At the dawn of the Age of Man, the eve of his destruction is at hand . . .
The Age of Man has begun. Gone are the elves and dwarves, orcs and trolls, and other creatures of legend. Having driven the “undesirables” from their lands, the kingdoms of the island continent of Pentania have started a new chapter in human history. The gods are a myth, magic is a forsaken art, and the avatars, shepherds of the races, have faded into the mists of time. Now, mankind will rule. But they are not alone.
When the king of Alson is assassinated and the capital besieged by a nefarious wizard, even the remote village of Diln is not immune from the chaos and terror that sweep the realm. Torn from his home, young Jarom begins a dangerous journey to ask for aid against the implacable usurper.
But soon the machinations of a mysterious council lead Jarom to a seemingly preordained quest: to find one of the mythical Swords of Asahiel, the divine talismans used by the elven avatars in the forging of the earth itself. He must do so not only to establish himself as a leader for his people, but to help save a fledgling, quarrelsome mankind. For the Demon Queen Spithaera has awakened from the Abyss, and humanity is about to learn how very powerless it can be against the ancient terrors of the world.
And whether real or imagined, destiny is not so easily claimed.
Publisher: HarperCollins (Eos)
Editor: Diana Gill
Cover Art: Koveck
First Edition Hardcover: May 3, 2005
Mass Market Reprint: April 25, 2006
Barnes & Noble Spotlight Feature May 2005
Eldon Thompson’s debut novel, The Crimson Sword, is the first volume in an epic fantasy thriller comparable to recent bestselling series like Jennifer Fallon’s Hythrun Chronicles, Mitchell Graham’s Fifth Ring trilogy, and Terry Brooks’s Shannara sequence. Brimming with magic, monsters, and nonstop adventure, this Tolkienesque story pits a reluctant hero—a young woodsman named Jarom—against a demonic queen and her armies of nightmarish dragonspawn. With the fate of millions of innocent lives in the balance, all Jarom has to do is find a mythical sword used by godly avatars in the creation of the world, elude a vengeful wizard who happens to be his banished brother, and somehow defeat a seemingly endless swarm of monstrosities from the Abyss.
After saving a terrified woman from a band of pursuing soldiers, Jarom finds his world is turned upside down by her story. The woman turns out to be the Queen of Alson, and after sharing her horrific tale about the king’s assassination and a wizard’s siege of the kingdom’s capital, she informs Jarom that she is in fact his mother and that he is the secret heir to the throne! As the wizard wreaks havoc—and ghastly creatures begin appearing throughout the countryside—Jarom is sent on an almost hopeless quest to find a sword of legend.
While this novel is clearly not on the level of Tolkien’s archetypal classic, Thompson shows great promise in this page-turning debut, which features generous amounts of magic, mythology, and mayhem. Here’s one fantasy fan who’s very curious to see where Thompson goes with the second installment of his Legend of Asahiel trilogy.
— Paul Goat Allen
© 2005 Barnes&Noble.com llc. All rights reserved.
BookLoons Reviews 2005
There’s the death of the king of Alson, a young prince raised in a distant village and unaware of his heritage, a lost sword of power, an evil, invading sorceror, a demon Queen with her minions, and mysterious powers manipulating events in the background. Sound familiar? It is and it isn’t. Though the basic plot here is pretty standard fare, there are interesting variations, plenty of bloodthirsty action (the sorceror’s treatment of his already abused mom put me off my dinner), and some interesting characters—I especially enjoyed the childlike Kylac Kronus, raised in an Assassin’s Guild and a whiz with weaponry, and found the notion of cannibalistic elves an entertaining deviation from the usual script.
Essentially, Jarom (the young prince) and his childhood friend Allion set off on quest for the Crimson Sword of Asahiel, needed to fight the sorceror. They’re joined by Kylac en route. While they’re wandering near and far, the odds against them lengthen when demon Queen Spithaera is accidentally awakened by children exploring a cave system. Her dragonspawn join in the slaughter that had already started and an unholy alliance is formed. There are captures and escapes, and the obligatory love interest for Jarom—a lovely apprentice healer named Marisha with a secret of her own. Armies are engaged, and the friends scatter pursuing individual, equally perilous goals. It all sorts out by the end, but our heroes should not rest on their laurels as the author hints at what they’ll have to deal in the sequel.
— Hilary Williamson, BookLoons.com
© 2005 BookLoons
Chapters Staff Pick May 2005
A newcomer to the fantasy scene, Eldon Thompson, and his book The Crimson Sword, is a fresh (young) and welcome addition to the field who very well could be (and should be for that matter) a name and face you will be seeing often in the future.
The Crimson Sword begins The Legend of Asahiel like so many other epic fantasies: a young man, a sleepy village and a hidden past. When young Jarom is thrust suddenly forward into the position of first heir to the throne of a besieged kingdom, he sets out with childhood friend, Allion, to find one of the mythical Crimson Swords; a role fate seems to indicate is his destiny.
Or is it?
What if Frodo were not the one meant to carry the ring to Mount Doom? What if Luke Skywalker, like his father, turned out not to be the chosen one? That is the question Thompson sets out to answer with his series of books.
In what is essentially a coming of age story, like so many others we have seen clogging the fantasy genre, Thompson’s unique narrative and rich description set him apart from other first time authors. Take a large helping of Terry Brooks (who has acted as somewhat of a mentor to Thompson), add a heaping teaspoon of Tad Williams and a pinch of Raymond Feist, and you’re looking at Eldon Thompson.
Even the most successful and prolific of authors must start in humble beginnings; and for all our sakes—yours, mine, Eldon’s—I hope that Thompson’s career turns out to be just that: successful and prolific. Aidan Approved!
— Aidan Moher, Chapters Bookstore
Library Journal May 2005
The assassination of the king of Alson throws the succession into chaos; the city of Krynwall has fallen to its enemies, and the desperate queen flees her home in search of safety and of the son she has not seen since his birth 19 years ago. Now a young guardian named Jarom, he wants nothing to do with politics. Nevertheless, Jarom finds himself on a journey across the world in search of the mythical Crimson Sword. Thompson’s first novel creates a richly detailed world of shadow assassins, demon queens, and magical swords. Jarom is a sympathetic and engaging hero who fights for his principles and for his duty. In the tradition of high fantasy, this book belongs in most fantasy collections.
Publishers Weekly May 2005
Marred by wooden prose and lethargic pacing, Thompson’s earnest fantasy debut, the first of a trilogy, tries hard to follow in Tolkien’s and Terry Brooks’s footsteps (Brooks provides a blurb), but only half succeeds. The story opens with a promising air of mystery with the murder of King Sorl, the despotic ruler of Alson, one of the several kingdoms of Pentania. The assassin, known only as the Shadow, was hired by Soric, Sorl’s disinherited older son, now an evil wizard intent on claiming his birthright. The widowed Queen Ellebe seeks out her younger son, Torin, who’s been living for 19 years as Jarom, a mere mushroom farmer’s son, unaware of his royal heritage. Once he recovers from the shock of learning he’s really a prince, Jarom/Torin resolves to overthrow Soric, an effort that will involve him in a quest for a legendary sword. This kindhearted book employs all the familiar fantasy tropes—elven folk, dragons, demons, a fair lady—but unfortunately Prince Torin’s vanilla personality is about as exciting as a hobbit without a ring. The more interesting Shadow vanishes too quickly and appears later only rarely. Hopefully, the next installment will have more bite.
© Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
SciFiChick September 2007
The Crimson Sword is the debut novel by Eldon Thompson. When the king is assassinated and the city conquered by an unknown army commanded by a wizard, all hope seems to fall on a young man named Jarom. With the help of his friend, Jarom goes in search of the legendary Crimson Sword, believing the magical sword will help in his quest to usurp the evil wizard. But there are many other forces at work, with their own plans for Jarom and the sword.
In typical high fantasy tradition, The Crimson Sword contains dragons, wizards, demons, and other unique creatures. But the strength of this novel lies in the twists and surprises in the story. And with plenty of action and violence, we’re never sure who may live and who will die. The antagonists are ruthless killers, but the good guys aren’t without their own arsenal of skilled combatants.
There were a few unique characters that I really enjoyed. But this novel is definitely driven by the action and exciting storyline. This was an impressive debut from a young author. I’ll definitely be seeking out the sequels: The Obsidian Key and The Divine Talisman, which will supposedly be released next year.
Thanks to A Dribble of Ink for the great recommendation.
— Angela Schuch, SciFiChick.com
SFRevu June 2005
The Crimson Sword is book one of the Legend of Asahiel trilogy. Krynwall falls to an unknown wizard and his dark forces. Queen Ellebe escapes to seek help. And we begin reading thinking this is the usual quest story—find the sword, kill the wizard, and all will be right with the world again. But is anything ever that simple?
