Into Battle (The Seventh Tower, Book 5) Garth Nix CHAPTER ONE High on the They only managed to recover by taking a series of tiny, hopping steps that. Bestselling author Garth Nix's amazing Seventh Tower series is back--now with a great new look!The Underfolk are restless. For a long time, they have kept. The Fall (The Seventh Tower, #1), Castle (The Seventh Tower, #2), Aenir (The Seventh Tower, #3), Above the Veil (The Seventh Tower, #4), Into Battle (Th.
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The Fall (the Seventh Tower, Book 1) - Free download as Word Doc .doc /.docx) , PDF File .pdf), Text File .txt) or Download as DOCX, PDF, TXT or read online from Scribd series of gestures, the light following in an almost solid band. Castle (the Seventh Tower, Book 2) - Free download as Word Doc .doc /.docx), PDF File .pdf), Text File .txt) or read online for free. Aenir (the Seventh Tower, Book 3) - Free download as Word Doc .doc /.docx), PDF File .pdf), Text File .txt) or read online for free.
He had supposed he was well on the way to becoming a Shadowmaster. List of characters Across the Wall collection The Bells. He didn't want to attract attention. Once the edges might have been sharp, but long exposure to wind, snow, and rain had rounded them off. It completely blocked the corridor, and Tal was momentarily stumped by it. The series follows two children from distinctly different societies in a world blocked from the sun by a magical Veil which leaves the world in complete darkness.
You must make a tiny hole at the end,where it is softest, and then press your finger on it. Keeping your finger over the hole, put your mouth onto the airweed as if you were a baby suckling milk, and breathe in. Breathe out through your nose. Keep your finger pressed tight over the hole whenever you are not taking a breath.
Malen copied her. She couldn't see one, nor see the telltale signs of one hidden in a sleeve or boot. She looked at Tal's coat. The heatways were aptly named. This tunnel and the network of others like it were actually inspection tunnels for the Castle's heating system. It used lava to heat great lakes of water, and the steam was piped throughout the more than a hundred levels and seven towers of the vast building. Unfortunately, over the centuries the lava had broken out of its assigned channels and had invaded some of the inspection tunnels.
That was where the bad air came from. They have a particular affinity for air, even as Spiritshadows. Odris stood waiting, puffing herself up to her full size, a huge shadow that completely filled the tunnel.
It was clear that Malen was not going to lower herself to talk to a free shadow. Then she turned and started off down the heatway. She shrunk herself at the same time, her shadowflesh becoming darker and denser. Milla followed her, ignoring the Crone. She would follow or not. Milla was already remembering all the twists and turns of the heatway passages. Tal had found a map the first time through, and she had committed every turn to memory.
Coming out she had reversed it and now must reverse it again. There were more than a hundred turns and several climbs to recall, and she had to get it right. A wrong turning or other mistake could plunge them down into the lava flows or the boiling reservoirs. Despite the increasing heat, Milla kept up a punishing pace, first in a hunched-over walk and then at a crawl as the ceiling lowered.
Odris was often only a few steps ahead of her, and Malen was often ten or even twenty stretches behind. Milla knew the Crone would have had no experience of such heat, and was obviously finding it a struggle. But Malen did not complain. All she did was undo the lacings at her throat and sleeves. Soon they had to resort to breathing through dampened rags, as the heat continued to build. Her Sunstone lit up the tunnel ahead and also provided Odris with a source of strength.
After a few hours they came to the broken skeleton where Milla and Tal had found a Sunstone that Tal's great-uncle Ebbitt had later split in two. Later, on the way back, Milla had found the strange fingernail that she now knew as the Talon of Danir among the bones.
Milla paused before the skeleton and held her Sunstone high. Malen came up close, and they both gazed down upon the bones. I do not think the bones are particularly old. She hadn't noticed before, but the bones were not as ancient as she had always thought. Trust a Crone--this Crone--to instantly recognize something that might be important.
She tapped it against the wall, then pulled out a small sharp stone from her sleeve and pared off a sliver. I wonder who could have been wearing the Talon of Danir as recently as that? The question was of no importance to the immediate task. The skeleton was a pile of bones, and bones could not speak.
Milla gestured Odris to go on. But the Spiritshadow did not move. Instead she held up one puffy hand and cocked her head to one side. There is movement in the air. Then she eased her sword in its scabbard, for a quick draw. Behind her, she heard Malen draw in a nervous breath.
They waited in the near darkness for what felt like a long time but wasn't, before a faint light appeared in the distance. It was not even and bright like a Sunstone, or the red glow of the lava, but a flickering yellow.
Milla and Malen lay completely still, close to the floor. Odris slid up against the ceiling and pressed herself there. All of them looked forward. The yellow light grew brighter. Milla saw two men in white Underfolk robes crawling down the tunnel. They each carried an Underfolk lamp of the type Milla had seen before, simple globes of unbreakable crystal filled with mineral fuel and topped with a wick.
The lamps shed only a narrow circle of light around the men. It also blinded them to what lay ahead. The yellow light flickered as the Underfolk crawled, but there were more shadows around the men than could be explained by that. Milla tensed as she realized that the men were being followed by two… no, three… Spiritshadows. Thin, thorny Spiritshadows, not of any kind Milla had ever seen. They were about the same size as the Underfolk, but had six legs, razored and bulbous bodies, and long thin heads that ended in what would probably be a sharp spike or bloodsucking proboscis in their native Aeniran form.
The Underfolk paused to take breaths from airweed nodules they had slung around their necks. But the Spiritshadows didn't let them take more than one. Their forelegs whipped the men about the shoulders. Milla saw their shadowflesh get darker and denser and the Underfolk flinch under the blows. These were free shadows, Milla realized. They were using the Underfolk to provide the light they needed.
If only the men realized, they could blow out their lanterns and the Spiritshadows would be helpless. But then, down here, so would the Under-folk. And the Spiritshadows might not fade fast enough…The Underfolk started crawling again. Thoughts flashed through Milla's mind. She had her Sunstone, but didn't really know how to use it properly against Spiritshadows. Her Merwin-horn sword would cut them. Odris could probably outfight one or two of them.
The Crone might also be of some use. The Crones did seem to have some tricks they could use against shadows. The Underfolk kept crawling on. The Spiritshadows followed them, but not closely.
They kept flitting from side to side, thrusting their shadow proboscises into cracks in the walls and ceiling, reaching out with their forelegs.
Milla looked down at the Talon of Danir on her finger. It was glowing violet and gold. When she had fought the Shield Mother Arla, it had suddenly extended and mortally wounded Milla's opponent.
Milla closed her fist to hide the glow of the Talon. As he always did when he arrived in Aenir he felt lighter, less substantial. The first thing he did was look down at himself. Sure enough, his skin had gained the peculiar glow that all Dark Worlders had on Aenir.
He knew that he was also shorter and slighter, another effect of the transfer. Tal looked around, his eyes adjusting to the twilight.
It was exactly as he'd pictured it. He stood on the end of the Hanging Rock, high above the Lake of Ash. Out on the lake there was the Empress's island and then, in a semicircle around it, hundreds of Chosen houses, all built high on stilts and joined by narrow bridges and raised walkways.
The anchor hole was near his feet. He could see through it, see the lake far below. There was a red glow in the distance, behind the far crater wall, the sun setting. He had timed it exactly. Soon the last light would fade and he could sneak down the path behind him. There was no reply. Puzzled, Tal looked around. There was no sign of the Storm Shepherd. But Tal knew he had to be there. They were inextricably bound together. Adras couldn't have been left behind. He'd die in the dark sarcophagus without Tal's Sunstone light!
A faint cry sounded above him. Tal looked up and sighed in relief. Adras was high above him, a faint white speck in the darkening sky.
