The sky was getting bright, but the sun had yet to rise as Cole carried his saddle pad to his horse. He tossed it over Ranger's back, but the quilted pad fell through the horse to the ground.
Cole whirled. "Dalton."
His friend stood a short distance away, arms folded, leaning against a tree trunk. "Not bad."
Cole picked up the saddle pad and shook off the dirt. "Really good, actually." He swiped a hand through the horse, feeling only a vague, cobwebby sensation. "That looks perfect."
The illusionary horse disappeared.
"Couldn't sleep again." Cole asked.
It took some time."
"Dalton!" another voice called. Taller than Cole and Dalton by a few inches, though not much older, Jace stormed over to them, his deeply tanned face flushed. "Where's my saddle."
Dalton cracked a smile. "Isn't it over there." he asked, pointing.
Cole followed his finger to where Jace's saddle leaned against a mossy log.
"Ha-ha," Jace said."
The saddle vanished.
"That's two really good seemings at once," Cole said. "How long did you maintain them."
"Since right before you two got up," Dalton said. "Fifteen minutes or something."
Jace huffed. "Good for you. Maybe you and Skye can set up your own dazzle show. Now where's my saddle."
Dalton looked around innocently, then craned his head back. Cole tracked his gaze up into a tree where a saddle straddled a high branch, and a laugh spurted out before he could hold it back.
"That better not be real," Jace threatened."
The saddle disappeared.
"Three seemings at the same time." Cole asked.
"It's over by that stump," Dalton said, nodding toward the one he meant.
As Cole watched, the scarred old stump melted away to reveal Jace's saddle. "Four," Cole said. "And they all looked great."
"Nice waste of time, Dalton," Jace complained. "We're on the run."
"You'd do the same thing if you could work seemings," Cole said.
"You'd kill us." Dalton exclaimed.
"Into a lake," Jace said."
"We'd cannonball in and make two of the biggest splashes ever," Cole said. "Then we'd come for you."
"You guys better hurry up and get ready. We're moving out."
Cole turned to reach for his saddle, but Dalton restrained him. "Wait for it."
Jace hoisted his saddle pad and saddle together, marched over to his horse, and flung them onto its back. The saddle fell through the illusion to the dirt. Jace turned and glared.
"Pick up the pace!" Dalton called. "The horses are this way. We're heading out!"
Dalton grabbed Cole's saddle pad and Cole claimed his saddle. They walked together toward where Dalton had moved the horses. Cole glanced at his friend. They had come to the Outskirts together from Mesa, Arizona. When they arrived, they knew nothing about this world. They'd never heard of shaping or the High King or even knew that a place like the Outskirts was possible. A slave trader had kidnapped dozens of kids visiting a neighbourhood haunted house on Halloween and brought them to a bizarre new world. Shortly after their arrival they were marked as slaves and scattered across the five kingdoms. They started out alone—strangers in a strange land.
But they were gradually figuring things out. Cole had managed to find his best friend, and Dalton had some crazy strong abilities.
"That was amazing," Cole said. "But why go after Jace so hard. He's a hothead. You're going to get punched in the face if you don't watch out."
"He hid my saddle yesterday," Dalton replied. "If he wants to make jokes, he has to take them too."
"Right. Because we're friends and we get each other. Jace could be a different story."
"Whatever," Dalton said. "We can't let him think he's Mr. Big Shot. So if Jace teases—we tease him back."
"But is it smart to prank him."
"What's the worst he could do." Dalton asked. Retaliate somehow. It'll save us trouble down the road."
"What about when we leave Elloweer." Cole said. "You won't be able to make illusions in Zeropolis."
Dalton sighed regretfully. "That'll stink. If he respects me, he'll back off."
"Or he'll tease you harder until you cave," Cole said.
"It's risky," Cole said.
"It's more risky to let him bug me whenever he wants," Dalton replied. "Wait and see."
They reached Cole's horse.
"You first," Cole said.
Dalton laid the saddle pad across the animal's back. "This one's real."
Cole swung the saddle onto the pad. "You better mount up too."
Cole gave a nod."