Jarom has grown up in the simple forest village of Diln. He’s the village Fason or peacekeeper and the only son of the head of the village Elders. But after Jarom and his best friend, Allion, save Queen Ellebe from her pursuers, they are locked out of the Elder’s deliberations. When Jarom is finally allowed into the chamber it is to have his world torn apart and turned upside down. He learns that he is Torin, son of Ellebe and King Sorl and the man he has thought of as his father for all these years was only his caretaker and teacher. What’s more, he is expected to go to a neighboring kingdom and raise an army to save the kingdom before the wizard can consolidate his power.
Jarom feels he has no choice but to agree to this scheme and he and Allion set off. But there is more to being a king than being birthed by the Queen. While Jarom has been trained all his life to be a leader and to settle disputes, he feels adrift as the underpinnings of his world are shifted and his place in it changed. He refuses his new name and reluctantly realizes that he must do what he can for the people. But without his identity as Jarom, he struggles to gain solid footing in this new reality he finds himself in.
While the quest is outwardly a search for the Crimson Sword of Asahiel, the true quest is Jarom’s search to find himself and his place in the world. Can he be a leader of men? Can he become a King? Does he want to be King?
Along the journey, Jarom meets with others who help, hinder, confuse, advise, challenge, love, and skew his worldview. There’s a lot going on in this book: high adventure, love, friendship, meddling wise men, and monstrous demons. There’s something for everyone as Jarom strives to save his village, the kingdom, and discover himself. The big surprise for me is that while this is book one of a trilogy, it can and does stand alone.
What’s even more surprising is that this is a first novel. Eldon Thompson has written a different quest story that has enough twists and turns to entertain even the most jaded fantasy reader. There are some rough spots as Jarom whines about his fate and acts as if the world owes him something for being different than what he believed it to be. Seeing the control this author has over the material indicates that as his skills grow with the next book, the story should gain even more depth and twistedness.
Recommended: Give it a try, you’ll be glad you did.
— Gayle Surrette, SFRevu.com
© 2005 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
Midnight shadows filled the forest, spectral images born of moonlight filtering through a thicket of gnarled oak and shagbark hickory, of pine and spruce, of ferns and fronds and slithering ivy. Upon the ground, dark profiles weaved and merged, gathered over twigs and needles in a series of dry pools. Once puddled, the darkness shifted in silent ripples, mimicking the languid motion of branches and leaves swaying overhead in a late summer breeze.
At the edge of one such pool, standing just within the sifted radiance of a pale moon, a mouse lifted its head to sniff the scented air. Whiskers wriggled atop its nose, brushing the air with ceaseless anticipation. Its heart beat furiously within its chest. The creature glanced quickly to one side, then the other, then looked back to the small grain seed clutched in its paws. Once, twice, it nibbled experimentally, turning the morsel over, testing it from either end. Finally, it cast the seed aside and reached for another.
A sudden shadow fell over it. The mouse squealed as iron talons pierced its flesh, a sharp squeak of fear and surprise. Before it could draw another breath, its chest collapsed beneath a crushing grip as it was hoisted free of the earthen floor.
The owl bore its twitching meal skyward, winging its way through a labyrinth of dark trees.
The Shadow watched the owl’s flight and remained hidden, eyes and ears probing the darkness. But the attack had been perfect. Almost immediately, the shrill echoes of the mouse’s cry were lost to the wind, and what remained of life within the forest went about its business without notice or concern. The Shadow permitted itself a private smile. Perfect.
It detached itself from its concealment then, peeling from the trunk of a nearby birch like a strip of bark. It cast north and south, crouched low, searching for a response to its movement. Detecting none, it resumed course, a shimmer amid the trees. Like the owl, it flew upon wings of death, slipping through the foliage without a whisper to mark its passing. Rodents scurried from its path; trees shuddered in a gust of wind. Made anxious by its ghostly presence, nature recoiled, finding safe quarter from which to watch and wait out the trespasser’s foul purpose.
It helped the Shadow to think in such exaggerated terms, to distance even itself from its true identity, to imagine itself a creature of supernatural origin and prowess. It fancied itself a fiend among children, pitiless, as inexorable as death itself.
Unhindered, it slid into a copse sprouting from the fringe of the forest. Less than a hundred paces to the south, down a gently sloping hill, loomed a forbidding shape, a wall outlined against the night by the pale wash of moon and stars. The Shadow’s gaze swept the wall’s surface, a skin ravaged by mosses and ivy and crumbling mortar seams. Despite its weathered appearance, the stone structure towered over the land. A trickle of a moat ringed its base, little more than a stream of sewage headed for the nearby Royal River. Most importantly, only a single sentinel stood watch upon this section of the rampart, one who, amazingly enough, appeared to be dozing while leaning upon his rusted pike.
Without further hesitation, the Shadow dashed from its cover, plunging into the knee-deep prairie grass that carpeted the hillside. It crossed the clearing in a crouch, leapt the putrid stream, and came to rest against the cold stone of the castle wall. With only a slight breeze to mark its passing, it need not have paused to ensure that it had not been spied. But the Shadow wore caution as a soldier would his heavy armor, a coat of arms enmeshed over limbs and joints, impossible to remove without concerted effort, and shed not a moment before the battle was won. Caution shielded against overconfidence, which often led to mistakes. And in a contest such as this, a single mistake could grant passage into death’s domain. So the Shadow made none.
An army of crickets chirped in shrill cadence. Farther off, an owl hooted deep within the woods. Nearby, the waters of the moat lapped against their earthen banks. But the Shadow’s presence, draped flat against the wall, remained undetected.
Secure in this thought, the Shadow turned to face the unyielding stone, producing a coiled length of slender rope from within its cloak. To one end was fastened a tiny, three-pronged grapnel, its metal hooks wrapped in cloth to help quiet any sound and guard against the reflection of light. With deft movements, the Shadow sent the hook hurtling to the top of the crenellated battlement some ninety feet overhead. The throw was true. A muffled clank echoed upon the wind as the hook swung around a crumbling merlon and bit like a serpent into the resisting stone.
Below, the Shadow waited, a tiny crossbow poised to bury its bolt into the unsuspecting face of any curious sentry. But once again, its caution proved unnecessary, as a sudden snore broke the near silence.
The crossbow vanished, and a pair of daggers appeared. After spinning them in its fingers, the Shadow placed the blades in its mouth. Seizing the threadlike rope, the invader tested its hold before beginning to climb.
The Shadow breezed up the monstrous structure, running skyward along the wall while pulling hand over hand upon the rope. Upon reaching the top, the Shadow swung skillfully between two moss-covered merlons, drew the daggers from its mouth, and buried each to its hilt in the throat of the oblivious guardsman. Slumping to the ground within a shadowed alcove, the sentry fell silently into a sleep from which he would never awake.
Pausing briefly to draw a breath, coil its rope, and retrieve its blades, the Shadow turned and raced along the battlement, down a flight of lichen-covered steps, and into the city below.
Closed shops stared with blank expressions as the Shadow passed through the slumbering marketplace. It knew well the route to take, racing through the empty business center while avoiding the areas infested at this hour with drunks, whores, thieves, and various other miscreants. Although more at home with their type than most others, on this night, the Shadow had other business with which to attend.
Overhead, scattered clouds hid the moon and stars as they tracked across the sky. Pools of lamplight were scarce in this sector of the city, and easily avoided. Though ever mindful of its surroundings and watchful of the darkened alleys through which it passed, the Shadow hastened its pace.
Within moments, the iron fence encircling the royal palace emerged from behind a slat-wood building. A pair of watchmen stood before the towering grillwork, laughing over some obscene gossip about their queen. As it studied the men and their surroundings, the hidden Shadow considered their raillery with wry interest. In other nations, speaking such words meant death, but in Alson, half the rumors about Queen Ellebe were started by King Sorl himself—by the sound of it, this one included.
Only in Alson, the Shadow thought, where the king’s penchant for lurid tales and unrestrained revelry was the stuff of legend. It was said that no ruler in history knew better how to sate the base urges of himself and his exclusive guests than old King Sorl. His was a large and wealthy land, built on his father’s efforts, and it was not in Sorl’s nature to worry about cost or consequence. Though Alson fell into further ruin with each passing season, the king demanded that his treasury be kept full, his father’s fortune supplemented from time to time with taxed and stolen treasures in order to fund his appetites.
A shame he reserved so little of that fortune for the commission of more-competent sentries.
When the pair of guards erupted into an uncontrollable fit of laughter, the Shadow stepped forward and slit their throats before they could register its presence. As it lowered the second guardsman softly to the ground, the Shadow found a confused expression on the man’s stubbled face.
“You’re dead,” the killer said in a whisper, like that of a dry leaf scraping across the cobbled street.
The soldier’s grunt fell from his throat with a choking splash of blood.
With that, the Shadow wiped its blade before scampering to the top of the gate and jumping lightly to the ground beyond. It hit the stone running, and within moments had reached a structure that dwarfed its surrounding companions.
Despite its size, the tower of King Sorl was by no means magnificent. Once upon a time, it had been the most splendid structure in Alson, a proud symbol of her lands and ruler. But now, it more rambled into the night sky than soared, and was so cracked and weathered that it seemed as if only the clinging ivy kept it standing.
