AFTER LOCKING THE GATE, Alex walked back to the truck. Beyond all the official signs on the other side of the formidable gate warning people not to enter the property, it felt as if he were standing in the narthex leading into a grand cathedral. In the uncanny quiet he looked around at the gloomy shadows, searching for any eyes that might be watching back.
The highway was too far away for them to hear any traffic, if there was any. The remote road had been virtually deserted on the way up from Westfield. Once past a few clusters of camps and some logging roads, they had seen only a few trucks.
Standing in the silent, ancient forest, Alex felt as if he were in another world.
He could see by what lay ahead that the road into the property was hardly what he was used to thinking of as a road. It looked like little more than a cut though primordial woods. Here and there trees crowded in tight right up to the edge of the road. Out ahead lay an open chamber cast in the gloom beneath the big pines. The thick overcast and mist only added to the sense of foreboding.
Immense trunks of monarch trees rose up through the underlying regions of the forest where only muted light penetrated. It was as if there were two worlds: the open, lush vegetation on the forest floor, and the world of the towering pines overhead. Nurseries of small, waist-high spruce huddled in clusters here and there in the understory. Swaths of ferns nodded under falling drops of water combed from the mist by the pine needles above. The ferns creating feathery beds in places throughout the quiet forest floor lent an exotic, spicy aroma to the place.
Alex climbed back in the Jeep and shut the door. Jax carefully watched out the side windows for any signs of trouble.
“Can I ask you a question, Alex?”
He turned the key and the Jeep started without him holding his breath, for once. “Sure.”
“When you wrote on that painting, why did you sign it ‘Lord Rahl’?”
Alex shrugged as he eased the truck ahead into the woods. “I don’t know. I thought it might rattle Cain, maybe distract him. For some reason it just felt like the right thing to do. Why?”
“I just wondered, that’s all.”
“Does it bother you, because of what it meant in the past?”
“No. I don’t care so much about what went on in the past. I care about what’s happening now and what’s going to happen.”
“I know,” Alex said, thinking about all the helpless, innocent victims who had died that day because of Radell Cain and his people.
As they crawled along, moving ever deeper into the somber woods, Alex wondered what Jax was brooding about. Since it didn’t seem like she was going to say anything, he finally asked.
“What’s going through your head, if you don’t mind my asking?”
She stared out the side window for a time. She finally answered without looking at him.
“I was just weighing the worth of worlds.”
Alex glanced over at her. “What does that mean?”
“I came here for a reason. I came to fulfill prophecy, to save the innocent people in my world from the threat looming over them.”
Alex shrugged. “Go on.”
“I don’t know if I can do that anymore.”
“What do you mean?”
“A lot of people died today, Alex. What do you think I mean?”
“You mean you’re thinking of quitting?”
“I know what Radell Cain has planned next. I’ve seen him do things like this before. He’s going to make you responsible for the deaths of innocent people if you refuse to help him. He’s going to force you to choose.”
Alex stared ahead as he inched along the rocky ruts. He had considered such questions in the back of his mind. He hated to bring them to the front, to dwell on them, to contemplate having to make such a choice.
As they drove on deeper into the woods, they eventually passed two side roads that were on the map that Hal Halverson had drawn for him. Those roads essentially circled the entire property. The road he was on was the only one that went deeper in toward what the people of the Daggett Society called the crown jewel of the property: Castle Mountain.
They had long since left the buffer property that he controlled through the Daggett Trust, and were now on the land that he had inherited. It seemed surreal to think that he actually owned everything he could see.
Another hour and a half of tough going finally brought them to a circular spot that had been cleared so that vehicles could turn around. Off to the left side was a brook that came from farther into the property. Beside the brook Alex saw a trailhead. He circled the Jeep around and parked.
As he got out and shut the door, Alex noted that the brook rushing over rocks created a lot of noise that would mask the sound of anyone who might be sneaking up. He scanned the woods before he lifted the tailgate so they could get their gear out. The dark wooden box with the knife was sitting in the back, seeming to wait for him.
Underneath the velvet he found a black leather sheath trimmed in silver that looked just like the one Jax had. He threaded the sheath onto his belt, placing it on the left side behind the pouch holding two spare magazines. He had the other four spare magazines in an easily accessible pocket on the side of the backpack. He had also packed a number of boxes of ammunition in the backpack. Ammo was heavy, but he wasn’t about to leave it behind.
Ben always told him that you could never have enough guns or ammo. He wished now that he had taken the time to get another gun. He was thankful to at least have one and to know that it was as dependable as a rock.
Jax lifted the silver-handled knife out of the box. She pulled hers out to look at them together. The one from the box still had her blood on it.
Alex gestured at the weapons lying in her hands. “It’s mind-boggling to think that those two knives haven’t been together for probably a thousand years or more.”
“That’s what I was thinking,” she said.
When she handed him the knife, he started to wipe the blood off. Jax stopped him. “No, leave it.”
