Authors: Brian Rathbone
The Seventh Magic
Book Three of The Artifacts of Power trilogy
by Brian Rathbone
Writing can influence the world long after we've departed.
--Enoch Giest, the First One
* * *
Deep within Dragonhold, signs of recent battle marred a once-beautiful cavern. The dragon sorcerer Mael rested on the lap of a god whose name even he did not know. The Herald of Istra had done him real harm, and part of him wanted to rest. While basking in the meager energy algamyte crystals gathered and soaking in amber sunlight tempted him, it would not move him toward his goal. The time had come for Mael to act. Not all things had gone as he'd planned, but in the end, everything went his way. No sorcerer controlled every outcome. Knowing how to use uncontrollable events to your fullest advantage was the trick.
Even the slightest movements brought echoes of pain. He had something extra special planned for the Herald, no matter how useful she'd proven. Few who had ever hurt him lived. Catrin Volker was historically insignificant and deserved no more of his thoughts. His plans overshadowed all other motives. Even that infernal damaged shield making his head and teeth ache could not keep Mael still.
One last time, he looked around the cavern. Fractured but not destroyed, the keystone lay broken. It was for the best, he knew, but after thousands of years, the ancient sorcerer found the strangeness unnerving. With a single reckless action, the Black Queen had damaged two of the great magics of the last age, thus weakening all the rest. He'd been a part of creating the keystones and other magics. All of them were inherently connected, even those developed in isolation. Ain's machine was built under the Black Spike surrounded by deep water, a work of genius tainted by madness. They had called it the Sixth Magic. No matter its power; it was flawed and unclean from the beginning. Mael's last accomplishment was supposed to elevate the magics above the stain of Ain's madness. It was not to be. With ferocity he banished the memory.
The change he'd wished for had come, invigorating but terrifying. Each of his favorite sleeping spots called to him. The herds he'd tended for so long, and even the fish he'd cultivated into fat, juicy morsels all enticed him to stay. Here nothing threatened; he was comfortable.
Outside, he would be exposed. This thought reinforced his plans. Vulnerability outside the hold meant not truly being safe within. In spite of his previous thought, he had to admit even novices such as Catrin Volker posed a threat. With education and experience, she might best them all. Without it, she might destroy the world. Though Mael would never reveal the extent and nature of the barrier between himself and Istra's energy to anyone, it existed. The thought of Catrin Volker in but a few years' time, constantly awash in energy, made even him shiver. Had not the need been great, she would already be dead. No matter how dangerous, she'd served him well. With nothing more than a nudge and a missed step, she'd made this moment far easier. He hadn't been looking forward to gnawing his way through the underwater stone grate blocking his escape. With his enemy's help, he was another step closer to achieving his goals.
Before slipping into the roiling waters at the waterfall's base, Mael ate a final meal of his favorites. The remaining fish did their best to escape and hide. Away from the fall, the subterranean river grew still; only a pair of draconian eyes remained visible. With what might have been a tearful blink, the sorcerer Mael closed his eyes and submerged.
* * *
Had Martik Tillerman ever seen the mighty wheel within Dragonhold from this angle, he would never have started the machine. Mael had always known this. He'd shown Trinda and the others just enough to get them to do as he needed. Von of the Elsics and the rest had been fools to think they could contain him in this prison, especially since no one stood guard. None had been a match for him, and neither was their construction. His former allies remained trapped within the Noonspire, which gave evidence of how close they had come to succeeding. Mael grinned at the memory. He had at least escaped that fate.
Here, too, stood a noonstone crystal of respectable size. Though no match for the Noonspire, it was more than adequate. Rushing water and a giant flywheel drove a massive stone cylinder and gears nearly as tall as the mountain. Though few had ever seen such mastery, Mael laughed. They had been such children. Within the gears moved algamyte crystals similar to those the stone god held. A pang of loss surprised him. He suppressed it.
This entire mechanism formed interplay, moving algamyte crystals through intersecting orbits around the noonstone core. Should those orbits ever falter . . .
Again, Mael laughed. Had this machine not existed, he would have struggled to absorb enough energy to escape cold stone. This deep within the land, energy was scarce even during the Istran Noon. In their attempts to make sure he never escaped, the fools had given him the exact thing he needed. They probably should have warned their descendants.
After relishing his victory a moment longer, the mighty dragon turned, sending his tail crashing into the stone cylinder. The first strike sent vibrations through the hold; the second, deeper in pitch. The third hit brought about all Catrin, Martik, and Trinda's fears. By the time they realized the danger, it was already too late.
They had also not known the mighty cylinder and flywheel served multiple purposes. While initially used to start the Fifth Magic moving, their secondary purpose was equally important. Once the crystals obtained orbital velocity, the reaction would drive the crystals faster. A spinning granite shaft, reinforced with metal, connected the orbital mechanism to the giant stone wheel. The massive weight regulated speed and prevented the reaction from escalating beyond control. With a final strike of his tail, Mael smashed the link into catastrophic failure. Even the mighty dragon's thick hide felt the sting of stone and metal fragments erupting from the mechanism.
Bone-chattering vibrations followed, and the huge stone cylinder bucked a single time before digging in. A mighty chasm grew with deafening resonance. It felt as if the Godfist had been torn in two. A rain of rock sent Mael looking for cover. More rock fell as he retreated, shielding his eyes with his tail. Blinding light and heat raged from the accelerating reaction, intensifying with every passing instant.
Mael dived back into the river. Rocks rained into the water as well, but at least it dampened the reverberations. The damaged shield's constant buzzing grew in volume and pitch. Even beneath the water, his head felt as if it might explode. Perhaps a few more days to recuperate might not have been so bad, the ancient sorcerer thought.
