WILLIAM crouched on the deck of the barge. Before him the shore loomed, black and green in the weak dawn light. Cerise stood next to him, her scent twisting and turning around him. Behind them the Mars waited."Are you sure?" Cerise asked."Yes. We go our separate ways here. If I take out Spider, the Hand will break." But to get to Spider, he'd have to have a distraction and the Mars were it."Don't die," she whispered."I won't."He pulled her to him and kissed her, her taste so sharp and vivid, it almost hurt. So this was it. He'd known it was too good to be true. He had her and now he would lose her.The barge swung close to the shore. He leaped, clearing the twenty-foot stretch of water, and took off into the woods.Twenty minutes later William went to ground on the crest of the hill behind the Drowned Dog Puddle. The sun had risen, but the day was gray and dark, the sky overcast. In the weak light the swirls of green, gray, and brown on his face blended with the dense brush cover of the berry bushes. He'd molded himself into the hill so deep, he tasted mud on his lips. He was all but invisible to Spider's agents busy below.The hill cradled the pond in a ragged crescent, dropping down in a sheer cliff, made soggy and slick with recent rain. Bushes and pines sheathed the hill, but nothing grew down by the pond, save for a lonely cypress. It rose above the water, a gnarled and grizzled veteran of countless storms. The cypress cast no reflection. The water of the pond beneath it was pitch-black.The entire place emanated an odd menacing calm. The sloshing of the Hand's agents did little to disturb it, no more than a grave digger would've disturbed the serenity of a graveyard.William shifted slightly to keep the circulation flowing in his arms. He hid above the pond's northern shore, far enough to be out of the agents' plain sight, but close enough to miss little. The Mirror's bag provided him with a distance lens, which he wore over his left eye like an eye patch. The lens brought the agents so close, he could count the pimples on their faces.Three feet beyond him the ground ended abruptly, and the hill plunged twenty-six feet straight into the pitch-black water of the pond. Spider didn't pay the hill a lot of attention, posting only two guards. They had gone to ground, too, the closest only fifteen yards from where William lay. Neither would be a problem when the time came. In Spider's place William would've done the same - any attack coming from the east, over the hill, would've ended in the peat, and his instincts screamed at him to stay the hell away from that black water.Most of Spider's agents were concentrated around the pond. William focused on the shock of white hair. Karmash. The massive agent barked an order to a swarthy thick woman. She tossed her hair back and went to a chain lying in the mud. The muscles on her nude back bulged. Something shifted beneath her skin, like a coiled spring, and she picked up the chain roll and carried it without apparent strain to where other agents untangled ropes by cypress roots.They were rigging a block and tackle, which they'd hang from the cypress to pull the Box free. Clever, Spider.An agent exploded from the mud, all sinew and tentacle, dripping sludge, and flung a wriggling snake clear of the shore. It spun in the air away from the main body of agents. A woman lashed out from behind a stack of lumber. Her arm flashed and two halves of the snake fell twitching into the mud. And there was Veisan . . .Spider came into the lens's view, leaning on the stack of wood. The hair on the back of William's neck rose. If he'd been covered in fur, his hackles would have been up and his mouth growling. Spider slouched. The lens picked up dark bags under his eyes. The bastard was tired. Tired was good.A hissing dispute broke out between Karmash and the tentacled monstrosity William's memory identified as Seth. Seth's tentacles flailed through the tears in his black robe. Karmash was making short cutting motions with his shovel-sized hands. Spider pushed free of the wood stack. Noticing that he was being paid attention to, Seth stepped back. Karmash was a touch slower to catch on, but a breath later he, too, found some pressing business that made him walk away. Spider resumed his slouching.One of the agents would have to dive into the peat to attach the chain. William smiled. That should be interesting to watch.Once the Box came up, all hell would break lose.He'd done the