The rave reviews for John Wright's science fiction trilogy, The Golden Age, hail his debut as the most important of the new century. Now, in The Last Guardian of Everness, this exciting and innovative writer proves that his talents extend beyond SF, as he offers us a powerful novel of high fantasy set in the modern age.
Young Galen Waylock is the last watchman of the dream-gate beyond which ancient evils wait, hungry for the human world. For a thousand years, Galen's family stood guard, scorned by a world which dismissed the danger as myth. Now, the minions of Darkness stir in the deep, and the long, long watch is over. Galen's patient loyalty seems vindicated.
That loyalty is misplaced. The so-called Power of Light is hostile to modern ideas of human dignity and liberty. No matter who wins the final war between darkness and light, mankind is doomed either to a benevolent dictatorship or a malevolent one. And so Galen makes a third choice: the sleeping Champions of Light are left to sleep. Galen and his companions take the forbidden fairy-weapons themselves. Treason, murder, and disaster follow. The mortals must face the rising Darkness alone.
An ambitious and beautifully written story, The Last Guardian of Everness is an heroic adventure that establishes John Wright as a significant new fantasist. It is just the start of a story that will conclude in the companion volume, Mists of Everness.
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John C. Wright, a journalist and a lawyer turned SF and fantasy writer, lives with his wife and son in Centreville, Virginia.
The Forgotten Wardens of the Dreaming
Upon a midnight in midsummer, in an unchanging ancient house upon the coast, in the year when he was a boy no more and a man not yet, Galen Waylock heard the far-off sound of the sea-bell tolling slowly in his dream.
Galen woke. His eyes were wide with terror and astonishment, and he had clawed the bedsheets to either side of him into sweat-stained knots. The moonlight fell across the bed from the diamond-shaped panes of his bedchamber window. The roof and walls were all dark wood, hidden in shadows. Outside came the soft and restless crashing of the sea waves on the cliffs below the house.
The melancholy peal was silent, now: his waking ears heard only earthly noises.
"It hasn't really happened!" he muttered feverishly to himself. "It hasn't really, honestly, finally happened! Not after all this time! Not to me!"
If tradition were to be trusted, fifteen centuries and more had passed since the First Warden of the Order fell asleep beneath an oak tree in Glastonbury, mistletoe and ivy growing in his hair, to await the warning voice of that elfin bell echoing, mystical and furtive, across the star-lit waves of oceans only dreamers know.
Galen kicked away the covers and felt around for the lantern.
His fingers brushed it, and he heard it topple and roll away across the nightstand, to drop to the floor. With a grunt of disgust, he reached down to where his jeans were crumpled on the floorboards and found the pocket with his electric flashlight in it.
He sat for a moment on the edge of the bed, flashlight gleaming in his right hand, left hand cupped to catch the light. He was staring at a tiny burn mark in his palm. He sat for a moment, breathing hard, flexing his fingers and wincing at the tiny pain, eyes wide with astonishment.
Then he leaped to his feet, called out.
A moment later, Galen ran breathlessly into the parlor downstairs, where his Grandfather Lemuel sat before the fireplace where two logs crackled, blazing. All along the mantelpiece, a dozen candles were burning. Above the mantel, carved in stone, was a shield bearing the sign of a winged horse rampant above two crossed keys. A motto inscribed below bore the words: "Patience and Faithfulness."
Across the room, facing the escutcheon, was an old oil painting of a dark-haired, dark-eyed man wearing a black frock and conical black miter. On a chain of office he wore a heavy gold key. In the figure's lap, an ivory equine skull with a single spiral horn was resting. The painting was done in a stiff, formal style, heavy with shadows.
Grandfather Lemuel stirred and put aside the book in his hand. "Shut off that light. If you must creep at night, use the lantern. Ever since you came back from college, you have become most lax and careless about the Rules of the House."
Galen snapped off the flashlight, and the circle of light at his feet disappeared. Impatiently he said, "Grampa, listen!"
Grandfather Lemuel said heavily, "Your father also never understood why our family lives this way. He never believed, never had faith. A man can be perfectly comfortable without modern plumbing or electricity."
Anger interrupted Galen's urgency. "I wish you wouldn't talk about him like he was dead! All he did was join the army and move out."
"It is not I, but higher powers, who account your father's lack of faith as a treason to our family's ancient promise. He never believed the time would come..." Grandfather Lemuel's head drooped, his mouth pursed into a sullen frown.
"Grampa! It's come!"
Grandfather Lemuel straightened, blinking. "What's that, boy?"
"I heard the sea-bell."
"Just now. This evening. As I stood my watch along the Outward Wall."
No expression showed on Grandfather Lemuel's features, but a hard glint of suppressed excitement came into his eye. "We must be cautious. In your dream, did one of the Seven Signs come forth from Vindyamar?"
"I saw a Sign and received a Summons. The image was a sea-bird carrying a lantern."