An impossible note cut even into the water just before and everything stopped and went dark. For an instant Dragonhold fell silent.
* * *
Not for the first time, Miss Mariss asked herself what she was doing. All the changes in her world and life had come with far greater responsibility than a simple innkeeper, and rarely was there time to take stock--literally or figuratively. Many a sleepless night had been spent inventorying supplies, but now the need was less. Fewer people remained within the hold, and no one to suddenly demand two weeks' rations prepared on an instant's notice. Or to leave her behind, locked within a prison set to explode in the future with nothing more than "We'll be back" to go by. She chuckled at that. Catrin was her friend and coconspirator and, in many ways, her leader, but she was infuriating at times. Still, Miss Mariss would do it all again.
None of that eased the impending sense of doom. No matter how well concealed her worry, Martik must have sensed it. Getting all the rest worked up would do her no good at all.
"I have no idea what to do now," Martik said. "I probably should have gone to the Firstland. Clearly Catrin and Pelivor didn't need my help."
"Probably doesn't change now a hair. Not one hair."
Martik just grunted.
"Don't come around here talking to me about 'probably' this or 'should have' that," Miss Mariss continued. "What are you going to do now? That's what I want to know."
Again, Martik grunted his response.
"You sound just like my grandfather. He was a grumpy old codger," she said, and Martik laughed.
do?" he asked a moment later.
It took even longer for her to respond. "Maintain order. When they return, Dragonhold will be ready and operational. That's what I aim to do."
Deep, foreboding laughter traveled through the hold, sounding far closer and louder than it had in the past. No less terrified now, Miss Mariss reconsidered her words. Martik was dumbstruck. Then the thumping started, each jolt more frightening than the last. Dragonhold trembled and shook, and it sounded as if the hold were being torn to pieces. Stone rained around them, knocking Miss Mariss down. She came to her senses while being dragged from the kitchens.
"I can walk," she gasped, hoping he would stop dragging her. Already her shoulder and hips ached.
The keep settled but Martik pulled her up and toward the great hall. "Thank the gods. I thought we might lose you."
"I'll survive." After a few steps, she added, "I think."
Mael's laughter rang through the hold once again, and both moved with increased urgency. Others flooded into the halls as well, looking for guidance or information. No one said a word but moved to assist Miss Mariss and Martik toward the great hall. She hadn't even noticed his limp until after Bradley helped him.
Heat on her back warned of more trouble. Even the great hearth did not radiate with such intensity. Ever-increasing brightness urged them on. Others gathered near the main entrance, and it was there the group ran. Visible beyond the shattered gates, the plasma barrier brightened and flared. Now constant, relentless lightning left the smell of burned stone in the air. Cowering in pools of overlapping light, Miss Mariss and the others shielded their eyes and waited. With a suddenness that stole her breath, everything stopped. Darkness was immediate, the last echoes of thunder dwindling. The keep was still, and no one dared breathe. The barrier was gone. No one knew for how long, but already people struggled with the life-or-death decision: stay or go.
"Go!" Miss Mariss screamed. "Escape the hold!" For an instant, everyone turned and looked at her instead, effectively locking her in. "The evil one is loose. Move!"
No one asked any more. An orderly but high-speed evacuation made Miss Mariss proud. Chase arrived during the commotion and directed those around him. She told herself they were prepared, that they had trained and lived through worse. She was wrong.
Dragonhold erupted like a volcano of light and smoke. The initial blast left no one standing. Ash and dust spouted from every orifice in the hold, blinding them even more effectively than the light or darkness had before.
"Crawl to the entrance," Chase commanded through his coughing fit. "Hold cloth over your mouth and eyes."
Unable to hold a cloth over her mouth and crawl at the same time, Miss Mariss held her breath and moved what she thought was toward the gates. Strong hands grabbed her. On the remains of the stair, the air was clear enough to see Chase, breathing hard. Already Martik searched for a safe way down. Miss Mariss just stood, coughed, and rubbed her eyes. More people trickled out, for which she was grateful, but a towering cloud filled with lightning reached into the sky like the finger of doom. Fire and ash rained on those below, slowly crushing all hope. Then Miss Mariss saw something that would haunt her dreams. Amid soot and ash, gleaming gold undulated. In the light of a hundred comets, lightning encased glistening scales, pulsing with rhythmic movement.
When Mael burst from the cloud, released from a prison that had held him for ages, he shone like a second sun. For the first time since he'd become a dragon, his scales bathed in comet light, shining gold and revealing his true nature. Here was a dragon like no other. Nothing stood in his way. In his triumph, Mael swooped over them, his deep baritone laughter echoing within the Pinook Valley.
They were free of the Fifth Magic but at what cost?
* * *
It had been a long time since Nat Dersinger had stood in the sacred chamber. The journeys alone took a toll on his body, but the visions he feared. Each took something from him until he'd begun to feel hollow.
"Shh." Neenya's sharp hiss brought him out of his ruminations and back to their journey. Concern softened the disapproval. Grabbing his hand, she guided him away from a paper hornet nest.
She felt guilty and when Nat was selfish about it, he allowed her partial blame. They had come on her instincts. He would just as soon have stayed within the village and lived the rest of his life without another vision. He'd done his part. Now he just wanted the world to leave him alone. Few people on Godsland could understand how he felt, Catrin Volker among them. When he was feeling cranky, he lumped a hefty portion of blame on her shoulders, even knowing she'd wanted no more to do with it than he had. Being pulled through the jungle reinforced the feeling they were but pawns in a game they scarcely understood.
Through the canopy the viewing spire appeared. They were close. The jungle did not allow the spire to be seen from many places. Even after all these years, Nat couldn't find the place on his own. This didn't worry him much since he really didn't want to go there.