Following The Black Elfstone andThe Skaar Invasion comes the third book in the triumphant four-part conclusion to the Shannara series, from one of the all-time masters of fantasy.
A winter tableau, stark and compelling.
Not a hundred yards from the west gates of the fortress walls of Paranor, a small clearing is revealed within the giant old growth, barely visible through the curtain of new snowfall. An earlier snow leaves the clearing and the surrounding forest in a foot-deep covering of white. Darkness no longer shrouds the world, as the night has diminished and the first glimmerings of dawn have surfaced on the distant horizon.
All is silent in the forest; birds and animals alike have gone still. All is sleep-claimed and frozen in place; there is an unnatural feeling to the air as Tavo Kaynin staggers forward, thrown off balance by the force of his thrust.
He has slipped from hiding, crept up on his sister from behind, bearing in his hand the legendary blade known as the Stiehl, and has driven it through her back. The killing blow is the culmination of a journey he has pursued since he decided that she betrayed him through abandonment and neglect and therefore must die. The satisfaction he feels when he strikes her down is immense, a release of pent-up frustration and rage that has haunted him for weeks. Here, at last, is an end to it. Here, at last, is the revenge he has been seeking.
Yet even as he revels in his success, he experiences an unexpected sense of loss. His sister is the last of his family, the last connection to anything from his old life, and a sudden welling-up of doubt and deep mistrust of his own feelings infuses him. By killing her, he brings about a desperately needed resolution to his madness. Or does he? What has he truly done?
A split second later, his feelings are scattered to the winds blowing softly around him.
Something is wrong, he realizes.
His weapon and arm have both passed completely through her body, have found no substance but only empty air. He staggers off balance now as a result, his momentum unhindered by his anticipated encounter with flesh and blood—by a solidity he should have found from driving his knife into her body. Instead, she is no longer even in evidence—she has vanished entirely—and he realizes instantly that he is mistaken about everything.
“Stand where you are!” Drisker Arc hisses as he wheels toward Tavo.
Tavo tries to regain his feet and flee, but the Druid is already on top of him, his hands fastening about his arm, wrenching it so violently that the Stiehl drops into the snow and disappears. At the same time, he sees that his sister stands to the other side of the Druid, unharmed and watching in shock.
He has been tricked.
He responds instinctively, lashing out at the Druid and his sister and their two companions—the Blade and the Elven prince—summoning the magic of his wishsong. But his voice is stilled before any sound can gather sufficient force to save him. He manages but one small croak before the Druid has hold of his throat and has closed off his windpipe. Air wheezes from his lungs, but it is not nearly enough to do more than produce a truncated gasp. He thrashes and squirms in his captor’s grip, but he cannot break free.
Everything begins to go black.
“Dar Leah!” the Druid calls out sharply, and the Blade is there instantly. “Take him from me.”
Tavo is gripped immediately by new hands and pulled down into the snow. A blade presses up against his throat, the sharp edge cutting into his skin. The implication is clear. If he moves, he will die. He sees how matters stand, and while a fresh wave of rage and frustration surges through him, he knows better than to test that blade. He goes limp in those strong hands and hopes that Clizia will save him.
Drisker has placed himself in front of Tarsha, and the Elven prince has moved up beside him. Together, they present a wall of defense against whatever Clizia Porse might choose to do. It seems to Tavo that she will choose to do nothing but will instead disappear back into the night. Why shouldn’t she? Tavo would, if their places were reversed. He has failed her completely. He has disobeyed her instructions to kill the Druid first and Tarsha after, and as a result he has been defeated entirely. The Druid witch is a demanding mistress and she will see him as both an ineffective and an unnecessary ally. She will not risk herself further.
His head sinks in despair.
Moments pass, and nothing happens. She is already gone, he thinks. The clearing has turned silent with fresh expectation, the snowfall growing heavier and the dawn’s light fading back into deepest gray as a result. Breath from those gathered about him clouds the air in white puffs, and a small shifting of bodies provides the only evidence that all is not frozen solid.
“Nothing,” Brecon Elessedil whispers finally.
Drisker Arc contradicts him at once. “She is here.”
The truth is quick to show itself as the words leave his lips. A massive wind arises out of nowhere, surging through the little clearing, emerging from the woods with rage and purpose, whipping against the poised figures with such violence that they stagger back several steps in response to the battering, ducking their heads protectively. The darkness deepens and the howling of the sudden wind reaches an ear-shattering crescendo.
