“I have served the Abhorsen for more years than you have had hot dinners. I have heard every possible variation of every possible stupid plan. And yet this is still the worst idea I’ve ever heard.”
Yrael, slumped in his cat form, rolled over so that he could glare at Sam with too-green eyes. There had always been something a little unsettling about the white cat, but now that he was unbound his gaze was more penetrating and sharp than ever, and Sam found it difficult to endure. Still, he did not look away. He was not going to lose this fight.
“I think it’s a good idea,” Lirael said mildly, turning her head to look over the armrest of the day-bed she was lounging on. She had come back from a long, exhausting trip to the western part of the Old Kingdom a few hours ago, and immediately come to Sam’s room to chat. Nick was sitting beside her, pressing healing poultices to her various scrapes and bruises. He had become fascinated by the healing spells of the Charter. Sam wasn’t sure if that was due to his experiences with Orranis, or if it was because Lirael got hurt so often.
“I’m not sure if I know enough to have an opinion,” Nick started. Yrael stopped glaring at Sam and started glaring at Nick instead.
“But I think it’s a good idea too. After all, you helped bind… him. You should be part of the bells now.”
Yrael had been a rather transient creature since he was freed. Sam had willingly designed and built a fishing hut for him, on the banks of the Ratterlin, and at first he had spent most of his time there. When he showed up at the Capital several months later, Sabriel panicked, assuming he had come bearing bad news, a warning of encroaching disaster. Yrael had sniffed and said he just wanted to make sure their stupidity hadn’t doomed the Kingdom yet. As his stay stretched from days into weeks and months, it had become clear to everyone that he missed being at the center of things. After so many years with the Abhorsens, he could no longer bear to be away from the drama and adventure of their lives. Sensibly, no one had remarked on this to Yrael directly, mostly for fear of having their eyes clawed out.
“There are more problems than you are assuming,” Mogget said. “Even if you were to work my song into the Charter, and build a bell to sing it, you would have to quench it in the Third Precinct of Death, and no one can do that.”
Sam looked to Lirael at this point. She was the Abhorsen-in-Waiting, and knew more about Death than he did.
“I don’t know a huge amount about making the bells,” she said, tapping her finger against her chin. Her eyes became briefly unfocused, and Sam knew a page from The Book of the Dead had floated into her mind. That often happened to her these days, as she explored the mysteries of the Abhorsen. “Ah. What you have to do in Death is fix and quench the bells. So you set certain Charter marks into the metal, which activate the mix of Free and Charter magic already embedded there, and then you dip it in the water to tie it to Death and the Dead. There’s a certain amount of activation time though, much longer than the wave holds.”
“Could you alter the spell so that the wave holds for longer?” Nick said. He was refreshingly open about his ignorance of Charter magic, and several times his questions had led Sam to a solution he wouldn’t otherwise have seen.
Lirael hesitated, and looked at Yrael.
“It’s technically possible,” the cat grudgingly admitted. “Though none of you could do it. It would require an immensely powerful magician, someone who knew the workings of both Free and Charter magic, and who had remained uncorrupted by the lure of power. There has been no one like that for a thousand years.”
“Even if we could,” Lirael added, “it wouldn’t necessarily be a good idea. It might become a dangerous tool in the hands of a Necromancer.”
“You’re all idiots, and this will never work. For example, not one of you has even thought of asking Sabriel for her opinion.
Lirael smiled. Though she had disliked Yrael greatly at the start, she was probably the closest to him now. Losing the Dog had been hard on her, and though Yrael and Kibeth were as different as could be, in Yrael’s alien nature there was something of the companion she had lost. Sam knew that she spent more time with Yrael than anyone else, and that she was usually the first to guess what he was really thinking. He took her smile as a good sign.
“I think mother is in her study right now,” Sam said. “I’m sure she won’t mind if we stop by.”
Sabriel’s study was in one of the towers of the castle, out of the way of prying eyes and nosy ears. It was not a patch on the real Abhorsen’s study, but it contained more than enough books on Necromancy and Free Magic to make it dangerous. Sabriel was very careful about who was allowed to enter. A sending stood watch at the bottom of the tower day and night, and required a blood sample to let anyone through.
