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The Fall Castle Aenir Above the Veil Into Battle The Violet Keystone
 
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Tal has lived his whole life in darkness. He has never left his home, a mysterious castle of seven towers.

But Tal cannot stay safe forever. His father has disappeared. His mother has fallen ill. His future – once bright – now seems dim. The source of all power within the castle world are Sunstones, brilliant objects of light and magic. Tal’s Sunstone has been stolen . . . and now he must get a new one, at any cost.

Sinister and evil forces are working against Tal, tracking his every move and making sure his journey is not an easy one. Soon they will propel him from the castle . . . and into a world beyond his belief.

As Tal’s efforts to get a Sunstone are constantly thwarted, he becomes more and more desperate. In a stunning turn of events, he finds himself battling an Imperial Guard named Ethar in a fierce game called Beastmaker...

Tal sat down at the game table, and Ethar sat opposite. Tal felt strangely calm now that he had accepted the challenge. He looked down at the seven rectangular depressions in the tabletop in front of him. He knew what they were, but he thought he'd pretend to know less about the game. That way Ethar might underestimate him.

"What order are these in again?" he asked, pointing to the rectangles.

"Head, Heart, Temper, Skin, Speed, Strength and Special," said Ethar quickly.

Each rectangle would ultimately hold one card, and that card would specify the characteristics of the beast. The Strength card would determine the beast’s strength, the speed card would determine its quickness, and so on. When all the cards were in place and finalized, two five-inch high beasts of solid light would be produced, to battle it out in the marble circle in the middle of the table. Whoever played their cards right and produced the victorious beast would win the game.

Each card could be changed twice by using light. So even when a card was in place, and your opponent could see it, it might still change. The trick of the game was to make the other player think you were making a certain sort of beast and then change it at the last moment by altering the cards that governed its seven characteristics.

There was also luck, of course. There were a hundred cards, but each player was only dealt seven, all of which had three possible variations.

Tal hoped that he would be lucky.

Tal’s first card was a Phalarope, a marine animal that floated around in the water and had thousands of poisonous tendrils. Its only real use was in the Special category, because then the made beast would have poisonous tendrils. Tal knew that this card would change to a Kurshken if he applied green light from his Sunstone. Kurshken were small but very smart and quick lizards, so would be good in either Speed or Head.

Unfortunately, Tal didn't know what the third variation of the card was. He had a faint memory that it might turn into a Hugthing under Red light, but couldn't be sure. Hugthings were particularly nasty. They looked like a carpet of comfortable green moss, but could spring up and wrap themselves around you in an instant. For the game, a Hugthing card would be good in Skin or Strength.

"I will play first, if you like," said Ethar. This would give Tal a slight advantage, so he quickly nodded to say yes.

"Heart of a Borzog," announced Ethar, laying the card down on the second rectangle in front of her. Tal looked at the card, which showed a fearsome, semi-human and very hairy creature roughly the size of three people across the shoulders. This was a good initial play. Borzogs would fight to the death, and beyond. Once they got a grip, they never let go, even when they were killed. Strong hearted indeed.

"Um, err, Head of a . . . whatever this is . . ." announced Tal, playing the Phalarope into the Head rectangle. He was going to change it into a Kurshken later on, but he hoped Ethar would think he didn't know what he was doing.

"A Phalarope," said Ethar. She looked at the bulbous thing with its many tentacles and added, "It does look something like a giant brain."

"That’s what I thought," said Tal, pretending he was relieved. "A giant brain. Perfect for the Head."

The other guard dealt them both another card. Tal picked his up slowly. At first, all he could see was a pair of red eyes in the card. Then, he slowly became aware of an outline around them. The card was showing him something hidden in a cave or a hole, with only the eyes visible.

Then Tal remembered, and barely suppressed a shiver of horror. This card was of a Cavernmouth. They were horrible creatures in Aenir, who dug holes for themselves in the side of a mountain and then backed in and opened their enormous jaws. What he thought were glowing eyes were actually something like tonsils at the back of the thing’s throat.

In the game of Beastmaker, the Cavernmouth card was unusual. It could be played in Speed, because its jaws were incredibly fast at snapping out. Or it could be played in Special, to give the created beast extendable jaws.

"Speed of a Gorblag," said Ethar, playing a card that looked like a large, glowing blue toad that was too fat to do anything. But one of the variations of the Gorblag card was the incredibly zappy Fleamite, an insect that could move faster than a human eye could track it. Tal knew Ethar would change that card later on.

"Speed of a Cavernmouth," Tal countered, playing his card. He wouldn't be changing that. Even if Ethar did change her Speed card to the Fleamite, it wouldn't be much faster than a Cavernmouth.

"You have played before," remarked Ethar. "Few people remember the Cavernmouth can be played for Speed."

"I saw my great-uncle use it that way once," Tal said, still trying to give the impression he was an absolute beginner at Beastmaker.

The game moved more swiftly then. Within a few minutes, both Tal and Ethar had six of their seven rectangles filled with cards.