He was still only a third his normal size, but he was no longer a shadow. Like Tal, he had been transformed, in this case back to his natural form, the puffy cloud-flesh of a Storm Shepherd. I will return! It wasn't exactly painful, but it wasn't pleasant, either.
He knew it would last until Adras came back, and that the Storm Shepherd would also feel it.
They could not stay very far apart for too long. He looked down again, and realized he was still clenching his fist. He opened it and looked at the Red Keystone. As before, Lokar swam into view as he concentrated upon the stone's sparkling depths. Her voice was almost a sob. The Empress will use the Violet Keystone to release me!
Does it hurt? He wasn't really thinking of Lokar. His thoughts were with his father, Rerem, trapped inside the Orange Keystone. Lokar laughed, a laugh tinged with hysteria. It doesn't hurt. Yet I cannot rest, I cannot sleep, I cannot stop this endless circling inside the stone. Unless someone speaks from outside, there is only my Spiritshadow and me, surrounded by silence. Years and years and years of silence.
Is it any surprise that I have been mad? Suddenly taking her advice didn't seem so sensible. Lokar said she had been mad. What if she still was? Tell me what is happening outside! He didn't know what to say. I'm going to wait until it's a bit darker and start down the path. To his surprise, the light on the horizon was brighter than before.
It was also less red.
Tal stared at it, not listening to the buzzing voice of Lokar. It took him a full two seconds to realize he'd made a dreadful mistake. It wasn't dusk. It was dawn. In a few minutes, the sun would rise above the crater wall. He would be easily seen on the Hanging Rock, or heading down the path. Sushin's followers, or even just some concerned Chosen, would spot him for sure. It's dawn! Without waiting for an answer, he tied the stone into the corner of his sleeve and pulled it tight, so there was no chance it could be lost.
There was only one thing Tal could do to avoid detection and capture. He must weave a lightrope within the next few minutes and dive down to the Lake of Ash. But unlike the regular light-divers who returned to the Hanging Rock by shrinking their ropes, he would have to try and get as close to the ash as possible, cut himself free, and swim ashore. Tal knew the principles of lightropes. A red strand for strength, a yellow strand for flexibility, and an indigo strand to keep it all together.
A few months ago he had never even handled light above the yellow spectrum, but now he didn't hesitate. He would even use violet if he had to. Tal lifted his Sunstone ring and concentrated on it. A thick line of red light spilled out of the Stone and fell down, coiling as it fell.
Tal kept it going and added a yellow strand, thicker than the red. Then came the indigo, winding about the two other strands. The complete rope kept falling and coiling, and Tal realized he had another problem. He didn't know how long to make the lightrope. If it was too short he'd just bounce up and down and end up hanging too far above the ash to safely drop.
If it was too long he'd dive deep into the ash and even though he'd probably bounce out several times, the initial impact would probably kill him.
Desperately he tried to remember watching other light-divers. He tried to recall conversations he'd overheard.
Was it three hundred and fifty stretches? It was three hundred and something… three hundred and sixty?
Tal decided shorter was safer than longer. Better to be captured alive dangling above the Lake of Ash than killed. He decided on three hundred and fifty. Allowing five stretches for the loose ends before the lightrope wove together, he was almost there. A thin sliver of sun was already poking over the far crater wall.
Behind him, there was sunlight on the closer wall, about fifty stretches above him. He could see the line of sunlight falling every minute, creeping closer down to him.
Tal twisted his hand and directed the end of the rope through the anchor hole, directing the light so it shot under the Hanging Rock and back over to rejoin itself below his hand.
Tal pulled back as if he were lifting a weight, tightening the loop until the rope was fast against the rock.
Then he cut it off with a thought and went forward to pick up the other end. After cutting off the loose strands with a fine ray of Red light, he used two fingers of Indigo light to tie the lightrope securely around his ankles.
The sunlight hit the top of his head. Tal took a deep breath and shuffled to the very edge of the Hanging Rock. He looked down. The lake was a long, long way down. The Chosen houses and the walkways between them were tiny. Sunlight touched his eyes. Tal shut them firmly and leaned forward. For a moment he hung on the very edge of the Hanging Rock. Then he toppled forward and fell straight down,the lightrope rippling out behind him.
The free Spiritshadows followed right behind them. As the light from the lanterns illuminated a stray bone from the skeleton, the Underfolk stopped and pointed. Instantly, the three Spiritshadows swarmed forward, obviously excited. The Underfolk shuddered as the Spiritshadows slid over and past them, cold shadowflesh chilling them through their robes. The lead Spiritshadow touched the bone with its proboscis, then with its two front claws.
Then it looked at the others, and all three briefly touched their forelegs. At that moment, while they were distracted, Milla attacked. She lunged forward in a crouch, her hand extended, trusting that the Talon of Danir would do whatever it did automatically. She intended to use the glowing fingernail to cut the closest Spiritshadow. But as she leaped forward, the Talon extended itself, until it was as long as her forearm.
Bright violet sparks showered from the end, and a long plume of violet light shot out like a whip -- a whip of light at least three stretches long. Milla brought her hand down toward the Spirit-shadow, and the whip of light shot around and became a lasso. Without conscious direction from Milla, it settled over the head of the Spiritshadow and pulled tight. Milla flicked the lasso at the next one, and the same thing happened. As she flicked it at the third and last Spiritshadow, the other two were picking up their separated heads and then trying to reconnect them, as they scuttled as fast as they could back down the tunnel.
The third Spiritshadow was quicker and the lasso missed. But before it could attack Milla, the violet streamer undid itself and the free end whipped out to slice through the Spiritshadow's forelegs.
The creature crashed to the floor, and wriggled backward, sliding over the Underfolk, who had pressed themselves facedown on the floor. It halted for a moment, then scuttled away. Odris had rushed forward to grab the shadow, but as she reached out, the light from the Talon whipped back toward her. Instantly, Milla threw her hand the other way, slapping her palm against the wall. The whip missed Odris by a finger-width.
She sounded scared. Milla was shaken, too. She held her hand against the wall, until the violet stream of light slowly ebbed back into the Talon, and it shrank back to its regular size. No wonder Danir had been such a fearsome warrior, her legend lasting thousands of years.
She had worn one of these magical fingernails on each hand. The Talon didn't do anything. Perhaps it only worked when she wanted to fight. She would have to be careful to make sure Odris wasn't nearby when she did. In a way it was like being a Wilder, one of the berserk warriors that occasionally emerged in the clans.
You had to stay clear of them when they fought, until the blood-craze left them and they knew friend from foe. Milla raised her Sunstone and light flared, the brightness washing out the yellow glow of the lanterns. Then she scowled and reached forward to touch the closest man. He didn't move.
Milla felt for a pulse in his neck and then repeated the action with the other one. Neither one had a pulse. Only then did she see that they each had a tiny wound in their back of the head. A wound about the same size as one of the Spiritshadow's proboscis. She felt strangely affected by their deaths. Death was no stranger to her, even sudden, unexpected, and violent death.
But somehow this felt worse than the accidents she had seen, or the fatal encounters with the wild beasts of the Ice. It took her a moment to realize what it was. We know it, as do the shadows of Aenir, even if the Chosen do not. You realize what those shadows were looking for? The Spiritshadows expected to find the man's remains -- or what he carried--to be here somewhere.
That is why they were searching so carefully. Milla carefully rolled the two Underfolk over to look at their faces and fix them in her mind, so she could describe them later and find out their names.
She wondered if the Freefolk would know them. Perhaps they were close family. Certainly they would be someone's brothers, or uncles, or fathers. She will send Shield Maidens to take these Underfolk out and give them to the Ice. There is no likelihood of bad air between here and the outside, is there? She gestured down the tunnel. Tell Panul they should take the airweed these men carried. Tell her how to use it.
Malen nodded. Her eyes clouded as she joined the mass mind of the Crones. Milla looked away, at the tunnel stretching out ahead. The Spiritshadows would have spread the alarm. They would not know who they encountered, but they would tell of the deadly whip of violet light.