Nick, Sam and Lirael patiently touched their fingers to the sending’s sword. Yrael hissed and flared from cat to shining being, and a tendril of his being coiled out to merge briefly with the sending, which bowed and stood back to let them all pass. They trooped up the old stone stairs, and knocked.
Sabriel’s voice rang out, telling them to come in. She was sitting by the fire reading, her iron grey hair bound back from her face by a soft cloth. She was still strong and unbowed, but the lines around her mouth and eyes suggested the oncoming winter of her life. She tended to leave the smaller errands to Lirael now, spending more and more time on research. She wanted to provide a firm foundation of knowledge that Lirael could draw on in her own tenure as the Abhorsen.
Sabriel smiled as she saw them troop in, and set her book – Collected Folktales of the Western Reaches – down on the side table.
“It’s rare enough for you all to come see me at once,” she said. “What can I do for you?”
“We want to make a bell for Yrael,” Sam said, a little nervously. His relationship with his mother was much better now than it had been, but he still found her intimidating, especially when he spoke to her as the Abhorsen.
Sabriel blinked once, and her head came up, her eyes slightly widened. She pressed her fingers to her mouth, and there was a long moment of silence.
“Well,” she said, and looked at Yrael. “What do you say, Mogget?” Sabriel still called him that from time to time, though she made the effort to use his real name on more formal occasions. She claimed she had known him as Mogget for too long to change.
“It’s a terrible idea,” Mogget said. “I don’t deny that my song could be useful, but it could also be very dangerous. And in any case, the bell cannot be quenched.”
“It would have to be done in the Third Precinct,” Sabriel said, frowning. “I don’t know how we’d manage that. There is at least the potential though, given your new connection to the Charter.”
Yrael fluffed up, or at least glowed more brightly. No one knew what he had done, down below in the reservoir where the Great Charters were. He had not dissolved into it the way the Seven had, but nor was he inimical to it the way the Destroyer had been. And then there had been the moment, shortly after he went down, when several new Charter marks had flashed into Sam’s mind. He had checked with his mother, his aunt, his whole family really, and they had all had the same experience. Even more interestingly, none of them had seen the same marks.
“My negotiations with old acquaintances are none of your business,” Yrael said, and though his tone was dry and sarcastic there was a hint of wariness there too.
“I have an idea,” Lirael said. “The bell has to be quenched in the water of the Third Precinct, but there’s nothing that says the fixative spell has to be said there. So what if you prepared the spell in the Second Precinct, or even as you were descending through the whirlpool, and then very quickly quenched the bell in the water of the Third, before running on?”
“I suppose we could try it. What’s your best time in the Third Precinct?”
“I made it with about forty-five seconds to spare once,” Lirael said. “Would that be long enough?”
They looked to Yrael, who shrugged.
“I have no idea. The making of bells is not something I’m overly familiar with. But there are more predicates in this plan than I am comfortable with. If you don’t have to speak the fixing spell in the correct Precinct, if you can quench the bell in thirty seconds… It’s a flimsy premise for dangerous work.”
“The other option is to extend the Free Magic spell that holds the gates back, surely?” Nick put in, looking at them with mild curiosity. Sam suspected him of putting it on a little.
“If our first plan is hard, that sounds impossible,” Sabriel said.
Lirael shook her head.
“No, I think it might be more plausible.” She turned to Nick. “You have a connection with Free Magic, don’t you? You might be able to figure out how the spell needs to change to hold for longer.”
“Not straight away,” Nick said. “I’d need to do some research.”
“That seems like a plan,” Sabriel said. “Lirael, Nick, why don’t you go to the Glacier and look through the library there for texts to help you? And Sam and Mogget, you can work on a prototype bell, in case they do find something.”
When Sabriel made a suggestion like that, there was only one thing to do.
It was still hard for Lirael to go back to the Glacier.
She had been there three times since the defeat of the Destroyer: once to reunite with her cousins, and twice on research missions. Whenever they needed information, Sabriel would ask Lirael to go to the library and look for it. Lirael knew that she meant well, and that she was giving Lirael justifiable, generous reasons to go back to her old home, but it still hurt. She could not walk through those halls without the pain of her childhood rising up to tear at her heart and her throat.
Nick made it easier. He was always asking questions, demanding explanations, seeking to understand the Glacier and its inhabitants. When he saw Lirael struggling he would distract her or her companions with questions, and at night he would hold her close and reassure her that she had a place in the world, with words or with his hands.
