Excerpt for Why Dragons Hide (The Arclight Saga, Book 0) by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

 

 

 

WHY

DRAGONS

HIDE

 

 

An Arclight Novella

 

________________

 

 

CAMERON HAYDEN


 


 

 

 

 

 

Copyright © 2017 by C.M. Hayden.

All rights reserved.

 

 

 

All characters and events in this book are fictitious.

All resemblance to persons living or dead is coincidental.

 

 

 

The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book via the Internet or any other means without the permission of the author is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated. 


www.arclightsaga.com

First Printing, December 2017


 


Contents

 

Chapter

- 1 - 1

- 2 - 3

- 3 - 14

- 4 - 25

- 5 - 35

- 6 - 40

- 7 - 52

- 8 - 61

- 9 - 70

- 10 - 79

- 11 - 85

- 12 - 96

- 13 - 101

- 14 - 111

- 15 - 118

- 16 - 122

- 17 - 131

- 18 - 136

- 19 - 143



 


 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Works by C.M. Hayden:

 

Why Dragons Hide (The Arclight Saga, Book 0)

The Reach Between Worlds (The Arclight Saga, Book 1)

The Stars That Form Us (The Arclight Saga, Book 2)

All the Gods Below (The Arclight Saga, Book 3)

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Acknowledgements

 

I’d like to give a special thanks to my Patreon supporters, especially Sean Michael Alcock and Derek Morgan. To Christopher Piszár, who was my first reader during our days at the University of Detroit Mercy. To Rai Enril and his team at ClickArt Studios for the fantastic artwork they do. To my beta readers, Natasha Hodges, Shelby Cosby, and Cody Bohanan. To my proofreader, Helen Burroughs, for her hard work and sharp eyes.

 

And a very special thanks to the many thousands of readers who’ve been following the series. This book, and the many books to come, are for you.

 

 

 

 


Author’s Foreword

 

This novella takes place a while before the events of The Reach Between Worlds, the first book of the Arclight Saga. If you’re new to the series, this isn’t a bad place to start, but I have to caution you: this is a weird book and is shorter than a regular novel. If that’s not your cup of tea, or you’ve got a light stomach, you might want to turn away now. I won’t be offended.

This is a story I’ve wanted to write for some time, told from the point of view of a character that I love, but who sometimes gets a bad reputation (perhaps deservedly so) for her treatment of Taro.

One thing you’re likely to notice is that this novella is told in a first-person point of view, with an epistolary style, rather than my normal third-person point of view.

If you enjoy it—and I certainly hope you do—don’t worry, many of the characters in this novella will appear in future Arclight novels.

Please consider leaving an Amazon and/or Goodreads review after you have finished the book. As an indie author, reviews help me more than you can know.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From the deepest fathoms of the void, the great reach between worlds, Nuruthil called. His seething malice bubbled forth and from the darkness crept his dread-lieutenants: Isaroth, Suborgath, Cthurihl, and Sith-Narosa, eager to fulfill his dark design.”

-Syseril, page 104

 

 

 

 

 

 


- 1 -

Not Quite Human

 

Dear Uncle Cassin,

 

From the moment I met him, I knew there was something different about Kurian. At first, I thought it was his happy-go-lucky demeanor. Even amongst the eclectic blend of personalities at the Magisterium, he stood out. Always bright-eyed, always jumping through the hallways like an acrobat with a wide, sly smile on his face.

Kurian never seemed to take much of anything seriously. Not our lessons, not our workshops, and certainly not our instructors. But even before he and I became friends, I’d heard of his skill with templary. While the rest of his recruit year were taking basic courses, barely drudging along, he was getting private tutoring from high-ranking magisters.

Besides his magical affinity, there were physical differences, too. If you were patient enough to catch him while he wasn’t jumping around, and the light caught him at just the right angle, you’d notice there was something not quite human about his eyes: the insides were yellow. A hard, unnatural yellow that seemed to reflect the ambient light around him. They reminded me so much of a dragon’s eyes that I began to wonder if the stories milling about the Magisterium were true; maybe he really was the great grandson of some wandering dragon lord.

Sometimes, I look back on those days and wish I’d left well enough alone. I’d like to say I couldn’t help myself, but that wouldn’t be the truth. Maybe if I’d left him alone, my friends would still be alive.

I’m not sure if I can bear to stay at the Magisterium anymore. This place that once filled me with such joy now reminds me only of the friends I’ve lost. I can see the judgement in my instructors faces. I can hear the accusing whispers of my classmates. I’m not sure if it will ever end, and despite my best efforts to explain it to him, Father doesn’t seem to understand just how much it gnaws at me.

Even as far away as you are, Uncle, I’m sure you’ve heard bits and pieces of what happened. But nobody but me knows the real story. Not entirely.

These letters are my confession.  If I don’t tell someone, I fear I’ll go stark mad.

 

I hope the courier finds you well.

 

With Love,

Kyra


- 2 -

Ghostwood

 

It started two months ago, just on the eve of midsummer. Being in the Magisterium meant a lot of traveling, especially in the warmer months.

It was around this time that Magister Briggs said he wanted his artificers to have a more ‘rounded’ view of the world, and he encouraged us to get more field work. He moved our combat training to just one session a month, and instead he had us gallivanting around Arkos, poking through musty dig sites, searching for ancient artifacts left by the Old Gods.

The work wasn’t especially tedious, but I hated being away from the Magisterium for weeks at a time. I had projects to finish, gears to inscribe, machinery to test and, after a short while, brushing off clay pots became more than a little monotonous. The one saving grace was seeing the many different towns and cities scattered throughout Endra.

In some of the more out-of-the-way villages, they treated us like gods. It’s easy to forget that most people outside of Endra Edûn go their whole lives without seeing even a hint of magic. Having groups of young magisters-in-training flood into their towns had to be overwhelming. Nevertheless, wherever we went, we were treated exceptionally well. Free drinks, free food, and plenty of polite passes from gentlemen who were either very drunk or very brave (which, being the lady I am, I politely declined).

