With a cry, Wendy Rossiter leapt toward the prostate figure lying on the ground. Bret too had leapt forward, reaching Demaz a few seconds after Wendy. She huddled over her father lying prone on the floor, weeping copiously. Before Kevin could get any closer, she had pulled him up, close to her chest, and was keening something to him.
"Don't leave me now," she whispered again and again, rocking the unmoving man in her arms like a baby, "Not after all this time."
Bret knelt next to Wendy, and gently disentangled her from the body. She curled into a ball, weeping inconsolably, clearly unable to feel Bret's comforting touch or hear his reassuring words.
"He's gone, Wendy," he said quietly, "Let him go."
As Kevin got closer, he could see no sign of harm on Demaz's body - no wound, no bleeding, no mark of any kind. The man lay still, breathing deeply and steadily, as if he was asleep.
"What happened?" Kevin demanded, "He's not dead, is he?"
"No, he's not dead," Bret confirmed sadly, checking over the big man's body with an increasing sense of resignation, "But he might as well be. He invoked a self-inflicted mind-wipe. It must have removed a huge portion of his memories - years, perhaps decades, judging by the power of the magic he just used - and probably much of his personality, too. Every that has made him unique over the years. So, effectively, a suicide."
Kevin was aghast. He could not imagine a circumstance or a cause which would compel him to take his own life - or at least a substantial portion of it - in such a way.
Their raised voices must have been clearly audible outside the cave. They were almost immediately joined by Omiz, who rushed in expecting, Kevin imagined, some kind of violence, then stopped, panting hard, when he saw what was happening. Realising what the impression from the outside must have been like, Kevin rushed to the cave mouth and looked down. He could see Tanji looking agitated and being forcibly prevented by Simas from clambering up the rocky hillside herself.
Kevin waved animatedly to re-assure her that he was unharmed, then beckoned her up. Before she had taken more than two steps, he was joined at the entrance by Omiz, who cupped his hands to his mouth and called out something in the Lyndesfarne language which Kevin did not understand. Tanji shouted something in response, then returned to their transport. She reached inside and pulled out Bret's familiar rucksack and, with the briefest of afterthoughts, her own backpack. As Kevin watched, she slung both bags over her shoulders and then scrambled her way rather awkwardly up the steep boulder-strewn slope to the cave entrance.
Together the two men reached down to pull Tanji up the last few steps into the cave. She thanked them, slightly out of breath after the climb, then dropped her own rucksack to the cave floor. She looked around, slowly taking in the scene, and spotted Bret still attempting to minister to Demaz. She approached the fallen man and wordlessly handed over Bret's bag.
"What happened?" She asked Kevin quietly, backing away cautiously.
Kevin briefly described what he had just witnessed. Her eyes widened as she took in exactly what had happened to Demaz and she realised why Wendy was so distraught. She looked over at the stricken man, evidence of sympathy in her every reaction despite what had happened to her personally over the last few days. Shaking her head sadly, Tanji moved to try to comfort Wendy, who was still lamenting volubly, putting her arms around the other woman's shoulders.
Meanwhile, Bret reached into the satchel he had just been presented with and took out his writing slate. As Kevin watched, the other man scribbled something and then gestured fluidly at the slate, then began another message and yet a third.
As Bret scribbled away, evidently concentrating on the messages he was sending, Demaz began to move, his eyelids fluttering, as if he was waking up after a long sleep. Through her tears, Wendy saw the big man moving. She shrugged off Tanji's consoling embrace and crawled over to him. Demaz struggled against the torpor induced by the magic and blinked again, his eyes finally focussing on Wendy's face.
"Why have you cut your hair?" he said to her, "and what have you done with your face?"
Wendy looked bemused, her lack of comprehension clear to Demaz even in his awakening state. His eyes darted around the cave with increasing alarm, taking in the now-unfamiliar location and the group of strangers that surrounded him.
"You're not Pat," he exclaimed, trying to sit up and looking around even more urgently, "Who are you? And what have you done with Pat?"
It was frighteningly clear to Kevin that Demaz had regressed to a state of mind from several decades past and that he was now getting increasingly confused and agitated. Bret beckoned over Omiz, who had clearly been expecting some difficulties under these circumstances and immediately assisted Bret in reassuring, and gently restraining, the big man.
"Kevin," Bret addressed him urgently over Demaz's shoulder, "Could you and Tanji go and keep a lookout from the cave entrance? I've sent for, well, back-up, you might say, and I need you to let them know exactly where we are."
The two lovers hastened to the entrance. Kevin stood with legs apart in what he would later think of a comically heroic pose, shading his eyes with his hand. He scanned the horizon as far as it could be seen, concentrating his efforts in the direction where he believed the portal they had arrived though lay.
"There!" Tanji cried, "Fliers."
