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Sebastian

Roc Books, February 2006

For more information, check out www.penguin.com.

Copyright © 2006 Anne Bishop. Used with permission.




Long ago, in a time that has faded from memory, a mother's tears forged the bridge that, ever after, connected the power of the living, ever-changing world to the human heart.
myth




Chapter 1
Present


Standing at the kitchen counter, Sebastian closed his eyes and inhaled slowly and deeply to savor the smell of freshly ground koffea beans. Better than a woman. At least, a more sensual experience than the last two he'd been with.

When an incubus found sex boring, it was time to take a break—or think about another line of work.

Pushing that thought into the mental trunk where he'd shoved so many unpleasant memories, he followed the rest of the instructions for brewing the koffea beans.

What would it be like to rise in the first wisps of dawn and come out to the kitchen to grind the beans while someone who truly mattered was snuggled in his bed, waiting to be awakened with a nuzzle and a kiss—and a cup of freshly brewed koffee? What would it be like to stand outside, cup in hand, and watch the day come alive?

Sebastian shook his head. Why was he rubbing salt into emotional wounds, thinking about things that couldn't be? He lived in the Den of Iniquity, which consisted of a few blocks of crowded buildings and cobblestone streets—a place that, most likely, had been an unsavory part of some large city, nothing but a dark smudge in a daylight landscape. Then a Landscaper had altered the world, turning those streets into a separate landscape, and that had changed the feel of living on those streets, had changed the taverns, gambling houses, and brothels into a carnal carnival.

But it was more than a place where human vices were openly enjoyed, more than a place where humans who didn't fit into the daylight landscapes and demons like the incubi and succubi could live. The Den was at the center of a cluster of dark landscapes some of Ephemera's demon races claimed as their own. It was a place where those demons could purchase supplies or buy a drink in a tavern without being hated or driven away because they weren't human.

It was also a place that had its roots in the darker side of the human heart, a place where the sun never rose.

He'd been a bitter fifteen-year-old boy when he'd stumbled into the Den. Having escaped his father's control two years before, he'd disappeared into the landscapes and struggled to survive. The dark human landscapes were too desperate and frightening even for a boy whose demon nature eclipsed whatever human blood might flow through his veins, but the people in the daylight landscapes didn't want something like him living among them, and he'd been driven out of village after village as soon as the people realized he was an incubus—and that hunger for the emotions that were produced by sex was something that couldn't be hidden or denied for long.

So when he found the Den and felt the dark, edgy, carnival tone of the place, he'd embraced it with all his heart because he'd finally found a place where being an incubus didn't make him an outcast, a place where the never-ending night suited who and what he was—a place where he could belong.

And he still belonged here. The Den was his home. But now, as a man who had recently turned thirty...

I'm so tired of the night.

A sudden yearning for something washed through him, making his heart ache, filling him with a need and a longing so powerful it staggered him. He braced his hands on the counter and waited for the feeling to pass. It always did.

But the yearning had never been this powerful before, had never swept through him like this. Didn't matter. Those feelings came and went—and nothing changed.

Disgusted with himself for not being content with what he had, he plucked a mug off the wooden stand—and almost dropped it when someone knocked on the cottage's front door. He never brought anyone to his home, never invited anyone to visit. The only two people who ignored that demand for privacy were his human cousins, Glorianna and Lee, and neither of them would sound so hesitant about applying knuckles to wood.

He'd just ignore it; that's what he'd do. He'd ignore it, and whoever—whatever—was on the other side of the door would go away.

The door creaked open. Sebastian's heart pumped against his chest as he set the mug on the counter, careful to make no sound. Just as silently, he eased the biggest knife he had out of the wood block. Maybe he wouldn't win, but he'd go down fighting.

“Sebastian?” a voice called. “Sebastian? You here?”

He knew that voice, but he still hesitated. Then he swore silently and slipped the knife back into its slot. There were very few things in the Den that couldn't be bought, but trust was one of them.

Moving to the doorway that separated the kitchen from the main living area, he peered into the room and studied his visitor.

