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The Fall Castle Aenir Above the Veil Into Battle The Violet Keystone
 
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Pursued deep into the depths of the Castle, below the seven levels where the Chosen live, below where even the Underfolk dwell, Tal and Milla encounter their old foe, Crow. The rebel Underfolk has the ability to help them save the Dark World way of life, but life in the Castle is not something Crow wishes to preserve.

Tal has no choice but to embark on a harrowing adventure with Crow as his partner. The two venture back up one of the seven towers in pursuit of a keystone that they hope will unlock the Castle’s secrets...

Tal and Crow stood on the narrow walkway, high up on the outside of the Castle. Adras flew above Tal, and above him loomed the huge Red Tower. Beams of light in all shades of red sprang from its many windows and openings, weaving a complex pattern in the sky. Behind it were the other six Towers, all of them taller, each also casting light out into the darkness.

Below them, other lights twinkled in the main bulk of the Castle. But even all these lights could not compete with the essential darkness of the world beyond. The veil lay heavy on the world, and the light of the Seven Towers and the Castle spread only a little way.

"I didn't think it would be so cold," Crow whispered as he looked out on the darkness. "Or so..."

His voice trailed off. Then, with an obvious effort, he tore his gaze away and looked up at the Red Tower they were about to climb.

As Tal had found before, there were many spikes, gargoyles, and strange ornaments that could be used as hand and footholds. Even so, it was not an easy climb, and would be impossible if they were not protected from the cold.

Tal concentrated on his Sunstone, and soon warmth was flowing from it, along his arm and then all over him.

"You have a Sunstone," Tal said guardedly. He still wasn't sure about the wisdom of the Underfolk having a Sunstone. "Do you know how to warm yourself with it?"

"I know more than that," replied Crow. He took out his knife and flicked open the thin cover on the pommel, to reveal the Sunstone there. He concentrated on it for a moment, and Tal saw it flash in answer.

"Ah," said Crow. "That’s better. Do you want to go first or shall I?"

"You go first," Tal said warily. "It will take us a few hours to reach the veil. Watch out for the windows. Some are open and there may be Spiritshadows there."

Tal was very much aware of the danger. He could remember his first climb too well, and his brother, Gref, being taken through just such a window.

That climb seemed very long ago, but it was only a matter of six weeks or so. His entire life had changed that day, and not positively. Hopefully this climb would mark a change for the better.

At least this time he had a Sunstone, Tal thought. He looked at Adras, hovering above him. And a Spiritshadow of his own.

Once again, he was reminded of his first climb. There was a chance the Spiritshadow that had thrown him off would still be there, though if he was lucky it would be guarding its master’s body while he or she was in Aenir.

The Keeper, it had called itself.

Crow started to climb, easily pulling himself up onto the first gargoyle’s broad back. Tal let him get a bit ahead, as he thought about the Keeper. Maybe it was a free shadow. . . .

"Are you coming?" asked Crow. He was already a good twenty stretches up.

"Yes!" Tal called out. He started to climb, then stopped and spoke quietly to Adras.

"Adras. Keep a lookout, and make sure you catch me if I slip."

"Sure," Adras replied. "What about thingummy? Do I catch him, too?"

Tal hesitated.

"Yes," he said finally. "But make sure I'm safe first."

The climb went faster than the first time Tal tried it. Crow was quick, and Tal himself felt stronger and more confident. It only took them an hour to reach the veil.

Tal had been ready to call out to Crow to stop, to prevent the older boy climbing up into the thick layer of ultimate darkness. But Crow had stopped of his own accord. He was crouched on a gargoyle’s head, slowly raising his hand, watching it disappear into the veil. With his arm apparently ending in a stump, he tried to play light on the veil from his Sunstone, but the light simply stopped when it hit the dark barrier.

"It feels weird," said Crow. He was unable to suppress a shudder as he withdrew his hand. "What’s up above?"

"Sunlight," said Tal. "There may be a Spiritshadow. A big one. It calls itself the Keeper."

"It spoke to you?" asked Crow. "Isn't that unusual?"

"Yes," replied Tal. He didn't mention he suspected the Keeper was a free Spiritshadow.

"So how do we get through the veil? Is there some secret. . . some Chosen secret to it?"

He couldn't quite keep the sneer out of his voice when he said "Chosen."

"Not as far as I know," Tal replied. "Just go quickly. I'll go first if you like."

"Good idea," replied Crow. "You can deal with this Keeper, too. I don't mind watching."

"With your help, I hope," Tal said quickly. "We're in this together."

He was still never quite sure exactly what Crow meant. Was he joking?

"Adras, you'd better stay close to me, Tal ordered, as he edged closer to the veil. "Grab hold of my sash and hang on. You'll probably. . . not like the inside of the veil."

"Why?" asked Adras. He drifted closer and hooked two puffy fingers through Tal’s blue sash.

"It’s made of absolute darkness," said Tal. "So dark you feel like you will never see the light again."

Adras was silent. Tal could feel him struggling with the concept of absolute darkness. Clearly it was beyond his imagination.

"Wait a minute or two, and then come after me," Tal told Crow. "Climb through as quickly as you can. It probably helps to take a very deep breath before you start."

"Why?" Crow asked.

"I couldn't breathe last time," Tal explained. "I'm not sure you can breathe inside the veil."

"Crow raised an eyebrow, as if he didn't quite believe Tal. But he didn't speak.

Tal reached up into the veil, watching his hands vanish. For a second he had the sensation that they had truly disappeared. He flexed his fingers in response, and felt something he could grab hold of.

"Hang on!" he said. Then he took a deep breath and pulled himself up.

Into the veil. Into the darkness.



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