Many shadows might be gathering now in the lower Underfolk levels, waiting for Milla, Malen, and Odris. The Chosen should all be in Aenir, but even if they weren't, Milla wasn't afraid of them. They had lived too easy lives. They were not warriors. Free shadows from Aenir were a different matter.
The enemy now knows that the evening breeze brings raiders down upon the ship. What ship? He shouldn't be in Aenir. I don't know. Why didn't you tell me? I heard his farewell upon the wind. You were sulking on your stupid chair. Come on! Down and down he fell, his arms spread wide, his head back. He saw the Lake of Ash below, coming closer and closer and closer, and still he fell, the lightrope running free. Any moment, the rope would run out and he would bounce back, but the moment didn't come and the lake was so close, only ten or twenty stretches below -- and this time Adras wasn't nearby to catch him!
The rope was too long. He was going to hit the lake! Tal wrapped his arms around his head and screwed his eyes shut. He felt his stomach stay behind as his fall was suddenly arrested. He opened his eyes and saw the surface of the lake just beyond his reach--and then he was hurtling up again as the rope jerked him back. His stomach felt like it was determined to stay on the surface of the lake as Tal bounced up and down. When he finally came to rest, he was hanging about four stretches above the surface of the ash and sixty stretches from the shore.
The surface of the lake was quite smooth. Even though it looked completely gray higher up, from this distance all the clear crystals allowed Tal to see a little way under the surface.
It was like looking into very cloudy water. Not that there was anything to see, which was a good sign. He didn't want to see anything there. Flipping himself up, Tal grabbed the rope.
He used his Sunstone to unravel the indigo binding thread. He hung from his hands for a moment, then let himself go. Above him, his lightrope dissipated into the air.
Tal fell straight down into the strange fluid of the lake, only remembering to hold his arms out at the last moment, so his head didn't go under. The mixture of ash and tiny crystals almost felt like water, but it was warm and dry, and it was much harder to move through. Luckily, it was easier to stay afloat. Tal started swimming to the shore immediately. It would be daylight throughout the crater soon, and he had to find somewhere to hide.
He was halfway to the shore when he noticed that there was another noise beside the curious rustling sound of his own swimming. A sound that he could feel as a vibration through the ash, as well as hear. It was coming from behind him, so he rolled over to look, while continuing with a fairly clumsy backstroke.
At first he couldn't see anything. Then a large and highly unwelcome shape briefly surfaced about a hundred stretches away, before disappearing again. Tal saw a great long back of serrated blue and red scales, accompanied by the brief flash of a huge mouth surrounded by four long, questing tendrils. He knew what he'd seen. It was a Kerfer, one of the great carnivores of the lake.
A creature played in Beastmaker for Strength or Special. Its Special ability lay in its six feathery tentacles. Four were several times longer than a man and sensed vibration and movement. Two were shorter, but oozed a paralyzing venom. Tal looked again. The Kerfer briefly broached the surface, tentacles rising into the air before they splashed down ahead of its body.
It had closed the distance between them by half in only a few seconds. He had no chance of outswimming it. The Chosen boy stopped swimming, though his feet trod the ash to keep him afloat. He raised his Sunstone ring and concentrated on it. Red light grew in intensity there, until it was almost blinding. A tentacle rose up out of the ash just a stretch away. One of the sensing tentacles--but the paralyzing tentacle would not be far behind.
Tal waited. The tentacle quested forward and touched his chest. He flinched, and it recoiled. Then came the target Tal had been waiting for.
The Kerfer breached again, and he saw its cavernous mouth, a mouth lined with wriggling cilia instead of teeth. Tal fired the Red Ray of Destruction at the highest intensity he could summon, straight between the monster's jaws. Light exploded everywhere, the crystals in the ash picking up and multiplying the red flash. Tal was momentarily blinded. Something hit him, and he screamed, thinking it was the paralyzing tentacle. Ash filled his mouth.
The Kerfer had reared up and splashed down, creating a huge wave. Tal's vision cleared as he spat out ash. For a moment he couldn't orient himself, couldn't see the shore or the monster. Then he saw the Kerfer floating on the surface, its tentacles limp. It was either stunned or dead. Tal didn't wait around to see which it was. He struck out for the shore as fast as he could.
He climbed up onto a beach of more solid ash. He didn't look behind until he was safely on rock and a good twenty stretches from the lake. Then he turned around, his Sunstone ready, in case the Kerfer was going to drag itself after him. It wasn't. As Tal watched, the inert creature bobbed under once, then twice, as if something was nibbling on it. Something was. Tal couldn't help retreating even farther from the lake as the whole Kerfer -- a creature that would weigh ten times as much as Tal disappeared with a sudden pop, leaving a deep whirlpool in the lake that was easily fifty stretches in diameter.
Tal shuddered. He was glad he hadn't encountered whatever that was instead of the Kerfer. Now his priority was to find somewhere to hide, so he wasn't exposed out here in the sun. The crater wall had lots of caves. But was there one close by? He ran toward the wall, jumping from one tumbled rock to another. There were a few promising patches of dark shadow ahead.
It settled back a little earlier than expected and the two men were crushed to death. The object they had put in the crevasse survived, locked away in darkness under six hundred stretches of solid rock.
The object was almost indestructible. A single crystal that had been grown into a rectangular shape, it was about as high as a tall Chosen, three times as wide, and only a hand-span thick.
Even without light, its surface shone like water reflecting the moon, a mysterious silver luminosity. Occasionally the light would ripple in a rainbow effect, and there would be pictures, absolutely lifelike pictures, that moved on its strange surface. Or there might be writing, in the elegant and complex script used by the Chosen, or the blocky runes of the Icecarls. The strange, shining object was the Codex of the Chosen, and its rightful place was in the Castle, atop the Mountain of Light in the Dark World.
It did not belong in Aenir and should never have been brought there. The Codex had many powers, but none that would help it burrow through stone or make the mountain creature move. All of its power lay in knowledge gathering knowledge and giving knowledge. Down in the deep dark of its rocky prison, the Codex could only use one of its many powers. It could see and hear through the minds of animals, using them as its eyes and ears. In the second year, it found blind crickets that scuttled through the many cracks and fissures of the mountain.
In the third year the Codex found lumps of semi-intelligent mold, which had no senses at all that the magical artifact could understand. For several years after that, the Codex continued to send out its questing mental tendrils, only to encounter useless creatures… or nothing at all. It was not in the Codex's nature to give up. It would keep trying for a hundred years, or a thousand.
Fortunately it did not have to. A mere twenty-two years after it was stolen from the Castle and placed under the mountain, it found a Grugel. The Codex had not personally encountered a Grugel before, but it knew exactly what one was when it felt the mind of the small armor- plated rodent.
The Grugel had come down from outside to eat the blind crickets, and now it was returning. It crossed the Codex's cave on its way to climb up a very narrow chimney, using the hooks on its legs and throwing its equally hooked tail ahead like a climbing rope.
The Codex entered the mind of the Grugel and went with it to the outside world. It could enter the minds of several thousand animal-level intelligences at once, or a single Aeniran creature of human intelligence, though this was very difficult. It could not enter the minds of actual humans. Its makers had prohibited that.
But the Codex had to be close to its first target, or be able to see out of one of its helper's eyes. From the Grugel, it entered the minds of a roving pair of Lipits, and then a whole swarm of Frox. After that it kept adding eyes and ears from all sorts of creatures. Slowly, the Codex's perception ranged over almost the whole of Aenir.
It was not a constant presence, though. Sometimes creatures died or the Codex simply lost touch with them, as happened when they strayed too far from another one of the Codex's eyes and ears. The Codex had to constantly work at keeping the many thousands of minds in its unique spy network linked back to its dark prison. Always the Codex hoped to see or hear someone ask the question it desperately wanted to answer: Once the question was asked, the Codex could use one of the animals it controlled to guide the questioner, or communicate with them.
