A dark lord from another universe. A lonely young woman. A fateful meeting between them changes both their lives forever– and leave the fate of two worlds hanging by his forgotten past.
In another world, an evil mage called the Storm Lord fights for his life. As his enemies breach the walls of his fortress, he pours his strength into a desperate spell that opens a portal between realities. His power shatters under the strain and he leaps, tumbling into darkness.
Driving along a gravel road in California’s Sierra foothills, Ro Cheney wishes she had someone, anyone she could trust. Then a black hole opens and spills a man onto the road. He’s wounded, strangely dressed, doesn’t speak English—and doesn’t remember even his own name. When she lays a compassionate hand on his shoulder, the shoulder of a man who has known nothing but violence and hatred, she sets a bond between them that changes both their lives forever.
But for the man Ro names Blackthorne, the past won’t rest. Stalking him across the worlds are five vengeful mages, determined to destroy the monster who devastated their own world. Before he faces them, he must battle a far more terrible enemy within—the Storm Lord himself, who struggles to emerge from the darkness of Blackthorne’s buried memories
Direflame hurtled toward him—fiery clots of searing white, acid yellow, violet so deep and dark it shaded to black. He scrambled and flung up a hand. A thread of magic came, stolen from his last, desperate spell.
The shield he cast was weak. Fires splashed and spattered around, over him. Pain struck an instant later, crumpling him to the floor. He tasted blood. The sharp odor of direflame choked him, and the stink of burned cloth and flesh. Wind howled suddenly through some breach, deafening, snatching the breath from his mouth. The floor shook. The walls screamed and wept glassy shards that glittered on the sleeves of his coat, on the backs of his burned hands.
Fear gripped him, howling and faceless as the wind, an old, old enemy long vanquished that reared up now once more hale and whole. He’d spent his life gathering strength, making himself invulnerable, eliminating every enemy. Somehow, those who assailed him now had escaped him. He traced in his mind the pattern of the magic, again, again, pouring his strength into the spell. It must save him. It would save him.
The power in him guttered, failing. He rode the bucking floor. The walls bellowed like a tortured bull. Gritting his teeth, he pushed to his knees. He raised one hand, then the other, swept them apart in a gesture of opening.
A flower of darkness unfurled in the air before him. His power stretched, strained, trembling. It shattered. Fragments of himself scattered away. The raw edges of his power bled the last of his strength into the opening, the portal, the escape he had made. It yawned wider, seeking his physical being, as well. He teetered on the edge of two abysses, one before him, one within.
His shadow jumped, split, fanned around him, outlined in appalling colors. He jerked his head up. Fire the colors of annihilation sizzled toward him. He leapt. With a nightmarish, gut-twisting sensation, he tumbled into the darkness.
* * *
“I’m nothing but a maid to you.” Ro spat the words at the windshield. The groceries on the passenger seat whispered and shifted in their plastic bags. “A stupid, lazy, self-centered, worthless…” A sob escaped. “…maid.”
She thought it would feel better to say it. It didn’t. It didn’t, because she’d never dare say it to the person she should be saying it to.
She squeezed the pickup’s steering wheel. The red dirt road cuts and rusty brush, the curve of gravel between them splintered through tears. It didn’t make sense. She did everything she was supposed to. Got good grades in school. Didn’t cause trouble, didn’t ask for anything—she knew better than that. But somehow she was still stupid and lazy and self-centered and worthless. “Why?” she grated. “What do I have to do?”
She wished she could just run away. Except she wasn’t that stupid. What else could she do? Nothing. She’d be eighteen next year. Until then, she just had to grit her teeth and keep her head down and cuss and cry when it was safe, like now, when there was nobody to hear. As long as nobody knew what she thought and felt, nobody could use it against her. She’d learned that a long time ago.
But sometimes it felt like she was going to explode—
Something wavered in the road ahead. Ro blinked tears away. A shadow—no. Not a shadow. It was too dark. Black, like the end of the universe. It grew, unfurled, full of flickers and swirls of impossible colors. She jerked the wheel to the left, pure reflex, and her brain tried to wrap itself around what it was.
A man spilled out. He looked straight at her through the bug-spattered windshield, eyes wide and lost.
She stood on the brake. Gravel snarled under the tires, groceries slithered and thumped to the floorboards, steering wheel cranked hard over and biting into the bones of her hands. The truck slid at a scary angle down the road, and the man disappeared behind the right fender. Finally, finally, she stopped. Dust drifted past the windows.