Shortly after sunrise the Red Road came into view, interrupting the wilderness like a wound. Bordered by maroon curbs, the avenue of seamless red pavement began abruptly and extended to the edge of sight, the only evidence of inhabitants in the otherwise untamed landscape. Cole, Dalton, Mira, Jace, Skye, and Joe had avoided serious trouble since parting from Honour and the former Rogue Knight on their way to Zeropolis. Cole hoped that drawing near to Trillian wouldn't end their peaceful streak.
He looked to Skye, who considered the road warily. He understood her hesitation. The Lost Palace, longtime prison of Trillian the torivor, awaited at the end. As the new Grand Shaper of Elloweer, Skye was about to ask Trillian to become her teacher.
Cole did not envy her. One of the most feared and dangerous beings in the Outskirts, Trillian had been caught off guard by a team of mighty shapers and locked away long ago. Had they failed to imprison him, the torivor probably would have brought the entire Outskirts under his control.
Only a few weeks had passed since Cole first visited the Lost Palace and witnessed Trillian's enormous power firsthand. Inside his prison, the torivor could rearrange reality almost without limits. Not only had Trillian invaded his mind, but Cole had risked his life and freedom to rescue Mira's sister Honour from captivity.
As a rule, the people of Elloweer stayed far from Trillian's domain. Nobody wanted to risk crossing the torivor or the members of his Red Guard, which was exactly why Joe had suggested their little group of fugitives should accompany Skye to the Lost Palace on their way to Zeropolis. Since Skye had official business with Trillian, Joe had been willing to gamble that the nearness of the torivor posed a lesser threat than travelling through more populated regions.
Cole's eyes strayed to Mira, astride her dappled mare. There was no question that her father, the High Shaper, desperately wanted her back. After stealing the shaping powers of his five daughters, Stafford Pemberton had faked their deaths and tried to hold them prisoner. With help from their mother, the daughters had escaped and survived in exile, never ageing after their powers were taken.
Not only Mira had regained her power—her sister Honour had as well. The High Shaper had first sent legionnaires to apprehend Mira, and then sent his secret police, the Enforcers. He now had to be more frantic than ever to find her. Since defeating Morgassa, Cole hadn't seen any agents of the High King, which suggested that the strategy of heading toward the Lost Palace was working.
"Do we ride on the road." Skye asked, having stopped only a few paces from where the red pavement started.
"We don't really need to hide that we're coming," Mira reasoned. "Hopefully Trillian will be satisfied to learn he'll have a new Grand Shaper to train."
"Trillian was pretty interested in you and Honour. He can sense people on his road. Is it smart to let him know you're near."
"Good point," Jace said, sitting tall on his horse, his face serious. "Last time, Trillian let you go because he wanted us to stop Morgassa. He might try to retake you and keep you this time."
"He'll have more Morgassas to fight if we don't stop my father and his shapecrafters," Mira said. "Trillian can read our thoughts. He'll know how important it is we find Constance and my other sisters."
"Will that matter as much to him." Dalton asked. "Morgassa was a direct threat. He thought she might be able to take him out. Will he care about problems in other kingdoms."
"He might not care," Cole said. "He can probably find ways to train you whether or not you're willing, Skye. The guy can get inside your mind and take over your dreams. Inside his prison, he can do pretty much whatever he wants. He might be more than happy to capture us no matter how we feel about it."
"We can't afford to make ourselves easy targets," Joe said, the only other adult in the group besides Skye. "Taking the road might be a little smoother, but Cole's right—we don't need to let Trillian know we're around sooner than necessary."
"We travelled beside the road last time," Mira said. "It wasn't too bad."
The conversation ended there. Joe and Skye started to parallel the road, and the others followed.
Dalton brought his horse alongside Cole. "Seems like we were just here."
"It really does."
"Minimus was with us last time," Dalton said."
"The bully who took over Twitch's village won't know what hit him. He's saved my life more times than anyone."
"Hiding is probably our best bet for now," Cole said.
"At least until you find your power again."