Following Tanji's outstretched finger, Kevin could just make out some dark shapes moving in the sky, through the desert haze. The two of them waved energetically, and the shapes rapidly enlarged and descended towards the rocky crags which enveloped the cave.
It was a troupe of Guardians, flying in on what could only be described as faerie wings - the kind that had so fascinated him on the vacation trip all that time ago. Kevin had not realised that there would be more practical uses of this magic. He would later be told by Tanji that there was a certain amount of risk to this, given the presence of dragons. Perhaps for this reason, the flyers seemed to be armed with some kind of magical weapons Kevin had no desire to understand and the dragons wisely kept their distance from the fracas a few hundred feet below their nesting site.
The fliers were joined, a few seconds later, by a second group of flyers who had appeared from a completely different direction - presumably the direction of the second-closest portal. The two groups of new arrivals furled their wings with swift precise gestures - the magic apparently disappearing into the thin packs they had strapped to their backs - and made their way quietly and professionally into the cave.
By the time Kevin and Tanji had returned to the cave, Bret and Omiz had managed to calm Ms. Rossiter enough for her to be able to speak coherently. Wendy's story was simple enough: she had understood more than she had admitted about the importance of Kevin's investigation of the death of Andrew Wollack at NISSA. This information, together with her previous communications with Demaz, had allowed her to put two-and-two together. She had again communicated with Demaz, saying that she had important information about Bret and Kevin's investigation, but that she would only impart this in person.
They were interrupted by the arrival of the Ferryman herself, who had apparently declined the use of a flyer, but had been driven to the location from the nearest portal in another of the magical vehicles used earlier by Kevin and Tanji. Bret went straight over to the older woman and embraced her, his mother returning the hug affectionately.
Disentangling herself, the Ferryman beckoned to Kevin. He and Bret were both told off, at some length, for approaching a man known to be a dangerous fugitive with little by way of backup. It was, Kevin thought, the kind of anger from a loved one tempered with relief that the recipient of the bollocking was alive and unharmed by the experience. Talking-to completed, the Ferryman then took Bret on one side for, Kevin imagined, a more complete de-briefing.
The Guardians soon escorted Demaz and Wendy from the cave, taken away for questioning, Kevin imagined, but with no real expectation that any answers would be forthcoming. It was clear that Demaz was just a mercenary - a force for hire - and may not even have understood what it was that he was being asked to do. In Kevin's view, he did seem to be committed to the cause, but it seemed it was now impossible to find out who his paymasters were.
There was another arrival with a flutter of faerie wings, this time marking the arrival of the same taciturn female Messenger who had delivered the magical protection earlier. She wordlessly held out a large box, again made of that mysterious ceramic material, with the lid already open. Kevin and Tanji removed the amulets and bracelets they still wore, and placed them in the receptacle. The Messenger closed the lid, made a few gestures presumably to seal it against tampering, and whisked it away in less than a minute.
The squads of Guardians worked their way steadily around the cave, presumably looking for further clues, Kevin felt he was now just getting in the way. He and Tanji went outside and sat quietly together on a rocky ledge just outside the cave entrance.
Kevin wondered yet again about the intertwined history of the Two Worlds. He was aware of some of the influences throughout his own world, and not just in the areas influenced by the European traditions. The myths and legends that he had grown up with, and those of other cultures, hinted at huge, complex linkages between events in his world and the other, which made no sense without knowing of the existence of the other world - an existence the knowledge of which had been carefully restricted over the millennia.
And throughout that time, there had been numerous near disasters, sometimes averted in the nick of time - often with true heroics - or even real catastrophes, events that had devastating effects in one or both worlds.
That circular lake in Ireland, Kevin mused, which was formed when a crossing had snapped out of existence in a moment. Now, of course, the site was softened by water and time, and could no doubt be mistaken for a natural feature of the landscape. The events that led up to Noah's Flood, which must have been at least six thousand years in the past, the Diaspora of the Apache Nation sixteen hundred years ago, and the creation of that mysterious Irish lake only a few hundred years before. These things had been happening forever.
How many places in the Worlds, he wondered, were there these circular features, miles across, indicating where an explosive closure of a crossing had happened? The human cost must be huge, even though attempts were always made to site crossings in out-of-the-way places. People must have died, he estimated, in their thousands.
Even aside from the disasters of epic proportions, people's lives - and minds - were still at risk: every day, it seemed. There were just too many stories of people disappearing in mysterious circumstances; whether dead, or just as good as, after a massive mind-wipe. Indeed, in Tanji's case, close family members - her parents - had apparently vanished, never to be seen again. Despite clear evidence of huge effort from the authorities - the Boards and Guilds, and the Watchers, and even the Ferryman - it seemed impossible to prevent such happenings.
"It's just too dangerous," Kevin said, louder than he intended.
"What?" Tanji exclaimed, starting slightly at the vigour of Kevin's exclamation.
"What if Demaz is right?" he replied, "Maybe, just maybe, it is time to close the last crossing."
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