The Perilous Realm Online, Part Twenty

Book One: The Endless Road

CHAPTER TWENTY

Nothing could be done. They turned away numbly from the sealed door. At Pendrake’s bidding, they hurried together to the end of the passage, through the archway and into the open air.

 To Will’s surprise the world that met his eyes was not covered in snow and ice. A rocky slope, dotted with lichen-crusted boulders, descended steeply before them in rises and hollows. They had come far enough from the icefield that even a few hardy wildflowers were growing here and there in the crevices of the stones. Where they stood, above a blazing white carpet of clouds, the afternoon sun shone down fiercely and the breeze carried a faint scent of green, growing things.

 Will turned and gazed up at the mountain behind them. A dark rock wall rose sheer to a forbidding brow of ice. For a moment Will thought he glimpsed the dragon far above, its wings outspread, but when he rubbed his eyes, dazzled by the glare outside the tunnel, he realized he was looking at a plume of snow streaming off a high ridge. They had left the home of Whitewing Stonegrinder far behind. The dragon would not leave it and come to their aid. They were on their own again, and now Moth, like Shade, was gone.

 “We’re on the high plateau above the Great Rampart,” Pendrake said. “Only a league or two north of the Pass of the Needle, I would say.”

 “Then the hidden vale, and the wishing portal, can’t be far away,” said Finn. “The only question is, which way do we go from here?”

 “Straight down, if we’re not careful,” Freya said. With her quick, nimble steps, she had descended the furthest from the archway, and when they joined her they saw that the slope fell away abruptly at her feet. A sheer cliff plummeted hundreds of feet to a deeply shadowed valley floor, where a river wound like a slender silver ribbon. Beyond lay a wide land of woods and rolling hills that seemed to go on and on to the dusky edge of the world itself.

 “The Great Rampart,” Pendrake said. “Before us lie the Western Lands, the ancient homeland of the Shee.”

 “But no hidden vale,” Freya said. “Unless it’s still hidden.”

 “Where’s Rowen?” Will said, suddenly aware that she was not with them.

 “She went this way,” Pendrake said, pointing to their left.

 Led by Freya they climbed to the top of a ridge boulder-strewn ridge. On the far side, at the end of a long tumbling slope, the solid wall of the Rampart was cleft by a wedge-shaped gorge that gashed deep, like a wound, into the mountainside. Rowen stood on its brink. When she heard the others approaching she turned and waved them over. They walked down the slope and joined her at the rim of the gorge.

 “I think I’ve found the vale,” she said.

Directly below them, nestled between the sheer walls, lay an almond-shaped lawn of green dotted with trees. Thin rivulets of water streaming down the rock on all sides fed a kind of moat that ran almost all the way around a grassy island at the centre of the lawn then poured out in two thundering cataracts at the gorge’s outer rim. The little vale lay a few hundred feet below the place where the companions stood, but still high above the base of the Rampart itself.

 Eagerly Will scanned the vale for a sign of anything that might be a gateway – the wishing portal that would take him home – but from this distance he could make out very little but the remains of stone walls, half buried in the grass. The walls were arranged in curving lines, like the paths of an ancient hedge maze. From above they could be seen to form a ring of concentric circles that once might have been complete, except for a jagged wedge-shaped gap at the outer edge where it appeared that a part of the vale had broken off or crumbled away into the valley far below. Despite this marring of the design, from where Will stood the vale resembled a great emerald eye, gazing straight up into the heavens.

 “The Needle’s Eye,” Pendrake said. “I had always thought the pass was so named because it was narrow and difficult to cross. I never suspected what was hidden so close by.”  

 “This would have been a perfect refuge, until it began to collapse,” Finn said. “The vale could not be seen from the foot of the Rampart, and few would dare climb the cliff.”

 “I wonder what happened to it,” Will asked.

 “The wall may have given way on its own,” Pendrake said. “Rain and wind have been carving at these mountains since they first rose.”

 “It was the werefire,” Rowen said, and they all turned to look at her. She was gazing down at the vale as if in a trance. “Not long ago. I see …. the shadow of it. There was werefire here, a lot of it. Like bolts of lightning shooting up. Then the rock split and fell away.”

She turned to her grandfather with a bewildered expression.

 “It’s like someone … tore the world. Like it was made of paper.”

 “The mages cut into the Weaving with spells like swords,” Pendrake said gravely. He looked at Will, who read his thought with dismay. If part of the vale now lay at the bottom of the Great Rampart, the wishing portal might be there with it, buried under tons of broken stone.

