Today it is my great pleasure to introduce you to SHADOW OVER AVALON by C. N. Lesley!
Beyond the mists of time, a dying warrior binds his soul to his sword with an oath to protect his people. His shade rides with the Wild Hunt while he waits for the call of greatest need, but when it comes, he doesn’t know it is a lie.
In the undersea city of Avalon, Arthur nears the end of his acolyte training. But he doesn’t want to spend his life serving the Archive, he wants to fight side by side with the air-breathing people to defeat the predators who are determined to ensure their own survival no matter the cost.
Ashira, War Maid princess of the surface-world, is ready to sacrifice her life to defend her kin, but when she is betrayed she must choose whether to die with honor or become one of the creatures her kinsmen fear and loathe.
Fortune twists in the strongest hands. This is no repeat; this is what happens next.
Following two threads of time, CN Lesley’s fresh take on the Arthurian tales of old delivers the perfect blend of science fiction and fantasy.
Earth Date 3874
Time, space, drifted in endless convoluted eddies. A spark of awareness floated, lost, helpless. Pictures formed against a blue background. A white horse changed to chestnut. A dark man’s face intent on passion, or was it the foxy face of one enjoying another’s anguish? Was this death, or the moment of birth? Shattered fragments of will coagulated slowly. A splintered soul groped for coherence, drawing together strands of itself. Danger registered at a cellular level – the force tearing thoughts apart must not know any remained. There lay the path to extinction.
The soul drifted, no longer attempting to establish will, but allowing feeling to return undetected, absorbing rather than probing. A sensation of weight came first, then pain. Agony heaped on agony. Tears of blood flowed from eyes of molten fire. Screams tore in silent, endless outcry.
Burning sight registered a form, a shape of horror. Blood-red, cat-like eyes bored into the naked mind. The head was wide and flat, covered with thick, armored, scaly plates that tapered to a fleshy, bald crest. No nose, rather, twin breathing-pits where one should be. A mouth like a sword cut snarled, revealing sharp teeth when the creature articulated sound. The soul registered this image as important, to be retained.
Something else: a shadow-shape hovered just at the periphery of vision. A set of matte-black eyes gleamed from the walls of the cavern. The dream-watcher stalked, waiting.
Weightless, drifting, the soul found substance, folding into a waiting shell, a body. Feeling, sensation, sight, sound and smell returned, yet the soul remained wary. Shapes, forms resolved into a circle of rabid men’s faces, and one bland visage radiating casual cruelty. The soul writhed in a strange and hostile world. Faint strands of reason floated in the gray madness of its mind. A female once, from a distant recollection, she found she could access the minds around, know their thoughts. They considered her an animal, one who had sinned. Death stalked here. She would have to be very careful.
“Outcast, there is no place among the righteous for sinners,” an empty one wearing bright colors droned.
“Trespassers earn one fate,” the cruel hunters chanted in unison. She fought for strands of sanity as the empty one, mind bereft of thoughts, approached. Her banded limb lifted to the order of another’s will. A claw-like thing settled round her bracelet. What had been golden drained down to black.
From a deep haven of safety, she screamed in silent extremis. A pumping organ expanded beyond limits, exploding, weeping a black ichor. Time moved forward, remorseless.
One floating thought-strand attached to another, then a third and a fourth. Escape or die, said logic. The pair of black eyes glinted out of bare rock, pressing through madness, and then the picture of a four-legged beast came to her. The name came to mind: Yes, a horse. Must get away—need horse, logic demanded. She tried to speak her needs, but how to make those sounds? Why could she understand the sounds others made, but not make her mouth move right?
“Hor–se,” her dry croak of a voice pleaded.
“The gift is known,” one of the hunters said.
“Let it be so. Get this creature away from Tadgehill,” the empty one ordered. “This foul sacrifice cannot be completed where it might cause contamination.”
Released from invisible restraints, she fell with numb, prickling limbs and was dragged along a dark passage as senses slowly returned, to where a copper horse waited. Copper – an important word, but why? She gasped for air, thrown astride the beast. Two deep breaths before plunging out into darkness where a shushing wetness promised safety, but the horse didn’t want to go there. Reluctantly, she directed the beast up a well-worn trail into danger. Wind tore into her face on reaching a bleak flatness at the top of a rise. Aware she must run, she chose the most traveled trail.
Copper, why was copper important? Another floating strand connected with the whole. A face swam into view. ‘Keep your blades sharp, Sister,’ a rough voice had said.
Blades, yes. I have blades. The hunters must appear honorable. They wouldn’t if they cut down an unarmed prey. He had said more: ‘Soon you will be in my grasp.’ A sad smile from another who couldn’t make those sounds very well. Sad – how do I know of sad? Ah, yes, this empty nothingness is sad. Another creature who understood, needed finding, but where? One more strand aligned, bringing a sense of safety from the north. She knew the sun traveled east to west and would come soon. She also knew those hunters would guess her passage. Not north then, not yet. Something south and west they feared. Head that way once the sun comes. Hunters need light to track. She must find shelter to get a good start.