Last summer, Kurian and I were sipping some of our free drinks in an upscale tavern in Dorwick. The teams for our Magister’s Trial had already been assigned, and we’d been trying to get to know the other two on our team: a blonde-haired Helian girl named Kadia, who was friendly enough, and a cantankerous little shit by the name of Fenn.

We were short on time, but we had been caught up listening to an old gaffer’s story as he sipped from a tall, frothy tankard. His wrinkled skin was covered in tattoos of scantily clad women, and his muscles were such that he looked as though he’d once been quite well-built in his youth. Even in his later years, he looked like someone you wouldn’t want to mess with.

The tavern had gone quiet, listening to his story, and he spoke with the unwavering certainty of a man that was thoroughly drunk.

“I’m tellin’ you, I saw it!” he said indignantly, some of his beer splashing out of his tankard. “Eyes like the Devil, it had. Long fingers, and when its eyes met mine, the air went cold. The water on the lake turned to ice, and the leaves on the trees started to wilt.”

“There ain’t no such thing as undead, y’old codger,” a man said, laughing so hard that it became a gurgle. “Something’s either dead, or it’s alive, Pern. You were cracked, then; you’re cracked, now.”

“I tell you, I saw it with my own two eyes,” Pern said. “Not only that, I felt it.” He tapped his chest, just over his heart. “Felt like all the color in the world drained away. It stood by one of the Ghostwood trees, not moving. Just standing, like it was asleep. But its eyes were open and glarin’ like I was starin’ into the pits of Hell.” He ran his hand alongside his face. “The flesh was rotted, maggots down to the open breastbone.”

I leaned in as Pern told his story, trying to get a better seat but not wanting to leave our table. When I did, Fenn pushed his knuckle against my back.

“C’mon,” he whined. “The airship’s going to leave without us.”

I shrugged him off. “Just one more second.”

Old Man Pern finished off his tankard in one enormous gulp and wiped his beard with his already wet sleeve. He was beginning to tilt, involuntarily, and his speech slurred. Still, his eyes were distant and serious, as if he were trying to bring forward some long-forgotten memories.

He looked up. “Our eyes met across the clearing and, for a moment, I thought maybe it hadn’t seen me. Then, it moved. You’d think that with half its muscles rotted and the bones fallin’ apart, it would just shamble along.” He shook his head and gave a disgusted look. “But no, whatever dark magic bound that sack of flesh and worms together gave it speed. The clearing was a half-mile across, but I swear it was an arms-length away from me in seconds.”

The burly men surrounding Pern now looked almost like schoolboys, waiting with bated breath to hear more.

“I ran,” Pern said with a shiver. “Oh, gods below, I ran like I ain’t never ran before. I ran ’til my lungs felt like they’d explode. Knocked one of my shoes off on a sharp rock, but didn’t stop for what felt like miles. Finally, I came to rest by the riverside, thinkin’ I was safe. My throat burned, and I knelt to get a drink. I heard a rustle in the trees. I turned, and saw—”

I was listening intently, turned fully toward the old storyteller. Pern noticed this and stopped his story, momentarily.

“Y’know, you don’t have to sit way over there. There’s a seat.” He pointed to a spot on a bench beside him. “You’re one of them magisters, ain’t ye?” He patted the seat with the palm of his hand.

“Training to be one,” I said, not moving.

“We don’t get many travelers from up north these days, let alone magic-folk. How’s the—”

 “Wait,” one of the men said, slamming his drink down. “What about the geist? What happened? You can’t just stop in the middle of a story.”

Pern hiccupped. “I thought you didn’t believe me?”

The man gave him a look of profound annoyance. “That’s got nothing to do with it. I don’t believe in mermaids or faeries either, but when I’m halfway through I story, I want to hear the God-damned ending.”

Pern wobbled in a drunken stupor. “Which part was I on?”

“You were kneeling by the river,” I said gently.

Before Pern could continue, the door on the far end of the tavern opened and sunlight flooded into the dark room. Magister Ross stood, partially silhouetted in the doorframe, her arms crossed over her chest, and her eyes glaring furiously at us. She motioned for us to leave, and we did so, apologizing to Pern for the disruption.

Kurian was the last to exit the tavern. He stretched his arms behind his head and cracked his neck. His eyes fluttered a bit as they adjusted to the light. “Oi, Amy,” he said flippantly. Amelia was Magister Ross’ first name. “Must’ve lost track of the time.”

Ross’ eyes bore into him in a way that would’ve made me shrink. “Magister,” she corrected. “Magister Ross. And if you ever want to be a magister yourself, I’d suggest you learn to follow orders. Briggs has been waiting at the Eventide for almost an hour.”

“We’re sorry,” Fenn said, shoving Kurian before he could dig us into a deeper hole.

“I’m sure you are,” Ross said. “I trust you four can find your way to the airship without my escort?”

“Yes, magister,” I said.

Ross pulled a silver pocket watch out of her uniform and checked the time. When she looked up, she adjusted her spectacles and her eyes narrowed. “Fifteen minutes. If you’re not aboard by then, enjoy the thousand-mile walk back.”

She left without another word.

Fenn tried to shove Kurian again; but Kurian moved gracefully out of the way, and Fenn fell forward into the muddy road.

“Can you please, please, please stop trying to sabotage our trial before it even begins, you blithering idiot?” Fenn barked, standing and wiping dirt off his blue artificer uniform.

Kurian shrugged easily. “The old bat doesn’t decide whether we’re magisters or not. Imperator Briggs does.”

“You’re an idiot if you think she can’t make our lives a living hell,” Fenn said.

I put a hand on Kurian’s shoulder. “He’s right, you know. You’ve got to pick your battles. We’re not recruits anymore. We need to exercise some…where are you going?”

Kurian sauntered off in the opposite direction of the Eventide. “Whatever you say, princess.”

I stood there, dumbfounded by his comment. I ran to catch up with him, but Kadia and Fenn didn’t follow. Despite his casualness, Kurian moved like a lightning bolt through the crowded streets of Dorwick. People passed like river water, punctuated by the occasional mounted horseman or merchant wagon.

