his stomach, a basket of coiled snakes there that were nothing but manic laughter, wanting to spring up his throat.
“I’m in shock, I think,” he muttered. “Maybe I should go back.”
The winter man tilted his head and regarded him quizzically.
“I mean, this is . . .” He swept his arms wide, swallowing hard and feeling his throat burn with sudden emotion. His pulse raced and his chest pounded with the thudding of his heart. “This is fantastic. But I can’t just . . . I’m glad you’re all right and everything, but I . . .” He hated the sound of his voice even as he spoke the words that he had dreaded his entire life. “. . . I have responsibilities.”
Jagged, frozen features refracted the moonlight as Frost tilted his head again.
“I’m sorry, Oliver. I had thought you understood.” The winter man frowned, and though there was little detail in his eyes to reveal his intent, Oliver would have sworn there was real regret there, real sadness. “You cannot return. Even if I had the strength at the moment to make another border crossing, and I assure you that I do not, it would be nothing short of murder to return you to your home.
“You are marked, just as I am. They will be hunting us both now. Me because that is their assignment— and I mean to discover who gave it to them— and you because you are an Intruder. Humans get lost through the Veil frequently enough, but that is something entirely different. There are places and times when the magic in the Veil is unstable, and your people— sometimes individuals and sometimes whole villages— slip through. But once the magic that wove the Veil touches them, the Lost Ones cannot return home, cannot cross back through, not even through one of the Doors, for the magic that created them is all one and the same.
“You are considered an Intruder because you can go back. When one of the Borderkind opens a portal, it is a tear in the very fabric of the Veil’s magic. You’ve crossed to the other side of the Veil without being touched by it. You can return, as long as you have a Borderkind to open the way. For the Lost Ones . . . not even a Borderkind can bring them back through. That is the nature of the enchantments used to create the Veil.