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Guardian's Key

Everyone knew the dark legend of the Crystal Keep...

Of its endless hallways and infinite doors. Of the all-knowing Oracle hidden within its walls. And of the all-powerful Guardian who challenged those who dared to enter.

No one knew for sure what was truth and what was rumor, except that few people went there. And even fewer returned.

But Dara knew it was her only hope.

So begins a strange and mysterious journey of discovery, a young woman's search for her own special magic—and her own self. Behind every door awaits new worlds of possibility. And deep within every heart lies the greatest secret of all: that strength and courage have a magic all their own.

Book 1 of the Guardian's Key series

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Anne Logston

Anne Logston: An Icon of the Creative Universe—A Master of Science Fiction and Fantasy Quill—Paver of Past, Present, and Future. Each of best-selling author Anne Logston's books have their own story, but can all be described as all highly character-driven with a lot of action. Her characters, especially Shadow, often have a touch of whimsy and sly humor. While still maintaining a light touch, she talks about the consequences of racism, defining your own identity, and what happens when magic becomes mixed up in everyday lives.

"I was born February 15, 1962 in Indianapolis, Indiana and grew up there and in the country in southern Indiana. I started to write fiction as soon as I could put intelligible words on paper. I quickly learned to type so I could put intelligible and LEGIBLE words on paper. I graduated from the University of Indianapolis in 1984 with an Associate's degree in computer sciences, for which I had no talent, and a Bachelor of Arts degree in English literature, for which I had no practical use.

"After college, I spent six years masquerading by day as a bad-tempered but sane legal secretary, then coming home at night to assume my secret identity as a bad-tempered and mildly demented writer. After significant bootsole-to-buttocks encouragement from my best friend, Mary Bischoff, I reluctantly sent off my first manuscript and was blessed with a remarkably short search for a publisher. My first novel, SHADOW, saw print in 1991, and two years later I abandoned my "normal" life and descended completely into fantasy.

"I have a remarkably patient husband, Paul, who supplies the sanity in our marriage. Together we are owned by three cats, two dogs, and one snake. In my infrequent leisure time, I like to grow and/or cook strange and spicy things, and I am an avid collector of anything about vampires."


Chronological Order of the Shadow Series

Greendaughter (Prequel—Book 6)
Wild Blood (Prequel—Book 7)
Shadow (Book 1)
Shadow Hunt (Book 2)
Shadow Dance (Book 3)
Dagger's Edge (Sequel—Book 4)
Dagger's Point (Sequel—Book 5)

Reviews

5.0 out of 5 stars WOW!

What an amazing book!

I like fairy tales written for adults, and eagerly seek them out whenever I can, but sadly find that many of those I read are dull, predictable, unoriginal, pale imitations of each other. This book, however, totally shatters that mold. This is inventive, original, lively, beguiling, and utterly charming.

I thought this book had a LOT going for it. Realistic, intelligent characters, unique plot twists and settings, and surprises around every corner. The ending was perhaps a mite predictable, I'll grant you, but in a good way, and trust me, there are still many aspects to it that you definitely won't see coming. Personally, I was shocked by one of them, when what I thought was going to be a sugary metaphor turned out to be gritty reality. But I was pleased to be shocked...I like unpredictability and daring in a book. Bravo!

If this book is any indicator of Anne Logston's skill as a writer, I will definitely be reading more of her books in future. I would thoroughly recommend this book to others. It's not just a story about magic, it's a magical story!

M. A. Bechaz -- Amazon



5.0 out of 5 stars intriguing

I always loved this book and all the author's other stories. I wish she had written more books. Her characters are approachable and yet approriatley foreign. The land is just obscure enough to not be ours but yet relatable enough to makeit viable. I love her humor and her characterization.

LibKat "book goddess" -- Amazon



5.0 out of 5 stars Simply Magical!

This book is just marvelous. If you like the magical dream-like world of Patricia A. McKillip, you'll love this story. On a quest to get the thing she needs to marry her true love, Dara finds herself exploring the Crystal Keep and its hallway of endless doors to search out the Oracle's answers. The characters are brightly-painted, the Keep is dream-like, and the plot moves rapidly and enthrallingly. Different from Logston's other books, but very very good!

Amazon Reviewer


4.0 out of 5 stars

Dara is likable even if somewhat gullible, she is still intelligent, brave and has a good resolve. Her scenes with Lord Vanian are well-written and leave you eager for the next scene between the two. I like Lord Vanian's character, he has just the right mixture of arrogance, bitterness, charming appeal and is at times innocently perplexed by the opposite sex to solidify the story. All in all the book is a decent read.

