Chapter 74

Blair ran through the wasteland as long as he could, toward the waiting king on the hillside, the willing sacrifice, toward Jim, but his feet sank deeply into the sand with every step, and the blazing midday sun beat mercilessly down upon him. The heat was like a terrible weight upon his back, and it grew more and more difficult to drag his feet up out of the powdery, hot sand for another step. He tried to keep his eyes fixed on the distant figure on the hillside, but sweat ran down his brow and blurred his vision. The sand burned his feet, and the voices of the folk behind him were steady and sweet and low, the rolling notes of grace and a hope of glory leaving the words unimportant. Who could believe they were pushing their way through a desert wasteland in order to lay violent hands upon their guardian and protector?

They continued singing as Blair stumbled on, slipping deeply in the cruel sand, half mad with thirst and exhaustion and concern for Jim, and their voices were as pure as a spring bubbling up from the deep places of the earth and spilling wantonly across the parched ground. The fragmentary image turned crimson with Blair's fear of Jim's blood soaking into the merciless desert. Blair forced himself to take another step, and then one more, and finally he stumbled to his knees, trying to call for Jim and managing only a gasp. His head dropped, the sand hot against his hands and knees, his hair matted with sweat and his mind frantic with exhausted desperation. Beautiful voices sang behind him, brighter than they had been, more joyous than liquid.

Rose of May, Come to the greenwood away, We will be merry all So we go from the May to the roses...

Blair slowly sat back on his haunches, raising his head, bathed in cool shadows. The air smelled of cedars and rich earth, damp with growing promise. The ground was soft with clover, and bluebells nodded in the shady spaces under the trees. Blair pulled a damask rose from his hair and lifted it to his face, inhaling deeply. He had been wrong, of course. There was no sacrifice, no blood. Just ritual and remembrance and the celebration of spring.

Blair stumbled to his feet. The crowd was ahead of him once more, their voices silvery with laugher and song. He hurried forward, wanting to catch up to them, certain that Jim was close at hand. The dappled sunlight on the forest floor was gentle and golden-white, the pale blossoms on the small flowering trees twinkling like stars under the branches of the great oaks and elms. Blair still held the damask rose as he ran easily, happily through the wide aisles of the forest. Galantus bloomed along the path with petals of waxy white, and the new leaves on the trees were the palest of greens. Everything was tender and alive, burgeoning with promise and the blessings of youth. Of course Jim was here, Blair was certain of it. Jim had never belonged anywhere else but here in the beautiful greenwood.

The young people before Blair on the path were bedecked with ribbons and flowers, and the king of May led the procession. Blair could just see his head above the others, crowned with a circlet of laurel. A muffled roar came from somewhere in the near distance, and as Blair realized he was hearing the rush of moving water, the forest fell away on either side, and Blair and the other celebrants found themselves in a clearing at the head of a great waterfall.

Mist rose from the base of the falls, and a rainbow arced across the sheer rock walls of the basin far below. The voices of the gathering fell silent in deference to the majesty of the place. Jim stood in the center of them all, his head bowed, his eyes closed. He was draped in woven white cloth belted with ivy and daisies, his legs and feet bare. His crown of green glowed in the light of the clearing, and in his hand he held a living branch of oak. Pinned among the oak leaves was his Cascade PD badge. Blair wanted desperately to speak to Jim, but he was held still and silent by the solemnity of Jim's mien. Someone plucked the branch from Jim's hands as Blair stood without speaking and threw it down into the rushing water.

Blair saw the badge sparkle as it was dashed away into the chasm.

Jim moved through the silent, secret rooms in the upper part of the loft with wonder. He was always surprised to find them, even though he remembered, once he was there, that they existed and he had always known how to get to them. They led to other places, homes that were also his, great mansions with high ceilings and large round rooms, mazes of comfortable luxury connected by complicated, sometimes secret passages. It was the wondrous sense of space and belonging he enjoyed, the knowledge he had finally found his own place in the world, that helped ease the sting of having to leave Blair behind. Blair knew about these places, and would be able to find him when he wanted to. They had found many of them together and Blair's passing touch lingered in them still.