Sanar and Ryelle were there to greet Lirael when she arrived, of course.
“Your room is ready,” they said, speaking in turns. “We made sure it was nice and comfortable. And your library bracelet is activated. We Saw that you’ll need the powers of a Deputy Librarian, so we activated the correct number of emeralds, and Myrmin and Tessael have been released from their regular duties to help you.”
Lirael felt a wave of relief wash over her. Myrmin and Tessael were two of the most senior Deputy Librarians, and she had worked closely with them on her previous two visits. They were extremely competent and helpful, but more importantly, she had not known them when she lived here. That made them safe, far safer than anyone else. They thought of her as the Abhorsen-in-Waiting, and that was a role Lirael could fill without too much of a struggle.
“We are curious,” Sanar continued. “We do not sense any danger connected to your research here, but we do sense immanent change. Will you tell us what you want to do?”
Lirael almost lied, more out of habit than anything, but she stopped herself. If she was doing something dangerous, it would be better for Sanar and Ryelle to know.
“We want to make a new bell. For Yrael, the eighth Bright Shiner. We’re researching spells that will help us quench it in the Third Precinct of Death.”
“That will be a great change indeed,” Ryelle said. Her eyes were far away, but there was no ice in her line of vision to give her the sight. “A great sound will ring out, never heard before, and a new word will become known to us.”
Lirael smiled politely, and waited to be escorted to her room.
Though Lirael had had many adventures in the Library, her research visits had always been very boring. No longer in need of danger and excitement in her life, she did not search out forbidden corridors and Free Magic creatures buried in the depths of the Great Library. Now her concern was for the books themselves, and the secrets they contained.
The first two days of her current trip had been exactly the same as those before: sitting at desks in narrow distant chambers of the Library, with Nick, Tess and Min around her, pouring over old tomes of Free Magic lore.
The third day started the same as the others, but by lunch Lirael was frustrated.
“All these texts reference the same book, the ledger of Tanjor, but I can’t find it anywhere.” She cut a hunk of cheese off the block in the middle, dropped it onto a slice of apple, and bit down.
“I’ve seen the same allusions,” she said. “Tanjor was from the north, from one of the barbarian tribes, and he came to the Old Kingdom seeking some kind of relic.”
“It was a dragon’s tooth,” Min put in. “Though Charter alone knows why he thought that existed here. But while he was looking he came across several Free Magic beings, including one of great power called the Shadow-Claw.”
“He was referenced in some of my books too,” Nick said, accidentally spraying Lirael with crumbs in his excitement. “I found a couple of references in Hoarscript, which seems to have been used as a kind of Free Magic alphabet. I think Shadow-Claw was something close in power to the Nine, born in the same soup of primordial chaos.”
“I’ve been trying to cross reference him with newer texts,” Lirael said. “It’s only a guess, but it’s possible that he’s the Elemental being Idiriel sealed, the one he called Gwinhaer.”
Nick flicked her knuckle, a reminder to explain the things she was taking for granted.
“Idiriel was one of the very early Abhorsens,” Lirael explained. “The third or the fourth. We don’t have any first-hand accounts of his life, but we do have some good second-hand accounts written by his grand-nephew. During his life there was a great deal of Free Magic in the Kingdom, and he seems to have dealt with that more than the Dead.”
“I read Damare’s journal,” Mir said. “His description of Gwinhaer is a beast of shadow, with glowing green eyes and long wings. He said it looked like a huge serpent, and that from its head to its tail it could stretch from the Ratterlin delta to the Long Cliffs. But he also said that it was two dimensional, and that it disappeared when looked at from the side. What makes you think that was Shadow-Claw?”
“Something in Free Magic Myths of the Before,” Lirael said. “Which by the way is such a pretentious title, given how little information there is in it. But there was one new paragraph I haven’t seen in any of the other books. It describes Tanjor’s first meeting with Shadow-Claw. Hang on, let me quote it for you.”
She stood up and found the book she had been reading. It was a slim volume, bound in hide and with a woven bookmark, which she had left lying across the relevant paragraph.
“Then Tanjor came down on the Westway, and as he walked his shadow stretched out before him, on and on into the distance so that he could no longer see it. As he watched his shadow spoke, and told him that the relic he sought could be found only beyond the veil, in the roaring rivers that fight against return. It looked at him, and pierced by its gaze of leaves he was compelled, and ventured down into the swirling currents of Death.”