The midsummer festival was a week away, but already the town was decorated for the occasion. Bright buttresses of orange and blue lined the buildings, and wires tied between buildings stretched overhead, bearing the many sigils of the Old Gods on long, triangular flags. Midsummer was the best time for fresh fruits and vegetables, and produce carts packed the sides of the road.

When I finally caught up with Kurian, I was panting like a dog. He, on the other hand, seemed perfectly fine. He glanced back at me and grinned like a wolf.

“You’re getting quicker,” he said.

“We need to get to the airship,” I said. “They’re going to leave without us.”

Kurian scoffed. “They’re going to leave the Sun King’s daughter thousands of miles from home?”

I fumbled over my words. “I’m not…”

Jutting out from the side of a crumbling launderer’s building were wooden poles connected to roofing tiles. Kurian jumped a full four feet off the ground and grabbed one, swung to the next, then swung to the next as casually as if he were strolling through a garden. He whistled, occasionally looking back at me as I struggled to keep up. When he finally landed, he gave me a moment to reach him.

“Go ahead,” he said. “Let’s hear the denial. Are you saying you’re not Princess Kyra Termane?”

I gave him an incredulous look. “How long have you known?”

Kurian scratched his forehead. “Eh, a few months. Why go around pretending to be a commoner?”

I started off speaking much too loudly and slowly lowered my voice to a more reasonable level. “I don’t want to be treated differently because of my father, okay?”

Kurian nodded. “I guess I can respect that.” He started again in the wrong direction. “Can’t change who we are though, can we?”

I continued to follow. “Where are you going?”

“I want to show you something. It’s not far. I promise it’ll be worth your time.” He winked at me. “But I’ll understand if you want to head back to the ship, princess. I wouldn’t want you to get in trouble.”

I fumed a bit, but continued with him. He stopped running ahead and, instead, walked beside me. We walked for several minutes until we left the town proper. Circled around Dorwick were wide, sloping hills that covered the landscape all the way from mountains to the north and south. There were a great many boulders and jagged rocks strewn about, and ten thousand trees scattered like an ocean of green as far as the eye could see.

Kurian and I ran into a patch of woodland. The ground was uneven and cluttered with twigs, leaves, and varieties of small life creeping and crawling through a tangle of overturned branches and rotting logs.

I could tell he was trying not to get too far ahead, though he continued to jump and hang from branches in a way that made me dizzy. At first, I thought he was showing off; but the more I watched him, the more I realized that this was as natural to him as breathing. He would’ve been doing it whether I was there or not.

It wasn’t long before I heard a faint sound on the air. It followed a swift, cool breeze that made me shiver. It wasn’t particularly cold; but when contrasted to the hot, oppressive heat of midsummer, it was noticeably chill.

He stopped over the edge of a gulch. There was water at the bottom, little more than a rivulet, but it cut through a small base filled with strange trees. From a distance, the trees appeared to be tinged white. Not just the leaves, but the wood of the branches and trunks as well.

Kurian climbed down the edge of the rocks effortlessly, almost gliding. I had considerably more trouble, but he caught me just as I lost my footing.

As we approached the rows of white trees, I could see that they weren’t just a strange color, they were slightly see-through, like looking through foggy glass. I touched one, and the bark felt smooth and polished like a marble. The roots of the trees dug into jagged crystals sticking up from the earth, and these crystals glowed with a rainbow of strange colors.

When the wind moved through the gulch and touched the trees, I heard the most amazing thing: a soft, subtle song ringing through the air. It was like a melody, quiet at first, but growing louder the longer we were there.

“I couldn’t come all this way and not stop by the Singing Gulch,” Kurian said, sitting on one of the large crystals. He seemed to anticipate my next questions, and motioned me to sit beside him. “There’s something special in ghostwood trees that cause them to soak up minerals from the ground. Over the years, they take on the structure of whatever material they soak up. In this case, these crystals. There’s something about the angle of the gulch that causes the wind to whistle as it passes through. Hence, the Singing Gulch.”

I sat, and for a long moment just listened to the faint song drifting through the air. It was like a thousand small voices, speaking in some foreign language. I listened, trying in vain to single out one of the ‘voices’ in the trees.

A moment passed, and I noticed that Kurian was staring at me with a smile. “Worth it?” he asked.

I looked around at the colors and nodded. “Yeah.”

Kurian settled into his seat, stretched, and removed a half-harp from his pack. He plucked one of the strings, tightened, and plucked again. Then he sang, long and sweet. It was as if he and the wind were singing together.

I wish I could tell you the words he sang, but I can only remember how they felt. They felt the way sunlight feels after a long summer storm, just as the rainclouds move on. I imagine him singing about something so beautiful that words can’t do it justice. I imagine him singing about love, and loss, and joy, and everything that spills out of your heart in the late hours of night.

But, thinking back, all I can remember is the sound of the trees.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



- 3 -

Dragon Eyes

 

A week later, I was back where I’ve always felt most at home: the Artificium; the deep, inner maze of workshops that spanned several floors in the Magisterium. Nature’s great, no doubt, but I’m a gearhead at heart.

There’s something about the hiss of steam rising from grates, the smell of oil and gasoline, the clinking of a hundred tools chipping and banging away at a thousand projects that I find enthralling. Not to mention the heat coming from the many furnaces and kilns.

Many people don’t know that, while the Magisterium is a branch of the Endran military, most of its funding actually comes from artificing works sold abroad. Weapons are strictly under the control of the kingdom, but items like lamps, heating pillars, clocks, and other small magics are widely sold.

Of course, the Artificium is just one of many, many different levels of the Magisterium tower, but it was my level. It was where I thrived.

I received no great punishment for holding up the Eventide in Dorwick. Honestly, that bothered me. While most of the other recruits and artificers didn’t know I was the Sun King’s daughter, many of the instructors did. I wanted to become a magister based on my own skill and merit, not because of my family’s name. I didn’t want special treatment. But what could I do? Insist that I be punished? I tried not to think about it.