Upon reaching the tower, the Shadow skulked alongside its circular outer wall, making for the servants’ entrance. But the area was heavy with traffic, as the last of the revelers and food merchants and drug mixers from the night’s festivities headed home or lingered about, not yet ready for the debauchery to end. Most were too inebriated to give the Shadow pause. Whores giggled and sighed, some teasing and demure, others open and inviting as they considered last-minute propositions. But others appeared more cognizant, such as scullery maids pushing out wagons of refuse and the whoremasters come to collect their fees. When a trio of guardsmen sauntered over to inspect and then join the commotion, the Shadow decided to seek another avenue.
Flitting away, the Shadow moved back toward the front of the building, where it considered the broad flight of steps leading up to the tower’s main entrance. A murky collection of moon and lantern light washed down over the stone, taunting the Shadow with its ability to expose the darkness, daring it forward.
The Shadow cast an ear back toward the side of the tower. The risk, it had begun to realize, was minimal.
After mounting the steps, the Shadow pushed experimentally upon the enormous pair of doors fronting the structure. They knocked briefly against the crossbar locked within. Spinning away, the Shadow came to rest against a postern. Hearing nothing from within, it went to work on the keyhole of the wrought-iron gate that warded the wooden door beyond. Soon, the tumblers shifted and the latch released with a click. With the protective grillwork unlocked, the Shadow reached between its bars for the knocker clinging to the main door.
* * *
Carrus groaned. Realizing that the tapping was not a result of the dreams in his head, but of a spear butt against his helm, he came awake and slapped at the intrusion. “What in the Fiend’s eye?”
Tehmin snorted and withdrew his spear. He offered a toothy grin as Carrus’s thrashing did little more than knock askew his own helm. “We’s got company.”
“What?” Carrus finally centered his helm and glared at his fellow guardsman, who pointed to the receiving door of the main foyer. “Well, run them off already. What do you need to wake me for?”
“Procedures,” Tehmin reminded him, although the man’s smirk betrayed the fact that he had roused his companion for no other reason than to irritate him.
Chuckling at Carrus’s muttered curses, Tehmin approached the door and drew back the viewing slat. His statement of dismissal caught, however, as he gazed past the bars of the security gate.
“What is it?” Carrus prompted.
“Bah, kids.” Tehmin slammed shut the viewing slat and turned away. Before he had taken two steps, the knock sounded again. Spinning about, he tore open the slat. Someone on the other side of the door gave a low whistle.
Tehmin growled and threw back the locking bar. Behind him, Carrus chuckled.
“Now, now, Tehmin. Procedures.”
Tehmin ignored him and yanked open the wooden door. As soon as he did, the security gate flew open as well, and Tehmin doubled over. Carrus stopped laughing long enough to squint at the shadow that came rushing forward. His eyes widened as they caught a flash of steel, but before he could so much as find his voice, Carrus felt his windpipe collapse beneath the shredding tips of twin daggers. He clutched at his assailant, but might as well have been grasping at the wind. He felt his muscles stiffen and convulse, heard blood splatter as he coughed, then watched the world fade.
* * *
The Shadow squinted against the torchlight. Ordinarily it would have shuddered at such a risk, but this mission had become a touch too easy, and having granted caution its due consideration, the Shadow did not mind adding some excitement to its task. Now, after positioning the pair of guards in a pretense of slumber and securing the portal, the Shadow slipped away from the reaches of the revealing chamber light to the base of a stairway fronting the main hall. Climbing to the top took a matter of heartbeats, at which point the Shadow chose one of several side passages and moved cautiously down its length toward a second set of stairs beyond.
With silent efficiency, the Shadow navigated the maze of corridors and stairs that crisscrossed the interior of the royal palace, winding its way skyward. Reaching the upper floors proved no difficult task; nor was there any challenge in locating Sorl’s room. The passages were empty of life, and once it had reached the tower’s apex, the Shadow followed the snore of a sentinel to the king’s door. The fool lay on the ground in a drunken slumber, a half-filled mug of ale leaning dangerously upon his lap. Above his head, a torch burned gleefully, its light creating strange yet innocuous shadows that helped to make the lethal one invisible. There were no sounds from within.
The guard did not see the glint of steel as the killer’s dagger slid from its sheath. Nor did he see how close the blade came to slitting his throat before the Shadow shifted and withdrew the weapon, deciding against the spilling of the man’s blood. Let the man try to explain himself in the morning. Let him squirm before his captain and wish that he had been slain. Let him live to wonder at and to curse the Shadow’s inexplicable mercy.
Smirking to itself, at its ability to play games with fear and death the way others played with dice, the Shadow shoved the unlocked door fully open. Without a second glance at the dozing guardsman, the Shadow blew like a stray gust through the arched opening and into the chambers of Sorl, king of Alson.
The door closed silently. Inside, the Shadow found a comfortable sitting room, complete with a flaming hearth and padded chairs. Clothes and mugs and food trays littered the otherwise plush landscape. To the left, an empty doorway opened in on the king’s bedchamber.
Sliding along the near wall, the Shadow sheathed its dagger and produced again its tiny crossbow. It could see the king’s slumbering form clearly now, a mountain beneath rumpled sheets. Surprisingly, the man slept alone, sprawled upon his back beneath the awning that stretched across brass bedposts, their curtains drawn back.
Alone, save for his cat.
The animal lifted its head as the Shadow crossed the threshold of the bedchamber. One eye was missing, the scarred lid stretched tight and sewn shut against the hollow socket. Its good eye glittered while the cat hissed a slow, steady warning. When the Shadow eased forward, the animal bounded away, scampering across Sorl’s chest before dropping to the floor and vanishing behind a dresser.
In its wake, the king woke with a start and jerked upright.
“Who’s there?” he coughed.
Pieces of the man’s evening feast still nested in his tangled black beard. His eyes were puffy and shaded. His garments appeared to be those he had worn that day, stained with gravy and drink and the stench of smoke from feast hall torches.
The Shadow offered no response. It stood motionless while Sorl blinked and rubbed his eyes and cast about for the source of his alarm. After a moment of searching, Sorl finally saw the Shadow, and he began to tremble as he spied its weapon, leveled already with deadly aim.
“What . . . whatever you want—”
“I shall have,” the Shadow whispered.
Sorl’s face went pale and he began to cast frantic glances about the room. The Shadow watched him, reveling in the man’s fear. Ironic, that the people of Alson might actually think the assassin had done their land a service.
People were, after all, shortsighted and foolish.
Realizing his doom, the wide-eyed Sorl finally shrieked a desperate cry for help. But it was cut short as the lethal bolt leapt from the assassin’s instrument and buried itself in the king’s throat, pinning him to his bed.
Awakened by his king’s cry, the sentry from the outer hall scurried to his feet and rushed into the room. Inside, he found Sorl lying in his bed, and unaware of the small arrow sticking through his lord’s bleeding throat, his eyes flew to the window, where he was certain he saw a man leaping over the stone sill.
His sense of duty lured him to the open window, where he poked his face into the warm night wind and scanned the vista below. After searching in vain for several moments, the sentry shook his head. Perhaps the old coot had had a nightmare. Or perhaps the entire episode had been of his own imagination.
The yawning guardsman closed the shutters, fumbling with the latch as he blinked away the odd dream, then wiping at his breeches where he’d spilled his unfinished ale in his haste to respond. As he stepped from the window, muttering to himself, the sleeping king behind him made a strange gurgling sound. The guardsman turned at once. Bowing respectfully as he backed toward the room’s exit, he apologized for disturbing his lord’s slumber, nightmare or no.
“Your pardon, my liege. ‘Twas merely a shadow.”
Even great deeds can have unimaginable consequences . . .
The Age of Man, so quickly heralded, is already under siege. Shaken by the catastrophic war with the Demon Queen Spithaera, Pentania wrestles with a new world of possibility and potential disaster.
And humanity will never be the same.
In his epic battle with the Demon Queen, young Jarom became Torin, King of Alson. Now, with bitter foes on all sides, he must forge his kingdom from the ruins of an empire and begin anew. But it is too soon to forget the past entirely. For in recklessly reclaiming the mythical Sword of Asahiel, Torin reopened a dimensional breach no longer sealed by its power. Now, creatures of legend and nightmare are returning, as if to reclaim what was once theirs—driven by the terrifying Illysp, foul spirits who possess the bodies and enslave the souls of all.
As the shadowy host advances, Torin must undertake a dangerous voyage to learn the secrets of a lost people who once overcame these relentless marauders. Yet enemies old and those unknown have different plans for king and country, and even if Torin can succeed, it may already be too late.
Publisher: HarperCollins (Eos)
Editor: Diana Gill
Cover Art: Koveck
First Edition Hardcover: July 3, 2006
Mass Market Reprint: February 27, 2007
Romance Junkies 2006
Jarom of Diln, now Torin King of Alson never wanted to be king of anything. He found the legendary Crimson Sword only to save his land from an evil wizard and a Demon Queen. Unfortunately, by retrieving the sword he opened a door to the underworld that will put his world at risk yet again.
