Loading...
Menu
Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Young adult or teen  ➡  Fantasy  ➡  Fantasy  ➡  Epic

The Reach Between Worlds

p<>{color:#000;}.

The Reach

Between

Worlds

The Arclight Saga

_______

C.M. Hayden

http://www.arclightsaga.com

 

Copyright © 2016 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.

 

Contents

Prologue

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-one

Chapter Twenty-two

Chapter Twenty-three

Chapter Twenty-four

Chapter Twenty-five

Chapter Twenty-six

Chapter Twenty-seven

Chapter Twenty-eight

Chapter Twenty-nine

Chapter Thirty-one

Chapter Thirty-two

Chapter Thirty-three

Chapter Thirty-four

Chapter Thirty-five

Chapter Thirty-six

Chapter Thirty-seven

Chapter Thirty-eight

Chapter Thirty-nine

Chapter Forty

Chapter Forty-one

Chapter Forty-two

Chapter Forty-three

Chapter Forty-four

Chapter Forty-five

Chapter Forty-six

Prologue

Criminally Insane

The doctor tapped his fingers on the table separating him and his patient. “The nurses say you haven’t been eating.”

“I don’t eat,” the man said as he shifted in his chair.

“Is that a fact?” The doctor dipped his pen in an inkwell and scribbled as he spoke. “You’ll be pleased to know we sent a picture of you to the Magisterium. Tell me why—”

“I don’t believe you.”

“—tell me why nobody there recognizes you.”

“It’s been a long time,” the man said.

The doctor removed a silver coin from his pocket and placed it on the table. “You say you’re a magister. If that’s the case, turn this into something spectacular for me. Do that and you can go.” The doctor nudged it closer with his pen. “Well?”

The man held his hand over the coin and tried to get the metal to change form. Nothing happened. “It’s these drugs you’ve got me on. I can’t think clearly.”

The doctor put his hand on the man’s shoulder. “It’s going to take time to clear your mind of these delusions. A long time. But don’t be afraid, I’m here to help.”

 

Chapter One

The Back-Alley Mansion

“Could you slow down?” Taro shouted ahead to his little sister.

Nima vaulted over a wooden crate and paused to let him catch up. “Sorry.”

Taro knelt and tightened the leather laces of his prosthetic leg. Buckles and straps kept the wood attached to his ankle. Usually he could keep up with Nima, but today she was especially excited.

When Taro was done he tucked the package he’d been carrying under his arm and they continued to the back of the alleyway.

“How much did he promise?” Nima asked.

“He didn’t say.”

“Didn’t say? Always settle on a price, first Taro. You know that.”

“He’s got money and he’s a friend of Dad’s. He’s got no reason to screw us.”

Nima pulled Taro by the back of the shirt. “Do you want Dad to find out about this?”

“You think he doesn’t already know? He’s sick, not stupid.”

Nima conceded the point. “What’s this guy’s name, anyway?”

“Mathan.”

Victor Mathan’s mansion was one of the least traveled places in Ashwick. Though he was the richest man in town, and most everyone knew his name, few had actually met him.

The end of the alleyway was falling apart. Crows picked at overturned trash bins, and bricks crumbled beneath rusted iron gargoyles. All of the doors were boarded up, except for one with no knob and no hinges. It looked as if it was painted into the wall.

Taro rapped on it: two short knocks and a thump. The edges connecting the door to the wall disappeared and it creaked open. Passing the post was like stepping into another world. The floors were polished mahogany, clear as glass, and blue tasseled rug stretched from the door and up a grand staircase that branched off into the wings of the mansion.

A man came from the adjacent room as Taro and Nima were scraping the mud off their boots.

“Your business?” the man croaked.

“My name’s Taro—”

“You have it then?” The man held out his hand.

Taro squeezed the package. “Not ‘till I see him.”

The man raised one of his bushy eyebrows and grumbled. “Then you will leave at once.”

“Now Mort, that’s no way to treat our guests,” an older man called from the top of the stairs. He was plump, with balding, gray hair and a cigar in his mouth that looked like a permanent feature of his face. He checked his pocket watch and tucked it into his vest. “Bring some tea, please. Double sweet, splash of whiskey. Do you two want anything?”

Taro and Nima shook their heads.

“Good. That’s the right answer. Three things you’ve got to learn in this business. Number one: don’t drink anything anyone gives you. But you seem to be struggling with number two: never be late. What kept you?”

“The warders asked us some questions,” Taro said. “They’re all over the shop.”

“You were careful?”

“We left clean.” Taro handed the package to Mathan, who cut the twine with a letter opener.

Mort drudged in a few moments later carrying a tray of tea and Celosan whiskey. Mathan sipped one of the cups without taking the cigar out of his mouth. “Excellent work. I knew you wouldn’t let me down. This is one of the finest examples of early Magisterium insc—“

“If it’s all the same to you, sir, we’d like to be paid and be on our way. The less we know, the better,” Taro said.

Mathan grabbed a satchel from his belt and picked through the coins inside. “I see you already know the third rule by heart. Very well, how much did we agree on?”

“Ten crowns,” Nima blurted out.

“Did we agree on ten? Seems a bit steep.”

Taro shoved Nima. “No sir, we didn’t agree on a price. But… honestly, our family does need the money.”

Mathan fished through the bag. “Honesty won’t get you very far in this business, lad. Fortunately for you, it still holds some sway with me. Here are twenty crowns.”

“Twenty?!” Nima said.

“Each,” Mathan added.

“What’s the catch?” Taro said, as Mathan dropped the bag into his hand. The weight felt like it would take his arm off.

“No catch,” Mathan said. “Just another job. You both look like fine, upstart children. Those Helian slum-kids attract too much attention, but you’re clean, you’re well-spoken. Proper Endrans.”

“Another job?” Nima said excitedly.

“A bit more long-term than the last, but I’ll be sure to compensate you for the extra hassle.”

Taro bit his lip. “I don’t know. This was just supposed to be a one-time thing.”

“Ah.” Mathan stirred some more of the strong-smelling whiskey into his tea. “I understand, of course. But… how fares your father? Your mother? Forty crowns is a good start, no doubt, but bills do rack up, I’m sure you’ve learned.”

“We appreciate it, sir, but it’s just not for us. We needed a little help, and we’ve got it.”

Nima shook the bag of coins. “Are you crazy?”

Mathan clapped his hands and Mort appeared once again, this time holding a ratty bit of folded parchment. He handed it to Taro. “In case you change your mind.”

“Paper?” Taro said.

“One of my latest acquisitions. Two-way parchment. Its twin is downstairs in my study. Should you reconsider, simply write on the parchment and I shall see it.”

Taro folded the parchment and stuffed it into his pocket. “We’ll keep you in mind.”

“Send my best wishes to your parents.”

Taro knew that as soon as they were back outside, the arguing would begin. He tried to keep ahead of Nima, but anger fueled her speed.

“Oh, no, not this time,” she said. “You’re not getting away.”

“Can we please not do this?”

Taro ran so quickly that his leg ached even more than usual. Realizing that keeping away from her was impossible, he sat down and unstrapped his prosthetic to relieve the pressure.

Nima winced. Taro knew it bothered her to see him like this.

“You know we need that money,” she said, despite hardly being able to look at him.

“We’ll be fine for a while.”

“A while. And after that?”

“Hopefully Mom and Dad’ll be better by then.”

“What if they don’t get better?” Nima choked on her words. It’d been over two months, and this was the first time they’d spoken about the possibility of their parents not getting through their illness.

Taro knelt beside Nima and hugged her around her shoulder. “Listen, that isn’t something you need to worry about.”

“You can’t do it on your own,” Nima said.

“’course I can’t, that’s why I have you. But I shouldn’t have brought you along on this. It’s not very big-brotherly of me.”

“Mr. Mathan seems nice.”

Taro strapped his prosthetic back on. “Bad men with smiles are the most dangerous kind.”

“What do you mean?”

“Back when I used to work for Mr. Boors he used to tell me to stay away from Mathan no matter how desperate I got. If Boors is scared of him, there’s got to be a reason.”

After stopping by the marketplace and picking up an entire leg of lamb and as many vegetables as they could haul, they returned to their home on Walder’s Lane. Their house was a thin cross-section of a much larger structure; fourteen homes stretched out in both directions, each with the same brown brick façade and stoop that lead to a narrow door.

Up the stairs, past piles of wooden toys, they were finally home. Their brothers Enam and Decker ran to the door to meet them. Taro swiped Decker up with one arm and Enam with the other.

“Shouldn’t you two be gettin’ ready for bed?” he said, kissing them both on the forehead.

“We’re hungry,” Decker, the older of the two, said.

“Yeah, we’re hungry.”

“Tell you what, help your sis get the food to the pantry and we’ll get something going. Wash your hands first.”

The door on the other side of the living room creaked open. Taro’s mother stood leaning against the frame, draped in a tattered sundress with white lilies on it. Her arms were thin and her veins dark. She and Taro met half-way into a hug.

“Your father was about to send a search party after you.”

Taro was happy to see she was smiling. “You shouldn’t be on your feet.”

“Nonsense.” She rested against a chair and looked around at the mess in the living room. Toys and trash littered the floor, the pictures and carved figurines above the fireplace were caked in dust, and the hearthstones were loose and cracked. A year ago, his mom wouldn’t have been able to stand the sight of even a single item out of place, but as the sickness took her, she’d become too weak to keep up with anything.

She glanced through the kitchen entrance at the twins picking through the bags of onions and bell peppers. “Looks like you got plenty.”

Taro beamed. “There’s enough left for your medicine. The alchemist was closed, but I’ll pick some up first thing in the morning.”

His mom gave him a warm smile. The kind of smile he hadn’t seen in weeks. “You’ve really come through for us. You must be working hard.” She spoke the next few words softly, as if trying to avoid an outright accusation. “Good, honest work, I’m sure.”

“It’s just a few odd jobs for—”

Before Taro could finish, his father’s voice called from the bed. “You going to lie to your own mother?”

“Hush,” his mom said.

Taro’s father sat up and wheezed. “I will not ‘hush.’ Our son’s standing right there about to lie to your face and you’re all smiles.”

Taro approached his bedside.

“Boy, this family’s been a lot of things, but we ain’t never been thieves.”

“I’m no thief.”

“Oh? They callin’ it something else these days?” His dad pointed at the suit of armor hanging on the wall. On the center was the Endran crest: a tower beneath the sun. “Do you know what that suit stands for?”

“Duty and service,” Taro said, a phrase he’d repeated many times.

“And honor.”

Taro wiped his eyes with his sleeve. “What do you want me to do?”

“Do? I suppose I don’t have any right to criticize you while I’m not working myself. You sick of seeing me bed-ridden? Well, I’m sick of it too. I may not be able to stand for long, my sight may be going, maybe… maybe my mind’s going too, but I’ll be damned if my son’s going to come home acting like he’s doing the town some kind of civic service. A man’s got to take care of his family, even if it means doing something ugly. But that doesn’t mean we come home lookin’ like we’re proud of it.”

Taro had to hold his breath to keep from screaming. By the time he’d finally sorted out his thoughts, Nima was rushing past him.

“Don’t talk to Taro like that!”

“Back with your brothers, little girl. This doesn’t concern you.”

“The hell it doesn’t. Me and Taro have been working together. So anything you have to say to him, you gotta say to me.”

Taro gently grabbed Nima’s shoulder. “It’s just the sickness messing with his head.”

Nima pulled away. “You’re still defending him?”

“Please, don’t,” Taro said softly.

Nima scrunched her face and glared at Taro, then at her father. “I hate you.”

Nima stormed out. Taro started to follow, but his mother stopped him. “Let her be.”

They left without another word to Taro’s father, and shut the door.

An hour later, the haze of anger had lifted. Taro sat elbows-deep in a wash-bucket trying to get the gunk out of an enormous cast iron pot.

Decker and Enam flicked soapy water at him. “I’m going to get you two. Mom, stop them,” Taro said.

His mom coughed out a laugh. “Not my fault you don’t know how to dodge.” She faced Nima’s room and tried to holler, but it came out a squeak. “Nima! Your food’s going to be stone cold.”

There was no answer.

“I’ll get her.” Taro rapped on her door. “Sis? You awake?”

Again, no answer.

He pushed the door open. The room was dark, but he could make out Nima’s tiny outline on the bed, covered in blankets.

“You really should eat.”

Taro poked the blankets until he realized that Nima was not there. When he pulled them up, there were only pillows underneath.

At first, he didn’t know what to do. He had no idea where she would run off to, until he saw a folded piece of parchment on her bedside table. He checked his pockets for the paper Mathan gave him. Nothing. She must’ve swiped it.

He unfolded the parchment. In Nima’s neat, straight handwriting were the words:

Ready now. Where? How much?

And below, in fancy penmanship:

One thousand crowns. Craiven & Boors. One hour. Don’t be seen.

Chapter Two

Stolen Goods

Growing up in Ashwick, you knew from an early age to stay away from Craiven & Boors. The rotting sign outside said ‘Purveyor of Rare Artifacts & Sundries’ which was just a fancy way of saying ‘stolen goods.’ The building was a dump: boarded-up windows, a rusted fence, and bricks crumbling out of the walls.

When Taro thumped on the door, a small panel slid open.

“We’re closed,” a woman’s voice called from inside.

“Miss Craiven, it’s me.”

“Oh, Taro dearest.” She unlatched the eight heavy locks and pushed the door open. Miss Craiven was a plump woman with an orange girdle so tight she looked like a misshapen pumpkin. She pulled Taro into a hug. “You never stop by to see your Auntie Craiven. Victor must be paying you well.”

Taro yanked free. “I’m not working anymore.”

“That’s not what I’ve heard.” Miss Craiven pinched his cheek. “Come inside or you’re going to freeze to death.”

Taro hated Craiven & Boors. The rotting floorboards, the musty smell, the ever-present cramped feeling. The shop was packed with bizarre merchandise: jars of toad eyes, daggers made of human femurs, and taxidermy animals sewed into hideous chimeras. You could purchase playing cards that changed their suit when turned a certain way, or dice that always rolled a seven. These were the more benign items; the choice merchandize was kept out of sight.

Taro started towards the back room. “Where’s Mr. Boors?”

Miss Craiven forced a fluttery laugh. “He’s supposed to be taking me to the theater tonight. But ever since Victor stopped by, he’s held himself in his study.”

“Mathan was here?”

“I assumed you knew. He was talking to your sister about some long-term work.”

“Did he say what kind?”

Miss Craiven wagged her finger. “You know better than to ask that. But between you and me, maybe one of the boys could point you in the right direction.” Miss Craiven patted Taro on the head and started towards the stairs to the second floor. “We’re going to miss the show!” she shouted up.

Mr. Boors hollered back. “Confounded woman, I’m working. This deal could change our lives.”

“You’re not skipping out on me again, Herald. Come down this instant.”

Taro left them to their shouting match, and went to the back room. The moment he entered one of the boys called to him.

“Oy! Look who’s decided to grace us with his presence.”

An old friend, Sikes, and four other boys sat playing poker on a wooden crate. Sikes was raking chips into his giant pile.

“Come for a game?” another boy said.

“Nah, that couldn’t be Taro,” Sikes said. “Didn’t you hear? He doesn’t work anymore. Too good for us.”

“They always come back,” the boy said. “It’s been what, six months? That’s got to be a record. If you ask real nice, I’m sure Boors’ will set you up with somethin’ Tar.”

Taro motioned for Sikes to follow him out. “I need to talk to you.”

Sikes didn’t budge. “Bit busy right now.”

“It’s about Nima.”

“Oh, I know what it’s about. If you’re looking for someone to squeal on her, you’d best look elsewhere.” Sikes drew another card and added it to his hand.

Taro grabbed Sikes by the arm. “Nima can’t get involved with Mathan.”

“Maybe you should’ve thought about that before you got her started. Mathan would have my neck if I went blabbering about our job.”

“Your job? What’s that supposed to mean?”

“That isn’t how this works. You don’t run off for six months and come back makin’ demands. I got nothing to say, so turn that bum leg of yours around and hobble your ass out of here.”

“Would you at least tell me if she’s still in Ashwick?”

“What part of ‘sod off’ don’t you understand?”

Taro took a deep breath. “You’re going to get your face punched in one of these days.”

“Maybe. But not right now, and not by you.”

Taro’s seething turned into a wicked grin. “You know, you’re right.” He snatched the deck of cards out of Sikes’ hand and exposed the last three cards: all aces. “Just for your information, gentlemen, Sikes has a habit of dealing off the bottom of the deck. If I were you, I’d ask for a refund.”

One of the boys flipped the table, and another smacked Sikes in the face with a chair as Taro slipped out. Miss Craiven was near the door listening in.

“A shame you boys couldn’t work things out,” she said. A chair leg went flying past her head just as the door shut. “Dreadful. I hope they don’t hurt him too badly.”

Taro didn’t slow down.

“I assume you’ll be paying Victor a visit?” Craiven said, stopping Taro at the door. “Listen—”

“’Be careful,’ I know.”

“It’s more than that. Victor is a ruthless man, but it’s not him you should worry about.”

“Who then?”

She lowered her voice. “Let’s just say he’s not working alone. Please… stay alive.”

Taro must have stepped in every puddle on his way from Craiven & Boors, because his trouser legs were soaked by the time he got to the other side of town. Darkness consumed the streets like a black cloud. Pointed rooftops leaned over the road, and flickering lampposts cast sinister shadows onto the wet cobblestone. Dogs barked in the distance, couples argued in candlelit homes, but the streets were empty.

At least that’s what he thought, until he ran head-on into an old beggar man. The man stumbled into the mud and his things went flying: candle holders, silverware, circus posters, books, and a cuckoo clock — not to mention the man’s walking stick.

Taro sat against a nearby lamppost. “Sorry.”

The man patted his hands through the mud, collecting his things into a dirty pile. “No, no, no.”

“Did I break anything?” Taro asked.

“Yes, you did. Look at you, blustering about, not looking where you’re going.”

Taro realized what he’d broken. One of the leather straps on his prosthetic was snapped in half. When he tugged at the strap, the buckle came loose. “Damn it.” His eyes darted back to the man. “Can I buy your walking stick?”

The man was polishing off a kitten-shaped ceramic plate with a dirty rag. He seemed surprised that despite his best efforts, the plate only got dirtier. “No.”

“I’ll give you anything you want.”

“Some kindness would do.”

Taro felt like a jerk. He scooted closer and helped collect the man’s things. “I’m sorry. My sister’s in trouble, and I’m in a hurry.”

The man was decidedly more gracious. “What kind of trouble?”

“The worst kind. With the worst guy. I need to get to her before she gets herself killed.”

“You’ll never catch her in that condition.” The man pointed two fingers at Taro’s foot and the straps twisted and fused back together.

Taro tugged at the buckle in astonishment. “You’re a magister!”

The man shushed him. “Off you go.”

Taro had never seen a magister before. They were the highest ranking soldiers in the Sun King’s army, but rarely ventured pasted the walls of Endra Edûn. A homeless magister was somewhat of a contradiction.

By the time Taro got to the alley, it was pouring, and the painted door was not easy to find. When he did, he hollered and banged on it for several minutes with no success. A moment later, he heard a familiar voice call to him. It was the magister.

“It only opens for those with an appointment. I believe I can be of assistance,” he said.

“Why would you help me?”

“Somebody in your line of work should know better than to ask a question like that.”

“How do you know what my ‘line of work’ is?”

“If it involves Victor Mathan, it’s not hard to guess. Suffice it to say that there’s something inside that I need. If you help me, I’ll help you.” He held out his hand to shake. “Do we have a deal?”

Taro peered down at the magister’s dirty hands and long, brown fingernails. “Deal,” he said, though he passed on shaking.

The magister motioned Taro to follow. As he walked, his pack clinked and clacked like a jack-in-the-box. With each step wrenches rattled against copper tubes and flutes smacked into brass rings.

“Where are we going?”

“Shush!” the magister said. “You want the whole neighborhood to hear you?”

The audacity of the comment took a moment for Taro to process. “That stuff you’re hauling—”

“I could stand in the middle of Front Street shrieking like a banshee and nobody would notice me. You don’t need magic to be invisible in a town like this. Being poor works just the same. So stand behind me and think quiet thoughts.”

The magister took a few steps forward. “Quieter.”

“But—”

“Quieter!”

The magister looked both ways to make sure the coast was clear, and hurried towards a sewer grate in the middle of the road. “Keep an eye out. There’s some nasty magistry on this thing.” He fished out a metal device that looked like a combination of a stone chisel and an ink pen from his pocket and drew lines and strange letters around the grate.

A few carriages passed without incident, though the coachmen did give them curious looks.

The magister mumbled to himself. “Four ley lines? What are they teaching people these days? I swear. And what’s this? No, that goes here.” Suddenly he grabbed Taro’s hand and shouted. “Please, sir, alms for the poor. Help an old war hero?”

A town constable stood only a few yards away with his arms crossed. “You harassing people again?”

The magister stayed low. “Just trying to get a warm meal for the night.”

Taro tossed him a copper noble. “He’s no bother. I was just heading home.”

The constable hummed. “See that you do. And you, magister,” he said with considerable sarcasm, “I don’t want to see you west of Dock Street again. Keep over there with the Helian garbage. Clear?”

“Inescapably.”

Taro and the magister walked in opposite directions until the constable was out of sight. Afterwards, they met back at the grate.

“You had one job to do,” the magister said. He held up one greasy finger and stifled Taro’s response. “Doesn’t matter, I think I’ve got it licked. Stand back.” He grabbed the grate on both sides and heaved until it lifted. “In you go.”

“Excuse me?”

“At the bottom there’s a narrow pipe that should lead you to Mathan’s cellar. Once you’re inside, get to the front door and let me in. Simple as that.”

“Simple, sure.” Taro peered down into the black sewer pit.

“Oh, and this is very important: don’t touch anything. Especially not the water.”

“What’s wrong with the water?”

“That’s what I’m trying to find out. Hurry before that nit blusters back over here. I really don’t want to use another mind hex on him, I think they might be causing brain damage.”

Taro held on to the sides of the manhole and took a deep breath. “How deep does this go?”

“Best not to think about it.”

Chapter Three

A Thousand Blinking Eyes

Taro landed on his backside into a shallow stream of sewer water. It was only a storm drain, but reeked of mold and fermenting matter it had collected over the years. He pushed against the knee-high current and forced himself through a narrow pipe at the end.

When he was on the other side, he squeezed his shirt a pint of water came out. “Don’t touch the water. Sure.”

Light flickered from a culvert leading into a dank circular room. The walls were lined with tall shelves packed full of books and scrolls. Strapped onto a wooden table in the center was a creature so horrendous Taro’s mind strained take in what he was seeing.

It was a slimy mass of tendrils and teeth, with five legs and something resembling a body. It flopped around wildly, gnashing its jagged black teeth. It must’ve had a thousand eyes and each of them moved and blinked independently.

On a wheeled cart nearby were scalpels and sutures, and beside them open books scribbled full of notes in a strange language.

