The Shadows Left Behind
Snap. The spell knocked Devlin’s breath from his lungs, but a small flame flickered atop the candle he pointed at. The wonder of it melted his fatigue. He couldn’t do much with one small candle flame, but it was his first success. Snapping his fingers at the lamps hanging from the library’s vaulted rafters he managed to light the closest ones, then stopped for breath.
Rising over him, all along the walls, the golden title-tracings of books touched by the candlelight wavered like luminous willow limbs tossed by a breeze. But the shadows danced a half-beat behind the candle flames.
He walked out onto the balcony, where sunset bathed the cloud castle in crimson. Speckled V’s of migrating birds crossed the distant sky, and scattered flakes of diamond dust snow fell though the clear air toward the lighted homes he could just make out shining in the valley below. The faint tolling of evening bells rose up through broken clouds. He imagined families gathering for the evening meal.
He tugged his jacket close. No one but me up here. Just sun, wind, clouds, thunderstorms rumbling the walls… and shadows.
But then, he’d always lived alone, on the move, hunting the next treasure. He could pack his fill of the castle’s trove and be on his way. Why worry over a town that didn’t even know he existed?
Because the wizards had left the world in ruin. Because Cloud Tower was rebuilding. Because he was tired of running.
He walked back through the library to the wizard’s study. He snapped flames to the ornate lamps along the wood-paneled walls, and soon had flames flickering in the fireplace, though it knocked his breath away. Light and shadow danced strangely here too, in this room where Pallius had twisted the world to fashion his spells.
On the desk sat a gleaming lute he’d found in his latest exploration of the castle. It was a far finer instrument than any he’d carried over the years to keep himself company roaming the Wildlands. He touched the delicate fretwork carved in the shape of a seashell and wondered if this was another of those wizardly instruments better left alone.
He brushed the strings, calling forth a sea chantey from his youth. After a few moments he noticed an odd resonance from the lute – but no. It was a woman’s voice, resonant and shot through with longing,, softly singing along.
Years of hunting sorcerous artifacts left Devlin no stranger to enchantment. He kept the tune alive and sought the voice’s source. Across the room, in a dusty corner, a seashell sang. There was a polish to the sound as if the smooth walls of the shell rounded the notes. He halted before it.
The song stopped.
“Your voice is like sunbeams in deep water.”
For a moment there was only the sigh of the sea, then: “Your song reminded me of home and I sang louder than I intended… You are not Pallius.”
“No. Pallius is gone. Vanquished.”
“I had a small hand in the matter.”
“Gone…” she whispered. Then bitterly, “You must be my new captor. And more powerful than Pallius.”
“No. I’m no wizard! They’ve destroyed themselves in civil war, and their servants have risen as warlords.”
“The wizards destroyed? Well deserved. Though… it would take a wizard’s power to free me.”
“Sorry, I’m just a hunter of magical objects. My name is Devlin.”
“Well, Devlin, I’m Naya. Keeper of the great library of the Seaward Islands – warded against hunters of magical objects.”
“I’ve only hunted in warlords’ libraries.”
“That is well, as you would have soon been caught in mine. It was hidden even from the wizards. Or so I thought. Until Pallius dropped from the sky atop his ornithopter, riving our walls to their foundations, taking all we held and imprisoning me in this shell.”
“I’m sorry. This library is filled with spells. Perhaps I can find one that would free you.”
“So you are not here for magical treasures?
“That’s why I came, yes. But now…” he began to pace. “I’m sick of scavenging amidst chaos. Now I want to fight back. I want to read, study, and share the knowledge Pallius hoarded.”
“And can you navigate this library?”
“Well… not yet. But eventually, and then I’ll help the town below. With Pallius gone Cloud Tower has dared to rebuild. It’s a safe oasis – until some warlord finds the pass through the Silver Peaks. Or the wizard’s vat born creatures break free of the enchantments of the Wood. Cloud Tower is living on borrowed time. Every moment is ticking down to the thud of an axe.”