There was only one way to find out. The companions backtracked along the rim of the gorge until they came to a goat path that appeared to lead, in a series of sharp switchbacks, to the floor of the vale. The path was narrow, and Will shuffled along it cautiously with his back pressed against the cliff face. Once they were halfway down, they came to a flat, wide ledge that had been carved directly out of the cliff. They hurried along this wider, more level walkway, passing several narrow openings in the rock that led off into darkness. Will peered into them as he went past, wondering where they led.

As the companions descended, the sky began to darken as swift clouds moved in from the east.  A chill wind swept into the gorge from above, bringing with it the scent of snow.

At last the walkway ended in a long steeply sloping ramp that took them swiftly to the bottom of the gorge. There the companions crossed the encircling moat by way of several large stones that jutted from the water and appeared to have once been part of a collapsed bridge. Once across, they debated what to do.

“The vale will take some time to explore,” said Pendrake. “But I don’t think we should risk splitting up.”

“It happened here,” Rowen said, pointing to the far end of the vale. “This is where the mages let out the werefire. That’s where we should look.”

There was no doubt in her voice, and Will looked at her wonderingly. Pendrake studied her briefly, as well, then took up his staff.

“Very well,” he said.

They started off and soon passed between two arms of the ancient ring walls. These were sunk so low in the grass that Will could have easily scrambled over them. By this time the hint that the wind had given proved true: a few scattered flakes of snow began to fall, like white petals that melted as soon as they touched the earth.

“In the dream you told us about, didn’t you see snow?” Rowen asked. Will turned in surprise. She was watching him. She had seen the troubled look on his face and must have guessed what he was thinking.  

Will nodded.

“This is where I saw the Angel, too,” he said uneasily. “In my dreams.” A feeling of dread churned in him. Reluctantly he hurried on, and soon they reached the centre of the vale, a circular area of stonework ringed by the concentric walls. Here the ground descended slightly in a series of terraces to a great moss-covered stone, which stood at the centre of the ring like the pointer of a giant sundial. A few yards beyond the stone lay the edge of the wedge-shaped gap they had seen from the rim of the gorge.

 The snow was quickly growing thicker, so that the enclosing walls of the gorge had already begun to vanish behind streaming white curtains.

 A few pale tongues of werefire flickered here and there in the grass.The companions descended to the base of the stone and gazed up at it. Finn bounded up the least steep side. He looked in all directions, blinking through the flurrying snow, then gave a shout and pointed along the left-hand rim of the gap.

 “There’s more werefire that way,” he shouted above the noise of the wind.

 The others followed his direction and walked cautiously to the edge of the vale. Their view was obscured at first by the swirling snow, but for a moment the wind swept it away and they had a clear view of what lay below them. The vale did not end in a sheer wall plummeting to the valley floor but tumbled steeply for several hundred yards, narrowing at last to a slender outcrop of rock that jutted out like the prow of a ship. The uttermost pinnacle of the rock was lit by a halo of werefire.

In the next instant the snow had closed in again and the vision was gone.

“I can’t see any kind of gateway,” Will said.

 “We’re looking for a gateless gate,” said Pendrake, “whatever that may be. But down there is where the werefire is strongest.”

 “With this wet snow the climb down will be dangerous,” Freya said. “I will go first.”

 She was about to descend when Rowen gave a gasp and pointed back the way they had come.

 Will whirled around, seeing nothing at first. He peered through the pelting snow and then glimpsed what Rowen had seen: tall, dim figures advancing slowly from all directions, descending the tiers toward the stone. A score of them, or more, Will thought. Through the snow all that he could see for certain was that they wore dull, battered armour and carried pikes and swords.

“They must’ve been the ones following us in the caves,” Finn said as the companions banded together at the edge of the gap.

 “What are they?” cried Freya, gripping her hammer tightly.

 “We’ve seen them before,” Pendrake said in a voice shaken with weariness and defeat.

 The leader was a man with long ash-grey hair. In his bony hand was a broken blade. His face was expressionless, his eyes as blank and lifeless as the snow that fell all around him. Will remembered the Shee in the ice tombs and a shudder ran through him.

 “These are Moth’s people,” said Finn, drawing his sword. “Or they were.”

 “They are the dead, inhabited by fetches,” Pendrake said.

 “Then Moth must be …” Rowen began.