She comes for me, Tavo thinks, elated.
But the blade still presses up against his neck, and his magic still will not respond to his efforts to summon it, so his own attempts to free himself fail as the hands of his captor tighten further.
Shadows gather and close around him, and the Druid makes warding gestures that summon blue lines of magic to pulse and shimmer against the dark. The little company huddles watchfully in the teeth of the wind, keeping one another and Tavo close, letting no one come at them unexpectedly.
Then finally the Elf brings out his talismanic stones, and light flashes out into the woods. Drisker comes to his feet, prepared to lash out, but the Elfstones find nothing of Clizia close by, their brightness ending not two dozen feet into the gloom. An instant later the wind dies, the shadows disappear, and the world returns to what it was in the early-dawn light.
“She’s gone,” Brecon announces.
“For now, yes,” the Druid agrees. “She has hidden herself to prevent us from finding her. This magic is ancient and strong enough even to thwart the Elfstones. Very rare.”
They all rise, the Blade dragging Tavo up with him. They all stand together to look off into the forest, making sure they are not mistaken. But the silence of the forest is deep and unbroken; Clizia Porse has fled.
“What was that about?” the Blade asks.
Tavo Kaynin is wondering the same thing.
“Whatever it was, it failed,” the Elf offers, kicking snow from his boots.
Next to them, Tavo is aware that Tarsha is looking over at him, and he cannot bring himself to meet her gaze. He is unable to face what he knows he will see in her eyes. Enraged as he is by his failure to kill her, he is also unexpectedly ashamed that he even thought to try. A new consciousness is seeping through him—one that is making him question everything he believed was true. Fluken is nowhere to be found, his voice stilled. All his advice now seems empty and self-serving. If Fluken were truly a friend, he would be there to help Tavo. He would be standing by Tavo as he has repeatedly claimed he would. But Fluken does not live up to his promises. He flees with the witch, a faithless liar.
“She did not fail,” Drisker says suddenly, breaking the silence. He is nudging the snow in front of him with his boot. “She did exactly what she intended to.”
He kneels down and musses the snow about with his gloved hand for a moment, then looks up. “She regained the Stiehl.”
* * *
Once they had allowed his words to sink in and come to terms with the implications, they discussed briefly what to do next. There were choices aplenty—all of them worthy, but many contradictory.
“We should find her and put an end to her,” Brecon Elessedil declared. “She cannot have gotten far, and we have the means of tracking her down. She is too dangerous to be allowed to survive. Look how much trouble she has made already. She trapped Drisker in Paranor and left him to die. She stole the Stiehl and gave it to Tarsha’s brother so that he would kill her. And she seeks far more than that, unless I am misguided.”
“You are not,” Drisker replied with a deep sigh. “She seeks to rebuild the Druid order in her own image, with herself as Ard Rhys. She will use whatever means she can to achieve this, and we know now that she had some sort of alliance with the Skaar that was meant to further her plans. But she is not our primary concern, as dangerous as she clearly is. Our primary concern is with the coming war between the Skaar and the people of the Four Lands. We already know what the Skaar are capable of doing, and their behavior suggests they are here to find a home for their people at the very least, and perhaps to subjugate the entire Four Lands at the worst. Do I have it right, Dar Leah? You seem to know the most about this.”
Dar hesitated. He knew considerably more than they did thanks to his conversations with Ajin d’Amphere—more than any of them could have guessed. Mostly, he had kept what he knew about her—and what she had revealed in their unexpected meeting after Paranor’s return—to himself. During their journey to save the Keep and its Druids, he had revealed to Drisker the details of his two brief encounters with Ajin d’Amphere, both of which took place before he even knew who she was. While Drisker was locked away, they had encountered each other a third time, and on that occasion she had revealed both her identity and the purpose of the Skaar invasion. Most of this, he had imparted to Brecon Elessedil. But even then he could not be certain how much she revealed was the truth and how much was not. He thought he understood something more of her motivations, and if he was right they confirmed what Drisker had always suspected. But even after both Brecon and he had come face-to-face with the Skaar princess in Arborlon—following her bold attempt to persuade the prince’s father to ally the Elven nation to the Skaar in an effort to hold off the Federation—he had held back the more personal nature of Ajin’s interest in him. He kept thinking it was either a whim or an attempt at subterfuge; he found it hard to believe that she was truly as interested in him as she professed.
