The Empire of the Starsby Alison Baird
Baird, a fresh new voice in the tradition of Marion Zimmer Bradley, follows up "The Stone of the Stars" with this second installment of her Dragon Throne trilogy of adventure, magic, and mythic beasts.
- Grand Central Publishing
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The Empire of the Stars
By Alison Baird
Warner AspectISBN: 0-446-69096-1
THE FIRE-RED DRAGON BURST OUT of the Ether high in the upper air, his entrance into the skies of this world a bright flash hardly to be seen amid a shimmer of many-hued auroras. All the lands below him were shrouded and still, bound in the ice and silence of Winter-dark. Nothing moved here save for him, and a few furtive creatures in the snow-clad forests, and the remote flickerings of the Northern Lights. Impervious to the bone-bitter chill, he flew on toward his goal: a mountain that stood apart from the rest of its range, as though singled out by fate for the role it had played in history. Its double spire of granite did not reach as high as most of the cloud-piercing peaks beyond it, yet it was by far the most famous. In days of old it had been called Elendor, the Holymount.
To the Elei people who had once dwelt in the valley beneath, its two peaks had loomed like living sentinels: a pair of great beasts or vigilant giants, keeping watch over the city that lay between them on the mountaintop. But Liamar had long since been reduced to ruin, mere fragments of walls and buildings interlaced with shadow. The stone sentinels guarded nothing now, and the people were long gone from the island. All the Elei's fabled treasure lay piled within an immense cavern deep inside the mountain: they had placed it there for safekeeping, ages ago, but now that their ancient race was gone the dragon had claimed their gold and jewels for his own. He dived down to settle on the lower of the two peaks, mantling his wings about him, and staring at the ruins.
There were cries in the sky above him, high and wild: other Loänan, celestial dragons, greeting him as they flew past and acknowledged his authority. He was their Trynoloänan, their master and ruler. They thought him one of their own. None guessed at his kinship with those who had dwelt in the city below, none knew that even in this shape he had the soul of a man. His dual nature was a secret he guarded as jealously as any jewel-hoard. But while he wore this form it wracked him with a torment very near to pain, as though mind and body were being wrenched asunder. Once he had dwelt as a man among men, heir to a distant kingdom: Prince Morlyn of Maurainia. In that far-distant land his name was still known, his tale told as legend.
He recalled a time when the city below him bustled with life-for he was old, at least as humans count time: five centuries had passed since his birth, although in draconic reckoning he was not yet in his prime and even in his human shape preserved the vigor of youth. Here in Liamar the Elei had kept the Star Stone, which they cherished above all their other treasures: the enchanted stone of the gods, cast out of Heaven in their last great battle. Indeed, the whole city had grown around it, shrine and fane and lodgings and fortifications spreading outward in concentric rings from the place where it fell. But Liamar was empty now, a setting without its jewel. He had been here in the land of Trynisia when comets rained down on this world, and he had seen, without regret, the old Elei realm fall in ruin. The Stone had then been taken from its sanctum, and hidden in the secret cave. There he had guarded it after the people fled, and set dragons to watch the hoard when he was not present. And there it had lain for centuries ... until all his plans went awry.
He recalled other scenes more recent in time, shared with him by the witnesses through the joining of their thoughts. He beheld soldiers of a foreign land pursuing two men and one aged woman, the latter bearing the Star Stone in her hand. Winged beasts-not dragons, but strange creatures half lion and half eagle-stooped down upon the armed invaders as they followed the fugitives up to the roof of the central temple. Driving the men back, the creatures took up the Stone's bearer and her companions and flew them away to safety. Lastly he saw a young girl run out onto the top of the taller peak opposite his stony perch, with more soldiers in pursuit. And he watched as she too fled the mountain on the back of a golden dragon, outflying the arrows of her foes.
The images faded away from his inner sight, ghosts returning to the past.
The Tryna Lia. Five hundred years ago she had been only a faceless figure within his mind: his prophesied antagonist, according to the Zimbouran priests who had raised him. Over the ensuing centuries he had been able to forget her, but now the shadowy threat had at last become a reality. And yet superimposed on these fearful thoughts was his memory of this girl, whom he had first encountered in the country of Maurainia, then again here on the Isle of Trynisia: a seemingly ordinary young girl, guileless, naive, utterly innocent of her own destiny. But in the hands of old Ana and her sorcerous conspirators, young Ailia was even now being corrupted, carefully shaped into the living weapon that would one day threaten the realm of the god Valdur's servants-and, if prophecy was to be believed, his own life as well. Nor had she any choice in the matter. In the eyes of the Nemerei she was bound to her fate as surely as he, and there was no escape for either one of them but the death of the other. He must find a way to draw her out of her own world, into another where her powers were not so strong. And prophecy said that she would come to Mera with an army, to deliver it from Valdur's servants. If he could but force her hand, make her attempt to fulfill that prophecy before her powers were developed enough, he might perhaps defeat her.