But it was the nature of the Codex that it could only answer questions. It could not act of its own accord. So the Codex brooded in its prison, watching the life of Aenir through the eyes of its many agents and listening through their many ears.
It most closely watched the Chosen, for they were its people. On the Day of Ascension it would send hundreds of creatures running, jumping, flying, and burrowing toward the Chosen Enclave, waiting for the people of the Castle to appear from the Dark World, as they did every year.
The Codex knew that the Chosen were forbidden to come to Aenir before the Day of Ascension, but still some came. It watched these people with particular care. It had been brought to Aenir by Chosen who had crossed over before the Day. The Codex didn't really feel human emotions or so it told itself. But something very like excitement and wonder did ripple across its surface one rainy afternoon when one of its eyes, a flipper-footed, furry lozenge known as a Vabe, crawled out of a newly formed lake and up a hill.
Through the Vabe's eyes, the Codex saw something that it did not expect. It was still two weeks until the Day of Ascension, but there were two Dark Worlders on the hill. A boy and a girl. Even stranger, the boy was a Chosen and the girl one of the Ship Folk, who now called themselves Icecarls.
Acting on instructions from the Codex, the Vabe crawled closer. It didn't want to, because there was a lot of thunder and lightning about. But the Codex drove it on. It watched as they performed some ceremony that they obviously thought was important.
Halfway through, as they offered drops of blood to the storm above them, the Codex realized what was going to happen. Most places in Aenir were layered with magic and old traditions bound into the land. This was one of them. Blood given on Hrigga Hill would call the Storm Shepherds to a gathering, and they would perform a service for a price a price that was always the same.
Sure enough, there -in the black clouds above were two Storm Shepherds. They would be forced to answer the call of blood, even if it was offered in ignorance. It was too late to interfere. Besides, what could the Codex do with a single Vabe? It was only as big as the boy's foot, and couldn't even bite. Vabes chewed weeds. Very slowly. The Storm Shepherds came down, giant humanlike figures made of dark cloud and lightning.
The Codex listened as they demanded the life that the Chosen and the Icecarl had unknowingly promised them. It would have liked to enter the mind of the larger Storm Shepherd, but its link with the Vabe was too tenuous, and the Codex knew it would not be able to make the connection. It would simply lose the Vabe. The Storm Shepherds raised their storm-cloud fists and lightning began to grow there, small sparks growing longer and longer. In a few seconds the Storm Shepherds would unleash the lightning bolts and blast the boy and girl off the hill.
A pang of hunger rippled through the Vabe. It hadn't eaten for an hour. The Codex tried to suppress the instinct to eat, to keep the animal focused on the Chosen boy and the Icecarl girl. The Vabe's hunger grew stronger. The link wavered. The Codex's vision through the little animal blurred. Rain swept the hill, and lightning flickered all around it.
Two small figures, a Chosen boy and an Icecarl girl, stood defiantly before the great cloud-creatures who towered over them. He focused his mind on it, and it shone brighter and brighter as he prepared to unleash a blast of concentrated light at the Storm Shepherds.
At his side, Milla raised her Merwin-horn sword. She had a Sunstone, too, but was not trained in its use. At least not yet. Tal hoped that her sword would be able to cut through the strange cloud-flesh of the Storm Shepherds as well as it cut through shadow, back in the Castle. Tal thought he heard an odd tone in the Storm Shepherd's voice. It sounded as if it didn't want to take a life, that it was being forced to claim one.
He knew that many of the creatures of Aenir were bound by ancient spells, magic that the Chosen did not know. Perhaps these Storm Shepherds were subject to such a binding, which made them take a life if blood was spilled on this particular hill. It was hard to talk with the wind howling around the hilltop, and the constant spray of rain that came with it not to mention the growling thunder of the Storm Shepherds and the crackle of the lightning in their hands.
As it spoke, it raised its hand higher still - and then suddenly threw a whole fistful of lightning at Tal and Milla! Icecarl and Chosen were blinded and stunned, and then deafened as the thunderclap rolled around and around the hill. Tal wasn't sure what happened next. He crawled around on all fours, fingers squelching in the mud. He tried to get up and face the attackers, to counterattack with blasts of light from his Sunstone.
But he couldn't see or hear. He collided with Milla and they both fell onto their backs. When Tal tried to get up, he felt an overpowering force pushing him down into the mud, pressing on his chest and shoulders so it was hard to breathe. He struggled, but it was no use.
His own voice echoed inside his head, but he couldn't seem to hear it through his ears. He couldn't use his Sunstone, either, because he couldn't see it. He had to be able to see the light to focus and bend it to his will. Otherwise all he could do was make it glow.
If only he still had his shadowguard, he thought. It could have done something. But it was free now, free because he was old enough to bind his own Spiritshadow, to make one of the creatures of Aenir his servant, to cross back with him to the Castle and.
Tal could try and bind the Storm Shepherd that was holding him down. He could make the creature serve him. It might be the only way to save their lives.
Even so, Tal hesitated, thoughts flickering through his mind like the Storm Shepherd's lightning. He could only bind an Aeniran to be his Spiritshadow once. It would be the most important thing he ever did.
His Spiritshadow would influence his position in the Castle, would help him rise to Violet or fall to Red. He had always thought he'd look over many different Aeniran creatures before he made his choice.
He would weigh up their advantages and disadvantages. Talk with his parents about which creature would be best. Discuss it with his friends. Tal didn't even know what a Storm Shepherd Spiritshadow would be like.
He'd never seen one, either in Aenir or in the Castle. Maybe they made really rotten Spiritshadows. Only, if Tal didn't bind the Storm Shepherd he would probably die. Then there would be no one to save Gref, or his mother, or Kusi, or to find his father. Tal felt the beginning of a sob rise in his throat. He had failed so far. His mother, Graile, was in a coma. His brother, Gref, was a prisoner, taken by a Spiritshadow that Tal hoped the Codex would identify. His youngest sister, Kusi, was being fostered by his cousins, friends of Shadowmaster Sushin, Tal's declared enemy.
His father, Rerem, was lost, the only clue to his fate a scratched name in an illegal prison pit back in the Castle. Tal's mouth set in determination. He would not fail anymore. He would do whatever had to be done. His choice of Spiritshadow was nothing, though he couldn't help but feel a pang as he decided to give up a precious, long-cherished dream. Tal started to blink very quickly, hoping that would help.
Surely he was only temporarily blinded? What if the Storm Shepherd killed him before he could see? But then, they only wanted one life…. The Storm Shepherd was holding him down with just one cloudy finger. The other Storm Shepherd needed two of its three fingers to hold Milla down. Tars arms and hands were free.
He could see his Sunstone again, despite the constant rain and the howling wind that whipped around the Storm Shepherds. Off the hill, it wasn't even raining. Tal had practiced binding Aeniran creatures for many years. It was the culmination of all of a Chosen's child training, when they bound a creature and brought it back to the Castle and the Dark World to serve them as a Spiritshadow. He knew all the spells and rituals by heart.
First, he must Mark the Bounds. Then he had to Speak the Words. Finally, they had to Share the Shadow. He had never thought he would do any of these things while lying on his back with an all-too- solid Storm Shepherd's finger pressing him into the mud. This close, their voices were deafening. Tal answered, but not in words. Instead he raised his Sunstone ring.
A narrow beam of orange light sprang out of it, going straight through the nearest Storm Shepherd. It didn't seem to notice, but the beam wasn't meant to harm anyway. It was a marker. Tal quickly used the beam to draw a circle that included the two Storm Shepherds and Milla, as well as himself.
Where the beam of light struck the ground, the grass and mud took on an orange luminescence. Constrained by the Storm Shepherd, the circle was a bit wonky. Certainly it wouldn't have got Tal a pass mark back in the Lectorium.