“Oh god,” Ro breathed into the silence, still hanging onto the steering wheel. Her mouth tasted like metal. Like blood. “Oh god.”
* * *
There was pain, searing as if his blood were made of fire, as if his innards were torn and bleeding within. Pain, and falling. But he must already have fallen, for he lay on his back. He curled his fingers. Stones gritted under his hands.
He opened his eyes. A face hung above him—a girl’s, tight and horrified. Thick curls of brown hair tinged with red fell over her shoulders. Blue sky and the sun’s aurora haloed her. He flinched up an arm to ward the sun’s glare. More pain sheared through him and he let it fall again, like a weapon too heavy to bear.
The girl spoke in some strange tongue, her voice rising in a question. “Who are you?” perhaps, or, “Are you well?”
The smell of sweat and burned cloth and leather, an acrid whiff of direflame rose. The direflame that had almost consumed him burst in his memory. He gasped a breath, then everything—images, voices, names, memories—drained away into drowning darkness.
A sound came out of him, or a word. No, he was not well. Something had been burned out of him. He doubled up, hunched around loss and hatred and fury, but he did not know now what he had lost, who he hated, or what had infuriated him. He felt he was going mad, his mind torn apart like smoke on the wind. His fingers clawed into gravel and more noises forced their way past his throat—sobs, strangled gasps, curses—he didn’t know. He couldn’t stop them, only lie shaking under the gazes of sun and sky and girl.
Something touched his shoulder. He flinched again, then held still, as if some rare and beautiful creature alighted there, and he feared the least movement would frighten it away.
Her hand. Her hand rested on his shoulder, comfortingly, the compassionate touch of a human hand, on his shoulder, on him. The darkness within him heaved up, bulging, all beneath it threatening to burst forth like pus from a boil. Under her touch it settled once more, a shadowy opacity that hid him from himself.
* * *
Ro’s hand still shook where it rested on the man’s shoulder. He’d been making noises, awful keening, broken sounds, but now he suddenly went still. He’s died! she thought. Panic boiled up, white and blank and freezing. He moved, and she could see and think again.
The last minute kept looping through her head like a nightmare she couldn’t wake up from. She didn’t remember getting out of the truck, but here she was beside the man, gravel biting into her knees. Her eyes followed the curved grooves where the tires had scraped it clear. The tracks missed him. They missed him. Nothing had thumped the truck’s bumper or fender. She hadn’t hit him.
Fingers touched her hand. She twitched and her attention snapped back to him. His hand, large and square like the rest of him, rested on hers, delicately. And his face—it stopped the horrible loop of images through her mind. With his fingers on hers, he looked like he’d uncovered a treasure, one he’d never imagined existed.
That…that vulnerability, that amazement on his face held her heart still and squeezed all the air out of her lungs. Terror drained away and left her floating where there was just his hand on hers. Then he closed his eyes, and the world started up again.
Sunlight beat down on her back, reflected into her eyes from the gravel. The truck sat slewed at an angle across the road, ticking as the engine cooled—had it died, or did she turn off the key? A head-high forest of greasewood, little prickly, rusty-green leaves on peeling sticks, covered the slope on both sides of the road, hemming them in. No houses were in sight, none for probably a mile or two, and most people would be away at work somewhere in town, anyway. All perfectly normal, no different from any other California foothills summer day.
Except it was. Very different.
“It’s all right,” she told the man, like saying it would make it true.
Like it would turn that flower of darkness into a shadow, and the man into somebody who’d just stumbled into the road. Except that somebody was wearing what looked like a long, black leather kilt and thickly-embroidered, knee-length coat in black and deep purple straight out of some role-playing game, and the coat was all singed and scorched on the shoulders and sleeves. A smell of burned stuff came from him, and a strange burning-electric tang.
The man’s skin was singed and scorched, too. Red weals blotched his face and hands, and soot streaked back from his fingertips like he’d stuck his hand in a furnace. Fine dust glittered on his skin and clothes. Strands of his black hair straggled out of a mostly-torn-apart knot.
She winced. “What happened to you?”
He only looked at her. His eyes were a shade somewhere between grey and brown. Hazel? Not black, like right after he’d fallen out of that— No, they weren’t black, like she’d thought.
He closed his eyes again. Sweat sheened his face, and his color looked wrong. Bad. What were the signs of shock? Pale gums. Clammy skin. Her hand leapt out to touch his cheek, his neck, and yes, he was clammy.
