I balled up the scrap of paper, the crunch of the stiff, inky sheet seeming far too loud in the stillness of the room, and tossed it from one hand to the other. Outside the sky was still the same deep blue of the ink smeared on my hands; from the position of the constellation of Pegasus, it was several hours left before the first shimmers of daybreak. Still, I was about as far from sleep as I had ever been. Starset had come and passed, and I had no more desire for sleep than I had at midday. I sighed, and drummed my fingers on the polished wood of the desk, then slowly started to un-crumple the sheet I had so recently mangled.
The ink was smeared, and still more of it came off all over my hands. But the pictures were still intact. I wasn't quite sure why I had drawn them, but there they were. I had seen the runic markings on my father's staff enough times that I could sketch them all from memory; the rising sun, the sword, the dragon's tail, the star, and the eye. I'd spent too much time holding the smooth, fluid-grained wood, hoping.
My favorite of the markings had always been the symbol for leaping, a five-pointed star inside a circle. I had often asked why the star had been chosen as the symbol for leaping, but never seemed to get the answer I wanted – that it was in fact, possible to travel by leaping, all the way to the stars. More hoping.
On the shelf next to me was a thick notebook, filled with all sorts of my father's notes about the different creatures he had seen all over Avalon. His idea was that using his notes, I could create sketches of the diverse population of Avalon, since he was no good at drawing anyway. I always told him his notes were no good. He always spent too much time describing color patters, fur texture, or scale placement. They were good notes, granted, but still left much up to my guessing. There was scarcely any note pertaining to the size of the creature's limbs, wings, shape of the horns. I supposed he assumed I already knew; that somehow I had seen as much of the world as he had, without ever leaving Waterroot.
I pulled the book down from the shelf, and set it with a loud thump on the desk. For an instant I thought I might have disturbed Kulwych, who was sprawled out on my bed asleep, but he was too full of beer to notice. I slid my chair around and turned back to the desk, and the haphazard collection of notes. Loose pages stuck out at angles, and many of the sheets were creased and weather-beaten.
Carefully, I eased it open, wincing as the spine ripped apart even further, and began searching for a page I hadn't seen before. Notes slipped out as I turned the pages, descriptions of dragons, sprites, stags, mudmakers, kreelixes, even wishlaylagons, which were as flighty as a puff of wind, and just as transparent. On a whim, I had carefully lettered the world "whishlaylagon" at the bottom of a perfectly clean sheet of paper, and tucked it back with the other drawings, but I don't think my father noticed.
Near the back of the book, I found a small scrap of paper that I didn't recognize. The words were crammed into every available place on the page, and described a very familiar friend of my father's, in a quite unlikely circumstance.
"The first time I ever saw Basil," the note read, and I had to squint and turn my head to the side to read my father's handwriting. "He was no larger than a pinecone. Somehow he squirmed his way into my and Hallia's wedding, unnoticed by both Bumblewy and the Grand Elusa. He had raggedy, crumpled wings, outstanding ears, and a spirit that seemed much too large to be contained in his skinny lizard's body.'
I couldn't help but chuckle.
"One way or another, he crossed paths with little Ganta, Gwynnia's son. Ganta then proceeded to take Basil in his teeth and flail him against a rock in all sorts of painful manners, clearly not recognizing how ghastly this was for his new toy. Until Basil, the little spitfire he was, turned around and nipped Ganta on the nose. As is to be expected with mother dragons, Gwynnia wasverymad."
The end of the note was crammed against the side of the page, and I sighed, grinning at the ending. I had hoped there would have been a more thoughtful description of Ganta, but I supposed I could always try and draw Basil once more, though this time in his humble lizard's form. I looked back at the page. Small as a pinecone. Crumpled wings, large ears. It wasn't nearly enough to go by.
Wind gusted through the open window, ruffling the pages I had laid out on the desk. I hastily slipped the account of Ganta and his small chew-toy into the middle of the notebook to prevent it from blowing away. Perhaps I had drawn everything there was a decent description of. I'd have to try harder the next time my father wanted to go somewhere without me; try harder to persuade him that at seventeen years old, I really ought to have seen more of Avalon than I had. My fingers strayed back to the pen, and I snatched up a spare sheet and began mindlessly scrawling leaves onto the paper.
There was a mumble from my bed, and Kulwych sat up, looking annoyed.
"Why's it so cold 'n'here?" he slurred.
"That would be the open window," I flicked the pen toward it, as on cue, the wind breezed through again, bringing with it the scent of leaves and the fresh lake reeds of late summer.
"Can't you close it?" Kulwych ran a hand through his hair and it stood on end.
