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The Pearl of the Soul of the World
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Armed with a magical pearl imbued with all the sorcery and wisdom of the world, bestowed upon her by the Ancient known as Ravenna, Aeriel finally comes face-to-face with the White Witch and her vampire sons. Backed by her husband, his army of good, and a throng of magical steeds, she must unlock the power of the pearl to awaken her true destiny and save the world.
ALSO BY MEREDITH ANN PIERCE:
THE DARKANGEL TRILOGY
A Gathering of Gargoyles
THE FIREBRINGER SERIES
Birth of the Firebringer
The Son of Summer Stars
She had no idea where she was — only that she was in a cave, the walls pressing close about her, all of white stone. Light came from somewhere, dim and diffuse, and the air was old: musty and bone-dry. She was thirsty, so thirsty. All her limbs felt stiff, and behind her right ear crouched a pain she knew she mustn't touch. Her hair felt sticky, matted there. She gazed at the featureless walls of the cave. She had been lost for a long time.
Her stomach knotted, doubling her over. She knelt on the hard, gritty surface of the tunnel floor until the spasm passed. She must keep moving — find food and water — or die. She had no idea how she had come to be in the cave, only the certainty that something was hunting her, following relentlessly: a Shadow, some living being, black as night. She was glad of the light.
She managed to rise, and realized then where the light came from. It came from her, from the space between her breasts. Puzzled, she reached into her gown to lift out what lay against her breastbone, glimmering softly through the gauze-thin fabric: a pearl, big as the end of her thumb. It glowed with a faint blue light.
Memory teased her, only a glimpse, of a tiny creature with lacelike wings, laying the pearl upon her hand. How long ago had that been? She could not remember. She put the pearl back into her gown and, shining through the pale yellow cloth, its light seemed white again. Frowning, the girl examined the garment: yards and yards of air-thin stuff. A wedding sari. Why was she wearing a wedding sari?
An image formed itself unbidden in her mind: a young man with dun-colored skin and long black hair. His eyes were clear blue, almond-shaped; one cheek was scarred. What had he to do with her gown? Dizziness overcame her, and she clutched at the wall, sure that if she fell again, she would be too weak to rise. She struggled to recall who the young man was and what the pearl upon her breast might be. But all her memories slipped away: beads hopelessly scattered from a broken string. The fierce ache in her head would not let her gather them.
A sheet of mirrorstone loomed before her, darker than the rest of the cave. She saw a figure in its smooth, polished surface: a tall, thin girl just crossing into womanhood, cheeks hollowed, fingers like bone. The pale, pale hair that fell to her shoulders was disheveled. Slant green eyes gazed blinking, huge as a bird's. She cast no shadow in the wan pearllight.
The girl halted, gasping, as the pang in her skull spiked almost unbearably. She must not see herself! The pain behind her ear forbade it, as it forbade her to know or to remember herself. She wrenched her gaze away from her own image and hurried past, for in that moment she realized just how lost she truly was: she had no idea who she was.
The sound of water came to her, a distant lapping plash. She stumbled into a run. The endless twisting corridor opened abruptly into a lighted chamber. A tiny stream cut through it, barely a hand-span wide in a bed thirty paces across. A mighty river had flowed here once, in ages past, reduced now to a mere trickle: its clear, clean brilliance played across the cavern's ceiling and walls.
The pale girl fell to her knees beside the stream and plunged her hand into its light. It was warm as lamp oil. She hadn't realized how she was shivering in the cool, dry air. Desperately, she licked the delicious drops from her fingers. Savory, full of minerals, the water tasted like crushed herbs. She knew there must be an easier way to drink, but she could not remember how. The trickling stream held her whole attention — so that she did not even notice the others standing in the chamber until the young one dropped his pick.