T. J. -- Amazon



5.0 out of 5 stars Not just another oubliette

For anyone who has ever loved Jim Henson's Labyrinth, reading this book is a must. You'll find more parallels than there are minutes in a Labyrinthininan day. Only this time, there's no Sarah, and the girl gets the man.

shiroiichigo -- Amazon



5.0 out of 5 stars I luved this book!

Guardian's Key is one of the best books I've ever read! Anne Logston spins a wonderful yarn with a captivating mystery, a likeable heroine, and a wonderfully complex villain! If you have anything important to do, do not start this book, because once you start, you will be so caught up that you won't be able to stop! Enjoy!

Amazon Reviewer


4.0 out of 5 stars We all should find our own "oracle"

I totally enjoyed this book. This is a fun book to read. The plot is entertaining. You like the villian and admire the heroine. If you don't want to mess with the problems of the world around you, read this book.

Amazon Reviewer
Excerpt

Chapter One

“Hh!” Dara fell to the muddy ground, one of her knees slamming into the root she’d tripped over, her teeth clicking painfully closed on the tip of her tongue. Dara collapsed mutely, folding her arms around her stomach, shivering and rubbing the frayed cloth over her elbows. Tears made wet paths through the grime on her cheeks, but she did not sob. She couldn’t bear to hear her own voice echoing through the mist and finally finding its way, hollow and distorted, back to her ears. Even the sound of a crackling twig or rustling leaf beneath her own boot soles was mysteriously transformed into something sinister and directionless.

Surely, surely she must be nearly through this horrible, ghostly fog. She’d been pressing on downhill as steadily and straight as she could for what seemed like hours. It wasn’t fair, the mist had looked like such a narrow band when she’d seen it from the ridge overlooking the valley. It had made her shiver then, just looking down at the strange mist. By now Dara was struggling to choke down quiet moans of despair.

She’d felt so hopeful, too (if at the same time apprehensive), as she’d stared down into the valley at the Crystal Keep. This was a cursed place filled with unknown dangers—even the mention of it was enough to make men shiver around the hearth at night. And yet there were answers here, for those who were brave enough to ask the Oracle hidden within those crystal walls. Dara was not brave, but she had no choice.

The Crystal Keep. Journey’s end, and still only the beginning for her. Dara had heard it rumored that the Keep was black; that it was purple; that it changed color every day; that you couldn’t actually see it at all and had to walk right into it by chance; that it was guarded by a dozen dragons; that it didn’t even really exist. Likewise one could find any description of the Guardian one liked, or of the Oracle itself, or of what one could expect when the doors of the Crystal Keep opened. The commonest and worst rumor was that the place was filled with fierce and horrible demons under the Guardian’s command, all ready to eat or otherwise make away with unfortunate visitors. The only thing folk seemed to agree on about the Crystal Keep was that few dared go in, even fewer came out, and that it wasn’t really a very good place to be if one could help it.

Well, the Keep wasn’t guarded by dragons, not that Dara had been able to see from the valley rim. There were dense woods surrounding the clear crystal walls on three sides, but they were plain, wholesome-looking trees, gleaming green in the sunlight, their shade very inviting to a hot, tired wanderer. Dragons didn’t live in forests, preferring remote mountainous country, and besides, dragon territory was blighted and flamed, littered with old bones and droppings, not lush and clean as the scene below. The whole delightful view from the ridge had made the Crystal Keep seem a far less ominous place than legend would have it.

But then there was the mist, a dark and impenetrable ring of it circling the valley in a snakelike band. It looked enough like an ordinary fog, if a dense one. But no fog made so perfect and neat a barrier, starting and ending so abruptly, and no fog would survive the hot afternoon sun. No, Dara knew enough about magic to be certain that she was seeing its workings in that uncanny wall of mist.