"No, actually I can't. I've tried, but it's been cursed open. If I force it closed, it just might attract the attention of the dragon faeries." I had long since lost the ability not to make fun of him after he'd been drinking.
"Don't be stupid," he said. "'M cold. Can't sleep when 'm cold."
I lifted the notebook back onto its proper shelf, and went over and sat on the end of my bed. Kulwych had wrapped a blanket up around his shoulders, and was doing his best to look pathetic.
"Let's go outside," I said. I might have well suggested we go and hunt fire oxen with pillows from the look Kulwuch gave me. Then he hiccupped and returned to staring at the floor.
"It's nice outside," I added. "And I can't sleep anyway."
"Y'could try closing the window."
I gave him a shove, which only made him slide back down and pull the pillow over his head.
"Oh come on," I said, grabbing my pillow back. "The fresh air will sober you up faster." At last I managed to get Kulwych up, and we made our way outside, and down the sandy hill toward the lakeshore. Frog calls echoed from the reeds, interspersed now and then with the nasal buzz of cicadas. I had always loved the way the lake looked at night, with the opposite bank bathed in shadows, the trees dangling black boughs down over the water. Somehow, with the other side so far away, it was all too easy to imagine the lake going on forever.
I lay down on the grassy slope next to Kulwych, flat on my back. At last. The view from the window could never come close to comparing with the view from the hill by the lake. Unobstructed by trees, the sky gaped endlessly over me, the stars suspended in its dark depths. They seemed, on nights like these, so tantalizingly close, as if merely lifting my hand would cause my fingertips to brush the stars' blazing edges.
Right away I found Pegasus; hooves trailing over the tops of the trees, then the two rings of stars that I had heard so often referred to as the mysteries. Between these constellations, and the others, were countless more stars, stars that went away if you looked directly at them, stars that seemed almost to move on their own, stars that shone with the pale blue of a far off hillside.
My chest felt like it was working into knots, something inside me swelling with a feeling I couldn't name, and yet couldn't quite stop. I felt almost giddy, as if whatever it was inside me needed room to grow, keep on tying me into knots.
"'S damn cold out here."
Kulwych's voice brought me hurtling back to the present, back to my place on the all-too-solid hillside. The frogs and crickets were back. For a moment they had been too far away to notice.
"Would you like to walk around a little, to warm up?"
Kulwych shook his head.
"Good. Can't really see the sky too well when walking." Both of us were silent for a few long moments. My eyes strayed back to the sky, and to the space between Pegasus and the mysteries. To the line of prominent stars known as the wizard's staff. Somehow those stars made the place inside me that had so recently swelled with that giddy feeling begin to ache. My thoughts were tossed back to the real wizard's staff, the one all of Avalon knew had inspired the naming of the line of stars. The one that I had held so many times, wishing things I knew would never come true; things I didn't want to think about. When I finally tore my gaze away from the sky once more, Kulwych was still shivering beside me, swaying a little on the spot as he stared out at the lake.
"What d'you think about when you do that? Stare at the sky for so long."
"Wonder why in the world the stars have to be so far away."
"If they were closer, then someone would have already done something about them… figured out what they were. 'S a job for someone that really needs something ambitious and mad to do."
Somehow Kulwych often had a talent for summing up what I was thinking. The stars were truly so far from Avalon's root realms I didn't think anyone had ever been anywhere near there. The one to first reach the stars and return, why, they would surely be remembered for ages as the greatest explorer Avalon had ever seen. Even as I thought that, I realized that it had to be me. I couldn't stand it not being me; couldn't stand the thought that I wouldn't be the first to finally know what the stars really where, why they did what they did.
"See," I said "you already know what I think about."
"Y'want to be famous, Kriss, it's not really hard to tell. I just wonder why it is you're so obsessed with the stars, when there're so many other places you could be exploring."
"Because how can you not just look up at them and wonder things? Wonder what it might be like up there, what might happen? You could spend lifetimes up there, and never know everything about them. If you look at a tree," I waved one hand toward the lakeshore where a stand of birch trees bent their branches over the lake, "the roots spread out just as far as the branches do."
Kulwych stared blankly at me and hiccupped.
"I mean, I guess I shouldn't have pointed to those trees. You have to imagine a tree that's been taken out of the ground. So you can see all the roots, how far out they reach. Think of a tree in the forest that has been uprooted. There's always a massive pit in the ground, that's how you can tell how big the roots are."
"I have no idea why you're telling me this."
