The publication of The Fathomless Fire, the second volume in my Perilous Realm trilogy, has been delayed, unfortunately. I'm told it won't be coming out until August 2011.
A long time to wait, if you've been following the story (as I have!) and have been wondering what's happening with Will Lightfoot and Shade the wolf and Rowen. So here, by way of apology for the long wait, and to whet your appetite, is a short excerpt from The Fathomless Fire:
Last night, Will talked to a shadow…
It was a warm night and he couldn’t sleep, so instead he started unpacking one of the boxes in his room labeled Will’s stuff. It was strange how packing up your things and then taking them out of a box later made you look at them in a new way. Some of these books and knick-knacks had been on his bedroom shelf for as long as he could remember, but jumbled up together in a box they looked like intriguing curiosities. He dug out an old storybook and slowly turned its yellowing pages. His mother used to read him these stories at bedtime when he was little. When he came to the story of Jack and the Beanstalk, with the picture of the giant’s castle above the clouds, he stopped. He’d loved this story. He remembered how scared he was of the giant when he came after Jack, but oh how satisfying the ending was, when the beanstalk was chopped through and the giant fell to his earthshaking end.
One night when his mother was reading the story to him she’d shut the book and said, Our people have a story like this one, too.
She’d been gone for three years now, but as he sat with the book in his hands he could still hear her voice, as clearly as if she was right here with him.
Tell me that story, he’d asked her.
When she’d said our people she’d meant her ancestors, who had lived on the plains a long time ago, riding horses and hunting buffalo. She hardly ever spoke about her family’s past, and so when she did Will always sat still and listened eagerly. Since those plains people were his mother’s ancestors that meant they were Will’s, too, a thought that always gave him a strange feeling, a kind of homesickness for a world he’d never seen. And that night she’d told him the story of the boy who traveled to the mountain above the clouds and stole back the rain from the Sky Folk. At first his mother just called the hero of the story the boy, but when Will asked her what his name she said his people called him the boy who is light of foot, or Lightfoot for short. He was thrilled that the hero’s name was the same as his. Only much later did he realize that his mother had added that detail on the spur of the moment, just to please him. I think he was probably a lot like you, his mother had said.
The story was even better than Jack and the Beanstalk. The boy called Lightfoot had many adventures on his way to the Sky Mountain, adventures that Will’s mother told him night after night for a long time before they moved on to other stories and other books. Whenever she finished one of her Lightfoot stories and was tucking him in for the night, he would always ask her for just one more. And she would tilt her head, and say …
A gust of wind swept in through the open window, sending papers flying and knocking over the reading lamp on the table beside Will’s bed. Before he could catch it, the lamp landed on the rug and the shade sprang off the bulb. Will hopped off the bed and rescued the shade before it rolled under the bed. As he was about to put it back on the lamp, he heard a sound behind him. A very distinct and unmistakable cough. The kind of cough someone makes when they’re trying politely to get your attention.
He whirled around.
There was no one else in the room. The door was closed. All he saw was his own looming shadow, thrown by the bare bulb onto the far wall.
But there was another shadow, standing right next to his.
Another person-shape, where there shouldn’t be one. Will turned his head slowly, his heart pounding. There was no one beside him casting that other shadow.
“Hello,” said a voice.
Will screamed and raced for the door.
“Wait,” said the voice, although it was not quite a voice. More like the hollow echo of a voice. “Where are you going?”
Much to his own surprise, Will didn’t flee out the door and down the stairs. Instead he stopped, turned and faced the shadow. He wasn’t sure why, but it was at least partly the feeling, deep down, that this impossibility had something to do with that other world he had journeyed to, and had been thinking about ever since.
The shadow of someone who wasn’t there moved away from Will’s own shadow, toward the corner of the room. An old saggy armchair stood there, on which Will piled his clothes at the end of the day.
The shadow-person raised a shadow-hand and gestured to the chair.
“May I?” the voice asked. How a shadow could be speaking to him, Will didn’t know, but the voice sounded … right somehow. A shadow should sound like that, he thought, like the edges of a voice with everything in the middle taken away.
Will nodded his head slowly.
The shadow of someone dropped into the shadow of the chair with a long sigh.
“That’s better,” it said, patting the arms of the chair. “It wasn’t easy getting here, believe me. I’m a bit out of breath. I have to say I’ve never come this far before.”
“Where are you from?” Will asked.
There was a moment of silence.