"You hid your skill well," said Ethar as she changed the mild-mannered Klatha workbeast in her Temper rectangle to the insanely vicious Vengenarl, a creature that attacked even its own kind if they trespassed over its scent-marked boundaries.

Tal nodded, but he wasn't paying attention to what Ethar said. Everything depended on him getting the best beast. Now Ethar had changed the Temper of her beast, Tal thought he knew what to play there. But once he put that card down, his beast would be complete. Did he need to make any changes?

Quickly, he scanned the seven rectangles. Head of a Kurshken. Skin of a Samheal Semidragon. Temper . . . that was to come. Heart of a Hrugen, which was a gamble, since that was actually a kind of weed that never gave up, it grew everywhere in Aenir and seemingly could not be eradicated. Speed of a Cavernmouth. Strength of a Jarghoul, a cannibalistic strangling snake of the jungles of Aenir that primarily ate others of its own kind after weeks-long battles to crush each other to death; Special, the ability of the Gossamer Bug to fly.

Tal ran over all the variations in his head, while Ethar arched her fingers into a steeple and waited for his move.

"To see the Empress, or lose your Sunstone," she said. "What is it to be?"

"Temper of an Icefang," said Tal, playing his final card, locking all the others in. This was his greatest gamble. He didn't know enough about this card or its properties. But he remembered Great-Uncle Ebbitt saying that the Icefangs of Aenir were among the most dangerous of creatures in the spirit world. They never got angry, or demoralized, or had any emotions at all it seemed. They just coldly fought to the very best of their ability, never distracted by danger, wounds, or anything else.

"And Strength of a . . . Jarghoul," said Ethar, playing exactly the same card as Tal. "Let the battle begin!"

Both Tal and Ethar stepped back from the table as the final cards were played. No one knew how to make Beastmaker boards anymore, but everyone had heard about the one that exploded years before, every Sunstone in it suddenly igniting.

But this Beastmaker board seemed to work perfectly. The cards in their rectangles began to slowly glow brighter and brighter, and a luminous mist formed on each side of the table. Then the two clouds of mist drifted across to the battlecircle in the middle of the table, and began to slowly form into shapes.

Tal held his breath, wondering what his beast would look like. Inside his head, he urged the formless lump of bright mist on, willing it to be the best beast ever made, a champion that would win his entry to see the Empress. Soon, all his troubles might be over!

Then his cloud of bright mist solidified into a brightly colored beast. It was tall and slender, and had the general shape of a lizard except it stood up on its hind legs and had wings. Its skin was scaly and iridescent, sparkling in many different colors. Its huge, delicate-looking wings were also many colored and almost see-through.

It was pretty. It was even beautiful. But didn't look at all tough or dangerous.

Tal let his breath out in disappointment and shut his eyes. He didn't want to look at the opposing beast, which had also solidified out of the glowing ball of mist on the other side of the circle.

"Interesting," said Ethar in a puzzled tone. Tal opened one eye a fraction. Ethar’s beast was really ugly. It resembled a blubbery, rust-colored ball that had three arm-legs coming out the top and three out the bottom. It had four pairs of eyes spaced around its middle, and a separate, many-toothed mouth under each pair of eyes.

As Tal watched, it flipped over on to its top legs and then flipped back again, very quickly. Then it deliberately fell back and actually bounced high into the air, without using its arm-legs at all.

Tal’s beast just watched the bouncy ball thing and stood there, its wings flickering like a hummingbird’s. It was only when Tal looked closely that he realized it wasn't standing „ it was hovering an inch above the white marble of the battlecircle.

The battlecircle began to change color from white marble to red, the sign that the combat would commence. Tal took a step closer, as did Ethar and all the guards, who crowded around.

Quickly, Tal looked over at Ethar’s cards, hoping he would see some flaw that his beast would exploit.

Ethar had played the Head of a Dofyn, which was fairly standard play, since the Dofyns were the enormously clever sea dwellers of Aenir. Then the Heart of a Niphrain Ape. The Temper of a Vengenarl. The Skin of a Blorem, which as far as Tal could remember would give the beast a skin of very resilient, thick blubber. The Speed of a Fleamite. The Strength of a Jarghoul. And finally, the Special of a Urglegurgle. Tal had no idea what that was, but now that he'd seen the made beast, he figured it had to be bouncing.

The battlecircle flashed red three times. On the third flash, Tal’s lizard suddenly shot forward, just as Ethar’s blubber-tub bounced. They met in a whirring of wings, teeth, and clawed arms or legs and parted just as quickly.

"By the Light!! A hit!" cried Ethar, pointing to the drops of bright emerald green blood that were welling out of the lizard-beast’s forearms.

"Mine too," said Tal, pointing at some ugly gashes in the blubber of the bouncing beast. But his heart sank, for the blubber was very thick and the gashes did not look deep.

Before Tal had finished speaking, the blubber-tub attacked again, acting on its Vengenarl temper. This time, the lizard-beast didn't meet it, but flew to one side, zipping and darting around in the air as the blubber-tub bounced and lunged, reaching out its multiple arm-legs to grab and rend.

The lizard-beast was too quick to be caught, but the blubber-tub was also too quick for it to easily strike. They bounced and flew, feinting attacks and withdrawals, moving so swiftly it was almost impossible to follow.