But it was a closed circle of light, and so Tal had completed the first part of the Binding of a Spiritshadow. He had Marked the Bounds. It didn't sound disturbed. Just curious. Now Tal spoke, but it was a spell that he chanted, not an answer. He did not know what the words meant, for he had been taught them by rote, and they were not of a language used by the Chosen. Because of this he had practiced Speaking the Words almost every day for years.
Binding a Spiritshadow was the act that marked the beginning of his adult life, and the type and strength of the Spiritshadow he gained would greatly influence his ability to rise through the Orders of the Castle. Tal suppressed a sudden image of himself trailing through the Red Corridors, while everyone laughed behind their hands, whispering, "Look at his spirit shadow.
He bound a Storm Shepherd, can you believe it? She threw herself forward so violently that the Storm Shepherd holding her had to use its third and last finger to bring tier under control.
In that moment, he lost track of the spell. The words had to be said exactly, without pause. He had felt the power building in them and had known he would be able to bind the Storm Shepherd. Now, as the power of the words dissipated, the bounds faded, too. Milla had spoiled his one chance to bind the Storm Shepherd. If he'd managed it, he could have set his new servant against the other Storm Shepherd.
They wouldn't have to choose who had to die. He tried to roll over to Milla, but the cloud finger held him fast. Surprisingly, the Storm Shepherd did. I was Speaking the Words. I was trying to bind the Storm Shepherd and save your stupid life! It is forbidden to everyone else.
Olof would not accept the judgment of the Crone Mother, and she had to say the prayer. All the lightning that it had held in its hand was gone now, and its eyes sparked more brightly. Asteyr was one of the words in the binding spell, repeated several times. But how could the Chosen's binding spell be the same as the Icecarl's Prayer to Asteyr? Which of you is to die? As the Storm Shepherd finished speaking, Milla suddenly struck at the one holding her down, plunging her bone knife into the creature's middle finger.
The knife sank hilt-deep into the cloud-flesh and then bounced out again, the cloud reforming. He'd been thinking about the Storm Shepherds' curious reluctance to actually go ahead and kill one of them. The girl has offered her life, and we will take it! But only if Milla helps find the Codex and takes it back to Ebbitt so he can find Gref.
It sounded confused. One life, one gift. That is the rule of the hill. One life is taken, one gift given! The pressure on his chest was lightening. The Storm Shepherds obviously found it harder to crush people they'd been introduced to. Now that he knew their names, Tal could see differences between the two Storm Shepherds. Adras was taller by several stretches and wider, and had more lightning running along its puffy arms and hands.
Odris was slighter and there were many more sparks in its eyes. From their shapes, Tal could tell Adras was male and Odris female. Tal knew that the great majority of the creatures of Aenir were bound to particular places, or to follow certain paths, or to roam within severely limited boundaries. Within these bounds, they were also constrained to follow age-old spells and rituals.
If Tal could work out the exact nature of the binding, he might be able to save himself and Milla. The Storm Shepherds looked at each other. Then they lifted their hands and billowed back. Tal and Milia stood up and wiped the mud off their bodies. Most of it was on their backs. After a moment's hesitation, they helped each other get the worst of it off. If blood is spilled here, hen you must come and ask for a life and give a gift in return.
They have said they are bound here. Once off the hill we will be safe. He was getting impatient again. His question surprised the Storm Shepherds. Thunder crackled around them, and they bowed their heads together.
They obviously thought their whispers could not be heard, but even whispering, their voices were as loud as a human speaking normally. He hesitated before he continued. What he said next would seal his future and could not be unsaid.
That made him feel guilty, too. How could he even temporarily value that more than Gref's freedom, or his mother's life? She looked at Tal as if he had suddenly turned into a Merwin. It bound itself freely to a Chosen, and so became free of the bonds that held it to a place.
Of course, the Chosen who let it wasn't allowed to bring it back until it was rebound to be an actual servant, not a companion… anyway, if they volunteer, we don't have to Mark the Bounds or Speak the Words. We just Share the Shadow, which means giving them our natural shadows ".
Her hand was on the hilt of her Merwin-horn sword. But do not think you have made me like you. I will not give up my shadow. I would rather die. Tal shook as he held back angry words. He couldn't believe Milla was being so stubborn. Everything depended on this. Their own lives. His whole family. Besides, he was honoring her, giving her the opportunity to get a Spiritshadow, to become almost like a Chosen! You must take both of us to be Spiritshadows. Tal stared at her.
Their eyes met, but neither Chosen nor Icecarl blinked. It was a test of wills. Tal was sure that asking the Storm Shepherds to voluntarily join them as Spiritshadows was the only way to avoid either himself or Milla being sacrificed.
They were still staring when the ground beneath their feet suddenly shook, dropping at least a stretch. Tal and Milla both fell over again. Milla went over backward, and struck her head on a stone. He reached forward and placed his hand around Tal's shadow, as if he would pick it up. But he did not close his fingers. Odris did the same to Milla's shadow.
Tal expected the Icecarl to protest or move away, but Milla had struck her head sharply. She groggily tried to sit up, but her shadow didn't move enough to evade Odris's grasp. Both Storm Shepherds paused. The ground continued to quake under Tal's feet, and he saw thin cracks suddenly run through the mud. Then they grew wider and joined, till one huge crack ran under Tal and Milla. Tal tore his attention away from the quickly widening crack under him. It was opening like a mouth, to swallow him up.
He looked at Milla for an instant and made his decision. He raised his Sunstone above his head and called the light that was used in the final part of a Spiritshadow binding, the light that moved through all seven colors, the light, that shared the shadow.
The Storm Shepherds picked them up and thrust them into the middle of their cloud-bodies, where their hearts would be if they had them. Tal felt a wrench as his shadow disappeared, and a rush of cold air that seemed to pass through his head.
Immediately he became more aware of the amount of moisture in the air, and of the wind and sky. Small sparks shot out of his fingers and around his Sunstone. On the ground, Milla was also briefly surrounded by crackling sparks.
Tal teetered on the edge, flailing his arms as he tried to regain his balance. Milla, still half- unconscious, slid over the edge in a fountain of loose dirt, mud, and stone. Both fell into the dark earth. As Tal and Milla fell, the Storm Shepherds dived after them. Swooping down, they grabbed their new companions and shot back out of the crevasse.
Just as they cleared the rim, the giant crack snapped shut, spraying earth, stones, and mud into the sky. Or you will be when we get back to the Castle. He wasn't sure what the procedure was now. If he'd bound Adras to him in the usual way, the.
Storm Shepherd would be a servant and would have to do what he was told. But he was a free companion. Somehow, Tal thought, every time he got himself out of trouble he created a whole lot more for himself as well.
Nothing was ever simple. Thinking of trouble made Tal look across at Milla. She was hanging limply in Odris's grip, clearly still dazed by the blow to her head.
They'd gone up a long way very quickly and it was cold. Old Hrigga Hill was far below them, with the new lake surrounding it. He could see the forest, the one where the trees had walked away. They had stopped on higher ground, quite a long way south.
The sun was almost down now. It had settled behind the line of hills to the west. The stars were quite clear above the hills, gleaming in the constellations of Aenir, many of them familiar to Tal from his early childhood.
There was the many-starred cluster called the Jewel Box, and the triangular formation known as the Dragonhead, though Tal didn't think it really looked like one. It was easy to keep staring at the stars, but that would not help his mission. Tal looked away. He had to think of what to do next. He had to forget about his lost Spiritshadow and focus on finding the Codex. Where shall we alight? Tal peered down.
There was the lake, the forest, and wide patches of bare grassland. He could see a ring of standing stones, but that was probably best avoided, for strong magic and stronger creatures made such places their home. There were also some low hills, but Tal didn't like the look of them, after his experience with Old Hrigga.