The next morning, Devlin roused himself from the divan in the study. As he ate breakfast from dishes that refilled themselves, he thought of the library. Books, scrolls, papers, tablets even, in languages he’d never seen, in long high rows that wound off into darkness or weren’t even there the next time he looked. Perhaps Naya would help if she weren’t trapped. And this ornithopter – that would be useful. And oh, to fly! He leaned back and cracked his knuckles. Time to change strategies for a while. Leave off getting lost in the library. Hunt down some useful magical treasures.
Around his waist he fastened the silver chain that lent traction to clifftop or castle wall or even smoke rising to a wizard’s sky castle. He strode out onto the library’s balcony to his black-bladed short sword, soaking up the pale morning sun of autumn. It crackled as he grasped the hilt, flickers of blue lightning playing over the blade. He sheathed it, belted it on, and leapt onto the wall over the abyss. So many doors would not open, but so many windows did. He climbed up the wind-cold granite like a pad-footed lizard from the South and swung in through a high window.
– and stopped.
This room had held a translucent miniature of the entire shimmering castle, floating on a cloud of its own. But the castle rooms wandered, especially when he went looking for them, and now the room held light-swallowing shadows round a massive four-poster bed. The blood red canopy and bed curtains pulsed in the still air, approaching the pace of his heartbeat as shadows began slithering down the heavy folds. Was this where Pallius had slept?
Devlin shivered and slipped back out the window.
His gaze swept the castle’s keep, courtyards, walls, and turrets. A far tower capped by an airy, open-arched minaret beckoned – a fine place to keep an ornithopter.
He navigated a maze of frosted walls and spires until he balanced atop a last crenellation at the eastern edge of the castle. Below him the cloud supporting the castle rolled in billows towards the Silver Peaks. Above him the tower rose, smooth and translucent, more moonlight obsidian than granite.
He began climbing. He aimed to climb straight up, but over-the-shoulder glances showed him views from different points of the compass.
Part way up he paused at a large window. Dust danced in the sunbeam lighting a room filled with chests, glass-doored cabinets, and large amphoras. He swung in.
A collection of odd-shaped bottles sat atop a tray near the window. Taking a candle from a shelf he lit it with a snap of his fingers and read the labels in the wan light. A flickering shadow dizzied him and his hand knocked over a small bottle. It shattered on the flagstones.
He knelt and held the candle to the label. Broken-earth vapor. He’d heard an alchemist speak of it. What had they said? The vapors bubble up, sometimes, from land and seafloor cracked by earthquake. Put a flame to it, and –
Whoompf A roiling ball of flame, too quick to singe him, blinded him for a moment. When his vision returned the bottles atop the tray shivered and clinked against each other. His skin crawled and he padded softly back out the window to continue the climb.
At the tower’s top he slipped through a tall, narrow archway into a twelve-sided stone chamber. No ornithopter. Each wall was cleft with a fretted archway overlooking the lands beyond. In one corner a spidery stairway disappeared into the tower’s depths. In the center of the room stood a stone lectern holding a massive book.
Wind moaned through the tower, carrying winter chill. The stonework had the look of the power-slagged rocks where wizards held ritual duels. He knelt and traced the faint, pearl luster wavering within the stone, like sand ripples in shallow waters formed by wind and wave. The ripples flowed outwards in all directions from the book.
Devlin approached slowly. The tome was closed, its heavy covers of beaten silver engraved with curling glyphs flowing between gemstones. Amethyst, carbuncle, onyx, topaz… twelve kinds in all. The sheaves within were hammered metal and made twelve page-sets.
“Twelve windows. Twelve months to the year. Twelve provinces in the old Empire.” There were other associations, too.
He’d handled enough arcana to recognize a place soaked time and again in power, like a seawall assaulted by an age of tides. But he couldn’t guess what it all meant.
Unless he opened the book.
He drew his short sword. A spiderweb of blue lighting flickered along the blade, its metal tempered to withstand the power of storm bolts from within. Standing edge on, at arm’s length, staying behind the book’s spine, he slipped the tip of the blade beneath the metal cover and twisted it a hair’s fraction upward…
And a sheet of searing, coruscating colors shot outwards, scorching the wall, the brilliance of it blinding him and heating his sword to glowing red. He dropped it with a cry. The light winked out.
He blinked, tears streaming from his eyes as sight slowly returned. He blew on his fingers and waited for his blade to cool. No wonder Pallius had worked this magic so far from the castle’s keep.