Then the lizard-thing suddenly swooped in and bit out the blubber-tub’s eye. It shrieked in rage, the first sound either beast had made, and one of its three-fingered limbs gripped the very edge of the lizard-beast’s wing.

There was a tearing sound, and part of the wing came off. The lizard-beast leaped back, but clearly it could no longer fly.

"No!" Tal groaned.

The lizard-beast made a yipping sound to taunt the blubber-tub on, as if it didn't care about its torn wing. The blubber-tub, its eye socket bleeding, threw itself back and then bounced forward to crush its opponent.

But even without wings, the lizard-beast was very fast. It zipped sideways, and a claw struck in to take out another of the blubber-tub’s eyes. Furious, the great ball of blubber changed direction to hurl itself at the rainbow-colored lizard.

Once again, the lizard-beast got out of the way, just in time. Then it suddenly moved back, as the blubber-tub was changing direction, and bit the bulbous creature on the foot.

"Yes!" shouted Tal, punching the air. The lizard had bitten clean through the blubber-tub’s leg, severing the foot.

But it still had two on that side, and one of the other legs swung across, smacking the lizard in the head. The brightly colored beast was thrown halfway across the circle by the blow, and seemed to be stunned. It lay there, unmoving, while the blubber-tub did a flip to get back on the three good legs on its other side.

"Get up! Go lizard!" yelled Tal.

"Kill it!" shouted Ethar. The other guards shouted too, some encouraging Tal’s beast, some encouraging Ethar’s.

Slowly and murderously, the blubber-tub advanced on the motionless lizard. Then it started to bounce. A small bounce, then a slightly harder one, until it was bounding up a stretch or more. With each bounce, it got closer and closer to the defenseless lizard. It clearly intended to crush Tal’s beast to death.

Tal looked on, horrified. Even though the creatures were only created things of magical light, he couldn't bear to see his lizard killed. He stopped thinking about everything that depended on this little beast of many colors. He just wanted it to survive.

As the blubber-tub shot up for what had to be its final bounce, Tal shut his eyes. He felt sick. Everything was over now.

Suddenly the guards roared, but it was a shout of surprise, not triumph, from Ethar. Tal’s eyes flashed open and saw the lizard-beast flying around a stunned blubber-tub, darting in to pluck out its eyes one by one.

"What happened?" he asked one of the guards who had been betting on his lizard.

"It tricked the blubber-thing," said the guard happily. "That lizard’s got four or five layers of wing. It could still fly, and it wasn't knocked out. Smart beast, kid."

But despite losing more of its eyes, the battle was not yet over for the Blubber-tub. It had the Heart of a Niphrain Ape, so it could not give up. Bleeding from a dozen wounds, it lurched after the lizard, chasing it around and around the battlecircle.

"Only a matter of time now, boy," said the friendly guard. "Well„"

Whatever the guard was going to say stopped in his throat, as the far door suddenly swung open with the screech of disused hinges. Like everyone else, Tal looked over.

Something huge and very, very dark was coming through the door. A Spiritshadow, Tal realized, but one bigger than he'd ever seen. Its head was all spikes and flanges, as wide and tall as the door, so it struggled to get through. A sinuous neck followed, but whatever body lay behind was too big, unless the Spiritshadow chose to shrink it.

Suddenly Tal realized he was the only one still standing up. All the guards had fallen to their knees and were bowing in the Spiritshadow’s direction. Tal stood there gawping, till his shadowguard reached up and pulled him down by the front of his tunic.

Only then did he realize what . . . or who . . . this Spiritshadow was. It had to be Sharrakor the Mighty, the Empress’s own Spiritshadow. The Shadowdragon who alone among its kind had a name.

Sharrakor’s vast head reared up on its serpentine neck, and its jaws opened. Tal saw teeth of shadow, and swirling patterns of darkness.

Then Sharrakor spat a great glob of shadow that fizzed through the air, straight at Tal!

Tal ducked, but the shadowspit wasn't aimed at him anyway. It struck the Beastmaker table. There was a flash of light, a sudden sizzling noise, and the still battling lizard-beast and blubber-tub were gone.

Tal looked at the empty battlecircle, where small shadows ran like water, over the side of the table and on to the floor. He cringed back as several patches flowed past him, back toward Sharrakor. Tal realized, shivering, that the Spiritshadow had spat some portion of itself. Now all those small shadows were rejoining the whole.

Tal cleared his throat, about to protest at the Spiritshadow’s destruction of the game, but his shadowguard leaped up and thrust itself into his mouth, an instant gag. Tal reached up to pull it free, but the friendly Imperial Guard gripped him as well, so he couldn't move.

The last pieces of shadowspit rejoined Sharrakor. The Shadowdragon’s head swung slowly from side to side, as if seeking another target. Then it slowly withdrew back the way it had come. When it had fully withdrawn, the door creaked shut behind it.

Tal’s shadowguard dropped out of his mouth and the Imperial Guards visibly relaxed.

"What?" Tal began to say, but he got no further.



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