I’d been in the Magisterium for three years at this point and had already risen to the highest rank of artificer. The road to becoming a magister was not an easy one. While the lower trials were brutal, the trial to become a magister was on another level, entirely.

But I was determined. My final trial was only a week away. Not so long, you might say; but if you’ve ever waited for a life-changing event before, you know how those last few days drag. I tried to busy myself with prep work. Perhaps I could’ve been brushing up on my survival skills. Perhaps I could’ve been checking and re-checking my Class B inscriptions. Perhaps I could’ve checked out more material in the Librarium.

My sponsor, Magister Briego, advised against it.

Briego was the head of Artificing, and many of his peers considered him a bit scatterbrained, but I saw through it all. Behind his burned face and thick accent, he had a keen, analytical mind.

I’d been given a workshop and desk on the second level of the Artificium, overlooking an airship fuselage. It was out of the way, which I liked. With the exception of Magister Briego, the head of the artificing department, nobody came by too often.

“You shouldn’t be here,” Briego said, watching me finish the fine detail on a set of flash grenades I’d designed for the final trial. Technically speaking, they were already done. I was just using them as an excuse to keep my hands busy.

I looked up from the soldering iron I was working with and took my hand off the runes powering it. The iron went cool, and I pulled my goggles onto my forehead. “I need something to occupy my time, or I’ll go mad,” I said to him. “Besides, I want to make sure these work properly.”

Briego shook his head. “You’ve tested them twice already. They’re done, Kyra. You should be using this time to acquaint yourself more closely with your trial group.”

I sat my soldering iron aside and wiped my hands in a nearby washbasin. “I’d like to think I know them pretty well. They’re all competent artificers. Kadia and her sister, Vexis, are pretty famous in the alchemy department.”

Magister Briego held up a finger. “Not like that. I mean on a personal level.”

“What does that have to do with surviving my trial?” I asked, a hard edge creeping into my voice.

“Everything. Being a magister is not only about artificing or combat. A magister is meant to work with a group, not by their lonesome. This is why trials are always done in teams, never individually. Spend some time with your team. I’ve heard Kadia is an exceptionally gifted young alchemist. And Fenn…what he lacks in grace, he makes up for in book-smarts.”

I rubbed my temples and sighed. “Do I have to?”

Briego gave a serious look. “I insist. The Artificium will still be here when you return.”

Begrudgingly, I set my tools aside, knowing that it was pointless to argue once Briego made up his mind. I didn’t know much about my teammate’s schedules, though I knew Kurian spent a large amount of his time in the Conservatorium. I decided to start there.

The Conservatorium, more commonly called “the Cons,” was a miracle of artificing. In truth, it was only a moderately sized room covered in complex runes; but through special magistry, the inside of the room appeared as though it were a lush forest, stretching for miles in every direction.

Even after years at the Magisterium, the Conservatorium never ceased to amaze me. I walked in to the fresh smell of trees and grass; it was as if I were stepping into another world. In the distance were mountains and valleys, rolling hills and waterfalls. They weren’t simply illusions, if you walked far enough you could get to them.

The chamber could replicate any environment required, and it was here that the master of herblore, Antherion, grew special plants that were used in magistry inscriptions.

When I entered, the door disappeared behind me, and I followed the footpath through the trees. Each was so high that it formed a large canopy above, letting only sporadic, orange-speckled light reach the ground.

The clearing at the end of the footpath was a few acres wide, and in the middle was tilled earth set in even rows. Long green stalks sprouted from the soft earth, and there were piles of shovels, gloves, and other tools nearby. However, Kurian was nowhere to be found. In fact, the place appeared deserted—even Antherion was gone.

Just as I was going to give up and look for Kadia, I heard the familiar flutter of harp strings. The quick notes danced in the air, accompanied by Kurian’s powerful singing voice. I followed the notes, through a veil of brush and mist, and found Kurian sitting on an old tree stump, strumming on his wooden half-harp. His eyes were closed, and he seemed to be playing it all from sheer muscle memory:

 

The war has ended for the bard,

as all the world betrays him.

The grace of song and fluttering harp,

saves not the sting of ages.

 

The bard fell by the warder’s blade,

and his soul could not be saved.

The harp he loved never spoke again,

and his young heart fell to ashes.

 

 

The tree line on the opposite end ruffled, and from it Antherion appeared. He must’ve been there for some time, as I never heard any footfalls.

Antherion was a dragon. The only dragon in Endra, and the only dragon commonly known to associate with humans. Like all dragons, he had two forms which he could shift between, depending on the circumstances: a full dragon form, and a vaguely human form that he rarely used.

He was in his dragon form now and was positively enormous. Several stories tall, with a wingspan as long as his body from nose to tail. His scales were smooth and silvery, and he had graceful amber eyes that shined like lanterns in the morning mist.

Kurian stopped singing and lowered his harp as Antherion moved closer to where he sat. The great dragon slumped onto his front claws and huffed so hard that it ruffled Kurian’s messy black hair.

They sat in silence for a long while. Antherion eventually spoke first.

“So, no explanation, then?” the dragon said. “No defense?”

“I’ve got nothing to defend,” Kurian said simply. He went back to tuning his strings.

“Magister Ross doesn’t agree,” Antherion said.

“She’s a spiteful woman.”

Antherion folded his wings behind him like a canopy and shook off some of the leaves that had fallen onto his back. “Do you want to be a magister or not?”

Kurian hesitated, seeming to repress some hard words. “I want…I want to be a part of something, with my kind. But I don’t need her to do it.”

“You’d do well to mind your place. These humans are remarkably good at remembering slights. Don’t sabotage yourself.”

The bed of branches I stood on cracked as I took a step forward. Antherion turned his head toward me; but I ducked just in time, and he shrugged it off.

Kurian strummed his harp again. “I’ll pass the trial.”

“You’re so sure?” Antherion said.

Kurian seemed momentarily distant. “There’s no Hell they can put me through that I haven’t already endured.”