It was nighttime in the study and he was deep in his music when Naya spoke to him again.
“If you promise to help free me, I will help you.”
He stilled the lute’s strings. “I promise. Of course.”
“Easily said. But if you break your promise, know that, since you are not a wizard, I have the means of making you regret it.”
A cold sea-chill swept over him, followed by a flash of anger. “I need no threats to keep my promises.”
“Listen well then. When Pallius broke my vaults he was lazy in his arrogance and inexact with his Spell of Command. He demanded I yield all ‘treasures of the written word.’ But the centerpiece of my library was not a book. It was an enchanted slate. And at that time the slate was clean of words. It slipped through the net of his spell.
“The slate’s power lies in searching out ideas, their confluences and connections. Place it in any library and through it a seeker can converse with the library. It will reveal the location of books that answer one’s questions, and those pages most helpful.”
“Ah, that would come in handy…” said Devlin. “But the Seaward Islands are a hundred leagues south. It would take weeks to travel there and back by foot and sail. Although with the ornithopter… ”
“If you can find it. And fly it. Now, my library had a guardian. If he survived, he would still be protecting the slate. He is a Djinn. Prone to philosophy, riddling, and his own idea of humor. Tell him I yet live and you seek the slate on my behalf.”
“And he will relinquish it?”
“He may. If not – I hope you are good at riddles.”
The next morning Devlin sought the ornithopter with greater purpose. He brought a torch and wended deep into the lower levels of the castle. He found a stairway descending into the castle cloud.
Torchlight revealed just a few steps at a time. Tendrils of cold, dank mist seeped around his knees. He paused at a fork of dark, indistinguishable passageways, then followed the center. The light of his torch shrank down and snuffed out. He snapped a small flame over his palm and drew his sword, its blade adding sparks and snaps of blue light.
He was just thinking the passage might lead nowhere when there was a gust of cold mountain air. The gloom began lightening and soon he entered a stone-floored chamber, arched over with cloud. At the far end between two pillars topped by flames yawned an open gulf. Mist flew past in ragged streamers while beyond lay the billowing clouds and cerulean vault of the open sky.
In the center of the chamber, between iron braziers loomed a large silhouette. Devlin snapped flames into the braziers. In their flickering light the silhouette sharpened into a gleaming ornithopter in the shape of an owl.
He walked softly around it. His breath caught at the delicate intricacy of the magic-worked metal feathers. He laid his hand against their cool bite. Along the ornithopter’s side were recessed footholds. Cautiously he climbed and found a contoured saddle between the wing roots.
Scarcely daring to breath he settled in. Before him, in an arcing sweep between handgrips curved a thin, angled, mirror-black surface reflecting the firelight. Low to the right a glyph pulsed deep green. He touched it.
Viridescent sigils brightened across the obsidian panel. Electric green crackled in thin lines along the feathers. With a metallic whisper the huge owl head rotated, its circular eyes glowing a brilliant jade. The eyes blinked, with a flutter like a mechanical shade, then locked onto him. Devlin held himself back from jumping off and running.
“Good day, my lord,” hooted a soft voice.
Devlin blinked. “Good day. But I’m no lord. My name is Devlin. And yours?”
The eyes closed for a moment. “The High One never ‘named.’ He commanded.”
“I see. Yet everything deserves a name.” Devlin rubbed his jaw. “What name would you choose for yourself?”
The silence lengthened. Then the owl whispered, “Is there a word for the color of my eyes?”
“Yes,” said Devlin, mesmerized by the owl’s crystalline panes. “Your eyes are like discs of jade — a smooth green stone, almost like emerald ice.”
“Then I would choose ‘Whispering Jade.’”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Whispering Jade,” said Devlin.
“It is a pleasure to meet you, Devloon.” The head rotated forward again, paused – then continued on around to regard him from the other side. “It is long since I’ve flown. I miss it. Are we to fly tonight?”
Devlin’s heart thumped hard. He’d dreamt of flight all his life. “I would love to! But I don’t know how to use these controls.”
“You don’t need to unless you wish. The High One always did, but…” metal feathers rustled, and the ornithopter’s tone sharpened. “…his flights were for dark purposes.”