Taro pressed his back against the bookshelf and strafed to the stairwell leading the ground floor. As he did, he passed a barred doorway to some sort of cell; inside was a single table, two chairs, and a sleeping cot. Carved into the stone wall of the cell were five deep grooves filled with dry blood.

Taro bolted up the staircase and into the polar opposite of the dungeon-like room below. The floor was redwood with fine black and gold rugs running past portraits of Mathan’s extended family alongside hunting trophies.

The gallery at the end of the corridor had a vaulted ceiling twice as tall as the hall, and the walls adorned with ivory tusks, elk heads, and an array of crossbows. The only light source in this room was the fireplace on the opposite end. An ancient man in a white doctor’s coat stood on the hearth; his hair was black with white strands throughout, and his grizzled, leathery skin hung off his bones like a used rag.

Mathan wasn’t far off. He sat the brown package Taro and Nima acquired for him on the mantelpiece and lit a cigar on an ember.

“Those things will kill you,” the old man said.

Mathan took a long drag and exhaled through his nose. “Worried about my health?”

“I’m not that kind of doctor.” The old man steepled his bone-thin fingers. “We must proceed as quickly as possible. The Magisterium won’t keep Vexis alive forever.”

“She just had to get herself caught,” Mathan said. “She’s reckless.”

“I trust that Vexis knows what she’s doing. But do you? Is trusting this to children the wisest course of action? If they’re discovered the Magisterium will execute them, children or not.”

“No doubt.”

Taro crept past the door and hurried down the hallway, checking every turn and every room for a way to main door. Eventually he found it.

The magister was there waiting. “I was beginning to worry.”

Taro spoke a mile a minute. “There’s something alive downstairs. Some kind of monster.”

The magister’s expression was flat. “Show me.”

The two returned to the cellar. The creature on the table was completely still. The magister approached it with disgust, and leafed through some of the nearby books.

“Is it dead?” Taro said.

“I’m not sure it was ever alive.” The magister’s finger paused over a sketch of the creature. He recoiled like he’d just touched a red-hot frying pan. He scratched at his forehead and temples like some deep, seething pain was boiling to the surface. It soon passed and he wiped blood from his eyes.

“I remember this place,” he said, still shaking. “They kept me here. Experimented on me.” The magister grabbed Taro by the arm. “They tried to make me forget. Tried to convince me I was crazy.”

Taro first instinct was to run. Had it not been for Nima’s well-being he wouldn’t even have entertained staying in such a place with an obvious loon.

The magister stuffed the papers into his many pockets and loaded up armfuls of books. “They fried my brain to keep me from talking.”

It seemed almost cruel to play into his delusion, but Taro couldn’t help but ask. “Why not just kill you?”

“That’s… hard to explain. I’m going to have a better look around. Go on and find your sister, but don’t let them see you.”

Taro returned to the gallery and to his relief, Nima was inside and unharmed. Sikes was beside and in considerable pain from his recent ass-kicking.

Mathan looked his bloody face over. “Can’t go a single day without getting into a fight?”

“It’s not my fault,” Sikes snapped. “Her brother—”

“I honestly don’t care,” Mathan said, cutting the air with his hand.

Sikes crossed his arms and shot nudged towards Dr. Halric. “Who’s the old guy?”

Halric motioned Sikes towards him. “I’m your employer.”

“I thought Mathan was our employer,” Nima said.

“Quite right, I’m much more than that. I’m your owner.” He grabbed a vial and smeared the contents on Sikes’ bruises. They immediately disappeared. “And I can’t have damaged merchandise.”

Halric paced around the children. “I trust Victor has explained the job to you.”

“He told us we’re pretending to be Magisterium recruits,” Sikes said. “What he didn’t tell us is why.”

Dr. Halric fished two devices out of the brown package on the mantelpiece. They were long chisel-like tools with hollow glass tubes in the handle, similar to the one the magister had. “‘Why’ doesn’t matter right now. ‘How’ is much more important. Take these.”

“What are they?” Nima asked as she looked the device over.

“Inscribers. You’ll be trained on their use at the Magisterium.”

Nima flipped the inscriber through her fingers, and Halric placed a wrinkled hand on her wrist. “It’s not a toy.”

Mathan lingered by the hearth, watching the conversation unfold. He sat his tea down and tapped his cigar over an ashtray before speaking. “I fancy myself a fair man. I’d like to give you both a chance to bow out before we proceed. I won’t lie, if you’re discovered, the Magisterium will show no mercy.”

Sikes didn’t hesitate. “Leave this hell-hole to become powerful and rich? Sounds like a no-brainer.”

It was hard for Taro to read Nima’s eyes. What at first had looked like fear now was something decidedly different: Excitement. Fire.

Nima puffed herself up. “I’m in.”

Taro’s body acted on its own. One moment he was kneeling behind the couch, and the next he was standing between Nima and Mathan.

Nima shrunk under Taro’s furious glare. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he shouted.

Halric was more surprised than angry. “And who might this be?”

“Her brother. Clearly he’s more resourceful than I gave him credit for.” Mathan approached Taro with a wide, happy grin. “I was hoping you’d come around.”

Taro wasn’t sure how sincere Mathan was, so he opted for politeness. “I’m actually here to take her home, sir. She snuck out.”

“Is that true?” Mathan asked.

“It’s my decision,” Nima said indignantly.

Taro seized her by the wrist. “We’ll talk about this at home.”

“I’m not going.”

“If this is about Dad—”

Nima managed to pull herself free. “This isn’t about Dad. This is about me. Running jobs for Mathan, working at Craiven & Boors. It’s exciting. I love it. You use to love it, too.”

“You don’t know what you’re saying.”

“Mr. Mathan, you said you needed a proper Endran. Where else are you going to find one before morning?” Nima asked.

Mathan mulled it over. “I’m afraid she’s correct. I respect your desire to keep your sister safe, but the stakes are much bigger than any one person.”

“I don’t think you understand,” Taro snapped. “She’s not going with you.”

Mathan’s eyes darkened and he stood so close that he seemed as large as a mountain. He blew a ring of smoke and placed the hand holding his lit cigar on Taro’s shoulder.

A few ashes flaked off and burned Taro’s shirt, but he didn’t move. “I don’t think you understand.”

But Taro did understand. Mathan could have him and his entire family killed. He could have them evicted from their house. He could make their lives a living hell.

“I’m sorry,” Taro said as sincerely as he could. “I just want to keep her safe.”

“I respect that.” Mathan cleared his throat, lifted his hand, and all at once he was back to his friendly self. “I encourage you to join her if that’s your concern.”

“We can go together?”

“You’re my original choice for a job,” Mathan said.

Dr. Halric had been watching the exchange intently. He moved closer and tapped Taro’s wooden prosthetic with his cane. “I couldn’t help but notice your handicap.”

“What’s your point?” Taro said sharply.

“So hostile,” Halric said, pulling an inscriber of his own from his white coat. “Hold still, please.”

Halric wrote several strange words on the outer edge of Taro’s prosthetic. When he pressed his grizzled fingers to the inscription, the letters glowed. If he didn’t know any better, he would’ve thought that his prosthetic had disappeared. The weight was completely gone, and the usual pressure where it touched his real flesh had faded.

“Better?” Halric asked.

Taro tapped his prosthetic on the floor. “What did you do?”

“That is a mere sample of the magic you can learn at the Magisterium. There are many other kinds. Perhaps even magic that could cure your parents.”

Taro was transfixed by the runes for a moment, but quickly snapped out of it. “Even if that’s true,” he said, “I can’t just leave them. They need—”

“You have my word as a gentleman that they will be well-cared for,” Mathan said. “Not to mention the thousand crown payment. Think of what you could do for your family with that kind of money. Good food and comfort for the rest of their lives. Superior medicine. Education for your brothers. All that and more.”

Taro sat on the edge of an armchair. “How does us learning magistry benefit you?”

“Your education is incidental,” Halric said. “Deep within the dungeons of the Magisterium is an acquaintance of ours. The dungeons are utterly impenetrable from the outside. However, students who have attained the rank of artificer or higher can move freely throughout the complex.”

“It’s really quite simple.” Mathan held out his hand. “Do we have a deal?”

“If I say no?”

“Nothing sinister. But your sister will be coming either way.”

Taro didn’t see any way out of it. He shook Mathan’s hand.

“Excellent,” Mathan said. “I knew we could work through this messy situation like reasonable men. Report to Boors tomorrow at dawn.”

“You’re just going to let us go?” Taro asked.

“I’m not your captor. I want us to have a good working relationship.”

“What’s to keep us from going to the constable? Or running off?”

“Come now, Taro. You’re a smart lad.” Mathan grabbed fresh cigar and clipped the end. “Remember to be careful heading home. Decker and Enam are probably asleep, you wouldn’t want to wake them.”

Mathan lit the cigar and smiled. He never made a threat. He didn’t need to. Taro got the message.

Chapter Four

Magister Extraordinaire

“You’re unbelievable,” Nima shouted as they left the mansion.

It was still raining and the water was nearly up to Taro’s ankle. He grabbed Nima by the arm and pulled her along. “You don’t understand how dangerous men like him are.”

“It’s my life.”

“You want to leave me with nobody, don’t you? Mom, Dad… there’s no guarantee they’re going to live. And you’re just going to throw your life away? For what?”

They returned to the house in silence. Taro stood outside, staring at the building, watching the water flow off the gutters onto the lawn.

“I’ll be up soon,” Taro said. Nima went ahead and a moment later, the magister came to stand beside Taro.

“Waiting’s not going to make it any easier.” The magister held a torn piece of cloth to his face with one hand, and a stack of books with the other. Blood trickled down his cheek.

“They caught you?” Taro asked.

He motioned towards his armful of books. “I tried opening one of these. It had a rather nasty enchantment on it.”

The magister’s calm was bizarre, like having his face burned off was a minor inconvenience.

“You should find a doctor.”

“All I need is a dry place to look these over.”

Taro led the magister through the mountains of toys on the steps. Nima was in the living room sitting in near total darkness with Enam on her lap. The magister sat on the couch beside them while Taro fetched a washcloth.

“Who’re you?” Nima said.

The magister opened one of the books and ran his finger down a line of text. “A friend.”

Enam scrunched his nose. “You smell.”

Taro went to the washroom, wet a rag, and gave it to the magister. As he wiped the blood off his face, his cuts sealed themselves and the burns disappeared.

“Enam, go to your room,” Taro said, dumbfounded.

“But—”

“Now.”

The magister continued to scan through the books and spoke conversationally. “Last spring I was rummaging through some bins on Dock Street. Along comes a man with a knife to a woman’s neck. To make a long story short, my attempt at gallantry left me with a punctured lung. I bled out, but death never came.”

Taro sat across from the magister. “Are you saying you can’t die?”

“I haven’t been stupid enough to find out. At the very least, my body is resistant to damage. I think it’s the reason that Mathan and Dr. Halric held me captive.”

“And why they didn’t kill you. Maybe they just couldn’t. But—”

“But why not keep me locked up forever? I’ve asked myself the same thing.” The magister turned to another page. “These journals are centered around the study of some kind of illness. Maybe seeing if I could resist it… or…” The magister shut the book. “You two should start packing, you’ve got quite a journey ahead.”

Nima pulled Taro aside and whispered. “Am I missing something here? Who is this guy?”

“I’ll explain later,” Taro said. “Get your things together. I want to be out of here before Mom and Dad wake up.”

Taro packed in total silence. A few times he’d pause, walk to the door of his parent’s room, but stopped just short of entering. Leaving without talking to them seemed wrong. Leaving a letter was almost as bad. Finally, he gathered his courage and entered. His parents wheezed as they slept.

Taro kissed his mother on the forehead and her eyes cracked opened.

“Taro?” she said drowsily. “What are you doing up?”

He grabbed her hand. “I had a bad dream. I wanted to make sure you were okay.”

She sat up on her feather pillow. “You can tell the truth, love. You’re thinking about what your father said.” She glanced at her sleeping husband. “Don’t let him get to you. It’s not easy for him to be like this. Lying in bed while you keep the family afloat goes against everything he is.” His mom put her hand on Taro’s heart. “We love you. Don’t ever forget that.” She pulled the blankets over her head and went back to sleep.

For Taro, sleep didn’t come that night. Three o’clock came and went as he stared up at the ceiling, then four o’clock. By five, he’d given up. Just as the sun peaked over the pointed rooftops outside, he flung his pack over his shoulder and slipped out in complete silence.

Aris was long gone, but Nima waited on the stoop, tossing rocks into puddles.

“Ready?” Taro asked.

Nima looked back at the house. “Ready.”

When Taro and Nima reached the shop, they found Miss Craiven standing beside a rickety carriage tapping her foot impatiently. “In you go, children.” She beat the dust off her skirt. “I thought you said you cleaned this out, Herald.”

Mr. Boors was in the coach seat with a rain cloak on. “It’s plenty clean.”

Sikes was on the opposite side of the compartment. He looked Taro over like he was something he’d scraped off his boot, then went back to arranging a deck of playing cards in some sort of game.

Taro decided to speak first. “We’re going to have to talk eventually.”

Sikes didn’t look up. “When I have something to say, you won’t have any trouble hearing it.”

Nima had been quietly observing. “Didn’t you two use to be a team?”

“Before your brother decided he was too good for me.”

“I never—”

Sikes set his cards down. “You just left. Up and disappeared without so much as a word. Then you come back out of nowhere, not to apologize, but to get my ass kicked. How’d you think I was going to react?

“You know those jobs we use to run? Hard to find a partner on short notice, so I tried runnin’ them myself. Got me locked up for two months. I consider that lucky; the constable isn’t usually so lenient with Helians.”

Taro felt like he’d been kicked in the gut, and hesitated before he found his next words. “My dad told me that if I didn’t stop, he’d kick me out. I didn’t have a choice.” He glanced briefly at Nima. “And… I didn’t want her to end up like me.”

“Then why come back?” Sikes said.

“He and my mom are sick. They can’t work, and the medicine’s expensive. I didn’t want to hurt you, but I had no choice. Can we put this behind us?”

Sikes gathered up the cards and shuffled the deck. “I ain’t putting my faith in you again. You screwed me once, you’ll screw me again. See, I learned something rotting away in that cell: trust no one but yourself.”

“It’s water under the bridge now, boys.” Miss Craiven produced three bundles of papers from her bag. She handed one to each of them, and when Taro turned his upside down a thick gold medallion fell into his lap. “I may have missed the theater, but it gave me ample time to work on these. Perfect forgeries.”

“What kind of forgeries?” Sikes said as he looked over his.

“The Magisterium is the most prestigious magical organization in the world. One does not simply waltz in. These are letters of mark and your auroms.”

Their medallions were similar, but Nima’s was iron and Sikes’ was wood. Taro’s was plated with gold.

“Why does he get the gold one?” Sikes asked.

“It hardly matters,” Miss Craiven said. “All you need to worry about is getting situated for your trials. Stick together and you’ll have a better chance of living.”

“Living?” Taro said.

Miss Craiven ignored the comment and squealed with glee. “Look at the three of you. Future magisters. How exciting.” She took out a pen and notepad. “Now, in the case of your death, who should I contact?”

Taro’s heart thumped in his chest. “I think I’m gonna be sick.” He and Nima climbed out sat against the carriage. The familiar sound of clanking approach from the road. When Boors saw the magister coming, he hopped down and shooed him.

“Off with you!” Boors shouted.

The magister touched his fingertips to Boors’ forehead and the old man staggered back in a daze.

“W-what’s going on?” Boors said.

The magister’s voice became momentarily peppy and he shook Boors’ hand. “All right, all right, calm down. I’ll do it, if you insist.” He sounded like a salesman loading off bad merchandise.

Boors fumbled. “Yes… I… what?”

The magister pointed towards the carriage. “You’ve convinced me. I’ll take two of them myself. Now off you go, you’ve got a long trip.”

“Yes, I’d… better go…” Boors walked like a zombie back towards the carriage.

“We should leave before that wears off,” the magister said.

“What makes you think we’re going with you?” Taro asked.

“Let’s see, you could ride with a powerful magister, or screeching pumpkin lady, her loudmouthed husband, and a boy that you had the ever-living shit beaten out of just a few hours ago. Decisions, decisions. Bring those papers with you.”

Taro couldn’t argue. He and Nima grabbed forged papers and followed the magister back into town.

The west side of Dock Street were mostly slums; mice scurried across the cobble and glass from broken windows littered the alleys. Helian children, their faces covered in dirt and wearing little more than rags, played dragon-slayer with garbage can lids and willow branches.

“What did you do to Boors?” Nima asked as they walked.

“A mind hex. I try to avoid them, some more feeble minds can be damaged by just one use.”

“Is that something we’ll learn at the Magisterium?” Nima asked.

“I should think not. Using templary in such a way is quite illegal.”

“So you remember enough to use magic, but not enough to tell me your name?” Taro said. “That’s oddly-specific amnesia.”

“Isn’t it? My name is Aris, by the way.”

“Aris. You remembered that?”

“It was in their notes, actually.”

They moved deeper into the Helian district. The buildings were owned by Mathan (as most buildings were) but were utterly unkempt. This was only the second time Taro had been this far into Dock Street. It was his worst fear that he and his family would one day end up living here.

“I don’t think amnesia is the right word,” Aris said, as if he’d been thinking about Taro’s word choice their entire walk. “This wasn’t some bump on the head. It was targeted, specific memories. Doing it would require someone with vast magical and alchemical knowledge.”

“You think it was Halric?”

“I know it was Halric. What I don’t know is why, but I think the reason is somewhere in Endra Edûn.” Aris stopped. Tucked between two buildings was a faded-blue covered wagon, the sort that a traveling circus might use. It had a chimney on top of its wooden frame, and beveled letters across the side that read:

___

MAGISTER EXTRORDINAIRE

Choice oddities and artifices from the west.

No fortune-telling. No cephalonomancy. No refunds.

___

While Taro tried to figure out the proper pronunciation of ‘cephalonomancy,’ Aris stepped over a pile of bodies lying face down in front of the wagon door.

“Are they dead?” Nima asked.

“It’s just a simple enchant for thieves. One touch and they get a nice long nap.” Aris pressed his fingers to their necks and they snapped into consciousness. “Next time it’ll be lethal.”

They ran off and Aris opened the wagon door. It was uncomfortably small, with only a tiny cot in the back. The rest of the floor space was covered in crates, tools, and ratty clothes picked bare by moths. Aris pushed some screws off a chair, sat, and sorted through his bundle of junk.

It was unlike any wagon Taro have ever seen. Interlaced with the wood frame were fairly recent mechanical changes. A shaft connected to a bundle of gears jetted from the wheels, each of which converged at and a series of levers rising from the floor.

“Did you build this?” Taro asked.

“The important parts.”

“It’s not going anywhere without a horse,” Nima said.

“Is that a fact?” Aris yanked down two of the levers. The entire wagon rattled, but stayed put.

“Yup,” Nima said smugly.

“Hold on.” Aris opened a panel on the floor and knocked around until a puff of black smoke erupted from the floorboards. Taro and Nima hacked and coughed as the wagon lurched forward.

Aris opened a tiny window to air out the smoke. “See, what did I tell you? Next stop, Endra Edûn.”

_____

The air grew colder with each passing day. Taro used the time to study the notes Miss Craiven gave him, but his mind was back home: warm food waiting for him at the table, Enam and Decker wrestling on the living room floor, and his father telling stories about his glory days as a warder.

Taro cupped his hands and tried to warm them with his breath. The wind cut through the wagon’s wooden canopy like tissue paper, and even huddled in two layers of blankets, his limbs were numb and his breath was a visible puff.

Nima was even worse off, and kept brushing away ice crystals building up in her hair. Taro offered her one of his blankets, but she insisted she was fine.

Taro was glad they’d brought food and water with them, as there was not an ounce of either in the wagon, and he never saw Aris eat or drink once during the four day trip.

On the last morning, Taro woke up so early that he was convinced that Aris simply didn’t sleep. When his eyes cracked open he saw the magister in the corner fiddling with his prosthetic.

“That’s mine!” Taro said. He felt like he’d just had a piece of himself stolen. He pulled towards Aris, who either didn’t notice or didn’t care how upset he was.

Aris casually tossed it back to him. “That’s an interesting use of magistry.”

“Please don’t touch it,” Taro pleaded.

“Sorry,” Aris said dismissively. He certainly didn’t sound sorry.

Taro breathed hot air into his fingers. “It just keeps getting colder.”

“Get used to it.”

“I thought Endra Edûn was the City of the Sun,” Taro said. “Y’know, where it’s always daytime every hour of every day.”

“That hasn’t been the case for over a year now.”

“How could it change so much so fast? That’s not natural.”

“Ah,” Aris said, holding up one finger. “It’s the opposite, actually. The cold is natural. The eternal-summer was artificial. The Arclight on top of the Magisterium tower acted like a second sun and kept the countryside lush and temperate for centuries. It also had great healing powers. Quite a remarkable piece of old magic.”

“What happened to it?”

“Humans happened. Give people paradise and they’ll find a way to muck it up. Big surprise. Now, Endra Edûn is miserable city of icy squalor.” Aris pointed at a tiny blip on the foggy horizon. “See that?”

Taro squinted into the flurry of snow. Faint lights were scattered in the distance, framed by ice-capped mountains.

“That’s it.”

Taro leaned back from the window. “Last night Mathan and Halric mentioned someone named Vexis. Sound familiar?”

Aris shook his head but Taro noted a slight hesitation. “Not especially.”

“They want us to break her out of the Magisterium.”

“The magisters would tear you apart before you could take two steps out the cell door.”

“Should turn around then?”

“Go back and your family is as good as dead,” Aris said flatly. “Victor shook your hand and it can’t be un-shaken. This is his game now and, like it or not, you have to play by his rules.”

“Playing by his rules might get me killed.”

“Or worse. You saw that void creature in his cellar. Beings like that only spawn from truly vicious magic.”

“What exactly was it?”

“I can’t say exactly. You may be able to find out in the Magisterium if you’re tactful.”

“Tactful?”

“If you go in yelling about void creatures you might attract unwanted attention. Like I said: tactful.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Five

Lower City

They passed through acres of frozen farmland as they neared Endra Edûn. Icicles hung off barns and tilling equipment, and frozen cattle carcasses huddled around their feeders as if the area had been abandoned overnight.

Passed these farms was the city. It was built like a fortress, and its smooth white walls stretched from horizon to horizon, surrounding hundreds of tall buildings. In the center was an enormous tower of a different construction than the rest; it reminded Taro of a tree with long metal roots that dug through the city and continued for miles in every direction. All other structures were built to accommodate it: roads went under its roots and bridges spanned over them, and a grand palace with high stained-glass windows wrapped around the base in a semi-circle.

The causeway from the road to the city gate was packed with warders stopping every visitor.

A warder halted their wagon and stepped inside the doorway. “Your business?” he said curtly. He looked positively miserable in the freezing weather. His face was beat red, ice crystals had overtaken his burly beard.

“We’re heading to the Magisterium,” Aris said. “New recruits.”