Antherion’s voice softened, as if he were talking to a small child. “You still have a choice, my boy. You can return to Castiana and forget this business. Nobody will think less of you. I’ve received word from Sivion. She’s willing to forgive—”

Kurian set his harp down forcefully. “I don’t belong with them. These are my people. I need to get used to that fact. If I’m going to be a magister, I might as well be the most powerful one around. I imagine the trial will be little more than a formality.”

Antherion sighed. “You’ve got it all backwards.” He stretched out his wings, extended his neck, and all at once his body was enveloped by light. It shrank, and morphed into his human form. His wings remained, tucked neatly behind him, and his piercing dragon-eyes remained.

He cracked his neck and motioned to Kurian. “Follow me.”

They walked through the twigs and mist, leaves crunching underfoot. I followed as closely as I could, without being spotted. Antherion spoke as they moved toward the clearing I’d passed through earlier.

“By human standards, you’re powerful. There’s no doubt about that,” Antherion said. “But there’s more to being a magister than brute force. What was the last project you completed in the Magisterium?”

Kurian spoke quickly. “Fenn and I built a rotary motor with—”

“I mean by yourself.”

Kurian scratched his cheek. “Well, I’ve finished all the required workshops. And my sponsor is Magister Sullen; he doesn’t require any magistry projects.”

Antherion stopped, and leaned his hand against an oak tree. With the other hand, he wagged a long, sharp claw at Kurian. “That’s the problem. You’re attempting to force through, and it’s not going to end well. Not to be rude, but you’re approaching it in a very dragon-esque way.”

“Thank you?” Kurian said dubiously.

“It wasn’t a compliment.” Antherion sighed again, and set his hand on Kurian’s shoulder as they continued. They reached the tilled earth, and Antherion slipped on a set of gardening gloves and motioned for Kurian to bring him a spade, which he did.

Kurian seemed ready to bolt, but Antherion pushed on with his lecture regardless.

“There’s a reason I left the dragonkin to be here. Our kind are stagnant, Kurian. When was the last time a dragon created anything?” Antherion began to dig a series of holes in the soil, periodically dropping a large flower bulb into them. “The others think we’re the pinnacle of civilization, the Old Gods’ perfect creation. But I’ve seen differently. In their own meager way, the Magisterium is trying to add to the order of the universe, much like we were charged to do long ago. Magisters create. If all you can do is destroy, you will fail. Consider taking another term or two before attempting the trial.”

Kurian slapped Antherion on the back of the shoulder. “I’ll prove you wrong, Uncle. Just watch.” He started for the exit; as he did, he shouted back to Antherion, who was still working the soil. “And you don’t have to remind me about the failings of the dragonkin. Believe me, nobody knows them better than me.”

Uncle Cassin, if this is to be a true account, then I have to mention my sheer stupidity at this point. If I’d had half a wit, I would’ve quietly slipped out unnoticed, and left Kurian to his privacy. That was the smart thing to do. That was the safe thing to do. That was the right thing to do. But, sometimes my mouth doesn’t listen to my brain.

Instead of discreetness, I stood beside the exit to the Conservatorium with a smug, shit-eating grin that would’ve made you sick to your stomach.

In the years that I’d known him, this was the first time I have ever seen Kurian truly surprised. He seemed to notice the expression on my face (though, in truth, it was hard to miss), and didn’t bother asking whether I’d heard their conversation.

Kurian visibly cycled through a whole wheel of emotions before settling on a smile. He walked past me, matching my grin perfectly.

“Sneaking around’s not very princess-like behavior, is it?” he said. A sinister undertone belied the comment. He stepped out of the Conservatorium and onto the hard stone and metal walkways of the Magisterium tower. I followed him out.

“That supposed to be a threat?” I said, keeping pace with him.

Kurian feigned ignorance. “Me, threaten you? Perish the thought.”

I ignored the veiled threat. “You’re a dragon?” I blurted out.

Kurian winced, as if I’d just prodded him in the ribs. “No, I’m not. That’s rather the point, isn’t it?”

It was the first time I’d ever seen Kurian look legitimately distressed. His normally bright eyes seemed several shades darker, and I could see his muscles clenching; in that moment I could see how angry he really was. Looking back, I don’t think he was upset about the eavesdropping, per se; but rather because, despite his seemingly outgoing personality, he always played his past and emotions close to his chest. Having someone know something so personal about him must’ve been very unsettling.

I stood, slightly dumfounded. My fingers went to the hem of my uniform, almost like a nervous tick. “But you and Antherion—”

“I said I’m not,” he said, looking down at the grass.

“You don’t have to worry about me,” I said, trying to sound as comforting as possible. “I won’t tell anyone, I promise. If you need someone to talk to, I’m—”

Kurian started for the door, turning his head as if to hide tears. “Why don’t you just mind your own damned business.”

My hand briefly grabbed his shoulder as he walked past, but he didn’t slow down.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

- 4 -

The Magisterium

 

After the incident in the Conservatorium, it was a long while before I saw Kurian again, but not from lack of trying. He didn’t show up to our joint magistry lessons the next day, nor the day after. In a fit of stalkerishness I’m not proud of, I made some descreet inqueries as to his whereabouts. His bunkmates on the ninth-floor barracks hadn’t seen him, nor had his sponsor, Magister Sullen. I briefly considered asking Antherion; but I decided against it for the time being.

As I was essentially barred from the Artificium, I had little else to do other than play the dutiful detective.

What I learned was that while he had many acquaintances, he had few friends. What I mean is that most everyone knew him, and most everyone liked him, yet nobody could answer anything but the most basic questions. He might as well have been a ghost.

“What the hell did you say to chase him off?” Fenn was poking at his mincemeat pie with a metal spork, briefly looking up to give me a weathered glare.

We were in the mess hall, eating—my entire team, minus Kurian. With him AWOL, and only a few days left before our final trial, I resolved to get to know Fenn and Kadia a bit more. I’d told them that Kurian had run off, but left out most of the key details.

I grimaced at my plate and shoved it aside, untouched. “I was just trying to get to know him better.”

