THE Great Bayou Swap Meet met at a giant plastic cow wearing a straw hat. At some point the cow must've been black and white, William reflected, but years of rain and wind had bleached it to a uniform pale gray. He surveyed the gathering of stalls and makeshift booths, selling everything from cloth dolls and old baseball cards sealed in plastic, to dinner sets and tactical knifes. To the right, some guy screamed himself hoarse, trying to find a buyer for his Corvette. To the left, a skinny woman in a booth decorated with a velvet painting of Elvis muttered non-stop to a pair of macaws in a cage. The birds, wet from the damp air, huddled together and probably plotted to kill her if the cage was ever opened.This was the Mirror's brilliant strategy. William shook his head to himself. Getting into the Mire from the Weird was near impossible: the boundary was thick with traps and heavily patrolled by the Louisiana Guard. Instead, the Mirror had arranged for him to sneak in through the back door, through the Broken. His instructions were simple: travel to the small town of Verite, located in the lovely state of Louisiana. Attend the Great Bayou Swap Meet. Wait by the cow at precisely seven o'clock. A guide would come and take him into the Edge. Great plan. What could go wrong?If there was one thing he'd learned in his years of military service, it was that everything that could go wrong, would. Especially considering that the guide was a free-lancer.A homeless woman wandered over and took up a post by the cow's hind legs. A layer of grime obscured her features. She wore a dirt-smudged tattered field jacket that once must've belonged to some soldier in the Broken. A black ski cap hid her hair. Filthy jeans stuck out from under the jacket, tucked into what looked like a surprisingly solid pair of boots. Her scent washed over him. She smelled sour, like she'd rolled in a batch of old spaghetti. For all he knew, she was going into the Edge as well, and he'd have to smell that rotten tomato sauce for the whole trip. Last Sunday he'd watched a documentary about the Great Depression on the History Channel, and she would give any of those hobos a run for their money.This was just getting better and better. He had nobody but himself to blame, William thought. He could be back in his trailer right now, drinking good coffee. But nooo, he had to be a hero.The Mirror had given him a four-day crash course on the Mire, Spider's crew, and the operation of about a thousand gadgets they had stuffed into his rucksack. His memory was near perfect. All changeling children going through Hawk's were trained in memorization. They were meant to become soldiers, who were expected to remember mission maps and objectives. His memory was exceptional even among changelings.William had practiced in the Broken out of habit, memorizing random things he read and watched, everything from gun catalogs to cartoons. He could recite the first hundred or so pages of an average paperback after having read it once. But the amount of information the Mirror had crammed into him strained even his brain, and now it hummed as if some phantom bees had made a hive in his skull. Eventually his mind would come to terms with the information, and he'd either learn it permanently or allow himself to forget it, but for now it was giving him a hell of a headache.A man walked out of the crowd, heading for the cow. About forty, with gray hair cut in what would've been a mullet if he wasn't balding, the man walked with a slight limp, dragging his left leg. He wore black jeans, a black T-shirt, a gray flannel shirt, and a Remington rifle. Looked like a 7400 from where William was standing, but he'd have to see it closer to be sure.The man stopped a couple of feet away and looked him over. William raised his chin and gave him a flat stare. The newcomer struck him as an enterprising sort of man. The kind that would slit your throat for a box of tissues in your bag while you slept.The man turned to the woman, gave her a long once-over, and spat into the grass. "Here for the Edge?""Yes," William said.The woman nodded.Yep, he would be spending the next few days in the company of that enchanting stench. Could be worse. At least she didn't reek like vomit."Name's Vern. Follow me."Vern limped his way from the swap meet into the brush. The hobo followed. William shouldered his rucksack and went after them.They hiked through the brush for about twenty minutes when he sensed the boundary. The hair on the back of his neck stood up.Vern turned around. "Here's the deal. We cross into the Edge here. You die in the crossing, that's your problem. Don't count on any CPR and shit. If you make it through, we've got a two-day trip up through the swamps. Both of you paid half. The second half is due when we land in Sicktree. If you give me any trouble, I'll shoot your ass and won't worry twice about it. You change your mind and want off the boat, you get off in the swamp. I ain't turning back, and I ain't issuing no refunds. We clear?""Clear enough," William said.The woman nodded.Vern grimaced at her. "You mute or something? Never mind, none of my business."He turned and stepped into the boundary. Here we go. William tensed against the incoming pain and followed.Thirty seconds of agony later, the three of them were bent double on the other side, trying to catch their breath.William straightened first, then Vern. The woman stayed bent, sucking in the air in small pained gulps. Vern headed down through the brush to where sounds of running water announced a stream.The hobo woman didn't move. Too much magic in her blood."You got it?" William asked.She jerked upright with a groan, pushed past him, and followed Vern.You're welcome. Next time he'd mind his own damn business.He pushed through the brush and almost ran straight into the water. A narrow stream lay before him, its placid water the color of dark tea but still translucent. Giant cypresses with