best he could, William decided. He'd explained the plan to Gaston and sent him to hide the copy of the journal and wait. If he didn't make it through, the boy would take the journal to Zeke. He had done his job and gotten the Mirror what it wanted. The Mars would be safe from them.Now he had to kill Spider. Piece of cake.A lean sinuous woman stepped to the edge of the pond. Her robe whispered to her feet, leaving her nude. The head of every male agent turned. If it weren't for the scales, she would be perfect.The woman arched her back and then stretched, pushing her arms back. The gills on her neck snapped open in a frilly pink collar, bright against her pale green scales. She picked up the rope, slipped it around her waist, and with serpentine grace slid into the peat.KALDAR maneuvered the barge around the bend and glanced at his uncle. "Almost there."Hugh stood up. Around him the dog pack rose, sitting on their haunches, staring at the big man with fanatical devotion. You'd never know the barge was full of dogs, Kaldar thought. With eighteen one-hundred-pound dogs on board, not a single bark or a growl. Like they were possessed or something.Hugh stripped off his shirt, exposing a lean torso. He pulled off his boots, then his pants, and carefully folded his clothes. "So how did they pick you to help me? Lost a bet or something?""I don't lose bets. I volunteered. I never got to see you do your thing. Be a shame to miss it."Cough whined softly."Soon," Hugh told him. "Soon."A strand of cypresses came into view. Kaldar tugged on the reins, sending the pair of rolpies to the shore. "We're here.""Okay." Hugh took a deep breath and squared his shoulders. "Okay."His body twisted as if ripped from the inside out. Bones thrust and muscle followed. Acid squirted into Kaldar's mouth. Hugh crashed to the bottom of the barge, convulsing. The dogs whined in unison.Hugh shook and rolled up to all fours. Dense gray fur slid over him and a giant wolf looked back at Kaldar with green eyes. Kaldar swallowed. The thing towered a foot over the dogs, and Cough was a hundred and twenty pounds.The barge bumped into the muddy shore. The wolf leaped into the mud. The dogs streamed after him in a brindled flood. Kaldar tied the reins to the tree, grabbed his shotgun, and followed.THE reptilian woman broke the surface of the puddle for the eighth time. William watched her drag the end of the line out of the peat. She didn't look so good anymore. The woman handed the rope to Karmash and collapsed on the shore. The mud gave under her weight and she sank into the muck. A thick layer of peat sheathed her face and chest. Her chest heaved.Karmash tossed the rope to another agent, who clung to the branch of the cypress with clawed legs and a prehensile tail. The agent caught the rope and wove it into the block and tackle. They had used the ropes to wrap the Box like a package. William had seen it done before. The rope would squeeze the Box when they dragged it free of the mud. In their place, he'd find some way to break the suction first, lifting the Box from the mud.Karmash had the same idea. He crossed the shore to the reptilian swimmer and dropped a large iron bar next to her. She shook her head. He prodded her with his foot as if she were a lazy dog. She shook her head again and rolled into a ball as Karmash's foot thudded into her ribs.Spider broke his leisurely posture and walked over to them. He knelt by the woman and spoke to her. The cross-hairs of William's lens centered on his eyes, focused . . . Earnest Spider, soft-spoken, persuasive.The woman nodded finally and took the iron bar into her trembling fingers. Karmash barked orders.The dense clouds that smothered the sky chose this moment to rupture. Gray, cold rain spilled onto the Mire, pooling on the mud, wetting faces and plastering hair to heads. Spider raised his face to the heavens and swore.010THE muddy hole in which Cerise lay slowly filled with water. Beside her Richard made a tiny movement, flicking a twig that had fallen on his face.The agents didn't expect anyone to come from the south. To an outsider's eyes the labyrinth of sludge, water, and trees probably seemed impassable. Somewhere out there William lay in wait, ready to pounce.Thirty yards away the Hand's agents grasped the rope and strained in a muscle-bulging, tendon-ripping heave. A huge white-haired agent - Karmash, William had called him - in the front roared, "Again!" in Gaulish. They heaved again.It