The guard gave Taro and Nima a significant look. “Auroms and inscribers?”

Nima fished her inscriber out. It was at this moment that Taro realized he’d never gotten one from Mathan.

Aris gave the warder his own inscriber. “This is the boy’s.”

The warder didn’t inspect either of them too thoroughly. “You’re early. Admissions has been moved to tomorrow.”

“Why’s that?” Taro asked.

“Complications.” The warder pointed his thumb at the road. “Keep her movin’.”

The design of the streets was perplexing. Down the center of the road was a frozen canal and rows of dead trees. The buildings had cloth overhands on the outsides, but most were either torn or heavy with snow. Underneath the overpasses were people, apparently homeless, huddled around fires.

The spiraling tower in the center of the city was indeed the Magisterium. This close, its intricacies were more apparent. What at first appeared to be smooth stone was in fact covered with deep flourishes and engravings that covered the entire stone and metal exterior. The panels occasionally shifted like the tower was rearranging itself from the inside out.

Around the base was a perimeter of runes etched into the ground. The lettered glowed a soft blue, and was pointedly avoided by anyone walking nearby.

While the roads to and from the Magisterium were in pristine condition, shoveled and salted, the further they went, the more the wagon struggled through the slush and ice that caked the streets.

Aris road with the door opened and peered out. “We’ve got to be close by now,” he murmured to himself.

“Close to what?” Taro asked.

“The lower city.”

The wagon dipped into a dark tunnel. The closer they got to the end of this tunnel, the warmer it became. They exited into a wide underground plaza buzzing with life. Heat rose from the soil beneath and wires lined with red lights hung from the rusted grates above.

There were three kinds of people in the lower city. The first kind were the destitute; they huddled around lit trash cans and wandered between merchants begging.

The second kind were a step up. They were obviously poor, but not so much as they had to beg. Their clothes were sewn together a half-dozen times, but at least they were clean. These people browsed the merchant wagons to shop with what little they had.

The third kind were people only someone like Taro could identify, as they did their best to blend in with the first two. These were the quick-fingered cutpurses, thieves, and dredges of society that with a mere bump could clear a man of everything in his pockets.

These boys were experts, and they worked in packs. It was like watching theater in action. One would bump into a person from the left, while the other cut the victim’s purse strings. If the victim realized their money was gone, they’d assume it had been the boy who’d bumped into them.

Taro absentmindedly placed his satchel of coins into his shirt and buttoned it up. The wagon came to a stop beside several others in a row of carts beside an inn.

Aris changed into his tattered, smelly rags.

Nima pinched her nose. “What the hell are you wearing?”

Aris fished a nub of coal out of a drawer and smeared it across his face. “It’s my cloak of invisibility.” He strung the pack of junk over his shoulders and ruffled his dark hair into a mess. “Ancient magic. Watch closely.”

They followed Aris out and he made a big show of going up to the first woman he saw. “Excuse me, ma’am…” She hurried away from him with her son in tow.

“Not even a glance,” Aris said. “Truly this is a magic beyond words. I’ll be back in an hour. Use the time to get a room.”

“Can’t we stay with you?” Nima asked.

“Despite the lavish amenities and helpful guest service, my wagon isn’t a hotel. Get moving or sleep in the snow.”

Aris left without another word. Taro and Nima decided to have a look around as they made their way towards the inn adjacent to the carts.

The first cart was owned by a red-haired bard plucking at a six-stringed lute and singing a rather scandalous song. Beside him sat a bowl that listeners tossed iron pennies into.

The next wagon was uncovered and filled to with books. Not scrolls or sheets of parchment on twine loops (both of which were far more common and much less expensive). These were real books, bound in leather and quite valuable. The sign hanging over the side of the cart said, with no apparent sarcasm, ‘damage a book, lose a finger.’ Beside this was a jar of severed fingers floating in thick clear syrup.

The greasy shopkeeper’s eyes scanned his stock like a searchlight, and when they met Taro he slithered towards him. Taro was flipping through a first edition copy of The Witch of the Well that had been curiously propped up beside much less valuable books.

“I always thought Dad made that story up,” Nima said.

The shopkeeper placed a boney hand on their shoulders. “You have great taste.”

Taro peered up. “This always scared the living hell out of me.”

“A fiendish curse, a deal with the Old Gods. Not for children, and very expensive. I’d be willing to part with it for three crowns.”

Three crowns was a week’s wages for most men, but this book not only appeared to be an original, the silver bindings on the cover were worth more than that by themselves. Knowing the value of things was something Taro was good at, and the man’s offer was suspicious.

Taro looked at Nima and knew they were both thinking the same thing. He placed the book back on the shelf. “No, thank you.”

The shopkeeper’s voice turned sour. “You’re passing up quite an offer.”

They retreated to a safe distance beside the red-haired lutist and kept an eye on the book cart.

“He was trying to work us,” Nima said as they crouched.

“Without a doubt.”

They waited and a well-dressed woman with her hair in a bun appeared and examined the books until she found the same copy of The Witch of the Well. From her expression, it was like stumbling upon a king’s tomb. She leafed through the pages delicately and ran her fingers along the binding.

“Is that my favorite customer?” the shopkeeper said, pretending like he’d only just noticed her. “Moira, I was beginning to think you’d stopped making rounds, things as they are.”

She held up the book and tapped the cover. “How much, Rashkal?”

“For an esteemed customer such as yourself, I could let it go for a paltry twenty crowns.”

She examined it further, checking every ruffled page and frayed corner.

“You’ll find it’s genuine,” Rashkal said.

“Should I find otherwise, I’ll be paying you another visit.” Moira placed twenty silver crowns in the shop keep’s hand.

“You wound me. I’d never dream of cheating you.” He grinned, showing off his long, white teeth.

Taro and Nima watched and waited, following behind Moira as she hurried towards the lower city exit. She placed the book in a large sack (heavy with other books) flung over her shoulder. Then the show began. A boy walked into her and when she fell, he apologized a dozen times. At the same time, another boy casually walked passed. Taro never saw his hands move, but he knew what’d happened.

“Stay here,” Taro said. He charged off and seized the boy just a few feet from where Moira was dusting herself off.

“Let me go!” the boy shouted and struggled.

He was no more than twelve, and Taro was able to hold him without much effort. Tucked under his right arm was the book, and Taro shook it out of his arm.

He pushed him along and the boy ran off. Taro handed the book to Moira. “You should be more careful.”

Moira searched through her bag, utterly dumbfounded that they’d managed to get without her noticing.

“Thank you,” she said graciously.

“It’s an old trick,” Nima said, just catching up.

Taro brushed the dirt off the cover. “Those boys work for the shopkeep. He sells a book for well under its value, and they steal it back.”

“That’s quite an eye you have,” the woman said. “Twenty crowns was too good to be true.”

“It’s worth at least a full sovereign,” Taro said.

“Maybe a sov and a half,” Nima added.

Moira tilted her glasses down and sized the children up. “You know books?”

“I’ve got some experience.” Taro stopped short of mentioning that his experience involved trading stolen ones.

Moira went to grab her purse, but it wasn’t there. She went from red with anger to an exasperated laugh. “There was a time when even the poorest person wouldn’t dare rob a member of the Magisterium.”

“You’re a magister?” Taro said.

“No, I just work there. I catalogue and archive books in the Librarium. Sometimes I visit shops around town looking for new works to add to the collection, but with the Arclight situation it’s become much more difficult.”

“So it will be available there soon?” Taro said.

“As soon as I find a place for it.”

“We’ll be the first to check it out then.”

“I’m afraid the Librarium is only open to members of the Magisterium.”

“We’re doing admissions tomorrow,” Nima said.

Moira looked genuinely surprised. “Both of you?”

“Yes,” Nima said, slightly offended. She flashed her iron aurom. “Is that a problem?”

“Of course not.” She peered down at her book. “Tell you what, hold onto this for me.”

Taro pushed the book away. “I couldn’t.”

“I insist. Bring it to me in the Librarium after you’ve had a chance to read it.”

She dropped the book into Taro’s arms. It was like being trusted with a brick of solid gold. When it became clear that Moira wouldn’t take no for an answer, he thanked her a dozen times and stashed it in Aris’ wagon. Taro ached to take a few minutes to read through the first chapter, but it’d already been over a half-hour since Aris left and they still needed to book a room.

Taro and Nima hurried towards the inn, keeping a fair distance from the Rashkal’s wagon. The shopkeeper looked like he was going to beat the boys senseless.

“I’m going to stay out here and watch the show,” Nima said.

“Stay out of trouble.”

The brass bell on the door jingled as Taro entered. Even inside, he heard Rashkal hurling vulgar insults.

The inside was much more upscale than the outside suggested. Yes, it was very old; the floor beams creaked underfoot and the ceiling sagged like the weight of the top floors was too much for it to handle, but at least it was clean, and the girl at the desk looked friendly.

She was a few years older than Taro, and much too pretty to be working in a place like this. Her hair was bright blonde and cut short like a boy’s. She had two books in her hand, one wedged inside the other. The one on the outside was pulp fiction from some penny-bin, but the book on the inside rode up and its title was visible: Gravidic Magistry: Revised Edition. When she saw Taro, she straightened the books out so that the second one was covered.

“May I help you?” She sounded as though he’d interrupted her.

“I’m looking for a room.”

She set her books face-down. Beside her were small square shelves, each with a different number and a hook inside. Half had room keys dangling from them.

Taro realized he’d been staring at her and snapped his glanced towards her books. “Are you studying for the term?” he asked hastily.

“Term?”

“For the Magisterium. I saw you reading—”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Taro gave his best smile. “Ah, that’s too bad. I thought you could give me some pointers for admissions.”

“You’re going through admissions?” she said in a hushed voice, though they were the only two in the room.

Taro nodded.

“You’re not from around here are you?”

“Why?”

“You don’t just go around telling people you’re in the Magisterium.” She picked up the book she’d hidden. “My dad would kill me if he knew.”

“Why’s that?”

“Have you not seen the upper city?”

“It’s cold… how’s that the magister’s faults?”

“They broke the Arclight a year ago. At least, that’s what people say.” She plucked a key from a slot marked ‘12B’. “It’s good for business down here in Lower, not so much for everyone else. Bedrooms are one noble a night.”

Taro set a crown on the counter, enough to cover the first ten days. The bell hanging over the door chimed again and Aris entered with Nima.

“You still here?” Aris looked at the reception girl, then back at Taro. He motioned his hands towards the stairs like a museum guide showing off a display. “I hate to interrupt, but we’ve got some preparing to do. I’m sure you two can get acquainted later.”

Taro thanked the girl and followed Aris and Nima up the stairs. “Could you try to be a bit more subtle?” he whispered.

“Oh, did I interfere with your flirting? I’m so sorry. I’m just trying to keep you from getting killed, but by all means, ladies come first.”

Nima grinned at Taro. “To be fair, she was pretty.”

“She’s going through admissions,” Taro said defensively. “We’ll need friends for our trial.”

“Friends. Sure. This way, lady-killer,” Aris said.

“We’re going to study?” Nima asked.

“If by ‘study’ you mean find a way to cheat and bullshit your way through, then yes.”

Room 12B was the furthest door on the top floor. The key was hardly necessary, as Taro could’ve broken the wobbly handle off without much effort. The room was tiny and the bed alone took up half of the floor space. Its single window overlooked the lower city. It was strange having a window that he couldn’t see the sky from, however he could see that the underground went on for miles.

Aris set his pack against the wall and sat cross-legged on the floor. He carefully removed a glass cartridge from his coat and ushered Taro to hand him his inscriber. He wedged his finger in a groove and the handle popped open. He placed the vial inside and wrote a single word onto a floorboard. The end of the inscriber glowed red and as it seared the letter into the wood.

Aris blew on the ink and looked over his penmanship. “I don’t have much use for my old inscriber, so I don’t mind you having it. It’s top of the line.”

“Is that a rune?” Taro asked.

Aris nodded. “Basic magistry.”

Taro sat on the bed and it almost caved in under his minor weight. “What exactly is magistry?”

“There are three types of magic. Alchemy you should be familiar with. Potions and such, ink-making too. Templary is more complicated, but is essentially magic formed from pure willpower. Magistry is templary made solid, it’s used to modify physical objects to do things they normally couldn’t do. For example, there are runes to decrease the weight of an object, this is essential in airship design. Or the runes on your leg.”

“Mathan had a set of parchments, whatever you wrote on one was mimicked on the other.”

“That would fall under magistry as well. The possibilities are endless, but it’s not a zero-sum gain. There are subtle rules and failure to follow them can be disastrous.”

“The notes Miss Craiven gave us say we’ll be evaluated tomorrow,” Taro said. “Are they going to test our knowledge of magic?”

Aris shrugged. “Probably.”

“Probably?” Nima said. “Don’t you know? Aren’t you a magister?”

Aris tapped his temple. “Burned memory.”

Nima raised her voice. “But you remember where Endra Edûn is, you remember what magistry is, you—”

“If I could explain it, I would,” Aris said testily.

“So you’re basically useless,” Taro said. “Couldn’t you have told us that earlier?”

“Depends on what you mean by useless. I have an idea that might give you two a leg-up.”

“What kind of idea?”

They planned the next day well into the night. It was two in the morning when Aris finally left. Nima took the tiny bed (which was missing sheets and pillows) and Taro took the floor.

Again, sleep wasn’t forthcoming.

The tiny room had no bath of its own, so Taro reasoned that there must’ve been a communal washroom somewhere. He went to the front desk, but there girl from before was gone and replaced by an older grizzled man with a thick beard and two silver earrings on one ear. He was sleeping face-down beside a half-empty bottle of Celosan whiskey. On the wall by the room keys was one marked ‘Bath’ which Taro took.

“That’ll cost you a penny,” a soft voice called from behind him. It was the girl from before.

“I have to pay to take a bath?” Taro said.

“I think it would be a worthy investment,” she said.

It took a split second for Taro to realize he was being insulted. “I’ve been on the road for days.” The girl stifled a laugh and Taro trailed off. He reached into his pocket and placed an iron penny on the desk. “Fair enough.”

“And another to rent soap and a towel.”

Taro waited to see if she was joking, and when her expression didn’t change, he placed another coin on the desk. “Well, umm…”

“Suri.”

“Suri. Any other expenses I should know about? Is there a fee to use the toilet?”

“Don’t give my dad any ideas.” She nudged towards the sleeping drunk.

“Did you finish your book?”

“I’ve read it cover-to-cover three times already.” She hushed her voice and waved Taro towards the front door.

The air outside was cool, but occasional rushes of warm air blew in. Taro and Suri sat on the creaking stoop. Most of the shops and merchant carts had closed for the night.

Suri handed him the book from before. It was filled with magistry symbols that Taro couldn’t begin to understand, and half the words weren’t even in Amínnic.

“Do you think it will impress the Imperator?” Suri asked.

Taro hesitated. “It impresses me.”

“Gravidic magistry is advanced stuff. If I succeed in demonstrating it I’ll be guaranteed a spot. If I fail… well, I may never get another chance. This’ll be my third trying at term one.”

“You’ve tried twice before? Is that normal?” He quickly realized how insulting he sounded, but if she was offended she didn’t show it.

“Plenty can make it through admissions, but only a handful can get through the trial. They’re brutal, almost cruel.” She stretched her arms. “I’m going to bed. You should too once you get cleaned up. The Magisterium doors open at 0800.”

“Hey wait,” Taro said as she stood in the doorway. “There were no sheets or pillows on my bed.”

“Oh, you have to pick them up from the front desk.”

Taro sighed. “Let me guess. They’re gonna cost me.”

Suri grinned impishly. “You catch on fast.”

Chapter Six

The Girl in the Iron Shackles

The morning sun didn’t do much for the cold. In the upper city, wind swept up snow and lashed Taro’s face as he and Nima stepped out of the wagon and onto the paved courtyard.

“Stick to the plan,” Aris said before riding off.

Before them was the circle of runes carved into the pavement. Recruits passed over it and when they did there was a momentary flash as though they’d hit something intangible. When Taro passed through it the aurom in his pocket became hot.

They followed the crowds of recruits through the massive stone double doors. The older recruits had their luggage and textbooks floating a few feet off the ground and were casually talking to friends.

“What do you think?” a boy with scrolls tucked under each arm said.

“Pitiful bunch by the looks of it. Ven’s opening a betting pool on the first ones to crack.”

The foyer was packed with more recruits; most were between Nima and Taro’s age, but some were well into their thirties.

Near the entrance was a boy hugging his parents. Both were in full magister garb: dark blue robes covered in straps and silver buckles. Over the robes were thin plates of steel on their shoulders, sides, and forearms.

“No matter what happens, we’re proud of you,” the boy’s mother said.

The boy’s father rubbed his hand into the boy’s hair. “Try not to blow anything up this year, Ven.”

“That wasn’t my fault,” Ven said indignantly.

“Excuse me,” Taro squeaked.

“Yes?” the mother said.

“We were wondering where to go from here.”

The woman had a bright, warm smile. She reminded Taro of his own mother. “It’s no bother. Ven, be a gem and show them to the registrar.”

Taro and Nima introduced themselves and followed Ven into the Magisterium. It was like stepping into a giant clock. Gears clicked and twirled in the walls and ceiling, while heat and steam bellowed out from grates in the floor. Much of the structure seemed tacked on to the original, most noticeable were metal walkways bolted to the sides of the stone walls. Overhead, thousands of tools and books flew in zig-zagging lines.

“Don’t worry, they’ll never hit you,” Ven said, hopping over a missing floor plate. “It’s the tower mechanisms you’ve gotta watch for. Not from around here?”

Taro’s prosthetic got momentarily caught in one of the gears and he tugged it free. “That obvious?”

“A bit. At least you got through the Midway just fine.” He answered Taro’s next question before he could ask it. “That’s the barrier around the tower, keeps civilians out.”

“From the get go, the biggest problem you’re going to have isn’t the lessons, it’s navigating this place. Doors like to disappear, hallways shift and turn.”

They stopped at a desk so tall Taro could barely see over the top. A portly, balding man with a hooked nose stared back.

Ven sat his inscriber and iron aurom on the desk. The man looked over them and scratched a name off his list. “Ven, your tuition has been paid in full.”

Taro’s ears perked. He looked at Nima, Nima looked at him. “Tuition?”

“For recruits, it’ll be fifty crowns sterling,” he said.

“Six more than last year,” Ven said. “It’s robbery.”

Taro felt a stabbing fear run through him. It might as well have been a million.

“But—” Taro began.

“Take it up with the Imperator if you have a problem,” the registrar said, waving them off.

Taro checked his pockets and picked through the eighteen crowns and change. Normally it would feel like a fortune.

“Could we talk alone?” Taro asked Ven.

Ven gave them some space. Taro and Nima set their auroms and inscribers on the desk.

“Do we have to pay the tuition right now?” Taro asked.

The registrar scratched their names out on his ledger and handed them two sealed envelopes. “No, but you won’t be able to start the term until you do.”

The registrar ushered the recruit forward. It was Sikes, looking incredibly smug. He sat his inscriber and wooden aurom on the desk, and when the registrar mentioned tuition Sikes handed him a furled up piece of vellum with a thick wax seal.

Taro pulled Sikes aside. “What is that?”

“None of your business.”

Taro plucked it from his hands.

___

NOTE OF MARQUE AND CREDIT

FIRST MONARCH TRUST

 

IMPERATOR, REGISTRAR, ET AL

 

HEREWITH the bearer of this note is authorized to draw upon the coffers of VICTOR J. MATHAN, undersigned, for their debt to HIS MAJESTY’S MAGISTERIUM in perpetuity until their expulsion or matriculation.

 

V. Mathan, Holder

S. Laren, Chequer

___

Sikes snatched the letter back. “It’s a promissory note from Mathan to cover my tuition.”

“Where’s ours?” Nima said.

“There was only one, and it was for me.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Nima said.

Sikes started for the hall. “Believe what you want.”

Taro and Nima caught back up with Ven, who didn’t seem to notice how flustered they were.

“You two can keep a secret, right?” Ven asked.

They nodded.

“I overheard my parents talking yesterday. Supposedly there’s a super-secret meeting they’re attending before heading back to Tyrithia. Want to come with?”

Taro’s first instinct was to say ‘no.’ They’d only just arrived, and getting into trouble on his first day probably wouldn’t go over well. However, Nima answered for him.

“Lead the way,” she said.

Ven motioned them along. “Stay close. See, the odd-numbered floors change clockwise every hour, and the even-numbered floors have a windmill pattern that changes depending on the season, and…”

Ven kept talking the entire way. Most of it sounded like nonsense, but he did seem to know the layout perfectly. The walkways pivoted, the floors moved, and gigantic gears grinded in every corridor. The primary source of light were thousands of glass orbs hanging from the ceiling by chains. They were various sizes, but none much larger than an arm’s length around.

Their destination was a narrow corridor with a door at the end. A black-haired boy was scratching at a handle with his inscriber.

“Taro, Nima, meet Pipes,” Ven said.

Pipes gave them a quick nod and went back to scratching at the door. “They upgraded the locks. I’ve tried every dispel I know.”

Taro looked over the knob. In a circle around it were glowing magistry symbols carved into the wood.

Taro pulled a thin metal pick out of his pocket. “Let’s try the old fashioned way.” He stuck the pick into the keyhole and rattled it around the tumblers until door creaked open.

Ven slapped him on the shoulder. “I think you and I are going to get along.”

On the other side of the door was a maintenance shaft. The shaft got smaller the further they went, until they had to crawl. At the end was a dusty hatch that opened into a sheer forty foot drop to a marble floor.

The room below was an octagon with seating five sides and a throne opposite them. The floor was decorated with red and yellow spirals that looked like rays of the sun.

The throne was empty, but at the base of the dais was a smaller seat. In it sat a female magister with bifocals and furious eyes. Taro could actually feel her gaze dart around the room like a searchlight.

Despite the dozens of magisters inside, there was complete silence as the woman scribbled onto a length of parchment.

“Who’s she?” Nima whispered.

“Magister Ross,” Ven said. “Charming lady. Not sure why she’s in Briggs’ chair.”

The door on the end opened and four warders entered, dragging a blonde Helian girl by her shoulders. She was covered head to toe in chains and shackles, and an iron mask was bolted around her face.

Magister Ross set her pen down and cleared her throat. “Vexis stands accused of the murder of Magister Briggs.”

Murmurs erupted from the room. “Impossible,” an elderly magister said.

“An artificer kill a magister? It’s absurd,” another said.

A single hand gesture from Ross quieted them. “Vexis isn’t what she appears to be.”

Taro had heard the name ‘Vexis’ before. Mathan and Halric mentioned her, but who was she?

Vexis struggled in her chains, and tears streamed down her eyes. She keeled forward and sobbed.

“Stand her up,” Ross said.

While the warders did so, the door beside the throne opened and a white-haired man in blue and gold robes entered. He was older, perhaps in his late sixties, but moved like a younger man.

“That’s the Sun King,” Ven whispered.