"I mean," I said, thumping my feet on the ground. "The roots of a tree spread out as far as its branches do. Or, you could say, the branches are as wide as the roots. So – it goes to wager that the Great Tree would be the same way. And when you think about how big the seven root-realms of Avalon are, the branch realms must be just as vast. The stars are among the branches, Lych, I'm sure they are. Just think about how many stars that must be. Stars that you can't even see from Avalon. Leagues and leagues and leagues of them."
I finally broke off, waiting as Kulwych followed what I had just said. His eyes were flicking back and forth like he was reading something very fast.
"Only you would be thinking about things like that," he said at last.
"Yes, but I don't see why I'm the only one." I knocked the heels of my boots together. "How can you look at the stars and not wonder?"
"I suppose I do. Sometimes. But it's easier to leave all the wondering to you, because you do so much of it anyway."
I could only chuckle at him. Mostly because he was right.
"You know what you said before?" Kulwych added. "About walking a little, so I won't be so cold? That sounds rather nice, as a matter of fact."
I sighed, and got to my feet. Kulwych was hugging his arms across his stomach, but as we drew closer to the shore of the lake, I noticed he wasn't shivering as much anymore. The grass underfoot changed slowly to gravel, then the fine sand of the beach. We followed the shore of the lake as it swept in a gentle curve, past the trees with the drooping branches that I had pointed out before, trees with branches much the same as our own Great Tree.
The beach grew rockier, dotted with huge boulders that were treacherously difficult to climb over when the windier months coated them with ice. Thankfully, there was a narrow sandbar between the rocks and the lake, where we passed. Climbing rocks, as fun as it may be in the daylight, was never something I liked to do after dark.
Kulwych had been silent for an awfully long time. I suspected he was merely tired, but it was still odd to go so long without hearing at least a few sardonic comments about something or other. At last he raised his head from where he had been intently staring at the gravel.
"There's the dock."
"Were you expecting it to go anywhere?"
He gave me one of his almost-smiles. "No, I just thought –"
"Thought I might like to go out there because we'd be farther from the trees, and we might get a better view of the sky again?"
"They you'd be right."
He gave a bow, still watching me with his mouth curled in half a smile. I started out along the weather-beaten planks of the dock, the wood creaking comfortingly under my boots with each step. Now and then the water underneath us would splash up against the wood beams, making a satisfying smacking sound. About halfway along the dock, the planks were no longer connected to the bottom of the lake with pillars; only two iron chains linked them back to the rest of the dock. I had always rather liked the last half of the dock, it swayed like mad when the wind blew, and I used to beg my father to take me out to the dock when there was brisk weather, just for the fun of sitting there and imagining it was a ship far out at sea.
If I sat facing the opposite side of the lake, I could almost forget how close I was to shore. The wind would whip the chains back and forth, making great clanking noises, and then the rain would come, splattering the planks of the dock and turning them dark.
There was a sudden cursing, and I looked over my shoulder to see Kulwych, his feet splayed out awkwardly in an attempt to keep from losing his balance on the pitching dock. He did a little flapping motion with one arm, and was finally able to stand steady again.
"Problems?" I asked, unable to keep from grinning.
"'S not as easy as it look. Hate this dock."
"It's no matter. We're at the end anyway." He sat down heavily, swinging his boots over the edge of the dock and propping them on the first rung of a woven rope ladder that swimmers in the lake, often including me, used. Swimming in the dark, however, was another thing I avoided as often as I could. I seated myself next to him, leaning back until I could see the sky once more. The huge streak of the Wizard's staff spanned the sky directly above me, and I found I couldn't take my eyes off it. It was simply so far, and the enormity of everything I had so recently vowed to do threatened to come all crashing down on me at once. The years of planning, the countless years more of actually getting there, and wondering what I would find when I did arrive.
I heard a faint hissing noise, a popping not unlike the sound wood makes under intense heat, then a curse. Turning, I saw Kulwych, holding a few of his fingers in his mouth and glaring.
"Please tell me you're not hurting yourself," I said. Kulwych shrugged, and then removed his hand from his mouth; the tips of his pale fingers continued to fizzle a bit with silver light. The dock near where he was sitting now bore a sizable number of shining white speckles. They glowed faintly when the starlight hit them the right way.
"What are those?" I asked.
Kulwych gestured vaguely at the sky. "They're stars, see. That one there – " he pointed at a dot on the wood, "Is the star. . . that one."
I scoffed at how little sense he was making, but looked. Sure enough, I recognized the pattern of stars directly below the Wizard's Staff, as well as the two brighter ones on the tip, mirrored on the weather-beaten wood of the dock.
"This dock was boring as well as stupid," he said, giving me another slightly crooked smile. "Needed something to liven it up."
"Yes, well you've missed one."
"On the other side of the Staff."
