After thwarting the Cult of Dionysus and with the city of Nexus in ruins, all that remains for the Apollonians is to find the final Shards of the Risa Star before the Cult can use it to wreak havoc on an astronomical scalebut in this final installment of the Seven Stars trilogy, Jack Lawson and his allies face unexpected challenges. They are worlds apart; some battling old enemies in a desert fortress, and others in a formerly prosperous city-state that is slipping into totalitarianism. All the while, the pieces of a greater puzzle have been moving into place and a trap has been laid, and Jack must confront a truth that threatens to destroy everything.
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The Grey Star
By James Bartholomeusz
Medallion Press, Inc.Copyright © 2013 James Bartholomeusz
All rights reserved.
The sky spread out indigo and black over the desert. Stars, of brightness found only in a world unfettered by cityscapes, glittered like reams of precious metal. Moonbeams highlighted the edges of semicollapsed columns and blocks of rubble: a figure here; an eye there; the beak of a scroll-proffering bird, sank diagonally into the dust. The ruins were silent, save for the intermittent chinking of axes upon rock.
The hooded figure surveyed his fellows' progress. Clustered around a mound of rubble, they were, like him, garbed in black cloaks. Every one of the other nine, however, clasped a pickax, swinging it in moon-glinting arcs. They had not been happy about their manual labor; they didn't understand why they couldn't just blast open the entrance with alchemy. There had even been talk of mutiny, though the three chief conspirators had been swiftly silenced. They were taking longer on this job for very good reasons. Besides, the leader had always appreciated the value of hard work.
A glimmer of light caught his eye, and he turned. It was small, but he was sure it wasn't moonlight. He surveyed the area around them. Nothing.
"Despite all that's changed," a voice said from somewhere, "I can still sneak up on you."
The leader didn't turn immediately, but in the shadow of his hood, his lips creased into a smile. "I thought I may be treated to a visit from you at some point."
The fox sidled out from behind a boulder, its fur glinting white.
A couple of the laboring figures stopped to look.
Motioning them to continue, the leader took a step toward the fox. "Let's take a walk."
They made their way between the remaining pillars.
"I see you have only two tails. The Apollonians have been making rather slower progress than we expected."
"There was a complication in Albion. The First Shard was separated from the Übermensch just as the Third was acquired. We're back down to two. The First may be lost irrevocably."
The hooded figure gave a barking laugh. "We both know that is simply untrue. The Shards will always find their way back to one another, even if they must choose a different bearer. It merely means taking a slightly longer route. All are now accounted for, and they will fall in together very soon indeed. And then the real fun begins."
"The Emperor is dead."
"I know. It was always part of the plan." The figure raised his hand, a vague gesture toward the sky, the desert, and the immediate ruined surroundings. "Nexus had to be obliterated so that this world could rise from the waves and yield its jewels. Or, rather, jewel." He waved vaguely behind him to the laboring figures now diminishing from sight. "They, of course, don't know that. They think that when we find the Shard, we shall deliver it back to the Emperor—and they will be showered with rewards. One way or another, they will never live to know their mistake."
The fox glanced behind them, unsure for the first time. "Why are they not using alchemy?"
"Time. The Apollonians need sufficient time to come to terms with their situation and make their way over here. It's a rather delicate balancing act. We couldn't have them missing the party, could we?"
They continued along in silence for a few moments.
"What if He perished in Nexus along with the Emperor?"
The figure laughed harshly again. "You really are desperate, aren't you? That's just willful denial. You know as well as I do that He can't be wounded; He can't perish; He can only be restrained. And those restraints will be eased soon enough. Besides, He has been grooming another vessel for some time now—another worldly anchor to tide Him over until the Shards are assembled."
The fox halted, and so did the figure. They were now far enough away that the laborers were obscured by the night, the only hint of their presence the dim echo of the axes.
"Show me your face."
The figure grinned. "This has been tried on me before. Are you really as naïve as your mortal friends to think you can win me back over?" Nevertheless, he dropped his hood. Sleek, dark hair; a jawline curved inward, almost like twin sabers; a grin like that of a hungry wolf. The eyes, though icily piercing, still might have held something of their old sadness.
"See anything you like? Any glimmer of hope? I think not. The last person who tried this kind of appeal was actually the new vessel—an Apollonian, one I knew briefly. I almost thought he recognized me for a moment ... but then he took a knife in the back." The figure threw back his head and cackled.
The fox waited for the cackles to die before he spoke again, and when he did, his voice was softer and pleading. "You don't have to do this. There's still time to change course—He can be defeated."
The figure considered his glowing partner for a moment. "You really believe that, don't you? You really think the mortals can win?"
The fox nodded. "If there wasn't part of you—the old you—still left in there, then why would you answer all my questions?"
"Partly out of common courtesy. But mainly because there is absolutely no chance that you can run back to warn the Übermensch and his friends."
The fox narrowed his eyes.
The figure purred on. "Yes, I know all about the constraints He's placed on you. Still, I hear, that hasn't stopped you trying to spill the beans at least a few times."
"Do you feel no remorse for what you're about to do? Is there nothing of you left in that shell?"
The figure leaned down so that his mouth was only inches from the fox's pointed nose. "Lest we forget, little one, you're not the only one bound in a shell. The difference is I've embraced my new fate wholeheartedly, while you continue to fight an irrelevant crusade."
The figure held the fox's gaze, piercing blue reflected in beady black.
"I seem to remember you once claiming that I am not who I appear to be. Look how the tables have turned."
And in the space of a blink, the fox had vanished.
The figure remained, gazing at the place where the fox had been. The fox had a point, but those words had been written in, literally, another life. He was an entirely different being from the one who had penned that warning in a last, desperate letter.
With his cloak rippling slightly in the desert wind, the figure turned and made his way back to the excavation.
Excerpted from The Grey Star by James Bartholomeusz. Copyright © 2013 James Bartholomeusz. Excerpted by permission of Medallion Press, Inc..
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