The other incubus stood on the threshold, almost bouncing with nerves. Yet his eyes were bright with curiosity as he looked at the simple furniture and the framed sketches on the walls.

“What do you want, Teaser?” Sebastian asked.

If Teaser noticed the harsh note in Sebastian's voice, he ignored it and bounded into the main room. Then he stopped, spun around, and closed the outer door before moving toward Sebastian with the cocky swagger that was at odds with his boyish good looks.

Women were often deceived into believing he acted the way he looked. With Teaser, sometimes that was a serious mistake.

As youths, they had trolled the Den's streets together—blond-haired, blue-eyed Teaser projecting an image of a boy out for a bit of naughty fun while Sebastian was the handsome piece of danger with his sable hair and sharp green eyes. They'd played their games of seduction, providing physical sex to women who crossed over to the Den from the daylight landscapes or using the power of the incubi to connect with another mind through the twilight of waking dreams, feeding on the emotions they created by being fantasy lovers. Unhappy wives. Foolish girls who wanted the romance of a mysterious admirer. Lonely women who craved the warmth of a lover, even if that lover came to them only in dreams. They were all prey to the incubi.

For five years, he and Teaser had rented adjoining rooms at an expensive bordello and trolled the Den. Then, when he turned twenty, Sebastian could no longer ignore a growing need for something beyond the Den and the sexual games, so he walked away from the colored lights and the dark buildings. He found a dirt lane that began a few steps away from where the Den's main street ended—a lane he was certain hadn't been there before. He followed it, not sure if he was just taking a walk or really leaving the one place he'd felt at home.

That was how he found the two-story cottage. It didn't look like it belonged in a landscape like the Den, but it wouldn't have been there if it hadn't belonged. That was the way things worked in Ephemera.

He went inside, wary of being caught by whoever laid claim to the place. But it wasn't inhabited. Half the rooms were empty, but there was enough furniture left haphazardly in the other rooms to set up a comfortable bedroom, living area, and kitchen. He found linens and towels, as well as everything he needed in the kitchen to prepare and eat a simple meal. He prowled the rooms for an hour—and realized something inside him had relaxed, as if he'd taken his first full breath in months.

Finding cleaning supplies in a cupboard in the kitchen, he dusted, polished, swept, and scrubbed until the cottage was clean and the furniture arranged to his liking. Then he went back to the Den, removed most of his possessions from the room he rented in the bordello, and moved into the cottage. A week later, when he returned from trolling the Den's streets, he discovered someone had planted a moonflower beside the cottage's back door.

That was when he realized this place had been waiting for him to find it, to want it. She would have known the moment something in him had changed enough to match the cottage, and the moonflower was her way of saying, “Welcome.”

In Ephemera, there were few secrets of the heart. And nothing could be hidden from Glorianna Belladonna.

He had lived in the cottage for the past ten years, still a part of the Den and yet apart from it.

“Didn't see you around yesterday,” Teaser said, pulling Sebastian back to the present. “Just thought I'd stop by and...see.”

He'd spent yesterday sketching—and had burned all the sketches when he realized he'd been trying to capture daylight memories of Aurora, his aunt Nadia's home village. Things he'd seen as a child during the times he lived with her. Then his father, Koltak, would show up again and take him away, dumping him on some woman in the poor section of the city where Koltak lived—a woman who was paid to tolerate his presence and provide him with food and a place to sleep. Half the time he lived on the streets, running wild with other abandoned children and remembering all over again how barren and miserable his life was supposed to be. Then Nadia would arrive and take him back to her home.

Nadia's and Koltak's battle of wills, and the cycle of loving acceptance and coldhearted misery, finally ended when he'd gotten away from his father the last time Koltak arrived at Nadia's house to take him back to the hated city.

“I was occupied,” Sebastian said, pushing aside the memories.

Teaser grinned wickedly. “Still offering comfort to aging spinsters and lonely widows? You need to look for something a bit more lively. Someone with a bit more kick. Can't imagine any of them are much fun when you cross over to give them a ride in the flesh instead of just romantic dreams.” Then he sniffed the air. His eyes widened. “Is that koffee?”