“The bit about the gaze is new, all right,” Tess said, “but it seems a bit tenuous. A gaze of leaves could mean many other things besides green eyes.”
“I know,” Lirael said, rubbing the bracelet on her wrist unconsciously. “But it is the best lead we have right now. And there’s more.” She moved back to the table, and set Free Magic Myths down, picking up a heavy scroll in its place.”
“Looking at maps of the Library is a hobby of mine, and I find it can help. If Sanar and Ryelle tell me I need the powers of a Deputy Librarian, then the room we need must be among those accessible to the sixth emerald. So I brought a couple with me to look at when I got frustrated. And look at this one.”
The map in question was a plan of the last three curves of the spiral staircase, labelling the rooms and chambers that opened off them. Most were clearly labelled, but one, on the second-to-last curve, said only Home of Shadows.
“This is pretty tenuous,” Nick said, and Lirael glared at him. “But it’s better than anything else we’ve got. Let’s check it out.”
They went down armed to the teeth, and with a platoon of First Assistant Librarians, led by three Deputies and the Chief herself, waiting outside. Vancelle had wanted to come in, but Lirael had put her foot down. Unless the Shadow-Claw itself was in here, Lirael felt more comfortable with a small group she trusted.
The door was of ebony, black and heavy, and set into it were silver points and lines marking out the summer constellations. At a wave of her bracelet the door opened, swinging back to permit her entry, Tess, Mir and Nick close at her heels.
Beyond the door was a long stone corridor, cut very tight and fitted without mortar, so that no gleam of white lessened the dark surface. The Charter lights Lirael and Tess summoned made fluttering patterns against the shining black walls.
The corridor turned three times, in an elongated zig-zag, then opened into a chamber about twenty feet across, with a domed roof. Like the corridor, the chamber was built from black stone, fitted without mortar. Here though, the stone was infused with Charter marks, marks of sealing and binding that ran through the walls with an incessant rippling. From the ceiling hung seven silver lamps that burned with a constant white flame, cold and clear as crystal. In the center of the room was a raised dais. Upon it was a silver throne, and in the throne, bound by a chain of black oak, a chain of steel, and a chain of glass, was a Dammersh, a Free Magic creature with a covetous nature. Clutched in its claws was the ledger of Torjan.
Lirael reached out with her golden hand to touch the ledger. The Charter magic in her hand sang out, a warning Sam had built in. “To stop you doing dangerous things,” he had said with a smile, and that came back to Lirael now. But she could not back away. Her sword, which like her hand was of Sam’s making, seemed to be preparing for a strike.
Her hands closed around the book, and as she tugged it away from the Dammersh’s claws, the creature awoke with a scream. It was constrained by the chains that bound it, and Lirael saw it as a boar-like creature with impossibly long arms, and long claws reaching out for what belonged to it. She swung the sword, and the reaching claw fell severed to the floor, where it turned to rot and ash. The Dammersh’s arm bubbled, and a new claw grew, reaching for her again. The smell of Free Magic was bubbling in her throat, making her nauseous.
“Run,” Lirael screamed, and they did just that, fleeing through the corridor towards the door. A terrible scratching sound followed them, and when Lirael looked over her shoulder she saw the Dammersh’s claws still coming for them, gleaming white like bones against the black wall of the corridor. She sped up. The door was only metrers away. The claws swept back and forth, and Lirael felt them tear out a chunk of her hair. The door opened, and Vancelle was on the other side, looking panicked. They poured out in a jumble, Lirael tripping over Tess in her haste. She sprang up to see Vancelle whipping Binder towards the creature. She cut its claws off, and at once two of the deputies slammed the door shut, sealing it again. Lirael’s breath, which she hadn’t realized she was holding, flooded back into her lungs.
“What did you find?” Vancelle asked. Lirael looked at the book in her hands.
“Answers,” she said.
Sam lined up the ten prototype bells he had made, and looked at Yrael.
“These are all accurate to the pitch you gave me,” he said, “but I want you to tell me which cast sounds best.”
“If you insist,” Yrael said, yawning. Slowly, Sam tapped the bells one by one. As his hammer hit the sixth bell, Yrael’s ears perked up. “That one. It’s definitely that one.”