And whatever foreboding she’d felt looking at that barrier had been nothing to stepping into the horror of it. One moment she’d been walking in warm sunlight and a fresh breeze; in the next step, the sun had disappeared as if Dara had been swallowed—no other word conveyed the sensation so accurately—by the cold, damp darkness of the fog. The world narrowed to a dimly lit circle of vision no larger than two paces ahead or behind her, a nasty dampness clung to her skin and hair and quickly soaked her, and her ears felt oddly muffled. What had promised to be a simple hike straight downhill into the valley had become a confusing, frightening struggle to make any headway at all. Unexpected stone outcroppings reared up from the earth to divert Dara from her path, drop-offs appeared without warning to force her to backtrack, and every rock, bush, or tree she stumbled over looked, in the dense gray-white cloud, like every other. Even creeping along at a snail’s pace, Dara had not seen the protruding root soon enough to avoid tripping over it, adding a bitten tongue to the pains of her hands and knees, already abraded from previous falls.

Now Dara crawled to the tree over whose root she had stumbled, pressed her back against the comforting solidity of its trunk, and pulled the stopper out of her waterskin with trembling fingers. She was wringing wet already, and her shaking hands owed as much to cold as to fear, but the very ordinariness of the gritty, iron-flavored water she’d dipped up from a muddy waterhole the day before was comforting in this frighteningly unordinary place. What she wouldn’t give to feel Cav’s hand on her shoulder and hear the familiar tones of his voice, even if all he had to say was to rebuke her for leaving.

Cav. Dara’s mind seized on his image as a drowning man might seize on the rope to pull him to safety. How Cav had argued against her making this journey, insisting that the open road, thick with brigands and other “ungentlemanly fellows,” was no place for a simple serving maid who could neither wield a weapon nor cast a spell to protect herself. But that was the point, after all, wasn’t it? Cavin might love her just as she was, but while High Lord Haranor and High Lady Alberta might possibly have borne the idea of an impoverished, magicless serving girl as their son and Heir’s casual barn-loft tumble or even his luxuriously kept mistress, there simply wasn’t a water-dragon’s chance in the desert that they’d tolerate her as his bride. They might have forgiven her not being of noble blood, but there were few reasons why a daughter of so long a line of mages could not cast the simplest spell herself, and the most likely of those reasons was a curse of some sort. A curse she might pass on to her possibly equally magicless children.

Dara froze. She had not made that faint, furtive scraping, the sound of something hard rasping against stone. Her ears strained to pick out the direction and distance of the noise, but it bounced off the fog, seeming to emanate from all around her, both distant and nearby. Clenching her teeth to stop their chattering, Dara fumbled her belt knife from its sheath and clutched it hard. Weariness and pain forgotten, Dara levered herself to her feet and, as quickly as she dared, stumbled downhill through the mist.

She heard a low rumbling sound, like the roll of distant thunder or perhaps the growl of some gargantuan beast, again seeming to come from all around her or perhaps right under her feet. Dara whimpered deep in her throat and increased her pace, stumbling and righting herself, trotting downhill as fast as she dared.

The rumbling came again, and this time Dara was certain: It was, in fact, right under the soles of her feet, as the shuddering of the ground testified. Was it an earthquake, or was there some titanic creature there preparing to surface? Oh, gods, what she’d give for Cav at her side with his sword and his grimoire, no matter how angry he’d be at her for leaving against his wishes.

The memory of Cav gave Dara’s weary legs new strength, and she took a deep breath and ran on almost recklessly now, jumping over small gullies and boulders as they materialized under her feet too quickly for her to dodge around them. There was a last thunderous rumble—surely this one came from somewhere behind her—and abruptly Dara emerged, sodden, exhausted, and chilled, into sunlight.

The sudden light was so dazzling that Dara could only stand where she was, blinking helplessly until her eyes adjusted. Her first realization was that the Crystal Keep was so close—only a short walk ahead, and nothing between her and it but grass. There was no outer wall, no moat, no other fortifications; if the keep had defenses apart from the unnerving wall of mist, they were invisible, or inside. That troubling thought, coupled with the very proximity of the fabled Crystal Keep, made Dara hesitate. It was far too late, however, to falter now. Dara shrugged and decided that least expected, least disappointed (as Lord Cavin IV, Heir to the throne of Caistran, always said, especially to her), and standing on the lawn would gain her nothing at all. And now there was the Crystal Keep ahead of her, no more than a few strides away, where all her answers lay. Dara squared her shoulders and stepped resolutely up to the door.

The walls of the Crystal Keep were indeed crystal, or as good an imitation as Dara had seen, although they were too thick to see through. The doors, however, were plain ordinary wood bound with iron, something that Dara found inexplicably comforting. These portals were closed tightly despite the midsummer heat, and there was no visible means of opening them; however, a large brass knocker in the shape of a gargoyle’s face produced an impressive booming sound when Dara boldly employed it, and presently the thick doors swung slowly open before her. Taking a deep breath to calm herself, Dara leaned her head in to look.

