Gabrielle Williams has done the impossible. She pierced the Veil, entered the Beyond, and located the long-lost leader of the Echo Team, her husband, Cade.
But the world they return to is not the one they left behind. All they fought for, everything they sought to preserve through their sacrifices, seems lost. As they struggle to find familiar faces in an unfamiliar world, one question burns in the forefront of their thoughts.
What happened to the Templars?
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The building stood forgotten for months on end, abandoned to the passage of time and the elements, until, from a room high up under the rafters, there came the sound of shattering glass.
Two figures, a man and a woman, hurtled through the surface of the mirror stretching out across one wall of that room. They crashed to the hardwood floor in a tangle of bruised flesh and limbs. For a long moment, neither of them moved.
Then, as if startled out of a deep sleep, the man jerked upright, supporting himself on his arms while his head swiveled back and forth in the dim light, searching the room around him for any hint of a threat. The afternoon light coming in through the series of small windows high along the rear wall fell briefly on his face as he turned, highlighting the pale white orb that had once been his right eye along with the scar that started just above it, running like a jagged crease along his check and down to the edge of his jaw. His face had always been lean, but now it looked almost cadaverous. Had the mirror still been intact he might have recoiled at the sight of himself, so stark were the planes and angles of his face.
The Beyond was never kind to the living, he knew, and it looked like it had certainly taken its toll this time around. His limbs felt heavy, his thoughts thick as molasses. He wondered how much of what he was feeling was a result of the energy he’d expended while on the other side, fighting spectres on a nearly non-stop basis or if it were a natural consequence of carrying another person across the Veil. He’d never felt this way before after crossing from one side to the other, but then again, he’d never done so under these circumstance before either.
Mentally putting the issue off to the side, he glanced around at where he found himself. The room was longer than it was wide and if Cade had to take a guess, he’d put it at about twelve feet by twenty. A single door at the end of the room to his left provided both entry and egress. The wall behind him held the remains of the mirror they’d used to facilitate their passage from the Beyond while the one opposite held a long handrail bolted horizontally to the wall at waist height. The floor was made of smooth-sanded hardwood, dulled from the passage of time but still as serviceable as the day it had been laid down.
Some kind of dance studio? Maybe a martial arts practice room? he wondered.
He couldn’t imagine what else the room might be used for, given the mirror and handrail combination, but it really didn’t matter either way. They were back in the real world and, for the moment at least, that was good enough for him.
Rising to his feet, he brushed the glass from his clothing and then crossed the short distance to where his weapon lay on the floor. It was unlike him to have dropped it during the transition and he shook his head at his clumsiness. The old English long sword had been his constant companion for too many years now and he felt almost naked without it. Only when he had secured the sword and replaced it in the sheath along his back did he turn his attention to the room’s other occupant.
His companion was Hispanic, about thirty to thirty-five years of age, with jet black hair and fair features. She was dressed in jeans and a worn-flannel shirt that had more than their fair share of dirt and stains on them. Her sneakers, once a pristine white, were barely recognizable, so covered with grit and grime had they become.
He remembered the first day that he’d laid eyes on her; how surprised he’d been to see another living, breathing person that deep in the Beyond. He’d nearly cut her down then and there, convinced she was just another demon come to corrupt his soul, using the appearance of humanity to get inside his defenses and finish him off, once and for all. He’d raised his weapon, ready to strike, only to have her drop to her knees in front of him, her head bowed as she tossed a Templar sword at his feet.
The weapon she carried, and the fact that she’d just given it up without a struggle, were so unexpected that it froze him in place, giving her time to get a few words out, words that most likely saved her life.
“You did not fail me, my love. Far from it. I am here today because you never stopped searching, never stopped hoping, and I thank God for the fierceness of your dedication and determination to set things right.”
He’d gaped at her, struggling to comprehend.
“It’s me, Cade. Gabrielle. I don’t know how and I don’t know why, but I’ve come back in someone else’s body, and I’m here to take you home with me. The world needs you, Cade Williams, as do I. It’s time to leave this vile place behind and return to the land of the living.”
She’d kept talking, gently persuading, until, at last, he’d understood that she really was who she said she was, despite her changed physical appearance. He’d wept then, tears of relief and pain and sorrow and shame, seemingly every emotion possible; tears for the years they’d lost, tears for the miracle of her return.