“You don’t really need me to answer that,” the shadow replied, with the slightest tinge of sarcasm.
“No, I guess not. What are … who are you?”
“That’s a better question. Unfortunately, the answer is that I’m not anybody. I’m a shadow.”
“A shadow of who?”
“Just a shadow. No who.”
“But every shadow is a shadow of something.”
“Maybe. But never mind that. I’ve got a task to perform, so I’d better get to it before my time is up. I’m here to warn you.”
“Warn me about what?”
The shadow seemed to lean forward in the shadow of the chair.
“Terrible things. A friend in great danger.”
Will thought of Rowen and her grandfather the loremaster. And Shade, the wolf. The shadow could only be talking about one of them.
“I was with my friends just a few days ago,” he said, bewildered. “They were fine when I left. They were safe. What’s happened?”
The shadow sat back again.
“That’s all I can tell you. Terrible things. A friend in great danger.”
Will stared at the shadow. This was the shape of a person, all right, but nothing more than that. There was no face, nobody to look at. Which made everything it said doubtful. This could be the shadow of anyone.
“Who sent you?” Will asked.
“No one sent me. I’m here because it’s what must be.”
“Well, who told you my friends are in danger?”
The shadow had no eyes, but Will had the odd feeling that if it had, it would have been rolling them in annoyance.
“No one told me. I serve no one. I’m just here, simple as that, with a warning for you. I’ll repeat it again if you like: Terrible things. A friend—“
“Is that all you can say?” Will broke in, his alarm turning to anger.
“That’s all I can say.”
“Meaning you don’t know anything more, or you won’t tell me?”
The shadow sat for a moment in silence, then hoisted itself out of the shadow armchair with a grunt of effort.
“That’s a comfortable chair. But I’ve done what I came to do. Now if you’ll excuse me --”
“No, wait. If you know more, you have to tell me. Are these terrible things happening now, or are they going to happen soon …?”
“As I said, I’ve done what I came to do. I can’t give out any further information. The laws forbid it.”
The shadow seemed to dim slightly, and Will was afraid it would disappear.
“What laws?” he asked quickly. “Please, I’m not from your world. I don’t understand.”
“The laws of Story, of course. I exist because of those laws. Or I suppose you could say I am one of the laws.”
“But there’s more you could tell me, right? It sounds like you know more than you’re saying.”
The shadow sighed.
“Listen. What I am is a shadow of things to come. Things that haven’t happened yet. My task is to bring warnings or hints about what’s on the way. Hints that most folk choose to ignore, unfortunately. But that’s their problem. All I do is foretell, and what I do is what I am. And that’s all.”
“But you could say more if you wanted to, couldn’t you?”
“A shadow has no wants,” it said mechanically, as if reciting something it had said already many times. “A shadow does not give directions, explanations, or advice. A shadow is its task and nothing more.”
“But you’ve already broken the law,” Will said eagerly, the idea forming even as he spoke. “You told me what you are and what you do. So you’ve given me an explanation.”
The shadow went still, as if it was surprised by what Will had said, and then it chuckled, a hollow sound like raindrops falling into a tin pail.
“I’ve bent the rules. I never did that before. It must be because I’m so far from home…”
“It won’t hurt anything,” Will said, though he had no idea if that was true or not. “So you can go ahead and tell me more.
The shadow didn’t answer right away. It wavered and bobbed, as if it was being cast now by a flickering candle flame.
“I will not,” the shadow said with what sounded to Will like a note of fear in its voice. “I’m … I’m a shadow of things to come. That’s all I am. And my time is almost up. I have to …”
The shadow had grown even harder to see, but at Will’s entreaty it grew darker and more defined again.
“I can’t tell you what terrible things are coming,” the shadow said, “because I really don’t know. I don’t know what danger your friends are in.” The shadow had almost faded away to nothing. “All I know is that you’re needed in the story, and you have to get back right away.”
“How do I get back?”
“The same way you left,” the shadow’s voice said, but from where, Will couldn’t tell, because it had already vanished.
In a daze Will looked around his room, as if he might find the shadow still lurking somewhere. He saw the fallen lamp, picked it up and set it back on the table. Then his eyes fell on the storybook, sprawled open on the floor. Jack and the Beanstalk. He remembered that just before the shadow appeared he’d been thinking about what his mother’s always told him when he asked for one more story at bedtime.
Don’t worry, she would say. The story will wait for us.
But what about his story, and Rowen’s, he wondered now. Would it wait?