Lacking health insurance when he was diagnosed with cancer, Shawn Speakman asked friends in the science fiction and fantasy writing community to donate short stories he could use to counter mounting medical debt. The result was Unfettered, an anthology offering tales from some of the best authors working today.
Now, in Unfettered III from Grim Oak Press, Speakman continues to pay forward the aid he received, raising money to combat medical debt for SF&F artists and authors. He has gathered together a great mix of new and favorite writers―free to write what they like―the result a powerful new anthology perfect for all readers.
Tor.com is excited to offer an excerpt from “The Fire-Risen Ash”, a standalone Annwn Cycle story from Shawn Speakman.
A Note from Shawn Speakman
When I began writing “The Fire-Risen Ash,” it was meant for Unfettered II.
Sadly, it never published there. My mother passed away at that time, and I felt I needed to commemorate her with a different type of story—one about her life and magic. I did that with “The Last Flowers of the Spring Witch.” Looking back on it, I made the right decision, but I always regretted not ﬁnishing “The Fire-Risen Ash.”
That regret is now gone. “The Fire-Risen Ash” features Knight of the Yn Saith Richard McAllister and his trusty fairy guide, Snedeker, as they embark on a quest to reestablish a fey species thought extinct. Those of you who enjoyed my novel The Dark Thorn will like this new Annwn Cycle tale. The short story also stands alone quite nicely without having read my previous work.
Hope you enjoy the ﬁery magic of the phoenix!
The Fire-Risen Ash
Richard McAllister ignored dozens of wounds, anger bolstering his resolve.
The Heliwr of the Yn Saith had taken a beating. He had expected his task to be difficult—but not like this. The home of Christophe Moreau had been built to repel an army. In fact, it was more of a Gothic fortress, protected by various magical alarms, watchful gargoyles, and a state-of-the-art surveillance system that would never exist in Annwn but did in Paris. A wizard could never be too cautious—Richard had learned that more often than not knowing Merle—and Christophe Moreau was no different. He was young in his craft but had the patience and attention to detail of a man three centuries older, his home reﬂecting it. Merle had thought one unfettered knight and his wise-ass fairy guide stood a chance at inﬁltrating the home though. And it had worked.
Richard hated to admit it, but he now knew he had been bested the moment he had stepped within the wizard’s walls. He knelt on cold stone, gathering his strength even as it bled out of him, livid that he had been brought so low so quickly.
“Would you stop with the blood and do your job,” Snedeker snapped.
If he had been near enough, Richard would have knocked his irascible fairy companion into one of the prison’s shifting walls and been done with his guide altogether.
Instead, Snedeker hovered on the other side of the room. And Richard could not muster the might to yet again put the fairy in his place.
“Easy to say that when you aren’t the one bleeding, Snedeker,” Richard shot back.
“We fairies do not bleed,” the other sniffed indignantly.
“Well,” the Heliwr said, spitting red again. “Aren’t you just the lucky one.”
“Your sarcasm is not going to sav—”
“Shut the hell up, Snedeker.”
The Oakwell fairy frowned bits of leaves and bark before returning his attention to their dangerous situation. Richard cursed inwardly. In the past they had broken into more fortiﬁed locations than the Parisian mansion. This time it had been different. Once inside, the home had become a living entity, a labyrinth of shifting walls and changing rooms, and occupied by a fey guard so intelligent and savage that the Heliwr had been outmatched from the outset.
Richard gripped the Dark Thorn close. He gathered what magic the staff afforded him. And waited for the walls to change yet again, to give them a new path.
And possibly a new chance at escape.
Long minutes slipped away.
“The creature must have a weakness,” Richard said mostly to himself.
“Elychher are very hard to kill. You see, they grow stronger with pain. It drives them mad until they are unstoppable and kill the prey they have stalk—”
“I know, Snedeker,” the knight growled.
“Well. Fine then.”
“Where did it go though?” Richard asked.
“How the Lady should I know?” Snedeker retorted. “You drug us into this mess!”
“And I’ll get us out,” the knight said, even as the walls began grinding into a new conﬁguration. “Now go. Something new must be better than this.”
Snedeker ﬂew into the next room, already seeking a way out. Using the Dark Thorn more as a crutch than a sta., Richard followed. Honestly he didn’t know if they would get free. The home of the wizard was one large trap. Even the power of the Dark Thorn could not seek the way out, its ability to ﬁnd what was lost compromised by the mutable nature of the home. The walls had been fortiﬁed, enhanced to withstand magic. And then there was the elychher. Richard had come to end the fey creature, the elych-her controlled by Christophe Moreau and sent into the Paris portal for some time to acquire magical artifacts, gems, and weapons. Arnaud Lovel, the knight who warded the portal into Annwn, had not been strong enough to prevent the incursions. It was only when Merle, the ancient wizard known as Myrddin Emrys and architect of the portal knights, had decided enough was enough that he charged Richard with ending the threat.
After hours of research, both men had agreed it was time. Christophe Moreau had grown too dangerous. Power corrupted. Left unchecked, Moreau would acquire a magical arsenal larger than even what the Vatican housed.
