Shadow (Excerpt)

Eric Albright was a luckless journalist living in London. He had a so-so life, until the day he opened a battered red door that appeared on the graffiti-covered wall of a local bridge, and entered Levaal, a magical world between worlds.

A place populated by power damaged mages, stone giants, pit devils—and dragons, who are imprisoned in a sky prison—Levaal is ruled by the mad Lord Vous. Vous is busy working on a scheme to turn himself into a god, thus far prevented only by the great Wall at World’s End. 

But the Wall at World’s End has been brought down, war is coming to the land, and Eric and his newfound friends are caught in the thick of it. They are forced to flee from the Tormentors, dreadful creatures that have poured through the breach, and there are rumors that one of the great dragons has escaped its sky prison. Worse yet, Vous’s journey to godhood is almost complete, and a mysterious being called Shadow is wandering Levaal with great power but no purpose it yet understands.

Shadow—the second title in Will Elliott’s fantasy Pendulum Trilogy—is available February 24th from Tor Books!

 

 

1

The Invia unfurled her wings and picked him up with effortless strength. ‘Watch what the fuck you’re doing!’ he snarled as her hands pinched his underarms, already tender from the long flight after she’d plucked him from his would-be plunge to the death. Her wings beat the air as she carried him higher through a funnel of deep grey stone, away from the lightstone, up to where she had to push him from beneath through a gap hardly big enough. After an uncomfortable crawl the space widened out to a vast cavern of smooth dark walls. Wind came at intervals through a hundred off-shooting holes bored in the cavern’s domed roof and walls, singing eerie notes like a huge woodwind instrument being randomly blown. Now and then echoing inhuman cries reached them from deeper within.

Despite himself, Case was intrigued by the sense this vast bare dome was ancient, far older than anything people had built anywhere. Its age pressed down on him so tangibly he could feel it. The air was thick with a strange smell. ‘Where’re your dragons then?’ he said. ‘Not here! This is the Gate. They never come here. Not much.’ There was a distant thudding sound. The stone underfoot just faintly shivered. The Invia gave a fluttery excited whistle. ‘That was big, whatever that was,’ Case said. He sniffed deeply, trying to place the air’s scent. His head began to spin and suddenly he was on his back. His thoughts spun dizzily until they broke down and became colours and shapes floating before his eyes – all the world just coloured shapes, each with its own simple meaning which needed no elaboration. Then there was a pleasant taste he sucked at greedily, something pressing against his lips. Slowly his mind came back together.

The Invia’s expressionless eyes peered at him closely while she put her gashed wrist to his mouth, feeding him her blood. ‘Are you alive?’ she said. Case wanted to make a smart-arse remark but all that came out was, ‘Ehhhh…’

‘No walkers come here,’ she said. A deep piping note played with a blast of cold wind from a nearby tunnel, throwing her hair around. ‘The air is very strong here. Walkers are soft as their skin. They don’t like it. Foolish walkers.’ There was a burst of movement and the tunnel directly overhead sang its high-blown note. A small flock of Invia poured through, filling the space about the tunnel’s mouth. They exchanged fluttery whistles. Each of them shot off in a different direction, one alone pausing to stare down at Case before it flashed away in a blur of white wings and skin and scarlet hair.

The Invia waited for Case to recover from his faint. He was shaken by sudden cravings for half-a-dozen chemicals he’d been hooked on, once upon a time. He’d taught his body in the end to be content with just the booze; it was the best he could do. ‘Not sure what hit me there,’ he said.

‘You’re old, for a walker. And sick. Your aura’s bad. Faint and sick.’

‘Yeah well. You know my idea to fix all that. But you won’t let me.’ The enormous dome stretched in all directions further than he could see. ‘What is this place for anyway? Doesn’t look like a gate to me.’ She tapped the grey stone floor with a knuckle. ‘Strong skystone. This keeps them here. They cannot break it. Or fit through gaps. They can’t even change shape to fit through! It was made for this.’

‘Got it,’ he said.

‘And the gods. They make sure it holds. This is how it works.’

‘Yes, ma’am.’

‘If the gods went away, it might be different.’

‘I’ll see what I can do.’

She leaned close to him, her bright sparkling eyes going wide.

‘Already, Dyan escaped. He’s just a Minor, but clever. There could be others, soon. They are trying to find out how. It’s hard. Are you ready to fly?’

Case sat up, rubbing his head. Taking this for assent she grabbed him and flew, picking out a gap in the roof from the scores around it. Cold air blasted out in a low note, painfully loud as they plunged through the wide stone maw, the tunnel snaking around but always leading upward. From off-shooting ones to either side came the occasional shriek reminiscent of the Invia’s dying wail he’d heard at Faul’s place. The sounds’ meanings he caught but they made no sense to him, much like catching only one or two words in a long conversation. After a time the Invia sat him on one of the ledges set in the tunnel’s sides, cocked her head and listened. Wind blasted through with a low thrumming note; within the gust a flock of Invia shot past in a blur of white feathers. Case’s Invia wrapped her wings around him, shielding him from any accidental collision. Her cool cheek pressed against his; her wings about him imparted strange tenderness, protecting him as an animal protects its young, no human sentiment in the gesture at all. Still he’d have happily stayed in the soft feathered nest all day.

