Home > Night Lost (Darkyn #4)

Night Lost (Darkyn #4)
Author: Lynn Viehl

Chapter 1

Pass through.

Curled up on the inn's narrow, lumpy bed, Nicola Jefferson slept, her closed eyelids moving slightly. A black Shoei motorcycle helmet with a smoke-colored full-face visor hung by a strap from one of the bed frame's tarnished brass knobs, appearing in the shadows like some decapitated alien head.

On a small table in the corner of the room, her laptop sat blank-screened, humming as it performed its daily scan for viruses. A scarred, pitted wooden baseball bat stood propped against the side of the mattress, a few inches from Nick's right hand.

When Nick slept, the bat was never out of her reach.

A very long time ago, when the world had been an easier place in which to live, Nick had stolen her stepfather's wood-burning tool and used it to etch her name into the bat shaft. She couldn't bear to give up the last connection she had to her past, those long summer evenings after dinner when Malcolm would give up his television programs to help her with her swing. After Nick left England, she had sanded the shaft every night until the childish, looping letters melted into fine sandy dust.

A pity Nick couldn't do that to her memories.

Nick never enjoyed sleeping, or coveted it. Like other necessities, she skipped it as often as she dared. Sleep was a pit stop, one her body desperately needed, but it wasted too much of her time. Three or four hours a day were all she could spare for it.

Always see.

She had places to go, attention to dodge, and searches to run. She'd hacked into some regional police databases and snagged a couple of decent leads to check out. Every minute she wasn't on the road was one that might bring the knock on the door, the polite demand for her passport, and the cold steel of cuffs. If they took her computer, they'd hack in and find out who she was and what she'd been doing. They'd toss her in jail, and the hunt would be over.

She couldn't stop now. She was so close to finding the Golden Madonna. She could feel it.

Never remember.

Nick knew she was dreaming, but felt no fear. She could wake up at any moment she chose, no matter how deeply she slept or how frightening her dreams became. Even the worst of them couldn't compete with the real nightmares out there in the cold, unforgiving sunlight: cops, thugs, freaks, monsters, and that cold-blooded maniac who daily terrified thousands: the European taxi driver.

Not that Nick could really call this one she'd been having a nightmare. Not until the end.

The dream started the same way it always had: Nick, alone, walking through a forest toward something. What, she didn't know. Why, also a question mark. Whatever it was, though, it drew her like the scent of Chantilly cream wrapped in paper-thin, buttery pastry.

Nick made her way through the wood, detoured now and then by massive tree trunks, soft pine needles brushing against her bare arms and legs. Her footsteps disturbed the carpet of old leaves and new moss, causing countless tiny blue butterflies hiding there to take to the air and flutter away.

Setting sunbeams played a lousy game of hide-and-seek with Nick under the treetop-framed purple sky. She avoided a spiderweb the size of a dinner plate, and paused for a moment to admire its black-and-yellow-striped maker. The spinner raised two legs and curled them, beckoning her or waving to her, Nick wasn't sure which.

She liked nature. Walks in the woods were okay by her. Thanks to her stepdad, who had treated her like the son that he and her mother would never have, Nick didn't get girlie about bugs. And, weird as he was, the guy she knew she would meet on the way to whatever was depending on her. For what, she didn't know, but it felt nice to be that important to someone.

Pass through.

The pine and fir trees thinned, and then parted to show her the same meadow she'd seen a hundred times, but only in her dreams. She smiled and stepped out of the trees, happy to have reached it. It was a good place, this meadow, his place. Wildflowers, soft green grass, and birdsong enveloped her. Dandelion fluff drifted past her face, floating on a mild breeze, carrying the wishes of other dreamers. She caught a bit in her fingers, held it for a moment, and then released it.

Ma bien-aimée.

Nick's heart skipped a beat as she looked up. There you are.

On the other side of the clearing the Green Man appeared, in the exact same place he did every time, a narrow gap between two ancient oak trees whose massive limbs over time had grown entwined. As tanned as she was fair, the man dressed in only a pair of loose brown leather trousers.

Always see.

Whoever he was, he was tall and built like a longdistance runner, with a deep chest and powerful thighs that tapered into elegantly lean legs. The strap of a quiver hung from his left shoulder, but Nick knew from previous dreams that the cylindrical, cured-hide case on his back was empty, and he never carried a bow. Part of her knew that although he looked like a hunter, he couldn't or wouldn't let himself kill anything.

Never harm.

A perfectly normal, definitely handsome guy, her dream man, if you ignored the long pine needles hanging around his face and spilling over his shoulders, and the dark emerald color of his skin.