Despite the almost oppressive summer heat outside, the air inside the Keep was still and quite cold, neither fresh nor stale, with no hint of either dust or dampness. A diffuse, wavery light filtered in through the translucent crystal walls, giving Dara the eerie impression of being underwater. There was no one to be seen in the wide, cold entry hall; only a wooden table with a chair behind it, a plain black stone floor, a few unlit lamps in wall sconces, and the otherwise featureless crystal walls. There were no other doors, no windows, no sound except that of Dara’s still-ragged breathing.

Dara was surprised and somehow reassured by the very simplicity of the entry. It was wide, but still smaller than the entry of High Lord Haranor and High Lady Alberta’s castle, and certainly less ornate. But why would such a magical place as the Crystal Keep be so barren? Wirin and Joraleen, Dara’s father and mother, were powerful mages who commanded good fees, and even though Joraleen was only the House mage of Lord Evander, who held only a small territory, Dara’s family had been able to afford to furnish their own small holding comfortably enough that any visitor stepping through the door would feel welcome.

But then, perhaps comfort—human comfort—had no place in the Crystal Keep. And perhaps nobody who entered the Keep was, in fact, welcome.

Dara shivered and stepped inside cautiously, then nearly jumped out of her boots as the door crashed shut behind her. Panicking, Dara whirled and ran her hands over the heavy wood. There was no lever or latch, no apparent means to open the door from within, only a keyhole framed in what appeared to be gold. Was this all some monumental trap? Was there perhaps a secret door concealed somewhere about? Dara pressed and pried at the wall around the door and the door frame itself, hoping to trigger some mechanism—

“Well, what is it?” an irritable voice demanded.

And turning around, she saw him at last.

She hadn’t expected the Guardian of the Oracle to be so young; he seemed scarcely older than herself, although his eyes...well, his eyes knew something old. His long, wispy hair was black as a raven’s feathers, with the same bluish sheen, and his clothes were of silk as dark, and his black leather boots were supple and shiny. His skin was pale, and his eyes were ebony like the night sky with no stars to light it. His features were so fine and sharp as to seem carved from crystal themselves, giving him an ethereal, sexless cast, rather like what Dara had heard of elves, but that delicate grace seemed at odds with the cold iron looking out of those old, old eyes.

When he spoke, his voice was as old and cold as his eyes, remote and empty as the featureless hall in which they stood.

“Name yourself and state your purpose here.”

Looking at his rich and immaculate clothing, Dara was even more conscious of the road dust staining her patched, sodden trousers and tunic, the grime streaking her skin, the stray wisps of dirty brown hair pulling out of her lank and neglected braid.

“My lord, I’m—I’m Dara,” she said, forcing the words out of a throat gone suddenly dry. “I’m a mage—I mean, I should have been a mage; I was born to a long line of mages. Actually I’m just a serving girl at High Lord—” She stopped, suddenly realizing she was babbling like a mist-witted fool. She squared her shoulders and looked the Guardian in the eyes. “I’ve come to ask the Oracle for my magic so I can marry the man I love.”

“That isn’t a question,” the Guardian of the Oracle said contemptuously. “It’s a wish. The Oracle doesn’t grant wishes.”

Dara’s heart sank. “But I—”

“The Oracle only answers questions,” the Guardian said scornfully. “Weren’t you told that?”

Dara was silent for a long moment. She’d heard rumors of a few who’d reached the Crystal Keep and been granted their heart’s desire. But maybe their heart’s desire had been the answer to a question. Maybe if she knew how she might make her magic work, even if it meant a quest across all the kingdoms—

“The Oracle only answers questions,” the Guardian repeated, lightly polishing his nails against the silk of his tunic and inspecting them critically. “But I can grant a wish. One wish. And you’ve made two wishes: a wish for magical ability, and a wish to marry a man.”

Dara swallowed hard.

“Then I can’t have both?”

The Guardian smiled, a smile as cold as his eyes.

“You’re lucky to be granted one wish, and you’re ungrateful enough to complain because you can’t have two? Choose.”

