Along the water stood forty or fifty abandoned buildings, each appearing to be from the early nineteen hundreds. They had wood shingles for the siding and roofing and were austere, built in that creepy, unadorned Quaker style.
Though there was no snow, a crystal clear sheen of ice covered everything, like a varnish. "This place literally looks frozen in time. Why did the residents leave? Did the mine go bust?"
"They didn't leave," he said quietly, turning onto the main street.
It was then that she noticed doors were wide open, or hanging at odd angles, attached to stretched hinges. She spied a pair of antique-looking bicycles, turned on their sides in the middle of the street, as if they'd been abandoned in a panic.
"Cadeon, what is this?"
"Wendigo. They attacked here. I've heard these mountains are teeming with them. They act as a natural boundary for Groot."
"I read about them. They used to be humans, but were turned into cannibals. They eat corpses. They even...eat people alive."
He nodded. "Cousin to the ghoul, ravenous for flesh and highly contagious - even to other immortals. All it takes is one bite or scratch."
"A toxin emitted from the claws and fangs."
"How long does the transition take?"
"Three to four days," he answered. "Long enough for a victim to realize what's happened, to come to terms with it, and then to decide what has to be done."
"What? What has to be done?"
In answer, Cadeon pointed off to the side of the street to a towering birch tree. Tattered nooses swayed from its limbs.
"Are the Wendigo still here after all this time?"
"Probably. They can survive on animal flesh if they have to."
They neared the town's church. "Is that what I think it is on the chapel?" The building was still eerily pristine - on its sides. Across the front, ruddy spatter stretched in distinct arcs at least fifteen feet high.
He nodded. "It's blood."
"The villagers still living and uninfected probably barricaded themselves in that church. The windows are boarded on the inside."
The front doors hung askew. Just past them, Holly spied stacked pews. She could imagine the scene all too clearly. Once the front blockade had fallen, the people inside had been trapped by their own defenses. The Wendigo likely dragged out screaming villagers, tossing them to the waiting pack....
"Cadeon, even if I'm not interested in being human again, I'm glad you brought me."
"How could you be?" His tone was almost sharp.
"Just in case you need me to get your back," she said, frowning when she saw his knuckles go white on the steering wheel.
Just as she parted her lips to ask him what was wrong, he said, "There's Groot's fortress."
As the mist began to clear, she glimpsed a magnificent waterfall, at least four hundred feet high. Directly atop it was...a castle, built at the fall's edge.
Five towers all conjoined to a central keep over the water. Above it, a stone smokeshaft billowed gray smoke. Even from this distance, the mighty forge was visible.
"That's why the river isn't frozen and why there's so much mist," he said. "It heats the water - "
"Cadeon!" She swallowed. "Down a side street. I think I just saw something running!"
Cade had spotted them, too. Wendigo hunted in packs - and they were stalking them.
"Are they still following us?" she asked, eyes darting.
The road continued up the escarpment, taking them ever higher and closer to the keep. He turned on the wipers when mist from the falls became as thick as rain, until they climbed above it.
The sun had set, and the full moon had begun to rise by the time they came upon a perimeter fence. Metal spikes pointed outward like old-fashioned bulwarks, yet he could see that they were fastened to gears. Cade suspected that they would move if disturbed.
The front gate was towering and complex. One section rolled on a rail to the side, and another could be raised and lowered. When the truck was directly in front of it, the two components opened to allow just enough space for him to ease through, then both closed inches from his back bumper.
They were in. Minutes till show time.
"There's no way Wendigo can get past that gate. You can relax now," he said, inwardly wincing.
This part of the drive seemed endless to Cade. His hands were damp on the steering wheel, and at every instant, he was tempted to turn around.
But he didn't turn around, instead parking in front of two colossal entry doors. Made of iron, they stood at least a couple of stories high and were flanked by flaming torches the size of a man.
When Cade grabbed his sword sheath to strap over his back, she raised her brows. "Just in case we have to depart quick-like."
The noise from the waterfall was deafening when they got out of the truck. Immediately, those doors groaned open, seeming of their own accord.
"You ready?" he asked, having to raise his voice over the sound.
"Ready to get this over with!"
When he and Holly entered the empty hall, no one greeted them. The doors eased shut behind them, just as another opened across the bailey. They had no choice but to follow the path available, leading them deeper toward the heart of the castle. Their footsteps echoed on the stone floor.
As much as Cade despised Groot, the military part of Cade's mind couldn't help but be impressed with the design of the castle. The layout was a defensive dream.
Five baileys had been built in an X formation, all connected to the largest tower in the center by narrow walkways. Only one bailey was on land. The other four were constructed on man-made piers or natural pediments in the water.
If Groot were attacked, he could destroy the walkway from the land bailey, and the others would be unreachable.
Even if an enemy decided to approach by water, at least two of the baileys would prove unassailable because they lay at the direct edge of the waterfall. The strength of the current would make them impossible to near.
An attack by air wouldn't work. The forge vented smoke so dense it would cloak the castle from above.
When they passed through the far door, it led them outside to a walkway over the water, connecting to the forge. Cade glanced over the stone balustrade. Beneath them, the silt-laden water dropped at least four hundred feet down, churning in monstrous eddies and spitting up foam. The din was so loud he would have to yell to be heard.
In the main tower, the forge had large bay doors that opened up like a warehouse. The area was filled with blacksmith tools: tongs, pincers, and an anvil as big as a car. An immense furnace blazed. Directly across from the forge opening was a crenellated parapet wall.