Oh damn oh damn oh damn. What should she do? She didn’t dare leave him. God, why couldn’t she have a phone? I’m not gonna spend more money on you just so you can waste your time yakking, was what Dad said. But—
Acid bubbled up into her throat. What would happen even if she could call someone? Nobody was going to believe she just found him lying in the road. Don’t even think about how he’d gotten there. They were going to see a seventeen-year-old driving (of course like a maniac) and a man lying there, and it was going to be a long time if ever before they decided she hadn’t hit him. And in the meantime, when Dad found out…
Her stomach lurched. God, he’d kill her. And that might not be an exaggeration.
Swallowing hard, she gripped her knees. Okay, wait. There had to be something she could do for the man. She opened her eyes again. Fluids? It was hot. Something to drink would help, and she had a cabful of groceries sitting there getting warm.
She scrambled to the truck, flung open the door. A cantaloupe and two tomato cans rolled out. Jars, cereal boxes, milk jugs were strewn all over the floorboards, probably more rolled under the seats. If anything had broken and messed up the truck—
She’d worry about that later. She rooted through the mess, found a dented carton of orange juice and hurried back to him.
“Here,” she said.
His eyes opened again. They looked pale now, a washed-out grey. Weird.
“Drink some of this. Maybe it’ll help.”
His head wobbled when he tried to raise it. She bit her lip, then shuffled around on her knees to help him, cradling his head in the crook of her arm.
The man turned away when he’d had enough. “G’venya aliah,” he sighed. At least that was what it sounded like. Whatever it was, no way was it English.
Gently, she lowered his head again. She sat back on her heels and rested the juice carton on her knee, her heartbeat and breathing finally beginning to slow. She couldn’t just leave him lying there in the middle of the road. And she hadn’t hit him. Right? But sooner or later, somebody would come this way.
Panic rushed up again, choking. She glanced at the truck. She could just leave. He didn’t seem to speak English. He couldn’t tell anybody anything. She could leave, and there’d be no one to say she’d ever seen him.
* * *
Fear and uncertainty crossed the girl’s face. Her gaze darted from him to her conveyance and back again, and her hand clenched on her knee. Gathering herself up, she spoke in a strained and breathless voice.
He could not understand her words, but her intent was clear enough: she meant to leave him. A young girl alone—what other course could matters take? But then if others found him, others older and less harmless…
They would come upon him as he was now, unable to protect himself, unable to speak their tongue, an object of suspicion, a wounded foreigner helpless as a child.
Stench seeped into his memory. Darkness seemed to blot out the sunlight, and damp cold to bleed away summer’s heat. The raw scrape of bonds at his throat and wrists choked him like despair, like rage—
He shuddered, and the vision faded. No. This one, he might control. She could not be allowed to escape.
Dark fire pulsed in him, fitful, shattered, but perhaps enough. Enough to twist her will to his.
He reached out a compulsion. As he did, she spoke again, laid her hand over his heart.
He snatched back the magic, smothered it within himself. Why? he thought angrily. It was of no great consequence, a simple thing to do. Reasonable. But he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t compel her while she gazed at him with those earnest, dark-amber eyes, while she touched him without fear.
* * *
Ro blinked, rocked forward, barely catching herself from flopping onto the man’s chest. The pale curve of road, the brush-covered slope, the blank, washed-out blue of the sky seemed to go dim for a second, and she’d felt…weird. Discombobulated, almost like something had sucked her out of herself.
She shook her head hard and raised it again. The man was watching her with a funny look, like how totally unfair it was that somebody so pathetic had to be the one to find him. Here he was hurt, and she was the one ready to pass out from sheer terror.
Her hand was on his chest. He laid his on top of it with surprising firmness, holding her. “Es nahk gohn nu’blizhu. Shahgit mi.” His voice was deep, and a little rough. He paused for breath, closed his eyes a second. When he opened them again, they were a soft brown. “Es f’gohn shagitu’shu.”
She wished she knew what he was saying. But the way he held her—
Like he was asking her to stick with him. The realization filled her, swelling in her chest like a balloon, making it hard to take a breath.
She wasn’t useless, a burden and irritation. He wanted her there. He trusted her, her, to help him.
She took a long breath. “Okay. First thing is, we have to get you into the truck.” She gestured at it.
He searched her face, his big hand covering hers, then released her.
A shaking started up in her middle. She got up abruptly and carried the juice carton back to the truck. Her hands shook on the grocery bags as she put everything back in.