“I would be happy to have you guide our flight,” said Devlin, his excitement soaring. “And perhaps together we can redress one of the High One’s deeds. Do you remember the Seaward Islands?”
Devlin and Whispering Jade flew at sunset.
Jacketed against the cold of the heights, pilot’s harness on, gear lashed behind the saddle, hands firm on the grips, Devlin sat tight as Whispering Jade launched from the chamber. He shut his eyes against the tearing wind as they fell earthwards. Then Jade’s broad wings snapped out and with powerful strokes she leveled their flight.
“It is good to feel the wind again,” hooted Jade. “I like best to float low over the trees, but the higher airs must serve, as we have far to go. We must travel through the night, Devloon, At sunrise you will see the Seaward Islands, dark upon the Sapphire Sea.”
Devlin tightened his harness as the ornithopter twisted and pitched on the air currents, her metal feathers chiming like wind harps. But his heart beat with the tempo of Jade’s wings and his eyes were filled with the night-shadowed vistas beneath them.
All the night glittered with starlight and moonlight upon a vast sea of clouds. Here and there a forested ridge or serrated peak broke through the cumulus. Blue-white lightning flashed on the far horizon in a southern storm.
It was long before Devlin slept. When he awoke, stiff on his perch, the air felt warm and humid. Dawn feathered the clouds in shades of rose while the water lay as dark as shadowed wine. Ahead rose a cluster of massive hexagonal pillars rising from the water, relics of ancient volcanic forces. Ruined structures edged their heights, bridges between them long ago crumbled away.. “Naya said her library lay within the westernmost,” said Devlin.
The sun broke over the ocean’s rim, washing across the Seaward Islands. The ornithopter banked, flying slow and tired across this last stretch. Here and there shimmering rings broke the water’s surface. Broken-earth vapors. Whatever Pallius had unleashed had cracked open the seafloor.
Drawing in her wings, Jade dove, flaring at the last moment to land atop the pinnacle.
“I must recharge,” Jade hooted. Her eyes faded to a smolder of emerald.
“Sleep well. And thank you, my friend.” Devlin left his sword lashed to the saddle, its electrical charge too dangerous near broken-earth vapors.
He slipped off his jacket, feeling the warmth of the Southern sun. He stretched until he could move easily again, checked that the silver chain was secure at his waist, then strode to the precipice, hundreds of feet above distant surf. He stepped off.
Breaking waves boomed below him as he sat atop the last low ledge and pulled off his boots. The library’s entrance was just visible in the quieter water beyond the breakers: a shimmering blue, the cave at its center an unblinking eye at the base of the tower.
Taking long, deep breaths, he timed the surging waves then dove. Surf and undertow buffeted him but his chain’s enchantment lent his strokes extra bite so he slipped along like a diving seabird.
Down he swam, the pressure building in his ears. Sun rays danced round like liquid fire until he entered the cave and shadows quenched them. His lungs began to ache. In his mind he heard a whisper:
“Never seen, always there,
Never thought of, always needed.
What am I?”
A mind-trick of the depths, he thought. The cave continued down, narrowed, then abruptly angled up. Far above a glint of light shimmered. The ache in his lungs needled into red pain.
“Never seen, always there,
Never thought of, always needed.
What am I?”
He ignored the voice and swam harder towards the light. But his stroke was weakening, his lungs burning. Slowly the sunbeams faded as his vision dimmed.
One more chance:
“Never seen, always there,
Never thought of, always needed.
What am I?”
Air! he thought desperately – and he broke from the water, gasping, sucking in precious air heavy with the scent of saltwater and seaweed and damp stone.
He pulled himself forward to collapse in shallow waters. When he regained his breath he took a few wobbling steps in the sand of a small beach within a cavern. He heard the faint bubbling of gas from the pool – broken-earth vapor, but the fractured cavern walls brought in fresh sea air from above. Dazzling sun lanced down through high crevices, warming the air but leaving most of the chamber in shadow.
His eyes told him he was alone. His instinct told him to beware what he couldn’t see.
“Why have you come…” whispered a voice, like sand blown along a dune.
Devlin surveyed the dim alcoves along the walls. “You once served Naya, the keeper of this library. I am here at her behest.”
