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HE CAREENED THROUGH CORRIDORS OF LIGHT-DEVOURING black, endless and vermicular, as if he were trapped in some gigantic intestinal labyrinth. The only reality was the cold grip of Lilith’s hand in his, the only light the fear in her eyes, which he could somehow see in the roiling darkness.
They turned corners at random, fleeing with no map or plan, twisting this way and that through blind intersections and surprise junctions, racing up and down flights of stairs that seemed to invert under their feet—flipping from ascent to descent, like something from an M. C. Escher painting.
The world was strangely silent, except for their frantic footfalls. There were no sounds of pursuit, yet Colin knew that behind them the Headmaster’s myrmidons were closing in.
Suddenly before them was a breach in the labyrinth wall, a huge, irregular gash in the stone. They scrambled through it and found themselves at the base of one of the castle’s great corner towers; it reared above them, a gleaming black finger pointing at the chaotic sky.
Colin shook himself. He remembered that the highest towers of the Scholomance rose no more than a hundred feet above the tops of the island’s trees, yet this one seemed thousands of feet high, looming through cloudy mists over an endless landscape.
There was no time to backtrack, no other route to seek. Their pursuers, unseen but nonetheless deadly, would be upon them in minutes. Colin mounted the parapet and edged out onto the tower along a thin ledge, no more than a foot wide. Arms spread-eagled, belly flattened against the cold stone, he began to climb. Behind and below him, Lilith followed.
Though the walls were smooth obsidian, scarcely rough enough for an insect to cling to, somehow the two managed to find toe- and finger-holds. Colin didn’t pause to think about how that was possible, he simply climbed until he reached the top of the tower. There, he peered over and received yet another shock—before him stretched a sea of carved and mortared stone, a roofscape that seemed to stretch as far as the horizon, composed of domes, minarets, spires, chimneys. It was as if the Black Castle had swollen to a hundred times its normal size—an amorphous armored creature, bristling with chitinous structures. As if it had devoured the island’s shoreline and the surrounding lake.
Again they fled, this time down a serpentine stair, and thence over an endless, tumbled collection of steps, ramps, colonnades, battlements, and other impediments—some that seemed to grow up out of nowhere to divert their path. Time and again they were forced to stop and retrace their steps. Although they could see no one in pursuit, still the sense of impending capture grew with each footfall.
At last they found themselves in a cul-de-sac—an irregular cup of stone and mortar from which there was no escape. Colin had been a student at the Scholomance for years—memory refused to put a number to them—yet he’d never seen this blank courtyard. His mind protested that it didn’t exist, no more than did the thousand-foot towers or the endless cityscape.
In the moment he decided to believe this was a dream (prayed it was a dream), Lilith, her face colorless, her eyes wide and terrified, turned to him and said, “Only one of us can escape, and it has to be you. You must find the Trine, and use it to rescue me.”
“We can both escape,” he protested, knowing as well as she did that, even within this dream, it was not true. It was a truth he refused to admit. “There has to be a way…”
“There isn’t, Colin. You know there isn’t.”
And before he could protest again, before he could stop her, she twisted away from him. One step, the pivot of a stone beneath her foot, and she dropped into a sudden black abyss.
Colin lunged forward, but too late…always too late.
The entire structure seemed to melt away from around him then, and he was falling as well, falling through gray limbo, screaming Lilith’s name as he tumbled endlessly through darkening clouds….
COLIN WOKE LYING ON ONE OF THE LEATHER sofas in his second-floor library, heart rabbiting in his chest, a thin film of icy sweat on his skin.
He’d been having too many of those lately, and, like all the others, this one did nothing to edify—only terrify. There were no discernible omens, no prescient revelations. It was simply a dream of frustration, of loss…of condemnation.
Its very meaninglessness scared him so much that he allowed himself to pretend there must be meaning, if only he could divine it.
He sat up, swung his legs off the sofa, planted his feet firmly on the floor, and ran long, thin fingers through his riotous hair, trying to force sense into the dream.
The Scholomance had appeared out-of-proportion. Well, of course it had. It assumed terrifying proportions in all his dreams—as it did in waking memory.
He and Lilith had been trapped in its labyrinthine bowels. And why not? The Scholomance had devoured them in their time, just as it devoured a new “class” of students every seven years. In its long history, only Colin had come to it out-of-season, fetching up nameless and alone on its forbidding shores, malnourished and speaking a language no one understood.
The sense of pursuit was a horrific dose of reality in Colin’s dreamscape. Then, he had been pursued by the Scholomance’s Headmaster. Now…God, now he wasn’t being pursued so much as he was being stalked. Stalked by a predator far more devious than the Headmaster and infinitely more merciless…and whose motives were impenetrable. At least he’d known what the Headmaster wanted with him.
He rubbed bleary eyes and looked up. The walls that surrounded him now were familiar, comforting, and covered with mahogany shelving, up to what had been the ceiling of the second floor. It had been cut back to form a mezzanine, reachable by a spiral staircase. More bookshelves rose from the mezzanine almost to the third-story skylight, upon which a soft rain was falling.
Colin let his gaze range over the crowded shelves. At last inventory he had over fifteen thousand volumes: folios, scrolls, codices, opuscules, enchiridions, incunables, and other works, both fiction and nonfiction, ancient and modern.
And in none of them was the answer to the riddle of his own self.
Find the Trine and use it to rescue me, Lilith had pleaded. Well, he’d found it, hadn’t he? Twice. But that was then and this was now, and Lilith was irrevocably gone. Beyond any hope of rescue.
While he had lost Lilith, he still had the Trine—a triune artifact of such power that the Headmaster had disassembled it and hidden the elements separately about his “school” of the arcane. Colin doubted that he had expected a nameless, teenage waif to spend a year of his life tracking those elements down and using them to escape.
The Book, the Stone, and the Flame.
Deep within Colin—now a young man, now free of the Scholomance and its insidious Headmaster—was a bereft boy who would have traded the entire unholy trinity to bring Lilith back.
“Do you realize how often you fall asleep wherever you happen to be out of sheer exhaustion? You really ought to plan for sleep, Colin. You are still human, after all.”
The voice sent chills coursing down Colin’s spine and brought his mind into sharp focus.
The angel reclined, in profile, on the matching leather couch directly across from where he sat. She appeared to be reading; at least, she held a leather-bound volume open in her pale hands. She was momentarily dazzling in the semidarkness of the room—as if she sat in a spotlight—and Colin’s synesthesia caused bright chips of radiance to dance in the fringes of her aura. He looked away from her, seeking her reflection in the front of a long glass display case that ran at right angles to the sofas and in which he kept mementos of his various “adventures.”
She was beautiful, of course; even her eyes, which were blank silver discs bright as newly minted dimes, enhanced rather than detracted from her appearance. She was wearing white jeans, a long-sleeve peach T-shirt, and gray running shoes. Her hair was strawberry blond today, cut short and spiked. A Mogen David, a tiny gold cross, and a star-and-crescent dangled from the earlobe he could see. A five-pointed star hung from a silver chain about her neck.
He could see his own semitransparent reflection in the glass as well: tall, lean almost to the point of cadaverousness, wearing faded black jeans and a charcoal gray T-shirt. His skin was pale, made more so by contrast to his unruly black hair. The reflection of his face was superimposed over an ancient humanoid horned skull. Compared to the angel’s reflection, his seemed ephemeral, as if she were the flesh and blood being and he a mere phantom.
Well, maybe that was the case after all.
“Hello, Zoel,” he said. “Slumming?”