Some time later, a dull moon in the blackness above lit a jumble of rocks; the traveler heard water running and felt safer here. She dismounted, directed by instinct to picket the animal close to a stream. Curled up against a boulder for a windbreak, she slept until the sun shone again.
She woke with a wet face, unable to see properly in gray mist, and spent time stretching to ease aching limbs. Her long, sodden pelt became an added irritation, one she used her belt knife to hack away with relief. The golden tresses fell unheeded to a muddy resting place, an obstacle for a solitary worm still above ground.
She went to her horse to strap on the harness and found a bulge in one side of the leather saddlebag. Food – bread and cheese. Someone had stashed this bounty in a hurry, a small cup of kindness for the damned. One crystalline tear spilled over to fall on a dry crust. No testament to self-pity, rather the last drop of feeling spared for one who had put compassion over hunger. With that pearl of moisture went the last remnants of kinship with humanity.
Teeth bit down onto bread, the body drawing sustenance, digesting evidence of lost life. The traveler headed southwest, soon finding a stream running in that direction. She paused, trying to tease information out of a whirling void inside her skull. The pieces gradually came together: hunters use canines; canines could not track where they could not smell; water stopped smell. She steered her horse into the stream.
Why do they punish? How did I sin? What did the empty one do to me? These thoughts went round and round in a mad spiral with no ending. She gave up the hopeless quest, concentrating on survival instead. More strands of memory latched together with each passing league to give her an acute awareness of every living form. She knew she could fight off attack with her blades and what form that defense would take.
In the place of the hunters, what had she left behind? There could be no return, not for years. Someday she would remember . . . perhaps by then the hunters would have forgotten about her.
Sunshine burned at hazy layers as the copper horse picked along the stream. She decided to follow this path west until midday. This was going to slow the pursuers, although they’d know she’d come out sometime. As the day wore on, the grayness of mind disgorged another image, one sharp in every detail. A creature covered with fur, which walked on two legs and yet bore predator teeth. The image of twin breathing pits . . . she shuddered. It had two names . . . a lucky creature to have two of them, one name for its own kind, and then one for people, this Nestine/Harvester. Nasty taste of the creature’s thoughts.
What did such a creature want with people? Why did it hold the minds of men in bondage? Why couldn’t the soldiers see the beast?
A line of trees ahead shielded a deep river valley where a stream flowed. Midday passed at a peaceful stroll, and the time approached to double back, head north. Best to make a very wide circle in case some of the hunters followed that trail.
The sound of fast white-water carried on the breeze as a branch of the river came into view. The traveler urged the copper horse to a bank. Water rushed over green, weed-covered boulders. This water ran south, ideal for the purpose. They wouldn’t know which course to follow.
The sun hung overhead, giving warmth to bring on a hazed, sleepy need. A lazy spiral of carrion birds squawked overhead, competing with the splash of rushing water. The traveler rounded a tree-packed bend straight into the path of a saurian. Memories of nature came flooding back at the sight of this beast. The reptile stood fifteen feet tall from hind feet to top of crest. This carnivore had a venomous spit that paralyzed, while partly-digesting victims.
The copper horse squealed in terror, throwing the traveler, reins catching on a branch. The traveler rolled in falling, standing up bruised but intact, several paces from the frantic animal. No sense in releasing it, since both of them faced death.
One pace at a time, slowly, so as not to spook the monster into a charge, she distanced two potential victims, sword drawn. The saurian hadn’t stopped eating its last meal, a stag. It stood on its two back legs, showing its much smaller, grasping forelimbs; its heavy hind muscles indicated speed and jumping ability. The head was too well encased by bone for a target, and the neck had spiny ridges extending along the length of the spine. Frontal attack would be death, because the creature would spit venom for preference. Only one area gave an opening, just where its spine met the pelvic girdle and the horny outgrowths stopped. Still feeding, the saurian eyed the copper horse. It dropped a chunk of carcass and began to stalk, breaking into a charge. The horse reared. The traveler aimed, striking a mighty blow as the saurian sped past. A lucky hit, her sword bit deep between the creature’s backbones. The beast crashed, half paralyzed. Thrashing, it swiveled its head enough for a counter strike too swift to dodge. The spittle slapped against her right forearm and hand, catching the ugly black circle. Leather melted, flesh smoked. The band sent out little lights, like fireflies on a summer’s eve. With that last spurt of spite, the predator went into death throes.
Groaning, hissing with pain, the traveler crawled forward to thrust the mess of a limb into an icy torrent. Pain eased with rushing water pounding against the burn, reducing it to an angry throb. This injury wasn’t going to heal, and the limb must come off – impossible without help.
First lose hunters and then head north to safety.
The copper horse took a while to calm, and mounting was difficult, one-handed. The traveler turned east to begin a wide circle.