The Sun King was an imposing figure, tall and sharp-eyed. He was the absolute ruler of Endra, Ashwick included, but it was well-known that the Magisterium had more practical power. You’d never know that from the way the magisters reacted to his presence though. Their backs straightened, and the chattering amongst them stopped altogether.

The Sun King looked Vexis over. “Remove her mask.”

“Your Majesty, for your safety you should allow us to handle this,” Ross said in much the same tone that one speaks to a child.

“Please, do as I command.”

The warders unscrewed the sides of the iron mask, and it fell to the floor with a clank. Vexis’ face was red and soaked with tears.

“Your Majesty,” she cried. “I’m innocent!”

The Sun King rapped his fingers on his armrest. “What were you doing to the Arclight?”

“I wasn’t doing anything,” Vexis said.

Ross handed the Sun King a piece of parchment. “Miss Vexis is a practiced liar. Her credentials were false. Her letter of recommendation, forged. Her sponsor doesn’t even exist.”

The Sun King stepped down from his throne and started towards Vexis. Every magister stood at once to try to stop him, but he waved them off. “Magister Briggs was a dear friend of mine, and an exceedingly gentle man.”

Vexis stopped crying. She now looked more annoyed than anything. She feigned like she was trying to remember something. “So, eh, was he the fat one or the crippled one? Or the fat, crippled one? Y’know, it was just so much fun watching them hobble towards their body parts, I didn’t think to ask for names.”

The Sun King took a deep breath. “You think this is funny?”

“I think it’s hilarious. The greatest minds in Endra, all the magic in the world, and you can’t see what’s right in front of your face. You’re all going to die.” A devious grin passed her lips. “You want to know why I was up there? Come closer, it’s super secret.”

The Sun King leaned in and Vexis whispered something in his ear. Whatever she said made the Sun King recoil in horror. As he did, Vexis spat in his face.

Vexis struggled as the warders tried clamp the mask back onto her. “Come on, Your Majesty, it was just a question. I’m sure your whore wife wouldn’t mind. Oh, wait, she’s dead isn’t she?”

The Sun King wiped the spit off with his sleeve. “Get that thing out of here.”

Chapter Seven

The Council of Magisters

Taro and the others crawled back down the maintenance shaft towards the door. Once the ceiling was high enough, they stood and brushed the dust off.

“Vexis was in our trial last year,” Pipes said.

Ven nodded. “She seemed like a nice girl. Pretty clean and well-spoken for a Helian.”

“Wouldn’t be surprised if they banned the whole lot of them next year after this,” Pipes said.

“Some of best friends are Helians,” Nima said indignantly.

Pipes ignored her comment. “They’re more trouble than they’re worth.”

At this statement, a girl standing in the doorway cleared her throat. “Funny, I was just thinking the same thing about you.” She was dressed as an artificer, one rank down from a magister. Their uniforms were nearly identical, but the artificers lacked the sheets of silver plates over their short blue robes.

She had dark blonde hair pulled back into a ponytail, and bright green eyes that could’ve been quite pretty if they didn’t have a glare on them that could melt steel.

“We were just—” Ven began.

“Save it,” she snapped. “Entering a restricted area, breaking a Class B enchantment, spying on a Curial meeting. Maybe if you and Piper spent as much time preparing for your trials as you do breaking the rules, you would actually be able to pass them.”

Taro spoke up. “Excuse me—”

“Kyra.”

“Kyra. It’s not their fault. Me and my sister heard the Sun King was here and I wanted to have a look at him.” Taro held up his lock pick. “I didn’t break any enchantment, I picked the lock. You might want to upgrade those.”

Kyra tapped her foot and gave Taro and Nima a significant look. “I see. And you are?”

Taro told her their names.

“Have you been through admissions yet?”

“Not yet,” Nima said.

“And this will be your first year?”

Taro nodded, trying to look as humble as possible.

“I guess we can’t expel you if you haven’t even been accepted yet. But here’s a piece of advice.” She glared at Ven and Pipes. “Stay away from these two.”

Ven and Pipes snickered the whole way down to the ground floor.

Ven spoke first. “Look at Taro, melting the Ice Queen’s heart.”

Taro shoved him. “Shut up.”

“She’s an instructor?” Nima said.

“Not quite,” Ven said. “She’s a tribune. The highest ranking artificer. They’re a bit power-mad.”

In the envelope the registrar had given them were smooth ivory tablet the size of a coin. On them was their position in line: 34th. Nima’s was 57th.

Nima pulled Taro aside. “Tell me you’re thinking what I’m thinking.”

“It crossed my mind,” Taro said, peaking over his shoulder. “But if we’re caught up there again, we’re screwed.”

“And if we don’t the magisters might not accept us. What would Mathan do to us then?”

Taro knew she was right. They needed any advantage they could get. The other recruits had the luxury of trying again next year, but he and Nima certainly didn’t.

Lines of recruits snaked through the foyer. Quietly, Taro and Nima slipped out of line and returned to the shaft overlooking the Curia. Further in it overlooked a smaller antechamber. In the back was a raised dais with three high seats that overlooked a single chair in the center. Suri sat below with her legs crossed and her head lowered like she was waiting to be called on.

The three department heads sat conversing with one another. The plaques in front of them denoted their name and position. Amelia Ross was the head of templary and sat in the middle. To her left was Torran Briego, head of magistry, and to her right Auden Veldheim, head of alchemy.

Ross shuffled through some papers in front of her and tilted her bifocals. “My records show that this will be your third time attending this academy as a recruit.”

Suri’s voice barely squeaked over the rustling of pages. “That’s correct, Imperator.”

“Based on that, we can be sure that you can answer any question we ask. You’ve done so twice before.”

Suri looked up. “Thank you.”

“It wasn’t a compliment,” Ross snapped. “Tell me why should we allow you another chance? You’ve failed twice, why will this year be any different?”

Suri seemed to shrink at the magisters’ stares. “I’ve studied hard. I’ve learned new A-Class inscriptions, and my sponsor thinks I’ve improved markedly in magistry.”

Briego was a tall, thin man with a hook nose. He was probably the oldest of the lot, and his long, gray beard sat coiled out on the desk. He wasn’t Endran, and had a slight accent that Taro couldn’t quite place. Whatever it was, he’d lived in Endra for some time as he spoke perfect Amínnic.

“If I recall, your sponsor is Mr. Varinius, a tribune?” Briego said.

“Yes, sir,” Suri said.

“Is he here today?”

Suri shook her head ‘no.’

Ross scoffed. “If he can’t bother with you, why should we?”

“He’s away on business.”

Ross’ voice was thick with sarcasm. “I’m sure he is.”

Veldheim spoke up. “You said you know A-Class inscriptions. Which would those be?”

Suri counted off on her fingers as she spoke. “Vishio, Acrion, and Linseer.”

Ross raised one of her thin eyebrows. “You know Linseer?”

Suri seemed proud of her skepticism, as if she’d been expecting it. “I can, Imperator.”

“Show us,” Ross said.

Suri fished out her inscriber. “May I use this chair?”

Ross nodded. Suri knelt beside her chair and snapped a glass cylinder full of greenish ink into her inscriber. She scratched letters and long lines across the legs, over the back, and around the sides. When she was done, she took a deep breath and pressed her fingers to the chair. The lines and letters pulsed white.

“Done,” she said proudly.

The chair didn’t seem any different. Magister Briego leaned down to Suri and handed her a pen. When Suri placed it on the floor beside the chair, it stirred for a moment and dragged towards it until it touched the wood.

It seemed a curiosity to Taro, but the magisters were very impressed. Briego clapped his hands together. “Remarkable. Don’t you agree, Amelia?”

Ross reluctantly nodded.

Briego winked at Suri. “I make a motion for her acceptance.”

“Those in favor?” Ross said. She was the only one who didn’t raise her hand. Suri thanked them and hurried out, as if she was worried they’d change their minds before she could make it to the door.

It took five more students before Taro figured out the pattern. The line of questioning always went the same way. Returning recruits were asked completely different questions than the new recruits. The former went along the same lines as Suri’s — why should we take you back? — while the latter were all academic.

How many inscriptions do you know?

Recite the Deific alphabet.

If I wanted a zero-loss heat enchant, what combination of inks would I need?

How much material is lost in a transmutation of iron to copper?

Over the two hours that Taro listened in, he’d heard them all. And each of the magisters seemed to have ones that were their favorites.

By the time he and Nima returned to the ground floor, Taro’s head was filled to the brim with answers.

There was only one thing that worried him. In all cases, demonstrations were more impressive to the magisters than answering questions. Regardless of whether or not he could remember certain inscriptions, neither he nor Nima had any idea on how to perform them. If Aris’ plan didn’t work, or worse, if they saw through his deception, it could be a disaster.

The line dwindled until it was Taro’s turn. The chamber seemed larger from the floor, and the magister’s dais much more intimidating. The light from the window behind them shined into his eye, making it hard to see. The magisters chatted amongst themselves for what felt like ages until Ross acknowledged him.

“Taro, son of Talthis?” she said, running her finger down a ledger.

“Yes, Imperator.” He’d learned that Ross didn’t like to be called ‘miss’ or ‘ma’am.’ And using either of those would earn a swift rebuke.

“It says here that your sponsor is a Magister Locke. His seal and registry seem to be in order, and a sponsorship by a full magister is impressive. Is he here today?”

Before Taro could speak, Aris’ voice called from the chamber doors. “I am indeed.” His voice was much less condescending than normal, and he was even smiling. Nima followed closely behind.

“If you will permit it, Imperator, I’m pressed for time. I request that my apprentices be considered together.”

Ross checked her ledger. “Nima, is it?”

“Yes, ma — eh, Imperator,” Nima said.

“Any objections?”

None came. Taro pondered Miss Craiven’s forgery skills. Did she invent a magister whole-cloth? Or had there once been a Locke? Or was there still? If they could invent an entire magister, then why did they need Taro on the inside?

Magister Veldheim spoke up. He was tiny man with thin, blondish-white hair and smooth features. He had to stand up just to see over the podium.”

“Would you please summarize the children’s education?” he said. “I noticed you’ve given the boy a gold aurom. That’s quite a vote of confidence.”

“Taro is quite the prodigy. Proficient in all twelve base enchantments, solid knowledge of second-level alchemy and its application to magistry. Rudimentary work in transmutation.”

Taro felt like a hand had gripped around his heart and throat. Propping them up like this could only lead to serious disappointment.

“He can transmute?” Ross said. “I’d like to see that.”

Aris held a black sphere up so the magisters could see it, and placed it in Taro’s hands. “A stones-worth of iron.”

Taro’s hand shook as he took out his inscriber. He drew an array of lines and nonsensical letters along it, small enough that he hoped the magisters couldn’t actually see what they said. He took a deep breath and tapped the sphere. Light burst out of the lines and enveloped the metal. It morphed and twisted into a rod of grayish-black material. At a reflex, Taro dropped it and it shattered on the floor into a dusty pile.

The magisters seemed impressed by this.

“Iron to carbon, a fairly basic transmutation,” Aris said. “But I think you’ll agree the lad shows promise. I see the same potential in Ms. Nima as well, once her templar is opened.

They asked several more questions, most of which were directed at Nima. All of them were retreads of questions they’d asked previously, and while Nima was just parroting answers she’d heard earlier, she did so with such conviction she almost made Taro believe her.

Briego raised his hand. “I call for a motion of admittance. All in favor?”

Even Ross raised her hand along with Veldheim. Apparently, they’d made a good impression.

Chapter Eight

Woodcroft & Leek’s

Taro exited the Curia more than a little shell-shocked. Nima followed close behind and read through the note Magister Ross provided her.

___

Attn. Ms. Nima:

Over the next six months you will be trained to survive and pass your first trial. To facilitate this, please purchase the following:

 

Books

 

- Numerology: How Numbers Make the World Turn, by Horatio Graigen, Mgr.

- 104 Inks and Enchantments, by Gavin Daldrich

- Advanced Celosan Trigonometry: Revised Edition

- How To Keep Your Enchants From Killing You, by Varia Finn, Mgr.

- The Compendium of Magical Monsters, by Auden Veldheim, Mgr.

 

Equipment:

 

- One base alchemy kit, glass.

- One telescope and astrolabe.

 

Your first class will be Monday, 0900. Our records show that you have not yet paid your tuition. This must be handled before you will be permitted to attend class.

 

Imperator Amelia Ross

Magister-General

 

___

Taro’s was the same, and both included a lesson schedule. It boiled down to one thing: more money they couldn’t afford. The relief Taro felt from passing his admissions faded into a sickening ache in the pit of his stomach.

“We need to find Mathan,” Nima said.

“He’s probably still in Ashwick.”

“Then we need to get a message to him.”

“By tomorrow?”

There was only one way through this. Taro wasn’t proud of it, but it had to be done. Despite his grim mood, when he saw Suri bolting towards him with a wide smile, he did his best to look happy too.

“I did it!” She dangled her freshly stamped silver medallion from a steel chain.

“You must’ve really impressed them.” Taro was genuinely happy for her, but had to force himself not to sound as terrible as he felt.

Suri’s eyes widened and she grabbed the hand Taro clutched his medallion with. “This is yours?”

“Sure is.”

“You have a gold aurom?”

Taro made a swooshing motion over his head. “Amínnic, please?”

She held her medallion beside his. “These determine your standing in the Magisterium. You only get a gold aurom if you’re sponsored by a commissioned magister. Maybe we could study together sometime?”

Taro scratched his cheek. “Definitely.”

Ven wasn’t far off. “Congratulations!” he said as he approached.

“Thanks,” Taro said.

“I’m headed downtown to pick up some supplies for class. Want to come with?” Ven said.

“You can get stuff cheaper in Lower,” Suri said.

“I’d prefer not to get mugged,” Ven said.

“We’re actually staying in Lower,” Taro said sheepishly.

“All three of you?”

“At her father’s inn,” Taro said. “I’m up for going downtown though.”

_____

Despite the cold, downtown Endra Edûn bustled with life. Thousands of people packed the cramped, freezing market streets browsing high-end shops and restaurants.

There was Wulfric’s Cold Fire, which sold lanterns containing flames of various colors. Each flame was cool to the touch, and were advertised as healing ailments from arthritis to hives.

A large minority of the stores proudly displayed signs proclaiming ‘no magisters.’ Even in the upper city, they were not well regarded.

The sign above the next shop said ‘Woodcroft’s Artificing Emporium.’ It was cramped and disorganized; metal sheets and machinery hung from the walls and ceiling, and the entire place smelled of smoke. Woodcroft was an aged man with gray hair slicked back and tied into a ponytail.

He was busy examining the insides of a steam engine when they entered. It sprayed oil out at his face, and frantically tried to plug one of the valves.

“Ven! Suri!” he said as he wiped his face with a dirty rag. “Is it that time of year already?” He shook each of the children’s hand. “Who are the newbies?

“Taro and Nima,” Suri said.

“Brother and sister?” he asked, shaking their hands. They nodded. “Here for first-year supplies?”

“Yes, sir,” Taro said.

“Let’s see your list,” Woodcroft snatched their papers and mumbled as he read them. “Pretty standard.” He grabbed a piece of chalk and added out some numbers on a black slate. “For both of you… two crowns, four nobles should cover the lot.”

Taro considered it. “Two even and it’s a deal.”

Woodcroft burst out laughing. “No recruit has ever tried to dicker with me before. Sorry, I’m not making any money at two. Two and a half and we’ll talk.”

Taro hummed and glanced sideways at Ven. “Are there any other artificing shops nearby?”

“A few,” Ven said. “We could check out some of them first.”

“Hold your horses,” Woodcroft said hastily. “Negotiations have just begun. Two and one, and we’ll call it a deal. At that price, I’m giving it away.”

Taro pretended to hesitate. “Sounds fair.”

He shook Woodcroft’s hand and paid him. While the elderly magister was getting his order copied down, Taro took stock of what money he had left.

“All right,” Woodcroft after a long moment. “Your sister will get hers first.”

“Why’s that?”

Woodcroft pointed to Nima’s schedule. “She has a lesson earlier that you don’t. Pre-templary with Magister Ross, nothing a golden-boy like you needs to worry about.”

Taro looked over his own schedule. “Magister Veldheim — Atramancy,” he said. “What does that mean?”

“It means we’d better add some bandages to your order.”

When their order was done, Woodcroft showed Ven some of his newer merchandise. Ven was like a wide-eyed child amongst all the tools and engine parts.

When they were out of earshot, Taro pulled Suri aside. “Is there a pawn shop nearby?” he asked.

Suri looked more than a little surprised at the question. “Pawn shop?” She crossed her arms and thought. “You’d have to go to Lower to find one. Leek’s shop on the south row, maybe? It’s the place you’re least likely to get robbed.”

“Can you keep an eye on Nima for me?”

“I guess, but we should probably come with you. There’s strength in numbers.”

“No, I don’t want her to know. Make up some excuse for me, could you? We’ll meet up at the inn.”

Taro didn’t give her a chance to disagree, and left quickly. He didn’t leave Nima because he was afraid for her safety, but because he was about to do something he wasn’t proud of.

There’s something visceral about a pawn shop. In some ways, it’s like visiting a graveyard full of strangers. The shelves in Leek’s were the tombstones: an engraved wedding ring, a mother’s necklace, a grandfather’s cufflinks. People only part with items like these when they have no other choice, and doing so leaves a piece of themselves behind.

Leek’s reminded Taro of Craiven & Boors: the smell of rotting wood, the creaking floorboards that bent under his weight. But where Craiven & Boors dealt with magical items, there were few of those here. These walls and shelves stuffed were stuffed with ornate crystal-work and jewelry.

“With you in a minute,” a haggard voice called from the other side of the room. He was the thinnest man Taro had ever seen. His arms were like toothpicks, and each of his ribs showed through his shirt. His clothes hung off him like a wet rag, and he held a spoon-like instrument over a furnace. Inside were flakes of melting gold.

While trying to keep his wobbling hands steady, he hacked into his sleeve and a bit of the gold spilled from the spoon.

“Damn it.” He set it down onto a scorched block of cedar. “Can I help you?” he said forcefully.

“I’m looking for Leek.”

He pulled his furnace gloves off. They were much too large for his bone-thin fingers. “You’ve found him.”

Taro sat The Witch of the Well on the countertop and slid it towards Leek. The man spun it to face him and ran his fingers over the binding.

“I need a loan,” Taro said simply.

“And you want to use this book as collateral?” Leek mumbled to himself as he looked over the book in greater detail. “It has some value,” he said after a pause. “Is it stolen?”

“If it was, I’d be looking to sell it, not pawn it.”

“I’m not really one for literature. The binding’s real silver though, and the decals on the cover are gold. I could give you fifteen crowns for it.”

Taro fought off the urge to scoff. “It’s worth eight times that.”

“Fifteen crowns is what I can get for the metal if you don’t pay me back.” Leek sized him up. “What’s a kid like you need with so much money?”

“Trying to bail a friend out of jail.”

Leek pushed the book back to Taro. “If you’re going to lie to my face, you best leave now.”

“It’s for school.”

“Lots of schools in town.”

Taro decided to press his luck. “It’s for my tuition to the Magisterium.”

Leek rubbed his thin, wrinkled chin. “You’re right to not go blabbing that around Lower. Tell me, what kind of tuition did they saddle you with?”

“Fifty crowns.”

“Well, you ain’t getting’ fifty crowns, so get that mess out of your head right now.”

“It’s worth more than that.”

“For the right buyer, maybe. But the term starts tomorrow if I ain’t mistaken. Can you find someone by then?” He tapped his nose knowingly. “That’s the question.”

Taro quickly added his and Nima’s money in his head, and realize they could eek out with less than fifty if they stretched it. “How about thirty-six?”

“Fifteen crowns’ll be my limit. Listen, I want to help you, but this ain’t a charity.”

“Sorry to waste your time.” Taro took the book and started for the door. Just as he touched the knob, he remembered that he had something else of value.” He rushed back the desk and dug his aurom out of his pocket. “What if I add this?”

Leek snatched it from Taro’s hand and examined it closely. He bit it with his teeth, tapped it on the table, and rubbed the surface with his thumb. “You must have some talent to get one of these.”

“The book and the aurom for thirty-six crowns.”

“And how will you get past the Midway without your aurom?” Leek asked. Taro was surprised he knew so much about the Magisterium.

“My sister has one, I’ll have to share.”

Leek let out a long sigh and bit his lip. “Damn it, Leek, you’re gettin’ soft in your old age,” he said to himself. “Fine, fine. Thirty-six crowns at fifty percent interest. Six months. But I swear by the Sun King I’ll melt ‘em down if you’re a half-second late.”

Leek retrieved two ivory boxes from beneath the counter. Inside the first was more money that Taro had ever seen in his life. Stacks and stacks of glimmering crowns and sovereigns. Leek carefully counted thirty six crowns onto the counter.

“I’d suggest you not linger in the lower city,” Leek said as Taro gathered the coins. “You wouldn’t be the first recruit to get robbed on his way back.”

“You’ve done business with other recruits?”

Leek unlocked the second box and turned it to face Taro. Inside were dozens of aurom. Brass, silver, and gold. At the top of the pile was even a wooden one.

“Let’s just say business is steady,” Leek said with a toothy grin.

“You take wooden auroms?”

Leek took the aurom and shut the box. “This one wasn’t pawned. Back in the day, it was mine.” He set in on the counter. “I’ll let you borrow it, if you’re interested.”

Chapter Nine

Bernard

Ven was the best kind of friend. Bright-eyed, energetic, and able to sum up an entire person in a single quip. Were it not for him, the first few days in the Magisterium would’ve been hell on earth.

Taro stared down at his course schedule as he followed Ven up a ladder and across a tilted hallway.

“Not much farther,” Ven said. He moved so quickly Taro kept losing him just past the next bend in the hall.

Magister Veldheim’s classroom took up the entire eighteenth floor. The air was thick with hot steam, the tiled floor was soaking wet, and in the center of leaking valves and pipes was an enormous aquarium. Veldheim was nowhere in sight.

Nima was sitting on a copper pipe near the aquarium and waved to him. She looked like she’d just ran a marathon, and beads of sweat ran down her neck. Beside her were other younger recruits, including Sikes, all in similar states.

“Tough class?” Taro asked Nima.

Nima breathed hard. “I feel like I’m gonna die. Why didn’t you come?”

Taro shrugged. “Woodcroft said I didn’t need it.”

Not far from the tank was a workstation covered in glass beakers bubbling with black ink. Beside these were log books with names listed in one column and a quantity listed in the next.

While Taro leafed through the lists, Sikes approached the tank and pressed his face to the glass.

“Get away from it,” Taro whispered.

“Piss off,” Sikes said, and continued to stare into the murky water.

“You should listen to him. It ate Veldheim, it might eat you too,” Ven said.

“What’s in there?” Taro asked.

Ven shrugged. “Could be anything.”

“Haven’t you done this two years in a row?”

“Veldheim’s a kook. He doesn’t plan out lessons, he just takes you along on whatever crazy project he happens to be working on. He’s mostly harmless, none of his students have died in a long time.”