“Well,” Fenn said, not bothering to stop talking even though he was shoveling food down his throat. “Every other team is going to have four members. If he doesn’t show up, we’ll be short. So, figure this shit out.” He choked, momentarily, and cleared his throat with a few chugs of mulled cider.

I gave him a spiteful look. “I know what I have to do.”

Kadia had been quietly listening since I sat down. She had finished her meager lunch already, and was reading from a medicinal alchemy textbook, Materia Medica: Ancient Alchemical Diseases by Walder Calcamir, Mgr. It was advanced stuff, too; not surprising, as her sponsor was the head of the alchemy department.

Kadia stopped reading and placed her hand on my wrist in a comforting gesture. Her voice was soft, barely audible over the clank and clamor of the busy mess hall. Dozens of recruits and artificers laughed and ate in the background.

“He’s right,” she said. “If we don’t have Kurian, we might as well concede now and try again next year. I’ve been watching the other teams closely, beating them is already going to be tough. Some of them have been artificers a lot longer than any of us. Most have trialed before. They’re experts, Kyra.”

“Need I remind you,” Fenn began, not breaking his glare, “only one team can win? Handle it.”

My eyes met his. “Talk to me like that again, and I’ll handle you, first.”

Before Fenn could respond, Kadia shut the argument down. “We can’t fight each other.” A hard edge crept into her voice, and when she looked at me, I noticed her eyes were slightly bloodshot. A moment later, blood trickled out her nose and down her lip. She took a handful of napkins and held them to her face. “Excuse me.”

She got up and left so quickly that I hardly knew what happened.

Fenn and I stared at each other, not quite sure to make of it.

“Is she okay?” I said.

Fenn leaned back in his chair and ran his hands over his forehead and into his dark, curly hair. “We’re going to die,” he whined. “All because I got saddled with the reject brigade. Magister Acker’s going to kill me. Not to mention my parents.”

Kadia returned, presumably from the washroom outside the mess hall, but she wasn’t alone this time. Her younger sister, Vexis, whom I’d seen around the tower many times, was with her. She was the spitting image of her older sister, and looked Helian to a fault: bright blonde hair, creamy green eyes, and a pearly white smile that seemed to light up her face. The only really distinction between them was that Kadia wore her hair very short, almost like a boy. As far as I knew, they were the only Helians in the Magisterium.

“Sorry about that,” Kadia said, sniffling. Her nosebleed was gone, and in her hand was an empty glass vial with the stopper removed. “You’ve met my sister?”

I gave Vexis a brief nod.

“She was holding onto some medicine for me,” Kadia continued. “With all this trial preparation, it slipped my mind.” She motioned for Vexis to sit beside her.

Vexis hesitated. “You sure it’s okay?” She knew the order of things well enough. It was odd for recruits and artificers to eat at the same table; it was a small corruption of the social order in the Magisterium. Nevertheless, none of us protested, and she pulled up a chair beside her sister.

Vexis put her hand on Kadia’s forehead. “You’re still burning up. I’ll fetch some straightroot from the Cons, after lunch; that should bring your fever down.”

“Thanks,” Kadia said. “But that’s not why I brought you.” She nudged toward me. “Tell her what you told me. About the music.”

“Music?” Vexis said, before it seemed to click in her head. “Oh, yeah. I was in the western junction on the fiftieth floor. It’s loud up there, lots of moving parts, but I could’ve sworn I heard music playing.”

This got my attention. “What kind of music?” I asked hopefully.

“Some kind of stringed instrument. Maybe a lyre?”

“Or a harp,” I said to myself. I pushed my chair out and thanked Vexis before hurrying off to the fiftieth floor.

Now, Uncle, the Magisterium is much more than just a tower. The best way I can describe the interior is that of an enormous grandfather clock, with gears turning, floors shifting, and ten thousand moving parts. Even after many centuries, the interior hasn’t been mapped out in its entirety. The less dangerous areas were converted into workshops, barracks, and lecture halls; but places like the western junction were wild areas, completely off-limits to anyone without express permission of Magister Briggs. Somehow, however, I doubted that Kurian cared much about the rules.

As for myself, I wasn’t especially worried. Despite my distaste for it, I was the Sun King’s daughter; if I were caught, I’d likely get little more than a slap on the wrist.

The western junction was everything I thought it would be, like stepping into a jungle of moving parts and machinery. Getting there was no easy task; I had to pull myself through two crawl spaces, shimmy across a giant copper pipe, and jump over a missing floor plate that led down a fifty-foot drop.

Not to stretch my clock metaphor too far, but every inch of the junction seemed to move, click, and tick as I walked through. I was especially careful to avoid the gears jutting up from the walkway, as getting your foot caught in one of them meant losing your leg. I could see why this junction was off-limits; it was a veritable death trap, and the further in I went, the more I wished I’d brought someone along.

It was with no small bit of relief that I soon heard the faint strum of a harp intermixed with the thousand sounds of grinding machinery. The sweet flutter grew louder as I skirted through a narrow shaft that exited on the outermost wall of the tower. I smelled fresh air nearby, and I soon found that the walkway ended onto an outside balcony.

There, perched onto the balcony with his feet over the edge, was Kurian. He looked calm, despite the fact that he was only inches away from a lethal fall. He strummed his harp, following the tune wordlessly with a few hums.

I didn’t speak, afraid to startled him into a fall. Instead, I took in the view. The Magisterium didn’t have windows, as far as I knew, and this was the first balcony I’d ever seen. From so high up, I could see the entire cityscape of Endra Edûn, sprawled out like a complex tapestry of roads and buildings. It was as beautiful as ever; it looked carved out of white marble, intermixed with flowers and foliage as far as my eyes could see. The air was fresh. The sunlight and arclight, coming from the top of the tower, poured into the city, making it positively glow. In all my seventeen years, I’d never gotten tired of seeing it from the air.