Allion, Torin’s best friend, and now regent, didn’t want the responsibility of running a country. Heck, he didn’t even want to go on the first quest and leave their forest home. He most especially didn’t want Torin dumping the responsibility of a land filled with external and internal strife upon him while the boy king went on yet another harrowing adventure. But what choice did he have? The world was at risk from a deadly, otherworldly foe, and only Torin and the Crimson Sword could stop them.
As Torin and Allion travel on their separate but equally dire missions, the world spins out of control. Can they solve their missions in time? Will they find the answers they seek continents apart? And should they succeed will the world ever be the same?
Eldon Thompson writes a fantasy epic that will draw you into a spectacular world filled with conniving enemies, furious battles, mystical creatures, and a blazing sword. As you follow along with Torin and Allion, you can’t help but wish for them to succeed. With every betrayal your heart will leap to your throat and send your pulse racing. THE OBSIDIAN KEY is the sequel to THE CRIMSON SWORD, and I highly recommend reading the books in order to understand this fantastic world.
— Cat Cody, Romance Junkies
SciFiChick July 2008
The Obsidian Key, by Eldon Thompson, is the sequel to The Crimson Sword. King Torin must embark on a quest to find a long-forgotten race of people. While his friend Allion, Torin’s fiancé and her father join together on a journey of their own. With dangerous enemies around every corner, no one can be trusted. And Torin even has enemies within his own kingdom. For back at home, another seeks to usurp King Torin’s throne and claim it as his own.
This sequel is even better than the first. Torin’s journey is long, with many pitfalls, and gains several friends as well as enemies along the way. Meanwhile, Torin’s friend and betrothed have some unique experiences of their own, with foreseeable consequences. The Obsidian Key contains everything a great fantasy story should: magic, unique races as well as the well-known, danger, intrigue, quests, and relationships that grow and change. With plenty of suspense and surprises, this epic fantasy will leave you breathless after a climactic ending. And reaching for the 3rd in the series, The Divine Talisman, which releases today from Eos Books.
— Angela Schuch, SciFiChick.com
The winter storm tore across the land, ripping and snarling like a caged beast set free at last. Its howling breath wailed in his ears. Its frigid claws raked his skin. The darkness of its maw enveloped the earth, rendering deliberate progress a fool’s dream.
Grum looked again to his battered compass, scraping at the ice that shielded its surface. Its needle swung uselessly, drawn in random circles. He shook the instrument, cursing it to the smelter of Achthium’s Forge. To the west were the Skullmars, the treacherous peaks from which they’d been blown off course. To the east, the tempest of the sea. Or so he assumed. The world around him had disappeared, its planes and edges forced together in a hazy smear. Head bowed, eyes squinting against frenzied gusts of windblown earth, he could scarcely spy the ground beneath his feet, let alone even the largest of markers that might guide him home.
He risked a backwards glance to check on his companions. He could see but one, Raegak, tethered to him at the waist in their makeshift line. Beyond that, the rope stretched into the swirling void of pelting ice and strafing winds. He could only hope the others were still there, stumping after, knowing that to become separated now would mean dying alone in these frozen wastes.
Not that remaining together afforded great consolation. Truth was, they were hopelessly lost, miles from the safety and comfort of their subterranean home. And even if home lay just around the bend, were they to stumble half a step to the left or right, they might pass right on by without ever knowing it.
Raegak glanced up, eyes hollow, snow clinging to his beard. Grum looked quickly away, hiding his compass within a gnarled fist, determined to mask his dismay from those who looked to him for solace. He was toifeam, leader of this expedition, and by Achthium, he would see them through.
To accentuate this silent oath, he crammed the worthless compass deep into a leather pouch. At that same moment, the earth fell away, and he found himself scrabbling against a clutching blackness. Chunks of ice and gravel skittered beneath his feet, while a shower of snow cascaded about him. Everything seemed to be sucking him down, down into some depthless—
A sharp tug caught him about the waist, folding him violently forward and snatching the wind from his lungs. For a moment he slid downward again, before coming to a lurching halt. Curtains of snow slid past as his companions struggled with their footing above. He hung there, twisting in the abyss, before reaching up for the lip of the pit, where Raegak, stout legs braced against the earth, bent down and offered a leather-wrapped hand.
Moments later, Grum huddled with his companions around the rim of the breach, peering into its depths. Should it prove to be the shelter that saved them, he would forgive himself his fright from the fall. Nevertheless, he had lived in these mountains long enough to know not to trust them. Such clefts in the earth’s hide might become fissures descending hundreds, even thousands of feet—or if not, might open into the den of some surly creature in no mood to share its home. Even the most foolish of his kin knew better than to enter such an opening without knowing what lay within.
Producing with frozen hands a flint and steel, Grum worked to light the pitch-coated head of a thornweed firebrand. He may as well have tried to do so beneath the black waters of the sea. No sooner did the sparks flare to life than they were borne away by shrieking flurries. Grum persisted, ignoring the stiffness setting into his unmoving joints, lips pressed tight in a determined frown. At last, feeling the hopeless stares of his comrades upon him, he slipped his flint back into its pouch and motioned for Raegak to put the torch away.
He regarded each of his companions in turn—Raegak, Durin, Alfrigg, and Eitri. Friends for more than a generation, they held a shared understanding, their faces reflecting hopes and fears that mirrored his own. They would have to risk it. To prolong their exposure any longer would be fatal.
After a few quick signals, each began working loose the knot that bound him to his companions. Grum alone left his intact, for he would be lowered first. Only after assuring himself of the relative safety of this hidden cave would the others follow. With any luck, nature’s wrath would expire by morning and allow them to begin the task of finding their way back from this wayward trek.
With the thickness of their gloves—and the fingers within numbed almost beyond use—even this simple task proved arduous. Doubled over, they picked at the iced ropes while quivering lips muttered private oaths. Grum watched them for a moment, until a flicker of motion drew his attention down into the hole. He leaned forward, peering intently, but saw only the void. He was about to shake it off as a trick of the storm when it came again, just a hint of movement, of something even darker than the ink in which it swam, shriveled and twisted, almost like—
He fell back as the thing shot forward, blinding in its swiftness. There was a flap of wings, a splash of blood, and a terrible cry that just barely resounded in the din of the gale. By the time Grum had regained his balance, Raegak knelt in the snow, his empty shoulder socket gushing. Already, the thing had moved on. An ebony claw seized Alfrigg by the face. He screamed as barbed nails gouged his flesh, tearing free chunks of skin and even an eyeball. Before he, too, had fallen to his knees, a silent Durin lay gasping, his throat flayed wide.
Grum brought his pick-axe up just in time to deflect a strike from the whirlwind that pressed him. It hit him like a sack of gravel, and off he flew into the blizzard, the pick-axe sailing from his grasp. He caught a glimpse of red-bearded Eitri, battle-axe drawn, peering up at a shapeless mass of whipping black tendrils—like a shredded pennant snapping in the breeze. Raegak, the iron bear, was rising to his feet. Then the battle scene vanished, devoured by a roaring curtain of ice.
Down an invisible slope he flew, skidding headfirst on his backside. His fingers clawed desperately, leather gauntlets plowing the frozen earth. As before, however, he jerked to a halt almost before he realized what was happening. This time, the rope bit into his skin, wedged into a seam of his woolen garments. He grimaced sharply, then reached immediately for his own battle-axe, his first and only thought that his companions needed him.
That changed when the rope about his waist gave a sharp tug. He sat up, seeking to find his feet, when another yank threw him down once more. He knew straightaway by the strength of the force that it was not his companions who were at the other end, hauling him back.
Panic seized him. Instinctively, he gave up trying to free the unwieldy battle-axe and reached instead for his smaller hand-axe.
It slipped from his belt as the creature snatched his ankle with a crushing grip. Grum felt his bones splinter, and he arched his back in agony, letting loose an involuntary wail. His enemy pulled, dragging him up toward the lip of the hole that moments before had tempted him with salvation. Summoning his strength, Grum bucked at the waist and brought the blade of his weapon down hard. A shriek rang out, and, as the creature recoiled, Grum aimed a second strike at the length of rope that served as his tether. It split at once, curled up against the edge of a stone and cleaved by the diamond-edged sharpness of his blade. As his enemy leaned in, more carefully this time, Grum gave a shout and hurled himself out of harm’s way.
The fire in his ankle erupted as he bounced and rolled down the mountainside. The slope wasn’t steep, but the icy conditions would not allow him to slow. Nor did he try. Using gravity as his ally, he clenched his jaw and rolled onward, as far and fast as his god would allow. He gave no thought to where he was going. His only prayer was that whatever he had uncovered would not give chase.
He should have known better. The Skullmar Mountains, even at low elevation, comprised some of the most unforgiving terrain found above or below the earth. Though impossible to gauge, he doubted he had covered even a hundred paces before the ground beneath him once again gave way. This time, there was nothing to halt his descent as first the fall, and then frigid darkness claimed him.
* * *
It was the light that woke him, illuminating a world both foreign and familiar. A world without color, sound, or smell. Yet it remained, somehow, a world of pain.