He sprang off the peak and soared skyward on his flame-colored wings, as though seeking to leave his thoughts behind. For if he continued to muse along these lines he might begin to pity Ailia, and in the conflict to come pity was an indulgence that he could ill afford. He wasted valuable time in brooding here. As the other dragons turned in their flight and tried to follow him, he warned them off with a roar and they retreated reluctantly. He had a journey to make, and allies to seek far beyond the frozen sea. Swifter than any wind of that world he flew southward, until the sun returned to the sky, and still he flew on, barely pausing to rest. He left behind the spinning stars of the pole, passing on through the tropics while the moon tilted above him, until at last it stood inverted amid the bright-burning constellations of the Antipodes.
IN THE LAND OF ZIMBOURA, high in the topmost tower of his old stone keep, the God-king Khalazar was at work upon a spell.
It was night and the chamber was swathed in shadow, its one narrow window showing only a few stars, its only other source of illumination a few guttering candles. Their fitful light played upon a profusion of curious objects on the shelves along the walls: black-bound volumes of gramarye, bunches of dried herbs, wooden wands, astrolabes and orreries, crystal globes of many sizes. There were bones of birds and animals, and several human skulls staring dully from dark corners. On one large oaken table were ranged all the tools of the alchemist's trade: beakers, retorts, crucibles; but all of these were now filmed with dust and strung with cobwebs. The potentate of Zimboura sat cross-legged in the center of the floor. His flowing black hair and beard were touched with gray, and deep lines of discontent were engraved on the face grown fleshy with middle age. His hand, as he traced in blood the outline of a magic circle on the floor, was far from steady. The spell was new, and much hung on its success:
"Akhatal, azgharal, Gurushakan rhamak ta'vir ..." It was a spell to summon the ghost of Gurusha, ancient demon-king of Zimboura: for the task at hand no lesser spirit would suffice. If he could not succeed in this, he would know that he was not in truth the Avatar his people sought.
All was not well with his young empire. The northern plains and forests of what had once been the neighboring country of Shurkana were his, along with their vast yield of wheat and wood. But Shurkanese bandits based in the mountains continued to bedevil his troops. The Archipelagoes of Kaan were his, but to the west lay an unconquered continent, whose people had defeated his own in battle centuries before, and could well do so again. The northern island of Trynisia was his, but the oceans that divided it from Zimboura were impassable in winter, and it was populated only by hideous and hostile savages. The fledgling Zimbouran empire was stretched to its limit, thin and vulnerable, its few troops unable to control the restless and resentful populations of its conquered countries.
And now, even here in the capital city of Felizia, bread riots and other minor insurrections were breaking out like wildfires among his own subjects. He badly needed allies, but in all the world there was not one to be had. So he had turned in desperation to the only other world that he knew of, the world of the spirits: day and night he had performed incantations designed to summon supernatural aid. Yet no spirit would answer his call, not the most minor imp or incubus.
It had been Khalazar's belief for many decades that he was no mere mortal, but the earthly incarnation of a god-and no minor deity, either, but that highest of all deities, his people's primary god: Valdur the Great. For years he had felt the utmost certainty concerning his godhood. As a boy he had smiled to himself whenever he heard the priests of Valdur speak of the god's coming incarnation-knowing that he was the one, that he was already come. He had despised his predecessor, King Zedekara, even while he served him, for that monarch had merely feigned divinity in order to impress the mobs. When Khalazar and his followers rebelled against Zedekara's rule, he took his victory for granted and was unsurprised when it came. And when news was brought to him that the location of the Star Stone-the enchanted gem preordained to be wielded by the avatar of Valdur-had at last been discovered, he took this as yet another sign that his destiny was at hand.
But then he had lost the Stone. An old woman had seized it, a witch with the power to summon terrifying winged genii out of the heavens; and one of her companions was a young girl claiming to be the Tryna Lia herself, daughter of the Queen of Night incarnate in human form. After they escaped him Khalazar had retreated to his homeland and fallen into despair, until it occurred to him at length that this too was in the prophecies-the other gods of the pantheon would do all they could to thwart Valdur's rise to power, and the Tryna Lia was their chosen champion. The avatar of Valdur must expect to confront her-so was her appearance not in fact an affirmation of his identity?
But if he were the Avatar, a tormenting voice now whispered in the king's mind, why could he not summon genii at command? Should not the incarnate Valdur also exercise authority over the spirit-world? Was he not Valdur, after all? The thought tortured him throughout every waking hour. He had turned to necromancy, seeking counsel from the spirits of the dead, who as all men knew were party to secrets unknown to the living. For many months he had practiced incantations on a collection of corpses (easily obtained in this violent land), but none could be induced to speak. Now in growing desperation he had turned to this alternative necromantic practice, the summoning of ghosts from beyond the grave. And as he recited the incantation, he thought that he did, in fact, hear a faint rustling sound within the chamber, though he dared not pause in midspell. Only when the incantation was properly concluded did Khalazar lower his hands and open his eyes. The chamber was empty and still as before. With an oath he sprang up, and was about to quit the magic circle when a slight movement in a far corner made him start and whirl.
