Joy stopped on the sidewalk at the sound of the creaking wood. It was a wintry sound, both ominous and familiar. Despite the July heat, she shivered. She was just leaving work, exhausted and perfumed in garlic, cooking oil and sweat. Joy glanced around the back lot behind Antoine's Café, adjusted her black apron over her arm and walked a little faster.
Fishing inside her purse, Joy skipped over her keys and her phone and went straight for the scalpel she kept hidden in the side pocket. She stumbled on a crack in the cement and cursed her decision to wear chunky heels to work. Clomping down the concrete, her footsteps obscured the sound of whatever followed. A prickle at her neck brought back icy memories and a half-remembered twinge in one eye. Should she shuck off her shoes or was she being totally paranoid? After all, it could just be the wind.Right.
Contrary to the four-leaf clover in her wallet, it would be just her luck to be harassed by one of the Twixt on her way home from work.
She crossed beneath the overpass, echoes of her shoes bouncing over themselves in her haste to leave the busy downtown area. The Folk were notorious busybodies, but they could also be dangerous to humans. Curious as cats, they'd been peeking out at her from between buildings or through broken windows or from under birds' nests, wanting to catch a glimpse of either the ex-lehman
who'd escaped her bonds to the Master Scribe or the infamous girl with the Sight who'd somehow managed to keep both her freedom and her eyes. Joy wasn't sure why she'd suddenly become more interesting over the past month, but the strange, inhuman paparazzi were getting bolder.
Those who had first appeared had been harmless, if unnerving, and Graus Claude had said the attention would pass once the novelty wore off. Then, last week, two dryads had whispered warnings to stay out of their world. Three days ago, a short, furry-haired creature had said that she should watch her back. Yesterday, a sprite wearing a floppy red cap had stood on the corner, smiling serenely while picking his fingernails with a serrated knife. The Folk were growing more menacing by the day.
Another scrape. Closer this time.
Joy's heart thudded in her ears. She'd been preparing for this.
When the shadow moved, Joy lifted the scalpel, a thin stroke of silver that identified her in the otherworld. Knees bent, she readied herself for what she might see.
An armored knight, the color of old blood, emerged from behind a large fir tree. He held a longsword at attention, sunlight streaming down its length. Joy stared at the blood-colored knight, frozen in a foggy trance of disbelief.
His foot hit the pavement, a gritty scratch of metal on stone. The sound snapped her awake.
"I'm under the Edict," she said quickly, the words tumbling out of her mouth. "The Edict,"
she said again with a bit more force. "As decreed by the Council of the Twixt."
The knight stepped forward. Joy stepped back."Duei nis da Counsallierai en dictie uellaris emonim oun,"
she tried again.
He took another step toward her.
She shook the blade in her hand. "I bear Ink's scalpel
The knight lifted the massive sword above his head.
Somehow she knew that wouldn't work.
The sword scythed through the air, carving a parting whoosh
in its wake. Joy's brain stalled as the armored knight lunged. She gripped the scalpel. Her voice cracked.
Ignoring her, the knight swung down at a wide angle. Joy stumbled off the sidewalk. The moment felt slow-motion surreal; she could see the sword tip passing her cheekit was nicked and spotted with brown.
Out of the corner of her eye, Joy saw a woman push a double stroller across the street.Screw the shoes.
Joy kicked off her clogs and threw her purse. And the apron. It billowed like a cape, catching the sword and tangling it. She ran barefoot on the grass, adrenaline crackling and popping under her heels in manic bursts as she vaulted the manicured hedge into the wilder wood beyond. A steady banging followed.
Joy pounded over the uneven surface, her feet slamming into sticks and pebbles as she dived between the trees. There was a golden heat to running that soared up her limbs, shooting lightning from her soles up her spine. She had the advantage of being light and fast, but the knight charged after her, chugging like a train. She could hear his panting breath behind the metal faceplate.
Joy dodged around a tree and headed deeper into Mother Nature, avoiding broken glass bottles and bright-colored trash. She wove through the woods, putting as many trees, stumps and bracken between herself and her pursuer as possible. She cut to the north, inhaling deeply, tasting pollen and pine.
Tripping over a root, she grunted as pain exploded in her big toe and shot up her leg. Joy pushed through the injury and kept running, leaving the yellow-hot spark of agony somewhere far behind. Later, she would deal with it. Right now, she needed speed.