Cole forced a smile, but he didn't love the reminder. Not long ago Cole discovered he had the ability to energise magical items from Sambria so they could work in Elloweer. But right before Morgassa died, she had sunk her fingernails into his sides and somehow used shapecraft to separate him from his power. Just after he had learned to recognise and access the ability, it had vanished.
"We have the masks," Cole said.
"Only as a last resort," Dalton said. "Callista warned that the more we use them, the harder they'll be to take off. Plus, she's no longer around to help if something goes wrong."
The masks that Callista had given them for their battle against Morgassa could transform them into powerful animals. Looking back at his time as a mountain lion, Cole recalled the experience through a dreamlike haze, running across many miles of Elloweer in a tireless sprint. Dalton was right about the danger—neither time he removed the mask had been easy.
"Last time we were animals, most of us got badly injured," Cole said. We might be just as hurt if we put the masks back on."
"Only one way to find out," Dalton said."
"Once we make it to the Lost Palace, we'll leave the masks with Skye," Cole said. "They won't work in Zeropolis, and they're too powerful to leave randomly stashed someplace."
"After that our only defence will be my seemings and Joe," Dalton said.
Cole looked ahead at Joe. How old was he. Thirty. He hadn't seemed like an amazing warrior or anything, but he was certainly brave and scrappy. Joe had come to the Outskirts from Monterey, California, but Cole didn't know much else about his history.
"Think Trillian will give us trouble." Cole asked.
"We'd be dumb if we didn't expect it," Dalton said.
They spent the day with the road on their left, veering closer or farther as obstacles arose. As night fell, they made camp. Bedullah, a large orange moon, eased up into the sky, outshining the nearby stars.
Cole noticed Mira standing apart from the camp, her eyes on the heavens. He walked over to her. "This is the biggest moon, right."
She glanced his way. It doesn't show up very often. It makes all the stars fainter. An even bigger golden one used to appear sometimes."
"Are you looking for your sisters' stars." Cole inquired quietly, referring to the heavenly markers that Mira's mother sometimes used to show her daughters' locations.
"Every night," Mira whispered back. "Just in case."
"Can't be easy with the stars and moons always changing," Cole said.
"It isn't. Their stars are always the same colour and brightness, but they can be in any direction, and they show up against a different backdrop every night."
"What's not to get." Mira asked, her eyes skyward.
"On Earth the stars have regular patterns," Cole said. "One moon circles us. Here the stars can be anywhere. You have over ten moons that show up when they feel like it. Where do they hide the rest of the time. What kind of universe shifts around during the day into something else."
"The heavens here have always been erratic," Mira said. "It's just how it is. It'd take somebody smarter than me to explain why."
"Any luck with the stars." Cole asked.
"No," Mira said.
Cole studied the sky. He had no idea what to look for. Mira kept the specifics of the stars a secret. If anybody ever learned about the celestial lights occasionally used by Harmony Pemberton, it could prove fatal.
"Not seeing the stars is a good thing," Mira said. "It means my sisters are safe."
"It also means Constance will be hard to find," Cole replied.
"Then we'll look hard," Mira said. "Hopefully we'll find more of your friends, too."
Though Cole had found Dalton, he had only crossed the path of one other person who was kidnapped from Mesa with him—a girl named Jill. He had offered to rescue her, but she had been too scared to try to escape her position as a slave at a confidence lounge, where she helped create illusionary disguises so people could exchange secrets anonymously.
There were still so many people to find! He worried most about Jenna, his friend who had also been his secret crush for years. When they were separated, he had promised to find her but hadn't uncovered any clues yet. Would he finally track her down in Zeropolis.
"Who goes there." Jace shouted.
Turning, Cole saw a form racing toward their camp. Though it was hard to catch all the details in the mellow orange moonlight, the shape of a man glided hurriedly forward, his feet a few inches off the ground.
Drawing his Jumping Sword, Cole raced back toward the centre of camp, where the ghostly figure was heading. One foot got caught against a stone, and he went down badly, twisting away from his blade to avoid slashing himself.