 She did not finish. Pendrake turned to Will, his face grim and pale.

 “You can climb down to that outcrop, while we bar the way,” he said. “Rowen, you will go with him.”

 Rowen gave the loremaster a stricken look.

 “Grandfather, no—” she began.

 “If Will finds a farhold, you will go through it with him. Do you understand?”

 “I won’t. I won’t leave you here.”

 “Obey me, child. Your father came from that world. It is yours too. You will be safe there, with Will.”

 Rowen’s gaze travelled from Finn, to Freya, and back to her grandfather. She shook her head. Will stood beside her, struggling with his own tears.

 “What about you?” he said to them.

 “We can fight better with the two of you out of the way,” Finn said. “If there is a wishing portal down there, you have a chance to keep Rowen out of danger.”

 Will nodded.

 “All right,” he said, swallowing hard. 

 “Go with Will, Rowen,” Freya said. “We will not let your grandfather fall.”

 Tears filled Rowen’s eyes. Pendrake took her by the shoulders.

 “I will find a way to bring you back after this is finished,” he said to her, “I promise. Go now, before it’s too late.”

 He raised his staff and stood beside Finn and Freya.

 Will and Rowen reluctantly turned and picked their way cautiously down the steep rocky slope. Only moments later they already out of sight of the others, and soon after they heard shouts and the clash of metal. Rowen halted and looked back. Will took her arm to urge her on.

 The flying snow meant they could see only a few feet in front of them, which made each step a frightening tread into the unknown. Both Will and Rowen slipped more than once on the wet, stony turf and had to clutch at each other to keep from falling. Here on the Rampart’s face, where there was little shelter from the elements, the wind was free and howled in their ears like a wild thing unleashed. The ground beneath them shuddered, and pebbles and chunks of stone clattered and bounced past, some of them trailing green flames. It was clear that the werefire was still at work in this place.

 At last they reached the outcrop and began to step out warily onto its narrow surface. Here they halted and looked back. The top of the gap was already hidden from view by the snow, and the shriek of the wind was so loud there was no way to know what was happening to their companions up above.

 Will and Rowen looked at one another. What he saw in her eyes filled him with a fierce protectiveness and resolve: for the first time, it was she who was looking to him for courage, for a reason to keep going. At that moment he knew he would do anything for her.

 “Come on,” he said, as he took her hand in his. She gripped his hand tightly in response and they went on.

The outcrop was almost flat, but still slippery with wet snow and so narrow Will kept his eyes on the ground under his feet until he was brought up short by a boulder that lay directly in his way. Beyond it the outcrop rose toward its pinnacle, silhouetted with flickering tongues of green flame. The wind had fallen to a low keening. The snow, still thick and obscuring, fluttered straight down, lit eerily by the glow of the werefire.

If they took those few last upward steps, they would come to the very edge of the precipice. The only journey they would make from there, as far as they could see, was a long fall to the bottom of the Great Rampart.

Rowen turned in a circle, anguish in her eyes.

“There’s nothing here, Will,” she shouted. “If there was a farhold it must have collapsed. We should go back.”

Will knew she was right, but it he could not bring himself to leave. His friends had risked their lives for him, and to come this far only to fail meant it was all in vain. He struggled to remember what the mage Strigon had said. It was not there, and then it was there. A gateless gate.In desperation he bowed his head and tried to clear his thoughts, in the way that had guided him to Shade, to the knot-path, to the keep in Skald. Instead, he saw only the lifeless face of the dead Shee warrior in the ice-tomb, and his thoughts went out to the toymaker, Finn, and Freya. At this very moment they could be hurt. Dying. If he did not find the farhold and wish himself home, all that they had done for him would be in vain. Their stories did not deserve an ending like this.

He heard a sharp intake of breath from Rowen and opened his eyes.

Everywhere, as before, the falling snow had turned the world to a wilderness of flurrying gloom, except at the summit of the outcrop. There the halo of werefire had intensified, almost solidified, into an archthat seemed to be holding back the snow, leaving a brighter space within, as if invisible hands had drawn aside a curtain.

“A gateless gate,” Rowen whispered.

“It wasn’t there a moment ago,” Will said. “How…”

 “The portal was there before. I just didn’t see it at first. It’s almost notthere. I don’t know what I did, but it’s open. For now.”

Will took a step closer. Within the open space a warm light, like sunset through a fine mist, had begun to grow.