thick, bloated stems flanked the stream. They stood densely, as if on guard, their knobby roots anchoring them to the mud. At the nearest tree, Vern waited in a large boat, a wide, shallow vessel with peeling paint and dented sides. A wooden cabin took up most of it, more a shelter from the sun than a cabin really: the front and back walls were missing. Two ropes hung from the nose of the boat, dipping into the water."No motor?" William asked, stepping aboard.Vern gave him a look reserved for the mentally challenged. "Not from the Edge, are you? One, a motor makes noise, so the whole swamp will know where you are, and two, you've got a motor boat, that's some valuable shit. The Edgers will shoot you for it."Vern picked up the ropes. Two twin heads poked from the water on long sinuous necks, like two Loch Ness monsters that somehow grew otter heads."Rolpie power," Vern said. "Keep your damn hands inside the vehicle and stay away from the sides. The Mire's full of gators, most bigger than this boat. They see your shadow on the water, they'll lunge into the boat to get you. And I ain't jumping in to rescue your ass."He slapped the reins, smacking his lips. The rolpies dove, and the boat took off, gliding across the dark water into the swamp.WILLIAM leaned against the cabin wall and watched the swamp slide by. If someone had asked him yesterday morning what hell looked like, he would've said he didn't know. He'd spent twenty-four hours in the swamp, and now he had an answer. Hell looked like the Mire.The boat crawled down the river, framed by dense clumps of vegetation and reeds. In the distance, cypresses rose, their bloated trunks grotesquely fat, like old men with beer guts squatting in the mud. Sunrise was due in half an hour, and the sky and the water glowed the pale gray of a worn-out dime.William inhaled deeply, sampling the scents on his tongue. The feeble stirring of the air that passed for wind in this place smelled of algae, fish, and mud. His senses regained their sharpness in the Edge, and the stench rising from the mess of muck, rot, and water combined with the heat made him want to bite someone just to let out some frustration.The constant movement of the boat grated on his nerves. Wolves were meant to walk on firm ground, not on this shell of fiberglass, or whatever the hell it was, that insisted on swaying and rocking every time one of the rolpies gulped some air. Unfortunately firm ground was in short supply: the shore was a soup of mud and water. When they had stopped for the night and he'd stepped onto what seemed like solid ground, his boots had sunk in up to the ankle.He'd spent the night in the boat. Next to the spaghetti queen.William glanced at the hobo girl. She sat across from him, huddled in a clump. Her stench had gotten worse overnight, probably from the dampness. Another night like the last one, and he might snap and dunk her into that river just to clear the air.She saw him looking. Dark eyes regarded him with slight scorn.William leaned forward and pointed at the river. "I don't know why you rolled in spaghetti sauce," he said in a confidential voice. "I don't really care. But that water over there won't hurt you. Try washing it off."She stuck her tongue out."Maybe after you're clean," he said.Her eyes widened. She stared at him for a long moment. A little crazy spark lit up in her dark irises. She raised her finger, licked it, and rubbed some dirt off her forehead.Now what?The girl showed him her stained finger and reached toward him slowly, aiming for his face."No," William said. "Bad hobo."The finger kept coming closer."You touch me, I'll break it off."Something splashed ahead. Both of them looked at the river.A wave wrinkled the surface a few hundred yards out.The girl squinted at it.Here it was again, a shallow ripple. It bopped up and down. Something sped to the boat."Sharks!" The girl lunged at Vern.He gaped at her."Sharks, you moron!" She pointed at the water.Ripples sliced through the surface. A huge fin emerged. A second followed.Vern grabbed for his bag and jerked out a grenade. William grabbed the girl and threw her to the bottom of the boat, shielding her.The grenade plunked into the water. Thunder slapped William's ears, the blast wave rolling against his skin. The boat careened.He whipped about, just in time to see Vern dive into the river, aiming for the shore.The sharks streaked toward the boat, no worse for wear. The leading fish darted up to the surface, flashing the ridge of thick bony plates armoring its back. The damn thing was bigger than the boat.The rolpies sensed the sharks and flailed, whipping the river into froth. The twin guidelines that secured the animals to the boat went taut, jerking at the metal cleats bolted to the nose. The boat danced up and down.The girl dropped to the ropes. A small knife flashed.William jerked his heavy tactical blade from its sheath. "Stop."She pulled back, and he chopped through the line in a single cut.The rolpie leaped out of the water and dove deep. Go, William urged. Go.He chopped the second line. The severed rope flew, and the second rolpie surfaced in a foamy fountain. Huge jaws pierced the foam. Triangular shark teeth flashed and tore into the rolpie's side. The creature screamed. The girl screamed, too, pounding her fist on the rail. William ground his teeth.The shark ripped a bloody slab of flesh from the rolpie's flank.William yanked a crossbow stock out of his rucksack and pulled the activation. The stock sprouted arms with a faint click. It was the latest in small arms models, only a foot long, and he was under strict orders not to use it unless absolutely necessary. William jerked back his sleeve, revealing a leather quiver strapped to his forearm, plucked a bolt, loaded in a single smooth move, sighted the fish, and fired.A white star streaked through the air. The bolt sprouted from the shark's gills. The bolt head winked with green and exploded in a pulse