“Gone is the keeper,
Slain by the reaper,
she dreams here no more… ”
“Not slain! Trapped. And Pallius is dead,” said Devlin
“Naya Trapped? Pallius dead… ? Perhaps. But even in death his shadow haunts these ruins.”
Devlin shook his head. “The wizards are gone. Now their warlords are the foe. Naya asks that you give me the slate you guard. It will help me free her.”
“Oh ho, that sounds reasonable! But more reasonable still would be that you are looking to plunder these ruins. I must refuse your request, little thief. The slate is safer where it is, away from the shadow’s watching eyes.”
“Naya said you are fond of riddles. Perhaps a contest? With the slate as the prize?”
The Djinn laughed, a gravelly rumble, like ore down a chute. “You challenge me?
“The little fish baits his own hook,
a dinner snagged when wisdom forsook!”
A small whirlwind stirred the sands across the cavern floor, circling Devlin before falling into gentle drifts. “This hall was a place of knowledge, of reasoning,” the Djinn declared, “In honor of that legacy we will have a trial of three questions. Should you answer two correctly you may have your boon, though it may prove more than you bargained for. Should you fail… “
A wind gusted through the cavern, heavy with the scent of rot and death at low tide.
Devlin’s hand clenched for the sword absent from his hip. “Agreed. Ask!”
A whisper like sanded bone rasped close to his ear:
“In a library’s halls,
as in a calm mind,
what treasure is so fragile
naming it breaks it?”
Moments ticked by. Answers he was sure were wrong flooded his thoughts. He closed his eyes, seeking to quiet his mind.
“Silence,” he said. “The answer is silence.”
“Well done, little thief!” Silence fell. Devlin strained to detect the Djinn’s movement. He flinched as the voice rasped near his other ear:
“Be it tower or grotto, mansion or hovel,
whomsoever enters its doors, blind,
has a chance to emerge, seeing.”
“That one is simple,” Devlin answered quickly. “The home of a physician.”
There was a rustling in the shadows. Slimy, rotting kelp snaked across the floor, tendrils coiling and grasping. He dodged and backed away, into a sunbeam at the chamber’s center. The tendrils sighed into stillness. But now his escape path lay blocked.
“No! A school,” breathed the voice. “Our count is one to one, little thief…”
The Djinn’s voice boomed like surf from every corner of the chamber, hurling the final riddle:
“The bear lies helpless in winter sleep,
The dolphin strays without sounding the deep.
The wolf starves when left lone behind,
What is the weakness of humankind?”
Devlin swayed before the pounding rhythm. His temples ached and his throat was dry. The word Fear leapt to mind.
But he stopped himself, wary about answering too quickly again. Fear is crippling, but there are things deeper than fear: the ignorant notions that lead us down and bind us in misery and hopeless dead ends. And we don’t even know they’re doing it…
He took a deep breath. “Ignorance,” he said hoarsely, and braced for an attack.
The moment stretched on.
“Alas. You are correct,” said the Djinn softly.
A sharp, high sound, slowly building, echoed through the cavern. Devlin caught a scent of hot metal and cold rock; there was a loud boom, as from a heavy door, and the waters of the pool shuddered. Then a shape, bound in heavy plated covers, rose dripping from the water.
“You doubt me?”
“You think I’m a thief.”
The Djinn roared with laughter. “I knew before you entered the cavern you had come from Naya! Still, you needed to be tested.”
Devlin cursed silently. He grasped the slate and nearly pitched to his knees from its weight.
The Djinn laughed again. Then sobered.
“And thus does a powerful piece step back onto the board,” he said. “The last of the library I swore to protect. Nothing binds me now. I am free to whirl again across burning sands. Yet…”
Devlin could see a hint of the Djinn now: a slow-spinning, rippling light. A spirit far from the desert dunes of home. “Come to Cloud Tower,” he heard himself offer. “We could work together to free Naya. And at moonrise the cloud billows look like dunes.”
There was a long, calculating pause. “Your kindness spurs me to repeat my earlier warning,” said the Djinn. “The slate was safer where it was, away from the shadow’s watching eyes.”
A shadow-shape moved from the darkness in the back of the cavern, flittering from gloom to gloom. Devlin stared. There was something familiar about it.