“Hurry, Will,” Rowen urged him. “It won’t stay open much longer. I can feel it closing. Go.”   

Will turned to her.

“You’re not coming with me,” he said, already knowing what she had decided.

“I have to go back,” Rowen said, her face pale but determined. “I can’t leave my grandfather.”

“Rowen, you know what he said …”

“I’m going, Will. I’m sorry.”

She threw her arms around him and then stepped away.

“I’ll come back,” Will said. “Somehow. I will find you.”

Rowen turned away and hurried back down along the outcrop. Will watched her until she had vanished into the snow. Then he turned and stepped up slowly to the farhold, half expecting the gate to waver and vanish before his eyes, like a mirage. He took another step, and now he was directly before the farhold. From within it he thought he caught the damp cool scent of the woods where he had abandoned the motorcycle, and suddenly he knew that all he had to do was pass through, holding the image of home in his thoughts, and he would be there. Back in the world he knew.

Just as he was about to step through, he thought he heard a faint cry. He halted and looked back, straining to hear. The cry did not come again, and he could see nothing but snow and rock. He wasn’t even sure he had heard anything other than the shriek of the wind.

He turned to the farhold, took another step, and then stopped.

“No,” he said under this breath. “This isn’t right. Not like this.”

He turned into the flying snow and ran back along the pinnacle the way Rowen had gone. He ran until the veil of snow thinned and there, at the base of the outcrop,  Rowen lay sprawled on the stones, her knife held out in her shaking hand. Standing over her like a shape of rising fog was a tall figure robed and hooded in white.

As he watched in horror, the figure stooped and with one hand lifted her by the collar of her cloak. Its other hand, wrapped in tattered ribbons of white, reached toward her face, for some purpose Will could not guess.

“Get away from her!” he shouted, and without another thought he rushed forward. The figure straightened and looked toward him, its face still unseen within the shadows of the hood. Then its arm swept out like a whip and knocked Will aside. He struck the ground hard and rolled to the edge of the outcrop, just managing to clutch at the rock before he went over. As he crawled back onto the pinnacle, he felt an ice-cold shadow fall over him.

“Will Lightfoot,” a mocking voice said, chilling him to the heart. “We have both dreamed of this moment, haven’t we?”

Will choked back a cry as Rowen began to vanish into the folds and shadows of the shrowde. 

 “What are you doing to her?” he shouted. “Let her go!”

 The Angel turned to him, the face within the ragged hood still concealed, as if by shadows of its own weaving.

 “You and your companions have surprised me, Will Lightfoot,” the Angel said. “Even dragons take your side. But in the end you played your role.”

 He raised his hand and there was a loud crack like thunder. The rock beneath the farhold shuddered and then collapsed. The opening within the snow now hovered in space, out of Will’s reach. As he watched in despair, the snow began to obscure the gateway again. It was shrinking, narrowing like curtains slowly closing. 

 “One more doorway sealed forever,” the Angel said solemnly, as if he was presiding at some dark ceremony. “The memory of the Stewards fades. Their story becomes legend, rumour, lies, and finally, nothing at all.”

 “Let Rowen go,” Will said desperately. “It was me you wanted.”

 The hood turned again in his direction, and a chilling sound came from it, a sound like stone scraping over stone, that Will realized was laughter.

 “I was looking for you, Will Lightfoot,” the Angel said, “but only because I knew that you could lead me to her. But that should please you. You did not want to be the hero of this tale, and you are not. Your part is finished now.”

 As he spoke Rowen vanished into the shrowde.

 “You don’t have to do this,” Will shouted, and then a sudden understanding shot through him. “You want to be free from him, too.”

 As soon as he said it, he knew it was true. He had heard it in the Angel’s voice. For a long moment Lotan did not speak or move. The grey shadows within the hood of the shrowde seemed to churn like stormclouds. 

 “You do not yet understand,” Lotan finally said, and once more his voice was cold and lifeless. “Look upon me. I am the Angel of Despair. This is my part to play. It could not have been otherwise.”  

 With that the shrowde billowed into the air, and before Will could think or act, the Angel had soared over the edge of the outcrop and was gone.

 Will scrambled to his feet. There was a stabbing pain in his chest where the shrowde had struck him.

 The farhold was a thin gap, swiftly closing. Will stood helplessly before it, and then, as in the forest when he had found the knot-path, the feeling came over him that there was something only he could do. Rowen was the last hope of the Realm, Pendrake had said. This was her story. She had to survive.