I took a step forward, trying to get a better look at the palace and courtyard below. Kurian heard my step, and the music fell apart in his hands. He turned sharply, looking legitimately surprised, at first; but eventually he gave me a shy smile. He patted the balcony beside him, motioning me to sit.

“I…I don’t know.”

“Fear doesn’t suit a magister,” Kurian said casually. “Sit.”

I did so with a caution. My feet dangled over the ledge, and I felt a sharp jolt of fear rip through my body. I tried not to look straight down. Kurian noticed my anxiety and pointed to a far point in the streets below.

“See that boy in blue right there?” Kurian said, glancing sideways at me.

I shook my head. “Everything’s just little dots; there’s no way you could make someone out down there.”

“Are you sure? He’s got sandy brown hair, hazel eyes, and it looks like his brother just stole his ball.”

I looked into the vast city and shook my head again. “You’re just messing with me.”

Kurian smiled, but something was hidden behind the smile that I couldn’t quite place. Some hard emotion. He continued to point to different areas below. “Right there is a fruit cart that just got tipped over. The merchant’s wife is yelling at him for not hitching the donkeys right before they left home. Over there is a constable chasing down a pickpocket, but he’s got the wrong boy. The real boy is heading the other way, see?”

“No,” I said firmly. “I don’t see.”

“Of course you don’t. No human does. Dragon eyes are a bit more finely tuned.” He pointed to his own eyes.

“You said you weren’t a dragon.”

“I’m not.” In a dizzying display of balance, Kurian stood up on the ledge, extended his arms, and began walking the length of the balcony. He didn’t seem even mildly concerned with falling.

“I’m sorry I snapped at you in the Cons,” he said, staring at his feet. “I’m just not used to opening up to people about this kind of stuff.”

“You don’t have to tell me anything,” I said.

“No, but I want to. I can’t keep it bottled up forever.” He sat back down. “Like I said, I’m not a dragon…but my father was.”

I wore my expression of disbelief plain on my face. “How could that be?”

“Dragons are shape-shifters, all able to take human form. When my mom was alive, she told me about my father. A strong, proud brood lord. Mom always told me that he loved us, and would come back one day, but he never did. When she died, I traveled to the dragon city to find him.” His mouth curved into a frown. “Let’s just say that the other dragons didn’t particularly care for me. I’m human in every way that matters to them. Stuck in this one form. I can’t even fly. I can’t change forms. Doesn’t that just beat all? I lost the genetic lottery.”

“You’re a half-breed,” I said, then cupped my hands over my mouth. “Sorry! I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—”

Kurian shrugged. “It’s okay. It’s true, at any rate. I wasn’t welcome in Castiana, so they sent me here to live with Antherion. Probably because he’s the only dragon that cares to live around humans.”

“Is he why you want to become a magister?” I asked.

Kurian twiddled his thumbs. “What else could I be? A cobbler? A blacksmith?” He laughed, looking down at his hands. “No, I might be human, but magic’s in my blood. I just wish I didn’t have to start from the ground up. I could wipe the floor with half the magisters here.”

I cocked my head. “Really?”

Kurian stretched his arms and cracked his knuckles. “Not to brag, but I’ve got a bit of a leg-up.”

“That ‘genetic lottery’, eh?”

“Something like that.” Kurian stood.

I looked over the balcony again and felt my stomach tighten. “I’m here to take you back to the others, Kurian. We need your help with the trial. We can’t do it alone.”

“Fair enough. Let’s head back.” He held out his hand.

“Just like that?” I said curiously.

Kurian smiled like a fox. “Just like that. We’ve got a trial to win, right? Let’s win it.” He held his hand out toward mine. “Together?”

I took it. “Together,” I said.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

- 5 -

The World Tree

 

Several days later, we were corralled aboard the Eventide and taken to the trial area. We weren’t told where we were going, specifically, but we flew southwest for days, passing a large body of water peppered with islands.

Soon, we arrived at a vast stretch of land that seemed to go on forever. The misty countryside below was a strange sight, sprawled with mountains and hills covered in grass. The area seemed like a vast marshland, with thousands of lakes and ponds peppering the landscape, from horizon to horizon. Water seemed to boil up from the earth, flooding the land with mist.

I’d spent most of my time below deck with my team. By now, all the teams had been finalized—five in all, each with four members. I knew many of our opponents better than I knew my own teammates; but in this, it didn’t matter. This was war.

You see, in earlier trials, recruits and artificers are encouraged to work together in large groups. While they might be pitted against other groups, they were not intended to be lethal. This was different.

Of the five teams, only one could gain their magister commissions. And while in the lower trials there were stringent safeguards to keep recruits alive, there were no such safeguards here. Deaths were not only possible, but at least one death per trial was expected. Given the stakes, it wasn’t uncommon for those involved to get a little crazy.

Becoming a magister is a dream for many. Magisters hold prestigious places in the Endran military and government, and they’re afforded a hefty salary by the kingdom to pursue their research.

Endra has been at peace with its neighbors for many years, and magisters have moved into a more research-oriented role. In the end, however, they’re soldiers. And no matter how far away a magister travels from Endra Edûn, no matter their age or condition, no matter how intellectual they fancy themselves, they’re oath-bound to return to fight for the Sun King should he call his lords’ banners.

Magisters also gained access to the Higher Mysteries, including specialized magistry runes and templary forbidden to all but the most elite.

Still, all of these benefits didn’t come easy, and it wasn’t uncommon for artificers to stay at their lower rank for the rest of their lives.

All I wanted was the recognition. I wanted to prove that I could become a magister, without my father’s help, without any special treatment. I knew I could do it. I would do it.

“Kyra,” Fenn said, shaking me back into my senses. I blinked a few times, realizing I’d been daydreaming. “Could you please pay attention for five minutes? This is important.”

I shook my head to clear it and wiped the hair from my eyes. “Sorry, I was…sorry.”

Fenn gave me a look of profound annoyance. “I guess I’ll start from the beginning.” He sat down on the floor of the airship cabin, with his back against a bunk bed, and began to arrange a stack of papers into three separate rows.