Alex frowned at her. “Why?”
“These blades were made to draw blood. It should have a taste to wake it from its long sleep to its purpose.”
Alex gazed into her resolute eyes for a moment, then slid the knife, still stained with blood, into its sheath on his belt.
He and Jax silently went about the task of getting their gear together. It was already early afternoon. Fixing the truck and the drive up had taken most of the morning. He knew that there was no way they would make it all the way in to Castle Mountain that day. They would have to set up a camp and make it the rest of the way to their destination the next day.
He supposed that Radell Cain, Sedrick Vendis, and Yuri the pirate could simply pop in at Alex’s destination without having to go through the effort of a long hike. He certainly had no doubt that they would show up.
Alex was looking forward to finally meeting the visionary artist who was creating a new reality. His blood boiled with rage in anticipation of meeting him.
Jax looked like she knew what she was doing with the camping gear. She got her pack together quickly and efficiently, then hoisted it up onto her back and buckled the waist strap. Alex did the same. Their packs had collapsible water containers and they also had water bottles hooked on utility belts.
As they left the Jeep and started into the woods the calls of birds echoed through the trees. Walking along side by side in the more open areas, they shared a couple of packages of rolled-up meat and cheese. They had preserved food, but the meat wouldn’t keep, so they ate it all as they made their way deeper into the gloom.
Farther in, the trail became less defined, but it wasn’t difficult to follow. The security people probably used the trail into the interior of the property, and over the time that the Daggett Trust had protected the land the trail had become a reasonably well-defined route. Besides the roads, Hal had also marked such trails on the property. There weren’t a lot of them, but they provided access to just about any corner of the land. As he walked along, Alex could see that there were deer trails that could probably be followed if need be.
As the afternoon wore on, the land began rising. At first it was gentle slopes, but it soon began to get rocky and more difficult to climb. They were both breathing hard as they ascended a series of ridges, having to go down the back side of each one before going up again to get over the next.
After the ridges, the trail took switchbacks up a steep area with a series of cliffs. Each of the rock faces wasn’t all that high, but negotiating them was difficult, especially carrying all the gear they had. In some of the places Jax’s legs weren’t long enough and Alex had to lie on the upper trail and reach down to help pull her up so that she wouldn’t have to take time to climb around. Other than that, he was having a hard time keeping up with her.
As they went higher, the mist thickened. It felt cool on Alex’s sweaty face. The land finally leveled a little. The trail wound its way up through trees with gnarled roots clinging to seams in areas of exposed granite ledge. Leaving the ledges behind, they plunged back into thicker woods. Moss underfoot made it a quiet walk.
“It won’t be long until dark,” Jax said back over her shoulder. “With the cloud cover there won’t be any moon or stars. It’s going to be a pitch-black night. Hiking in this kind of terrain after it gets dark is dangerous. You could walk off a rock face, or break a leg in a hole. We’re going to have to think about setting up camp pretty soon.”
Alex sighed. He was weary from their pace, but he hated to have to stop. He had wanted to get closer to their destination, but he knew that she had a lot more experience at this kind of thing and so he took her advice seriously.
“How about if we keep pushing for just a little longer. We can always use flashlights to help us set up camp.”
She agreed, but told him that it wouldn’t be long until it would be too dark to push on. Everything soon began losing its color, making the trees look gray. Darkness was falling quicker than he would have thought.
And then they came out of the closed trail to a small opening in the woods that for the first time gave them a view into the distance. They halted together, surprised by the unexpected sight.
Silhouetted against the fading gray sky while at the same time lit a little from the obscured sun setting to the left stood Castle Mountain, rising up before them from the undulating, rolling landscape.
It didn’t really look at all like a castle to Alex. It looked more like a plateau rising up out of the surrounding forests. Its top wasn’t flat, though, instead looking somewhat crenellated with irregular rock outcroppings rising and falling across the surface of the top.
“Dear spirits,” Jax whispered.
“What? What’s the matter?”
“I don’t believe it.”
“What don’t you believe?”
“It looks very much like a place in my world called the People’s Palace.” She shook her head. “I can hardly believe what I’m seeing, but I guess, when I think about it, I’ve somehow expected all along to see it.”
“Sure doesn’t look much like a castle to me. What’s so special about the People’s Palace?”
“It’s the place where our worlds were split apart. Up there, at least up there in my world, is a place called the Garden of Life. From there, at the end of a long struggle, people were banished to this world. It only makes sense for that to be the place of connection, the place where the gateway would be.”
The enormity of such a concept gave Alex pause.
She pointed. “Can you see that line rising up diagonally from the bottom left toward the top right?”
Alex squinted into the gathering darkness. “Okay, I see it now.”
“It looks like a narrow, angled ridge. In my world that’s a road up the plateau to the palace at the top.” She let out a sigh. “From here it’s probably a hike of four hours to get there. We’d better look for a place to camp and get some sleep.”