Numbed, yes, though not so fully that he was dead to its touch. It coursed through him in shallow waves, radiating from one area in particular. Drawn down the length of his body, his gaze fell upon the region of his lower left leg.
Understanding, creeping along a pace or two behind, leapt forth like a thief from the bushes. Although packed loosely in fallen snow, his shattered anklebone lay exposed enough to reveal the truth. His memory flashed back in an instant to the secret cave, the sudden struggle, his rolling flight from the savage creature that had ambushed them all.
And after? He opened his eyes, realizing only then that he had closed them against the onrush of mental imagery. His colorless prison he now recognized as a crevasse, a scar in the surface-earth whose floor was filled with a mattress of snow. This bedding had saved him, unless he missed his guess, for the rift’s opening stood at least two dozen feet above where he now lay. The breach itself had been plugged by a wedge of ice and boulders, sent skidding after him as part of the small avalanche he had no doubt triggered. A fortunate turn, really, for the natural barrier had sheltered him from both beast and storm—the only explanation as to why he still drew breath.
Any joy wrought by this discovery quickly faded, however, as he thought of his friends. He had to assume they had perished, far from their homes in the shadow-earth, made to face death out-of-doors like a pack of wild dogs. He shut his eyes in pained remembrance: Raegak, bairn of Raethor; Durin, bairn of Nethrim; Alfrigg, bairn of Adwan; Eitri, bairn of Yarro.
And Tyrungrum, bairn of Garungum, he added harshly, tacking his own name to the list. For if he did not haul himself from this hole quickly, it would become his cairn. Dwarven flesh or no, he could not survive these elements forever. If the cold did not claim him, his hunger would. As it was, he ran the risk of being buried alive if he could not dig free before the next layer of snow fell.
Tentatively, Grum lifted an arm from where it lay half-buried in powdery snowfall. He reached first for his face and then his head, feeling along its growths and protuberances, tracing the signature collection of bone spurs that marked him unique among his people. At least a handful of those spurs—along with his nose—were frostbitten, he was sure. But that was the least of his concerns.
Somewhat encouraged, he shook free his other arm and worked now to pat along his chest and each of his gnarled limbs, making sure all was intact. It took more than a steep fall to damage a Hrothgari, he thought heartily. His brightening mood, however, lasted only as long as it took to haul himself into a sitting position, at which point the pain in his crushed ankle flared to agony. He gritted away the worst of it, waiting for the body-stiffening waves to subside. Eventually they did, though he shuddered to think of how it would feel once he had thawed.
First things first, he reminded himself, forcing his eyes open and his head back. At least the storm had passed. The sun shone brightly through cracks in the ceiling of his shelter—and through those covered areas where the ice and snow was thinnest. Water dripped here and there, mostly to catch along cavern walls already wet with moisture. It occurred to him that his roof might melt suddenly and dump upon him. But then, that would be almost too easy.
He cast about for his hand-axe, remembering belatedly that he had let it go early on after making his escape, so as not to carve his own hide during his frantic tumble. His pick-axe was gone as well. All that remained to him was the hefty battle-axe—strapped to his pack—that he had been unable to free in the fight above. A poor climbing tool, but it would have to suffice.
As he reached around to grip the weapon’s familiar haft, he recalled his final vision of Eitri, axe in hand to face certain death. In another time and place, the image might have brought tears to his eyes. But time now was his enemy. He would pay tribute to his comrades and beg their families’ forgiveness later.
Biting down against a pain made worse by the slightest of movements, he shifted his pack from his knotted shoulders. When at last he had shrugged free, he paused to catch his breath. He then brought the pack around in front of him, careful to set it to the side and not on his lap. He paused momentarily to admire the bag’s straps and buckles, not one of which had failed him.
Then he went to work.
Like it or not, he had to do something about his leg. He didn’t need to see beneath his boot to know that his toes would be purple with blood loss. Judging by its mashed appearance, the limb was lost to him, if not now, then by the time he dragged it back to Ungarveld. But fresh wounds were often deceiving, and he preferred that a surgeon make the final determination—not to mention any amputation. Still, he could not have it flinging about, threatening his climb at every pull.
After some quick rummaging, he pulled free an unguent, then changed his mind and took three long draughts from his mead cask. Only then did he dip his fingers in the salve with grim intent. Rather than cut away his boot and leave his foot exposed, he reached carefully inside the padded interior . . .
A mere brush against the damaged area was like bathing it in molten metal. His resulting bellow echoed in the confines of the narrow cavern and within the canyons of his throbbing ears.
The noise, as much as the pain, gave him pause. He bit off his own scream—nearly taking his tongue off in the bargain—and shook his head, which swelled with the unreleased pressure. As spasms wracked his body, he listened intently, fearful of what monsters the outburst might bring down upon him.
But as the moments passed, and the only sounds remained those muffled by the closeness of his icy tomb, he began to relax and think clearly once more. Had the creature from above wanted him, it would have sniffed him out the night before. His trek had taken him into the southern reaches of the Skullmars along the eastern coastline. His friends were dead. Just who did he suspect might hear him?
He’d spent just a short time alone, and already he was raving. He needed to get moving before madness set in.
He decided against further use of the unguent. As of this moment, he’d be lucky to die of infection. And its numbing properties wouldn’t do much more than the snow already had.
Seeing no way around it, he doubled up a length of leather and placed it in his mouth to guard against further screams. He then unstoppered his scroll tube, set aside the rolled maps of tanned goatskin, and used a diamond-edged dirk to split the hard leather canister down its center. After carving out the base, he had himself the makings of an excellent splint.
Lashing the guard into place was another matter. By his estimation, it took more than fifty drips from Achthium’s Spear, though the great stalactite by which his kinsmen gauged the passing of time was far away from here. Still, he only lost consciousness once, and completed the task with no more than a dozen swallows of mead. When finished, he felt immeasurably better about his prospects.
He fastened his climbing spikes next, to the foot of his good leg. He sure as stone wouldn’t be putting any weight on the injured one. His hammer and anchors hung in a pouch about his waist. The rest of his belongings, those not needed for the actual climb, he left in his pack, to which he measured and tied a long length of rope. He secured the other end to a rear loop in his belt, making sure to leave plenty of slack. He could not have the pack weighing him down, and yet he wanted to be sure he would be able to retrieve it once he’d reached the top.
As a final precaution, he gathered as much loose snow as possible into the center of the chamber, so as to more deeply cushion any fall. After that, he attached his hand spikes, mapped his desired path, and began to climb.
It seemed impossible at first. Just rolling over and levering himself from the floor was a test of will unlike any he could recall. As soon as he stood, the blood began returning to his feet, causing him to swoon with agony. But the mead helped, and the thought of having to start all over again kept him upright. Reaching up, he set his first anchor, buckled tight his safety rope, and, with one leg, lunged for his first mark.
He made it, and clung there for some time, grimacing in pain, wondering how in the world he could make himself do this. It would be so much easier to simply lie down and let the ice take him. Yet he was determined that if Achthium were to come for him, here and now, He would not find him lying down.
It grew easier after that, though his pace was methodical at best. From shelf to shelf he hauled himself, doing most of the work with his hands, while using his good foot as his base. Where there wasn’t a handhold, he used his axe to chip away at the earthen skin. He set his anchors dutifully, at least every third pull. Despite his best efforts to protect it, his wounded leg bounced and swayed, clipping the stone every now and then, causing him to grind his teeth into nubs. But the splint served its purpose, shielding him from the worst of it, allowing him to continue.
Hours passed. Hunger and thirst assailed him. Grum ignored these aches as he did all the others, drawing himself ever higher, until at last the doorway to his freedom came within reach.
Perched beneath the lip of the crevasse, he paused to gather his strength. Above the sound of his own labored breathing, he heard what he believed to be more than just the wind. There was that, to be sure, whistling through the cracks of his ceiling, but there was something else, deeper and angrier, the unmistakable restlessness of the sea. Had he and his team strayed so far?
When ready, he set a final anchor and pulled forth his axe. The daylight was fading, its red glow through the ice dimmed. The sooner he emerged, the better, especially if he wished to find new, suitable shelter before nightfall.
He stopped short, however, before making his first cut. Once again, fear gripped him, the dread possibility that that creature might still be out there, waiting for him. Hack through this blanket of packed snow, and he might bring his own death down upon him.
Grum growled the notion away as he had before. If that was his fate, so be it. He deserved no better than his friends.
The snow was thicker than it appeared, and more solid. Sun melt throughout the day had helped turn it to ice. Grum braced himself as well as he could and continued to chip away, forced to hit harder than he would have liked. After all, he had to be careful not to dislodge the entire pack, for if he were to do so, he might end up right back at the bottom.
As if made manifest by his concern, the wedge of ice and stone gave a shudder before cracking and shearing away. A jagged boulder struck his wrist, and his axe went spinning into the chasm below. Grum closed his eyes and clung to the rock face, doing his best to ride out the sudden storm. Had he glanced up, he might have seen the larger boulder that slipped in after, skidding down from somewhere higher up the escarpment. When it struck him, his world exploded, and amid the telltale song of snapping anchors, he felt himself bouncing, flailing, plummeting once again, down into darkness.