And now, barely able to stand, Richard bled for it.
The Heliwr tried to remember everything Merle had taught him about the elychher. They were fey creatures, catlike and lethal, highly intelligent and feared by even their own Unseelie Court brethren. How Christophe Moreau had discovered, caged, and learned to control an elychher, Richard didn’t know. It didn’t matter at the moment. Even with his experience, the Heliwr had struck the creature just twice in the last hour, and both times the cat had ﬂed, leaving behind only its high-pitched hyena laugh, the walls shifting into a new conﬁguration before the unfettered knight could pursue it.
—How does it feel, McAllister, being the ﬂy instead of the spider?—
The voice of Christophe Moreau echoed in the silence of the new room that held ancient chairs, older paintings, and no doorways of any kind.
“Why don’t you show yourself and ﬁnd out, wizard?”
—I am here. In these very walls. I am all around you. I have made you bleed. Do you not know that?—
“It will take more than my blood to kill me,” Richard grated, sending his senses into the mansion to discover the wizard’s whereabouts. He found nothing. “Others have done the same. I’m still here.”
—And yet you weaken with every breath. I sense it. It is clear Myrddin Emrys chose his newest Heliwr poorly—
Rage strengthened Richard. “Come in here and ﬁnd out how poorly, fucker.”
—I will not be goaded, knight. You will see me when I wish it. I have not survived within the machinations of other European wizards and witches by being daft. You are nothing to me. Nothing to the world. You are an amusement, one I am slowly growing tired—
Richard gave voice to his fear. “You are toying with us.”
—Very perceptive, Heliwr—
—Many reasons. The least of which, you dared break into my home. The most being Myrddin Emrys. He sent you here. Yet I will outmatch his arrogance. I want to send a message. I want you broken. I want your death on his conscience. I want the guilt to cripple him as I will cripple you. I will make an example of you and your fairy friend just as one day I will make an example of him—
This last trailed off in a hiss of seething anger.
“Do you know what I heard in all of that?” Richard asked, grinning darkly. “I heard a lot of ‘I’ this and ‘I’ that. Bring your worst, you pompous coward.”
—And you are a fool for coming here at a fool’s behest—
The walls shifted anew, moving at a rate that matched the wizard’s ire.
—Heliwr, enough of this game. How do the powerful men in government put it? You are now collateral damage—
At that, part of the stone wall on Richard’s right suddenly slid open and the cat leaped from its shadows, the elychher on the Heliwr so quickly he barely had time to ward it off. The Dark Thorn and his own instincts saved him. Fire erupted down its length like the sun, the ﬂames exploding against the creature. It was not enough. Claws raked his left ribs to the bone, rending muscle, spinning him like a top. The elychher kept at him, an elusive target, slashing at him on one side, passing, and returning to strike the other. Snedeker tried to drop explosive dust but the catlike creature was always a step ahead. The smell of burnt cat hair sat thick in his nostrils, but his own magic could not land a strong blow either. The fey beast was getting faster in the attack even as he slowed.
He sensed this was the end. The wizard had ﬁnally come for the knight’s death. Desperate anger was the only thing that kept Richard alive. He brought the entirety of his will and magic to bear, creating a wall of force that pushed the elychher back. It would not last long. But it would give him the time he needed.
When the invisible wall crumbled seconds later, Richard side-stepped the attack that leaped in a blur.
And sent the Dark Thorn’s magic where the fey monster would land.
The ﬁre slammed into the elychher’s side, sending it ﬂying through the air to crash into a small round table and its chairs. Body smoking, the creature attempted to ﬂee from the brutal attack, to regroup as it had done several times before.
It was exactly what the Heliwr expected. Just as one of the walls opened to allow the elychher escape—closing as soon as it did so to keep the knight and fairy behind and trapped—Richard called the entirety of power he yet possessed.
“Tynnu rhaff!” he roared.
Even as he fought the blackness threatening him from the expenditure of magic, an invisible line wrapped about the elychher’s hind leg, anchored to the room—just as the fey beast attempted to bound to safety. Taken by surprise, the elychher fought the magical lasso that had caught it, ﬁghting to ﬂee. It kicked out to no avail. Flipping over, looking back into the room, and mewling in fearful panic.
As the wall closed upon its body.
Bones snapped as the beast roared pain, blood bursting from its broken chest, shoulders. and back. The wall ground to a sudden halt, but it was too late. The elychher lay jammed between two rooms, dying, crushed.
“Is it dead?” Snedeker asked, hovering high in the ceiling.
Richard took a steadying breath. He approached the elychher, the Dark Thorn held protectively before him.
He would not need it. The beast died with every slowing gulp of air.
“Your watchdog is dead, wizard!” the Heliwr yelled, euphoria replacing the weakness that gripped his being. “What do you have to say about that?!”
No answer came. He gripped the magical tendril that still roped about the elychher and pulled, to remove the beast and leave the room through the opening. Eyes of alien shape stared at the knight. With rage. Malevolence. But ﬁrst of all, fear. As its life faded, Richard realized he saw more—an all too human and terrible intelligence.