The sound rang sharp as a silver pin. The pale girl started up, water dripping from her forearms, and stared at the three people gazing curiously at her. They were very short, only a little over half as tall as she, and were dressed in trousers and sarks with many pockets. The two men wore caps. Their leader seemed to be the woman, whose fair, silver-coppery hair fell in four thick braids, one before, one behind each ear. She stood upstream, hands on her hips. The younger of her companions hastily caught up his pick.
"Reckon it's dangerous, Maruha?" the boy asked.
The woman shook her head. "Can't say, Brandl. An upperlander-from-under-the-sky, by the look, if I remember my learning."
She cocked her head and studied the girl. The upperlander stared back, wide-eyed, afraid to move. The squat little woman's eyes were the color of dark grey stones.
"But what's it doing so far underground?" the young one, Brandl, asked.
"Witch's work," the older man murmured, stroking his beard. "Could be the Witch's work."
"Bite your tongue, Collum, you fool." Maruha turned on him. "None of hers could ever get down here. We've wards."
"That one got through," the bearded one answered. "Perhaps only the first of many. We've known for a long time the end must come."
"Enough," hissed Maruha with a glance at Brandl. "You'll frighten the boy."
The pale girl watched them, her heart banging painfully against her ribs. She had seen such a creature once before. A little man with stone-grey eyes. The fragment of memory needled her, merciless, then vanished. The woman took a step toward her.
"You, upperlander, who are you?" she called.
The other flinched. She wanted to answer, but her throat tightened till she could hardly breathe. "Uh, uhn . . . ," she managed, choking. A thin wail threaded past her lips. Her head pounded. She stopped, whimpering.
"Can't speak," bearded Collum breathed. "Witch's work."
"Look how thin," Brandl said, bolder now. He pointed, taking a step closer to Maruha. "Cheeks all sunken in."
Collum snorted. "All the upperlanders look that way: spindly as spiders."
"Nonsense!" Maruha exclaimed. "She's done in. Look at her hair and the dirt on her face." She came a few paces closer. "Girl, can you understand me?"
The upperlander tensed, ready to run — but she didn't want to leave the water. A kind of shriek issued from her lips. She understood, but she could not answer.
"Aye, but look at her robe," Brandl whispered, fear sharpening his voice suddenly. "Fine yellow stuff and not a rip or a smudge. It shines, almost. Like ghostcloth."
His companions started, and the three of them drew back. The pale girl's knees gave. She sank down, unable to go another step. Collum gripped his pick and pushed past Maruha and Brandl.
"She's the Witch's work, I tell you, and the sooner done with the better."
"No!" Maruha cried, catching Collum's arm. "She was drinking from the stream. None that serve the Witch can abide clean water's touch —"
Collum hesitated, lowering his arm. He glanced at Maruha.
"Marvels, I grant you, as yet unexplained — and her coming here may indeed be Witch's work," Maruha insisted. "But I do not believe that she is Witch's work, or that she means us any harm."
The girl sat in the sand, not looking at them. She no longer had the strength to lift her head. She heard Brandl edging closer to the other two.
"There's blood in her hair," he whispered. "Look."
"You see?" snapped Maruha, giving Collum a shake. "That is why she cannot speak." She took his pick from him roughly and thrust it into her own belt. Turning from him, she softened her voice. "Here, girl. You're hurt." Moving closer, she continued, "We are duaroughs, child. Let us help you."
The pale girl felt the little woman parting the hair just behind her ear and started. She batted at the square, nubby hands feebly, once. Gently, the duarough's touch returned.
"You needn't fear us. Sooth! What's this? Collum, Brandl, look. There's something here, behind her ear — jabbed in through the very bone."
All three crowded around her then. She did not look up. She gazed at the sand, at the warm, fragrant water lying beyond her reach now. She longed for it.
"Sweet Ravenna!" the young one, Brandl, exclaimed. "It's a silver pin."
"All mucked with blood." That was Maruha.
"Witchery," muttered Collum.
"I can't quite . . . ," Maruha began.
