The Shadow Wand – Laurie Forest

Fifteen years ago… Edwin Gardner sits on the silk-cushioned chair in a haze of grief. He watches his distraught sister, Vyvian, pace her ornate parlor, and wishes that he could wash his hands of his family’s cursed legacy of magic. And that the news Vyvian just imparted wasn’t so completely horrific. Incredibly, in the midst of this world-altering day, Vyvian is dressed as impeccably as ever. Her long, gleaming black hair is artfully plaited, not a strand out of place. Her formfitting, midnightcolored silk tunic and long-skirt are perfectly pressed and patterned with lush pine boughs. And there’s luxury everywhere in this cursedly opulent room—dark, polished Ironwood trees set into the walls, their obsidian branches tangling overhead. An oak-leaf-patterned rug beneath his feet. Panoramic windows edged in luminous stained-glass vines that overlook Vyvian’s expansive garden of bloodred roses. The finest of everything, Edwin considers with bitter anguish. All this wealth secured by his mother’s cruel reign of fire. Edwin sends up a prayer that future generations will not inherit her terrible, corrupting magic. Vyvian continues to pace, not bothering to look at the three children huddled miserably in the corner, as Edwin’s grief threatens to tear him apart. His brother, Vale, and Vale’s fastmate, Tessla, are dead. Edwin’s throat is tight, his breathing irregular and stifled over the loss of two of the people he loves most in all the world.

He wants to rip at his hair and cry out in misery to the heavens. To shake his fist at his powerful sister, at the entire monster that is Gardneria. But he can’t fall apart. He has three children who need his protection. Vale and Tessla’s children. Rafe, Trystan, and Elloren. “You can’t fight the Gardnerians,” he warned Tessla just a few months ago, overcome with worry as he faced her in her Valgard home. “You don’t know what cruelty my mother is capable of. Her power has turned shadowed, Tess. It’s consuming her.

” “I have to fight,” Tessla countered, her voice rough with defiance. “They’re rounding up all the Fae, Edwin! The children too. We have to help them!” “You can’t.” “We have to. Don’t you see? The Gardnerians are doing the same thing that the Kelts and the Urisk did to us! Children are being seized. Whole families. Do you know what that’s like? Watching your family, your people, herded together to be killed? The children screaming?” Tessla’s cheeks were flushed, her green eyes blazing. She was so beautiful in that moment, it was hard for Edwin to look at her. He’d tried to reason with her. “Think of your children.

” They were being left with him for longer and longer stretches as Vale and Tessla fought this unbeatable evil. “What will Rafe and Trystan and Elloren do if something happens to you?” Tessla shook her head. “I can’t sit by and do nothing about this horror.” “You can’t win, Tess!” She and Vale were tempting fate, Edwin knew. Tempting the awful power of his mother and the Gardnerian military by secretly working for the Resistance. Both Vale and Tessla were involved in smuggling Fae children and families through the Spine’s Eastern Pass, the two of them in league with Beck Keeler, Fain Quillen, and Jules Kristian. And others. The ever-present knot of dread tightened inside Edwin. He feared it was only a matter of time before Vale and Tessla were caught and executed, then made to look like war heroes, their Resistance activities neatly covered up. To save the reputation of the Black Witch.

Now he’s sitting here, grief burning in his chest because that’s exactly what happened—Vale and Tessla were apprehended three days ago, as they attempted to save a group of Asrai Fae children from being shipped to the Pyrran Islands. Both of them had been dragged to the nearest military base and executed at his mother’s command, the truth of their Resistance activities hidden from all but a select few. And this morning, trailing that catastrophe like a cataclysmic cyclone, is news that’s sending shock waves through both the Western and Eastern Realms. His mother, the Black Witch, is dead. Slain by an Icaral who died even as he killed her with a bolt of Wyvern flame—a fitting end to a reign of fire that had threatened to enslave the entire Western and Eastern Realms. That had destroyed leagues of forest and turned the lush plains of the East and the southern Uriskan lands to scorched desert. Foreboding curls under Edwin’s ribs, constricting his chest. The Gardnerians will be set on vengeance. And they’re not weak anymore. Because of his mother, Gardneria is now ten times its original size, and its people will be the major power in the region for a long time to come, rivaled only by their uneasy allies, the Alfsigr Elves.

