Authors: Mark Anthony
DOZENS BURNED NATIONWIDE—CAUSE UNKNOWN
One Doctor Calls It “a New Black Death”
Beneath the headline was a photo: a dark, twisted shape like those in the photos Hadrian Farr had shown him. He sucked in a breath between his teeth, then scanned down the article.
Researchers have yet to discover the cause for the self-immolations that have been reported throughout the Midwest in the last six weeks. Some have labeled it a wave of copycat suicides, but in none of the deaths has a fuel or other flammable agent been identified. According to witnesses, many victims have shown symptoms of unusual behavior and high fever shortly before—
The article broke off, continued on an inside page. Travis dug into the pocket of his jeans, but his hand came up with only a scant collection of pennies. Not that it mattered. He didn’t need to read any more; he knew now where he had to go.
Maybe this really was like the Black Death. Maybe it was a disease—a disease transmitted by touch.
BY MARK ANTHONY
Beyond the Pale
The Keep of Fire
The Dark Remains
Blood of Mystery
This edition contains the complete text of the original
trade paper edition.
NOT ONE WORD HAS BEEN OMITTED
THE KEEP OF FIRE
A Bantam Spectra Book
Bantam Spectra trade paper edition published
Bantam Spectra paperback edition / December 2000
and the portrayal of a boxed “s” are trademarks of Bantam Books, a division of Random House, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Copyright © 1999 by Mark Anthony.
Map by Karen Wallace.
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 99-15685. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
For information address: Bantam Books.
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For Bert Covert—
who has been a Companion on
many wondrous quests
“Beware—it will consume you.”
The burnt wind blew out of nowhere, scorching the mountains to their bones.
Dry weeds rattled in the ditches along the empty two-lane highway, all life baked out of them before they could really begin to grow. April had sublimated under the indifferent sun, May along with it, and in June the high-country valley was as brown as in the waning of September. Summer had smothered spring in her crib; the green child would not come again that year.
A man stepped out of the haze of grit and heat, like a dark flake of ash from the rippling air above a fire. The dust devil tugged once at the black shreds of cloth that draped the man’s wasted body, then danced away behind him. He staggered forward.
“Where are you, Jakabar?”
The words were the croak of a vulture, and his blistered lips bled as he spoke them. He lifted his head and peered at the wavering horizon with obsidian eyes—orbs without irises, without whites. He lifted a withered hand to shade the craggy desert of his face.
Something stirred in the coruscating air ahead.
The shape gathered its outlines behind the distant silver membrane that spanned the road, then punched through and hurtled toward the man.
The beast approached with hateful speed, growing larger with each fluttering of his heart, until it filled his vision and a roar deafened him. Sunlight glared off armored crimson hide, and the thing clung low to the ground, as if ready to pounce. Its eyes flashed twice, and it let out a keening wail that pierced his skull and rooted him in place. He abandoned motion, waiting to feel the beast’s jaws close around him, to feel bones pop and flesh part.
Acrid wind ripped at him, and stones pelted his skin. The hollow grasses bent down, slaves before a terrible emperor, then rose as the world fell still. The man craned his neck to look behind him, but the creature already grew small and distant as it sped away.
He turned his gaze forward and forgot the beast. Again the fever rose within him, cauterizing thought and memory, burning away everything he was. He could envision the flames dancing along his papery skin. Soon. After all this time, it would be soon now.
He started to move once more but met resistance from the ground. He strained, then lifted a foot. Black strings of tar stretched from the sole of his scuffed boot to the pit where it had sunk into the surface of the road. He tugged his other boot free and lurched forward. He did not know what strange land he had found himself in. All he knew was that he had to find Jakabar.
“Beware,” he whispered. “It will consume you.”
The man staggered down the mountain highway, leaving a trail of footsteps melted into the asphalt behind him.
Now that he was back, it was almost as if he had never left.
“It’s coming,” Travis Wilder whispered as he stepped out the door of the Mine Shaft Saloon.
He leaned over the boardwalk railing and turned his face westward, up Elk Street, toward the pyramid of rock that stood sentinel above the little mountain town.
Castle Peak. Or what he thought of as Castle Peak, for over the years the mountain had borne many names. In the 1880s, the silver miners had called it Ladyspur’s Peak, in honor of a favorite whore. According to local legend, when a gunslinger out of Cripple Creek failed to pay his bill, Ladyspur shot him dead in a fair gunfight in the middle of Elk Street. She died herself from cholera not long after, and she was buried how she had lived and worked: with spurs on her high-heeled boots.
Before that, on maps drawn in St. Louis—fanciful documents meant to lure dreamers across the tall-grassed prairies—it was named Argo Mountain, although the only gold ever found on Castle Peak was the warm light of sunrise or sunset.