The girl felt a shooting pain behind her ear and screamed. With a gasp, the duarough woman jerked her hand away as the upperlander pitched to the sand, covering her head with her arms, shrieking. They mustn't touch it! No one must touch it. She herself must never so much as lay a finger on the beautiful and terrible silver pin. Maruha sat down upon the sand, cradling her hand.
"Lons and Ancientlady!" she panted, flexing her fingers and then shaking her hand. "But that thing is Witch's work, and no mistake. It's cold, colder than shadow."
"It hasn't harmed you?" Brandl said anxiously.
"No, I only brushed it — lucky! Sooth, we must take this child back to the others when we finish our circuit —"
"Fie, no!" Collum protested. "If she's Witched, she mustn't come within leagues of our last hidden hold . . . !"
"Oh, be still," Maruha growled, getting to her feet and dusting the sand from her. "The child is starving and thirsting and in need of our help."
Help. The word reminded the pale girl of something, something. . . . She remembered the face of the young man again, lit only by starlight, half-turned from her. "You cannot help me," he whispered. "I can love no mortal woman while the White Witch lives." Help, help me! she wanted to cry, but the pin robbed her of speech as well as of memory. The young man's image faded even as she groped for it. She buried her face in her arms and wept. Maruha bent to touch her.
"Come, child," she said softly. "Come with us."
The girl lay unmoving, spent. Nothing made sense. She was so weary. She wanted only to rest. Maruha took her by the arm and hauled her upright.
"Help me, Collum," she panted. "We'll have to carry her."
The bearded duarough remained where he was, arms folded. It was Brandl who came and took the upperlander's other arm. He smelled of grease and candle wax. The scent made her stomach twist and clench, she was so famished. She felt she might swoon. Maruha glared at Collum.
"Suit yourself," she snapped. "I do not know who this child is or why she wears the Witch's pin. But I do know that it marks her as no friend to our great enemy, and by the Ancientlady Ravenna, I mean to get it out."
Fish, delicious fish, each as big as her finger: grilled in oil with succulent white flesh and bones as soft as sprouting shoots. The pale girl licked her lips and searched the dish for more. She had been with the duaroughs how long now — a week of hours? A daymonth? Here belowground, without the light of Solstar and the infinitesimal turning of the stars, she had no sense of the passage of time.
Her companions spent hours tramping the endless corridors, laying camp only at long intervals. The pearl's faint glow passed unnoticed in the darting glare of the fingerlamps the duaroughs carried. Brandl's gaze was always on her, guarded and fascinated. Collum didn't like her; he looked away. Maruha was the kind one, giving her food and drink, even combing out her matted hair, careful now to leave the silver pin alone. The pale girl shivered at the thought of the pin. It never ceased to pain her, but she found that as long as she did not try to remember or speak, the ache was bearable.
She and the duaroughs passed no more open water on their treks, though they crossed many more stream beds — all dry. The underpaths were desiccated, their moisture long vanished. Yet, Maruha always knew where to find water at need. From time to time, with one well-placed blow of her pick, she could release from the passage wall a thin spout. Then the girl drank greedily until Collum shouldered her aside so that he might fill their waterskins. After, Maruha stopped the flow with a peg and marked the wall with a complicated scratch. They moved on.
Whenever they came to a fork, the duaroughs paused and consulted a square of parchment: ancient, brown, and cracking along the folds. The girl saw lines crisscrossing the surface, some of them leading to a great starburst in the center. None of it meant a thing to her. She could not read.
Now and again, they came upon Ancient machinery, and each time, the duaroughs halted to examine it. Long untended, crusted with green and blood-colored flakes, most of it hardly functioned, only the faintest hum coming from its clockwork depths. Some of it did not function at all. Maruha shook her head once sadly when Collum rushed to press his ear to a device.
"We could save it," he said softly. "It wouldn't take long. Only half a hundred hours — we could save it! It hasn't been tended in years upon years."