And they’ll be looking for their next Great Mage. Alarm rises inside Edwin as he looks at the children. His nephew Rafe Gardner sits on the leaf-patterned carpet, steadily watching his uncle and aunt. At five, little Rafe has the stoicism of a much older child, quickly appointing himself the protector of his younger siblings. He cries silently, his arms draped protectively around tiny Trystan. Trystan has curled himself into a tight ball of misery as he keens and whimpers, “Poppa. Momma. Poppa. Momma,” over and over. Edwin’s heart wrenches.

Trystan’s a fragile child, prone to tears and fear. The skinny two-yearold’s eyes are dazed and frightened. And then there’s three-year-old Elloren. She’s balled up next to her brothers, hugging the quilt Tessla sewed for her, a blanket lovingly crafted for Elloren when she was still in Tessla’s womb, featuring a branchy tree with bright green leaves stitched onto the fabric, with little embroidered birds and animals darting all around. Elloren is whimpering softly into its folds. Overcome, Edwin goes to Elloren, kneels, and embraces her. She reaches out small arms to cling to both him and her quilt, her body racked with sobs. Edwin glances at Vyvian, and his sister’s expression sends an icy chill straight through him. She’s glaring at the children like they’re hideous blowback, her hatred for Vale and Tessla on full display and spilling over onto these innocents. Edwin’s hold on Elloren tightens as he takes in Vyvian’s cruel, unforgiving expression and he realizes what he must do.

The children need him, and he loves them. “The children will stay with me,” he tells Vyvian, his voice hoarse but staunch, and he surprises himself with how unwavering he is in the face of his intimidating sister. Vyvian’s frown deepens, her fists clenching and unclenching, her glare sharpening on Edwin. She seems uncharacteristically rattled, and Edwin knows it’s for all the wrong reasons. “Very well,” she says, and her mouth thins as she flashes one last resentful look toward the children, as if wanting to rid herself of this terrible business and dispose of them. She moves to leave, but pauses at the door and slowly turns, her gaze fixing on the children in a way that raises the hairs on Edwin’s neck as her hateful glare morphs to one of appraisal. She meets Edwin’s gaze once more, her expression and tone hardening to a needled point. “You’ll need to wandtest them,” she insists. “And soon. If they have power, you’re to immediately let me know.

Mother would have insisted on it.” Her voice breaks, and tears glisten in her eyes. She blinks the tears back firmly. “Our family legacy might not have died with Mother.” She gestures toward the children with a flick of her elegant hand. “Their parents were traitors, but perhaps, if raised correctly, the children can grow up to be champions of our people.” Edwin blinks at his sister and, in this moment, he hates her. Their parents. No, Vyvian, he wants to rail against her. Our brother and his fastmate! But Edwin knows that Vyvian has her blinders firmly in place.

There is absolutely no nuance in her perspective. To Vyvian, the world is divided into clean halves—there are Evil Ones, and there are Gardnerians. And you have to pick one side or the other. No. Edwin knows what he will do. Not what Vyvian wants. But not what Vale and Tessla would have wanted either. Forgive me, Vale. Forgive me, Tessla. He hugs Elloren close as a fierce wave of protective love washes over him.

If any of the children has inherited his mother’s power, he will hide it from the Gardnerians. He will protect the children from all of this. They can’t have them. Not the Gardnerians. Not the Resistance. This legacy of evil magic will end here. Several months later, Edwin decides to wandtest Rafe, Trystan, and Elloren. He tests them on three separate occasions, traveling far outside of Valgard each time and taking each child deep into the woods where no one will be able to witness any magic uncovered. Magic that Edwin prays is not there. So far, his uneasy prayers have been mostly answered.