“What now, Rick?” the fairy asked, landing on his shoulder. “Find the wizard and end his sorrowful existence?”
Before Richard could reply, the elychher began to change following its ﬁnal breath. Fur gave way to skin; paws melted into hands. Even the bones that jutted out of the fey beast shrank and transformed, no less splintered but eerily recognizable.
Where the elychher had been, a naked man lay.
“Goatsack,” Snedeker cursed. “A shapeshifter.”
“You are as observant as ever,” Richard snorted, barely able to comprehend what had just happened. “It is Moreau. We were wrong. He never caught an elychher. He merely took on its form.” The knight looked around at the walls that slowly began to shift back to their natural state. “Damn wizards. And especially damn this wizard.”
“We need to get you a healer,” Snedeker observed, picking past the knight’s shredded clothing to examine his wounds.
“No. Not yet.” Richard looked down on the dead wizard even as he fought to bring what magic remained his to the fore. “Time to ﬁnd this wizard’s vault before it falls into the wrong hands.”
Richard sent the butt of the Dark Thorn into the stone. The sta. born of Glastonbury Abbey’s Holy Thorn entered the building easily, becoming one with it through his magic. Richard focused, drawing on reserves he did not know he had. He sent his senses outward, seeking the room containing the most power. His magic snaked into the building, twisting and turning, ﬁnding its way out of the now dead labyrinth.
Results returned immediately. Richard knew the location of the wizard’s most treasured possessions, the path seen by the fairy as well.
“Do you know your way, Snedeker?”
The room’s true door now revealed, Snedeker ﬂew beyond, guiding the Heliwr, both companions still wary despite the death of Moreau. Wizards were notorious for their traps remaining active long after they had left a place or passed on. They encountered no danger though. Still bleeding from several major wounds, Richard was thankful he didn’t need to call on his depleted magic again. After twists, turns, and staircases, he came to a wall that was no wall.
“How will you get in?” Snedeker asked, hovering over the knight’s shoulder.
Richard gathered his will. “I hope with Moreau’s death his vault is no longer sealed with traps.”
The knight placed his hands upon the cool stone. He ﬁrst sought any wards that were placed to prevent this very sort of attempt. There were none. Christophe Moreau had been arrogant to his very last, believing his labyrinth protection enough. Richard called upon the earth beneath the building, the magic inherent in the world bolstering his ability to dissolve stone. A glow spread from his ﬁngertips as he concentrated. Then without a sound, part of the wall vanished in a ﬂash, revealing a circular door as tall as a man.
Richard gestured to Snedeker. The fairy ﬂew inside, seeking danger.
Not sensing any, the Heliwr followed.
It was a large square room, as ornate as the mansion but unlike any of the rooms Richard had been in thus far, the crystal chandelier overhead beginning to glow with their entrance. Magic thrummed in the air, power so palpable that the knight could feel it in his very bones. That was not what staggered him though. Items of various intent and design lay upon hundreds of pedestals throughout the room, each bearing a unique artifact from centuries past. A sword here. A helmet there. A scroll encased in glass or a bone from an unknown creature. Pieces of jewelry, leather books, and clothing. Relics ﬁlled the room, Christophe Moreau building a collection that rivaled even the Pope’s secret vault in St. Peter’s. There was no way the Heliwr could take it all with him. Instead, he would have to request help from Merle to gather it.
“We have done our job,” Richard said, still gazing about the room with its marvelous collection. “The elychher is dead. Moreau is no more. I will seal the room. No one will enter. And Merle can decide how to best handle this.”
Snedeker nodded absently, ignoring him as he ﬂew throughout the room as if casting what to steal.
Just as the Heliwr was about to seal the annoying fairy within the room to prove yet another point, Richard’s gaze fell on a crystal object larger than a Faberge egg but shaped similarly.
“Holy shit,” he murmured.
“What is it?” Snedeker asked, now suddenly interested.
Richard limped toward the center of the room. The egg-shaped item sat on a pedestal of granite, higher than the rest. The crystal was not clear but ash-colored like black topaz. The Heliwr gained the item and stared into its depths. Within, an orange and purplish light danced, alive. Snedeker hovered before the relic and a look of greed Richard had observed in the fairy multiple times overtook him.
None of that mattered though. Richard could not believe what he beheld.
“Well?” the fairy whispered. “What is it, Rick?”
The knight couldn’t bring himself to touch it. “It is one of the rarest items this world or Annwn has ever seen.”
Snedeker couldn’t take his eyes off of it.
“So?! What is it?”
Richard touched it then, even though it felt blasphemous to do so. The crystal was alive, warm to the touch. A soft whisper entered his mind, one of rising rebirth and ﬁre, of desire to live once more after many centuries of not.
The knight took a deep breath.
And wondered what the hell he had just gotten himself into.
“It, my dear Snedeker, is a phoenix egg.”
Excerpted from Unfettered III: “The Fire-Risen Ash”