The tank rattled and water splashed out from the open top. A giant tentacle swung up, clutching a tiny man in a diving suit. It slammed him onto the tiles, but not only was he uninjured, he was laughing as he rubbed his bruised body.

It was Magister Veldheim. The recruits tried to help him, but he shooed them away. “I’m quite all right.” Veldheim lifted the goggles off his eyes and cracked his back. In his left hand he clutched a long tube with a point at the end of it. It was filled with the same ink that was on the table.

He emptied the tube into one of the beakers. “When did class start?” he said absentmindedly.

“Ten minutes ago,” Pipes said with a mote of irritation.

Veldheim touched his fingers to the bottom of one of the beakers and the contents began to boil. “We’ll just let that sit for an hour or two.”

“Aren’t you supposed to be teaching us something?” Ven said.

“Oh, you’re back again,” Veldheim hung onto the word ‘again’ for a long moment. “What a pleasure. You’ll make a perfect volunteer for this. Let’s see, who else.” Veldheim pointed to Taro. “You.”

Taro glanced at the tank. “What are we going to do?”

“You’re going fishing.” He pointed to two doors across the deck. “Boys left, girls right. Inside you’ll find appropriate diving suits. No running though, remember: safety first.”

The diving suits were steel-gray and made of tight stretchy fabric. Along the seams were metal loops, and on the back was a large hook. Half the suits had chunks taken out of the arms and chest, tears in the fabric, and had been re-stitched several times.

When they returned to the deck, Veldheim called them to his workstation. “Gather ‘round.” He stuck his finger into the hot ink a smeared it onto a piece of parchment. “Inscription is a magister’s most powerful tool. It’s the lynchpin that holds magistry together. And the ink you use matters a great deal. For example, most magistry lanterns, such as the ones used to light the tower—” He pointed towards the red orbs on the ceiling. “—are most effective with a specific type of ink. One-third black carbon, which we will provide, one third Dionaea acid, which you’ll acquire in your next lesson, and one third ink from an Architeuthos Magnus.” He pointed a thumb to the tank. “His name’s Bernard.”

The aquarium rumbled and a tentacle pressed against the glass. Each of the hundred suckers on the ends were the size of a fist.

“Don’t be afraid, you’re perfectly safe so long as I’m around. Bernard’s provided thousands of gallons in ink in his time. Now, Ven and Taro will go first to show you that it’s perfectly safe.”

“And if they get killed we’ll clean out the tank and pick two new test dummies,” Pipes snickered under his breath.

“Each of you choose a ladder.” They did so, and Veldheim attached a cable to the loops on their backs. “Suri, could you bring me that case?”

Inside the case were more ink collectors, and ceramic ‘U’ shaped devices with runes across the top. When Veldheim touched them, they glowed.

“These are of my own design. It uses an ink composed of augwerd seeds and gryphon bone marrow. They will allow you to breathe underwater for seven minutes.” He walked to the slate chalkboard and scribbled out a diagram of the creature. Ten tentacles, two bulging eyes, and a bird-like beak. “Ven, you’ll distract Bernard while Taro sticks him right here.”

Taro and Ven hesitantly climbed the ladders on opposite sides of the tank and put their goggles on. When they got to the top, the water went completely still.

Ven took a deep breath and plunged head-first into the tank. Taro tried his best to follow him in, but couldn’t bring himself to move. It was like his legs were frozen solid.

“Now,” Veldheim shouted up. “Hello? Go ahead, hop on in.”

The ladder shook, and a hand press against Taro’s back. “In you go,” Veldheim said, pushing him in.

The water was thick as soup. Every few seconds he caught a glimpse of the giant squid moving sluggishly across the tank. It seemed like Ven was doing his job trying to distract it, so Taro had to do his.

He saw an opening in the flailing tentacles and swam towards it. Two eyes stared back from the enormous creature, and beneath them was a black beak that could’ve taken an arm off. Taro saw his target, an ink-sac not far from the snapping beak. When he pricked it, the glass cylinder filled within seconds.

From the corner of his eye, Taro saw that the squid had caught Ven. He thrashed and shoved against the tentacles, until one managed to wrap around him and knocked the breather from of his mouth. Ven was quickly running out of air, and it looked as though he was only seconds from passing out.

Taro stabbed Bernard with his ink collector and the squid released Ven. Taro grabbed him under the arm and swam like a madman to the surface.

The boys climbed down the aquarium ladder and sprawled out onto the tiles, gasping for air and coughing out a pint of water.

Taro chucked the ink collector at Veldeim’s feet. “Screw you.”

Veldheim picked it up and wiped the blood off it. “You were never in any danger.”

“Sure didn’t feel that way,” Taro said.

“If you can’t take a little bloody nose, run back home and crawl under your bed.” He turned to the other students. “That goes for the rest of you. Bernard’s a goldfish compared to what I’ve got in store for you.”

Veldheim glanced down at his ledger. “Edrin and Suri, you’re up next.”

 

 

Chapter Ten

Flesh-eating Flowers

Veldheim made it clear that he nobody was leaving without collecting their ink. By the time they were done, three recruits had sprained their wrists and one had to have Veldheim restart their hearts. They each received a vial of ink and were instructed to continue to their next lesson on the fortieth floor.

Entering the classroom was like stepping into a vast woodland. Trees and bright green grass went on for miles over rolling hills and forests. A gentle breeze caressed the foliage, and a stream of crystal-clear water trickled from a mountainside into a bright lake.

The doorway stood in the middle of the air and disappeared when all of the students were through. The ceiling and walls look like a summer sky, and it was impossible to tell where the room ended and the magic began.

“It’s an enchantment.” Ven picked a stone up off the ground and tossed it at where the wall should’ve been. The stone struck the sides and sent ripples throughout the room.

“Where’s the instructor?” Taro asked.

“Antherion shouldn’t be hard to find,” Suri said.

The group walked through the forest close together. Leaves crunched underfoot, birds chirped overhead, and for a moment Taro forgot where he really was. At the end was a clearing with tilled land and various plants sprouting in rows. Gardening tools, clay pots, and wheelbarrows lay in a pile beside the soil.

Taro laid in the grass and stared up at the clouds rolling overhead. It felt like a lifetime since he’d seen a day like this. In Ashwick every day was a different shade of gray and the rain never ended.

When he closed his eyes he felt the earth rumble beneath him, and realized it was footfalls. When he opened his eyes, his heart felt like it would jump out of his chest.

Towering over him was a verifiable, true-to-life, dragon. When he was younger, his father told him stories of dragons and their flying brood-city. He even claimed to have seen one once, but even at the age of five Taro suspected this was a lie.

This dragon’s scales were slick and silvery-orange, its green eyes were like fist-sized emeralds with black slits for eyes. Hot, moist breath exploded from it when it opened its mouth and reared its thousand razor-sharp teeth. Then it spoke.

“Sleeping in my class will not be tolerated,” it said calmly.

Taro stammered. “Y-your c-class?”

The dragon slumped beside the tilled land onto its belly. “Magister Veldheim kept you late?”

“Yes, sir,” Ven said. He looked like a tiny spec staring up at the gigantic creature. Taro still couldn’t believe what he was seeing. This was Antherion. “He wouldn’t let us leave until everyone had finished.”

“He simply has no respect for my class,” Antherion bellowed. “We’ll have to make do with the time we have. I’ve prepared a special lesson for you today, children.” He pointed his tail towards a rack of shovels and gardening gloves. “Grab a pair and we’ll begin.”

Ven, Suri, and some of the older students went for the gloves without hesitation, but Taro and the newer recruits were stunned still. Antherion seemed annoyed that his polite requests were met with fear.

He sighed so hard it felt like a hurricane. The trees rustled and he stood on his hind legs. “Every year, I swear.”

Antherion stretched his wings their full span. Each was as long as his body from head to tail, and as he did his scales shimmered and glowed until the light enveloped his entire body. He grew smaller and morphed into something resembling a human: two legs, two arms, and he stood upright, but his wings remained, as did his glowing eyes and booming voice.

“Can we please proceed with the lesson?” His wings tucked neatly behind him, and he cracked his knuckles. “Yes, I’m a dragon. No, I’m not going to eat you.” He was much less intimidating when he wasn’t four stories tall, and the recruits did as they were told.

Antherion picked up a handful of moist soil and rubbed it between his long, scaly claws. “Do you know what this is?”

“Dirt,” Sikes said.

Antherion motioned for Sikes to hold out his hand and dropped the scoop of soil into it. “This is the most precious resource in the kingdom. This soil is what made Endra the envy of the world. Even the Dragonkin don’t have this.”

“You don’t have dirt where you’re from?” Sikes said.

“Endran soil was exposed to the Arclight for thousands of years. It’s got properties that cannot be found elsewhere. Plants used to spring-up overnight. Regrettably, the soil outside is frozen solid. Here in the Conservatorium we use it to grow many required herbs.”

Antherion retrieved a leather sack beside a tree; inside were peach-sized bulbs. He handed one to each of the recruits and had them plant it, apply fertilizer, and bring it water from the stream.

“What you’ve just planted is called Dionaea Maltris. It’s a carnivorous plant from the jungles of Kadrek.”

“Carnivorous?” Taro said.

“No need to worry. These will take a week to grow large enough to even take off a finger. Now, that’s a fair big better than their normal year-long growing time. Once they sprout, we’ll re-plant them in the shade — that’s where they enjoy hunting.” Antherion waved the recruits along. “This way, don’t fall behind.”

Taro whispered to Ven as they marched deep into the woods. “Did he say hunting?”

“Hands in your pockets,” Ven said.

The trail from the farmland through the woodland was well-traveled. There were many plants and fungi along the path, each of them with a tiny label pegged into the ground nearby indicating what they were, along with notes and warnings ranging from ‘DANGER: SEVERLY POIOSONOUS’ to ‘DO NOT EXPOSE TO DIRECT SUNLIGHT’ and ‘DO NOT CULL ON TUESDAYS.’

At the end of the trail was a moss-covered cave. A stream trickled from the top, and the inside was moist and teaming with mushrooms. Antherion stopped the group a few yards into the cave.

When he took another step forward, what had before looked like vines on the cave floor sprang up. Antherion seized the vine by the ends and followed up the length with his other claw until he found the flower. The petals snapped at him with long, purple teeth. Antherion yanked the petals open and ushered the recruits closer.

“It’s quite safe,” he said. The recruits peered at the plant from different distances, with the most experienced (or curious) at the front of the pack. After fighting a giant squid, this was a cakewalk, and Taro was right at the front with Ven.

“The Dionaea Maltis likes to hide in caves. It waits for prey — lions, primates, humans, anything big enough. The flesh is sent down here and is dissolved in this acidic solution at the base of the flower.”

Antherion broke the flower off its vine, and it continued to chomp for a few seconds after it was severed. They hauled it to the clearing. When they were back, Antherion had Suri chop it up while he passed out mortars and pestles. The recruits spent the next few minutes grinding the flower into a paste and adding it to their vials of ink. When Taro did so, the ink turned a deep purple and fizzled.

“Perfect,” Antherion said, peering over Taro’s shoulder. “That’s exactly the reaction we want. It’ll make a fine illumination enchantment.”

Eventually everyone had their ink prepared, and Antherion looked very pleased.

“Before I hand you off to Magister Briego,” he said, “I want you to take a look at the bulbs you planted.”

Taro didn’t see anything in the field at first, but when he got closer he saw the tiniest, thinnest spec of green creeping from the soil.

“The soil built this kingdom,” Antherion said. “The airships in the sky, the magistry in this very room, is all possible because of a handful of soil. It’s creation, production. If you take nothing else from my class, take this: a magister’s duty is to create, not destroy.”

It seemed like a peculiar statement. While in peacetime magisters focused on scientific pursuits, engineering projects, and municipal work, during wartime magisters were frequently used as human weapons. Part of Taro wanted point this out, but he didn’t want be rude. Antherion was, after all, a very polite dragon.

Chapter Eleven

The Finer Points of Magistry

The Artificium was an industry in and of itself. It comprised four floors and two airship hanger bays, and constantly buzzed with magisters and artificers. Here they did what they did best: build. Thousands of tons of materials were delivered on a weekly basis and were used in everything from airship construction, to heating pillars, to weapons and artillery cannons.

Frames and fuselages hung from chains on the ceiling. Magisters shouted, hammers smacked against steel, and sparks flew. Thick steam rose from the metal grate floor, with the whole place smelled of oil and gasoline.

Taro hacked into his hand and pulled his shirt up over his mouth and nose.

Ven patted him hard on the back. “You’ll get used to it.”

In the corner beside mountains of crates was a free-standing blackboard on wheels.

Against the wall was a kiln and an anvil, the latter of which Taro kept his distance from. Kyra was holding a pole into the red-hot oven and slowly twisting it. She didn’t seem to notice any of the recruits.

Nearby was an artillery cannon with two legs poking out from underneath. The man below swore like a sailor, and Taro recognized the voice as Briego’s. Taro tapped on the cannon with his knuckle. “Excuse me? Magister Briego?”

A plume of black smoke exploded from underneath. Briego hacked and pulled his creeper out. He was drenched in oil and wiped his face off on his tattered, dirty uniform. The tips of his fingers were gnarled and singed black, and his burly beard was on fire.

“What’s that now?” he blustered, patting the small flames out.

“We’re here for your lesson,” Taro said.

“Lesson?” Briego stood and wiped his palms on his trousers. “Oh, yes. Kyra? KYRA?”

Kyra pulled her goggles onto her forehead. “Hmm?”

“Recruits,” Briego said. “Teach ‘em something.” He slapped his goggles on and slid back under the cannon.

Kyra pulled the pole straight from the kiln. On the tip was a molten mass of glass. “I didn’t expect them to get through Veldheim and Antherion so quickly.” Kyra sat it on the anvil, rolled and shaped it, and blew into the end of the pole.

Kyra continued to form the glass until it was the rough shape of a sphere. When it cooled, she placed it to the side, wiped the sweat from her face with a dirty cloth and used the same rag to erase the diagrams on the blackboard. “All right, take a seat.”

It was curious that of the classrooms they’d been in, this was the first that had a desks or a blackboard.

Kyra wrote ‘Artificing 101’ on the board, and retrieved a few small bits of metal from under Briego’s desk.

She sat the pieces on the anvil beside the glass sphere. “You should have all brought the ink you’ve created. Please remove the screw-cap on your inscriber and fill it.” There was a rustling as the recruits complied. “Magistry is the power of the written word. Words are a link between us and the Old Gods.” She scratched a Deific word onto the board. “Shir. As it now sits, it is meaningless. It requires willpower, context, and templar.”

Kyra took the metal bits and fastened them together. She set the glass sphere over the prongs and screwed it into the base. She scratched words onto the bottom — shir rin tor — letters pulsed and a spark appeared between the prongs. The light shined like a tiny sun. When she let it go, the light died.

“A light enchant is the most basic, because light itself is such a basic concept. It takes little energy to manifest. I don’t even need a secondary power source, I could power the light through templary alone. But a more complicated piece of machinery — say, an engine — require massive amounts of energy to function.”

Kyra strolled to Suri and set the orb in her hand. “Suri, it’s good to see you back.”

Suri beamed.

“Tell us, why do we need a medium like this? Why not just a floating ball of light?” Kyra said.

“It’s easier to hold energy inside of a solid. And you can have a permanent fixture for the light.”

Kyra raised her voice as if to make a point. “That’s what artificing is: the application of magistry for practical use. We’ll start small. Each of you will construct a light orb like this for me.”

Taro did well working the glass. His hands were steady, his eyes were sharp. He formed the molten glass into a nearly perfect sphere, and remembered exactly the configuration for the base and prongs. Unfortunately, that’s where his competency ended. While most of the other students got their lights to work within minutes, his sat on his desk utterly dead. He stared at it, prodded it, checked his calligraphy and spelling. Why wasn’t it working?

Kyra picked his sphere off the table. “Seems well made. The enchantment is fine. The problem isn’t here.” She touched his forehead. “It’s here.” She touched his chest.

Fear flared inside of Taro like a firestorm. Why the hell did Aris have to be so damned convincing during admissions? If he’d gotten a wooden aurom they might not bat an eye at this.

Kyra eventually moved on with the class. They discussed other kinds of magistry. Motion, animation, silication — none of which Taro could do.

When class was over, Taro bolted out as fast as he could, hoping Kyra wouldn’t flag him down. When he was safe, he leaned back against a wall and slumped to the ground. When he saw Ven standing beside him, he groaned. “That was humiliating.”

“A bit,” Ven said.

“You’re not helping.”

“You need to stop being so anxious.” Ven unfolded his schedule. “I’ve got Applied Templary with Magister Sullen next.”

“Me too.”

“Recruits never use to get that. Briggs always said it was too dangerous to teach it to novices.”

Sullen’s class was on the next floor up, but despite it being physically close, it too longer to reach than the previous classes. Each time they got close, one of the doorways would shut and the hall would re-arrange.

“It’s four o’clock,” Ven said. “This passage should be open.”

“Well, it’s not, and we’re going to be late.”

It took a full twenty minutes to find the classroom. The forty recruits inside were standing at attention in front Magister Sullen. He was a large man with his sleeves pulled up to his shoulders. One of his arms was missing and replaced by a prosthetic that made Taro’s look tiny by comparison. It must’ve been a hundred pounds of solid steel, and gears in the elbow and wrist spun and clicked when it bent.

Sullen glared at the boys. “Tardiness will not be tolerated.”

“Sorry, the hallways kept—”

“I haven’t given you permission to speak.”

The boys fell in line.

The room had no desks, no blackboard, and no books. On the racks lining the walls were various bladed weapons of different sizes and shape. Closer to the back were mats for sparring.

“Your whimsical skippidy-do adventure ends here.” Sullen grabbed two short swords from the weapon’s rack. “You think tinkering with clocks and planting daisies is going to matter on a battlefield? When your machines fail you, you need to know how to fight.”

“Before we start I want to make one thing clear. You’re not to attempt anything I teach you outside of this classroom. If I find out about it, you’ll be in the Blocks faster than you can say ‘court martial.’ Understood?”

“Yes, magister,” the class answered.

Sullen pointed one of the swords hilt-first towards Sikes. “Take it. Stand over there.”

Sullen and Sikes took opposite positions on one of the training mats.

“Defend yourself!” Sullen charged, and brought his fist down like a hammer and struck Sikes’ sword so hard that the blade broke down the middle. The fragments fell, and Sullen’s hand stopped just shy of Sikes’ forehead.

Sikes looked like he’d stopped breathing.

Sullen lowered his weapon patted the boy on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to kill you. You have no idea how much paper work that is. As I said, templary can make a magister unmatched in physical combat. Just as my blow is about to land, focus your templar into the blade.”

Sikes did as he was told, and again Magister Sullen charged with his bare fist. But this time, just as their swords touched, a red glow sparked between them and Sullen was repelled.

He looked positively ecstatic. “Marvelous! I hope the rest of you were taking notes, because that was perfect. Back in line, Sikes, and pass your weapon.”

Sikes smirked and passed the sword to Taro.

“Let’s see what you’ve got.” Sullen charged and smacked Taro’s sword. Taro’s knees buckled from the force of the blow.

“Not good enough. Again.”

Sullen struck again and again, but despite Taro’s best efforts, he couldn’t counter a single one.

“Bleh, let’s try someone with a little less failure in them.” He pointed to Suri. “You there, little one.”

Suri shrank when he singled her out. “But…”

“This isn’t about physical strength. This is about the strength of your templar.”

Suri grabbed the sword and had to visibly steady herself at its weight. Sullen repeated the test on Suri, who repelled him flawlessly.

“Excellent,” Sullen said.

Some recruits took to it faster than others, and many couldn’t get it to work until their third try. Even Nima eventually got it. But when it got back to Taro, he still couldn’t get it to work.

Sullen looked legitimately disappointed by this, as if Taro was some sort of blot on his record. “Fine. We’ll pick this up tomorrow.”

Chapter Twelve

The Fire Within

The mess hall was a welcomed sight. It was fairly plain, with four long tables in the back and a dozen small round ones scattered between them and the food line.

There was no menu per se, you ate whatever the cook happened to make. The upside was that recruits and artificers could eat for free, but there wasn’t much in the way of variety.

Taro grabbed a bowl of beef and carrot stew, two warm rolls, a block of cheese sealed in wax, and a sugared apple dumpling. When he stepped out of the line he spotted Ven and Pipes on one of the long tables playing hilto. Hilto was much like chess in that each piece could move a different way, but unlike chess every other turn you could control one of your opponent’s pieces.

Ven had one hand on his aluminum spork and the other on Pipes’ moon piece. He stared intently at the board.

Pipes groaned like he’d been waiting forever. “Just let it go so I can stomp you.”

Ven hesitated. “You’re just trying to scare me.”

“Let go and find out.”

Ven slowly removed his fingers from the piece and Pipes snapped two of his star figures forward, taking out four of Ven’s pieces at once. This game was over, and Taro wondered through a mouthful of stew when Ven was going to figure it out. Ven’s eyes traced the board several times, and he leaned back in his chair and stretched his arms across the back of his head.

“I think I just got hustled,” Ven said. He could’ve kept the game going another hour, but instead forfeited and slid a noble to Pipes.

“I told you. Hilto is a game of patience, and you don’t have any,” Pipes said with smug satisfaction.

From his peripheral vision, Taro saw Suri set her tray beside him. “Mind if I sit here?” she asked.

Taro made her some room. “Of course not.”

“Oh, so you’re talking to me again?” Pipes said.

“For your information, I’m here for Taro,” Suri said.

Ven glanced sideways at Taro. “Don’t worry, they’re always like this. They’ve had an off-and-on thing for a year now.”

“Believe me, it’s purely physical,” Suri said, breaking a sugar packet and emptying it into her tea.

“I’m guessing you’re here to place your bets?” Ven asked.

Suri stirred her drink thoughtfully. “Four nobles on Yoresh.”

Pipes burst out laughing. “Kyra’s going to chew him up and spit him out.”

“He’s undefeated,” Suri said.

“I’d be undefeated too if I only went up against first-year recruits,” Pipes said. “Two crowns on Kyra, and I’ll lay three to one.”

“You’re going to bet against your own friend?” Suri asked.

“I’d bet against my own mother if she was that outmatched.”

Suri sipped her tea, winced, and added more sugar. “When is it starting?”

“Should already be going,” Ven said. “As soon as we’re done eating, we’re heading down.”

“Could someone fill me in on what you’re talking about?” Taro asked.

Ven shoveled the last spoonful of soup into his mouth. “If you can keep a secret.”

Taro nodded.

“This is serious,” Suri said, her voice lowered with every word until it was a faint whisper. “If Sullen or Ross found out…”

“You have my word,” Taro said.

“It’s a dueling club,” Ven said without preamble. “Some tribunes set it up years ago. It’s a great place to earn an extra crown if you know who to bet on.”

“Where is it?” Taro asked.

“An abandoned junction on the ninth floor. Wanna come with?”

“Absolutely.”