wasn't fair. It wasn't fair that they took her parents, that Lark was a monster, that Erian betrayed them. It wasn't fair that she had to lead her family into the slaughter. It wasn't fair that she loved William and now he could die.Cerise squeezed her eyes shut for a second. Get a damn grip.Where was Hugh with his dogs? Cerise's gaze strayed to the left. There, sandwiched between Richard and Mikita, Erian lay. Even under the swirls of forest paint, his face was bloodless.For twelve years he was her brother. They ate at the same table. They went to sleep under the same roof. And then he almost killed Urow, he caused Clara to lose her leg, he let the Hand capture her parents . . . And for what? So he could see Lagar Sheerile die? It just hurt, deep inside, like someone sawed on her chest with a rusty saw.She went to see him this morning. He stared at her like she was a stranger. She told him the family wanted his head and he had a choice. They could take him out back and shoot him like a rabid dog. Or he could fight the Hand and die with his sword in his hand. He chose the sword. She had known he would.The surface of the pond boiled. A solid mass emerged, a dark rectangle, spilling clumps of bottom slime into the pond. The thick scent of rotting algae spread through the clearing. They had to move now. Cerise wished the dogs were here. But something had delayed Hugh and they had no choice.Cerise raised her arm. Behind her a ragged line of Mars broke free from the mud. She chanced a single glance at the grim painted faces. Family . . .The agents still pulled the ropes, unaware of their presence. Cerise rose on one knee, preparing the first insane charge . . .Loud sucking noises came from the left, as if someone was trudging his way through the mud and carrying half the Mire worth of it on his boots.Shlop. Shlop. Shlop.Cerise dropped back into her hole.Karmash raised his hand and turned in the direction of the sound.A tall gangly figure in a crimson robe strode down the hill.Emel. Dear Gods, why?Emel stopped, gathered the edge of his crimson vestments, already mud-soaked, and shlopped his way past the bewildered agents to face the mud where the Mars hid. "Cerise," he called. "I really must talk to you."The agents stared at him.I'm going to kill him. Cerise clenched her teeth. A dead man. He is a dead man."The payment still hasn't been made," Emel said, fiddling with the hem of his wet robe. "Usually at this point I start killing the relatives of the guilty party, but since you are my relatives, the matter is a bit more complicated."Next to her, Richard turned on his back, his hands behind his head. His face assumed a serene expression as he slowly sank into the mud. Apparently it was just too much for him.Emel tucked his hem in the crook of his elbow and put the fingers of his two hands together. "Now then, I believe we've made an agreement for one thousand seven hundred and twenty-five U.S. dollars due yesterday. I really would like to resolve this matter here and now, before you may charge to your probable death. Not that I wish you to perish, by any means, but should you expire, our agreement would become void, and I would hate to go through negotiations again. I do hate to be crude, but I would like the money now. Please."Did he think she brought it with her? The Hand wouldn't let him walk away. He was going to get himself killed. What in the world was he doing, making himself a target?Karmash was looking past Emel, straight at her. She realized he had seen them.The Hand would have to go through Emel to get to them.Oh no.The Sect didn't want him involved, but if he was attacked, they would expect him to defend himself. Emel was trying to pick a fight."Kill them!" Karmash howled. "Kill the corpse buggerer and his family!"The agents dashed for the necromancer, leaving their leader struggling to secure the rope. The monstrous muscles on his arms bulged, he gritted his teeth, and began circling the cypress, winding the rope around the bloated stem. Beyond him, Cerise glimpsed a lean blond man shout commands to the group guarding the southwestern path.Emel turned. "Corpse buggerer?" He dropped the hem of his robe. "Nobody insults the acolyte of Gospo Adir."His face trembled. His hands reached out, rigid fingers raking the air like talons. Power accreted around him, compacting into a dense cocoon. The black surface of the pond gasped as a ball of foul-smelling gas erupted from its middle.Cerise dashed to