“Stop it,” she muttered to herself. “You can handle it. You’re not just a freaking maid. You’ll be an adult next year, and dammit, you can handle this.”
She moved the bags to the back of the truck. Simple. No big deal. No reason to panic. She’d mostly stopped shaking when she came back to the man. Step two. She wouldn’t think any further than that. She patted his shoulder, then tucked her hands under his armpits. “Ready?” Setting her feet, she heaved.
He was heavy. She didn’t expect him to be so heavy. Tears ached in her eyes and she lowered him again. It wasn’t fair. She was about as weak and helpless as he was. How was she supposed to handle this if she couldn’t even move him? She couldn’t do anything right. He probably would’ve been better off if he’d come out of whatever-it-was two minutes later. He’d be lying on the road just like he was now, only she’d’ve already been around the next curve and still wishing she had someone, anyone she could talk to.
The horrible overwhelmed feeling disappeared. She blinked, and a different feeling swelled. What was it? It felt like getting an “A” on a test you didn’t think you’d done well on, like when the kids who harassed you didn’t get on the bus that morning. It felt like…
It felt just like the look on the man’s face when he’d touched her hand, like finding an impossible treasure.
She took another breath, crouched and set her feet better. “Let’s try again.”
His eyes looked raincloud-grey now. Must be the way the light hit them. He frowned like he concentrated on something. He nodded. “Ha’vyed.”
With a grunt, Ro threw her weight into it. Suddenly he wasn’t so heavy, like fifty or a hundred pounds had mysteriously disappeared. She couldn’t figure out how, because there were his booted feet, dragging in the gravel. But she wasn’t going to sweat it, either, if it meant she’d actually be able to get him into the truck. She hefted again, sandals scrabbling.
It was ugly getting him into the seat, pushing, pulling, flopping an arm here, a leg there. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she kept telling him.
You can’t do shit, a nasty voice in her mind said, and for a second she felt like giving up, like slinking away. She set her jaw. “Yeah?” she said through her teeth. “Watch me.”
Finally, she leaned against the door frame, panting. The man sat with his head tilted back against the headrest, his eyes closed, looking kind of grey again. Strands of his black hair stuck to his forehead. She glanced back at the road. There were the skid marks where she’d swerved to miss the…what she’d seen. And miss him.
She shivered. At the other end of those tracks was her regular, everyday life the way it had been before a few minutes ago.
Ro hurried back and scuffed out the skid marks in the gravel.
* * *
Maybe the man thought he could trust her, but who could Ro trust?
Frowning at the inside of the almost-empty refrigerator, she shook her head. Nobody. It wasn’t like she could exactly trust anybody to help even with normal, everyday problems.
But she’d reached a haven, sort of—the little rental house Mom and Dad owned. She glanced across the tiny kitchen’s scratched and burned formica to the living room’s rust-colored carpet and wood-paneled walls. The man sat on the ugly, orange-and-cream-flowered couch, his strange, changeable eyes closed, his head tipped back against the cushions. His clothes and boots were scorched and streaked with dust, but he didn’t look scruffy. He looked like…like he’d stepped out of some battle to the death, battered but unvanquished.
Biting her lip, she slowly took food out of bags. He didn’t seem likely to die on her now, but he could probably use a trip to the doctor. Except she didn’t dare take him, because no matter how hard she tried not to think about it, there was how he’d arrived in that road in front of her. Out of that…black…flower, swirl, universe in the air. And even if she kept her mouth shut about how he’d appeared, there was him, burns, crazy clothes, strange language and all.
What would the EMT’s or the doctor do with him when they were finished? They’d turn him over to the sheriff, or the FBI or INS or whatever, that’s what. She pictured some cop in his uniform, cuffs and nightstick and mace and gun, leaning over the man, asking him questions he didn’t understand, patting him down for ID and stuff. Under the circumstances, she was pretty sure nobody would find any ID. So they’d lock him up as an illegal or a terrorist or a nut.
The hugeness of this undertaking loomed again. The slice of sunlight freckled with oak leaf shadows slanting through a west window seemed to go pale. Hot air smelling vaguely of PineSol and vacuumed carpet smothered her. She shriveled, wanting to run away, pretend none of this had ever happened. Crumpling up a bag, she stared at her white knuckles until the feeling went away.
She wasn’t going to let the people in charge of things eat him up. How could she? How could she go home and think of him, bewildered, miserable, despairing, in an awful situation he had no way of escaping, and know she’d been the one to put him there? Especially when she knew exactly what it felt like.