When they finished eating, they lead Taro down several flights into a dark, abandoned area of the tower. He could see why the dueling club was still secret, just getting there required shimmying across a ledge, crawling under a cluster of pipes, and waiting for a very specific moment when a rotating fan paused and allowed them through.

Their destination was a long, narrow room with a pipe running down the center. It was positively huge, and through the thick glass window on the casing Taro could see that it was empty.

“What is it?” Taro asked, tapping the glass with his knuckle.

“An old power junction for the Arclight,” Ven said. “Back in the day, touching it would’ve melted the skin off your hand. Dead as stone now a-days.”

There were a surprising number of students packed inside the room, both recruits and artificers. Kyra was in the corner speaking with another tribune and wrapping her knuckles with a torn bit of cloth. A large recruit who must’ve been ten years older than Taro was nearby doing the same thing. From his dark complexion and clothing, he must’ve been Sahaalan, and Ven introduced him as Yoresh.

Ven raised a parchment in the air. “Taking bets now. Piper’s laying three-to-one odds on Kyra.”

Students huddled around Ven and he recorded their bets. When they were done, Kyra and Yoresh climbed onto the pipe. They wobbled a bit trying to keep their balance and stood three feet apart.

“The object is to knock the other person off without using only your templar,” Suri said, anticipating Taro’s question.

Taro thought it was a bit ironic that Kyra, who days before had chastised him about breaking the rules, was openly participating in something like this. When Taro pointed this out, Suri informed him that Kyra was actually one of the founding members.

Yoresh punched his fist into his palm. “Bramu voca lampa se,” he said in Sahaalan. He pointed to Kyra and spoke in heavily accented Amínnic. “You have no chance.”

Kyra footed herself. “Keep talkin’.”

Taro wasn’t quite sure what he was expecting. Fireballs perhaps? Or great explosions of energy? There were neither. For a great long moment Yoresh and Kyra simply stared at one another. Taro became aware that the temperature in the room had increased, and he could feel the heat through the soles of his shoes.

Sweat poured down Yoresh’s bare chest and skin. He tried to press forward, but his feet were stiffened by some unseen force. Kyra’s hands pressed to her side, but to Yoresh’s disbelief, she slowly raised them towards him.

“Impossible,” Yoresh said.

Kyra tilted her fingers and the top half of the pipe stripped from the rest of the metal and smacked Yoresh in the face. The brute fell to the floor, clutching his bloody nose and lip. The winners cheered and collected their money from Ven.

As soon as she’d won, Kyra fell off the pipe herself. Sweat poured from her skin, and she practically limped towards Yoresh.

“You okay, big guy?” she said through her panting.

Despite his brutish appearance, in defeat Yoresh was polite. “I bow to a superior templar.”

She shook his hand. “You’re very talented. I’ve never had to resort to physical manifestation on a first-year recruit before.”

“Rin grasa tu.” Yoresh bowed slightly.

Taro was more than a bit shell-shocked. If this was the level of magic required to survive the trial at the mid-term, then he didn’t have a chance.

Kyra went to recover in the corner. She downed an entire water skin and rolled her sleeves over her shoulders.

Taro approached. “When do I get to learn how to do that?”

Kyra’s sharp eyes looked up. “I wouldn’t count on ever learning it.”

Taro grimaced. “Damn. What did I do to piss you off?”

Kyra shook her head, as if to clear it. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to say it like that. But if you can’t light an orb, then this kind of templary is far off.”

“I have to start somewhere, don’t I?”

“You have a gold aurom, you should be beyond ‘starting’. Who was your sponsor?”

“Magister Locke.”

“When did he open your templar?”

Taro had a split second to decide whether or not to lie to her. He decided to opt for the truth. “I’m not sure what you mean.”

Kyra shook her head. “How in the hell did you get a gold aurom?”

“Just lucky, I guess.” He pondered. “Nima had an extra lesson earlier with Magister Ross.”

“That would be to unlock her templar. You didn’t get one, because of your aurom. They assumed you didn’t need it.”

“Could you help me?” Taro asked.

“Why me?” Kyra said. She seemed somewhat surprised by the question.

“I’d rather Ross not find out. If you can’t, it’s all right.”

“No… it’s fine.” She seemed unsure. “I have another three matches here, but meet me in an hour in the Cons and I’ll get you squared away.”

Despite being worn to bits Kyra won all three of her matches. She looked ragged afterwards, like she’d over-extended herself, but met Taro in the Conservatorium as she’d promised. When they entered, she spoke briefly to Antherion and then found a quiet spot beside a craggy tree stump.

“All right,” she said as though she was sorting out her thoughts. “I have a bit of a confession to make. I’ve never opened a templar before.”

“I’m sure you’ll do fine,” Taro said. She was his only option, so he really hoped she was up to the task. “What exactly is templar? Why does it have to be unlocked?”

Kyra crossed her legs. “Close your eyes.” Taro did so. “Imagine the center of your soul. If you focus enough, you can feel a tugging in your chest. That’s your templar.”

Taro did feel the tugging in his chest, like a charge near his heart.

“Templar is the fire within your body, but it can only be unlocked through someone else’s templar. Like a candle lighting another candle.” She ushered Taro to open his eyes. “Are you sure you want me to do this?”

“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t.”

She bit her lip. “It’s just that it can be a very… intimate experience.”

“As in…”

“Nothing sexual,” Kyra said. “To stretch the candle analogy, when my fire touches yours I’ll be able to see the inner turnings of your mind.”

“You’ll read my thoughts?”

“Nothing so specific, but we’ll be able to feel each other if that makes any sense.”

Taro took a deep breath. “I’m ready.”

Kyra scooted forward until their legs touched. She placed one hand on his chest and the other on his shoulder. “Depending on how open you are, this could take minutes or hours.”

“Should I clear my mind?” Taro asked.

“No. Fill it with everything that you love most. Don’t just imagine it, feel it inside you.”

Taro thought of days long past. His mother reading to him by the firelight, and his father playing with Nima on his armchair.

“It’s your family, isn’t it?” Kyra said.

“I thought you said you couldn’t read my mind,”

She smiled. “I can’t. I just know the feeling.”

Something washed over Taro’s body. If you’ve ever stood from a great height and peered over the edge you’ll feel a drop in your chest. This was the feeling, except it was on every one of his limbs and burrowed deep into his mind.

“Next, I need hate,” Kyra said. “Don’t hold back.”

It was a grim irony that the same thoughts he used for love were also the ones he used for hate. His family. His father chastising him, his sister leaving for Mathan’s house.

“Not enough,” Kyra said. “If you want this to work, it has to be everything.

There was one memory from Taro’s past that he’d done his best to suppress. It was the day he’d lost his leg. Something flared inside him and pushed out every other anger like a tidal wave pushing away sand. Kyra yanked her hand away like she’d just touched a red-hot frying pan.

“Sorry,” she said, looking terrified. “I wasn’t expecting… just, hold onto that thought.” Her fingers shook as she placed her hand back on his chest.

Heat from Kyra’s hand pushed deep into his heart and Taro drew in a sharp breath. When he opened his eyes, he wasn’t looking at her anymore. He was looking into her. He saw every facet of her mind. Her hopes, her dreams, her fears.

When she let go, Taro wasn’t able to breathe. No matter what he tried his lungs wouldn’t inflate. He panicked and thrashed in the dry leaves. Kyra shouted for Antherion, and as his eyes went black Taro heard his thumping footsteps barreling through the woods.

He wasn’t out for long, a few minutes at the most. Antherion was in his smaller human form and upending a cup of slimy green liquid into Taro’s mouth.

“Swallow it,” the dragon said.

It tasted like a bizarre mixture of peppermint and runny cheese. He coughed hard and Antherion patted his back. “There you go, let it all out.”

Taro looked to Kyra. “What happened?”

Antherion spoke before she could. “As Miss Kyra is well aware, mixing templars is dangerous for both participants. Do you have a death wish, Miss Kyra?”

“I thought I could handle it,” Kyra said. “You won’t tell… you know who, will you?”

Antherion sighed. “No, I won’t tell him. But if you want to be a magister one day, you must exercise more care.”

“I was careful.”

“You were sloppy,” the dragon snapped.

Kyra shrank under the dragon’s furious stare. Antherion put one hand on each of Taro’s cheeks and stretched the sides of his eyes. He stared into his pupils and checked his pulse.

“What was the problem?” Taro asked as the dragon looked him over like cattle stock.

“If you were going to light a candle, you’d use a match, yes?” Antherion said.

Taro nodded.

“What if, instead, you used a blowtorch? You’d destroy the wick and probably melt the wax to an unusable mass. You, young man, are lucky to be alive.”

“Well, I’m alive,” Taro said, pulling himself up. “Did it work?”

Antherion plucked a pinecone from one of the trees and placed it into Taro’s palm. He then took Kyra’s inscriber and scratched a few tiny runes onto it.

“Direct your templar into this,” Antherion said.

When Taro did so, the runes glowed and the pinecone lifted an inch from his hand.

It might’ve seemed like a novelty, but to Taro feeling actual magic was a wonder unlike anything he’d ever experienced. For the first time in his life he felt powerful.

Whatever Mathan’s plans were didn’t matter anymore. Taro had to learn more about this. He had to see how far it could go.

Chapter Thirteen

Glory Days

 

Taro wanted to delve into his studies more than ever, but reality of teetering close to dead broke was of a more pressing concern.

Later that evening when Nima went to sleep, he set his coins out in small stacks. At final tally he had three crowns and four pence remaining. Not only did they have interest to pay, they also had room and board, food, and clothing.

A gentle rap came at the door, followed by a whisper. “Taro, you there?”

It was Ven, Pipes, and Yoresh. Ven ushered Taro into the hall. He and Pipes were in particularly good spirits, and Taro could smell alcohol on their breath. They were all in their Magisterium uniforms, which in the lower city was not a good idea.

“How’d you know I was here?” Taro asked.

“You said you were in Suri’s place,” Ven said. “We tried to catch you after class. I gotta say, Lower isn’t as bad as I thought it’d be.”

“We saw some taverns on the way. We’re going to check them out, care to join?” Pipes said.

“Ecruden val durra,” Yoresh said.

“Can we get that in Amínnic?” Ven asked.

Yoresh pointed to his temple. “I say Endrans are crazy in head. Air is cold. People are hostile. Why venture where we are not wanted?”

“To get a drink. To have fun,” Ven said. “Don’t they have fun where you’re from?”

“Freezing weather is not fun,” Sig said. “Neither is causing riot.”

“We’re going,” Ven said. “And I know you’re coming, Taro. You’re going to need a drink after today.”

“If it’s on you,” Taro said.

“Oh, no, it’s on moneybags.” Ven pointed to Pipes, who looked more than a little annoyed at the statement.

“Why him?”

“Because Ven likes giving me hell,” Pipes said.

“And because his father is Denith Crissom,” Ven said.

The name flew over Taro’s head. “Who?”

“Owner of Crissom Foundry. He makes all the metal the Magisterium uses. Every airship, every plate, every cannon.”

“The Magisterium’s gotta have its metal,” Pipes said, but seemed keen to change the subject.

Taro did need something to take his mind off everything. With Nima asleep, what was the harm? “I’d better change out of my uniform.”

Ven pulled him along. “You’re fine. Let’s just go.”

_____

Taro’s mother turned a blind eye to many things over the years; running packages for Mr. Boors, pickpocketing, and petty theft. She stayed quiet as long as the family was provided for. But her own father had been a drunk, and one thing she would not abide was Taro drinking.

Some years ago, Taro tried a sip of piss-nasty Helian bourbon with Sikes; when his mom caught a whiff of it, she went ballistic.

Near the Lower’s south entrance was a cluster of taverns. Only one wasn’t boarded up and empty. The sign over the door had a carved goat caricature. Past the post were two large metal pillars with seven grooves running up the sides. On the insides of the grooves were magistry enchantments, and through the cracked window Taro saw another pillar inside. Heat radiated from them.

“This is from the Artificium,” Pipes said. “Expensive, too.”

“At least we won’t freeze,” Taro said, hovering his fingers over the warm air.

Ven put one hand around Pipes’ neck and the other around Taro’s. “Gentlemen, that’s what the drinks are for.”

Taro wasn’t sure what he was expecting. Drunken singing and dancing on tables, perhaps. Bards strumming lutes and old men telling tall tales. None of these were present, and in fact the entire place seemed various shades of brown. It was warm, but it was a musty, oppressive heat that made the smell of alcohol more noxious.

There were eight older men inside, two of them were off-duty warders. Their eyes followed the boys in complete silence as they entered and sat down at the bar.

Pipes set ten pence on the counter. “Five of your best.”

The haggard bartender studied the boys. After a moment, he smiled, rearing his yellow teeth and fixed them their drinks. Taro was the last to be served, and when he got his pint, the bartender spoke. “You boys come down from the Magisterium, eh?”

The boys sipped their drink and nodded.

“That a problem?” Ven asked.

The bartender looked towards the men on the other side of the room. “Of course not. We don’t have a problem with magisters in these parts, do we fellas?”

One of the warders wobbled to his feet and set his ale down so hard that it splashed onto the already soaked table.

He put his face just inches from Taro’s. “It’s always a pleasure when our Magisterium overlords pay us common-folk a visit.”

Taro put a hand between him and the warder. “Excuse me.”

“We want no… eh… what is word?” Yoresh said.

“Trouble,” Pipes said.

“Who’s causin’ trouble?” The warder grabbed Taro’s hand and shook it vigorously. “I’m just offering my thanks. Fine work you lot do up there. Just wonderin’, any progress on that Arclight keepin’ us common folk from freezin’ to death?”

“Now, now,” the bartender said as he ran a rag across the counter, “they’re just recruits.”

Ven set his pint down. “Recruits with ranks equivalent to lieutenant.” He pointed to the warder’s rank. “Corporal.”

The warder did a mock salute. “You’re right, sir. Sorry, sir.”

“You should go back to your seat. You’re outranked and outclassed,” Ven said.

The warder placed his hand on Ven’s shoulder. “You think you’re better than me, kid?”

Ven reacted to the weight of his hand, but didn’t shove him away. He spoke calmly. “Take your hand off me and go back to your seat.”

“Or what?” The warder blasted his foul breath in Ven’s face.

Ven grabbed the warder’s wrist and brought the hulking man to his knees. At first, watching the skinny, scraggly Ven dominating a two-hundred pound man was amusing, but Taro quickly realized what Ven was doing.

“Let him go,” Taro said frantically. “You heard what Sullen said.”

Ven did so and the soldier cradled his bruised wrist.

“Just teaching him a lesson.” Ven peered at the other men staring at them from the tables. “If the rest of you want to end up on the floor with your friend, let’s get this over with.”

The men went back to their drinks, and the warder staggered back to his seat.

“You gotta put them in their place, otherwise they’ll never learn,” Ven said, sipping his ale.

After a few drinks, the mood was much lighter. The men hadn’t bothered them again, and the ale even started to taste almost drinkable.

Ven held up his sloshing cup. “To yet another year in this god-forsaken shithole,” he said, remarkably well for how much he’d had. “Third year’s the charm, they say.”

“I sure hope not,” Taro said.

“I can count on one hand the number of recruits who pass the trial on the first go.” He nudged Taro with his elbow. “Kyra is one of them. Some brains on that one. Or some connections. I could get used to starin’ at that for a term or two.”

Pipes rolled his eyes. “You’re hopeless.”

“What?” Some ale spilled from his cup as he gestured. “C’mon, she’s gorgeous.”

“Jar nor uru calaphor,” Yoresh said with a chuckle. He’d just downed his fourth pint, but barely seemed phased by it.

Sig nodded. “He says you should try for someone more attainable.”

Pipes grinned. “Besides, we all know that Taro’s the one she’s got her eye on, remember?”

Three hours later, they started back to Taro’s room. They bantered and shouted as they wobbled through the slush. Ven had been right, the cold didn’t feel so bad after a few drinks. Even drunk, Taro didn’t feel quite right wandering through lower city, but he could barely speak clearly, let along convince the others to walk along the colder surface.

“Did you see that warder’s face,” Ven slurred. “What a joke.”

“If Sullen finds out, there’ll be hell to pay,” Pipes said.

“How’s he gonna find out? None of you are gonna tell him, right?”

“Of course not,” Pipes said, and the others agreed.

“I’m sick and tired of getting flack for being in the Magisterium. Used to be that magisters were looked up to, but now we can’t even go out and get a drink without gettin’ pissed on.”

The boys passed several open rows on their way. Most of them had homeless people inside, huddled around lit trash bins. Wide stretches of cloth were tied from one row to another as a makeshift canopy. Some of them rattled cups at the boys and begged for money, but they didn’t even elicit a head-turn.

With the frequent beggars, Taro didn’t think it was strange to hear footsteps nearby. By the time he realized what was going on, it was too late. The warders from the bar ran up to them and slammed a wooden board across Ven’s head.

Taro punched one if the men in the stomach, but it served only to make them angrier. Yoresh put up a much better fight and knocked a bloodied tooth out of the warder’s mouth before he was overrun.

Taro got the beating of his life. Once the boys were so drunk and shell-shocked they couldn’t use templary, they were easy targets. The men paid special attention to Ven, and when they were finally satisfied with the curb stomp, the one Ven insulted pressed his foot into Ven’s stomach.

The warder gave him one last kick to the face. “Who’s outclassed now?”

Taro took the least of it. The men noticed early on that he was missing a foot, and perhaps beating up a cripple didn’t sit right with them.

When they left, Taro gathered the strength to get stand. The others were bloodied and bruised, but at least they were all alive.

“Can you walk?” Taro asked each as he helped them up. All of them could.

Despite two black eyes, a bleeding mouth, and probably a broken rib, Ven seemed more frustrated that hurt. “I can’t believe we let them get the drop on us.”

“We should tell Magister Ross what happened,” Sig said.

“We need the infirmary,” Yoresh said.

“Stagger into the Magisterium like this is going to draw some suspicion,” Taro said.

“Taro’s right,” Pipes said, stretching his back. “We can stay at my house for the night and get fixed up. My parents are on holiday in Celosa.”

Pipes’ house was a mansion like Taro had never seen. The gate outside was a quarter-mile from the front door. The snow-capped lawn was covered in metal art and antiques: old airship propellers, an artillery shells, and a tank.

Pipes fumbled with the keys and pushed the door open. Hundreds of tiny model airships (both of the air-balloon variety and propulsion-based) hung from every square inch of the ceiling. Cannons and escape-pod fuselages sat on pedestals with the name of the ship that had carried them. There were charts, compasses, maps, propellers from apparently famous warships, and so many framed blueprints that they may as well have been wallpaper.

“My dad’s a bit of a collector,” Pipes said.

“A bit?” Taro said wide-eyed.

There was a set of stairs to the left, and flickering candlelight shined from hall at the top, following footsteps.

“I thought you said your parents were away,” Taro whispered.

“The groundskeeper works late sometimes,” Pipes said coolly.

A man holding a candle appeared at the top of the steps. He was rather tall with thick, brown curls and glasses. He stared down at the boys. “Piper, what the devil happened to you?”

Pipes fumbled his words. “I thought you were with mom.”

Pipes’ father hurried down and held his candle to Pipes’ face. “I had to stay behind for business. Have you been fighting?”

“We got jumped on the road,” Pipes said. He was smart enough not to mention they’d been in the lower city.

“You reek of alcohol.”

“We were celebrating.”

“You know better than venturing out dressed like that. It’s not like it was when I was your age, the city isn’t safe.”

Ven spoke up. “It was my fault, sir. Pipes didn’t want to go.”

“There’s no need to defend him.” Mr. Crissom motioned for them to follow him to the dining room. “Believe me, I remember when I was a recruit, and I know listening to your father isn’t the first thing on your mind. I hope you learned something from this.”

Mr. Crissom went into the other room and came back with a small wooden box. He set it on the dining room table; inside were bandages, gauze, and various alchemical ointments and medicines. He dabbed a bit onto a cloth and spotted their bruises with it.

“This should fix your surface damage, but there’s more underneath.” He pressed his fingers into Pipes’ back and a slight white glow emanated from his fingertips. “You’ve got a fractured rib.” He did the same to Ven. “And you’ve got chips on the back of your skull. You’re lucky there’s no internal bleeding.” He did the same to the others, noting some minor fractures and cracks. “All in all, you’re extremely lucky.” When Mr. Crissom’s pressed his hand into Taro’s back, Taro felt his pain fade and a small ‘snap.’

“It’ll take a few hours for your bones to heal,” Mr. Crissom said.

Pipes stretched his arms and pivoted his back. “You won’t tell mom, will you?”

Mr. Crissom placed the ointments back into the box and sighed. “Not this time. But that doesn’t give you free reign to act stupid. Understood?”

“Yes, sir.”

Crissom crossed his arms. “Your friends are welcome to stay, Piper, but I’ve got big client visiting early tomorrow. I don’t want you embarrassing me.”

“Is it the buyer from Ashwick?”

Crissom nodded. “Not sure what to make of him yet. A gentleman named—”

“Victor Mathan,” Taro said to himself.

“That’s right. You know him?”

“We’ve met.”

_____

Sleep didn’t come easy that night. Taro could hear a faint, tiny sound of bending coming from inside him as his fractures realigned. Every time he got a few minutes of sleep, a jolt of pain rushed through his body.

Pipes’ bedroom was larger than Taro’s entire house in Ashwick, and filled to the brim with animated constructs: tiny birds and bugs made of thin sheets of tin. They hung from the ceiling by string, and fluttered like they were very much alive. Pipes claimed to have made them all by hand.

Whether it was through the pain or the incessant fluttering of constructs, Taro gave up trying to sleep. He slipped out of the bedroom and went downstairs. It was light out already, and the propeller-shaped clock on the wall said it was just past five o’clock.

The house was like a museum, and each display had a bronze plate beside it explaining what it was and where it was found. The largest piece was a in the common room, and was surrounded by a circular couch. It said ‘Escape Craft Hatch – HMA Titan.’ It was a round steel door with a glass window in the middle and clamps on the outer edge.

He was so distracted by it, he didn’t notice Mr. Crissom was in the corner of the room.

“Marvelous, aren’t they?” Mr. Crissom said. Taro jumped. “When I was a field medic, I had my femur shattered. It took months to heal and the pain was excruciating. It’s hard to sleep when you can feel your bones moving, isn’t it?”

“I didn’t know the Magisterium taught medicine.”

“Of course they do. Back then it was all field positions though, since the Arclight would repair minor cuts and fractures on its own. I was stationed on the Titan. The ship was lost in… unfortunate circumstances. This was the pod I escaped it.”

“Why keep it?”

“To remind me of where I came from. And of the friends I’ve lost.” Crissom set his notepad down. “What was your name again?”

“Taro.”

“Pipes hasn’t mentioned you.”

“This is my first time in Endra.”

“Ah, a newbie then. I envy you. These will be the best years of your life.”

Taro spoke his next words carefully, to avoid it sound like he was asking for a handout. “I doubt I’ll be able to afford to stay much longer. Tuition and all.”

“Your parents sent you without any money?”