She might be in a different body, but his heart and soul recognized the woman he’d gone to hell and back to try and save.
Now Cade closed the distance that separated them, then extended a hand and helped her to her feet.
“Thanks,” Gabrielle said, her usually husky voice seeming unnaturally loud in the stillness of the empty room. She glanced around, then asked, “Where are we?”
“Not where we’re supposed to be,” Cade answered absently, as he tried to work out what had happened. Their passage from the Beyond had been more difficult than usual and he didn’t know if that was simply because his skills were rusty with disuse or if something about the nature of the Veil had changed in the time that they’d been gone. Either way, this was not the old barn he’d converted to a workroom at the back of his property on Willow Road, which had been their intended destination.
The windows were too high for him to reach and there didn’t appear to be anything else in the room that he could use to stand on to get him higher enough to be able to look out of them.
“Here, give me a hand,” he said, as he moved to stand beneath them, one hand on the wall. Gabrielle joined him, leaning her back against the same wall and making a cradle with her hands for Cade’s foot. When he stepped into it, she boosted him up so that he was even with the middle of the window above their heads.
Cade tried to get a look outside, but the glass was covered with so much grit and dust on its exterior that it was nearly impossible to see anything clearly. Nor could he get the window open; at some point not only had it been nailed shut but had the sill painted over as well. Peering through the grime as best he could, Cade had the sense that he was looking down from a height – Second floor? Third maybe? – but that was about it.
Cade didn’t like it. Not knowing where they were meant they couldn’t anticipate the kind of reception they were going to receive, should there be anyone in the building. Having a complete stranger just pop out of thin air had the tendency to make people nervous and in certain parts of the country that was reason enough to shoot first and ask questions later.
“Can’t see anything worth a damn,” he said to Gabbi before clambering back down to stand beside her. “Looks like we’re going to have to do this the hard way.”
She gave him a thin smile. “Is there any other way?”
By unspoken agreement they drew their swords and moved to the door on the other side of the room, intending to clear the building as if it were hostile territory, just to be safe. Both of them would rather scare the present occupants a little, if there were any, than end up getting shot because some trigger-happy yahoo mistook them for burglars.
Having fought together for some time now against hordes of spectres and other vicious creatures that inhabited the world on the other side of the Veil, the pair had developed an easy rhythm that needed little explanation between them. Cade took up position slightly off-center in front of the door while Gabrielle flattened herself against the near wall, her free hand on the doorknob. At a nod from Cade she pulled the door open sharply, her position momentarily hiding her from anything that might be on the other side. Should Cade be rushed by an enemy, Gabrielle would be ready to strike at its back once it passed beyond the door.
Thankfully, the only thing on the other side was a narrow staircase leading downward, but this offered its own set of challenges. The staircase was steep and narrow, making it impossible for them to swing their swords if the need arose. They would have to keep them at their sides, ready to thrust forward at a moment’s notice should something nasty be waiting for them at the bottom of the steps. Even more problematic was the lack of light inside the stairwell. A wall switch was situated just inside the door where one would expect it to be but flipping it up and down didn’t produce any power to the lone bulb hanging above the top step. Cade reached up and gave the bulb a twist, making sure it was tight in the socket, to no avail.
Using hand signals, Gabbi mimed stayed at the top of the staircase, holding the door open to let light in, while Cade descended. With a node of his head, Cade agreed and began his descent, wincing at all the noise his boots were making against the old wood beneath them. At the bottom, another door waited.
Not wanting to be caught in the bottleneck of the enclosed staircase, Cade went straight through that one as soon as he reached it, quick and sure.
Thankfully, nothing untoward awaited him on the other side.
The door opened onto the main floor of what could only be a gymnastics and dance center, given the padded floor and gymnastics equipment – from parallel bars and rings to balance beams – scattered about the place. On the far side of the room, floor to ceiling windows let light in from outside, though they too were covered with dust and grime like those upstairs had been. In fact, the entire place looked like it hadn’t seen hide nor hair of a human being in a long time; dust was everywhere.
“Clear,” Cade called back over his shoulder, indicating that it was safe for Gabbi to join him. Lowering his sword – but not sheathing it – he stepped forward, his attention caught and held by the vista outside.
Behind him, he heard Gabrielle’s footfalls descend and then her soft gasp as she stepped up beside him and caught sight of what lay beyond the windows.
Outside, the world had changed.
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