Dara shivered involuntarily at that smile and struggled to pull her thoughts into some kind of order. She didn’t really want to wish to marry Cav; that seemed somehow like cheating. She’d never asked that anything be simply given to her in her life, not since the night nearly five years ago when she’d quietly crept away from her parents’ holding to make her own way in the world. If she gained Cav through a wish, maybe she’d wonder for the rest of her life if Cav really loved her, really would have married her on his own. But would wishing for her magic make Cav marry her for certain? She remembered uneasily the way they’d argued before she left.

“Then I wish,” she said deliberately, “for whatever I need to win the man I love.”

The Guardian was silent for a moment, staring at her with something very like amazement. Then to Dara’s surprise, he threw back his head and laughed rather bitterly. That laugh banished the last of Dara’s fear; nobody would laugh at her!

“You wanted to know my wish,” she said stiffly. “I made it. Or is that too much for the legendary power of the Guardian of the Oracle?”

The Guardian stopped laughing and gazed at her rather sharply. Dara fought the urge to shiver again; he seemed to enjoy her unease altogether too much.

“That’s a large wish,” the Guardian said lazily. He leaned back against the table Dara had seen. “What will you give me for it?”

“Give you?” Dara asked, surprised and dismayed. Nobody had ever said anything about a price. Why, wasn’t leaving Cav and her place in the High Lord and Lady’s household, journeying for leagues and leagues in search of the Crystal Keep, and making her way through the horrible mist wall price enough? And what else did she have to give? She’d been poor to begin with; after the necessary costs of her travel to the Crystal Keep, she had scarcely three Suns left in her purse, maybe enough to get her home, maybe not.

The Guardian settled himself more comfortably on the edge of the table, looking bored.

“Nothing comes without price; that’s the rule of the Crystal Keep, a rule that was carved in the stones of this place long before I came. For value given there must be value received. Surely a humble serving wench has learned that lesson, at least. What is your wish worth?”

“Why...I don’t know,” Dara said confusedly. How could one put a price on another person, or on love? “What do you want?”

The Guardian laughed again, coldly.

“How simple you are. You have no idea what you want, or even what value you place on it.” Abruptly he rose from his perch and walked over to her. Dara forced herself to stand her ground, not flinching as he tilted her chin up, his grip uncomfortably strong, forcing her eyes to meet his. His hand was not cold as she’d expected; neither was it warm. Something in his touch, however, made her shiver again.

“You have,” the Guardian said at last, “most interesting eyes.” Just as abruptly, he let go of her face and returned to his seat, some indefinable expression crossing his face.

“Turn about,” he said, “and reach into the basin of the fountain behind you, and draw out what you find there.”

Dara turned around, then suppressed a cry of amazement. Where there had been only empty hall was now a sparkling crystal fountain that seemed to glow with a cool blue light of its own; bright water cascaded down into a pool at the base. Dara peered into the basin; the water was clear, but she could see nothing there except the water itself.

“But there’s nothing in it,” Dara protested, turning back to the Guardian.

“Do as you’re told.”

Hesitantly, Dara reached into the water, which was pleasantly cool but not cold. Her fingers touched the bottom of the basin, then abruptly encountered a small, hard object. She withdrew her hand and found her fingers clasping a golden key, surprisingly heavy for its small size.

“That is the key,” the Guardian told her in a bored tone, “which opens the doors of my keep. Somewhere in the Keep you may or may not find the Oracle. Find it, and ask it the price of your wish. Return and pay me that price, and the wish is yours. Or you may use that key to leave, whichever you like; it will fit the keyhole in the door by which you entered. Having left, you will soon forget all you’ve seen here and will never be allowed to pass the doors of the Keep again; having lost the key, you may never leave. Do you understand?”

How many had come into this keep and never left? Was her magic really worth her life? But...Cav. Dara nodded and clutched the key tightly.

“I would advise you,” the Guardian said with a grim smile, “not to tarry long about your task, or you may well regret it. That advice costs you nothing; you’ll find naught else within for such a price.

“Well, go on if you will,” he added impatiently, gesturing absently at one wall. To Dara’s amazement, a large oaken door had appeared where only solid crystal had been before. Before her courage could fail her, Dara stepped to the door. Strangely, there were two keyholes, not one, but the upper keyhole was far too small for the key in her hand. Dara shrugged and tried the golden key in the lower lock.

The key fit perfectly. She turned it, and the door started to open, but Dara gripped the edge, halting its motion, and looked back over her shoulder.

“My lord—”

But the room was utterly empty, save for the table, the chair, and the sparkling fountain.

Dara sighed and opened the door.