Sebastian sighed. He'd ground enough beans for two cups. Looked like he was going to share. “Come on, then.”

When he walked back to the counter, Teaser was right behind him.

After eyeing the bag of koffea beans, the grinder, and the perk-pot, Teaser whistled. “Got the whole setup. Maybe giving spinsters and widows sweet dreams and hot nights is more lucrative than I thought.” He paused. “But you don't usually buy from the black market.”

Sebastian took another mug from the wooden stand and filled it with koffee. “I didn't get this from the black market. This was a gift from my cousins.” As he turned to hand the mug to Teaser, he caught the flash of fear in the other incubus's eyes, noted the slight tremble in the hands that accepted the mug.

The prissy prig humans in other landscapes called the incubi and succubi vile demons, although enough of those humans craved the kind of sex that could be had only with an incubus or succubus partner to provide the Den's residents with a good living. But there were more dangerous demons that roamed their world, and the incubi and succubi could end up being prey as easily as any human. It had taken him a few years to realize the reason other demons who came to the Den were wary of him wasn't because he was a badass demon; it was because of his human connection. They didn't fear Lee, who was a Bridge with a rare ability to impose one landscape over another, but Glorianna...

No demon wanted to incur her wrath—because Glorianna Belladonna was the Landscaper who had created the Den of Iniquity.

Filling his own mug, Sebastian leaned against the counter, sipped his koffee, and said nothing.

After a few minutes, Teaser said, “This place. It's...nice.” He looked at the small table tucked against the wall, where Sebastian ate his meals, then at the larger table in the dining area. “It looks...nice.”

It looks human, Sebastian thought, feeling as if he'd been caught doing something lewd. In public. In a human landscape, since doing something lewd in the Den was commonplace. Embarrassed that anyone had seen evidence of his need to stay connected with whatever humanity he might claim, he felt the old bitterness well up inside him.

Nadia wasn't blood kin. She'd been married to his father's brother and had no reason to fight with Koltak over the well-being of a half-demon boy. But she had fought—and had won often enough that there were islands of time throughout his childhood when he'd known what it was like to be loved and accepted. Everything good that he had experienced in the human landscapes had come to him because of her.

That was why the cottage had tugged at him. That was why it looked like a human home instead of an incubus's lair. He had the room at the bordello for seduction. This place reminded him of how he had felt when he lived with Nadia and Glorianna and Lee. When he'd still had some connection with the Light.

But if the other incubi and succubi found out he lived like a human, the malicious teasing would never end—and he'd end up being an outcast again.

He swallowed the last of his koffee to choke the bitterness back down. “Why are you here, Teaser?” he asked roughly.

Teaser drained his own mug, started to set it aside, then hesitated, crossed the kitchen, and carefully placed the mug in the sink as if keeping the cottage tidy were of the utmost importance. When he turned back to face Sebastian, his expression was bleak. “We found another one.”



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Currents of power dance through Ephemera, this living, ever-changing world. Some of those currents are Light, and some are Dark. Two halves of a whole. Nothing has one without some measure of the other. That is the way of things.

And there is no vessel for focusing the Light and the Dark that can compare to the human heart.

How do we tell people, who are still shaken by the horrors the Eater of the World set free in Ephemera, that this thing they fear cannot be destroyed completely because It was manifested from the darkest desires of their own hearts? How can we tell them they planted the seeds of this war that shattered the world? How can we tell them it was their own despair during this fearsome time that changed rich farmland into deserts? How can we tell them that, even with our guidance and intervention, the link between Ephemera and the human heart is unbreakable, and the world around them is nothing more or less than a reflection of themselves?

We can't tell them—because, despite the dangers that exist within it, the human heart is our only hope of restoring Ephemera someday. Nor can we let people completely deny the part they play in the constant shaping and reshaping of this world.

So we will teach them this warning: Let your heart travel lightly. Because what you bring with you becomes part of the landscape.

—The Lost Archives



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Chapter 2
Three weeks earlier

Lukene gathered the frayed threads of her patience as she pulled out a chair at the study table and sat down next to the sulking girl. She'd been kind and understanding the first time this complaint had been voiced. And the second time. And the third. But no matter how many times she explained it, the girl refused to acknowledge the truth.