She broke through a small clearing, a patch of sun and weeds. She felt like leaping over the ferns and punching out a series of handsprings, but that was muscle memory talking. Her brain still equated running with gymnastics, but after her past few months as part of the Twixt, she knew that running equaled evading certain death.
The knight barreled through the woods, snapping fallen branches and lumbering up the incline. Energy frothed inside her, a flush of heat tickling over her arms and neck, filling her with a lightness, a clarity in speed. There was a heady rush to running for her life through the green grass. Joy felt like laughing. Perhaps she'd finally cracked? How else could she explain getting attacked by a medieval knight on a Thursday evening?
Whipping her tiny blade sideways, she wished that she could slice through worlds like Ink and cursed, not for the first time, that she no longer bore his signatura
so he could not feel her panic or hear her call his name through the wind. Her skin was clean of True Names given form, so if she screamed, there'd be no one to hear.
The land dipped and broke. A shelf of ragged earth loomed above a shallow crevice where the ground fell away. Joy scrabbled over the old streambed, using the smooth rocks as stepping-stones, tearing the seam of her capris as she jumped the ridgelong legs splayed out in a perfect one-eightystuck the landing on the other side and kept going.
The clang and sweep of metal plates crashed somewhere far below. Joy wished again for the flash of light, the spark of connection that had bound her to Ink, now severed. Gone.
She knew it wouldn't work, but she couldn't help it.
"Ink! Ink! Ink!" Joy chanted as she ran, willing him to hear her. The trees ahead began to thin, and she heard the distant roar of cars.
There was a sudden explosion accompanied by a shriek of birds. The force pushed her forward, and she shielded her eyes from several fat splinters that bit into her skin. Something slammed into her shoulder, spinning her around.
Ears ringing, Joy squinted at the dark red sword stuck halfway through a ruined tree. The trunk's shredded innards burst out in a jagged fluff of destruction. Bits and pieces of pulp peppered her entire body and most of the surrounding green. Pitter-patters of falling debris joined the snap of shattered wood. Through the ringing in her head, she could still hear the determined clomp-clomp
of armored boots.
She blinked. The world slowly tilted. There was a deep, resonant crack as the massive tree began to list, groans and tiny clicks ricocheting off the surrounding forest as the trunk came crashing down. A gust of wind smacked Joy full in the face, blasting clouds of dirt and mulch. The knight had cut down a tree by throwing his sword
and was now crossing the riverbed, headed toward her. Her hands tingled as terror splashed through her veins.
Joy squeezed the scalpel and spat wood chips off her lips. She tried to believe what Ink had said, what Graus Claude had said, tried to remember Inq's advice, but as the rust-crusted helmet cleared the ridge, all Joy could feel was the quiet knowledge that she was about to die in the woods in bare feet while holding a pathetic metal weapon no bigger than a pencil. She pointed the tip toward her attacker.
"Leave me alone!" she said.
The knight ignored her, reaching for the embedded sword, hand open for the hilt. Joy shouted, "Stop!"
The ground spit up bits of leaf and stone as a line slithered through the earth like a whip just inches from the knight's plated boot.
Joy stared. The knight paused, and his helmet turned slowly to Joy.
The moment curled like a question mark. Joy almost shrugged. Almost. What was that
Grabbing the sword hilt, the knight swung around sharply. Joy stumbled back. The sword cleaved and clanged against something invisible, throwing off sparks that died in the dirt.
Joy blinked. That was a ward!
The knight tried another pass, pushing through a cloud of dust that smelled of campfire smoke. Joy could almost feel the sword's impact against the invisible shield. She smiled unsteadily, knowing that her friends must be nearby, even if she could not see them yet.
"Hey!" Joy shouted into the woods. "Over here!"
The knight drew his sword slowly in salute and chargedten feet away, nine, eight.
Joy dived around the back of a tree and ducked. There was a punch of impact and a half-imagined grunt as the knight missed her head as she scrambled for the next bit of cover. He withdrew his sword with a snarl and pursued. Joy turned and ran faster, toes gripping the moss. She spun midstride, sweeping her tiny blade sidewaysthere was a grating shing
as a piece of metal split and thunked against the ground.
The knight stumbled back. Joy sprinted up the next swell. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw that the lower faceplate had split in half, exposing a gray chin full of bristles, black gums and blue teeth.