* * *
When consciousness next greeted him, Grum knew right away that he was in worse shape than before. His head rang, and his vision would not seem to clear. The snow around his head was colored pink with blood, and the pain in his crushed ankle reached now through both legs, clear to his waist.
He lay this time upon his stomach, his arms sprawled out in pinwheel fashion. When he brought them in and tried to push up, a piercing agony in his lower region dropped him back and left him whimpering. He tried again, having no other choice, and twisted his head around to survey the damage. A boulder had landed atop him, sandwiching both legs, and now held him pinned.
Turning back, he cast about for his axe. A couple of his teeth lay in the bloody snow before him, and a hand went to his swollen jaw. His weapon was nowhere to be seen, buried, in all likelihood, on the other side of the cavern. If only he might have fallen on its edge, so as to end his suffering quickly.
Instead, he kept himself alive for two more days. Foolish hope, perhaps, or sheer stubbornness. He had no right to expect a rescue, and there was no longer any way to set himself free. He ate the snow, though it chilled him from within, while his shelter continued to ward him from the storms that swept overhead. He became ill, and was set upon by delirium, to the point that he was not surprised when the voices of his slain comrades began to call down to him.
Grum moaned and stirred, but was unable to escape the haunting echoes.
“Grum, we’re coming for you.”
He dreamt then that they were there, surrounding him. Durin and Alfrigg, even Raegak, with his missing arm, lowered down in a leather sling. They inspected him, and let him sip mead. He mumbled his apologies, but still the wayward spirits would not let him be. They dismissed his concerns and whispered reassurances that all would be well.
The throbbing pain had for the most part died away, but it wracked him anew as the boulder was shifted aside. There was more discussion, and then he felt himself being hoisted skyward, no doubt lifting free of his mortal coil so as to join the bellows winds of the Great Smithy in His everlasting Earthforge.
The Forge itself was scintillating in its brightness. Grum squinted against its glare as he was brought from the fissure and hauled from the sling. There was much more jostling than he had imagined might be found in the afterlife. And still, the nagging pain. He felt himself being set down again in the snow, the way it crunched beneath his weight. But if he was now a spirit . . .
His eyes flickered open. The glare was gone, blocked by the shadows of his friends, who encircled him. They were all there now, even Eitri, who grinned broadly.
“Thought we might have smelled the last of you,” the red-bearded dwarf said.
Only then, as he heard the other’s voice crisp and clear in the brine-filled wind, did Grum realize the truth. He was not dead, but very much alive. More importantly, so were his friends. Impossible, he knew, but he could no longer deny the physical evidence.
“You’re—” he tried to say, but his voice cracked, lending further proof to his realization. “You’re alive.”
His companions glanced at one another, their smiles cold.
“And so shall you be, my athair,” Raegak offered. “So shall you be.”
The others laughed, grunting harshly. Grum’s own mirth began to fade as his gaze shifted from face to face. Something wasn’t right. It was clear his friends all bore the wounds from their final battle. What wasn’t clear was how they had survived them. Raegak’s bloody stump was unbound. Alfrigg’s face remained a mangled mask of torn flesh. Durin’s laugh hissed weirdly through shredded vocal cords.
He turned to Eitri, inspecting the other more closely. A great gash was revealed in his side. Grum saw a hint of internal organs. Like those of the others, the open wound did not seem to trouble him.
Grum felt his pulse quicken, yet wondered anew if he might be dreaming.
Then the dagger struck his chest, biting his lung, so that his scream was choked short by a mouthful of blood.
He looked over, gaping first at the familiar bone handle protruding from his chest, then at the gloved hand of he who held it. Raegak smiled and hissed in his ear, although Grum was no longer certain who his friend was speaking to.
“Taste, my athair. Taste this realm of flesh.”
* * *
It was a world unglimpsed by man, a world of mystery and wonder, uninhabitable by his standards of life. Yet there it flourished in the lightless depths, a veritable jungle of exotic plants, animals, and organisms—forms of life that were not troubled by the frigid cold and impossible pressures, or that needed sunlight to thrive. Creatures here milked the earth of its thermal energies, or fed upon those that did. They saw in ways that beings of light could not, and dwelled their entire lives in isolation from the world above—a world as separate and foreign to them as they to it.
Except for him.
He alone among his deep-sea brethren had seen that world and others, he who bore an awareness and experience unmatched by any mortal being. But this was his home now, and he had learned to cherish the isolation of his surroundings, the tranquility of his final resting spot. Untroubled by even the harshest elements of his environment, he had long ago come to terms with his fate, even learned to take comfort in it. It was as good a place as any in which to while away his eternity.
And yet, he could ignore the waking summons no more. After weeks of restlessness, he had at last stirred to life, allowing his barnacle-encrusted eyelid to slide slowly open. After so many centuries, so many mortal ages, it had taken him but a moment to orient himself, lying upon the bottom of the Oloron Sea, countless fathoms below the world above.
A world to which he must soon return.
He shifted his gargantuan body, and the millions of creatures that had made his coral-covered hide their home scattered. The tides themselves recoiled, and beyond, the seeds of quests were sown—those of the witch . . . the avatar . . . the one who had unleashed this storm . . . He could feel their reactions, even if they as yet could not. For nothing so great had ever lived—or ever would again.
Still, even he could not resist the call, that which beckoned him to emerge, to make known his wrath upon the world. So be it. For despite the passing of centuries, it felt as though he had just barely settled down to rest, and his anger was indeed kindled. He would answer the call. He would resume his timeless hunt.
And he would feed.
Fate’s ultimate battle is waged first from within . . .
To protect his people from the demonic Illysp, Torin, king of Alson, made the ultimate sacrifice. Now, as his best friend and his former love seek to salvage the shattered lands beyond their borders, a treacherous assault costs them their most powerful weapon—the fabled Crimson Sword.
Hopelessly outmatched, Pentania’s citizens fight to flee their conquered homeland, or perish. Yet an even greater threat looms. For the Leviathan has been awakened, an unfathomable creature whose wrath could single-handedly destroy the entire world.
Hope—if any remains—lies in the efforts of a lone elf, a mad witch, and a fallen hero charged with unraveling a series of divine riddles. Yet, to do so, they must first find a way to break the very bonds of Illysp possession . . .
Publisher: HarperCollins (Eos)
Editor: Diana Gill
Cover Art: Koveck
First Edition Hardcover: July 22, 2008
Mass Market Reprint: July 28, 2009
Publishers Weekly June 30, 2008
The gory final Legend of Asahiel novel (after 2006’s The Obsidian Key) brings this grim fantasy epic to conclusion with plenty of violence and magical mayhem. The dreaded Illysp pressure the forces of good in Pentania with their Illychar, monsters created from the bodies and memories of the dead. Krynwall, capital of Alson, reels from the death of Torin, last bearer of the Crimson Sword, and a power struggle erupts among the city’s leaders. Matters worsen when Torin’s body is inhabited by the Illychar called Itz lar Thrakkon, the “Boundless One.” Only half-elven Annleia, daughter of the last Vandari elf, can battle Thrakkon and petition the ancient Dragon God Ravar to learn how to destroy the Illysp once and for all. The final chapter of this dense trilogy is not for new readers, but those familiar with previous events will be satisfied with its sneering villains, bloody battles, and decisive climax.
© 2008, Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All Rights Reserved.
The creature sprang with a rabid snarl, moving quickly to cut off their escape. No longer elven, it bounded after them with the lust of a maddened predator, tearing through brush and forest limbs, feral eyes blind to all but the thrill of its impending kill.
Laressa stumbled and went to one knee. She screamed for her daughter to run on, then spun to meet their pursuer’s final charge. A pair of blades shone darkly in the moonlight, slick with blood and thirsting for more. She looked past them, focused on her assailant’s eyes as she gripped the wellstone hung from her wrist. Raising it like a shield in the palm of her hand, she bid its power forth.
Light flared and crackled in a thin, forked streamer. Fearing she was too late, Laressa closed her own eyes and threw herself aside, hearing at the same time her daughter’s scream.
Upon a tangled bed of vine and root, Laressa’s entire body clenched, bracing for the inevitable. She could smell the Illychar’s fetid breath, and sense the creature’s hatred. After millennia of imprisonment, it would not be denied.
But the terrible moment passed, and still the daggers did not bite. Though her heartbeat was like a drum in her ears, she heard now her killer’s snarls of frustration. When she opened her eyes, she found it staggering about, sniffing and blinking in confusion, too disoriented to find its quarry a mere pace away. As it slashed aimlessly at the surrounding foliage, its growls of disappointment gave way to howls of rage.
Laressa hurried to regain her feet. The release would not grant her much time. And even if its effect were to last forever, she had by no means escaped the peril gnashing all around her.
Her next concern was not for herself, however, but for her daughter. She cast about frantically, trying to remember from which direction she had heard the young maiden scream. No easy task, given the chorus of shrieks and caterwauls that rent the night. She had worried upon hearing it that the child had witnessed her fall and meant to return to her. Now, she wished for just that.