“You're not going to promote me to Level One Landscaper, are you?” the girl asked, her tone one part desperation and two parts hostility.

Lukene sighed. “No, Nigelle, we're not. The Instructors considered your abilities very carefully before making the decision, but it is our conclusion that you haven't, as yet, achieved the skills necessary to advance. Until you have fulfilled all the requirements, you will not be granted a Landscaper's Badge.”

Nigelle pressed her fists against the top of the table. “I've been studying for four years. You have to achieve Level Two or better in five years in order to remain and continue studying for the higher levels. How am I supposed to fulfill the requirements for two levels in a year's time if you won't promote me to even the first level?”

You can't, Lukene thought. And that is a blessing for us all. “What is the Heart's Blessing?”

The girl's eyes darkened with anger. “Is this another test, Instructor Lukene? Although I don't see the point in asking a question every child knows the answer to.”

Guardians and Guides, let me finally explain this in a way she'll understand. “Then it should be a simple question to answer,” Lukene replied. “Heart's Blessing.”

Nigelle sneered. “Travel lightly.”

Lukene nodded. “Travel lightly. Because what you bring with you becomes part of the landscape. That is true for every person who lives in this world. It is especially true for Landscapers, because we are the sieve through which Ephemera manifests what is reflected in all those hearts. The resonance of our hearts provides the bedrock through which the currents of Dark and Light flow, keeping people safe from the turmoil of their own feelings while still allowing the true desires of the heart to become real. We are the bedrock, Nigelle. Other people, and Ephemera itself, depend on us to find a balance between the Light and Dark aspects of ourselves in order to filter the Light and Dark currents that are this world's wonderful and terrible power.”

“I know all that,” Nigelle snapped.

“Up here.” Lukene tapped a finger against her own temple. Then she tapped the finger against her chest. “But not here. You carry too much baggage, Nigelle. You show up for the lessons, but you make only token attempts to practice those lessons. You're angry and envious whenever other students fulfill a requirement and go on to the next stage, but you won't do the work they did to achieve the goal. And yet you still expect us to grant you power over our world. We can't. Open your eyes, Nigelle. Look at what you manifest in your garden. Until that changes, until you change, we cannot allow you to have control of places other people will have to live in.”

The girl's sulkiness shifted, changing into something sly and ugly. “I know the real reason you won't advance me.”

Lukene sighed. Why did the “real” reason never have anything to do with the student's skills?

“You're afraid of me,” Nigelle said. “You know I'm better than you. Better than all of you. I'm like Belladonna, and you can't stand the thought of there being another Landscaper who can do things you can't even dream of.”

Unable to hide the shiver of fear that went through her, Lukene said nothing. Instructors never engaged in discussion once a student mentioned that name.

After the silence stretched out, Nigelle let out a nasty little laugh and stood up. “You better keep that in mind the next time you evaluate my work.”

Lukene waited until Nigelle left the room before whispering, “We'll keep it in mind. Oh, we'll definitely keep it in mind.”

She braced her hands on the table to help her shaking legs support her as she stood up. She wasn't forty yet, but right now she felt ancient.

“I know they're necessary,” a male voice said from the doorway, “but these thrice-yearly evaluations take more out of the Instructors than the students.”

Tears stung Lukene's eyes as she looked at the solid man filling the doorway. “Gregor.”

He hurried across the room to reach her. His warm, strong hand rested on her shoulder.

She turned into that strength, that warmth, wrapping her arms around him as his arms closed around her.

“Difficult day?” Gregor asked, resting his cheek against her hair.

“Not so bad...until this last student.”

“What did she do?”

“Spoke the name every Instructor in the school fears.”

Gregor tensed. “Belladonna.”

Lukene nodded. “I broke, Gregor. I showed fear.”

“With good reason if this was more than schoolgirl romanticism of a rogue Landscaper.”

“More like another manipulative ploy to push the Instructors into granting her a status she hasn't earned.” She eased back enough to look at the man who was the Head Instructor of Bridges—and her lover. “And how was your day?”