“My parents couldn’t afford it. I thought I could get by with a job, but there aren’t many available.”

“That’s the truth. It’s one of the reasons I’m considering selling my company.”

“I don’t understand.”

“My foundry employs thousands. Endra has been at peace with its neighbors for so long that the Magisterium doesn’t buy as much steel as it once did. I’ve done everything I can to avoid letting workers go, but I don’t think it’ll be possible for much longer. This Mathan gentleman says can turn it around without layoffs.”

“I see.”

“Maybe I could help you with your tuition,” Crissom said after a pause.

“I don’t want a handout.”

“I wouldn’t insult you by offering one. But if you come by the foundry on Eighth Street, say Tuesday, I could have the overseer set you up with some work.”

“You mean it?”

“I’ve got a soft spot for recruits. Believe it or not, my first term I was dead broke. Had to pawn my aurom, if you can believe it.”

A throat-clearing chortle came from the living room entrance. Standing in the doorway was Mr. Mathan, a cigar clenched tight in his teeth. “Your front door was open. I let myself in.”

“That’s quite all right,” Crissom said, though his expression didn’t match his words. “You’ve met Taro already, I understand.”

“Me and Taro are well acquainted. I didn’t know you and he were.”

“We’ve just become acquainted. He’ll be working at the foundry on Eighth Street, so he’ll be your employee one day if we can reach an accord.”

“Working for me? Wouldn’t that be novel?”

“Yeah. Sure.” Taro thanked Mr. Crissom once more and returned to the bedroom.

Chapter Fourteen

Aftershock

“What the hell happened you?” Aris said, glancing briefly at Taro’s bruised face. He was vigorously rubbing a bit of charcoal onto a sheet of vellum when Taro found him.

“I’d rather not talk about it.”

Aris’ wagon was parked between two other merchant carts, one a travelling apothecary and the other a chandlery shop. The front of his wagon detached from the frame, allowing him to show off his merchandise. Despite his sign’s proclamation of ‘choice oddities’ most of it was useless junk, and Aris didn’t seem particularly keen on selling any of it.

“Excuse me, sir,” a customer said, looking over a dented telescope. “How much for this?”

“Forty crowns,” Aris said without looking up from his sketch.

“Forty?!” the man said incredulously.

“It once belonged to the queen of Helia.”

“Helia wasn’t a monarchy,” Taro said.

Aris glared at him and gave him a look that could only be described as ‘shut up.’ The man left and Aris set his drawing down.

“Doesn’t matter,” Aris said. “He wasn’t going to buy anything anyway. I think it’s time to move on.”

Aris wedged a metal bar into a gear on the wagon’s frame. The front panel slowly closed as he cranked it.

“Where will you go?” Taro asked.

“Won’t know until I get there.”

While Aris gathered his things, Taro got a glimpse of what he was sketching. It was the creature they’d encountered in Mr. Mathan’s cellar, and the thought of the hideous mass of tendrils and eyes sent an unpleasant shiver through Taro’s body.

But the shiver didn’t go away, it grew and soon became a sharp pain in his chest. At first he thought it was his injuries from the day before, but this was different. The pain was so intense he almost curled up onto the ground.

“Are you okay?” Aris asked.

The pain came again, and Taro clenched his chest. It was hard to breath, and even harder to speak.

“I need to go,” Taro said. He dredged back through the cold streets towards the Magisterium. The frigid air numbed the pain, but each step was harder than the last.

Nima was in the gallery studying with Suri. She had a metal ball sitting on the head of a pin, and was doing her best to keep it from falling with only her templar.

Suri looked horrified when she saw Taro. “You look like death,” she said, and put the back of her hand to his forehead.

“I got jumped last night,” Taro said.

“No kidding.” From her tone, it seemed like she’d been waiting for the proper time to yell at him. “I expect Ven to be an idiot, but I thought you had more sense.”

Taro was in too much pain to defend himself.

“But that’s not what I mean,” Suri continued. She placed her other hand onto Taro’s chest and for a moment it seemed like she was listening for something. “Oh my God, we need to get you to Magister Ross. Now.”

Taro collapsed to his knees and sweat trickled down his forehead. “What’s wrong with me?”

Suri lifted Taro up onto her shoulder. “It’s an aftershock from Ross opening your templar.”

“But Ross didn’t open my templar.”

“Who did?”

When Taro told her that it was Kyra, Suri was positively furious, but seemed reserved to saving her chastisement for a time when his life wasn’t in immediate danger.

They hauled him to the dueling room. Kyra had just finished a match, and apparently won handily as the boy could hardly stand.

When Kyra saw Taro her eyes became wide as saucers.

“Set him down,” she said hastily, and pulled the grips off her knuckles. “How long has been like this?”

Taro couldn’t make out Suri’s answer. Sights and sounds faded around him and his senses couldn’t process the world. Everything seemed bright, and when Kyra spoke again it was like she was shouting into his ear at the top of her lungs.

“Clear out,” she said. Kyra propped him up and placed her hand on his neck. “Tar? Can you hear me?”

Taro put his hands to his ears. “Why are you yelling at me?”

“You need to calm down. You’re templar is off balance.”

“It hurts so much.”

“I know,” Kyra said softly. Her skin became as cold against his, and it was like she was pouring ice water over him.

The fire inside him slowly settled; his breathing slowed and the room came into focus. Kyra looked exhausted. She lifted her hand from his neck and tilted his chin up. “Are you okay?”

Taro managed a nod. “I… I think so.”

Kyra pulled up her sleeves and leaned back, panting. “I should’ve known this would happen. Antherion was right. If you’d died…” She put her hand to her mouth. “You’re certain you’re all right?”

“I think so. The pain’s gone,” Taro said.

“This is why Magister Ross insists on opening all new templars. I thought I could handle it.”

“It’s not your fault, I asked you to do it,” Taro said.

“You mean you won’t tell Ross?”

“Of course not. But what exactly was the problem?”

“Growing pains,” Kyra said. “Templars grow or contract with emotions, fear most of all. It’s one of the reasons Magister Veldheim puts recruits in harm’s way and why the trials are so brutal. But too much too soon and it can trigger aftershocks.”

Kyra apologized a dozen more times before she would accept that Taro wasn’t angry with her.

By the time Taro returned to Lower, Aris was gone. On the ground, wedged under a rock, was the sketch he’d made. Scrawled in the margins were the words ‘what are you?’

Chapter Fifteen

A Thousand Tales

Despite the lower city’s well-deserved reputation of being filled with criminals and vagrants, Taro felt more at home in its sprawling underground than he did on the surface. This was despite his recent ass-kicking. It’d been two weeks, and he was still sore.

Nima sat on the floor of their room scratching into a plank of wood with her inscriber. She made four columns, each with seven wards and seven leys. Wards stopped the flow of energy, leys guided it, and both were required for successful magistry.

Nima shut her eyes and tried to repeat them in order. “Lon, der, vad, caer, vael, dor, esen, ko — tel?”

“Shir comes first,” Taro corrected. He was laying on his back, leafing through The Compendium of Magical Monsters.

Nima groaned and ran her hands over her face. “I’m never gonna get this. Did you find what you were looking for?”

“Nothing,” Taro said. He must’ve checked through the compendium a dozen times, but he found no mention of the creature he’d seen in Mr. Mathan’s cellar.

“You could ask Aris.”

“I haven’t seen his wagon in days.”

“There are other books in the Librarium, you know.”

That wasn’t an option with Moira’s book still in pawn. Before Nima could press the issue there was a knock on the door.

Taro set his book down. “It’s unlocked,” he said, as if locking the plywood-thin door would’ve prevented anyone from entering.

It was Suri. She pressed her hands against the door frame, but didn’t enter. There was something off about her: she was wearing her ‘talking to tenants’ face. “Hey you two. Studying?”

“And failing,” Nima said without looking up at her runes.

“Listen, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but your rent was due yesterday. One crown, two nobles.”

Taro fished through what money he had. After pooling coins from the dresser, his sock, and both his and Nima’s pockets, he scrounged up half a crown.

“I’m a little short,” he said nervously.

Suri crossed her arms.

“I just need a couple more days. I’ve got a job starting soon.”

Suri exhaled hard. “My dad balances the books tonight. You have until then to get the rest, or he’s going to kick you out.”

“You can’t stall for a few more days?”

“He’s rather single-minded about this sort of thing.”

Suri left them to brood in silence. Taro weighed his options. He’d already pawned every possession of worth, which left only one option.

Taro slipped his shoes and jacket on. “Stay here. I’ll be back before dark.”

Nima stood between him and the door. She seemed to know exactly what he was planning. “If you get caught, they’ll court martial you.”

Taro darted past her. “I won’t get caught.”

Nima followed close, sliding down the handrail of the stairwell. “I’m coming.” Before Taro could tell her ‘no’, she quieted him. “That wasn’t a question. Someone’s gotta keep you out of prison.”

It was simple, really. Taro couldn’t get the money, so he was going to steal it. Months ago, he wouldn’t even have batted an eye at picking a pocket, but he really wished there was another way.

Some parts of the lower city were warmer than others. These hot spots, called boroughs, were near natural vents leading deep into the earth, and had the heaviest crowds. It was the perfect place to slip money from an unsuspecting rich bastard. But there was a problem: there were no rich people in the lower city.

Taro scanned the crowds looking for anyone who looked well-off, to no success. Not far a few dozen people formed a circle around a faded green wagon. With their backs to him, they were prime targets, but as he neared he got distracted by what they were looking at.

An elderly man exited the rickety wagon. He was positively ancient, and his thick white beard looked like it weighed more than he did. He could barely support his doddering body with his staff, and every step looked like it knocked the wind out of him.

One of the older boys helped him down the last step and the old man sat on a wobbling stool. He licked his dry lips, cracked his scraggly fingers, and pulled a tray from underneath. He handed it to the nearest person; they dropped a penny into it and passed it along.

The man mumbled something to himself, then cleared his throat. “A larger crowd than usual. Hopefully you’re as generous as the last. This may well be my last year coming this way.”

The crowd let out collective sounds of disappointment.

“Now, now, getting through the tundra at my age is no small feat.”

A little girl raised her hand. She was tiny, probably no older than seven, with bright ribbons in her hair. “How old are you?”

The man gave a grandfatherly smile. He waved her over and set her on his knee. “How old do you reckon I am?”

“Ummm…” The little girl grinned sheepishly. “A hundred years old?”

“If only I were so young.” He turned his attention to the audience. “For the curious amongst you, my name is Leorin. Soothsayer, lore-keeper, teller of a thousand tales. The best way to keep me talking is to keep me fed, and the best way to keep me fed is by placing coins onto the tray. Don’t be shy.”

He sipped from a nearby cup and some wine dribbled onto his beard. “Before I select one from my own fancy, you can make a request for one copper noble. I know everything and every story. What shall it be? Something from your city’s past? The fall of Isaroth the Cruel? The Banishment of Nuruthil? The War of the Old Gods? Or the founding of Endra Edûn and the first magisters? Don’t be shy.”

When Taro placed a noble into the tray, Nima looked as though she was going to kill him. They were short on money, but one noble wouldn’t make the difference. If they were going to steal anyway, they were going to go for much more.

“And what story would you like to hear, young man?” Leorin asked.

“The first magister.”

There was booing and people called out alternatives.

“Now, now,” Leorin said. “The Magisterium is a part of your history, like it or not. Besides, it gives me an excuse to opine on my travels. You see, last autumn I traveled north to Caelis Enor. It was once home of the tribes of Amín. You think the world has problems today, imagine every nation on the planet living in one countryside.

“Among the drunkard chieftains and idiot kings, one bastard stood out: the vile warlord Sacrolesh.

“When you get to be my age, you learn that even the most honest story has some embellishment. I say this because in my travels I discovered many different stories regarding Sacrolesh, and some contradict one another.”

The crowd had gone completely silent, except for some children adjusting their seats.

“In my father’s stories, Sacrolesh was once a man, but sold his soul to Nuruthil. The oldest of the Old Gods, bound forever in the reach between worlds.”

“Worlds?” Taro blurted out.

Leorin squinted at him. “Speak up, please, my ears aren’t what they used to be.”

Taro felt every eye on him. “Well… there’s only one world.”

Leorin tapped the side of his nose. “Ah, now that’s where you’re wrong. There are more worlds than flakes of snow in a blizzard. You, however, will only encounter two: our world and the spirit world.” He held his hands parallel to one another, with a few inches of space separating them. “Between these worlds is a void of churning ether. It was here that the Old Gods banished Nuruthil. It’s a domain of beast-like apparitions; hideous creatures of a thousand eyes.”

Taro’s ears perked.

“When we die our souls must pass through this reach to get to the spirit world. Pure souls pass through without trouble, but tainted souls are doomed to wander for eternity and relive the most terrible moments of their lives.” Leorin looked like he was trying to remember where he’d left off on his story. “Where was I?”

“Sacrolesh,” someone said.

“Ah, yes. In the stories of Helia Edûn, Sacrolesh was a sage that found his way into the Reach through arcane magic. He used his power to scour the tribes until only one remained: the children of Aldor.

“Aldor and his people fled to the Endran tundra. Frostbite and hunger plagued them for twenty grueling days until they came to this very spot.” Leorin pointed towards the ground. “Here they found the Magisterium tower. The Arclight on its peak shined like a second sun, and wherever it touched, the land bloomed and flourished. Here, Sun King Aldor founded his nation. Our current Sun King, Godrin, is his fourteenth-down grandson.

“At the beginning, Aldor dared not enter the tower lest he defile sacred ground. Years passed, and he began construction of a city that would make the gods themselves envious. But Sacrolesh’s thirst for power never died. Faced with invasion, Sun King Aldor entered the Magisterium for twenty days and twenty nights.

“While there he encountered the Arclight high atop the tower. It glowed with the intensity of a thousand suns, but didn’t burn his skin nor harm him. The flames became flesh, and the Arclight itself spoke to him and taught him the ways of magic.”

Apparently Taro was the only one amongst the group who hadn’t heard this story before, because the others simply nodded and took it in stride. To him, it sounded like sheer insanity. He did his best to not offend Leorin with his tone, but he couldn’t let the comment sit.

“The Arclight… became a person?” Taro said.

Leorin must’ve heard the doubt in his voice. “Is it so hard to believe? Why do you think the magisters reside in that tower? The Arclight is the source of their power.”

“But the Arclight is broken, and they still have their magic last I heard,” a boy in the audience said.

“It won’t leave them immediately, but given time, I imagine their magic will fade without a source to replenish it. Magic isn’t innate, it’s a gift from the Old Gods. And whereas Sacrolesh hoarded his dark magic for himself, the Sun King taught his knowledge to many, and his magisters defeated Sacrolesh in the Battle of Halric Tur.”

Leorin steepled his fingers. “So you see, without the magisters, this entire nation would never have come to be.”

“Excuse me,” Taro called. “What happened to Sacrolesh?”

“He was captured,” Leorin said.

“And executed?”

“Not right away. Do you recall what I said about a soul passing through the Reach? When this happens the barrier weakens for a moment. Killing Sacrolesh would’ve cut a hole so large, who knows what could’ve escaped. Instead, the old sinner was bound and placed on a ship travelling to—”

“Little bitch!” a loud, angry voice called from the other side of the crowd. The sound of coins striking the ground rang out. A large Helian man held Nima by the wrist and she fought to free herself.

Leorin pulled himself up with his staff. “What’s all this?”

“This rat was stuffing coins into her pocket,” the man snarled.

Nima punched him square in the eyes and wiggled free. She bolted in Taro’s direction, and he feigned trying to stop her, but positioned himself to obstruct her pursuers.

Once she disappeared into the crowds, she’d be impossible to find.

One of the men helped Taro up. “Are you all right, kid? Some nerve on her, stealing from an old man and attacking a cripple.”

It took Taro a moment to realize that he was the cripple. “I’m fine.”

Leorin pulled his frail body towards what was left of the coins on the ground. The tiny girl helped him collect them back onto the tray. It was less than a quarter of what was originally there. Taro felt something he’d never felt in the past when he’d stolen: shame. A deep, aching shame that stabbed at his stomach and caked his brain.

He spent the entire day listening to Leorin’s stories. By the time he’d worked up the nerve to return to the inn, it was dark. He didn’t say a word to Nima.

“I paid Suri,” Nima said.

Taro slumped onto his cot and stared at the ceiling. “Yeah.”

He couldn’t be angry at her. After all, she was only doing what her big brother taught her.

Chapter Sixteen

The Downings

Taro woke before the sun rose and left while Nima was still asleep. Crissom Foundry wasn’t hard to miss. With fifty smokestacks, and a layout that spanned two miles, it was a veritable city within a city. Taro wandered in like a stray cat, passing huge caravans hauling plates of steel. The heat coming from the foundry was tremendous, and vast plumes of steam rose like an unending white cloud.

Taro tried to flag down someone who could help him, but had to grab someone by the arm just to get them to listen.

“I’m looking for the overseer,” he said politely.

The worker shook him off and pointed a thumb to a gruff man standing beside a steel press. He was the largest man Taro have ever seen (a full two feet taller than himself), and old warder tattoos covered his hairy arms. His sausage-like fingers were so big he could barely hold onto the pen he was scribbling with.

“Excuse me.” Taro felt like he was staring up at a mountain. “My name’s Taro.”

The man swung around. He stared down at Taro like he was bug he’d found floating in his soup. “That supposed to mean something to me?”

“Mr. Crissom said you’d have work for me.”

The overseer flipped through his papers and scrunched his face. “Another peon, eh?” He grabbed Taro, and was able to wrap his fingers entire width of his upper arm. “You got no meat on you, boy.”

“I can do any work you give me.”

“You won’t be getting any special treatment here. I suspect that means you won’t last a day. A win-win in my book.”

“What’ll I be hauling?”

The overseer blustered a laugh. “Hauling? Oh no, you’ll start your illustrious career in the blast furnace.”

The blast furnace was as bad as it sounded. It was deep in the heart of the foundry, and was the source of the steam coming off the building. From hundreds of yards away and through a set of walls, he could feel the heat. Now, only a few feet from the smoldering pit, the heat was overwhelming.

Twelve conveyor belts passed the furnace. Two brought heaps of coal to forty workers with shovels. They scooped the coal up and tossed it into the flames. The others belts were padded with carbon and hauled fresh, red-hot steel plates from the heart of the fire. The plates dropped into another belt submerged in water where they were cooled. When this happened, a blast of hot steam erupted from the bubbling pool. At the end they were pressed with ‘CRISSOM FDY’ and sent to Packaging, most of which were bound for the Magisterium.

“The steam’ll melt the skin off your bones,” the overseer said. “And not that it matters, but you’ll be paid a full noble an hour.”

Taro might as well have been offered a money tree.

“If you slack off, you’re fired. If you stop shoveling during your shift, you’re fired. If you break any equipment, you’re fired. If you slow your crew down so it doesn’t meet its quota—”

“Let me guess, I’m fired?”

The overseer grabbed a shovel from a rack and pushed it into Taro’s hands. Its handle was warm to the touch.

He took a spot beside the other workers and scooped the first load of coal off the belt and into the fire. It was like he’d fallen into the deepest circle of Hell. His fingers burned every time they got close to the open flames, and each scoop was harder than the last. Coal dust choked the air, stung his eyes, and filled the cracks in his skin.

Every so often the overseer would enter the furnace room. He kept his eyes fixed on either his notes or some bit of equipment, but Taro knew he was really keeping an eye on him, waiting for him to screw up or give up.

Four hours into it, Taro’s mouth was so dry he couldn’t swallow. His face and hair so caked in black dust he’d be unrecognizable to his friends. The next shift came in to relieve him and his coworkers, and Taro followed the men out of the furnace room.

One of them introduced himself as Rin. “Never seen a mite workin’ the furnace,” he said. It was the first time anyone had spoken.

Taro tried to speak, but all that came out was a hard cough. With some effort he was able to say, “First day.”

“Blimey, Overseer must have it in for you,” an older man said. He shook Taro’s raw hand and introduced himself as Tomin. “Furnace on day one is cruel even for him.”

A short two corridors away was a locker room where Taro was able to wash up. His clothes were ruined, however, and there was no way to easily clean them here.

Every day for the next month Taro showed up and worked his knuckles to the bone. This would’ve been bad enough, but he still had his normal duties to attend to in the Magisterium and his trial was fast-approaching.

_____

“Hurry up, Taro!” Ven shouted as he leaped over gears and barreled around a corner in a dead-sprint towards Magister Veldheim’s class. “We’re going to be late.”

Taro wheezed as he tried to keep up. He felt like he was going to throw-up a gallon of soot. “We’re already late.”

When they opened the workshop door, Taro thought they’d made a wrong turn somewhere. The room was completely different from how it appeared yesterday. In the back were a dozen white crates with cross-hatches on the front and bees the size of grapefruits swarmed around them. Veldheim and the others were wearing chainmail suits and hats with see-through cloth covering their face and neck.

“Sorry we’re late,” Taro said.

“Shush,” Veldheim whispered. “No loud noises, no sudden movements.” He pointed to more suits hanging on the wall. Taro and Ven put them on slowly while the giant bees swarmed the room.

“As I was just telling your classmates,” Veldheim continued, “noise is the enemy with the Apocra.”

“Giant bees,” Suri said.

“Wasps,” Veldheim corrected. “Bees are useful creatures that produce honey. Wasps don’t normally make anything useful. But the venom the queen produces can be a potent ink for motion enchantments. Can you guess what today’s task is?”

Suri strafed towards Taro. “Where’s Nima?”

“I thought she was with you,” Taro said.

“Maybe she overslept,” Ven said.

Two hours and eight stings later, class was over. The chainmail suit had helped catch the half-inch stinger, but the tips managed to graze Taro’s skin. Antherion was waiting in the Conservatorium with a special herb that would sooth it (apparently this was a common occurrence).

Antherion’s class was decidedly less life-threatening. They checked on the plants they’d sowed on day one; Taro’s had budding teeth and was starting to grow grape-like fruit on its stalk. According to Antherion, this fruit was bait for its prey.

As another hour passed, Taro started to get unnerved. Nima was still nowhere to be found. Antherion was busy discussing the finer points of fungal herblore when Taro stood.

“On page seventeen you’ll note the ten mushrooms that can be combined with the Apocra venom. Please copy these down, as I will reference them later.” Antherion’s enormous amber eyes zeroed in on Taro. “Is there a problem?”

“May I be excused?”

Antherion huffed so hard it almost knocked Taro backwards. “This information could mean life or death for you during your trial.”

Taro didn’t see how that could be possible, but didn’t argue the point. “I understand, sir, but this an emergency.”

Antherion pointed his tail towards a clearing and the exit appeared. “If you must, but I expect you to review the chapter on your own time.”

Taro rushed back to the inn. He half-expected Nima be inside, still asleep. The other half expected it to be empty and Nima to be elsewhere. Either of these would’ve been preferable than what he actually found.