Each team had shared a room on the trip, and we’d been stuck inside with little more than a porthole to look out of for the last two days. Now that we’d seen the final team compositions, Fenn had used the time to assemble detailed analyses of each of them.

“There’s no telling what our objective will be,” Fenn said. “But knowing who we’re up against will give us a better chance at staying alive.”

Kadia was sitting nearby with her nose in an alchemy book. She set the book face-down and looked over Fenn’s notes. “Five teams, no surprise there.” She leaned in and her eyes widened. “Wait, Cidrin is trialing this year?”

Fenn nodded grimly. “He was a last-minute addition.”

Kadia’s face went white. “But I thought he was in Celosa with his family—”

Kurian was hanging upside-down from the top bunk; he let go, and tumbled onto the floor, rolling effortlessly into a sitting position beside Kadia.

Fenn pushed a sheet of paper toward Kurian. “Cidrin is one of the most skilled templarists…well, pretty much ever. This is second hand information, but I’ve heard stories of him bending steel bars from the other side of a room.” He sighed. “And it gets worse.”

Kurian seemed a bit more somber as Fenn pointed to another sheet.

“Cidrin’s got quite a team this year. Some might call them unbeatable. It’s like the magisters stuffed an entire team with only their golden boys,” Fenn said. “Then there’s Team Lon. He knows more about machinery and magistry than all of us combined.”

I knew Lon well. He was around forty years old, and I’d once seen him take apart an airship engine and put it back together blindfolded.

“And we’ve got Team Pyke,” Fenn continued, matter-of-factly. “I don’t need to remind you of the incident in the alchemy lab last year. Pyke somehow avoided a court martial.”

“I’ve heard they’re still picking body parts out of the walls,” I said with a frown.

“On a positive note, there seem to be some internal problems with Pyke’s team, and he’s having trouble keeping them in line. We might be able to use that to our advantage.” Fenn turned over the last sheet. “And finally, Team Dia.”

“Never heard of her,” I said.

“That’s not surprising,” Fenn said. “She’s a quiet one, not especially outgoing. She’s been a tribune for five years. I’m not sure why her teammates made her the leader. Her team could be a wildcard, and it includes Rokan, who’s trialed before.”

Kurian shrugged easily. “We’ll be fine.”

All three of us looked up at him.

“We’ll be fine? Were you even listening?” Fenn said sharply.

“I’m not worried.” Kurian sounded profoundly confident.

Fenn scowled. “Well, I am. And I’ve got a few ideas for how to counter each of them. First, I was thinking we could—”

Kurian stood and stretched his arms high above him. “You do that.” He headed for the heavy metal door to the cabin and slipped out.

Fenn shot me a glare. “What the hell is he doing?”

I jumped to my feet and followed him out. “I’ll get him.”

“Kurian!” I shouted, my voice echoing through the metal corridors. I passed dripping pipes and rattling deck plates, trying to catch up with him. Luckily, I was able to corner him at the end of the hall.

“What are you doing?” I said, practically shouting. “This is serious. We need to plan out how we’re going to deal with this.”

Kurian sighed, in a vaguely patronizing way. “Listen, I know you’re worried, but we’ll be all right. They’re just humans.”

I yanked him by the collar. “Well, in case you didn’t notice, I’m human. Flesh and blood, and I’d like to stay alive.”

Kurian looked a bit hurt by the thought. “Well…I’d protect you, of course.”

“Look, I know you’re probably more powerful than any of us will ever be, but it only takes one mistake.” I held up a single finger. “I know Cidrin; he was in my recruit year. If it means becoming a magister, he’ll kill us all. You need to take this seriously.”

“Well…”

“Please,” I interrupted. “For me. We’re friends, right?”

Kurian tilted his head and, for a moment, he looked a bit confused. “I suppose we are.” He paused. “Fine, if you’re worried, I’ll help with the planning. But I’m telling you, we’re not going to need it.”


 


 

- 6 -

Beneath the Soil

 

We were called above deck by Magister Ross as the Eventide approached the trial area. Wind lashed across the deck beams as the airship descended, and when we pushed through the veil of thick clouds, I saw our destination: an immense forest, vaguely circular in shape. Springing up from the ground were thousands and thousands of sturdy, ancient trees and large vines in a tangle across a vast swampland connected with ponds and rivers.

All the foliage surrounded a tree in the exact center. Or rather, it appeared to be a tree, but it was much, much too large. Unnaturally large. It might’ve been as tall as the Magisterium itself, hundreds of feet high, and its trunk and branches cast an immense shadow over the forests and marshes at its base, darkening the entire area. What’s more, the fog seemed unnaturally attracted to the tree, and it all coalesced nearby. The roots of the tree carved through the marsh and into mountains some miles away.

Before I could say anything, Kurian spoke up. His eyes were fixed on the giant tree, and I saw something in his eyes that I couldn’t quite place. Fear?

“Syseril,” he said breathlessly. “The World Tree.”

“It’s beautiful,” I said honestly.

Kurian looked at me like I’d gone mad. “You have a strange notion of beauty.”

I shrugged. “True. But what’s so bad about it?”

“It was planted by my grandfather, Craetos, to contain great evil.”

“Wait,” I said, bewildered. “You’re the grandson of Craetos the All-Seer? The brood king?”

Even half a world away from the dragon city, I’d heard the stories of Craetos. In fact, he might’ve been the only dragon that Magisterium texts put in a positive light. Craetos was the first dragon created by the Old Gods. He raised Castiana into the clouds. He built the temple of Nir Daras. He fought Nuruthil himself in close-combat. He was practically a god.

This scrawny, black-haired artificer was his direct decendant?

Kurian must’ve noticed my look; he returned it with a half-smile. “So hard to believe?”

“A bit,” I said, honestly, then turned back to the subject at hand. “What kind of evil?”

Kurian’s yellow eyes narrowed. “I don’t know.”

As the Eventide decended, I noticed Kadia was having trouble keeping her balance. I didn’t pay it much attention, at first. Thankfully, Kurian was quick on his reflexes and caught her mid-fall.


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