There were too many crowds in the park in October, too many ghost hunters and students and festivals. Even in the dead of night Kestrel was bound to run into someone with a camera. He’d grown a little too efficient at breaking them. No one felt the matter was worth pursuing once they found themselves at the sharp end of his blade, even those impaired by sleeplessness or alcohol, but he was starting to become a legend himself.
In truth, part of the blame rested on him. He visited the park far more often than he should. Tanager Park had a haunting beauty to it in the fall. These were the days a thin mist erased the bottoms of the trees in the shallow valley. Chilled breezes blew clouds of burning foliage from the shivering branches, leaving crows and hawks with nowhere to hide. The fading grass glistened with dew and silvery spider webs, and the lakes were placid even with geese crowding their shores. The world was settling in before a big sleep, the first bright flickers of dreams to come.
Nighttime was less impressive. Quarterhill was too close to Chicago to see the open stars. Some of Kestrel’s acquaintances actually preferred the city, Shryke, for one. It was nearly four in the morning when Shryke appeared at the edge of the park. He leaned against a sign under a trail map shelter, his hands resting in his pockets and his dark eyes dreaming. The air around him reeked of stale smoke. He was ruffled, his inky hair mussed, silk shirt wrinkled. His feet were invisible under the river of fog that had crested the valley and now flooded Cardinal Street. “How’s it going?” he said in a slightly hoarse voice.
Kestrel’s words cracked with a warning. “You’re late.”
“Relax.” Shryke gave a half-smile to offset the shudder than rippled through him. “The sun isn’t up for another couple hours.”
“Where were you?”
“Show ran long, then the freeway was clogged.” Shryke looked away, but clearly felt Kestrel’s level, bullet-like stare. “Dude, what was I supposed to do? I was in a van with the rest of the band. I can’t just zap away from them.”
At last, Kestrel answered, “You are not a resident here. Remember that.”
Shryke’s voice raised. “Do you understand the complexities of this society at all?”
“These people work to believe the deception that rules their lives every day, and you mean to tell me you cannot play to it?” Kestrel interrupted. “There will always be someone to offer a rational explanation if you cannot. Did you see the Skaeya?”
“Yeah. Find something new?”
“Sylph’s initial report indicated they are only children.”
Shryke snorted. “They are. I saw two of them at an arcade downtown. It’s supposed to be an insult, right? That’s what I take it as.”
Kestrel turned away, his long hair concealing his face from Shryke. He waded through the fog, boots soundless on the gritty concrete. A few seconds later he heard Shryke’s clumsier, scratching footsteps as he hurried to catch up. “They would never take such measures merely to insult us. It is either desperation or a distraction.”
“But seriously, they were ten years old.” Shryke arched an eyebrow. “I didn’t notice anything special about the two I saw. There would have to be something incredible about them to be a distraction. How many of us are there? A million?”
“Fifty seven billion, three hundred thousand and eighty-four,” Kestrel corrected automatically. It was one of his jobs to know, down to the very last one.
“You have a point. It would be ludicrous to try and lure us with such small bait. Nevertheless, in case this is a trap, I want you to assist Sylph in this matter.”
“Bring them to me.”
Shryke looked both concerned and annoyed. “What for? They ain’t any good to us.”
“If we can convince them to support our cause, we will spring no traps. We can at the very least force them to give up their talismans. However,” Kestrel looked Shryke dead in the eye, “It is absolutely essential that the children are brought to me before they are informed of their true nature. Afterwards our choices are severely limited.”
“Or we could just kill them.”
Kestrel glared. Shryke shrugged and rolled his eyes. “Fine.”
He quickened his pace and veered off towards a side street. Kestrel watched impassively. “Shryke.”
Shryke sighed and turned around.
“You are to return to base and accompany Karacara until Sylph is prepared.”
“She specifically requested you.” Anyone but Kestrel would have sounded smug.
“That doesn’t mean you have to say yes!”
Shryke waited with his arms flung wide open, as if he expected Kestrel to admit to a joke. “Find a better way to escape your entourage next time,” Kestrel told him.
Muttering and no doubt cursing Kestrel under his breath, Shryke snapped his fingers. False light flowed from the ground in spiraling tendrils, turning the serene blue of the street a sickly yellow. Shryke vanished along with the light.
A thought hitched in Kestrel’s mind. The sleeping neighborhood was bathed in pure azure, yet the streetlights here were orange. His hands crept under his coat and gripped his sword handles before it occurred to him that weapons would be useless. His voice split the silence, calm and clear. “These woods are a bit shallow for you to be here, aren’t they?”
The fog burned away under the Star as it drifted into sight, its own glittering mist trailing behind. The white fire at the Star’s core was blinding. Kestrel released the swords, but his mind was armed. “Clearly our meeting was not coincidental. What is it you seek, Caere?”