By the time Cole was back on his feet, the figure had come to a stop before Skye. Dressed in a dark suit, the balding man stood with stiff posture. Cole trotted toward them with Mira a step behind.
"Jepson." Skye exclaimed.
"The very same," the butler replied, smoothing a hand down the front of his jacket. "Your mother sent me to you."
Cole halted not far from Skye. Though Jepson appeared tangible and solid, Cole knew he had no substance—he was a figment, a living illusion created by an enchanter. The stuffy man served Skye's wealthy mother. Joe, Jace, and Dalton joined Cole and Mira.
"How'd he find you." Cole asked Skye.
"He's bound to mother and the person who will inherit him," Skye said. "He could find either of us anywhere."
Jepson gave Cole a superior glance then faced Skye. "Do you wish to converse in front of these . . . people."
"Absolutely," Skye said. "Is mother all right."
The butler's brow crinkled, and his lips quivered. He used a long sniff to collect himself. "Sadly, she is not." His eyes squinted shut, and he shook with sobs. It took a moment before he straightened up and continued. "You must help her. Lady Madeline has been abducted by a vile ruffian called the Hunter."
Skye gasped, putting both hands over her mouth. "No!"
Cole had never met the Hunter but knew about him—an Enforcer who had been chasing them since Sambria. In his pursuit of Mira, the Hunter had captured the slavers Ansel and Secha back in Carthage to wring information from them. The Hunter had a scary reputation. Evidently the trail had led him to Skye's home.
"Your mother ordered me to find you," Jepson said.
Skye dropped her hands. "Before or after the Hunter seized her."
"After," Jepson said. "The Hunter would gladly exchange your mother for a child called Mira. An escaped slave, it seems."
Skye's gaze took in the moonlit landscape. "Were you followed."
"Not to my knowledge," Jepson said. His distress won out again as he wrung his hands, tears glistening in his eyes. "There is no time to waste. What do you know of this Mira."
"He was followed," Joe said, gripping the hilt of his sword.
"You see something." Dalton asked.
"The Hunter wouldn't miss such a golden opportunity," Joe said. "If he sent a homing pigeon, it didn't come alone."
Rattled, Cole squinted into the moonlit dimness beyond their encampment. He saw the shapes of trees and shrubs and the empty expanse of a brushy field, but no movement.
"Is there any chance you were followed." Skye asked the butler heatedly.
My concern is the safety of Lady Madeline."
"Get to the horses," Joe said, hurrying away from the conversation. "Saddle up. We may already be too late."
They scattered. Cole rushed to his horse, flopped the saddle pad in place, heaved the saddle on top, cinched it, then hopped on one foot while hastily poking the other one at the stirrup. After several clumsy misses, Cole got his foot in place and mounted. Nearby, Dalton fumbled with the straps of his saddle as his horse stamped restively. Cole jumped down and joined his friend, securing the straps while Dalton held the bridle and calmed his horse.
By the time Cole was back on his mare, the others had mounted up as well. Jepson waited nearby, unruffled by all the urgency.
"Go back and cheque the way you came," Skye told the butler. "Try to mislead anyone following you. Take them as far from us as possible."
"You are not yet my mistress," Jepson reminded her. "My instructions are to—"
"Doesn't matter," Joe interrupted, pointing.
Partially screened by shrubs and trees, at the far side of the brushy field, mounted shapes bobbed in the dimness. It took little more than a glance to see that the shadowy forms were riding hard in their direction.
"Enforcers," Cole said, a jolt of panic coursing through him.
"Lots of them," Dalton added.
Cole counted at least seven or eight. In Sambria they had encountered three Enforcers and defeated them. But last time Cole and his friends had better weapons and managed to surprise them. There were more Enforcers this time, and they looked ready to fight.
"Ride for the Lost Palace," Skye urged. "Use the road. Jepson, you've served their purpose. Go home!"
The others turned their horses and started riding hard toward the Red Road. Cole tugged the reins and nudged with his heels, but his horse held perfectly still. He kicked a little harder only to discover that the sides of his mare felt hard as a rock. A quick hand to the horse's neck revealed the problem.
His mount had turned to stone.