They spread blankets in the back of the wagon that night. With Telyn’s head upon his shoulder, Mithrais slept soundly for several hours until his sense of the Wood woke him with a start.
Something had changed. He blinked against the false moonlight he’d created and raised his head. The Gwaith’orn sprite stood in the center of the grove like a sentry, its attention focused outside the shelter of the clearing. The stillness was eerie—no insect songs, no frogs from the nearby river. Even the sound of water was muffled, as if something loomed between the banks and the grove.
He was inexplicably certain something watched them.
A quick glance at Bessa confirmed it. Although the mare was calm, she had her ears up, and her head swiveled in the same direction the sprite kept vigil. He eased away from Telyn. She stirred, and said something in her sleep, but did not wake. He dropped to the ground beside the wagon.
“Old One?” He kept his voice soft. “What’s out there?”
“Fear.” The sprite cocked its head and never took its eyes from the darkness. On the fringes of the grove where Mithrais’ light did not reach, the shadows were thick and impenetrable.
Something blacker than night moved against the trees.
His breath and pulse quickened with a primal terror he’d never known. A new reflex took hold. Power leapt to await the cast of a spell without his conscious assent, and he tamped it down. Cold sweat broke out on his forehead.
“You are safe, Magian,” the sprite murmured. “It cannot stand against us in this form, although it can make itself known.”
“What is it?” Mithrais could not tear his gaze from that terrible nothingness.
“A projection of what was once vanquished, long ago. A creature of elemental form. It has no shape of its own. It simply is.”
“What does it want?”
“To be free, within a shell of flesh. There, it can wreak the havoc it once fed upon.”
Mithrais fought to replace fear with reason and action, but it slowed his thoughts. With supreme effort, he turned his focus to the magical knowledge the Gwaith’orn had imprinted upon his mind. “How do we defend against it?”
“It is yet contained. Some things are best left alone.” The sprite looked at him at last. “It can do nothing but spread fear in this form, but that is how it draws a vessel to it.”
“This form is only a projection?” He did not want to imagine facing what produced this fearsome shadow in the dark.
“It will fade with the light. Breathe, Magian.”
The light… Mithrais seized the lantern from the front of the wagon and thrust it in front of him. The magelight flashed in blinding, silver-blue radiance, a captive star in the depths of the Wood. It dispelled the darkness in the grove, and the dark shape fled to slip between the trees until it was out of reach of the magelight.
The terror fled as well, leaving him hollow as it drained from his body. He could think again and was deeply troubled. Around him, small sounds of night began to re-emerge—crickets, the trill of a frog on the river’s edge. He allowed the light to fade to its previous pale glow and attempted to wrap his mind around this encounter. First dragons, and now dread shapes in the night: What else had been wrought in the wake of the spell Telyn and the Magians cast in the Circle?
“Mithrais?” Telyn’s sleepy voice sounded from the wagon. “Is something wrong?”
“I’m not certain.” It was as if the dark shape had never existed. Even the sprite had disappeared when he turned around and looked for it. He hung the lantern back on the front of the wagon and reclaimed the space beside his lifemate.
“You’re shivering.” Telyn moved closer and wrapped her arms about him. “I was having a nightmare.”
“So was I.” But his had been waking.
“Too many ghost stories from Kendric and the sprite, I think.” She sighed and relaxed again into sleep. But Mithrais lay awake until dawn’s approach outshone the light of his spell.
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