She braced her hands on the kitchen counter. “Listen,” she told him. As far as she could tell, he didn’t understand anything she said, but it made the situation feel less overwhelming and not so totally insane when she talked to him about it.
He opened his eyes, a sort of muddy grey now. She couldn’t figure out how that worked. Probably the same way she got him in and out of the truck, the same way he’d appeared in the road. Magic, she told herself sarcastically. But the idea stuck in her mind, not willing to be dismissed.
“You’ll be okay here for a while,” she said. “You can rest and nobody will bother you, and we’ll try to do something about those burns.”
She picked up things from the counter: Solarcaine, bandages, soap, a washcloth; some of the stuff she’d picked up when she’d stopped at home for the key to the rental. She carried the tubes and bottles to the couch and knelt.
The man eyed them, then shook his head. “Meh’seem huj yih’dlu. Akil?” He gestured at his mouth. “Yih’dlu.”
Ro sat back on her heels. “You’re hungry?” Somehow, hungry seemed like the last thing he should be. “Well…okay.” Putting the first aid things on the old, peeling coffee table, she went to the kitchen and came back with a banana, a loaf of bread, a brick of mild cheddar cheese. Not what she’d want to eat if she was down and out with injuries or exhaustion or whatever, but she hadn’t spent a lot of time pondering her selection.
She held them up for his inspection. He fingered the plastic wrappers around the bread and cheese like he’d never seen such a thing before. Along with his clothes, and everything else—
This was getting weirder by the minute.
“Personally, I’d go for the banana,” she said, handing it to him.
He sniffed it, turned it in his hand.
How could anyone not know what a banana was? “Here.” She peeled and held it out.
His eyes never leaving hers, he took a bite.
Nope, he hadn’t known what a banana was. Where was he from? The end-of-the-universe-black flower bloomed in her mind, but didn’t answer anything.
The banana disappeared amazingly fast. He struggled with the cheese wrapper. She took it and tore it open for him. He managed the bread wrapper on his own, then wolfed through the food. Sitting at the other end of the couch, she wadded up the wrappers and watched him. He moved more strongly now, like a machine that only needed refueling to get back to normal. It scared her a little. Then she thought about how he’d touched her hand, how he’d trusted her to help him, and it seemed silly to be afraid, except she didn’t know who he was.
“What’s your name?” she asked suddenly. “I’m Ro—Rowan. Rowan Cheney. Except nobody calls me Rowan. Just Ro. You can too. Ro,” she said again, pointing at herself.
“Ro,” he repeated in his deep voice. He rolled the R a little.
She smiled, relieved, though she wasn’t sure why. “That’s right!” She pointed at him. “What’s your name?”
He straightened, opened his mouth—
And shut it again, frowning. All the color ran out of his eyes, leaving them pale and shocked.
He didn’t remember? Not even his own name?
She rocked back, gripping her knees. She thought she was scared. How scary would that be, to not know…anything? Not even be able to ask questions, because nobody understood you?
That was also a feeling she knew. What it was like to be alone, and have nobody—nobody at all.
He stared at her with a kind of appalled alarm.
She leaned forward, touched his knee. “It’s okay.”
His brows smoothed and color crept back into his eyes, though they remained troubled.
“I’ll give you a name. Just until you remember yours, of course. How about…” One popped into her mind, like it was lying there waiting for him. “Blackthorne.”
* * *
“Bl’k-thurn.” The girl pointed at him. “Bl’k-thurn.” Once more, she pointed at herself, named herself: “Roh.” Then again at him, and again the word— No, the name. She was naming him.
Alarm stirred in him, as did his power, but he did not know why he should be alarmed. A name was a bond, yes, but also a gift. And she had given him two gifts now, both her own name and a name for him. And food. And aid. Gifts, and bonds.
He did not feel constrained, though it seemed he should. Instead, he felt buoyed, strengthened. He was a stranger to himself in a strange place, but not alone. She stayed by him, willingly.
Perhaps she was somehow bound to him as well. But he knew nothing about her, nothing about her place among her people. Perhaps it was only foolishness that a girl, barely a woman, should aid a stranger—a strange man—alone.
Yet aid him she did, taking pains, clearly, to betray him to none: bringing him to this empty and isolated house, offering to treat his injuries herself. That unfamiliar sensation of opening, of uplifting, filled him again, but he frowned. Decisions of the young were easily overridden by elders. And when hers discovered his presence, he must be ready.