After a time he left the big houses and their sculptured gardens, pushed outward by the memory he was on a mission. The safe places and the last hint of Blair's laughing presence vanished behind him and he found himself wandering through a series of eerie, open bazaars with stalls full of colorful objects. The fluorescent green, yellow, and orange stripes on fabrics and painted terra cotta pots glared painfully bright under a white actinic light that left the darker shades of red indistinguishable from black. When he tried to look closely at anything it would shift and change shape, contorting until his eyes began to hurt. Even when he realized that the objects themselves were not changing, rather that he was seeing deeper and deeper into their physical structure, he couldn't stop his eyes from trying to focus. Finally he had to force his vision to stay shallow and insensitive, abandoning his attempt look for clues in the details of his surroundings.

Clues to what, he wasn't sure, but he did know that whatever he was doing, it was somehow important to Blair and that made getting it done right all the more imperative. Moving with more purpose, he ignored the booths of brightly colored roses that called to him with delicate, lovely fragrances and strode down the long aisles in the marketplace. Deliberately refusing to look too closely at anything around himself, he kept scanning the length of his line of sight for a familiar shape, a pattern that would tell him he was going the right direction toward his appointed task. That was how he caught sight of the men who were following him.

There was only one at first, but once Jim was aware of that presence, he soon located the others, closing in around him like a pack of hyenas shadowing a lion's hunt. Many different places to hide were all around, but he knew he couldn't do that, not if he were to be absolutely certain that Blair would be safely out of their reach. The only course he had was to draw them away, and so he ran, fleeing down the aisles, his strides so long he sometimes was floating along, nearly flying. Behind him, the pursuers converged into a dark mob, running easily and staying on his track no matter how he dodged and twisted through narrow openings. He could hear their voices calling after him, caught between the melody of a song and the baying of a pack of hounds.

Jim turned a corner and nearly ran into a man standing in his path. Skidding to a halt, he tottered in place, wondering why the dark-draped figure of Death itself would have a familiar face staring out at him from under its black cowl. The hood was a momentary illusion, born of the shaggy black hair that hung around the face of a snitch he had never trusted. Behind him, the mob howled closer and he stepped to the side, simply wanting to dodge around this obstacle and keep running. As if dancing with him, the man turned also, still facing him and moving closer. Jim tried to backpedal, a surge of disgust twisting his mouth in a grimace, but he couldn't move fast enough to avoid the swift, suddenly intent approach.

At the last minute, Jim turned his head aside and cold, dry lips pressed to his cheek in hypocritical greeting and left a dull ache at the corner of his mouth. A shiver of cold ran over his skin and premonitory fear curled in his gut as the figure stepped back and raised its finger, pointing at him with deadly accusation. Though he tried to shout in denial, no sound came out of his throat to cover the quiet sound of his own name being spoken like an epithet. "Detective James Ellison," said the faintly familiar face, before a hot wind from behind Jim blew all the flesh off it, leaving a grinning skull to leer at him as the body collapsed. The pile of dark, smoking rags no longer impeded his flight, but it was too late for him, all the same. The syllables of his name seemed to hang in the air, ringing with malice, an inescapable stigma he had spent his life trying to redeem.

The wind wrapped around him, the heated humidity of it foul with too many scents for Jim to separate at once, and he knew it for the breath of his pursuers. They were closing in, singing louder in victory, but he was frozen in place, struggling in vain against the shell of thick, hardening mud that had encased him at the sound of his name. It was all he could do to reach for his gun as he turned to face the men who chased him. The SIG felt right in his hands, as natural as breathing, leading to bewildered betrayal when the hammer jammed as he pulled the trigger, leaving the weapon useless in his numb grip.

Like talons, the hands of his pursuers closed on him, grabbing at his arms, digging into his shoulders and forcing him to his knees. His gun was kicked away from his hand and spun off into the darkness that was closing around him. The bright colors and white light of the marketplace had faded into a greyish twilight that washed out all his surroundings until the sand under his knees was a pale, dirty grey shade, and the spiky clumps of grass that grew in it were an even uglier greyish green. It seemed fitting to him that while his freedom was being taken, his senses were dulling as well, and a little part of him was glad because he knew what was coming next, and he did not want to feel it. He was even more glad he had left Blair safely behind, and as the first blows fell, driving dull wedges of pain into his thighs and shoulders, he was thankful for the mercy that spared the better part of his soul from witnessing his ruin.

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