"The princess should have kissed you harder," Nick murmured to herself as she watched him.

He stretched out his arms and braced his hands against the scaly brown-black bark, as if trying to push the trees apart. There was too much distance between them for Nick to tell what color his eyes were, but they never left her.

A handful of large green and brown moths flew around her head as a voice spoke inside it. Why do you come back, ma bien-aimée? Have you lost your way again?

"Just dreaming." She took a cautious step forward. She knew the Green Man was the one talking to her, although he never moved his lips. She also knew that if she went too fast the dream would change, and she'd lose her chance to speak to him before she had to move on. "How about you?"

I am forever lost.

As tragically poetic as ever. It should have been silly, but he meant it, and she felt an echo of the same despair in her own hidden, hollow loneliness. "Forever's a long time. Can't you ask for directions?"

No one can hear me but you.

Pretty as they were, Nick rarely understood the Green Man's cryptic remarks. This time she wondered if he meant lost literally: that he was somewhere waiting to be found. "I'm in a lousy student hostel outside Paris. Where are you?"

I do not know. He wrenched his arms away from the trees and stepped into the meadow. The moment his foot touched the cool, sweet grass, it pulled away from him, rolling toward Nick in a disappearing wave, leaving behind a tangle of weeds and brush and piles of broken stone. The forest behind the Green Man sank down behind crumbling brick walls, crooked turrets, and hollow, web-covered windows. They left me here. Do you know this place?

Hundreds of marigolds popped up out of the grass on Nick's side of the meadow. She stared up as she moved forward, studying the ruins behind him. She'd seen other places like this, but none so neglected. "No, sorry. Why would someone bring you here? It looks abandoned."

She saw him tense and halted in her tracks. She felt the same inexplicable frustration that came with every dream of the Green Man. On some level she knew that time was their enemy, but for different reasons, and that this man could do nothing to help her find the Madonna. On another she was pretty sure this was all some subconscious mind game she was playing with herself, making up the Green Man as a surreal imaginary lover.

At least he's not made of gold.

"I could look around," she offered. "If I find it, this place, this building, do I find you, too?"

He looked away from her. I am lost.

"Yeah, you told me." She sat down on the edge of a broken stone the size of an armchair. The marble felt cold and smooth under her palms. Beneath it, she knew, someone had buried an old man and woman killed during some forgotten war. Maybe the feelings go both ways. "Do you know where I am? Can you come to me?"

Only here, in the nightlands. He held out his hand to her but stepped back into the shadows, only the glow of his eyes visible. Come to me, ma bien-aimée. Come to me now.

Butterflies and moths erupted around Nick as she rose from the stone. The dream shifted, its colors darkening and melting away into a void of black, with nothing to guide her through the emptiness. She moved through it, uncaring, seeking the warmth that was the Green Man, until she felt long-fingered hands catch her shoulders and strong arms enfold her.

Safe.

I am here. You are here. We are not alone. We dream. We live. We will find each other someday.

She pressed against him, so overwhelmed by the contact that she was unable to speak, unable to do anything but stand in his embrace. Being like this with him made her forget everything. It was ridiculous; the only thing they shared was a dream. She knew he was only a dream.

Pass through.

Nick held on to him anyway, her cheek against his heart, his hand stroking her curly hair.

The Green Man pushed her away as hot light filled her eyes, and the ground between them collapsed. Nick fell back, cringing as the earth vanished into two deep, rough trenches. Beetles and roaches began crawling out of the largest hole, swamping the ground until it seemed to writhe.

Always see.

The Green Man stared at Nick's hands. What have you done ?

A rat with a short white stick clamped between its long yellow teeth scampered toward her. Like a puppy, it laid the stick at Nick's feet. She reached down for it, her hand black now with soil and blood, her fingernails jagged and broken. She stopped only when she saw the plain band of gold gleaming just above the gnawed end.

Never remember.

Nick woke up, as she always did, weeping.

"Too weak to escape," a voice said in the darkness, "and too strong to die."

Awakened to his new room in hell, the prisoner did not move. Reaction, like emotion, had become meaningless as well as useless. He no longer bothered to brace himself or cringe; waiting for what would be done required all of his Self-control.

Much had been done to Gabriel Seran.

More would be done, yet he would endure. Skills acquired during seven centuries of existence had permitted him to survive what might have killed him a thousand times over during his brief human life. It had also helped him through these last two years as a captive of the Brethren. His talent had kept his body from weakening, but the soul his captors did not believe he possessed had done the rest.

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