"Mmyes, I'm not done yet, don't rush me." He cracked the knuckles of one hand, and then took a long moment examining his fingernails. Finally, turning back to the dock, he touched the tips of two fingers to the wood, and then flicked them upward together, leaving a silvery trail in the air. The silvery trail hissed and spat like flames, then slowly drew closer and closer together until they were condensed into one very small, very bright point. With another flick from Kulwych, the spot connected with the wood, sending up a puff of steam and a snapping sound.
He fashioned several more stars; the rest of the Wizard's staff and a few of the others in between, and I was so intently watching him that at first when he spoke I didn't even realize it. Then I saw he was looking at me expectantly.
"I said, just what are you planning on doing with the stars once you get to them?"
I was a little taken aback. "What do you mean?"
"Exactly what I said."
"I don't have to do anything," I said, fighting to keep a tone of complete exasperation from my voice. "I've told you this before. That night when you asked me how I could stare at the stars for hours when they weren't doing anything but staying in the same places. It's the same. Just getting there will be enough. Getting there, finally seeing them from a place other than in the root-realms. It would be enough to know that it's possible for a mortal creature to walk among them."
"Ah." Kulwych was staring down at the dock, his red-brown hair ruffling as another slight gust sent ripples scattering over the water and the dock lurching against the chains that bound it to the shore.
"You're thinking something strange," I said. "I can tell."
"I think I might like to come with you."
"Oh, don't be ridiculous, Lych."
I actually laughed out loud, and it sounded far more harsh and sardonic that I had really intended. "You're being thick. Do you have any idea how long it would take to get there? Something like this, it's bound to take years, failed attempts, anything could happen. And you really want to risk that, when you're the one always asking me what is so special about them?"
Kulwych stifled a hiccup, and then returned to tracing the patterns of the stars on the wood. His fingers were stretched over the imprinted Wizard's Staff. After a long moment my curiosity got the better of me.
"Look – why are you even saying this?"
"Why do the stars dim at the end of each day, the same time, then brighten again at the end of the night?"
"I don't know, but – "
"Why does Stoneroot's sky have the brightest stars of anywhere in Avalon, but Shadowroot has never seen any light?"
"You think I would know? Nobody on Avalon kn – "
"That's what I'm saying. Nobody has any idea about any of these things. It just sort of came to me, when you were saying what you did." He rubbed the side of his head a little and frowned, as if searching for the right words to continue. "If nobody here in the root realms knows anything about the stars. . . then what would happen to the first people that ever learned about them?"
"They'd become famous?"
"No. Well, mmyes, but besides." His voice was getting steadily faster. "They'd know things that the people in the root realms can only dream of. They'd have strength. That knowledge would let them find out other things, far more powerful than anyone else in Avalon. Just think of what someone could do with that, how they could change Avalon forever."
I stared at him, not quite sure what I should be thinking. Part of me knew he was right, but even deeper than that was the feeling that it didn't really matter, at least to me. Fame, that mattered, knowing that people would think of me not only as my old identity of the son of someone famous but as the one who first made the journey to the stars of Avalon. It wasn't that I didn't want Kulwych there with me; the thought of having him there was even comforting in its own way, I just couldn't think of anything in Avalon I so desperately wanted to change, except maybe more maps.
"Why are you so keen on changing Avalon all of a sudden? What's wrong with it the way it is?" I asked, unfolding my legs and lying down on my stomach. Up close to the wooden slats of the dock, I could see between them, through to the black water under them, and the tiny glints of reflected starlight.
"Hmh, nothing's wrong with Avalon. 'M not sure what I meant. Still, though, you'd have an ability that hardly anyone would have. Well, depends on how many people you're planning on dragging along. Somehow I get this feeling it's not just going to be the two of us."
"No, that wouldn't be wise." Underneath the dock, I could make out horizontal stripes of deep shadow, and a thick layer of sodden moss under the slats. Somehow the stars that Kulwych had magicked onto the dock were visible even from the underside, as if someone was shining a bright light through holes in the wood.
"What are you doing, exactly?"
I withdrew my face from where I had been leaning it against the wood, and rubbed a spot of dirt from my cheek. "Just looking. I'm getting a little tired, to tell you the truth."
"Out here? Really?" Kulwych snorted. "You're never tired outside at night. In fact, you're never tired at all. I don't know how you manage it."
"Oh I do to get tired. It's just when you compare the two of us. That's when it looks like you do all the sleeping and doing nothing, and I do all the exciting things."
"Mmyes. The sky at night. Very exciting."
I rolled over and glared at him. "Well I suppose you'll want to go back in now, am I right?"
His only response was a shrug.
"Because I suppose we could sleep out here, and you know I wouldn't have any problem with that."