That hope, like so many others this night, was engulfed by the horrifying truth. Laressa had managed just a few strides when her desperate search came to an abrupt end. Her daughter’s flight had been swift, but no elf was going to outrun a goblin—least of all a pair of the creatures Illysp-possessed and lying in ambush.
Laressa jerked to a halt as she watched the batlike fiends shred their victim. Part jackals, part whirlwind, they tore at the bloody pulp with hooked teeth and barbed claws, scrambling over and atop one another, painting themselves and the earth red. Laressa told herself that the writhing mass beneath was not—could not possibly be—her daughter. Then the victim arched sharply, and their eyes met.
One of those eyes was missing. The other was wide, its emerald ring drowning against a blood-filled white. Tresses of red-gold hair hung matted and torn. But through them, the lone eye still saw. An arm reached out, covered in deep lacerations, and the mouth opened in a soundless cry. A plea for mercy. An expression of unspeakable pain.
Laressa matched that cry with a terrible, bloodcurdling wail that peaked momentarily above the cacophony. One of the goblins looked to her with a blood-spattered maw. In the next instant, she sent a brilliant bolt of scintillating light smashing into it, igniting it. It screeched as it flew through the air to lie in a charred heap. The other spun away, a black funnel cloud in the moonlit darkness. The light struck it from behind, and the beast disintegrated in an explosive burst of red fire.
Laressa Solymir, keifer of the elven nation of Finloria, crumbled then, her strength and power spent. As she landed upon her knees, her gaze fell upon the wellstone in her palm, the multifaceted crystal gone dark. Her protection against the enemy was gone. She had nothing left with which to defend herself from the bestial darkness come to lay claim.
Looking once more upon her only child, Laressa welcomed its approach.
Somehow, without even realizing it, she crawled forward to kneel at her daughter’s side. The girl’s mouth groped uselessly, vocal cords torn. Her remaining eye shone with anguish and fright. Laressa knew she had to finish it, but she could not find the strength.
A bloody hand found hers, clamped itself over the wellstone.
Laressa sobbed as the crystal whitened, fed by the child’s remaining life strength. Her daughter could only give so much. With tears in her eyes, Laressa forced herself to draw the rest.
A moment, and it was done.
All around, the slaughter continued. Hers was but one of a thousand such agonies suffered this night. She could hear the Illychar sweeping through the forest from all angles, feeding with ravenous delight. The screams of her people did not lie. Before the break of dawn, the once-proud Finlorian nation would be no more. Doomed to a fate they had foolishly thought to avoid. Sentenced to die at the hands of the most relentless enemy their world had ever known.
And it had been her duty to prevent it.
The thought angered Laressa. Despite her guilt, despite her pain, that fury lent her strength enough to do what was required. She gripped her wellstone, calling upon its power to light a blaze beneath her daughter’s remains. The energy she had drawn from the child was barely enough, and left the stone dark and empty once more. But Laressa would not fail her daughter so completely as to allow her to become an Illychar herself.
When it was over, the finality of what she had done drove Laressa to her feet. Blinded by tears, she ran from the horror, ran from the pain. She ran from the folly, the nearsightedness, that had led to this calamity. She ran from what she had done, and from what she had failed to do.
All around her, the woods thrashed with Illychar pursuit. Their lusty howls mocked her efforts. She sensed their dark forms, hunting her with darker intent. All had been trampled and destroyed, or soon would be. The Illysp knew no other way.
She tripped then and pitched to the ground, gasping for breath, only to choke on a mouthful of dirt. Her heart pounded. From ahead now, and from either side, enemies approached. She was surrounded, defeated. Laressa was too heartsick to care.
Nevertheless, when the first of the Illychar reached her, she cried out, horrified by its frigid touch upon her back. Rolling to the side, she called upon her wellstone’s magic, even though there was nothing left. A moment later, she was glad the release had failed, for as she glanced up, her fury was swept away by a wave of relief.
She blinked vigorously, then stared. Eolin, her husband, had come for her. In this, her blackest hour, he had returned to help shield and sustain her. His hand reached out. Even now, his face shone with wisdom and love.
Tears of joy mixed with those of torment as Laressa allowed him to pull her to her feet. Throwing her arms about his neck, she wept in his ear, begging his forgiveness while confessing all: the warnings ignored, her arrogance in thinking them safe, her inability to protect their child . . . She held nothing back, for here was someone with whom to share her agony and failures, someone who could soothe her fears, someone . . .
. . . who had not yet returned her embrace.
A knot of sickening dread stole Laressa’s breath, as her wracked mind suddenly recalled that Eolin had been murdered weeks ago. Before she could stop, convince herself that she did not want to know, her jaw lifted, forcing her gaze to meet her husband’s eyes. Immediately she recognized the pain therein—the ultimate anguish of an enslaved soul.
A soul gripped in the mandibles of possession.
Eolin’s features seemed to melt, his face shriveling into a blackened death mask. The Illychar smiled, as if laughing at the cries of its body’s former spirit, and lifted a single hand.
Laressa screamed as it found her throat.
* * *
She awoke with a start, shivering through a cold sweat as she inhaled sharply of the musky air. Just like that, she was back in her denzaan, her burrow home, safe beneath the earth. Even so, she lunged reflexively for the bracelet that lay upon her bedside table, clutching its wellstone in her palm. Drawing upon the energy stored within that central crystal, she began to calm, her pulse to slow. All at once, the savage images were receding. The Illychar, the devastation, Eolin’s possession—all faded swiftly from mental view.
Small comfort. For Laressa knew they would return.
She hung her head, fighting to steady her breathing. In doing so, she remained careful not to close her eyes, lest the phantom horrors be resummoned before they had fully dispersed. She had not the strength to confront them again.
Yet she would have to, she knew. Though she did all she could these days to avoid it, she had to sleep at some point. And when she did, the nightmares would be waiting.
It had been that way for three weeks now, ever since the visit of the one called Torin—the one whose coming had ended her life as she had known it, and left behind this cruel emptiness for her to endure in its stead. For it was his quest that had brought on the rest: Crag’s betrayal, Warrlun’s retribution, Eolin’s murder . . .
Her eyes did close then, seeking to deny a reality every bit as horrible as her dreams. It was the former that had spawned the latter. There was no escape, in sleep or in waking, from her agonies. The only question seemed to be which would lay final claim to her broken spirit.
It would happen soon. The dreams had been growing stronger, more intense, every night. At this rate, madness lay just around the corner.
A welcome relief, some part of her whispered, should it find her before the Illysp.
Drawing several steadying breaths, Laressa slipped from beneath her covers, leaving her wellstone bracelet to hang upon her wrist. As her feet brushed upon the moss that carpeted her earthen bedchamber, its life sent unspoken assurances through her skin. But for how long? How long did even the flowers and trees and grasses have once there was no one left to care for them? For she had seen the end in her dreams, the twisted landscapes of utter desolation, where lonely winds whistled through bare canyons of blackened stone. Where the heavens wept over the charred remains of a blistered earth. It would take centuries, eons maybe, for it to reach that point, for the Illychar to eradicate even themselves. Yet such was the inevitable outcome of their unchallenged reign. Eolin, and then the dreams, had told her so.
She sat for a moment at the edge of her woven bed, her head in her hands, wishing now that Eolin had died before he had shared with her the truth of the Vandari and their legacy. In passing that information on to her with his dying breaths, he had made her the final bearer of that knowledge. He had not done so to burden her with guilt—had begged her, in fact, to let any resulting failure rest with him alone. But there was no separating the two. Laressa, not Eolin, was now last of the Vandari, defender of the Swords of Asahiel and keeper of the secrets of the Illysp War.
The fate of all rested in her hands.
And yet, what could she do? Eolin had had his reasons for refusing to join Torin’s crusade, none of which had changed with his untimely death. His bitterness toward the humans that had come to beg his aid was shared by all Finlorians, and with good reason. Why should her people risk themselves to help those who had hunted them to near extinction? Aside from that, their powers of magic were no more—or at least, those of the kind Torin had been seeking. She had knowledge only—of a secret history, yes, but if Torin had been sent by a scion of the Entient Algorath, as claimed, then surely the young king already knew everything she might share. And lastly, even if her people wished to help the humans, and possessed the required powers, how was she to reach them while trapped in this valley by her father’s armies?
She had gone over it in her mind for weeks now. Even while grieving, even while wishing upon Torin and his friends the fate they deserved, she had been thinking it through, in search of what she could do—if not to protect them, then to protect her own people. For this was not a menace that would be satisfied with laying claim to the shores upon which it had been born. Its cravings were too primitive, too bestial to ever be sated. It would hunger, and it would grow, and no matter the obstacle, it would find a way to spread.
“Mother, you promised you would sleep.”
Laressa spun, startled by the voice. In the near darkness of her denzaan’s bedchamber, she could scarcely see the outline of the figure that stood upon her threshold.
“I tried, child.”