Each passing hour marked increased weakness. A pale moon inched across starry heavens as the solitary pair walked darkened earth. The night breeze sighed, moaning over empty lands . . . a familiar echo. The sad one with copper hair who called her ‘Sister’ . . . must be close, maybe close enough to hack off this ruined limb. She sensed a draw to the east, a feeling of rightness.
Strength seeped away with the target so close. Moonlight glinted off the surface of a large lake ahead. A sense of familiar presence radiated from bushes near the shore. The copper horse headed to water without direction, not shying when a dark-cloaked figure stepped forward to grasp the reins. Another eased the traveler down to earth.
As the useless limb flopped to the damp grass, the black band sparked once more, giving off a single whine and a curl of smoke. She looked up for the one needed, but when its hands pushed back those concealing cowls all hope faded. Pale moonlight reflected off fine silver scales; the one who knelt over had short, curling hair of a light color that ruffled in the breeze. Large, pale eyes over a straight nose and firm lips made an intelligent face, but not a human one. This creature looked concerned.
“Made straight for us. Knew where we based.” Another of the group looked at the traveler and aimed a box at the black band. “We’re in luck. By the deeps, it’s deactivated. We have a trophy.”
“Our young warrior ran up against a saurian by the appearance of these wounds. Look, Tarvi, still conscious and unafraid. What do you make of that?” the fair one said.
“They usually panic when they know they’re dying. This is more like a beast, lying down to accept the inevitable.”
Another of the group came over to look. This one had long, light hair and a softer face. There was a faint pressure inside the traveler’s head, and then the creature backed off in disgust. “It’s a moron. Finish it off, Ector. Our trophy must be taken home at once.”
“Sanctuary claims to have bred out impatience, but I see one seer with full measure.” Ector took a narrow container from a pocket. He removed the stopper, letting a smooth liquid drip on the traveler’s parched lips.
“Well, youngling, seems you had wit enough to find us. How did you know where to look?” Ector asked.
The traveler tried to find the sounds she understood, but could not repeat. One sound came to mind, which wouldn’t serve alone.
“I promise none will speed an ending unless you wish it, youngling. Answer and I’ll give you something for the pain,” Ector urged, just as the traveler dug out another sound.
“Look . . . Cop–per,”
“Ector, this is an exercise in futility. The moron can’t even talk.”
“Be still, Suki. This Terran understands well enough to give answers. Just because we don’t grasp the meaning doesn’t mean one isn’t valid.” Ector tilted the bottle for the traveler to drink again. “Let’s prove her wrong. You do understand, so we’ll try something more basic. Tell me your name,” he said.
The traveler looked straight into those pale eyes and smiled a sad smile, not having an answer to give. The sky went dark as a cloud passed over the moon, and she remembered the other sad one’s warning. Destined fate approached.
The dream-watcher flickered into focus, waiting in the phantom depths of night, his matte-black eyes now shining gold in the moonlight. He began to move closer.
“Shad . . . ow,” she whispered, trying to explain it was time to go, wanting a last sleep, but needing to warn these kind creatures of the one who stalked souls.
“Ector, let it alone. It’s near the threshold.” Tarvi pulled at Ector’s arm.
“In a moment. The answers are trapped inside, I think.”
The traveler felt a firm push against her thoughts, and somehow there appeared more order as the stranger’s will delved deep. She considered fighting, but she was so very tired, and this intrusion didn’t taste bad. Vision blurred, fading down into blackness. Sound became a dull drone, soon gone. Lungs sucked in one final breath.
Ector swore as he disengaged, frantically digging into the contents of his belt pouch for a disc. He placed it on the Terran’s head, activating it. That last lungful of air sighed out; heartbeat ceased; eyes glazed. He closed them.
“What? Found something?” Tarvi asked, coming close to check that the stasis device functioned.
“Our Terran ran afoul of a Nestine before she battled with a saurian. Long-term memory is mostly gone, and her speech center has extensive damage. Maybe that dead sonic device enabled communication.” Ector shrugged looking up at Tarvi. “If there’s the slightest chance of retrieving more, I’d say she is as valuable a find as our trophy.”
“Ector, I’ve never seen a Terran amputee. You’re not doing any favors.” Tarvi shone a flashlight on the wound. Bones glistened, part exposed. A gobbet of melting flesh sloughed away.
Ector flinched. “Why is this girl the only one we found with any idea of Nestines? Why didn’t she react to us with the usual Terran panic? We may have picked up an unexpected advantage, Tarvi. One I’d be a fool to overlook.”
“Nestine ship to the West,” Suki called, from the edge of the lake.
“They seem to think there’s something out there worth landing for,” Ector said, watching the bright disc descending. “Cut that animal free from reins, and then it’s time to leave.”
Ector scooped up the Terran, throwing her over his shoulder. With his unit behind, he headed out into the lake depths.
The copper horse whuffled night air, puzzled at the sudden quiet. It pricked up its ears, heading home when pink glints of dawn light rose over the horizon. Midnight-colored eyes faded back into rock, as the lonely bark of a dog-fox cut through sleepy silence while ripples calmed on dark water.
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