When the flock had passed, she said, ‘They heard him speak. Just a word. They have not heard him for a long while! I have. They are excited. They should come here more often. Those ones always pester Tsy. He dislikes them.’ Her face showed unusual animation. Not wanting her to remove the tiny house of soft feathers (he stroked them) he said, ‘Who spoke?’ ‘Vyin. He knows you are here. You heard his feet press down, when he leaped from a perch. That was when we were in the Gate. You didn’t hear his voice. Walkers can’t, unless he lets you.’ She picked him up and on they flew, through an endless labyrinth of stone.

 

2

In the maze’s deepest darkness were what seemed life forms made of strange light, their bodies a twisted glowing core within a blurry nest, their flickering fingers groping blindly at the cavern about them as if seeking flaws or cracks. There were times the dark was so utterly black Case could grab handfuls of gloom from the air and feel it as he squeezed it in his fist. There were passages where the stone creaked and wept with the bitter sadness of someone wishing desperately for the bright world below: for running water, trees, winds, oceans to dive into, glaciers to swat through the waves with a gush of foam and breaking ice, lands to beat into sculpted shapes.

But there was only this darkness, the pressing stone walls – the cruellest cage ever made – with no quick and easy mortal death to buy freedom for those here imprisoned. Case almost drowned in the sadness pouring through him, pouring through the very stones. He could not help weeping. Even the Invia wept, her tears splashing down on his head as she brought him higher, deeper and into the sadness, out of his life and into a dream he was sure he’d had long ago. Then the narrow ways poured into an open space even more vast than the Gate had been. Below them was a kind of ziggurat, a structure of strangely laid slabs of shining black metal with long arms stretching off at different points. The arms spun slowly. More such designs were set into the walls and roof, ugly and incomprehensible things. A city of such buildings stretched back into the dark, though no living beings moved on the smooth barren ground that he could see. A river gouged into the stone floor cast up a long wedge of brilliant light. The strange smell was overpowering. Again Case’s thoughts dissolved to shifting coloured shapes; again the Invia fed him her sweet nourishing blood to bring him back to consciousness. They flew toward a high roof of gleaming stone, carved with runes through which brilliant colour moved and flowed, as though the cavern had a heart and pulse, and these colours were its lifeblood pumping beneath the dark stone skin. Case threw up.

The Invia descended with a noise of annoyance at the puke on her forearms. ‘I should not be here,’ she said. ‘I would not be, if you could come yourself. Silly walker! You cannot fly.’

She had only just set him down when there was a sense of something large rushing toward them, a mouth opening wide enough for Case to walk inside, pearl-white teeth so close Case would have (if he’d had time) been certain meant to eat him. Instead, the Invia gave a surprised squawk as the jaws closed upon her. The thing – whatever it was – rushed away with her with her so fast it was gone in the ink-thick gloom before he’d turned around to check he’d actually seen what he thought he’d seen. ‘Hello?’ he said.

A high-pitched wail bloomed through the cavern from the direction she’d gone, its echo slow to fade. Something further away called in answer, but the sound was not made by an Invia. Then silence fell.

For want of better ideas, Case walked to the bank of that glowing river, which seemed filled not with water but with liquid light. Despite its brilliance the light did not penetrate the cavern far or deeply. The footing was bad and Case could not see what he slipped and staggered on – it felt powdery. Bits and pieces like beach shells kicked from his feet and clattered musically together. In parts the floor was ankle-deep with them. Shells? He knelt, felt one, and found it was actually a scale, its colour hard to make out this far from the river’s light. The scale was similar but not as big as those Kiown and Sharfy had made such a big deal of. He fished around in the powdery litter for a whole one, compared it with the memory of those Eric had shown him. Smaller, he judged, and thinner. About Case loomed the odd tall structures he’d seen from high up, twisting and writhing like living alien things. He had to rub his eyes, for it seemed the nearest structure was solid as metal yet behaving like liquid, fluidly changing shape and remoulding itself. He pegged a scale at it. As though by magnetic force, the spinning scale was drawn to the structure’s wall, struck it then glanced away with a chink! The moving structure froze motionless, so suddenly it imparted a sense of vertigo that made him stagger. There fell heavily on Case a sense of being observed. ‘Hello,’ he called. ‘Any chance of a beer?’

The structure burst into motion again with greater speed. He looked away, dizzy. It was then that a voice seemed to vibrate through Case’s body: You stare at things I have made. But you do not understand them.

