Prologue – The Beginning
Life was good. Well, it was easy; boring as hell, but uncomplicated. All Eli had to do was place a few binding spells on the portal that had opened up in this minuscule speck on the planet, and then wait until he felt its fabric begin to fray. Lather, rinse, repeat. He’d lost track of how many years had passed while he’d guarded the invisible passage—hundreds, he thought.
There wasn’t much to do out in the middle of what was now known as the Arizona desert. Most days he watched tumbleweeds race over the crusted ground, or had a face-off with a scorpion to see who would back down first. The boredom had become intolerable for him. It was enough to drive a sane druid crazy.
Eli had been out on one of his many explorations when he spotted a car sitting on the side of the road. The steam that billowed out from beneath the open hood evaporated almost immediately under the sun’s heated glare.
He watched the dark-haired woman from a distance, unsure how to approach without frightening her. Maybe he should just walk away, he thought, until he saw her stumble as she walked toward the driver’s door. A moment later, she slammed it closed, and used the handkerchief she’d retrieved to dab at her neck. When she looked back in the direction she’d come from, he knew there was no way she would be able to walk to town without breaking her ankle in those high-heeled shoes. Curiosity got the better of him, and he stepped out from behind the large rock formation he’d used as cover. “Hello!” he called out. When her head jerked in his direction, he gave her a friendly wave and proceeded toward her.
She was a woman alone, stranded on a deserted road with a stranger approaching. Her reaction was the one he’d anticipated. Her eyes widened, and he saw her apprehension as she glanced first at her car, and then toward him. He smiled and kept his body language friendly, looking at the ground and back up at her. Even though he didn’t spend a lot of time mingling with the people of Cracked Creek, he wasn’t a stranger in town, and hoped she would recognize him. The moment he saw her posture relax and a relieved smile greet him, he knew she’d done just that.
“It looks as if your car has overheated,” he said as he walked up to the engine compartment and leaned in to assess the obvious problem.
Her frustrated sigh had him glance up, but her earlier concern about being alone with a strange man out in the middle of nowhere was still on her face. “Yes, and I just had it serviced at Granger’s Garage for this very thing last week.”
He held his hand out to her and smiled. “I don’t think we have ever been introduced. My name is Eli.”
After his introduction, she seemed more comfortable in his company and took his hand. “Mavis. It’s nice to meet you, Eli. I’ve seen you around town.”
With his other hand, he slowly rubbed his thumb over one of the many gnarled knots on his long, twisted walking stick. Reaching inside his cloak, he pulled out a canteen of water, and slowly poured the liquid into the radiator. It didn’t seem to catch her attention that the small container held enough water to fill a radiator, and he smiled to himself at how little most people paid attention.
He closed the hood and smiled at her. “That should get you back to town.”
Mavis frowned as she walked around to get in the car. “You used all of your water, and it’s several miles back to town. Please, let me give you a lift and maybe fix you something to eat as my thanks for helping me.”
Bowing slightly at the waist, he smiled at her. “Thank you, that sounds splendid.”
The trip to town was a long one with her driving as if the car were a carton of eggs. It gave Eli an opportunity to study her a little longer, so he wasn’t too upset about it. She had her dark auburn hair pulled into a tight bun at the crown of her head, revealing how the warmth of the day had made her cheeks flushed. Her features were not what he considered beautiful, but she was pleasant to look at. The heavy clasped earrings weighing down her lobes made her ears look ridiculously small for her head, and he resisted the urge to remove them.
Eli and Mavis were drawn to each other, and in a matter of weeks, they were inseparable. Soon their relationship had become a distraction to Eli’s purpose in the desert. Unwilling to leave the only true companion he’d had in countless years, he neglected to strengthen the spells on the portal.
The passage finally opened, allowing others to move through it. And move through it they did—opportunistic travelers from another place or possibly another time took advantage of the vulnerable opening so close to the small mining town. After a short time, the portal was no longer a peaceful shimmer against the desert horizon. It had absorbed the essence of those who had been using it.
As the portal transformed, soon Eli wasn’t able to ignore the disturbance that pulsed through him. Knowing he had to reinforce the binding spells, he set off on foot into the desert.
When he reached the shimmering portal, he realized it was too late to bind it. In the weeks that had passed, the portal had taken on a life of its own. His magic had weakened with the portal’s pull, rendering him powerless to close it.
He fell to his knees and fought the urge to walk through the opening. Confusion clouded his mind and he thought he saw Mavis running toward him. Before he realized she wasn’t an illusion—before he could warn her to stay away—she had reached his side. Under the spell of the portal, Mavis didn’t stop as she walked by him. Eli grabbed for her arm, catching her only by his fingertips, but she wrenched from his inadequate hold. Pinned to the ground, weak and confused, he was only able to watch as she disappeared into thin air.
“No!” He struggled to his feet and ran into the portal after her. Grasping her arm, he flung her from the portal opening, returning her to the desert. He tried to follow, but the portal had sealed him inside. The invisible elastic barrier that separated him from Mavis was unaffected by the pounding it took from his fists. All he could do was stare at his beloved lying motionless on the ground.