“Better than yours. Teaching the young men who have the gift to provide a connection between landscapes isn't nearly as unnerving as teaching the young women who will control those landscapes.” He studied her, his dark eyes full of concern. “Why don't you go to Sanctuary for a day or two?”

“Maybe I will. But I think I should be here right now, in case the other Instructors...” She couldn't finish, couldn't say the words.

“In case the other Instructors feel this girl is too dangerous and needs to be walled in,” Gregor said grimly. When Lukene nodded, he asked, “Is she that dangerous? Could she be another Belladonna?”

Lukene thought for a moment, then shook her head. “She has enough anger and...soul muck...to resonate with dark landscapes, but she'll never be like Belladonna. She doesn't have the power—or the heart.”



#

Nigelle glowered at every student she passed as she hurried down the wide flagstone paths that would eventually lead to her walled garden. She should have known from the moment she'd seen how far away her training ground was from the school's central buildings that the Instructors would be against her. Other students had training grounds that were no more than a five-minute walk from the classrooms. Granted, there weren't many students who were given a space among the walled gardens reserved for the Instructors, but there were some, and she should have been one of them.

“Cold, heart-rotted bitches,” she muttered. Abruptly she turned down another path that headed back toward the school. A path that, while as well-tended as all the others, always had a dusty, little-used feel to it. A path students were forbidden to follow to the end unless an Instructor was with them. Maybe that was why it intrigued her enough to risk sneaking down that path several times a year to ponder the mystery at its end.

The path ended in an archway that was the only break in a high stone wall. In the center of this garden was another high-walled garden that had a locked wrought-iron gate. The only things that grew on the land between the inner and outer garden walls were large, bloated mushrooms and thorn trees that produced a fruit the color of a putrid wound.

Students whispered that the Dark Guides sneaked into the school during the dark of the moon, harvested those mushrooms and fruits, and cooked them with the hearts of people they had lured into the dark landscapes.

She liked that story. She spent a lot of nights imagining that one of the Dark Guides had come to the school and snatched all those snippy-bitch Instructors who said they were trying to help her learn how to use the power inside her but were really doing everything they could to ensure that she failed.

She'd like to see someone like Lukene face a Dark Guide. Snippy-bitch Lukene would wet herself if she came face to face with anything truly dark. But she wouldn't be afraid.

Yes, something whispered inside her. You have nothing to fear from the Dark. There is power in the Dark, waiting for you to embrace it.

Maybe that was the other reason she so often ended up standing in the archway, looking into this place that caused every Instructor to pale whenever it was mentioned.

Late at night, the older students would whisper stories about that garden, saying that forbidden landscapes were contained within it—landscapes so terrible they had been taken out of the world to protect people from the things that lived in those places.

But as she stood in the archway, all she could see beyond the wrought-iron gate was a low stone wall in the middle of barren, hard-packed earth. What was so frightening about that? Oh, there was a dark resonance in the garden. You could feel it as soon as you stepped beneath the archway. But if there was something really bad, why not tell the students what it was instead of making a secret out of it?

The Instructors were always making secrets out of things. Yes, this school was good at keeping things away from people who could make use of them.

Anger swelled inside her until there was nothing else.

Looking at the ground around her, Nigelle spotted a fist-sized stone. She picked it up, cocked her arm, and threw the stone at the lock on the wrought-iron gate. She didn't expect anything to happen; she just wanted to vent her anger at being held back again.

But the metal, fragile with age, crumbled where the stone struck. The gate, and whatever secrets were contained within that inner garden, was now open to her.

Licking dry lips, Nigelle stepped through the archway. The place smelled slightly of rotted meat, but that could have been the mushrooms or the fruit covering the ground around the thorn trees.

She hurried across the ground the separated the inner and outer garden, then wrapped her hands around two of the gate's bars and pulled as hard as she could. Frozen, rusty hinges screamed in protest, but the gate opened far enough for her to squeeze through.

Nigelle waited, her hands still wrapped around the bars, certain someone would come running to find out what had made that noise. But the air felt heavy and still, muffling sound.

