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The Grand Master stood slowly and pulled back her blue silk hood, revealing a flow of long dark hair. Like Farkel and Pan Magal, her ears were long and pointed. Her voice poured out like warm honey.

"My name is Ephera, Consul to the Elders and Grand Master of the Noble Order. What is your name, human?"

Sol felt hot. He could feel the gaze of every eye in the room fixed on him—not least the ten-foot talking bird. He licked his parched lips but found his tongue was just as dry, so he cleared his throat and tried to remember his voice.

"It's Solomon," he said.

"There's no need to be afraid, Solomon; we are not harmful. Allow me to introduce you to the rest of the Order." Ephera gestured to the short stout man with the long black beard. "This is Endrekh, Consul to the Dwarves."

The short man grunted and tapped his metal leg on the marble floor.

"Next to him is Mahjin; Consul to the Warlocks."

The old man in purple nodded his head slowly.

"Taraj is Consul to the Centaurs."

The horse-woman folded her arms and offered Sol a distrustful glare.

"And this is Rukh; Consul to the Skralls."

The giant eagle cocked his head and squinted.

"Together, we guard the Kirina and the human world from outsiders. You are the first human to step foot in our world in almost a thousand years." Ephera stepped away from her chair and walked towards Sol, her steps so smooth and even that she seemed to glide towards him. She stopped a pace in front of him, studying his face like it was a painting in a museum.

"May I see your hand?"

Sol didn't need to ask which one. He offered up his right hand and Ephera took it in both of her own. She turned it over gently and studied the wooden ring from all angles. Sol felt awkward; the touch of a woman's hand was a sensation he'd long forgotten. Every slight movement sent electricity up his arm and raised the hairs on his neck. Once Ephera was done, she released him and raised a hand to his face.

"Close your eyes," she said as she placed her palm on his forehead. Sol did as he was asked, though he felt a little foolish. "Clear your mind and focus on the darkness."

"What are you doing?" he asked.

"I need to know what you saw."

Sol had no idea know what that meant, so he just stood there with his eyes closed while Ephera pressed her hand against his head. After a moment, however, he started to see shapes materialising in his mind's eye which quickly sharpened into buildings and snow-dusted roads.

"This is Manhattan," he whispered.

"Focus..." said Ephera, only her voice no longer sounded as though it was in front of him but inside his head. He could hear the sounds of the City and feel a cold wind nipping at his face. He took a small step backwards and felt the snow crunch under his feet.

"What's happening?"

When it dawned on him that he could no longer feel Ephera's hand on his head, he began to wonder if he'd somehow been transported back home. He turned around and found himself at the base of the Washington Square Arch—a sight he'd started to lament. Even so, an intense desire to walk under it came over him. With every step, he became more and more convinced that he was back and wondered if his sanity was trying to return to him, but then he heard a noise which stopped him in his steps and knew this was something else.

He turned around and saw Pan Magal standing beneath the Arch, covered in blood once again. As before, the dying man staggered towards him, and as before, Sol stumbled and fell.

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