A figure stood there at the dark end of the room: a tall man, or the shade of a man, clad in a hooded robe the same hue as the shadows in which he stood. The door was still barred from within; the intruder could not have entered that way. The window was open, but it was fourteen stories above the ground and the tower's smooth walls offered no purchase to a climber. As Khalazar stood gaping the figure came soundlessly forward. The beardless face within the cowl was white as death, and the eyes of the apparition burned like yellow flames. Beneath their unnatural glare the king shivered from head to toe. A spirit beyond a doubt, but this was not, could not be Gurusha: that was not a Zimbouran face within the hood.
"Avaunt!" Khalazar screamed, cowering within the circle. "Avaunt-I did not summon you!"
The specter put back its hood, letting long lion-colored hair tumble about its pale face. "Come, Khalazar," it said in a deep reverberant voice, "you are in no position to reject any help. Be sensible."
"Who are you?" rasped the king, unable to retreat any farther without leaving the protection of the circle.
"My name is Morlyn," the specter replied. "I was a prince of great renown in days of old. Surely even you in Zimboura have heard of me?"
Morlyn: the dark sorcerer-prince of Maurainia, dead now for five hundred years. Even as he sweated and trembled before the strange figure, Khalazar felt a minute flare of elation deep within his mind. He had summoned a spirit! Not the one he had sought, but a real spirit nonetheless-and a great one, the ghost of a warrior and archmage! A thin cackle of triumph escaped his shaking lips.
"Well?" the apparition said, folding his cloaked arms. "Have you nothing to say, King, now that I am here? What would you have me do?"
"Destroy-destroy my enemies," Khalazar croaked.
"A large task, that. You appear to have quite an abundance of them." The one who called himself Morlyn walked slowly around the perimeter of the magic circle, his fiery eyes fixed mockingly on Khalazar's. "Shall I start with the Shurkanese? The Western Commonwealth? Not to mention all those here in Zimboura who have designs on your throne? And then there is that little matter of the Tryna Lia."
Khalazar pivoted fearfully, trying to keep his face always toward Morlyn. The spellbook had said that spirits were always obedient to their summoners, yet this one showed little respect or subservience. "How can you help me?" he demanded, trying to give his voice an edge of authority.
"We can help one another, Khalazar. Unite against our common foe. I bear no love for the Tryna Lia, and would gladly see her and her followers destroyed. Will you accept my offer?"
Khalazar stared at him in perplexity. With a sigh of impatience the dark figure stepped forward, and very deliberately placed his booted foot within the ring of blood. The king recoiled with a cry, but a long-fingered hand closed like a claw upon his forearm, preventing his escape. He writhed, torn between terror and outrage. This was not possible! No spirit could enter an enchanted circle-and that hand on his arm was surely flesh and blood! Peering up into the dead-white face, Khalazar saw that the "flaming" eyes were in fact reflecting the candlelight, like a cat's: they were golden in color, with slit pupils, the eyes neither of a genie nor a man, but of a beast.
"What are you?" he gasped.
"An ally, Khalazar of Zimboura."
For an instant Khalazar thought he must be swooning: the walls seem to reel around him. Then he blinked, dazed and disbelieving. The chamber had vanished, and with it had gone his castle and, it seemed, all of Zimboura. He and his inhuman companion drifted through an unfathomable darkness, pierced only by the silver points of stars. Stars above-and stars beneath!
"Where are we?" he shouted wildly.
"Have no fear, Khalazar-you are in your chamber still; at least your body is. We journey now in spirit, through the great void that lies outside the world. Look."
A long arm stretched out, and following where it pointed Khalazar saw a great blue globe suspended in the dark, half in shadow.
Excerpted from The Empire of the Stars by Alison Baird Excerpted by permission.
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Ailia lived on Mera for seventeen years, never realizing that her mother took her from her home planet Arainia to escape enemies that would kill her before she fulfilled her destiny. Before she left for her home planet, she thwarted Mandrake the shapeshifting dragon and took the Star Stone with her. Most of the Arainia populace sees her as the Tryna Lia, who is fated to rid the worlds of the Celestial Empire of evil. Her tutors teach Ailia how to use her untapped powers although she is content to be an ordinary woman, not a near deity that people revere and fear................. . On her birthday, Khalazar, a minion of Mandrake though he is unaware of that, sends Ailia a message that he is coming to destroy her. The Tryna Lia is sent into hiding but one of her inner circle is a traitor in league with Mandrake. She is taken to the dragon¿s home world where she finds a way to travel to Nemorah in the hopes that she can stop Mandrake and end his plans for war........................... In the beginning of this book Ailia is an unsure, timid maiden afraid of her destiny; by the end, she becomes a warrior, her power fully developed and a champion who is not afraid to fight Mandrake as an equal. Her adventures on her home world, the Dragon¿s world and Nemorah cause her to grow up fast and take charge of her life. Ironically, readers feel sorry for Mandrake who finds that his dark ways cause the people who truly cared about him to turn their backs on him. Alison Baird¿s latest work is an enjoyable, entertainingly and totally enthralling coming of age fantasy..................... Harriet Klausner