She counted to one hundred, ready to run to avoid being caught in a forbidden place. When no one came to investigate, she relaxed enough to study the barren ground on the other side of the gate.

They say even Belladonna was afraid of this place, that she wouldn't come near it. But I'm not afraid. I'm going to see what's enclosed within these walls.

That didn't mean she wouldn't be careful. She retreated to the nearest thorn tree. Plenty of deadfall, but nothing suitable, so she went from tree to tree, checking the ground until she found a branch that was the right size and length to prod at anything of interest without having to get too close to the thing itself.

Excited now, she hurried back to the gate, slipped inside, and approached the low stone wall.

Just an old, waist-high wall barely two man-lengths long. Mortar filled all the spaces between the uneven stones, which meant someone had built it with care.

She looked around. There was nothing else within the inner garden. Nothing at all. Which meant the wall itself was the thing being guarded. Why guard a wall?

Maybe the wall was an access point to a landscape the Instructors wanted to keep hidden—a landscape that was the source of the dark resonance that permeated the walled garden.

She walked the length of the wall, studying it. Old stones. Old, crumbling mortar. She poked at the wall here and there, but her excitement at being in the forbidden garden waned, and she'd almost convinced herself that an old wall couldn't really be the access point to an interesting landscape. Then a poke with the narrow end of the branch loosened a piece of mortar, revealing a space between the stones as big as the circle she could make with thumb and forefinger.

A hole big enough to look through if she could clear it out to the other side.

She rammed the branch into the hole over and over, scraping out the crumbled mortar to clear the space. Finally, when her hands were raw and her muscles ached, she punched through to the other side. Tossing the branch away, she dropped to her knees and peered through the opening.

A narrow stretch of rust-colored sand that led to dark, still water.

Several minutes later, Nigelle sat back on her heels. This was it? Sand and water? This was the scary, forbidden landscape that made the Instructors shrill whenever a student asked about it?

Disgusted, Nigelle stood up and brushed the dirt off her trousers. “Should have known this was just an excuse for the Instructors to penalize anyone whose landscapes weren't sugar-coated nice-nice.”

Slipping through the gate, she hurried back to the archway. Then she paused to check the position of the sun.

Too late to go to her own garden. If she didn't show up on time for the evening meal, it would be another mark against her. So she'd make the effort to be on time and come to class and be nice for all the Instructors—even if it killed her.

Although she'd prefer it if the effort killed them.



#


Lured by the resonance of a dark heart, It rose to the surface, barely making a ripple in the deep, dark water. Nothing in the water around It, so It stretched out a tentacle and delicately touched the place where sand met water—a border between two of Its landscapes. But the resonance in the sand was enough warning that It was near the hated stones that had shaped Its cage for so long.

And yet...

Its tentacles moved across the sand, rapidly changing their color from the dark gray that matched the caves deep beneath the water to the sand's rust color, making them invisible while they flowed toward the stone wall.

Before the first tentacle touched stone, It knew something was different. Something had changed. There was a different feel in the air, a trace of the dark heart's resonance right...there.

Tentacles elongated, thinned to slender cords of flesh that flowed through the small opening between the stones. Bit by bit, the large, fluid body moved across the sand and through the opening until the tip of the last tentacle brushed the other side of the old wall.

Free.

It had not understood Its Enemy's power, had not known It and the landscapes It had shaped could be locked away. But not completely. Never completely. It had not been able to reach the physical world beyond Its own landscapes, but It had always been able to whisper to the truly dark hearts, sending Its resonance through the twilight of waking dreams. And the Dark Ones, who had brought It into being so long ago, had found a way to send humans into Its landscapes often enough to keep It amused—and to keep It and Its creatures fed. But now It was free of the magic in the stone wall that had kept It caged; now It could bring Its landscapes back into the world. Now It could find the Dark Ones, who would help It alter the world into what It wanted the world to be. Now...

The vibration of footsteps. Coming closer.

Tentacles condensed and changed into eight legs. The body's shape altered to fit the legs. It climbed up and over the wall of the inner garden, then raced across the ground to the archway, Its belly brushing the tops of bloated mushrooms. It climbed the wall beside the archway. Within moments, Its large body blended perfectly with the stones, even mimicking the shadows cast by the thorn trees.