That was the trouble with Aenir, he thought. You could never tell when a hill was just a hill. It looked like a fire had raced through within the last few days. Hopefully this meant that the earth was just earth, and anything else that might have lurked there would have fled the fire. The Storm Shepherds began to drop down. Tal noticed that Adras got quite a lot colder as they fell, and that he kept looking across at Odris and adjusting his rate of fall to match her speed.
Tal sighed. It was already clear that Adras who would be his Spiritshadow back in the Castle -was not the smartest of Storm Shepherds. Big and powerful, but a bit of a Dimmer when it came to brainpower. It was even worse than he feared. A smart Spiritshadow was of enormous help to an ambitious Chosen. A stupid one was quite the reverse. Are you all right? The fire had been recent, because he could still smell it. The odor of burnt grass was very strong.
Tal hurried over. Milla must have hit her head harder than he'd thought. He knelt down beside her and mentally ran over the healing spells he could cast with his Sunstone. But if she had a really serious head injury there was nothing. Suddenly he found himself on his back, with Milla's knee on his chest, and her bone knife at his throat. She leaned close, her eyes wild and her mouth set in an animal snarl.
Milla was really going to kill him this time, he suddenly knew. The knife hurt and she would need to slide it in only a little bit more. She returned the knife to her sleeve. Tal sighed in relief. But his sigh was cut off as Milla suddenly pushed her thumbs against two nerves on his neck. She pushed quickly three times. On the third push, Tal's eyes closed and his head fell back. Adras shrugged. She drew her Merwin-horn sword and cut at Odris, but the sword just went straight through the cloud-flesh.
The bright Merwin horn could cut shadow, but here in Aenir, Odris was not a shadow. I will go with you to your ". But her furious blows only exhausted her. Odris bore them without flinching.
Adras merely watched Tal, crouching at his side like a huge statue carved from fog. Finally Milla stood back and took several very slow breaths. She was using a Rovkir exercise, to prevent the onset of berserk fury. Milla stood staring into space for a moment, then she whispered, "I cannot be an Icecarl without my shadow. I cannot be a Shield Maiden without my shadow. I am no one without my shadow. Before the Storm Shepherd could continue, Milla turned and ran out into the star-flecked darkness.
Odris sighed, a big sigh that swept up a cloud of charcoal dust that blew over Adras. He growled, and puffed himself up a few times to shake it off. I want Mummy. To make matters worse, Shadowmaster Sushin seemed to have spread the word that Tal was to be picked on.
Older Chosen he had never seen before tried to get in his way and blame him for the collision. Strange Spiritshadows followed him so often he stopped using the smaller stairways. He even avoided the best shortcut in the Castle: Tal didn't want to meet a Spiritshadow in the laundry slide. Being in the slide was the closest you could get to real darkness in the Castle.
There were no Sunstones inside. The only light came spilling in around the hatches on each of the forty-nine Order levels. These faint lines of light were also the only way for chute riders to know where they were, so they could push their feet out and bring themselves to a stop, usually with some damage to the soles of their shoes. So Tal kept to the main stairs and the Colorless Corridors, the wide passageways that were not part of the realm of any particular Order.
In the Lectorium they were taught that all light served the Empress, that all the Orders were like a family. Tal knew this was a load of shadowspit. The Chosen in the lower Orders were resentful of the higher ones, and the Chosen of the higher Orders liked putting everyone in their place.
The children were the worst. If they caught Tal creeping about, they'd gang up to blind him with their Sunstones, a blindness that sometimes took days to fully wear off.
Tal just tried to avoid trouble. It was even more difficult because he had to look after Gref as well. His brother was in a different Lectorium, and he hadn't complained to Tal about any problems. Still, Tal tried to keep an eye on him. Gref had a genius for trouble.
He was very good at making it, and at avoiding responsibility for it. But even getting away with things eight times out of ten meant getting caught twice. Gref's genius did not serve him well when it came to being picked on. Tal wasn't so much worried about what might happen to Gref, but what his younger brother might do to take revenge.
The case of the boy who had drawn a picture of Gref as a two-headed toppet was never far from Tal's mind. Gref had saved his allowance for seven months, then paid a much older student to create a light-puppet of himself as a truly vicious toppet, which he'd managed to get into the other boy's room at night. The boy had woken up with a scream they could hear in all seven Towers; he still couldn't see a light-puppet show without shaking nervously.
Gref's glory hadn't lasted long. It was clear to the authorities where the light-puppet had come from, with Gref's face on it. What worried Tal the most was that even after being punished, Gref said it was worth it - and he'd do it again. Luckily he wasn't old enough to be given deluminants.
All of this trouble was a constant worry for Tal, but it was nothing compared to the continuing absence of his father. If he came back, everything would be all right. With every day that passed without him, Tal's secret fear that his father might really be dead grew stronger. He had to think harder about getting a Primary Sunstone. If only the horrible Lallek and Korrek had just given him a Sunstone, he wouldn't have to try to win an Achievement of Luminosity.
The Achievements of Luminosity were held every quarter month, and were technically open to everyone who wished to demonstrate their skill and artistic abilities. It was rare for someone who only had a shadowguard, like Tal, to participate. The Achievements were divided into several categories, each held in different parts of the Castle. While all Achievements tested the participant's skill with a Sunstone and sense of light, each category tested other specific talents and abilities as well.
Tal had put his name down for the Achievement of Body. This Achievement was essentially an obstacle course, where fitness and dexterity were as important as light control. It was held in the Hall of Mirrors, which added an extra level of difficulty. Light had to be tightly controlled there, because the slightest slip would mean thousands of embarrassing reflections. Over the week, Tal practiced on the course every afternoon after he finished at the Lectorium. There were seven obstacles, each of which had to be jumped, climbed, swung across, or crawled under.
The ancient obstacles were made of solid light, a magic that was now lost to the Chosen, though some thought the Empress might know the secret ways. Participants could make the obstacle change into something else by directing a beam of light from their Sunstone at exactly the right spot, in exactly the right color. The secret to doing well at the Achievement of Body was to turn all the obstacles in front of yourself into something easy, like a Gasping Hole, which could be jumped across.
At the same time you had to turn your competitors' obstacles into more difficult things, like a Surprising Wall.
Sometimes obstacles flickered through multiple combinations right up until the last second, as light beams shot everywhere. It was not unknown for a Gasping Hole to become a Surprising Wall in the same instant that a competitor jumped, resulting in an unpleasant collision. Tal wasn't worried so much about that. Getting knocked out by smacking his head into a Surprising Wall or tripping over a sudden Deep Tunnel wasn't a problem.
The audience would just laugh. But any disregard of the rules of light could lead to more deluminents, and Tal couldn't afford that. The winner of the Achievement was usually advanced several levels within his or her Order, or was permitted to ask for a Sunstone or some other reward instead. Tal intended to be the winner. He'd always been good at the trial Achievements, which all the children competed in. The practices were going well. What could go wrong? On the morning of the Achievements of Luminosity, Tal found out exactly what could go wrong.
Nervous, he went to the Hall of Mirrors a good hour early - and discovered that his name was not on the list for that day's Achievement of Body. It wasn't on the list for next time, either, or the one after that. The Half-Bright who had the list for the Achievement of Body shrugged. He was a low-ranking Chosen of the Red Order, better than a Dimmer but not much above an Underfolk, which was why he had an actual job. Most Chosen didn't do anything so menial, devoting themselves to their hobbies or interests, or in advancing themselves through Achievements or the politics of the Empress's court.
His Spiritshadow was as lackluster as he was, a six-legged animal of some kind that slept around his ankles. Tal nodded and sped away. Behind him, he heard the man snort something like "Orange idiot," but Tal didn't look back. He remembered exactly what he'd signed up for.
He couldn't have made a mistake…. Unless he'd signed up for the wrong Achievement. What if he'd signed up for the Achievement of Combat, or the Achievement of Healing?