 There was no more time to think. He ran for the edge of the outcrop and jumped toward the farhold. 

 “Take me to Rowen,” he shouted.

 

***

 

The wind shrieked in his ears. He was falling, plummeting into a roaring, snowy abyss. He screamed and shut his eyes in terror. The next thing he knew there as a violent lurch, as though he had come to a sudden stop. 

 Will opened his eyes. He could see nothing but a swirling of whiteness and grey shadows. The cold was so fierce it felt like fire. His body seemed to be floating in empty space and he struggled to gain some kind of hold or solid ground. Then he felt something constrict around him like the cold sliding grip of a python. 

 He was inside the shrowde. But it was more than a cloak for the Angel, he understood now. The thing was somehow larger or deeper than it seemed from the outside. And it had a mind, and a will of its own. He knew that if it wished to it could pull him down into a bottomless white nothingness from which he would never return. Rowen must be in here somewhere, too, he thought with a surge of fear and hope. And the Angel, too, although he somehow knew that Lotan didn’t know he was here.

 The shrowde shifted and flowed around him, and for one terrifying moment its folds parted, and Will glimpsed the bone-white claws of the Angel, scuttling over cracks in the rock like horrible eyeless spiders. 

 The Angel was climbing headfirst down the sheer wall of the Rampart. 

 Will thought of his knife. It had been made to cut creatures no ordinary blade could harm, Finn had told him. Slowly he brought his hand down to his side, but even as he did so he faltered, remembering that Rowen was in the shrowde with him. If he started slashing blindly, he could hurt her. Or the shrowde might let them go, and they would fall. But he had no choice. Without the knife he and Rowen had no chance at all.

 His fingers never made it to the hilt. As though it sensed what he was about to do, the shrowde tightened its grip. His hand was immobilized as if it had been encased in concrete, and then the shrowde began to squeeze. Pain shot up Will’s arm and he gasped.

 There was a rush of wind, and Will felt a dizzying sense of weightlessness. He had a final glimpse of the cliff wall soaring above them and then all was whiteness again. 

 Without warning he was thrown roughly from the shrowde, out onto the ground. He lay there, shivering and clutching his throbbing arm. He was in a clearing ringed by dark trees. Rowen lay near him, still and pale. For a terrible moment he thought she was dead, then he saw the faint rise and fall of her breathing. The Angel stood over both of them, but his attention was not on Will or Rowen. He turned this way and that, his hooded head raised to the air, as if he had caught a sound or scent that troubled him but could not find the source. 

 Finally the hood turned in Will’s direction and Lotan’s voice came from the shadows within.

 “Since you’ve chosen to join your friend on her final journey, you can earn your passage,” he said. “Knot-paths. You found one before and almost escaped me. Now you will find another. One that will take us far from here.”

 “I won’t help you,” Will managed to whisper.

 “I can still call off the fetches and perhaps save the lives of your friends on the rampart. If they still live. Or I can let the fetches finish their work.”

 Will clenched his fists, struggling for words of defiance, for some weapon to hurl at his enemy. Then he hung his head and choked back a sob. He had failed. He was lost. Everything his friends had gone through for him had been in vain.

 “I’ll do it,” he said, defeated. “I’ll find a path.”

 He climbed shakily to his feet and started slowly forward, the Angel following close behind. As he had in the forest of Oldark, Will tried simply to be aware of all that was happening around him, not trying to shut it out or see beyond it. He breathed deeply as he had before, but his thoughts would not settle. The presence of the Angel was like an unending scream in his mind. His thoughts kept returning to his friends, to ways that he might still help them, even though he knew it was hopeless. He remembered the trick he had played on the Marrowbone Brothers. There was no chance anything like that would work on the Angel. 

 He thought of the knife, and glanced down. It was still on his hip, in its sheath. Lotan had not taken it from him. But if he hadn’t, it must be that he didn’t see it, or Will, as any threat.  The thought only deepened Will’s despair.

 Then something touched his memory, like a tiny glimmer of light. What was it Finn had said during sword practice at Appleyard? In combat you always have two weapons, yours and your opponent’s ….

 The only weapon the Angel had used against him so far was … fear. But was the Angel himself afraid of anything?

 “It’s no use,” Will said at last. “I can’t see anything.”

 “It is because you still hope,” the Angel said. “Do not distract yourself with such vain thoughts. The story was always meant to come to this ending.”