Maruha again shook her head, more firmly now. "We're just a survey expedition. Mark it on the map, and others will come to tend it in our stead."
"If it lasts so long," Brandl murmured.
Collum rose, scowling furiously, and stalked away.
"Perish the Witch," the pale girl heard him mutter. From beneath tangled brows, he glared at her. "Perish the Witch and all her works!"
More often than not, the paths they took were narrow and precipitous. Maruha usually went first, her fingerlamp bobbing. Brandl followed, shepherding the girl, with Collum bringing up the rear. They had taken one such way not many hours past: bits of the ceiling littered the steep grade, which seemed not to have been traveled in an age.
"Fine path this is," snorted the bearded duarough, losing his balance and sending a shower of scree down upon the others. "If such were all they had in Ancient days, it's a wonder any of them survived to reach the City." The last word was mumbled, his voice taking on a superstitious edge.
"I've told you, this isn't the main path," Maruha snapped, her fingerlamp waving wildly as she scrabbled to keep her own footing. "It's back alleys and service corridors we're taking. The pilgrims' roads were sealed long since. You know that."
"When Ravenna first withdrew from the world?" Brandl ventured.
No one answered him. Gingerly, he guided the pale girl over the rough, slippery stones. She never lost her footing, moved with an unerring sureness, listening without attention to what the others were saying. The pain of the pin lessened when she did not concentrate.
"Do you think we could ever go there?" the young duarough tried again. "To the City? Just to see it. We're so close."
"No!" Maruha threw back over one shoulder. The path was too precarious to let her turn safely to glower at him. "It's sealed. No one's been to the City of Crystalglass in time out of mind."
A little silence. The pin stirred. Deliberately unfocusing her thoughts, the girl watched the play of lamplight on the walls for a few moments until the twinging ceased. Behind her, Collum slipped again and cursed.
"Oh, stop complaining," Maruha panted. "Taking these routes, we're less likely to meet weaselhounds, or others of the Witch's brood."
Beside the pale girl, Brandl shuddered, but no one said anything more.
They had laid camp not long after, and the duaroughs now sat at their ease. The girl licked her fingers again. There were no more fish. Her eyelids slid sleepily halfway down. Surrounded by companions, she felt safe from the Shadow's pursuit. No memories had troubled her during their last march. The pin hardly hurt at all now. She sighed lazily, scarcely heeding what the other three were saying.
"Well, tell me the use of keeping her," Collum was muttering, combing his fingers through his coarse grey beard. "Our people have no craft for the removing of such a pin. We are skilled in the maintenance of Ancient devices, not in instruments of witchery."
Beside him, Maruha sighed. "If only my brother were here! He would know what to do. Sorcery was always his study, never machines."
"Your brother vanished into the upperlands handfuls upon hundreds of years ago," the other answered. "Fine help he is to us now."
Their talk subsided. The duaroughs had been gaming earlier with counters of stone upon a painted board. Now, their diversion done, the board lay to one side. The girl played with one of the small round stones. Like a bead it was. If only she had a bore, she could make a hole in it and put it on a string. The quiet rumble of the duaroughs' talk was comforting to her, even as she refused to follow what they said.
"Perhaps we should take her back to the upperlanders," Brandl suggested. "They have sorcerers. Let them heal her."
"Aye, that's exactly what the Witch would want us to do," grunted Collum, "show ourselves aboveground"— his voice grew vehement —"so that she can steal us away as she has done all our fellows . . . !"
"Peace, Collum," the duarough woman said. "We have all lost kith to the Witch. But we must not dwell on it — we must go on running the machinery of the world as best we can until the Ancient Ravenna returns to us. It is all we can do."
The upperlander tossed the beadlike stone in a circle before her, passing it from hand to hand. Other stones from the gameboard joined it, seemingly of themselves. Someone had taught her to toss stones so once, to pass the time — a blue-skinned girl in Bern? Memory teased, then darted away. Quickly, the pale girl willed her mind to emptiness. She tossed the stones without thinking.