him. Behind her the Mars charged at the Hand.Emel grunted like an animal. His hands clawed the air.Shapes burst from the peat, huge hulking forms of skeleton and rotting flesh. Too big, too broad for human corpses. Thoas, the dead of the moon people.The first of the Hand's agents reached Emel. Cerise lunged, flashing across her blade, and stepped back, as the top half of the agent's body slid from the torso and crashed into the mud."Thank you." Emel brought his hands together and exhaled sharply. The dead thoas ripped into the agents."Thank you for helping.""Of course. We're family. You go. I'm well protected now."She sprinted into the thick of the battle.The thoas tore into the agents with all the wrath Emel could muster. Three of them hung on the white-haired giant. He tried to push them off, but they clung to him, taloned hands ripping, rotting teeth biting. He slammed his back against the cypress and knocked one of the corpses loose.A grunt of pain made Cerise whirl. She turned just in time to see Mikita go down. A furry creature leaped onto his prone body with a triumphant shout. Before she knew it, Cerise was running, running desperately fast across the slick sludge. She was ten yards away when the furry beast bared needle teeth and ripped out Mikita's throat.THE pack halted before the mouth of the path, breaking against the hillside like a brown deluge. Kaldar tried to stop and slid, waving his arms to keep his balance. His hand grasped a sapling, and he caught himself, avoiding a collision with the dogs.A single form detached from the pack and sailed over their backs in a mighty leap. It landed next to Kaldar. Nightmarish eyes glared at him from a wolf's face.Something was wrong.Kaldar pushed to the front. The hill on one side, deep swamp on the other. They had to pass through a narrow stretch of ground about twenty feet wide. The ground looked freshly raked. Traps, Kaldar realized. Many, many traps."A bet. I need a bet or I can't make it work."The pack growled. A brindled dog moved before him and dropped a dead swamp rat at his feet. Cold sweat broke on his forehead."Fresh kill. Good bet." Kaldar swallowed. He picked up the rat. The tiny body was still warm to the touch. Closing his eyes, Kaldar moved into the path.He felt the magic coalesce above him. That was his talent, his own personal power. It had pulled him out of many scrapes before, and he counted on it now to lead him through the field of traps.The shivering current hovered above him and plunged through the top of his head, through his spine, through the rat corpse in his arms, into his feet and the ground beneath him. The surge nipped at his entrails with sharp hot fingers. It guided him to where it wanted him to go and he obeyed.WILLIAM saw Karmash go down beneath a roiling mass of thoas corpses. The agent had managed to secure the lines before they dragged him down, and the Box hung suspended above the water from the branches of the cypress.Good time to jump in.William leapt to his feet and ran along the crest of the hill. The first agent never saw him coming. He slashed the man's throat, spun about, and sliced the other agent to pieces.Below him the fight raged. The Hand's agents had recovered from the initial assault and struck back. He saw Seth's pink tentacles close about a body and release it a second later, limp and twisted, like a cloth doll chewed by a dog.William turned and ran to the cypress. If he sank the Box now, they wouldn't get it out a second time. He had to get down to the cypress and cut above the block and tackle, or the lines would snap and take him with them.Ten yards to the cypress.Eight.Spider burst from the thick of the fighting.William sprinted.Spider jumped unnaturally high and scuttled up the cypress, landing on the hill in front of the tree.William halted, his knife out. "Spider."Spider grinned and pulled a curved knife from his sheath. "William."William bared his teeth."Is this really where you want to die, William? In this awful place?""No, but it's good enough for your grave.""Are you working for the Mirror now? It's nice. We must be winning if the Adrianglians are desperate enough to hire your kind."William bared his teeth. "They hired the best."Spider smiled. "I see. So tell me, is it business or pleasure? Are you doing it for the girl or for your country?""Both. Are we going to finish this or do you want to chitchat some more?"Spider bowed with an elaborate flourish.William snarled and charged.