 Will took a deep breath and tensed himself. He had the knife, and his own hands. It would not be enough, but there was nothing else. He looked at Rowen, who still had not stirred. Maybe he could buy her a few moments. One more small chance. As he reached for the blade, he heard a new note on the wind, a swift beat of wings. He looked up just as a black shape swooped down out of the trees and soared over his head with a piercing shriek. Will whirled in time to see ragged black wings and talons before the shadow shot skyward again and vanished. 

 Morrigan. Will’s heart leapt. 

 He turned away from the Angel and there on the far side of the clearing was Moth. He was silhouetted by the light of the setting sun, but there was no doubt it was the archer. 

 For a long moment neitherhe nor the Angel moved or made a sound. Will longed to run toward Moth, but the silence itself seemed to keep him rooted where he was. 

 At last the Angel stepped forward. He slowly drew back his ragged white hood, and Will cried out. Lotan’s hair was white, as in his dreams, but the face was a livid mask of raw flesh. The eyes were black holes, the mouth a wound.

 “Nightwanderer,” the Angel said. “After so long. I knew this boy had a Shee with him whom I looked forward to killing, but I did not know it would be you. And that is your sister, of course. I remember her well. The frantic beating of her heart, as I held her in my hand. Once she had wanted nothing more than to be by my side. Then she only thought to flee. I let her, because I knew that in the end it would make no difference. One by one, the Shee would fall. This day had to come.”

 Moth said nothing. From the dragon-bone sheath he slowly drew the gaal sword. The Angel shuddered and took a step back.

 “I have your freedom in my hand, Lotan,” Moth said, untying his cloak and letting it fall. “We both knew this day would come.”

 “There is no freedom in this world,” Lotan hissed, and the mask of his face contorted with rage. “You will learn that now, as I learned it long ago. Have you never understood?”

 His voice dropped to a rasping whisper.  

 “I cared only to help my people. I was ready to give my life for them. And so I stood against him,and I stared into the abyss at the end of things, and it swallowed me whole. As it will swallow you.”

 From the folds of his cloak he drew forth a blood-red sword. As he moved slowly toward Moth, a slanted bar of sunlight fell across him, and for an instant his face twisted with pain.

 The shrowde protects him,Will thought. It hides him from the light.

 “You made this sword for me, so long ago,” the Angel said. “It has lost none of its power. Can you say the same, exile?”

 He snarled and launched himself through the air.

 Moth braced to meet him and their blades clashed. What followed was so furious and quick Will could barely follow the moves of the two opponents. The swords crashed and rang in the clearing like flashes of lightning. Back and forth the combatants thrust and parried and in the red light of sunset it seemed that fire ran along their blades. Then Moth came on with a flurry of blows that put Lotan on the defensive and forced him backward. His arm faltered and the blade of gaal swept down and knocked his sword from his hand.

 The Angel staggered and would have fallen, but in the next instant one ragged ribbon of his cloak shot out and coiled itself like a tentacle around Moth’s sword arm. 

 The archer struggled to free himself but the shrowde pulled him off balance and the sword slipped from his grasp. Another tendril of the cloak caught the blade as it fell and flung it away into the shadows. Then, faster than Will could see, the Angel’s sword was somehow back in his hand. With a scream he stabbed at Moth and his red blade found its mark.

 Will’s heart went cold. 

 Moth sank slowly to his knees. The Angel pulled his blade free and stood over the archer.

 “Now you see, Nightwanderer,” Lotan said almost gently. “Die knowing you failed everyone you pledged to save.”

 He raised his blade for a final stroke but it did not fall. He had forgotten Will, who had crept close with his knife drawn. As Will sprang forward Lotan heard him and easily dodged his knife. But it was not meant for him: instead Will plunged the blade through the folds of his white cloak and into the ground. 

 The shrowde shuddered and writhed like a blazing white fire. But it had been caught by the tip of Will’s blade and as Lotan leapt aside, the shrowde was torn away from him.

 The Angel stood uncloaked.            

 Without the shrowde he was a gaunt form of rotting flesh and chain-mail that had fused into one hideous mass. The thing that had once been a man raised its arm against the light of the setting sun and fixed Will with a glare of such absolute hatred that he felt his courage wither, as if it had been blasted by a fire. He let go of his knife and fell backward.

 The shrowde tore free of Will’s blade, rose from the grass and flowed like a deathly vapour over its master. 