His back to her, Collum murmured bitterly, "If the Ancientlady were ever to return to us, she would have done so by now. We are lost, and the world is lost."
"Courage, fool," exclaimed Maruha.
"The Ravenna is dead," the old man said.
With a look of alarm, Brandl whispered, "She can't be. If she is dead, then nothing matters . . . !" before Maruha shushed him.
"Give in to despair, and you give in to the Witch," she said to Collum.
Absently, the girl made a figure eight of the stone beads in the air before her and gazed beyond them into the fire, a warm dance of flame shooting upward from a metal vessel unlike any lamp she recognized. Folding his arms and turning away from Maruha, Collum caught sight of her.
"Now what's she doing?" he cried.
"It's more of that tossing — what do you call it? — juggling," Brandl said. "She always does that."
Stringing beadstones through empty space, she felt the heat of the fire traveling over her skin. She had felt such heat once before — though far hotter — from a far greater and stranger Flame, which had lit the pearl and had taken her shadow away. Uneasily, she banished the thought.
"Make her stop." The bearded duarough shifted nervously. "It's witchery."
"It isn't," Maruha said. "Leave her alone."
Abruptly, the girl let the beads fall in a heap beside the board. Even that mindless activity sparked memories which the pin forbade. Pain bit at her skull. Wincing, she shut her eyes and waited for it to subside. She was so weary of the ache. If only she might sit here forever, warm and well fed, thinking of nothing — fearing, dreaming, anticipating nothing. Silence.
"Time I was off." Maruha stirred. She caught up the two waterskins that were empty and started away, calling over one shoulder, "Keep watch — and look after the girl."
Collum grunted. The pale girl basked in the warmth of the flame. The sound of Maruha's steps vanished down the corridor. Presently, the girl opened her eyes again. Collum had put up the beads and board and pulled the faded square of parchment from his pocket. Brandl opened his pack and drew out a tiny, slender harp made of silver wood with golden wires. The girl had never seen it before. He began tinkering with the tuning pegs and polishing it carefully with a fawnskin cloth.
"Best not let Maruha see you at that foolishness," Collum murmured. Brandl hunched protectively over the little instrument. At last he tucked the cloth away.
"Collum," he said.
The other made a wordless sound. The young duarough seemed to take it for encouragement.
"Tell me what you've heard," he said, with a glance surfaceward. "From up there. About the war."
Rattling his parchment, Collum turned away. "I wouldn't know anything of the sort."
Brandl bent closer. "You do! You're always listening. And I know you talk to the others, the ones who go surfaceward. You needn't fear to tell me. Maruha will never know."
The older duarough snorted and said nothing. The upperlander watched them, absently.
"I know I'm young," Brandl said. "But war doesn't frighten me. It's the not knowing that does. There's a song they're singing now, about a sorceress above-ground who's gathered an army to fight the Witch."
Collum started and turned. "If you know that, then you've been listening."
"I have." Brandl caught the older duarough's arm. "But you could tell me more."
Collum glanced in the direction Maruha had gone. He shifted uneasily. "Oh, very well," he sighed. "I'll tell you what I know, young one — but only so long as not a word goes beyond you."
The young duarough nodded eagerly. Collum set down his parchment. The pale girl saw him glance once at her, but she kept her mind and features blank. Whatever the duaroughs were saying, she told herself it did not matter.
"Now hark," Collum began. "You know how, many ages past, this world was a dead and lifeless one — until the coming of the Ancients from Oceanus. The Ancients changed this world and kindled it to life, planted herbs and grasses, fashioned peoples and living creatures. They made the tall upperlanders for the surface above, and us to run the world's engines below."
He glanced again toward the girl at the mention of her kith, then back to Brandl.
"You know all that, boy?"
"Yes, yes," the young duarough said. "Maruha saw to my learning."