A loud rumble answered him. Kestrel dived for the ground. Before he landed, the Star unleashed a massive beam of solid blue-light white. The heat of it seared through his overcoat. His eyes watered and vision blurred as the force of the beam rattled his skull. He caught the trembling concrete with one hand and rolled nimbly into a crouch. On one knee, he pressed his hand harder into the ground and closed his eyes. He had decades of practice, but the energy the Star was releasing forced him to use all the focus he could muster. The electricity resisted his commands, threatened to shred him as it poured into his arm, shook his bones as it protested being confined. Sparks glimmered over his fingertips. He waited for what seemed like an eternity, with only a fierce determination keeping his body and mind from being ground away by the raging forces around him.
The beam vanished, leaving a dazzling afterimage. This would be the Star’s weakest point. He sprang up and jabbed his hand towards the Star. Lightning exploded from his fingers, deafening thunder ripped through the still air and echoed for miles. As the electrical barrage hit, the star wavered and scattered like a reflection on a pond. His throat clenched as it quickly began to reassemble.
Was this part of a trap? Kestrel was always at a disadvantage here, but the Star normally didn’t go on the offensive. He sensed there was indeed a sort of desperation behind this attack. He was tempted to stay and find out more, but he wasn’t sure he would survive a direct hit.
The others had to be warned. Kestrel resigned the battle in a whorl of negative light.
By lunchtime, Randy’s story about the man with lightning in his hands was all over school. Ru guessed he found telling the story worth being grounded further over. Misty wasn’t as angry as Ru expected, but she was still sullen about returning to Breckenridge. She was also strangely meek, as if she’d been caught. Colleen said that no one had noticed Misty’s absence. Not even Colleen had known her own roommate was missing. “I thought she was with the other girls,” she said.
“The other girls thought I was with you,” Misty told her.
Misty was starting to replace Nathan in Ru and Colleen’s group. It wasn’t as if Nathan minded. He and Kenna were rarely seen apart these days. But Ru found Misty to be somewhat uneasy company; her cynicism rivaled Jayson’s, and there was still something about her Ru couldn’t put her finger on. For Colleen’s sake, though, Ru was welcoming.
Unfortunately, Ru was often left alone to explore the park, as Breckenridge girls had to return home straight after school. She’d had second thoughts about not going with Jayson and Randy the instant she’d turned to follow Misty out of the woods. It could have been a prank, and Jayson shrugged it off as some kind of publicity stunt, but once a teacher took Jayson aside and confirmed what he had seen, Ru really started to believe. Jayson denied most of what Randy said, but he was insistent he’d seen a man with a sword. That was of enough interest to draw a crowd around him while he walked down the halls. Suddenly everyone was making plans to go to the park after school, but no one Ru really knew.
It wasn’t fair that she never got to see anything weird like that. She was the one that was looking for it. Jayson didn’t believe in it at all.
She opted to walk home, to spend an hour or two in the park. She’d settle on a picnic bench or swing and wait to see if anyone familiar showed up. It was unlikely. She didn’t have a significant number of friends like her brother.
The sky today, as she’d predicted, was a cloudless and hazy bland blue. She walked to the edge of the street and shaded her eyes against the sun. Figures of Tanager Park legend rarely made an appearance in the daylight, and there were many people still around. The baseball diamonds were full. Tourists lugged carts full of camera equipment, coolers, and layers of clothes along the pathways. And then there was —
Ru’s first instinct was to ignore the man. There he was again, leaning over the rail of his porch as she had seen him so many times before. She was surprised she hadn’t heard his usual tirade halfway down Cardinal Street.
“Hey kid, wait! You, little girl in the yellow shirt!”
Startled, Ru pointed to herself. The man nodded and motioned for her to come closer. Ru was halfway up his driveway before she remembered she had no idea who he was, and he seemed like an especially volatile stranger at that. “Come here,” he ordered.
Ru didn’t budge. She spared a glance behind her. Good, there were other people within earshot. “No. What do you want?”
The man didn’t press her. His deep scowl seemed normal, but there was sadness in his eyes. “Oh no,” he murmured, shaking his head. “Listen to me. If someone asks you to follow them into the woods, don’t do it.”
“OK,” Ru replied. “Everyone says that.”
“If I were you,” he continued, in a soft voice unlike anything she’d ever heard from him, “I’d take that necklace back to the woods and bury it. Leave it. Never look back.”
Her mouth dropped open and her fingers flew to the eagle pendant, which hung openly around her neck. No one had said anything about it yet, nor had there been any advertisements for it. Even her own mother had overlooked it. “How — how did you know I found this in the woods? Is it yours?”
“No, it’s yours,” he said reluctantly.
“Oh no,” Ru held the pendant out to him. “I can’t –”
“NO!” he shrieked. He flattened himself against the front door, his wrinkled hands scrabbling for the knob. “Keep it away from me! Get rid of it, I said!”
Ru bolted away.
She sprinted until the park was no longer in sight and she felt like her lungs would burst. She stopped at a corner some distance from the park to catch her breath. The pendant was cold in her hand, smooth and shining. She’d never heard a grown man scream like that, and hoped she never would again. He wanted her to throw it away, but then said it was hers? It made no sense. Part of her was scared into thinking that ridding herself of the pendant was a good idea. But in truth, she felt like the pendant was right where it belonged.