"On the dock?"
"Yes. It's not really that cold anymore. Only thing is you'll probably fall in if you go to sleep out here."
"I won't. And like you said, I'm not really in a mood to go all the way back up to your room and all."
"Good." It was safe enough out here, still tied firmly to the land, and my exhaustion had all snuck up on me at once. I realized I hadn't slept at all since the night before, and star rise was well on its way. Taking off my coat, I balled it up under my head, shifting to make sure I was not too perilously close to the edge. Luckily I didn't have a habit of rolling around too much in my sleep like Kulwych did. Within moments the gentle swaying of the dock, the thin piping of crickets from the shore, and the slapping of water against the wood had slipped away.
Darkness billowed before me, along with a cold, piercing wind I had never known before. Furrows stretched away toward a strange, unfamiliar horizon, but before I could even hazard a guess at what they were, they melted away. Disappointment tugged on me like a physical weight. I wanted to go back, find the furrows, and learn what they were. But instead I was now on the edge of a huge drop, the ledge plunging down farther than I could imagine. The wind flared again, thrashing my hair about and sending it whipping across my face. I struggled to brush it back, and then turned my gaze back to the sky, hoping to discern where I was.
The sky was split down the middle; an impossibly bright, jagged seam ran the length of the horizon. In it, strange shapes whirled, silvery, ghost-like things that had no proper shape and were changing by the moment. I was so entranced with the tear in the sky, I hardly noticed that something was wrong with the stars. They were all in their proper places, except for a gaping hole between the mysteries and Pegasus. Smaller, paler stars shone around the edges of the gap, but the hole made my chest clench, and my throat feel tight just from how wrong it looked.
Then everything shifted, and I was walking down a steep hillside. I glanced up at the stars, realizing with dismay that the Wizard's Staff was still missing. Everything was tainted with the awful wrong feeling, like I shouldn't be seeing what I was seeing. Then from behind a huge protrusion of rock, a figure emerged, walking lightly toward me in a long coat that reached past its knees. It was a moment before I realized the figure was Kulwych.
For an instant I was so relieved to have him there that I didn't see how dreadfully awful he was. Then it struck me. His cheeks were flushed from drinking, and his eyes looked far too manic and feverish. He was jittering uncontrollably on the spot. At once I was afraid to come any closer to him because I didn't want him to hurt me. It was a strange thought, but the more I couldn't look away from him, the more nervous I was.
"Something's wrong with the sky!" I screeched, fighting to be heard above the wind, which was growing by the moment. Kulwych just smiled, the same crooked, half-smile he always made; only now it just made him look even madder.
"Wrong? Why I'm afraid I don't know what you mean. The sky is – " he broke off, sounding like he was badly trying to suppress a chuckle. "It's as it should be, mmmyesss. As it should have been."
"You do know what I mean! You know what I mean! It's wrong, and you know it, the stars aren't there!" I was shaking him now, but he wasn't doing anything, he was just staring back at me with his mad-looking eyes and flushed cheeks, making noises like he was trying to chortle and hiccup and gulp all at the same time.
"Fix it!" I screamed, and it was only then that I realized that I knew Kulwych could, in fact, fix it. He knew where the stars had gone, and he wasn't doing anything about it, but he needed to, because only he could do it.
I let go of the front of his coat, and he staggered back a few paces. I noticed that one of his white hands was clenched against his chest, and that tiny, almost unnoticeable slivers of light were slipping through his fingers.
"No," he said, so casually it was nauseating. His crooked smirk still in place, he loosened his fist a fraction. Instantly, as if acting on a reflex, I looked up at the sky, where the slightest twinge of a star's outline had broken the gaping hole where the Wizard's Staff had been. Then it was gone again. As if fighting through knee-deep water, I struggled over to Kulwych, and was about to lunge at him and force him to do what I knew he could, when everything vanished.
I lay panting on the dock, feeling unpleasantly damp with sweat. At once I rolled over onto my back, staring at the Wizard's Staff, unable to look at it enough. I had never seen the stars look as reassuring as they did now.
The dock was still rolling and pitching, and my hair was damp with lake water from where little waves continued to slosh over the sides. It was most likely the swaying of the dock that had woken me. Slowly my eyes strayed over to Kulwych, who was curled up, asleep again. His mouth was curved in a petulant frown, and his eyes fluttered against their closed lids. I felt uneasy from how angry I was with him now; it was merely a dream, after all. Nothing to take seriously. I stubbornly pushed the thought away, staring as hard as I could at the Wizard's Staff before it vanished in the blaze of daylight, trying to feel comforted by Kulwych's words; I think I might like to come with you.