There It waited, savoring the anticipation of hunting again.



#


With her arms wrapped around herself, Lukene stared at the sealed, barred gate. A wooden door on the other side of the gate kept anyone from seeing what was held within the stone walls.

“Belladonna,” Lukene whispered.

A mistake made fifteen years ago and impossible to rectify. But there were still times when she thought she could have done something, should have done something, to stop what had happened.

She'd been twenty-four and a new Instructor the year fifteen-year-old Glorianna came to the Landscapers' School. A bright girl, eager to learn. And so gifted.

They hadn't understood how gifted until halfway through the first year, when the Instructor Lukene was assisting assigned the students the task of making an access point for “a home.” Since students that age had, at best, fledgling control over the power that lived within them, the access point would become the connection to the landscape that was their home. That was what the Instructor expected; that was what the lesson was meant to do.

But Glorianna had done something no other Landscaper could have done. Somehow she had altered Ephemera, rearranging pieces of the world to create an entirely new landscape, a place called the Den of Iniquity. The Instructors who judged the student efforts were horrified when they crossed over and got their first look at the Den—and were even more horrified when they saw the “residents” of that landscape.

When they returned to the walled garden that was Glorianna's training ground and demanded an explanation, the girl had smiled and told them even demons needed a home.

No one had asked Glorianna why she would create a place for demons that would surely also attract the darker elements of the human heart. No one contacted her family to make any inquiries—at least, not while it would have mattered.

Instead of asking the questions that should have been asked, the Head Instructor gave Glorianna a false smile and told the girl she was being given one of the advanced tests. For a fortnight, she was to stay within her walled garden and anchor her foundation landscapes—that is, the landscapes that resonated for her and were her “personal world.”

She was given a basket of food, her clothes and books, water, and blankets.

She stood on one side of the gate and smiled while she watched the Head Instructor put a stout padlock on the barred gate to keep anyone from going in.

And she had waved cheerfully at Lukene when the Instructors walked away.

The last morning before it was too late, Lukene stole the padlock key and entered Glorianna's garden. What the girl had done in a fortnight had left her awed and breathless—and terrified. The Den of Iniquity hadn't been a fluke. The girl truly had the power to change the world and needed to be nurtured very carefully.

She'd run back to the Head Instructor, stammering in her desperate attempt to make herself understood. But the Head Instructor shouted her into silence, telling her the decision was made; the wizards had arrived to seal the gate. Glorianna and her unnatural power would be walled in to keep the landscapes safe.

By the time she ran back to that walled garden, the wizards were gone, the seal was in place, and no one would enter that ground ever again—or leave it. Whatever Glorianna could coax Ephemera into manifesting within that garden was all the world the girl would know.

But a month later, she was walking with a few of her students and noticed a black-haired girl standing in front of that sealed gate.

“What are you doing there?” Lukene asked. “You know students aren't supposed to—” The words died when the girl turned and looked at her.

“So this is why none of you have come to see my work,” Glorianna said.

“Perhaps,” Lukene said carefully, aware that her students were shifting about uneasily, “now that you've found your way back—”

Glorianna shook her head. “No. There's nothing I want from you anymore. You chose to close me in. Now I choose to shut you out.”

“I didn't choose to close you in!”

The girl smiled sadly. “No, you didn't. Good-bye, Lukene. Travel lightly.”

As Glorianna walked away, one of Lukene's students said, “Who are you?”

She stopped, looked back, and said, “I'm Belladonna.” Then she walked away—and was never seen at the school again
.

Lukene wiped the tears off her face and started walking, paying no attention to where she was going, just needing the movement.

There was nothing she could have done, not then, not now. But the mistake they'd all made fifteen years ago still ate at her sometimes until she felt the cut of it right down to the bone.

There were seven levels of Landscapers, seven levels of skill in using the power that kept people, and the world, safe from the manifestation of every heart's desires. And then there was Glorianna Belladonna. If only...

A feeling of dread swept through Lukene, making her stop and look around.

What had drawn her to this path? Why did everything feel out of balance? The dark resonance, usually suppressed by the presence of so many Landscapers, felt as if it were leaking out of the forbidden garden, seeping into the ground and spreading out to contaminate the rest of the school. And it was strong now. Terribly strong.

Which was impossible. Unthinkable. She was overreacting to something that was always there in the background of the school. This was probably nothing more than a reaction to her confrontation with Nigelle and her thoughts about Glorianna.

But she hurried along the little-used path, and when she reached the archway and saw the open wrought-iron gate, she froze for a moment. Then she spun around, intending to run back to the school buildings and warn everyone that the unthinkable had happened.

Has the unthinkable happened?

A whispered thought. Calm, soothing, coaxing.

Lukene hesitated, turned back to look through the archway.

If she went running back now, what could she tell the Head Instructor? That someone had opened the old gate? That would cause an uproar among the Instructors in both the Landscapers' and Bridges' schools, but it wouldn't tell them anything. And she didn't actually know someone had opened the gate.

You don't want to make another mistake, the voice whispered.

Lukene shook her head. No, she didn't want to make another mistake.

She stepped through the archway—and gagged on the smell of rotting meat.

No more mistakes, the voice whispered. They eat at you. Eat you right to the bone.

Mushrooms burst as Lukene kicked them in her rush to the gate. Just a quick look to confirm nothing had changed inside, she thought as she squeezed through the opening. Then she would report to the Head Instructor, who would assign workers to replace the gate. Nothing to worry about. Nothing to fear.

The small hole in the old stone wall throbbed inside her like a bad tooth.

“No,” she whispered. “Oh, no.”

Back through the gate. Racing across the short distance to the archway. Distracted by a movement on the wall, she stumbled as she glanced up and...

...she ran across endless, rust-colored sand beneath a sky the color of ripe bruises. Her heart pounded, her arms and legs pumped for speed, but the creatures behind her kept getting closer, closer.

Guardians and Guides, how had she gotten here? One moment she was running for the archway. Then a movement, a stumble, and..

She ran, gulping air that felt too hot, too dry. Feet pounded the endless sand.

Travel lightly. All she needed was a few moments to calm her mind, find her balance, and resonate with the access point of one of her landscapes. That would bring her back to her garden at the school. Then she'd be safe. Then she could warn the others that—

One foot slid over something just under the surface, breaking her stride. She flung her arms out to keep her balance, but that brief hesitation cost her. She felt the slashing bite on her left calf, felt blood flowing down her leg as fear gave her speed.

The calf muscles in her left leg seized up. She lost her balance. Fell on her hands and one knee. Up again in a heartbeat, but it was still enough time for another one to reach her, to slash at the back of her right thigh.

Running again. Running and running, trying to ignore the wounds, the blood, the muscles that were getting too stiff to obey the mind's frantic commands.

Then she caught a glimpse of white and veered toward the mounds, not wondering what they were or why she hadn't noticed them before. If she could reach the top of one, maybe she could keep the creatures away long enough to get back to her garden at the school.

But as she got closer, fighting for every stride, she saw black, chitinous, segmented bodies pouring out of the top of the mounds, running toward her.

She tried to veer again, but the calf muscles in her left leg stopped working. She staggered. Barely kept herself from falling. In a scream of terror and defiance, she turned and grabbed the creature that was almost on top of her, lifting it up in both hands.

For a second she looked at the head, the jaws, the legs. Her mind supplied a word: ant. But this thing was as long as her arm from elbow to fingers. Screaming, she hurled it at the others rushing toward her.

She tried to run, but her legs didn't work anymore. She fell full-length on the sand.

And they were on her, the ones that had chased her, the ones from the mounds. She screamed as their jaws ripped out pieces of flesh, as her blood drenched the sand. She kept bucking, trying to throw them off, but there were so many now, her movements produced no more than another ripple under the mound of glistening black bodies.

Then she stopped moving. Stopped screaming.

When they finally left, the workers returning to the mounds, the scouts returning to the endless landscape, all that was left was a darker patch of wet sand, scraps of cloth, and clean bones.





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Updated Monday October 01 2007