Collum humphed. "And you know that the Ancients ruled wisely and well for uncounted years, until suddenly, unexpectedly, Oceanus called them home. Most departed at once in their fiery chariots, never to return. But a handful stayed behind, unwilling to abandon us. Yet even those withdrew into the desert, sealing themselves away in their great domed Cities. Only the Ravenna's remained open, and people made pilgrimages to her City of Crystalglass."
The younger duarough nodded; Collum continued.
"The Ancientlady instructed our folk in the service of those devices that manufacture the world's water and air, and she created the lons — great guardian-beasts — to shepherd the upperlanders above. But even she in all her wisdom could not keep the world from beginning to wind down: atmosphere bleeding off into the Void, weathermakers falling slowly into disrepair."
Brandl's breath quickened. "There's a word for it," he whispered. "An Ancient word: entropy."
Collum glowered at him to be still.
"Ravenna saw but one hope against our declining world's eventual collapse," he said, "against this entropy. Since Oceanus remained deaf to her entreaties, her fellows there refusing to lend their aid across the Void, she realized that she must conjure the means to rescue us herself. Thus she withdrew into her City a dozen thousand daymonths past to begin the weaving of a mighty spell that would halt the entropy and restore the world."
Collum toyed with the folded parchment and at last put it away.
"All of this you know, Brandl."
The young duarough snorted impatiently. "Yes!"
His companion cast another furtive glance over one shoulder as if to be sure Maruha were truly gone. Brandl leaned forward intently. As the pale girl watched them, she tried not to listen, struggling to retain the blank emptiness of her mind — lest the pin take revenge.
"After the Ravenna withdrew, we strove to live as best we could without the Ancients' guidance. Then the Witch appeared. None know who she is or whence she came, save that she is a water demon, a lorelei. She dwells beyond the desert's edge, in parched regions known as the Waste. Beneath the dark surface of a still, silent lake, her palace stands, cold as poison and fashioned of transparent stone.
"She has, through her sorceries, beleaguered the whole world with drought. Even the once-mighty wellsprings of Aiderlan have ceased to flow. Her weaselhounds sniff us out belowground. Who knows what fate awaits those they seize? And she harries the upperlanders as well, stealing their young boys over the years, half a dozen of them. These she has made into darkangels — the icari — each icarus a soulless demon with a dozen dark wings blacker than shadow. Her icari in turn conquered the six strongest nations of Westernesse, transforming the guardian lons of those lands into gargoyles.
"Then the Witch stole a seventh 'son,' a prince of Avaric, Irrylath, gilding his heart with lead and making him into the beginning of a darkangel. As soon as her spell upon him could become complete, she knew she would have half the world in her grasp. In terror, the peoples of Westernesse cried out for the Ravenna to return and vanquish the Witch. But Ravenna has not returned. Her City remains sealed. None know her fate."
Collum choked, his words growing harsh.
"Some fear her dead."
Brandl tried to catch the other's eye, but the bearded duarough would not look at him. The pale girl shrugged nervously, drawn into the tale despite herself. She knew she should not listen — and yet a kind of hunger filled her, a longing for news, for word of the world above. She found herself harkening without meaning to, and the pin twinged warningly as the duaroughs resumed their talk.
"No, it is not the Ravenna who has come forth to oppose the Witch, but another, the dread sorceress Aeriel. Some say she is the Ravenna reborn; some say she is her heir. But whoever she may be, she has, by means of her great magic, freed both Prince Irrylath and the lons from the Witch's enchantment. The lons are no longer gargoyles, Prince Irrylath no longer a darkangel."
Collum laughed suddenly, as though hope were beginning to return to him as he warmed to his tale. Wincing, the pale girl shuddered.
"Irrylath loathes his former mistress now and has raised a great army to Aeriel's cause. He has sworn to plunge his sword Adamantine into the Witch's heart with his own hand, for love of the sorceress Aeriel."
- On Sale
- Feb 1, 2008
- Page Count
- 243 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers