SHADOWS ON THE STARS EXCERPT
The Greatest Power
Deep underground, in a cavern of dark shadows, something even darker hovered in the air.
Slowly it spun — a venomous snake of smoke. As it twirled, the air around it crackled with black sparks. And wherever its tail brushed against the cavern floor, stones burst apart like trees shattered by lightning, leaving only heaps of smoldering ash.
The dark spiral floated menacingly toward a small, radiant crystal on a stone pedestal. The crystal’s light, frail but still defiant, glowed white with ribbons of blue and green. As the shadowy being approached, it swelled a bit brighter.
“Now observe,” hissed the smoky serpent. “I will demonstrate how to destroy this crystal of élano, just as we will soon destroy our enemies.” The serpent laughed, its voice bubbling like molten rock. “But first, my pet, we will turn its power to our own purposes.”
His back pressed against the cavern wall, Kulwych shifted nervously. The cloaked sorcerer chewed his once perfectly clipped fingernails, then ran his hand across the scarred hollow of his empty eye socket. “m-m-mmmyesss, my lord Rhita Gawr.”
“I have but one small request,” hissed the spiral as it hardened, coalescing into darkness that was almost solid. “By now, no doubt, you have already dispatched the one who calls himself the true heir of Merlin. And I would have rather enjoyed making him my crystal’s first victim.”
Kulwych bit harder on his fingers. “Er, well, in that case, my lord … you’ll be pleased to learn that —”
“He isn’t dead?” spat the spiral. Instantly, it shot at the sorcerer’s face, stopping only a hair’s breadth away from his throat. “Have you failed me, my little magician, my plaything?”
Shivering, his head against the wall, Kulwych made a frightened gurgle.
The dark being swayed back and forth, sizzling like a tongue of lava. “You have seen my wrath before, haven’t you?”
Kulwych’s one eye darted to the headless corpse of the gobsken on the cavern floor. He tried to speak, but could only gurgle again.
For an endless moment, the smoky serpent hovered, crackling in the air by the sorcerer’s throat. Then, with a whiplike snap, it pulled away, floating back toward the crystal. Kulwych gasped and crumpled to the stone floor.
“You are fortunate, even if you are a simpleton.”
Kulwych’s lone eye narrowed at the insult, but as he stood again he said only, “Mmmyesss, my lord.”
“Fortunate indeed,” continued the spiraling coil. “You see, my pet, I still require your services, at least until I am strong enough to take solid form. One day soon, however, I shall assume my true shape — and my true role as conqueror.”
“Conqueror,” repeated Kulwych, bobbing his hideously scarred head.
“Yes!” cried the smoky spiral that was Rhita Gawr, with such force that black sparks exploded in the air, sizzling and steaming on the wet stone walls. “And not just of this puny little world, this hollow hull of a tree. Once I control Avalon, the very bridge between mortal and immortal, I will soon control everything else, as well! From the Otherworld of the Spirits to mortal Earth — all the worlds will be mine.”
In a quieter, almost pleasant tone, the dark being added, “And perhaps yours, too, my Kulwych. If, that is, I choose to keep you at my side.”
Slowly, Kulwych straightened himself and brushed some dust off his cloak. His jaw quivered as he said, “Always your faithful servant, my lord.”
“Just be certain is is always,” hissed the shadow of Rhita Gawr, sounding more dangerous again. “Or I will do to you what I am about to do to this obstinate little crystal.”
Before Kulwych could even respond, the dark coil snarled viciously, then stretched all the way around the crystal’s pedestal. Circling slowly in the air, it bound itself end to end, like a noose, and began to tighten around its prey. At the same time, it grew flatter, widening so that it looked less like a rope and more like a shroud — dark enough that it couldn’t be described as merely black. Rather, this shroud seemed like the essence of emptiness, so dark that nothing resembling light could ever penetrate its depths, give it shape, or touch its bottomless void.
The crystal pulsed bravely, as relentlessly as a beating heart, even while the shroud closed over it. Tighter and tighter the darkness drew, enveloping the glowing object, squeezing ever closer. Although light still pulsed beneath the shadow, and a few white rays broke through to illuminate the cavern walls, the crystal grew dimmer by the second. The whole cavern darkened.
Standing by the wall, Kulwych watched in fascination. Delightedly, he rubbed his smooth hands together. Here was power, true power, at work! And yet … in the back of his mind, he remained uncertain. No one — not even Rhita Gawr — had ever before corrupted a pure crystal of élano. Was it truly possible? Or would the crystal’s stubborn magic prevail? After all, its magic ran deeper than anyone had been able to comprehend, flowing from the very resin of the Great Tree. Why, even Merlin, that sorry excuse for a wizard, had understood that his powers were nothing compared to élano.
The dark shroud continued to shrink, until at last it covered the crystal completely. No large openings were left, not on the top or bottom or any sides, for light to escape. And yet, even now, a faint glow still seeped through some cracks. The crystal continued to resist.
Kulwych leaned closer, his lone eye twitching anxiously. Trolls’ teeth and ogres’ tongues, he cursed to himself, what is happening?
Tighter the shroud squeezed, like a smothering blanket. But under its folds, the crystal glowed ever so slightly. The vaguest shimmer of light still radiated from beneath the layers of darkness.
Suddenly the shroud crackled with black fire. Heavy, rancid smoke rose from the pedestal. The darkness itself started to pulse, as if it were a fist squeezing the last spark of life out of its enemy.