He wasn't properly trained for either of those. He'd get the White Ray of Disgust from the audience for sure, and have his arms loaded with deluminents. He'd become an Underfolk, his mother would die, and Gref and Kusi would follow him down into the dark servant halls below the Castle. He stopped running and carefully bowed and gave light to a Brilliance of the Violet who passed by. He still had half an hour left. Taking deliberate, slow breaths, he walked quickly toward the Registry. It was the Achievement of Music.
Tal stared down at the Registry, unable to believe that his name was there. But it was, complete with his family sigil, etched in light. The Achievement of Music!
After Combat and Healing, that was probably the worst. Tal didn't even have a composition to use. He couldn't withdraw, either. That wasn't allowed, unless he was sick or injured. For a moment Tal thought of throwing himself down one of the steeper stairways.
A broken arm or leg would let him off. For now. But then he would have no chance in any of the Achievements. Tal glanced at his Sunstone, looking at the bands of color to work out the time. He had less than twenty minutes before he would have to perform an original composition of light and music. It was impossible. Like all the Chosen, Tal was a trained musician. But he had never displayed any great talent, and he certainly didn't have time to write an entirely new piece of music.
His only chance would be to use an old one. It would have to be something that had never been performed before, or so old no one recognized it. His shadowguard caught his thought and changed from a very ugly sort of lungfish into a thin, stooped man much taller than Tal, with a very pronounced nose.
It was a caricature -one that Tal recognized. His great- uncle Ebbitt! Ebbitt would help! Tal was off again, racing through the corridors.
He had to forget about being careful, and took every shortcut he knew. Two minutes later, Tal was throwing himself feet first into the laundry chute. A huge bag of clothes hurtled just ahead of him, then Tal was sliding down himself, counting the levels. At "Red Two" he stuck his feet into the sides of the chute and felt the sudden heat through the soles of his shoes as friction slowed him down.
Ebbitt lived in Red One, the very lowest level of the Chosen. Below that lay the work caverns of the Underfolk. Tal had never been there. He knew there were few Sunstones in the Underfolk caverns, just enough to create a dim twilight so the servants could work. It was said to be perpetually steamy as well, from the hot pools that supplied the Castle's warmth. Below the pools, tunnels of lava flowed.
The lava collection pools were the creation of the Castle's builders, the Chosen of long ago, who wielded many powers the current generations had long lost. Tal felt a chill go through him as he climbed out of the chute. Soon he might be forced to join the Underfolk, and might never return to the bright levels of the Chosen.
Even today, if he completely failed in the Achievement of Music and was given more deluminents…. He checked his Sunstone again.
He only had fifteen minutes left until the Achievement. If Ebbitt wasn't home, Tal didn't know what he would do. He set off at a run, hoping that he didn't meet any Red Half-Brights or Dimmers who would be delighted to politely delay an Orange boy. They wouldn't do any serious harm, but they would waste his precious time. Ebbitt had once been a Shadowlord himself, a Brightblinder of the Indigo Order, the second highest in the Castle. Ebbitt had been the shining hope of the family and had seemed certain of climbing Violet.
But something had gone terribly wrong for him when Tal was a baby. He had been forced all the way down to Red, and the lowest level. He was a Dimmer now, a single step above the Underfolk. Somehow he managed to stay there, despite his strange ways and outspoken tongue. He chose to live in twilight, at the end of a rough tunnel, without a door.
His weird collection of constantly rearranged furniture occupied a good hundred yards of corridor, and Ebbitt himself could be found anywhere around it. Tal had no idea how he stopped people coming in, or stealing his things. But he had never seen anyone there except family, or invited guests.
Today, a large wardrobe of white stone marked the beginning of Ebbitt's realm. It completely blocked the corridor, and Tal was momentarily stumped by it.
Then he opened the door and saw that the wardrobe had no back. He went through, shutting the door behind him. After carefully making his way around several chairs and desks, a huge birdcage, and a bronze orrery, Tal found Ebbitt sleeping on an old gilded throne. It had obviously once been studded with Sunstones, because it was covered in holes and scratch marks from when they had been removed.
Ebbitt himself was wearing a plain gray robe without any of the proper markings of his Order or position. He wore a single small Sunstone in a silver ring on his index finger. It flashed as Tal approached, and Ebbitt's Spiritshadow stepped out of the darkness behind the throne. It was a huge cat, with a great mane around its head and a ridge along its back.
Completely black even in the dim light - the mark of a powerful Spiritshadow it yawned as Tal approached, showing lighter shadows inside its enormous mouth. Tal's shadowguard turned itself into a smaller version of the maned cat, in tribute. Tal took a few steps forward, but not too many. He'd always been a bit afraid of Ebbitt's Spiritshadow, even though he knew it wouldn't hurt him.
As Ebbitt still didn't move, he said it again, a bit louder. Ebbitt still didn't move. Tal took another step forward and almost shouted, "Uncle Ebbitt! The huge cat Spiritshadow leaped forward. Tal jumped back and fell over a small three-legged stool, hurtling toward the hard stone floor. At the last moment, Tal's shadowguard shot underneath him, cushioning his head so he didn't knock himself out. Ebbitt laughed as Tal slowly got up, and the maned cat slunk back to sit beside the throne, at the old man's right hand.
Tal got up angrily, but managed not to show it. There was no point in getting angry with Ebbitt. He just laughed and wheezed. Ebbitt might be a pain when it came to surprises and practical jokes, but he was a lot more use than Korrek and Lallek when it came to helping out. His laugh was gone, and he didn't look an old fool anymore. Obviously Tal's face and tone had told him that whatever the boy was concerned about, it was serious.
We have to get a new one. I asked Lallek and Korrek, but they wouldn't help, I think because Shadowmaster Sushin told them not to.
So I put my name in for the Achievement of Body. Only somehow… I must have made a mistake… I'm in for the Achievement of Music. But I don't have a composition. The Achievement is in… oh! Ten minutes! But first you need some music. He leaped out of his throne and clambered over a long table, then jumped across to a chest, his Spirit-shadow at his heels. From there he crawled under a hammock suspended in a frame. Tal lost sight of him behind a giant silver gong. He reappeared a moment later, holding a long scroll.
It was music, he saw, written in the traditional way, down the scroll. Music on the left side, light on the right. The Muldren were - are warriors in Aenir, beyond the parts where we Chosen normally go. Within nine minutes. Come on. Ebbitt took Tal by the arm and led him through the furniture so quickly that Tal knocked several pieces over and banged both knees. He stopped suddenly as they came to a stairway leading down.
A dark stairway. Ebbitt tugged at his arm, but Tal wouldn't move. The maned Spiritshadow nudged him behind his legs, and Tal fell forward, held up only by Ebbitt's surprising strength. Tal almost sobbed. His great-uncle had clearly gone completely crazy. He'd given Tal the music, but that was no help. He'd never get to the Crystal Wood now. They ran through the dark to the bottom of the stairs. They were somewhere in the Underfolk caverns. Tal fumbled at his Sunstone, desperately trying to get some light.
He couldn't bear this darkness! Before Tal could do anything, Ebbitt raised his hand, and the Sunstone on his finger blazed into a bright, indigo light a color forbidden to Ebbitt since his demotion to the Red. Tal almost choked as he saw it, and forgot to breathe as Ebbitt moved his hand through a series of gestures, the light following in an almost solid band. Quickly, Ebbitt wove a shining cylinder around himself and Tal. He didn't sound mad anymore, and Tal knew that the indigo cylinder of light around them was very powerful magic, certainly forbidden to Red Dimmers or Orange boys.
Tal stayed closed to Ebbitt as they shuffled forward. They came to a large metal door, locked by a wheel. Ebbitt turned it, but didn't open it. He gestured at his Spiritshadow instead. It moved forward under the cylinder of light, and thinned itself, becoming almost invisible. Then it slowly eased itself under the solid metal of the door.
