The Nethergrim trilogy continues with the Nethergrim now awake with plenty ready to do her evil bidding. But teenage wizard Edmund and his friends are determined to stop the evil from overtaking their kingdom and team up with the legendary Tristan to take down the Nethergrim’s Skeleth, a force of energy that absorbs those who attempt to kill them.
“Let the light of the stars descend.” Edmund Bale held forth his hand, indicating the place where the spell should begin. “Stars attend me. Surround me. Let your light descend.”
Nothing happened. Edmund sighed and turned to light a torch.
How can you know what light is, if you do not know what darkness is?
Edmund startled and dropped the torch in the moorspike grass. “How many times do I have to tell you?” He reached out, scratching his hands against the toothy leaves, and retrieved it only just before he set the land around him ablaze. “I’m not listening. Go away.”
He drove the torch upright into the earth beside him and sat down on the spread of blankets he had used to make his seat. He found his place in the book he had brought with him, turning the parchment page to catch the torchlight, and started reading the passage he had marked the night before: The Nethergrim has taken many shapes and guises through the ages of the world. Ever and again does it rise to—
Edmund. The Voice came without sound, like a thought that Edmund could not recognize as his own. I am right here. Why search a book to learn about me?
“Because you lie.” Edmund could not work out why the Voice sometimes came to him as words, sometimes the fleeting ghosts of unfamiliar feelings, and sometimes merely a hanging presence, the sense that something was watching him from just over his shoulder. He had gathered all the books he could find to help him learn and understand, but that did not amount to much. He was, after all, just a fourteen-year-old boy, the son of peasant innkeepers, and the village where he lived stood at the crossroads of nothing and nowhere.
Ever and again does it rise to throw down the works of men. The letters scribed upon the parchment page seemed to float in the orange flicker. Slay one form, and it takes another. Defend against its claws, and fall victim to its honeyed smile. I lacked the power to halt this eternal cycle, but I could slow it long enough that others might one day do what I could not. If destroying the body of the Nethergrim could do it no lasting harm, then I would trap it in a sleep of centuries. I—
How I have longed to hear the sweet music of your thoughts once again. The Voice felt the same as it had beneath the mountain, amongst the swirling smoke before the seven-pointed star. Wayward though you are, still you find your way back to me. I can only think that this means you care.
Edmund plugged his ears, even though he knew it was useless. “Go away. Just go away.”
But I have missed you, child. Have you not missed me?
Edmund. The Voice seemed somehow both near and far, inside his thoughts while at the same time feeling as though it had come from between the distant stars above. Do you truly wish to learn the art of magic?
“Not from you.” Edmund shut the book, then shut his eyes. Sometimes, if he concentrated, he could make the Voice recede and tease out his own thoughts from the thoughts it tried to worm into his mind.
It is a simple thing, at heart, said the Voice. Consider again, child—can you know what light is, if you do not know what darkness is?
Edmund started to make a retort, but the idea the Voice had planted took root within him.
It might help you to imagine that you were born blind, and that everyone you knew was also blind. How then would you know that what you saw was darkness?
“I suppose I wouldn’t know.” Edmund shook his head. “Does that make me stupid?”
Not for one of your kind. Open your eyes, Edmund.
Edmund did so. He half expected to see the form the Nethergrim had taken in its chamber in the mountains—coils twisting within coils, mouths and eyes bubbling forth from a roll of smoke. Instead he saw only his burning torch, his book and blankets, and beyond that the moonlight touching gray upon the rises of the dead and empty moors.
Take up your cup, Edmund. Fill it with water. Hold it to the light.
Edmund reached for the stoppered jug he had taken from home and poured out some water into an earthen mug. All the while, something in him told him to stop, to disobey the Voice, but at the same time something else told him to listen and learn.
Touch the water, spoke the Voice. Watch the waves.
Edmund touched a fingertip to the surface. The waves spread in ripples around it, stuttering in the torchlight.
What do you call a wave that has a crest, but not a trough? A top, but no bottom?
Edmund considered. “Nothing. There is no such thing.”
Then what is a wave?
Edmund sat watching the waves dissipate, dying to a glassy flatness. He tried to find the words—he could not, but he could find the thought. A feeling of certainty grew in him, a tingle on his neck that was more than the icy touch of the wind.
Douse the torch, Edmund.
Edmund poured out the water over the torch, then ground it in the dirt, frightened all the while by his obedience. “Why are you telling me all this? Why are you trying to teach me?”
Look to your right.
Edmund faced south, so turning to his right meant looking west. In that direction he saw his home, the village of Moorvale. It was as much memory as sight that shaped its familiar outline in the dark, its thatch-and-timber houses huddled in by the bridge at the bend of the great river Tamber. Everyone in the village had long gone to bed, exhausted from their labors gathering in the last of the harvest. Not even his own home, his parents’ inn where he lived and worked, showed a glimmer of flame—but that was no surprise, for he had only been able to slip out once all the guests had left the tavern and his father had closed up for the night.
Now consider, Edmund. When you looked to your right, what did you also do?
Edmund ignored the Voice. He gazed up past his shadowed village, westward to Wishing Hill and to the ruined keep where his whole life had changed two weeks before. Beyond that stood the starlit peaks of the Girth, the mountains where he had fought against the Nethergrim and won. He had found a way to break a spell devised between the world’s most celebrated wizard and the Nethergrim herself. If he could do that, he wondered, then why could he not call down light?