Edwin had been worried that Rafe might have inherited his mother’s powerful abilities. He’s a kind boy, but with a surprisingly strong presence. Physically graceful and sure of himself, Rafe is filled with a steely confidence not often seen in a child of such a tender age. But he’s as good as magically powerless, with only a thin sliver of earth magic. It’s clear that Trystan is going to be a powerful Mage, the precocious two-year-old already able to sound out spells and access water magic. But he’s no Great Mage. He has none of the crazy, overwhelming power of his grandmother, his water magery testing at Level Five but not beyond. Also, he’s a sensitive, quiet child, disinclined to violence. And then there’s Elloren. As Edwin walks into the woods with gentle Elloren, her small hand clasped trustingly in his, he sends up a prayer.

Ancient One, please let this child be free of power. She’s so untroubled, skipping alongside him. So at ease in the woods. Like all powerless Gardnerians. But it’s disturbed Edwin for some time now, how drawn Elloren is to wood—gathering small pieces of it, her collections stuffed into drawers, filling her pockets, hidden under her bed. Edwin glances down at Elloren and forces a smile that’s returned a thousandfold. She’s got Vale’s stark features, he muses. So angular and sharp for such a kind, sunny child. But then his thoughts shift. She’s got her grandmother’s exact features.

Edwin pushes the frightening thought from his mind. Vale himself looked just like their powerful mother, and he was powerful, but he was no Great Mage. And Elloren might be drawn to wood, but Edwin himself can barely keep his hands off it, spending hours each day carving and creating violins. And he’s only a Level One Mage. No, Elloren will be powerless, he reassures himself. Just like I am. Edwin stops in a small clearing, rays of sun streaking down, birds twittering. Little Elloren giggles and spins around like a whirring maple seed, her smile to the sun. She stops, teetering from the spinning, and grins at her uncle. “Here, Elloren,” Edwin says as he slides his hand into his cloak’s pocket, anxiety mounting inside him.

“I have something for you.” He draws out the wand and hands it to his niece. “What’s that for?” she asks, taking the wand into her small hands with a look of curiosity. “It’s a game,” Edwin says as he sets a candle on a nearby stump before returning to her, his finger flicking toward the wand. “And that’s a magic stick, but I’ll have to show you how to use it.” He gets down on one knee and guides her wand hand into the proper position around the wand’s hilt, his hands trembling around her small one with apprehension. “Hold the stick like this, Elloren.” Elloren looks up at him with obvious concern, clearly noting his trembling, but Edwin forces another smile and she smiles back, looking heartened, as her fingers slide into position. “That’s it, Elloren,” Edwin says as he releases his hands from hers and rises. “Now I’m going to ask you to say some funny words.

Can you do that?” Elloren’s smile brightens and she bobs her head up and down. Edwin’s gut tenses. She’s such a compliant child. So eager to please. So easy to wield. Edwin sounds out the words to the candle-lighting spell several times, words in the Ancient Tongue—foreign words, with subtle inflections, not easily made. “Do you think you can remember that?” he asks his niece. Elloren nods as she points the wand out straight and true with determined focus, and Edwin repeats the words a few more times so that she can remember. “Go ahead, then,” he gently prods as the apprehension tightens his throat, his heart hammering with both breathless hope and jagged fear. Elloren sounds out the spell, clear and correct, her arm taking on a slight tremor, her body stiffening.

And then her head jerks backward. A violent stream of fire bursts from the wand’s tip and explodes past the stump, blasting clear through a large tree and several more behind it. Edwin stumbles backward and Elloren screams as the woods explode into a crackling, roaring monster of flame. Edwin wrests the wand from Elloren’s hand, thrusts it aside, grabs her up, and runs, racing through the woods as the forest falls apart behind them. Edwin spends the next year trying to get Elloren to forget. He insists, when Elloren wakes screaming from fiery nightmares, that what she remembers was a storm. A fierce, freakish storm—an inferno of fire caused by unusually violent lightning. He insists on it again and again and again. In time, she believes. And her true memory fades and is buried.

But the forest remembers. The trees send out word in their creeping way, slow as sap traveling through tangled roots, one tree after another after another. And gradually, relentlessly, the message is carried toward the Northern Forest. Toward its Dryad Guardians. Toward III. The Black Witch is back.

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