“I said even in death the shadow of Pallius haunts these ruins,” rumbled the Djinn. “That was not poetic fancy. The wizard in his might left behind whirling pools of power. Some quite potent. This one has lain in wait for any who might pry free treasure its master missed. It seems you are not done yet with Pallius, little thief. Follow me.”
A glimmer of the Djinn’s light played over a cleft in the cavern wall, but the Shadow leapt to block his path. The light faded.
Crackling with power, the shape prowled round Devlin but stayed out of the light. This shadow was far stronger than any he’d seen in the castle. Though no robe, nor liver-spotted skull, nor eyes burning with maniacal triumph, it was unmistakably the wizard’s shape, cut from the void.
How to fight the shadow of a wizard? He looked at the slow bubbles of gas breaking within the pool. The broken-earth vapors. He slid the slate into his pack and sprinted for the waters. A freezing grip closed around his throat. Choking for breath he struggled forward. As he pitched towards the pool’s surface he reached out and snapped his fingers.
Crashing water. An echoing roar. Brilliant light flared blood-red through his closed eyes. The water protected him but the grip on his throat was blown away.
Devlin thrashed from the pool, gasping. Smoking wisps of shadow scattered by the fireball were already re-gathering. He stumbled to the cleft in the cavern wall, following the Djinn. Slipping through, keeping a flame barely flickering above the palm of his hand, he followed the twisting, turning tunnel, seawater seeping in cold sheets from the weight of seas overhead. The crevice narrowed, and narrowed more, until, pack off and held in hand, he barely fit through sideways. His breath rasped with the fear he’d end jammed in rock, prey for the Shadow. He hurled himself against the narrow cleft and scraped through, falling on the rubble-strewn floor of a hewn passageway.
“Well done,” rasped the desert-sand voice out of the dark. A faint light began to glow, a gossamer whirlwind of fire. “Perhaps you are worthy of the slate! Now. The wizard’s assault split open rock in all directions. We’ve reached the cellars beneath the ruins of the ancient Palace. Naught but dust and rubble remain of their glory, but the steps to the tower top are intact enough. If your ornithopter is alert, you may escape yet. Follow!”
And so Devlin followed the fiery Djinn light through darkness, twists, turns, echoing spaces, and occasional glimmers from tumbled rooms filled with decay and pale sunlight. Finally, they entered a long hall filled with dusty light and the wreckage of once fine things. From a cracked wall at the far end, light streamed through rotting curtains blown by a sea breeze. Devlin’s hopes rose. But looking back, even as the Djinn hissed a warning, he glimpsed the Shadow, whole once more, flicking from one dark place to the next towards Devlin’s shadow. He ran. Through the curtains he skidded to a stop on a broken balcony. The horizon was a wash of blue before him. Below was a steep drop into boulders and crashing waves. Beside the balcony the red cliff rose in a sweep of sunbaked stone, a shattered tower crumbling from its face. The ruined stairway, perhaps one step in five intact, spiraled upwards to the pinnacle. The fiery whirlwind of the Djinn rose ahead of him, while behind the Shadow slipped out onto the balcony.
Everything rested on the silver chain now. Devlin leapt onto the wall, throwing himself at holds, climbing harder and more recklessly than he ever had in his life, scarcely grasping one hold before launching for the next, the heavy slate in his pack a downward pull. “Jade!” he called. His muscles shook with exertion, he struggled for breath, but he was near the top now, scrambling up and over the edge, staggering to his feet and still calling for Jade.
A shadow swept over him and he whirled about – but it was Jade, thumping down in a sleepy-eyed landing. Devlin swung into the saddle and fumbled with his harness.
“Jade! Fly! Fly!”
Jade startled at his urgency. With a jangled “whoo!” she wove in sleepy steps to the tower edge. As they fell forward over the precipice, Devlin, looking back, saw a thin streaming darkness merge with their shadow. But the Djinn was nowhere in sight.
As they sped over the sunlit sea. Devlin worked out a plan. It was the only way he could think of that might destroy this Shadow. He leaned low and whispered to Jade, “We have a stowaway. Here’s what we’ll do…”
Throughout the long afternoon the ornithopter kept Devlin safe, soaring beneath the autumn sun that allowed no shadows on her back. Later, as the sun sank she banked earthward to the clouds washing against the southern spurs of the Silver Peaks. The flat light within the clouds left no shadows.
