Prue, understanding, smiled widely. “Of course you can’t!” she said, recognizing the sound of the voice. She searched the chasm for the source and in doing so discovered, on the other side of a large rock, a little lip that led along the cliff around a sharp corner. After crawling carefully over the boulder, she followed the lip, her back braced against the cliff face, until she arrived at a place where a juvenile big-leaf maple tree, jutting from the rock, made a kind of bridge over a narrow part of the defile. It was moaning sorrowfully.
“Someone must’ve pushed it over, the poor thing, to make a bridge,” said Prue as she arrived at the tree. She put her hand on its bark consolingly.
Curtis came up behind her. “What? Did you … hear the tree?”
“It’s something I can do. Ever since the Plinth. I can … well, I can hear plants talk.”
Curtis slapped his forehead. “Really? Prue McKeel? You can talk to plants?”
“They don’t say anything intelligible,” corrected Prue, “but I can hear them. It’s weird. I haven’t told most people.”
“Well, whatever!” exclaimed Curtis. “Next stop, the fifth waymark!” He paused, thinking, before clambering onto the tree. He turned to Prue and waved her forward. “After you,” he said. “You did discover the way, after all.”
“Very kind of you,” she said, and delicately stepped onto the tree-bridge, silently thanking the tree as she crossed.
The afternoon sky grew ominously gray; Iphigenia saw to it that each of the Yearlings were safely ushered away by the other Mystics as she watched the sky darken. One of the them, a little boy, looked at Iphigenia searchingly as he followed her command. “Are they coming?” he asked, his face betraying no emotion.
The Elder Mystic was surprised at the question. She looked at the boy blankly.
“I hear them coming,” said the boy. He put his hand on Iphigenia’s arm. “Be strong.”
She nodded to the boy and then watched as he was led away, hand in hand with one of the Mystics. They were headed for the safety of the acolytes’ ward. She smiled despite the gravity of the circumstances. The Yearlings were proving to be very powerful, she assessed, and she had no doubt that the next generation of Mystics would be a formidable one indeed. Their promise was heartening to her. She watched as the children disappeared behind the line of trees, then turned and looked back at the sky.
They were here.
Following the tall trunks of the Douglas fir trees down from their sky-tall tips to the black shallows between them, she saw three figures emerging from the dark. They were humans: two men and a woman. It was clear they were not from North Wood; the two men wore what appeared to be suit jackets, while the woman, in the center, wore a patterned dashiki.
“Good afternoon,” said Iphigenia. “You look as if you’ve traveled far. We’ve not much to offer, but there is a warm hearth and a modest meal to be had at the hall, if you’d be our guests.”
“Quiet, Mystic,” said the woman. “We’ve come for you.”
Iphigenia nodded, resigned. “Yes, I know,” she said. “I felt you coming.” She looked at the woman squarely. “You must be Darla.”
The woman sneered, revealing a pair of distinctly inhuman canine teeth. “You—you and your friends—harried me once. I don’t expect to be delayed from my task this time.” The two men on either side of the woman straightened their bright red ties and stretched their necks. The three approached, crossing the snowy clearing; Iphigenia beckoned to her three fellow Mystics to keep by her. They rounded the large trunk of the Council Tree and stood in front of it protectively. The wind trembled the yellow blades of grass, sending little flurries of snow into the air.
“You won’t find them, the children,” said the Elder Mystic. “They’re well hidden. Beyond your reach.”
“Don’t underestimate us,” said Darla.
“I wouldn’t think to. I know your kind.”
They edged closer; their movements were silent and studied. The Mystics did not move.
“Who’s sent you?” asked Iphigenia, her hands gently urging the three other Mystics to keep their ground.
“None of your business, old woman.” This came from one of the men. His shoulders were hunched and shuddering within his natty three-piece suit.
“It’s just that when one faces one’s assassin, one likes to know who’s doing the bidding,” explained Iphigenia. “I always thought it was a final consideration paid by your kind—a last favor granted a doomed soul.”
One of the men laughed; Darla shot him a glare. “It’s actually quite the opposite,” she said. “A true assassin never gives up her sponsor.”
“An honorable profession,” said Iphigenia, a wry smile on her otherwise stoic face. “Though I do wonder how much honor is to be found in infanticide.”
Darla ignored this comment. She bared her teeth and growled. “Your time is through, old lady. Make way for the new regime.”
With a flick of her wrist, she signaled the men, and the three of them suddenly hunched low, as if stricken with a sudden pain. Their bodies trembled and shook and their clothing undulated strangely as a transformation began to take place. Iphigenia watched placidly, though she could tell the sight awed the other Mystics. Within a few seconds, the three figures had shed their clothing and emerged from their human chrysalises in the form of three jet-black foxes, their hackles along their backs raised in wiry spikes.
Iphigenia, for her part, lifted her hands into the air and prepared for her supplication to the living green of the Wood.