Her daughter touched one of the exposed root tendrils that dangled from the ceiling, coaxing forth more light. Its brightened glow revealed youthful skin, emerald eyes, and long tresses of delicate blond hair. Despite the welcome sight, Laressa flinched, seeing for a moment that same face torn apart by goblin Illychar, contorted by suffering as her life’s energy drained away into her mother’s wellstone . . .
“You had another nightmare,” Annleia presumed, her concern evident as she stepped forward.
Denial was useless. Most likely, she had been awakened, as on previous nights, by her mother’s screams.
Annleia sat down beside her and took her hand. “Was it about Father?”
Laressa winced. She meant Eolin, of course, her adoptive father—the only father she had ever known. But Laressa could not help but think of Warrlun, the child’s birth father—he who had taken Eolin’s life in reprisal for a perceived wrong.
Annleia reached up to feel her forehead. “Are you ready to speak of it?”
She was not. Nor did she think she ever would be. It was unfair, of course. The child deserved to know the full truth behind her father’s death. She deserved to know who Warrlun really was, and what had driven him to commit such a savage act. On top of that, she deserved to know about the peril she and the rest of their people faced, in order to come to terms with it in her own way.
But Laressa could not bring herself to share such grave news with anyone—least of all the one true love she had left in this world. To even think of exposing her precious child to these afflicting horrors was more than she could bear.
And yet, how long could she hold out? Annleia and the others who dwelled within this valley already suspected much. Their keifer had been murdered by none other than an agent of Lord Lorre—led here by the lone individual entrusted to serve as guardian to their lands. Given that, how could they think themselves safe?
Rather than confirm their fears, Laressa had done what she could to allay them. Crag’s betrayal had wounded her more deeply than any of them, and none could argue otherwise. At the same time, the Tuthari dwarf had made sure that none would be able to follow his trail. Shallow grounds for forgiveness, perhaps, given the damage already sustained. But the dwarf had had his reasons, she had argued. Her life being not without its own misdeeds, she was in poor position to judge another’s.
“If you wish to be free of your grief,” Annleia admonished, “you cannot keep it trapped inside.”
Laressa nodded, but refused to meet her daughter’s gaze. She wasn’t sure that she wanted to be free of it. In some ways, her grief seemed the only way to keep Eolin alive. Though it went against many of the fundamental life principles of her Finlorian people, she was not yet ready to surrender her temporal claim upon the man she had loved.
“You cannot persist like this. Our people need you.”
Laressa responded with a look of annoyance before quickly turning away. The girl was only trying to help, not knowing that this matter was beyond her. Or was it? If the truth was more than her daughter could handle, then why was she so afraid to meet the young woman’s gaze? Could it be that she feared Annleia might be too perceptive, that if she shared even one small thread, the girl might unravel the rest? Perhaps it was not her daughter’s weakness but her own that kept her silent.
“In time, child. I will be well enough in time.”
Annleia must have heard the doubt in her voice. “You cannot deceive me, Mother. Nor can you expect to shoulder this burden alone.”
Again Laressa tried to evade the other’s gaze. But the child hooked a finger beneath her chin and forced their eyes to meet. Eolin, Laressa told herself. She speaks only of Eolin.
“Your father was a good man,” she forced herself to say, in an attempt to escape the other’s scrutiny.
“The best,” Annleia agreed. “But you are also angry with him. Why?”
Laressa put on her most indignant expression, even as she caught her breath. “I . . . Why would you say that?”
“Because I know you as well as you know yourself. I sense it, in your words and in your posture—with me and with others. Do you feel he brought this somehow upon himself?”
Eolin himself had raised that argument, though it was not one Laressa shared. He had viewed his death as a punishment for allowing bitterness to overrule duty—for taking delight in Torin’s travails. He should not have spurned the outlander as he had. He should have at least talked things through with the wielder of the Crimson Sword, to confirm what the other knew and offer any solution Torin and his allies might have missed.
Laressa had not cared to debate the issue at the time. Bad enough that their final moments had been spent revealing secrets that should never have been kept from her. Worse yet would have been to waste breath arguing over what to do about them, and whether her husband’s fate was deserved.
“I blame your father’s murder on none but those who committed it,” she stated plainly.
And yet, that had not stopped her from accepting Eolin’s suggested action. It made no sense to let her people perish as a result of their contempt—justified or no. And while a proper sharing of knowledge with Torin may have merited nothing, there was too much at stake not to take the chance.
By then, however, it had been too late. Her first act as keifer had been to send forth scouts on the trail of Torin and his friends—even before she had overcome the raw sting of her grief. But Torin’s departure from their lands had been swift; Crag had seen to that. And her scouts had been strictly ordered not to jeopardize themselves by treading beyond the exits of the caves that led from Aefengaard. In accordance with her wishes, they had followed as far as they dared, only to return empty-handed.
“Then why do you torture yourself over what is done?” Annleia asked, refusing to let her dwell alone in her thoughts.
She had not, at first. When the news had returned that Torin had escaped their reach, Laressa had decided it just as well that they be rid of him forever. But that had been before the nightmares, before the roiling waves of heartache had subsided enough to reveal the truth.
“Mother, what is it you’re not telling me?”
Laressa felt the threat of tears, of pride and of pity. Not yet twenty years of age, this girl, and already so wise and strong. The child might not have survived with anything less. Though born within this valley, she was an outsider in many respects—the daughter of a half-elven woman and a human male she knew nothing about. In this world, her mixed heritage was a scar, no matter how much they might pretend otherwise. The Finlorians had accepted her out of deference to their king, just as they had Laressa when, as a prince, Eolin had brought her to live among them. Since then, she had taught Annleia not to condemn herself, as others might, for her unique appearance. Human blood may have deprived her of sharpened ears, angled brow, and a pointed jawline. It may have granted her a full head of thick, lustrous hair. But it could never change the fact that she was an elf at heart. In the end, nothing else truly—
Laressa choked on the thought and pulled away in horror. So obvious. The solution to her dilemma. The answer to her prayers. There in front of her, where it had been all along.
“Mother, what is it?”
No. She would not allow herself to even consider it. They still had the Sword, did Torin and the others, the last unbroken Sword of Asahiel. With it, they would find a way. Anyone who could have hunted the Finlorians here, to their secret location, was resourceful enough to put a stop to the Illysp on his own. As long as he wielded both the divine talisman and the knowledge descended from Algorath, the human king of Alson stood a chance. As did they all.
But Laressa knew she could not leave it at that. For the sake of her people, for the sake of her own sanity, she had to know that something more was being done. Whatever the act, wherever it might lead, however useless and inconsequential the effort might seem, she could not sit idly by if it was within her power to help.
The smooth, earthen walls of her burrow seemed to close in around her. It was the only way. These walls could not protect her. Nor could the walls of their valley protect her people. If they remained here and did nothing, Aefengaard would become as a mass grave. And a temporary one at that, as, with the Illysp, not even the dead were safe.
Slowly, as if dragging against the weight of the world, Laressa turned once more to peer into her daughter’s eyes. The truth was affirmed, and her heart fell. It would seem her people were not quite as powerless as she had believed. All she needed was someone who could pass for human when set to rove the barbaric world of men.
Tears welled. She could not allow it. She could not permit her daughter, so innocent and fragile, to venture into the outer world. Not when any escort Laressa might send—herself included—would only endanger the child further. Alone and unprotected, the girl would surely perish, and, for Laressa, nothing could be so devastating. She had already lost her husband. She would be damned before letting go of her daughter as well.
She meant to look away again, but Annleia squeezed her hand, and those emerald eyes held her. Again Laressa had to fight off the nightmare image of those eyes as the living light left them. Should she send the girl on this quest, she would be condemning her—because of her appearance, no less. And yet, could keeping her here end in anything but a death sentence?
Annleia remained silent, the child’s luminous eyes seeming to bore right through her. Perhaps it was not her decision to make, Laressa thought suddenly. Should her daughter not be given a chance to at least discuss her own fate? She was not so young, Laressa reminded herself—nearly the same age she had been when deciding to leave her father and run away with Eolin to live among the Finlorians. How might she have felt had Lorre or anyone else successfully prevented her from making that choice?
Besides, she did not wish to wait, as Eolin had, to deliver these secrets with her final breaths. Though she had sworn no oath, and inherited their cause only through marriage and catastrophe, she understood the sacred honor of the Vandari and what they had been called upon to do. Rather than risk letting their secrets die with her, perhaps she should share them now. Armed with a full knowledge, her daughter might even recognize a solution that she had not. Either way, Laressa would not be alone in deciding upon the best course for all concerned.
Even now, she could scarcely imagine exposing her child to such terrible responsibility. But Annleia’s eyes seemed to challenge her, pleading for her to trust in her daughter’s strength.
The Ceilhigh only knew how little she had left of her own.
Breathing deeply to steady herself, Laressa stared warningly into her child’s brave visage, offering her one last chance to escape before the truth descended upon her.
Annleia’s eyes shone. Tell me, they seemed to insist.
“Dear child,” Laressa sighed, and all at once, her courage began to stir. “Let me tell you a story.”