Devlin fell into fitful sleep, with visions of Pallius’ eyes burning from within heavy shadows. Jade’s hooting woke him. The sun had set, but a full moon had risen early and shone bright, frosting the castle and its supporting cloud. Jade arrowed down towards the sorcerous glass tower glimmering in the night, the wind singing in her wings.
Devlin leaned forward. “Keep the slate safe, Jade.”
“Of course, Devloon. Are you ready?”
He threw open his harness and took a deep breath. “Soon… soon… Now!”
Jade pitched over. He tumbled through air awash in pure, clear moonlight, then hit the tower’s steep ice-rimed roof and slid. Arms wide and raking, aided by his chain’s enchantment, he slowed himself and just caught the tower’s edge. He hung, swinging by his fingertips, over the abyss. On an inswing he just barely slipped through an archway.
Jade banked around the tower, sweeping one wing through its shadow. A dark form flicked across to the stone and slithered into the tower after him.
Stripes of moonlight and darkness crossed the chamber. As Devlin moved toward the moonlight the freezing hands of the void lengthened and closed on his throat; he swept his blade free and a snake’s tongue of blue electric fire arced through the Shadow. He felt a hissing scream in his mind. The thing recoiled and swarmed up into the darkened dome.
Devlin sent another tongue of fire from the crackling blade and leapt for the lectern. He snatched up the bejeweled tome as the Shadow dropped down upon him. Together they fell to the floor. Icy hands burned on his throat, tightening, twisting, as he fought to keep his grip on the heavy book.
He turned it.
He opened it towards the Shadow.
There was a blinding stream of light, pouring out a crushing weight of heat and color. He screamed at the pain in his hands but held on. The Shadow writhed and twisted, shrieking in agony as its outline burned white hot. As the howling Shade dwindled to ash before the impossible colors roaring out from the book, Devlin’s tortured grip on its cover began to slip.
As it was falling from his hands to consume him in turn, a flaming whirlwind, trailing fire, blazed through the tower’s arches. With an explosion of sparks like a collapsing bonfire the whirlwind slammed the book shut. Devlin felt himself lifted and sped out into cold air, even as pain and shock overwhelmed him. Darkness fell.
Devlin slowly opened his eyes. He was on the divan in the study, a blanket over him. His hands were bandaged.
“You return, little thief,” whispered a voice like sand across stone. “I wasn’t sure you would. A clever solution, but an extreme far past your ability…”
Teeth gritted at the pain, Devlin closed his eyes against the dizzying abyss he felt inside. him. “Best I could come up with… Thanks for… “ he couldn’t finish.
“You have brushed the edges of a great power. You cannot expect to emerge unscathed. We will see with time just how badly.”
Naya’s voice called out. “I’m sure he will recover.”
Devlin turned slowly toward the table where Naya’s shell lay, beside the lute, surrounded by books and moonlight.
“Naya,” he whispered. “The slate.”
“Devlin” she said. “I know. You’ve achieved it – though you nearly removed yourself and the castle from this world in the process.”
“Naya, little one,” the Djinn’s voice was a gentle rumble. “He did not do too badly.”
“Yes, Amjharan, true, not too badly at all.”
“And he was right — the clouds do seem like moonlit dunes.”
Devlin’s smile twitched. His whole body throbbed with pain. But he also felt new hope. Flying with Jade. Debating plans with a Djinn. Freeing Naya.
The castle no longer seemed so lonely, nor the cause so impossible.
“The Shadows Left Behind”, © Ian Pohl. First published here in Cosmic Roots & Eldritch Shores on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2022.
Ian Pohl grew up on a homestead in Alaska surrounded by books, tree forts, and beckoning mountain ridgelines. Today he works as an oceanographer in the USA’s Pacific Northwest. When not diving or at sea aboard research ships, he can be found reading, writing, coding, or sailing his 40’ sailboat Kalysta. He has published professionally in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America and The Fisheries Bulletin, while his stories have appeared in Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, The Grantville Gazette Universe Annex, and the Australian Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy Aurealis.
Illustration by Fran Eisemann, using public domain stock.