Lemuel muttered. "A lantern? Lantern...? Hm. Mm. Rod, Ring, Wand, Bow, Titan, Grail...Horn? Odd. Perhaps a torch could symbolize the titan's blood, but...a lantern...? A lantern is not one of the Seven..." Then, straightening up, Grandfather Lemuel said to Galen: "How do you know this was a true dream, come through the gate of horn? Did you perform the Three Tests?"
"Flying; Reading; Observing your hands. Grandfather Lemuel, you know I know the tests! I was in the Deep Dreaming. It was a true dream. And I heard the alarm we've been waiting for, for all these years. I heard it. I heard the sea-bell." All this came out in one excited rush of words.
Grandfather Lemuel raised his hands. "We mustn't be too hasty. In the time of the Third Warden of Everness, Alfcynnig, he thought he heard the alarm ring out, and he called the Unsleeping Champion away from Rome to defend the Tower of Vortigern in Wessex; and this allowed the unguarded city to fall to the Goths of Totila. The Sixty-First Warden, Sylvanius Way-lock, called up the storm-princes to whelm the Armada for Elizabeth, and we were cursed out of England for that presumption, by the White Coven, whose charge we had usurped, and had to move this house, stone by stone, to the New World. When the Seventy-Ninth Warden, my Grandfather Phineas Waylock, heard the sea-bell, he raised the Stones and rendered the High Summons. But the sound was no true call; it was only the tumult of a leviathan tangled in the phantom nets of Vindyamar, whose lashing tail shook the crystal belltower, and set the bell to swinging. The Stones of Everness were angered to be roused from slumber for so light a cause, and my grandfather lost his sight in the struggle to force the stones to quietness again...Had he sent to the Queens for word, his eyes might have been spared..."
Galen drew himself up, and, young though he was, now he spoke with the snap of authority in his voice, not unlike that in his Grandfather's. Their expressions were the same. "Grandfather! I know the difference between petty dreaming and true. I know them as well or better than you. The dream-colt comes every time I've called her, every time! And I've called her more than three. And I know the true sound of the sea-bell. I've heard it this night on the sea."
Grandfather Lemuel did not look displeased, but neither did he smile. Perhaps he welcomed a show of spine from this young man. Nonetheless, his voice was cold. "That may be. But the reins have not yet slipped from my hands. You are not the Guardian of Everness yet, no matter what your talents."
"Grandfather, I heard the sea-bell. The time is come. The time to blow the Last Horn-Call is at hand."
Now Grandfather Lemuel did smile, but it was a sad, weary smile. "Patience and faithfulness are the virtues mortal men must practice when they stand watch against immortal foes. Galen, every single one of us, all the way back to the Founder, we have all thought, or hoped, or feared, that the Time of the Horn was at hand. But it never was. A lifetime of waiting seems too much to bear when you're so young, doesn't it?"
Galen started to speak again, but Lemuel held up his hand: "Patience! We will do everything in due order, but only if (and I said 'if'!) this latest alarm turns out to be the Sign for which we have all been waiting, all these long and weary years. There have been so very many false alarms before."
Galen's demeanor shrank, and boyish uncertainty showed in his face. "Okay. So now what? What do we do now? The old warrant papers say we're supposed to warn the king or the royal governor at New Amsterdam. So where the heck does that leave us? Am I supposed to call the president? We don't even have a damned phone in this moldy old museum!" In frustration, Galen struck the wall beside the door with the side of his fist.
"First," said Grandfather Lemuel calmly, "you will sit down. Here, opposite me. Then you will recount all the particulars of the dream in detail. Don't slouch."
"I heard the bell from beneath the sea. Something's coming. It's going to try to rise up through the Mist."
"In what part of the house were you?"
Galen turned and stared into the fire. A haunted, deep look came into his eyes. "Outside, along the wall overlooking the sea, where we always stand. The dream version is bigger, of course, and the huge blocks of stone glisten in the moonlight."
"How were you dressed? In modern garb?"
"I don't recall..."
"It may be important. You know the dream-things know no modern forms. If you have trouble remembering, recite the first exercise in your mind. Picture the circle of time. Say the key to yourself. Raise the Tower and build the mansion..."
Galen closed his eyes....
He dreamt he stood upon a wall of thick, black rock, wet with spray, and he wore a coat of silver mail and carried a tall spear tipped with a glint of starlight. In the black, wide sea below him, he dreamt he saw a cavalcade of sunken horsemen, armed and armored in mother-of-pearl. These dimly lit shapes passed silently from the deep sea toward the shore, and the hair of their steeds floated green in the water as they came. The mouths of the drowned knights were open as if they were singing, though no sound rose above the waves, and from their mouths floated clouds of blood.
To the left and right of the cavalcade, slippery black forms, sleek and playful, darted through the gloomy deep and smiled with white teeth as starlight shined from their black eyes.