 “You … will suffer … agonies for this,” Lotan snarled. He advanced toward Will with his sword raised.

 There was a rush of wings, and from behind the Angel Morrigan swooped into the clearing, the gaal sword clutched in her talons. As she passed over her brother she let the blade fall. With a cry Moth lurched to his feet, caught the sword as it fell and lunged. 

 Lotan whirled to face this new threat but he was too late. With a sound like the hiss of hot metal plunged into icy water, the blade of gaal passed through him. 

 To Will it seemed as if the world held its breath. 

 Moth let go of the sword, stumbled away from his enemy, and fell to the earth. Lotan made no sound, but his flesh began to peel and blacken, like paper caught in a fire. He staggered forward, clutching at the blade that transfixed him, but he could not grasp it: already he was crumbling into shreds and pieces, his lifeless flesh cracking and falling away. After groping blindly about him, he gave up struggling at last. His arms fell to his sides. His eyes turned to Will and there was no hatred in them now, only a pale light that flared and then died. The eyes closed. The breath fled in a long sigh. 

 The Angel sank upon his own collapsing form like a pyre of dying coals. 

 The shrowde itself churned and seethed like boiling water, then tore free of Lotan’s remains. It writhed in the air and then caught on the bare limb of a tree, where it went limp and stirred faintly in the wind. 

 Flecks of ash whirled like grey snowflakes. In another moment there was nothing left where Lotan had been but the gaal sword, lying on the grass amid a scattering of mirror shards. While Will gazed in stunned silence, the blade itself crumbled swiftly into dust.

 Will crawled to where Rowen lay. He touched her arm, and she groaned, and stirred. She was still alive. Then he rose and staggered over to Moth. The archer was lying with his head against a mossy stone. He was trembling and his breath came in wrenching gasps. 

 Will knelt beside him, tears streaming down his face.

 “I’ll find Master Pendrake,” he said, touching the archer’s cold hand. “He’ll be able to help ….”

 Moth’s eyes seemed to be searching for Will in shadows, and then they fixed on him. The archer smiled. 

 “We are both going home, Will.”

 He shut his eyes and uttered a gasp of pain, his body wracked with tremors. When he opened his eyes again he looked past Will and tried to rise.

 “Is she here?” he asked. For an instant Will’s mind was blank, and then he thought of Morrigan. He searched for her, but by now the sun had set and the clearing was falling into deep shadow. There was no sign of the raven up in the trees, and then his eye was caught by a dark shape huddled in the grass nearby. It was too large to be Morrigan, he thought, even though it seemed to be covered in black feathers. And then understanding dawned, and Will remembered the story of the Angel’s spell. He rose, went over to the huddled form, and knelt.

 “Morrigan?”

 The figure stirred and lifted its head. It was a young woman with long black hair, her face as thin and dusky as Moth’s. Her eyes burned and gazed past or through Will as if she could not see him. She was wrapped in a ragged cloak of black feathers and although beads of sweat were running down her face, she was shivering with cold. 

 She’s dying too, Will thought. She carried the gaal sword without the sheath.

 He spoke her name again, as softly as he could, and at last she seemed to recognize him, and smiled. Then fear came into her eyes and she looked wildly around the glade.

 “He’s here,” Will said. He helped Morrigan rise and walk to her brother. She knelt beside him, and touched his forehead, and the tears spilled down her face. Moth’s trembling hand reached up and stroked her hair.

 “Síla,” he said.

 He smiled and his eyes closed. 

 Morrigan took her brother’s hand in hers and laid her head on his chest. 

 “I’ll find the others,” Will stammered, choking back tears. “I’ll get help.”

 He looked at Rowen once more, then turned away and ran into the forest, calling the names of the toymaker and Finn. He called and called until his voice cracked and gave out, and then he ran on silently, the tears blinding him so that he crashed into low branches and stumbled over roots. He ran on and on into the night, knowing that he was running from his own fear and grief, and that he was lost in an unknown land and he would never get home.

 At last, in the blackness, he stumbled over a root and fell. When he picked himself up, his head spinning, he heard soft voices and saw dim, drifting lights all around him. He shook his head and his sight cleared. The lights became a ring of tall, pale figures, slowly advancing toward him through the trees.

The fetches had found him again. He had run as far as he could, and it was not far enough. His last hope, his last strength slipped away. Shadows clouded his vision and he fell into darkness.

 

 

 

 

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