“I heard you,” said Edmund. “I understand what you are asking me. If I look to my right, I look away from my left. If I face to the west, I turn away from the east.”
Thus speak the masters of Dhrakal, the wizards whose works you so adore. All things have their needful opposites. Light needs darkness. The dawn carries with it certain knowledge of the dusk. You can have what you want, but you must always pay for it. Now—understand, and try again.
Edmund found the balance in his mind. He reached forth to tip it. “Let the light of the stars descend. I grip the sleeve of night. Stars, attend me.” He lowered his hand, indicating the place. “Descend.”
The sky above him warped, and the stars turned their faces, casting their cool and indifferent glow upon the little heathered hollow where he sat. It was not much, just enough for reading. The night beyond grew just a little blacker, a little deeper—a simple cost for a simple spell, straight across the Wheel from Light to Darkness.
There, said the Voice. Not so very hard, after all.
“Now get lost.” Edmund took up his book and spread it out across his lap. “I’m trying to find a way to kill you.”
Edmund. You never looked east.
“Why should I?” Edmund turned his head, even as he spoke. “There’s nothing that way except—”
What Edmund had meant to say next was that there was nothing to his east except for empty moors. What he had meant to say next was that eastward, from where he sat, there were but barren rolls of ground choked with weed and moorspike, with hardly a tree to break up the monotony all the way to the horizon. What he had meant to say was that there was nothing to see in that direction, for no one had gone three rises east of the Moorvale Bridge from time out of memory. Instead he said nothing, because he saw something he did not expect.
Edmund leapt to his feet. “Is that torchlight?” He peered eastward—another torch appeared behind the first, and then they both began slowly to descend, as though their carriers had crested a rise on the great West Road, and now followed its path down into the hollow.
Your book speaks truth, Edmund. The tone of the Voice changed, seeming to taunt him. I have indeed taken many forms in this world. It is also true that I have many ways of working my will upon it.
“Who is that?” Edmund forgot that he was speaking with the Nethergrim, the being that had stolen away the lives of two children before his eyes. “No one takes the West Road in from the moors. No one comes from that way—not ever.”
You know that I was not destroyed, there within the mountain. You know, in the deepest part of yourself, that I cannot be destroyed.
Edmund let the light of his spell go out, the better to see the lights upon the moors. The glow of the torches lit what looked like men on horseback, and even in the deep of night their garments marked them out as men of noble rank, coats of arms laid over mail armor, woad blue and madder crimson, the glint of steel and cloth of gold.
“What is it that you want?” Edmund spoke as though the Nethergrim stood beside him. “What is it that you are trying to do?”
This much is certain, Edmund Bale. If you carry on against me, I will be your death.
Edmund clenched his fists. “I will find a way to stop you. This I swear.”
No reply came, save for the wind.
“Do you hear me?” Edmund did not know why he looked upward at the stars, since he was not at all sure where the Nethergrim was, if it could in truth be said to be anywhere at all. “I will fight you and I will beat you!”
Into the answering silence crept a sound, a rustle in the moorspike from the dark along the road. Edmund tensed. “Who’s there?” He drew his knife—a work knife, short and single-edged, made for whittling and carving more than fighting.
The rustling sound shifted, seeming to come from behind him. He whirled about with his knife raised high, but even as he did so, hands flashed forth from the gloom, and words rained down upon him: “I grant the curse of peace.”
With a clear, high pinging sound, the blade of Edmund’s knife snapped in half, the point falling to drop amongst the grass. A figure emerged from the shadows, a girl of perhaps fifteen, in a dove-gray dress and dark hair bound up beneath a hood. “I’m sorry about the spell. Are you Edmund Bale? The Wizard of Moorvale?”
Edmund scrabbled backward and tripped in the moorspike. “What’s it to you?”
The girl approached. She looked around her. “Who were you talking to?”
Edmund stared up at the girl. She was not quite what he would call pretty, but he could not help looking long at her, not least because each of her two large eyes was a completely different color—one brown, the other a glimmering blue.
“I saw your light.” The girl’s voice had a sweetness to it, with just the trace of a rolling accent. “Were you waiting for me? Is that why you’re out here—did you know I was coming?”
Edmund got to his feet. “Who are you?”
The girl drew back her hood. “My name is Elísalon, but folk in the north just call me Ellí.” Long, straight hair slipped free to hang in tresses as black as the surrounding sky. “Is it true, Edmund? Did you truly fight the Nethergrim? Did you see it, did you face it down?”
That forced a laugh from Edmund, though the sound died lonely on the moors. “I wouldn’t call it facing her down, exactly—but, yes, I saw her, and I fought her as best I could.”
“Help me.” The girl drew near, hands clasped and held out as though to beg. “Please. I’m trying to fight it, too, but if they find out what I’m trying to do, they will . . .” She trembled.
Edmund watched the girl in silence. No matter how long he looked at her, he could see nothing but her fear.
The girl turned to look east, toward the torches and the riders on the distant rise of moor. “Please, I’m scared. I’m all alone.”
“I will help you.” To Edmund’s ears, his own voice had never sounded so deep, so measured and assured. “Tell me how.”
Excerpted from The Skeleth by Matthew Jobin. Copyright © 2016 by Matthew Jobin. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.