of magic. The fish launched straight up, out of the river, its black mouth gaping, blood streaming from a hole in the side of its head, and crashed onto its back. The second shark hit the first, spinning it. Blood roiled through the river. The rolpie streaked away, fleeing for its life.The injured shark thrashed and dived down. The second fish gave chase.The boat crawled downstream.William took a deep breath. The rush of the fight still sang through his veins, setting him on fire. He felt alive, more alive than he'd been in the last two years.The old woman was right. He had forgotten who he was. He was a wolf and a killer."Thank you," the hobo girl said."We're fucked!" Vern announced from the shore.THE boat drifted downstream at the speed of an invalid snail. Vern had no trouble keeping up even with his bum leg."They're bone sharks. The old kind. They swim up from the Weird sometimes and get trapped in the swamp. Of course they die from fresh water in a week or two, fuckers, but meanwhile they do their damage. It's over."The boat's bottom slid against soft mud and stopped. About forty feet separated them from the nearest shore and Vern."What do you mean, it's over?" William said. "It's over when you get me to Sicktree."Vern stared at him. "Are you daft? We have no rolpies, which means we've got no power and we can't maneuver for shit. Getting to Sicktree on foot would take days."On the edge of William's peripheral vision, the hobo girl slid into the water. She did it silently, without a splash, and dove under. Even his ears picked up only the slightest hint of sound. The spaghetti queen had hidden talents. Where the hell was she going?"Look around you, man!" Vern waved his arms. "That ain't a park out there. That swamp is gonna kill you. The Broken is only a day away by boat and about three by foot."Everything that could go wrong . . . "I don't think so." William let some snarl into his voice. "I hired you to get me to Sicktree. That's where we're going."Vern jerked his rifle up. "Get off my boat, you Weird fop."William raised his crossbow. "Don't be stupid."Vern sneered. "You ain't gonna hit me with that toy . . ."A dark figure stepped out of the reeds behind Vern. A slender foot-long blade slid against his Adam's apple, reflecting light. William blinked. Smooth.The hobo girl leaned to Vern's ear and whispered something.Vern's fingers opened. The rifle fell into the mud with a wet splat.The girl pulled the blade aside. William bared his teeth. She was trouble. Good for her, bad for him.Vern limped away at top speed, yelling over his shoulder. "I won't forget this! I won't. You'll see."The hobo girl hooked the rifle with her foot and kicked it into her hands. The rifle barrel glared at William. "You're in my boat."You've got to be kidding me. "You can have this boat. You can have the whole damn swamp for all I care. After I get to Sicktree.""That's a very nice crossbow," the girl said. "And you're very good with it. But I can shoot you twice in the time it takes you to load it."William bared his teeth. "Want to test that theory?"She smirked. "Are you sure you want to risk being shot? This bullet would make a very messy hole in your chest."William pulled another bolt from the quiver.The girl aimed to the left of him and squeezed the trigger. A feeble click echoed through the swamp. She popped the rifle open and swore."I emptied it last night while the two of you slept." William sighted her. "Vern didn't strike me as trustworthy. Looks like I keep the boat."She lowered the rifle. "May I ask where you're going to pilot your new boat?""To Sicktree.""And in what direction do you think Sicktree is?"William stopped. The stream had turned at least half a dozen times. He knew the swamp settlement sat somewhere upstream, but where exactly he had no idea. The Mirror had no maps of this part of the Edge, but the parts that they did map looked like a labyrinth of tiny streams, ponds, and mud banks."I take it, you know the way to Sicktree."She smiled. "I do. You should hire me to be your guide. Or you can spend the next couple of weeks blundering around the Mire."She had him. William pretended to consider it. "Hire you? I think the privilege of riding in my new boat should be enough.""Deal." She started toward the water."There are some conditions attached to my offer."The girl rolled her eyes."One, if you're thinking of slitting my throat, don't. I'm faster and stronger than you, and I sleep light."She shrugged. "Fine.""Two, you bathe the first chance you get.""Anything else?"William thought about it. "No, that covers it."The girl waded through the water, pulled herself into the boat, and dug in the bow compartment.William watched her.She pulled a large canvas bundle and dragged it to the side."What is that?""An inflatable boat. All runners carry them just in case." She patted the larger boat. "This bad boy is meant to be drawn by rolpies. It's heavy. The inflatable is light and we can carry it if we have to."She pulled the cords, securing the canvas, dug in it, and swore. "Cheapskate. No inflatable - he's got his sleeping bag stuffed in there." She rose, stared at the cabin for a long moment, and tugged at the canvas covering its roof. "Are you going to help, Lord Weird? You can, of course, sit on your behind while I sweat, but it will take twice as long."He grasped his end of the canvas and jerked. The camo fabric fell away, revealing a shallow, square-nose boat strapped to the cabin."A punt." The hobo girl sighed. "We'll have to pole it like a bateau."William had no idea what a bateau or a punt was, but he didn't care. It was a boat and it could float, which meant it could get him to Sicktree to the Mirror's agent who waited for him there. He cut at the line securing the small vessel to the roof."Call me William.""Cerise," the hobo girl said. "I've got a rule, too."He glanced at her."No questions," she said.Now that was interesting. William nodded. "I can work with that."