In case she had any doubts that this was one of the Twixt.
The wash of fear came again, sparkling and brutal, pushing Joy up up up!
through the next tangle of thorns. She bounced off a birch trunk and, misjudging the distance, tripped over a thick branch and skinned her knee. Joy wondered why she was running and not climbing. But what good would that do? The knight had made a tree explode!
As if the thought were a prescient tap on the shoulder, Joy turned to see the knight's elbow rise, arm cocked, shoulder back, before he hauled off and threw. The sword zinged through the air toward her. She stupidly, helplessly, raised her arms.
A ball of fire and superheated steam burst against an invisible wall. Joy's hair blew in the aftershock, and she felt moist heat coat her face. A figure dropped from a fissure in the sky, backlit by the wash of flame. He held a straight razor in one hand and her purse in the other; a silver chain swung heavily from a pocket at his hip. He glanced at her with his all-black eyes.
"Joy," he said.
She coughed and wiped a splinter off her forearm.
Ink tossed her purse to the forest floor. The fallen sword at his feet smoked and smoldered, dead leaves curling to ash beneath it. The knight barreled forward. The black-eyed Scribe moved, nimble and daring, drawing a complicated design in the air. Another ward gleamed into place. Ink spoke through the shimmer of gold, his voice carrying across the wood.
"I do not know you," Ink said to the wounded knight. "But you shall not harm her. She is protected under the Edict." His voice grew taut. "And she is protected by me."
The armored thing howled, charged and, with a lastmoment shift, ran full force into a tree, disappearing in a shiver of pine needles.
Joy backed away from the nearest tree, expecting a fresh attack. Ink extended his arm protectively across her body, holding his razor steady against the quiet. Joy pressed close, scanning the forest.
"Where did he go?" she asked.
Ink glanced around the glade. Branches swayed overhead. Leaves rustled. Querulous birds peeped. "I suspect 'away,'" he said.
Joy nodded. "Away," she repeated, breathing fast. "Away is good."
Ink hadn't dropped his weapon, so neither did she. The tip of her scalpelpreviously his
scalpelshook in her grasp. It looked a lot less confident than his straight razor. She could barely feel it in her hand, her fingers tight and numb, but she could feel him: a solid, calm presence with the gentle scent of rain. She swallowed against the sawdust in her throat.
"Can we go?" she asked. "Away?"
Ink picked up the sword and pressed her hand to his chest. "Away is good," he said as he sliced the air sideways.
They stepped through the breach with a sharp scent of limes.
Joy could feel Ink's hands on her face, the first sensation that pierced the cottony blanket of shock. They were in her room, in her house, and everything had that double-take quality of being suddenly normal, which felt strange.
"Are you all right?" Ink asked.
She coughed, tasting wood on her tongue. "Never better."
The straight razor was gone, probably back in his wallet, and Joy watched Ink pluck bits of tree out of her hair.
"I thought you said you were only receiving threats," Ink said. "This was considerably more than a threat."
"This is the first time someone's attacked
me," Joy said, brushing dirt from her ruined pants. "There've been snide comments, a lot of staring and some ultimatums, but Graus Claude said to ignore it. I didn't think anyone would actually do
anything." A sigh stuttered out of her mouth. She shook her head, feeling the tension in her shoulders slip toward angry embarrassment. "I thought the Council's Edict was supposed to protect me."
"It should," Ink said and picked up the sword. The smoke curling off it was tinted with mist. He turned it over, not bothered in the least by its obvious weight. "Although this might be evidence to the contrary." Joy studied Ink's face. It was still hard to tell if he was being funny or not. He glanced over the blade at her. "Did you announce yourself?"
"Yes! I told him that I was under the Edict in English and the Old Tongue," she said. "Graus Claude made me repeat it often enough. I could say the words in my sleep!" She dropped the purse that had somehow been clutched in her hand. Her apron was stuffed inside. She still had no shoes and her feet were filthy. Joy paced her room, feeling the adrenaline ebb, leaving her weak and shaky and altogether freaked out. She didn't like it. Even with Ink's wards protecting her house, she was supposed to be able to live her life free from harmthat was what the Council had promised after she'd helped them take down Aniseed.
She stopped pacing. "Is this Edict thing for real?" she asked. "Was that what triggered the ward?"
"No," Ink said, examining the room. "That was me."