The cavern’s air thickened, growing steadily more foul. Kulwych choked back a cough. He felt more and more nauseated, until it was all he could do not to retch. He leaned against the rock wall for support, as the sickening air burned his lungs. Near his feet, a stray mouse lost its way, groped wildly for some way to escape, then twitched one last time before it died.
Seconds passed, stretching into minutes. At long last, the shroud of darkness released its hold. It pulled gradually away from the crystal, forming itself again into a spiraling coil that hung in the air, slowly spinning. And on the pedestal, the crystal still glowed — but with a light far different than before.
Dark, smoky red it shone. Veins ran through it as if it were a diseased, bloodshot eye. And with every strangled pulse of its core came a repulsive odor like rotting flesh.
Kulwych took a cautious step nearer. “It is … done?”
“Oh yes, my pet magician, it is done.” The voice of the spiral sounded drained, much weaker than before. “You did not doubt my powers, did you?”
“No, no,” said Kulwych quickly. “I would never doubt you, just as I would never disobey you.”
“So then,” hissed the dark being, “you would obey my command to lay your hand upon this crystal?”
The sorcerer cringed in horror. He glanced at the dark red object, the color of dried blood. “T-t-touch th-that?” he stammered.
“Yes, Kulwych. Touch it. I command you.”
Shivering uncontrollably, the sorcerer lifted up his arm. The sleeve of his cloak ruffled like a sail in a stiff wind. Then, gritting his teeth, he reached his hand toward the dark crystal. Closer he came, and closer. Meanwhile, the smoky spiral twirled in the air, sizzling softly.
As his hand approached the crystal, Kulwych cast a final, pleading look toward his master. But the shadow of Rhita Gawr said nothing. Perspiration glistened on Kulwych’s fingers as he lowered them toward this thing that looked less like a crystal than a pulsing clot of blood.
Just as his fingertips were about to touch it, the edge of his sleeve brushed against the crystal. Instantly the cloth burst into dark red flames. The sorcerer screeched in fright and drew back his arm, even as the flames went out. Only then did he notice that the flames hadn’t really burned his sleeve — but had, instead, made the cloth disappear.
Kulwych shook his arm in surprise. Where the bottom of his sleeve had been, there were no fragments, no charred threads, not even any wisps of smoke. The entire section of cloth had simply vanished.
He looked over at the smoky serpent that had commanded him. “My lord … do you still wish —”
“No,” snarled the dark being. “You needn’t touch it now. You have shown me your loyalty, such as it is.”
Kulwych gulped. Then, turning back to his sleeve, he mumbled to himself, “Ironwool threads, shouldn’t have burned.” Facing the serpent once more, he asked, “Tell me please, my lord, just what is this crystal’s power?”
A low, sizzling laugh echoed in the walls of the cavern. “Behold, the utter opposite of élano! Vengélano, I hereby name it: the greatest power in all of Avalon.”
Kulwych just stared at him, confused.
The spiral twirled, hissing with a mixture of impatience and triumph. “Do you not understand, my foolish minion? Élano holds the power to create — which is why that scoundrel Merlin used it to end my Blight centuries ago. Or to heal — which is why a filthy little spring in Malóch can work such strange wonders. Why, even the very dirt of that realm is so rich in élano that it can bring forth new life.”
“But my sleeve just … disappeared.”
“Have you no brains at all? That is the power I have unleashed! Where élano creates, vengélano destroys. Anything it touches, no matter how well made, will be instantly unmade.”
Anxiously, the sorcerer squeezed his fingers — fingers that had nearly touched the corrupted crystal.
“Whatever flesh vengélano meets,” crackled the voice, “will simply slice open, or vanish. Blood vessels will bleed without end. Healthy trees will wither, sturdy weapons will crumble, and freshwater streams will turn to poison.”
Kulwych’s lone eye widened in amazement. “So with this new power, we will seize control —” A sharp sizzling halted him mid-sentence. “Er, I mean, you will, my lord. Avalon will be yours at last.”
The dark shape swirled around the bloodred crystal, circling it slowly, admiring it as a painter would admire the work of a lifetime, savoring its subtlest detail. “That is true, my pet. But first, before embarking on grander plans, I shall take care of one minor detail.”
“Which is, my lord?”
“I shall destroy, once and for all, the true heir of Merlin.”
The spiral continued to circle. “He is just seventeen years old by my count, barely a newborn to me. But his meager powers should soon start to emerge. And although the day of my triumph grows near, we have much to do before then. This young wizard could become a nuisance, a distraction. Besides, eliminating him will be easy enough, as well as entertaining. Fool that he is, I suspect that he fears his new powers almost as much as he fears me! And so, my Kulwych, I shall relieve him of his worries — along with his life.”
A Vast Hand of Darkness
Wind, colder than my ogre’s breath, blasted over the mountaintop. Sharps bits of ice, hurled by the gust, slapped at the broad, flat stone on the summit — and at the two people huddled there.
“So c-c-cold,” said Elli with a shiver. She slid closer to Tamwyn on the sitting stone, so that their shoulders barely touched. Her hair, frosted by the icy gusts, gleamed white under the nighttime stars, making her curls look like wintry waves.
He blew a cloudy breath, then winced as a chunk of ice bit into the back of his neck. “I know it’s cold. But it’s be t-tolerable again, once this cursed wind settles down.”
Elli’s teeth chattered. “Can’t you just make the wind let up? With your new powers?”
He winced again, this time for another reason. His gaze strayed to the gnarled staff he’d set beside the stone — a staff that had been entrusted to him, though he really wasn’t sure why. He thought about Elli’s words, and frowned. New powers? If only she knew the truth.