Far, far to the rear, enormous shadows in the moonlight loomed. With black ocean-froth churning at their knees, and tumbled storm-cloud parting at their shoulders, taller than any creature of the world, strode giants.
The night sky above was torn with flying banners of silver-edged black clouds, rushing in the storm winds. The whole sky seemed to ring and tremble with the echoes of the great bell, tolling, tolling...
Black as a scrap of midnight storm cloud, a seagull black as pitch whirled down from dark heaven. In his claws he carried a lantern of the elfs, burning like a small star.
A voice like a man's voice came from the black seagull: "By token of this light I bear, know ye, Lemuel, Guardian of Everness, Last Guardian to be, I am come from He whose name we speak no more, who founded your order, whose blood and title and oath you bear. I summon you beyond the world's edge, to Tirion, to Wailing Blood, for there are secrets touching the Emperor of Night, our ancient and undying foe, which you must know before the Towers of Acheron rise from the sea. Do not go to Vindyamar, nor elsewhere, but come at once at mine command."
And it dropped the light from its claws to Galen. The light plunged like a falling star, and the flame was silver, and did not move, or breathe, or flicker, even as the lantern spun and fell. Galen tried to catch the lantern but it burnt his palm and fell from his fingers, so that the light was lost.
Below, with a roar of several voices, shining knights drenched in filth, and dark, smiling shapes rose from the sea. Giant forms with eyes like lamps came behind them, with arms as tall as towers, sea water flooding from them, reached for the stones at the base of the wall...
And the warning bell tolled on and on...
There was a small, old book, sent to him as a present from his Grandfather Lemuel's library, which Galen had begun to read as a child. It was made of hand-tooled leather, with a symbol of winged horses dancing on crossed keys on the cover. Galen remembered a poem was inscribed on a page illustrated with interlocking figures of fairies and mermaids, one-eyed giants, and winged horses. The old letters had faded with time, and the first letter of the poem was so decorated with curlicues that young Galen could hardly decide which letter it was supposed to be.
Ware the toll of a single ring,
Night-mare her single rider will bring;
Woe if twice the great bell tolls,
For fire-giants and fell frost trolls;
Storm-princes rise at the sound of three,
The fourth ring brings the plague Kelpie;
Five for Selkie, Six for Hate,
Seven for Doom, Death for Eight.
And if the toll sounds nine withal,
Wake the Sleepers; Nine worlds fall.
If there were more to the old poem, Galen never found out.
When his father came upon Galen reading the book in secret, under the covers with his Boy Scout flashlight, Galen's father ripped the book out of his hands, beat him till tears quieted his loud protests, and took the book away--presumably to the trashcan.
"How many times did the sea-bell toll?" asked Grandfather Lemuel gently.
Galen's eyes snapped open. "Many times."
"More than nine?"
"Grampa, it was all night long. The bell was ringing continuously." Galen's eyes were troubled. He looked around the parlor, as if for support. High roof beams; thick walls of oak; a floor of fitted stones, covered with oriental carpets, handwoven, faded. To one side stood tall French doors, open, admitting the smell of sea brine. The murmur of the waves against the cliff below hung like a backdrop behind the other noises of the night.
Outside, beyond the weeds of the overgrown gardens, Galen could see the tumbled stones and cracks of the little wall overlooking the bay. It was, of course, much smaller in real life, and overgrown with moss. Galen suddenly felt the urge to do the repair work Grampa was always on him about.
"Gramps," said Galen. "I think I might be scared. What do we do?"
Grandfather Lemuel took out an old pipe, and stood up, reaching for his tobacco pouch atop the mantelpiece. "Think, eh? I know I am. But a little fear is like wind in the flowers, you know? The flowers bow for a time. The wind passes. The flowers straighten up again."
"This is no time for your little sayings. Shouldn't we be doing something?" Galen knew the old man wanted him to leave. Gramps knew he couldn't stand the smell of tobacco. Galen rose reluctantly to his feet.
Grandfather Lemuel smiled calmly. "First thing; you go back to bed. I will go to the Chamber of Dreaming to sleep. Tonight I will dream of Vindyamar. I will dream of the Three Fair Queens whose charge is to guard the Great Bell, even as we are charged to guard the Horn, and so discover if it rang for a true cause. There was something strange about the sign you saw."
Galen said in a sullen voice, "You don't believe me. But look at this..."
And held up his left hand. There was a tiny blister in the palm, a burn. "We were summoned to Tirion. Here is the mark of the star-lantern I touched. The Founder is in Tirion."
Lemuel looked carefully at the mark in the young man's palm. He took a candle from the mantelpiece and held it closely, peering. Even though the air was still in the room, the candle flame flickered.
Lemuel nodded slowly. "It's magic. Only the Blood of Everness can reach across the barriers like that and allow a dream-flame to create a waking burn. Whatever else was in that dream, the Raven came from the Founder, sure enough." He straightened up and shook his head. "But that doesn't change a thing, boy. We do not answer each and any summons which comes to us out...
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