Of one thing, he was certain. Where Ajin d’Amphere was concerned, you could never be certain of anything—and he was not convinced he knew all that much about her even now.
He shook his head. “She said the Skaar came here to establish a new homeland. Yet my senses say—and I think Brecon will agree—that she loves to play games and seems intent on pitting each Race in the Four Lands against the others. She was in some way allied with Clizia, which allowed her to gain entrance into Paranor and slaughter the Druids. When Clizia banished Paranor from the land, she then sought an alliance with the Elves. But I’m still not sure what she really wants.”
Except perhaps where I am concerned. And can I believe even that is real?
Tarsha stepped forward. “I know you have much more important things to consider, but I have my brother back, and for that, Drisker, I will always be grateful. You saved my life when he would have taken it, and you found a way to subdue him. Maybe this will give me a chance to help Tavo.”
The Druid shook his head dismissively. “I merely responded when my senses warned me. I knew what he was about.”
He paused. “Or did I?”
He turned to Tavo, hunched over and shivering to one side of the Blade. “Dar,” he said. “Find wood and build us a fire. We are freezing out here, and there is no reason to fear any further attacks from Clizia just now. Brecon, perhaps you can help.”
He did not make it sound like anything more than a request, but there was an emphasis to his words that sent both men moving away and into the trees in search of deadwood. “Tarsha, come close,” he told her.
Dar Leah gave Tavo Kaynin over to Drisker and departed the clearing with Brecon on his heels, wondering what was about to happen.
* * *
Drisker waited for Tarsha to approach, beckoning her closer when she hesitated. He forced Tavo to his knees, then placed both big hands on the girl’s shoulders. “We have a decision to make, and we must not make it lightly. I think you know that your brother is still a danger to both himself and us. And I think you know that his problems are not going to go away without a good bit of healing, and I don’t know that we have time to give it to him.”
“I have time,” she said at once.
“Not so. You cannot be with him as he is, and we cannot spare the time he needs. Nor can he be left where Clizia can find him again—especially now that she has the Stiehl back. It would be kinder and quicker to put an end to your brother right now.”
He saw the startled look in her eyes and put a finger to her lips. “Say nothing yet. Only hear me out. I said it might be quicker and kinder, but it is not what we are going to do. We are going to keep him with us, and we are going to give you a chance to help him. But you must agree that you and he will remain with us, that you will come with us and do what is needed to help the Four Lands and her people, and that you will pledge to fulfill your promise to serve as my student for the agreed-upon time. We, in turn, will see to it that Tavo gets as much help as we can manage to give him.”
She took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “Perhaps we should take him to the Stors for care.”
“Perhaps, but they do not treat emotional and psychological dysfunction. They treat physical ailments and injuries and have no expertise in treating mental disorders. Besides, he is entirely too dangerous to be around anyone save you and me. You know that, don’t you?”
She nodded. “He is too dangerous for me, too,” she whispered. “How can I ask you to keep him with us?”
“You don’t have to. I am offering.” He took his hands away and straightened. “A few adjustments will be necessary to make this work. I will do so, but I need you to leave me for now. Go into the woods with Dar and Brecon and keep them company. I want you all to stay away until I call you.”
She glanced over quickly at Tavo, who was looking at her now with a gaze that said he was both beaten and defeated. “You won’t—”
“Tarsha,” he said, interrupting her quickly. “I mean him no harm. He has been ill-used since setting out to find you. Yes, he has killed men and destroyed property, but he has suffered abuse that no one survives unscathed. He has been a damaged creature for many years, if what I have been given to understand is true, so he responds in the only way his mind will allow him to. He cannot reason as you and I can. He cannot see the difference between right and wrong. Not yet. But he can be made to see. He can be made to come to terms with how his mind works.”
She brushed back loose strands of her white-blond hair where the wind had blown them across her face. “I wish that for him. I wish he could be made to understand.”
“Then go, Tarsha. Leave me to do what I must to begin his healing, and come back only when you are summoned. Will you do that?”
She was already turning away. “That and much more, if it will help my brother. Thank you, Drisker, for all you are doing for him. But I will not hold you to more than that. I will not blame you if you fail.”
She walked from the clearing and into the shadows of the trees beyond, fading into the mist.
But I will blame myself, Drisker thought, keeping the words to himself.