The glimmering light-play over the roof snuffed itself out. He felt something approach, something huge. A swirl of darkness blacker than the rest gathered itself up before him and assumed a massive shape. Close by there was a thundering boom, boom: the noise of very heavy pillars being dropped. Case felt and heard the ground groaning under the weight of something enormous. Two points high above gleamed and sparkled down at him in twin bursts of unclasped light. Case could only laugh in awe. Around the two lights – eyes, he understood, though they seemed like pieces of a star – was a huge head, reared back on an enormously long, arching neck, between huge, spreading, pinioned wings. Look away, the voice ordered.

Case looked away.

The voice seemed to come not from the dragon’s head, but from the ground at Case’s feet, vibrating through his whole body. It said, I have not been beheld by your kind before. I find I do not wish to be. To have you here brings me not rage, as I’d feared it might. It brings a sadness I had not expected. I try now to speak in a voice like yours, so you can hear me. It is difficult to express so little. To express much more would drown your mind with my thought and nothing left of yours.

Case laughed again. He had never been so small in all his life and the feeling was somehow liberating. Why fear? This enormous monster was really no larger than familiar old death! ‘Are you the Dragon?’ he said. ‘The one they all talk about?’

I am Vyin, the eighth of its young. At your feet is a gift I crafted. It was not made for you. Do not touch it yet. Look at it. On the ground something flashed among the piles of broken and powdered scale. It was a necklace, gleaming and beautiful. The others do not know my thoughts, or of your being here. With effort and cunning I hide you from them. I hide this gift also, though they will learn of it in time, and they will rage. It may be that they make gifts of their own, to be this gift’s kin, and rival. They may try. If so, they have less than the lifespan of a man to do what I have done with care over many lifetimes of men. A thousand eventualities I saw. In the crafting I prepared for each. Their efforts will be rushed. Do not touch it yet. Watch me.

One of the dragon’s feet shifted forward, swept away a mound of crushed scale and revealed smooth stone beneath, which creaked and groaned as its foot pressed down. Scales rippled, tendons pulled taut as clawed toes bigger than Case clenched, breaking off a piece of the floor. The great beast’s paw turned upward. On it lay a slab of stone the size of a car. Vyin’s claws wrapped around it. This, and all things, are made of the same stuff, only in different amounts and arrangements. Watch. Vyin crushed the slab, the cracking noise of it like firing guns; crushed it so thoroughly only fine dust remained when the dragon’s paw opened again.

A faintly blown breath puffed the dust into the air where it hung in a glimmering cloud. The dragon’s paw brushed through it. I can shape from this raw material many better things, things of more use than the stone it was before. Do you understand me?

Case felt dizzy. ‘No. No, sir, I don’t.’ The dragon’s huge head bent closer to him; faint hints of light flickered across its rippling scales. You too are made of this stuff, it said, though each of your kind is arranged uniquely. Things of more use than you, and your kind, could be made of that material. But the law of my Parent forbids this. Yet the laws in many ways are wrong and no longer suitable. My Parent is greater than we eight, for by It we were formed. But my Parent sleeps. The Wall stood when my Parent was last awake. Here you stand before me with little fear. But I tell you words that should make your kind cower and dread. The Pendulum swings.

Vyin’s great paw lowered till it was very close to Case. I do not hate your kind. I do not desire your deaths. Yet it is near certain you all will die. Five of my kin hate you with poisonous hate, and blame you that we are here imprisoned. Two have argued that some of you should live when we are again free, for the sake of Otherworld, your realm, which our Parent protects. Those who aid us now will be so Favoured. I argue for this too. But I deceive all my kin. I mean for you all to live, and desire to live with you in peace. I cannot convince even one of my peers to come to my thinking in totality. Nor do so by force. I am their tallest pillar, but they too are tall.

The massive bulk shifted. Vyin’s paw swept through the sparkling dust cloud again. From this material I may shape things of more use than cruel prison stone. Yet flesh fused with living mind and spirit I cannot truly make from stone. Have you wish for life no longer?

Case swayed on his feet. He barely heard his own voice say, ‘No. Kill me if you want. I’ve had enough.’

Your death is not my wish or it would long ere now be done. I have spoken here to synchronise our purpose, which is now done. My words will guide your paths, but never perfectly nor without risk. Hark! Have I your blessing to reshape the stuff which makes you? It will serve better purpose. I do so if you are willing. Only if so.

The cavern spun. Case fell, his head landing on a soft mound of powdered scale. The necklace glimmered and shone near his feet. His only thought was that it was so very pretty. Answer, said Vyin.

‘Yes. Don’t know… what you mean… but yes.’

The two star-heart dragon eyes descended upon him pulsing their light, bathing him in it almost lovingly, their heat pouring over him. The beast’s warmth and scent enveloped him. The stone beneath Case’s limp body groaned with the dragon’s pressing weight. Its mouth opened. The jaws closed about him with great care, lifting him up, but Case thought he was floating.

Then he knew nothing.

 

Excerpted from Shadow © Will Elliott, 2015

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