By: C. S. Friedman


This book could not have been written without the support of some very special people. First and foremost I’d like to thank Russ Galen and Betsy Wollheim, for their usual creative input and encouragement. Next, Larry Friedman, Kim Dobson, David Walddon, and Bradley Beaulieu, for providing key plot points that helped me deal with some rough spots in my story. And of course my loyal beta team, whose constructive criticism (and occasional hand-holding) made it possible for me to leave my literary comfort zone and tackle a whole new kind of project without going totally crazy: Zsusy Sanford, Carl Cipra, Jennifer Eastman, and (yes, it’s a repeat) David Walddon.

Thanks to Captain David Short of the Sterling Volunteer Fire Company for helping me understand how a house fire progresses, which generated some good story ideas along the way. It was a fascinating lesson, and I hope I did it justice.

Thanks to Tara Flewelling for her hospitality and support, and to all the troubled teens who opened their hearts to me in Sacramento so that I could have insight into their world.

Thanks to my new copy editor, Marylou Capes-Platt, who provided some wonderful creative criticism. This is a much better book for her input.

Lastly, I would like to express my appreciation for two very special people, who, sadly, were taken from us this year. Judy Gerjuoy, a.k.a. Jaelle of Armida, was chair of the Darkover Council for 35 years and inspired writers, fans, and history buffs around the globe with her boundless enthusiasm for the genre. Chazz Mahan was a gamer of remarkable creativity and a man of generous spirit who was always ready to offer a helping hand to people in need.

They were good people. May they never be forgotten.




WITH A LAST FURTIVE GLANCE behind him, the grey man began to climb down the ladder. Its metal rungs were damp from recent rains, making them dangerously slick, and the jagged walls of the narrow passage scraped against his shoulders, but it was not the first time he’d come this way, and he moved quickly and confidently into the cool depths of the earth. Summer in this version of Virginia was hotter than in his own, and he was glad that his business today was underground. Was this a price the locals had to pay for all their fancy technology? Or was it just a quirk of nature, part of the natural variation of the universe? This close to the heart of creation one could never be sure.

The tunnel grew darker as he descended, the light of sun-drenched land slowly giving way to the underworld’s all-consuming darkness. It didn’t bother him. His great black eyes drank in what little light there was, and when he looked up they flashed green, like a cat’s. Darkness was an ally to men of his Guild, and with his mottled grey skin and neutral-colored uniform he knew he was all but invisible in such lighting. Indeed, for as long as the sheen of summer sweat still lingered on his skin, he was a near-perfect match for the rain-slicked stone surrounding him, almost impossible for an observer to pick out.

A useful quality for someone in his line of work.

At the bottom of the ladder the tunnel opened out into a small natural cavern. A narrow strip of steel grating had been suspended several feet above the floor to serve as a walkway, with rusty handrails flanking it. The metal grate shuddered as he stepped onto it, and he could hear a thrumming vibration run down its length, like a bass note traveling down a guitar string: the music of the underworld.

He removed the glow lamp from his belt and activated it, casting beams of cool blue light about the cavern. Normally he avoided the use of artifacts from home while on duty, but here in the depths of the earth no one was likely to question him. The small globe of energy hovered steadily in its sealed compartment, the etched sigil of the Guild of Elementals glowing like a tiny thread of blue neon on the metal hood.

Recent rains had worked their way down into the earth and as a result the cave formations glistened, making it seem as if the entire chamber had been coated in glass. Tiny puddles of water had gathered in pockmarks along the limestone floor, and reflections from his lamp twitched across their still surfaces like fairy flames as he began to walk, jerking in time to his footfall. There was a time when such effects had fascinated him, but familiarity had dulled the edge of novelty. And today he had bigger things to worry about.

Maybe the Shadows already know what’s happening here, he thought nervously.

Maybe I won’t have to be the one who breaks the news to them.

The steel walkway led him to a sizeable chamber, a large circular cavern with rippling stone formations on every side. Tourists had crowded in here not so long ago, eyes wide as they listened to tales of how bootleggers had once partied in this chamber, far from the watchful eyes of Prohibition authorities. How exotic those ancient parties must have been, with the sounds of drunken revelry echoing from every stalactite! In such a setting it was easy for a man to envision the fabric of this world giving way to another, allowing the dead—and perhaps the living—to pass through.

These days there were no tour guides. The owners of the property had fallen on hard times in the late 90’s and been forced to sell this land as part of a bankruptcy settlement. How their children had wept when it was time to say goodbye! Such a cavern was a perfect playground for the young, its walls riddled with secret nooks and crannies filled with ink-black shadows. Slip into a crevice, hold your breath for silence, and your own mother could stand five feet away and not know you were there. But finances had forced the family to surrender its holdings to a new owner—one who had no children and who didn’t intend to let tourists visit the place—and now it was lost to children forever.

No one had ever questioned the source of the financial ruin which forced them to sell the caverns. Of course. The grey man’s Guild was good at what it did.

A great stone archway dominated the far end of the chamber. Once it had been a simple enough structure, a sleek limestone arch inscribed with the usual patterns. But calcium-rich water dripping down from above, combined with tremors of temporal seepage from within, had resulted in an explosion of formation growth. Now every inch of the arch was covered with clusters of crystalline needles, some of them as tiny and delicate as flowers, others breathtakingly dramatic in size. Some of the longest needles had even sprouted secondary clusters, which glittered against the absolute blackness of the Gate like stars in a velvet night sky. Beautiful but treacherous. The grey man had snagged his clothing on them more than once, and last week a haughty apprentice had scratched her arm in crossing, necessitating a Healer’s attention. Sooner or later he was going to have to take up a hammer and start clearing them all away.

But not yet. Not until he had to. Creations this beautiful—and this rare—should never be destroyed lightly.

Off to one side of the arch, the grey man’s charges were waiting: a dozen sleeping bodies carefully arranged on wheeled tables, white sheets covering them from head to foot. The corners of the sheets had been neatly folded so that their points all hung precisely the same distance from the floor, he noted. One of his assistants was a bit on the compulsive side.

All was as it should be.

Ignoring the nervous flutter in his stomach, he set his glow lamp down on a limestone stump and waited.

There was little prelude to his visitor’s arrival. Perhaps the air shimmered ever so slightly within the arch, for less than a second. Perhaps if one listened closely enough one could hear echoes of another world . . . or whispers of the dead. Perhaps someone whose Gift was strong enough would be able to sense a glowing pattern take shape within the archway, for only a moment.