“Great! Now, I’m going to melt the metal to make a new bell, and I need your help.”
“What am I supposed to do?” Yrael contrived to look bored, but Sam could tell by the twitching of his tail that he was fascinated.
“You need to give me a little spark,” Sam said. “The way you do for sendings. And then you need to sing.”
“Sing about what?”
“Anything. Whatever seems appropriate, I guess.” Sam frowned. “I think this will determine your bell’s powers, so you should take that into account.”
Slowly, Sam melted the steel bar onto the furnace, watching as it turned red and then yellow and then white, gleaming more brightly than anything else in the room. When Yrael sent his spark into it, they were almost the same colour.
Then Yrael began to sing, and Sam’s true work began. Slowly, carefully, he shaped the metal, working from the muscle memory he had developed over the last few days, trying to let his conscious mind interfere as little as possible. At the same time, he concentrated on the song, and pulled mark after mark from the Charter to match its undulations. It was a sweet, melancholy sound, full of rills and peaks and then long stretches of low soft humming. As the bell took shape it began to resonate with the sound, until Sam felt that he too was resonating, just another string on some great unseen harp, plucked by a huge hand. Slowly, the bell cooled and the song faded. Sam looked up to find that it was dawn, the sky over the eastern towers pale rose. He had worked through a full day and night, but the bell lay in front of him, ready to enter into Death.
Lirael and Nick came back while Sam was still sleeping. Nick went off to sleep himself, but Lirael instead climbed up the stairs to Sabriel’s study. She liked to come here after visits to the Glacier. When she had spent time in her old home, among the cool anonymity of her cousins, it was nice to come home to this warm room, and her sister’s gentle, familial affection.
They talked of Lirael’s trip of course, and Lirael told her that with the information in the ledger of Torjan, Nick had been able to construct a more complex version of the Free Magic spell that affected the Third Precinct, one that would hold the wave off for a full ten minutes. In turn Sabriel told her about Sam’s progress, and then, when that was done, about the minor affairs of the Kingdom that had occurred during the last week. Most of it was pretty dull, but that was not the point. Sitting on the long day-bed next to Sabriel, her head against her sister’s shoulder, Lirael let herself fall into a deep and restful sleep.
It was a wintery day in December, which was not helping the layer of frost forming across Lirael and Sabriel’s bodies. Both of them were in full Abhorsen gear, with bandoleers of bells strapped across their chests and swords at their sides. Sabriel carried the new bell, as yet unnamed.
“They’ve been gone so long,” Sam said.
Nick looked at his watch.
“It’s been twenty-four minutes. Another six before I go in after them.”
“What if it was a trap? What if Yrael turns on them?”
Nick rolled his eyes.
“Sam, this is your mother and Lirael we’re talking about. If anyone can handle it, they can.”
There was a moment of silence, followed by the happiest sound possible: the crack of ice as Lirael and Sabriel came out of Death and began to defrost.
“We made the bell,” Lirael said, when she could speak. Her teeth were chattering so badly it was hard to understand her. “And I think Sabriel knows its name.”
Sabriel gulped down the hot chocolate a servant had waiting for her, rubbed the ice from her eyes, and nodded.
“I heard it when the quenching was complete.” She looked wryly at Yrael, who had appeared from Death unceremoniously. “The Dreamer?”
“I told you it wouldn’t be worth it,” he said, grooming his paw unnecessarily.
“What powers does it have?” Lirael asked, shifting forward to look more closely at the bell.
“It will make the Dead think they are alive once more,” Mogget said. “Or wake them to the cold reality of the Precincts of Death. It can create illusions, and destroy them, sate hunger or make it worse. It is the dream of life, of the endless cycle of the world, of the living breathing clamour of existence.”
Sabriel paused, and then rang the bell slowly, in a reverse circle. So rung its power was dampened, but still they felt it flooding through them. Lirael blushed and looked at Nick. Sabriel ran her tongue across her lips. Sam found himself thinking of hunting as he had not for years, as a pleasurable activity, the pulse rushing through his veins, the thrill of taking down a bird.
There was a strange crackling, and his attention flickered over to Yrael. The creature was no longer a cat. It stood in its raw form, a tower of energy, and laughed, a laugh like the peal of bells.