It came back a moment later and nodded. Ebbitt opened the door. A rush of steam came out. Tal flinched, but the steam didn't pass through the blue light. It washed around it, and he felt no heat.
Ahead of them, he saw a shaft. Billowing steam obscured how deep it was, and how high up it went. Tal hung back, but his great-uncle's grip was too strong. Tal closed his eyes and followed. Obviously they were going to fall together, down into the boiling pools of the central heating system.
But they didn't fall. Tal opened his eyes and looked down. Indigo light shimmered under his feet, light solid enough to hold him up and to keep the heat of the steam at bay. The light moved out to cover his hands, as if it were cloth. Tal pushed at it experimentally, but it wouldn't budge for him.
His shadowguard sat at his feet, in the shape of a dattu, a small, furry rodent that lived in hillsides in Aenir. It was a harmless shape, one the shadowguard took when it didn't like what was happening but couldn't do anything about it. Tal looked and saw a solid-looking mass of white surging up the shaft. A moment later, it hit. They were suddenly propelled upward, so quickly that Tal fell over and even Ebbitt had to kneel and clutch at his Spiritshadow.
Faster and faster they shot up. Tal tried to get up, but some strange force kept him pressed to the floor of indigo light. He felt like several people were lying on him, trying to crush him flat. Then he noticed that Ebbitt was counting, very quickly. At twenty-five, he suddenly pulled at the indigo light in front of him, tugging it away from the wall. Steam instantly rushed through the gap, and their rate of ascent slowed. But they were still going up even faster than Tal had come down the slide.
Too fast, it seemed, for Ebbitt. He looked at his Spiritshadow, and it lunged through the light to set its claws in the stone of the shaft. Instantly, they slowed almost to a stop, accompanied by a hideous screeching sound from the Spirit-shadow's claws. Tal started in recognition. He'd heard that sound before, coming from behind the walls. It was always explained as "the heating," but it must have been Ebbitt - or someone - using this strange method of transportation.
Three minutes to go. Hang on. The Spiritshadow let go, and they suddenly fell about ten stretches. Steam still swirled around them, but not as much. Tal saw that there was another metal door in front of them. Ebbitt reached out, the indigo light still encasing his hands, and opened it. White light poured in, and Tal recognized one of the minor corridors. From the neutral color of the Sunstones, he knew he was close to one of the Colorless Corridors, and on the level of the Crystal Wood.
Without warning, his Sun-stone flashed, and he pushed Tal into the corridor, through the protective barrier of light. The door clanged shut behind the boy. In a second, Great-uncle Ebbitt and his strange steam-driven capsule of light were gone.
Tal got up, checked to make sure he had the scroll, and strode out into the larger corridor. At least now he had a chance - a very slim one, since he didn't know the music and was totally unpracticed with the composition. The Crystal Wood was another of the ancient artifacts of the Castle. It was made up of forty- nine trees of clear crystal, each ten stretches tall and with many branches. The trees stood at the center of a huge hall, surrounded by tiered benches for the audience.
The magic and marvel of the Crystal Wood lay in the fact that every branch of every tree could produce a single, clear note when it was correctly struck with a beam of light. The duration and intensity of the note depended on the color of the light beam and how long it touched the branch.
The Wood was played from a central stone, as tall as a man, with a silver spike set in it that held the scroll. He was the first to perform that day, and there wasn't much of an audience. He saw a scattering of Chosen from all Orders, save the Violet, who were presumably too important to waste time listening and watching an unproven boy from the Orange. Tal tried not to look at them as he fastened his scroll to the spike and let it roll down.
Fortunately, Ebbitt scribed with a clear, large hand, and the symbols were easy to follow. It didn't look too hard a piece to perform.
Tal looked across to where the judges sat. There were three, and they would lead the audience reaction. In theory, everyone was allowed to show the light they wanted, whether it was the Red Ray of Disapproval, the Violet Ray of Attainment, or the dreaded White Ray of Disgust. In practice, they would follow the judges, who sat on their own high bench, with clear space to either side, obviously separate from the crowd.
Tal noted that something was going on at the judge's bench. One judge, a woman of the Green, was smiling and stepping down, making way for someone else. But Tal noted that despite her smile, her Spiritshadow was between her and her replacement, as if there was some danger there.
Tal started to look away, to study the scroll once more, when something about the replacement judge caught his eye. His head whipped back, and a terrible feeling surged up in his chest.
The replacement judge was Shadowmaster Sushin! Sushin sat and looked across at Tal. Their eyes met, and Tal finally realized that what he saw in the older man's eyes was not merely a look of superiority. It was a look of hatred. Sushin really hated him. But Tal didn't know why. He hadn't done anything! Shaking, he looked away. He had to concentrate on the Achievement of Music.
It didn't matter that Sushin was a judge. If Tal did well enough, he would be rewarded. That was how things worked in the Castle. All three judges settled at the bench. They looked at one another, then raised their Sunstones to send beams of light rippling at random through the Wood. Light met crystal, and music shimmered out through the hall. The audience settled, and Tal took a deep breath.
The judges' light beams rippled across again, and then withdrew. Tal raised his own Sunstone and said in a voice that was not quite a shout, "I am Tal. I will perform a composition of my great-uncle Ebbitt Nune-Taril, never before seen or heard.
It is called 'March of the Muldren on Drashamore Hood'. As he finished speaking, Tal directed a beam of red light at the outermost branches of the central tree. Maintaining this, he cast out other beams to other trees and branches. Music came from the crystal, and light refracted into the air. Both music and light drew a picture. Bold warriors armed themselves on one side of the Wood, while a dark creature heaved itself out of the primordial bog on the other.
Slowly, the two parts of the light and music moved together, building up and up. The warriors circled the monster, the monster made sudden dashes at them. Then, in a crash of light and music that made the audience jump, battle was joined. Colors flashed everywhere as the music leaped and fought, louder and louder, rising to a crescendo.
Then, silence. All color lost. Four, five seconds passed as the audience held their breath. Who had won? Suddenly there was a tiny flash of red, the beginning of a tune. Then more red, as the surviving warriors gathered, and their song grew louder.
Then the joyous sound of triumph. The monster was vanquished, the warriors could return to their homes. They began to march and a column of light swept through the Wood, right to the ends of the branches, and then leaped off seemingly into the audience on a final, long-sustained note. Tal dropped his Sunstone back into his shirt and bowed.
He felt exhausted, but proud. He had made no mistakes. He had performed better than he ever had before and much better than the artists in most of the ordinary Achievements of Music he had seen. Surely he had won his Sunstone! Then the first Yellow Ray of Failed Ambition hit is face. He looked up and saw that it came from Shadowmaster Sushin. Then they, too, were directing the same light at him. The Ray that was shone for those who tried too hard, who failed to achieve their object.
It was not a bad result, as such, for it merely meant that he had tackled something too difficult. He would not be punished, or be given deluminents. But he would gain no awards, unless the audience refused to follow the judges. Tal looked up, hoping his anxiety would not show.
But not enough. The light in front of Tal grew more and more yellow, till the decision was absolutely clear. Failed Ambition it was. Tal bowed and held up his Sun-stone, flashing the Orange of his Order to show his understanding and acceptance. He climbed down the stone and walked out of the Crystal Wood, alone, except for his thoughts.
The same thoughts that had been with him for every waking second of the last week. He had to get a Primary Sunstone. Obviously he could not hope to win one through an Achievement.
There was only one way left to him. Or only one way he could think of. Tal considered going back to Ebbitt, but that would mean discussing his failed Achievement, and he wasn't ready for that now.
It always took a lot of energy to talk to Ebbitt, to keep him even partly in the same conversation. Tal didn't have that energy.
He couldn't face his mother, either. Or Gref and Kusi.