The room was trashed. Nima’s books, inscriber, and artificing tools littered the floor. Cracked vials of ink had rolled to the corners and the mattress was falling off the bed frame. Just in front of the door were small handprints made in ink, as if Nima had been dragged from the room. Just at the end of the ink streaks was a word she’d hastily scribbled with her fingers: ‘book.’

It didn’t take half a second for it to click for Taro. He dropped his artificing supplies and marched outside. He didn’t go directly to Rashkal’s book cart; first he stopped by a blacksmith. He sat few pennies onto the man’s hand and said, “I need a knife.”

The blacksmith sold him six inch blade, which he slipped into his belt.

The book cart was not in its usual place and the greasy shopkeeper was nowhere in sight. Taro scanned the area with a burning determination, looking for any familiar face until his eyes stopped on one of the boys who’d tried to steal from Moira months ago.

Something in Taro’s mind snapped. It was one thing to harm or threaten him, but quite another to harm Nima. He grabbed the boy’s arm with such force that he thought he’d broken his wrist. He yanked him into an empty alley and thrust him against the cold bricks with one hand around his mouth.

He waved the knife in front of the boy’s horrified eyes.

“I know your boss took my sister.” The boy tried to deny it even with his mouth covered, but Taro shushed him and pressed the knife to his neck. “In a moment I’m going to take my hand off. If you don’t tell me exactly where she is, I swear you won’t ever talk again.”

When Taro removed his hand, the boy burst into tears. Taro shook him hard and his head thumped against the brick wall. “Where?”

The boy fought to speak through his huffing and tears. “H-h-he took her to the Downings.”

“That’s in the lower city?”

The boy nodded and Taro let him down. “What’s your name?

He wiped the tears from his eyes. “Clyde.”

Taro took the inscriber from his pocket and grabbed Clyde’s hand. “Do you know what this is?”

“A magister’s wand?”

“Very good.” Taro scribbled a bit of nonsense on the back of Clyde’s hand. “You see, I’m a magister. And that girl your boss took? She’s my little sister.”

Clyde’s eyes widened. “We didn’t—”

Taro shushed him. “This mark on your hand is a special kind of magic. If you move more than ten feet from me at any time, it’ll drop you stone dead. Please, Clyde, if you feel like testing it out go ahead and run.” Taro gave him a sinister grin. “Otherwise, you’re going to take me to Rashkal.”

Clyde walked so close to Taro it must’ve looked a bit strange to the casual observer. The Downings was a mile south, along what looked like the end of the underground. Here huge dripping pipes and culverts draining into a mushy river below. It wasn’t sewage or storm water, it looked more like an oily runoff from the Magisterium.

This area was much less populated than the rest of the lower city. There were no crowds here, and certainly no shops. The only people in this place were the drunkards and destitute. Many had turned boxes and crates into makeshift homes and burned trash for warmth. Others weren’t so lucky and slept directly on the icy ground.

Clyde pointed towards a rusty culvert with the bars filed off. Water was trickling out of it into the oily river. “That’s it.”

They climbed into the culvert and continued for a dozen yards down a drain pipe with an inch of oily water at the bottom.

Two boys, one of which was older than Taro, waited at the end of the pipe. They sat by a lantern throwing darts at a wooden plank. The plank was nailed to a large wooden barrel, and fourteen other barrels lined the small room. One of them was overturned and red liquid spilled out of it and mixed with the water at the bottom of the culvert.

“Who’s your friend?” the older one said, just missing the drawn-on circle with the number 20 scratched into it.

“He’s lookin’ for work,” Clyde said. He was fairly convincing considering the circumstances.

“Might wanna bring him back tomorrow. Rashkal’s busy with that Magisterium girl.” The boy had grin that made Taro want to bash his face in. “She’s a feisty one.”

“What did she do?” Taro asked, trying to summon the strength not to punch the kid’s teeth out.

“Been workin’ in our territory. Her bein’ in the Magisterium’s just a bonus. Rashkal wanted her snuffed, but that Sikes kid’s gone squealing to the boss.” He threw another dart, totally missing the board. “If you bother him, it’s your funeral.”

Taro motioned for Clyde to continue into a cramped three-foot wide pipe. Nima’s muffled whimpering and Rashkal’s shouting coming from the end.

Clyde stopped in his tracks. “I did what you asked, can I please go?”

Taro took the boy’s hand and crossed out the symbol with an ‘x’. “I don’t want to see you again. Ever. Is that understood?”

The boy nodded.

Clyde bolted, and Taro peaked around the hallway bend into the next room. It was filled with stacks of more barrels and broken pieces of furniture. Nima was tied and gagged in the corner.

“I said shut up!” Rashkal hurdled a chair leg into a pile just below an air vent. “Freezin’ my ass off is bad enough without your squealin’.” He tried in vain to light the treated wood, and became increasingly angry that it wasn’t working.

Nima got to her feet but the Rashkal pushed her down with one boot to her back. He grabbed splintered piece of wood and pressed it to her neck. “Feel that? One more squeak and I’ll bleed that pretty neck dry. Did you think I wouldn’t recognize you?”

Just as Taro was going to run in, he heard a familiar voice from the entrance on the other side of the chamber.

“Have some self-control.” It was Mr. Mathan. He shook the ashes of his cigar onto the floor and traced his glance across the room.

Rashkal reared his long, white teeth. “Boss-man.”

“This is what you missed your check-in for? Beating on a little girl?

“She was working in my territory, not to mention costing me a great deal of money with—”

Mathan hushed him like one hushes a dog. “I couldn’t possibly bring myself to care less. Drawing attention to yourself in this way jeopardizes the entire operation.”

Mathan knelt beside Nima and pulled the sack off her head. When he saw who she was, the cigar fell out of his mouth. Nima’s battered, tear-soaked eyes peered up at him.

Mathan struck Rashkal so hard one of his teeth flew out. “Idiot.” He struck him again. “Do you know what you’ve done?”

Rashkal wiped the blood from his chin. “It’s just some girl.”

“She’s one of our tickets into the Magisterium,” Mathan said slowly and deliberately. “Her brother’s going to find out about this.” Mathan put his hand to his mouth. “He’ll probably kill you. And if Vexis finds out about this, she’ll kill us both.”

Rashkal’s ears perked up. “Vexis?”

Mathan pulled the gag off Nima. “You have no idea how much I regret what Rashkal has done to you.” His eyes bore into Rashkal. “You will return her to her brother and beg forgiveness.”

Mathan looked like he had a headache, and said he was going to get some fresh air.

When he was out of earshot, Rashkal knelt beside Nima. “It’s a shame. We were becoming such good friends.” He stuck his calloused tongue out and licked her cheek.

Taro’s vision went red and every muscle in his body clenched. His templar flared and he brought his fist down onto Rashkal’s body like a hammer. The bones in the man’s shoulder snapped like dry twigs, and Taro continued wailing on him, punctuating every word he spoke with his fist.

“Don’t. Ever. Touch. My. Sister.”

Nima’s shaky voice caught his ear despite his anger. “You’re going to kill him!”

Somehow Taro was able to stop himself. Rashkal’s jaw was broken, his face was puffy and red. Taro was surprised he hadn’t knocked is head clean-off.

Taro tossed the despicable man aside and he pulled Nima in for a hug. “He deserves it.”

Mathan had been observing and while Taro tended to Nima, he lit a new cigar and sauntered to Rashkal. The man reached towards Mathan and begged for help. Mathan answered by pressing the sole of his shoe into Rashkal’s neck.

“You’re a liability, my greasy friend,” Mathan said calmly.

While Rashkal writhed and choked on the floor, Mathan looked positively indifferent to his suffering. Rashkal choked and struggled until he was still.

Mathan glanced at a horrified Taro. “Walk with me.”

They continued to where Mathan had entered from. It lead to a ladder so tall that it must’ve led to the surface. Around the ladder were more numbered barrels and shelves of Rashkal’s merchandise: books, of course, but also jewelry, statues, purses, anything his boys could steal. He was much like Mr. Boors in that regard, but even Boors wouldn’t harm a little girl. Mathan sat on a chair beside a counting table.

“That was impressive, what you did to Rashkal,” Mathan said. “Do you regret it?”

Taro thought for a moment. “No.”

“Good. There’s no shortage of bad men in this world. You shouldn’t feel bad about ridding it of one of them.”

Taro sat on the cold floor. “Sir, I don’t want to be here anymore,” he said, sounding a like child.

Mathan rapped his hands on the counting table. “Then go home.”

“You’d let me?”

“After what happened to your sister, I wouldn’t blame you. And to be perfectly honest, if Vexis finds out, she’d hold me responsible.” Mathan took a flask from his pocket and took a swig. ”Nevertheless, I would ask you to stay of your own free will.”

“Why?”

“You know your parents don’t have much time. What if I told you there was a way to cure them?”

“There’s no cure. The alchemist said—”

“By now you’ve heard of the Arclight. It can cure most any disease.”

Taro nodded. “But it doesn’t work anymore.”

“The magisters stuck their crude tools into a symphony of godly precision and broke it. Like a group of cavemen trying to disassemble an engine. It could heal Talthis and Era. Unfortunately, the Magisterium threw the one person who could fix it into prison.”

Taro tilted his head. “Vexis. This is why you brought me here? Why didn’t you just tell me at the beginning?”

“Rule number three, lad. Information is always on a need to know basis.” He held out his hand. “Your parent’s wellness in exchange for your voluntary cooperation.”

“What exactly do I need to do?”

“We’re planning a bit of a distraction for the Magisterium. The specifics aren’t important, but when it happens you’ll be in a position to slip into Vexis’ cell and let her out.”

Taro thought long and hard. “If the magisters found out they’d.”

“Kill you, most likely. As I said, I won’t force you, and I won’t lie. Even with all of our planning, it’s a long-shot. What do you say?”

Taro thought of his family for a long moment before speaking. “On one condition.”

“What would that be?”

“Take Nima back to Ashwick.”

Mathan rubbed his chin. “She won’t like that.”

“I know.”

“I suppose the plan can proceed with just you and Mr. Sikes, but there will be little room for error. If you fail…”

“I won’t fail,” Taro said, more confidently than he felt. “Take her back and I’ll do anything you ask. By force if you have to.”

“I’m not going anywhere!” Nima shouted. Taro figured she’d been listening for a while. She pushed Taro against the chest. “You don’t get to decided where I go or what I do.”

“I can’t focus if I’m constantly worried about you. You’re put in danger every day: in class, in Lower, and who knows what the trial’s going to bring.”

“You have no right to make that decision for me.”

“I have every right.” Taro was done with her. He turned his attention back to Mathan. “Well?”

Mathan crossed his fingers across his stomach and leaned back in his chair. “It’s a deal.”

Before they parted ways, Taro had the good sense to ask Mathan about his tuition. Mathan beat around the bush, but the ultimate answer was ‘no.’

“You paid Sikes’ tuition,” Taro said.

He patted Taro on the side. “Trust me, you don’t want that kind of help.” If Mathan had a reason, he wasn’t talking.

Taro headed back to the Magisterium without so much as a goodbye to Nima. She was furious and didn’t even want to look at him. He couldn’t blame her. He wasn’t proud of what he’d done. He knew it was selfish, but at that point he didn’t care. She was his little sister, and he wasn’t going to let anything happen to her.

Chapter Seventeen

Cheaters Prosper

The frigid air in the Magisterium courtyard helped clear Taro’s headache. He paced back and forth amongst the frozen fountains and the dead trees trying to reconcile what he had done. When he sat on a park bench, Aris appeared beside him. He waited idly for Taro to speak first.

“I sent Nima home,” Taro said.

“I’m surprised Victor allow that,” Aris said.

“He said the Arclight could heal my parents. They want to fix it. Is that true?”

Aris stood with his hands clasped behind him. He murmured to himself in confusion. “The Arclight? That doesn’t make any sense.”

“What do you mean?”

“The Arclight is benign. Its purpose was to heal and create. What good would that do him and Vexis?”

“Maybe they’re sincere.”

Aris scoffed and poked Taro on the forehead. “Don’t tell me you’re that naïve. Obviously they’re using you, but why?”

“If there’s even a chance my mom and dad could get better, I have to try. I have to make it through that trial.”

“There are recruits far more gifted than yourself that have been trying for years.”

“Maybe you could teach me a few spells that would help.”

“Perhaps. But cheating would improve your odds dramatically. “That’s right up your alley, isn’t it?”

There was no point in arguing. “What do you have in mind?”

“I made some discreet inquiries. I found that your Imperator has an office below the Librarium. If you can get inside, I’d wager you’ll be able to learn more about the trial down there.”

“If I can get inside.”

“Now that’s something I can help you with.” Aris untied a small sack and pulled out a copper cylinder with two prongs on the end. “Find her office and touch this to the lock.”

Taro raised an eyebrow. “You just carry this with you?”

“It comes in handy. It can break most door enchantments.”

“‘Most.’ And if it can’t break hers?”

“You’ll get a little nap.”

Between the Sun King’s palace and the Magisterium, just inside the Midway, was the circular building that housed the Librarium.

The area between the tower and the Librarium was crawling with warders. A large number of homeless people were on the other side of the courtyard fence as if they were waiting for something. Soon, two men hauled out surplus food from the mess hall and homeless lined up to receive their bread crusts and half-eaten cheese. Taro tried not to stare.

Each of the Librarium’s seven walls were lined with bookshelves three stories high, and people climbed fifteen-foot ladders to reach the higher shelves. The ceiling was glass (as most Endran buildings were) and completely frosted over. The skeletons of four winged beasts overlooked fifty tables of studying students.

Taro scanned the room, trying to see if Moira was around. Either it was her off-hour, or she was busy helping someone. Taro found Ross’ workshop tucked away beside a reading alcove, far in the back. He pretended to browse the bookshelf nearby. When he was confident he was clear, he pressed the metal cylinder to the keyhole and braced himself.

The door clicked open harmlessly.

Taro descended into the dank underground. He got the impression that Ross didn’t get many visitors down here. The stairs ended right in the middle of a large, multi-layered room with several workbenches covered in brass pipes, cogs, and spanners. He couldn’t get two feet without tripping on a screwdriver or flywheel. On the far wall, buried under a mountain of books, was Ross’ desk.

He rummaged through the papers and through boxes, not quite sure what he was looking for. He found diagrams of new airship engines and a newspapers.

He opened one of her desk drawers and found ledgers of new recruits going back two years, each with a ‘pass’ or ‘fail’ scribbled beside their name. The ledger for the current year was blank, but alongside it was a map with a large mark indicating Endra Edûn and a smaller one labeled ‘South Waystation.’ Clipped to this were diagrams of an airship called the Titan. Taro recognized this as the ship Mr. Crissom had served aboard.

The door upstairs rattled, and the top stair creaked. Taro bolted behind one of the mountains of junk and peaked from the side as she descended. It was Magister Ross, and she looked positively miserable.

She took a deep breath. “Pull it together,” she said out loud, and threw her cloak onto her desk chair.

Taro’s breathing stopped for a moment. He’d forgotten to put the ledger back in the drawer. Ross picked it up and glanced around the room, her eyes were like two searchlights scanning to see if anything else was amiss. Footsteps creaked towards the stairs, towards her airship models, and finally just a few feet away from where he was hiding. To his relief there was a knock at the door.

“Amelia,” a muffled voice called from the other side.

“Who is it?” Ross groaned as she climbed the stairs and opened it.

Taro heard the door open. “Your Majesty,” Ross said.

“May I come in?” the Sun King said.

“Of course, watch your step.” Ross helped him down the stairs. The Sun King was wearing a tattered brown robe over his fine clothing.

“Your guards are going to be furious,” Ross said.

“They often are.” He patted her cheek. “I haven’t had a chance to congratulate you on your advancement to Imperator. I only wish it were under better circumstances.”

The Sun King looked for a place to sit and settled on the only part of a desk not covered in junk. “We’d often take council from each other.”

“Magister Briggs was a great man. I’ll do my best to live up to his legacy.”

The Sun King coughed hard into his hand. “I can’t ask for more than that.”

“Are you ill?” Ross said.

“It’s just the dust.” He cleared his throat.

“I apologize for the state of my workshop.”

“I’ve come to learn that magisters are an unorganized lot. I long ago stopped trying to manage it.” The Sun King coughed again. He looked up and Ross was fiddling nervously with her glasses. “Something’s on your mind.”

“I just don’t believe it. A first-year artificer kill a magister? It’s absurd.”

“I know it’s hard to accept.”

“It’s not just hard. It’s impossible. I’ve decided to keep Vexis alive for a while longer for questioning.”

“I’d prefer you didn’t,” the Sun King said.

“I must insist. She knows something, and I have to find out what it is.”

The Sun King tried to stand but stumbled. Ross caught him just in time. “Come, I’ll escort you to you back to the palace.”

“I make it a point to never turn down the company of a lady.” He took Ross’ arm and they ascended the steps. “I’m looking forward to this year’s trial.”

“Your daughter’s been incredibly helpful with designing it. I swear, Kyra might have her eyes on my job one day if I’m not careful.”

Chapter Eighteen

A Lesson in Suffering

Magister Ross hated the Blocks: the dank, putrid smell, the mice scurrying across the floor, the water dripping from the moldy walls and ceiling. She descended down the circular stairwell like a deep-sea diver growing accustom to crushing water. Two warders awaited her at the bottom.

“She’s secure?” Ross asked.

“Yes, Imperator.”

“Show me.”

The warders lead Ross to the end of the hall. They passed dozens of heavy iron doors covered in complex binding enchantments. Behind each were the most vile sorcerers in the kingdom, and the Magisterium dungeon was the only prison equipped to hold them.

Steam bellowed from the door as the warders turned the wheel-lock on Vexis’ cell. Inside, the tiny girl stood with her arms, legs, neck, and torso covered in metal and bolted to the stone wall behind her.

Her mask was just loose enough to allow her to breathe, and blood and sweat trickled from her forehead.

“Remove her mask,” Ross said.

They took the keys and spanners, unlocked the mask and removed the bolts.

Vexis had a sinister grin. “Imperator, what an honor.”

“Leave us,” Ross told the warders. “Shut the door behind you.”

“Oh no, don’t go boys, I thought we were going to have some fun,” Vexis shouted. The door shut, and the two stood in silence for a moment.“Are you sure you should be alone with me? I killed Magister Briggs, right?”

“Briggs was old and weak. I am not.”

Vexis struggled against her restraints and turned her cuffed wrists. “These bracelets are by far the worst part of my confinement. I could do with the starvation and beatings, but one thing I can’t abide is ugly jewelry.”

“They’re of my own design. By now you’ve realized that the crystals on the ends divert your templar. They are Class S enchantments, completely unbreakable.”

“So you’re to blame for these catastrophes.” Vexis’ eyes narrowed. “You can’t keep me here forever.”

Ross tilted her glasses down. “You’re alive only because I want information.

“You’re going to kill me whether I answer your questions or not. What would possibly compel me to tell you anything?”

“Overconfidence. Hubris. You clearly love to hear the sound of your own voice. So talk to me, I’m a great listener.”

“You know, you’re right. Let’s see, what to talk about… how about the look on Briggs’ face when I severed his limbs. Let me tell you, I could’ve killed the old grinning tumor quickly, but there’s something so personal about taking your time.”

Ross placed her hand on Vexis’ restraints and sent a shock through them that could’ve fried the tiny girl like an egg. Her body shook and her flesh sizzled. Ross expected agonizing screams, but Vexis laughed wildly.

Tears streamed down her cheeks but she remained cheerful. “Does the Sun King know you torture prisoners?”

“We’re going to play a game: every time you mention Magister Briggs, you get enough electricity through your body to power a small city. You get off hurting an innocent old man?”

Vexis pulled against her restraints so hard the wall trembled. “You think he was innocent? You think any of you are innocent? Your crimes escape your lofty notice.”

“Crimes?”

“Hello? We’re in a damned winter wonderland because of you idiots! Did you not notice the thousand acres of frozen farmland, or your people freezing to death on the streets?”

“The pursuit of knowledge sometimes has unfortunate casualties.”

“There’s your biggest crime. You see people suffering, and you don’t give a damn.”

“Briggs knew more about the Arclight than anyone. If anyone was going to fix it, it was going to be him.”

“Repairing the Arclight isn’t enough. We’re way passed that. You all need to be taught a severe lesson in suffering.”

“And how do you plan on doing that while locked up in here?”

“Come here, and I’ll tell you.”

Ross took a few steps towards her.

“Closer, come on,” Vexis insisted. “You won’t want to miss this.” Ross leaned in, and Vexis coughed into her ear.

“Is that supposed to mean something?”

Vexis rolled her eyes. “God, you’re thick.”

Ross went to leave. “Maybe another week down here will loosen your tongue.”

Vexis raised her voice before the cell door shut. “You will wish the recruits good luck on their trial, won’t you?”

Chapter Nineteen

The Boy and the Music Box

It wasn’t until the door shut behind her that Nima realized she wasn’t going home. The heavy iron latch clinked and Mathan removed the burlap sack from her head.

She was in a rather upscale house — at least, it had been at one point. The windows were sloppily boarded up and the hardwood floor splintered from months exposed to ice. The tattered walls had dozens of maps plastered to them; diagrams of the Magisterium and layouts of the lower city in remarkable detail.

Despite the circumstance, Mathan’s tone was overly pleasant. “Please, have a seat, there might be a bit of a wait.” He pointed to a crooked chair, the red padded top had lost all its stuffing.

“I thought you were taking me back to Ashwick,” Nima said.

“I fully intend to, if that’s what you want. But you know me well by now, I take pride in seizing business opportunities, and you present an interesting one.”

“How?”

Mathan patted her on the head. “I’ll let the good doctor explain. Sit tight.”

Mathan left the door open a crack. When his footsteps were far enough away, Nima peaked out into the hallway. It looked as though a fire had burned through the building years ago. The walls were scorched black and the paint bubbled. Except for bits of sunlight peeking through the boarded windows, the only real light came from a door at the end of the charred hall.

A soft sound carried on the air, so silent that Nima had to hold her breath to hear it clearly. It was a glittery metallic music like a lullaby, the notes danced ominously through the air and drew Nima towards the door.

The bedroom inside was small, with only a bed and an elm side table. Laying with a blanket up to his neck was a sleeping boy about Decker’s age. The covers were free of any creases or wrinkles like he hadn’t moved in ages. He seemed well cared for: his clothes were new and his loose curly hair was recently cut.

The music box beside the bed was worth a fair bit. There was no crank handle, rather the runes on the side suggested it was powered by magistry. In the Artificium, such a device would take at least thirty hours of work to complete even for an experienced artificer. On the top was a tiny aluminum circus clown balancing on one finger.

When Nima closed the box the music stopped.

“His name is Tom.” Nima jumped at the sound of Mr. Mathan’s voice, and when her hand jerked it pulled the music box off the tabletop. Mathan caught it just before it hit the floor.

Nima fumbled her words. “I’m sorry.”

“I didn’t mean to startle you.” Mathan placed the music box back on the table and opened it. “Let the music play, though. He enjoys it.”

“He’s your son?”

“My daughter’s son. Unfortunately she’s no longer…” He trailed off as if his mind was somewhere far away.

“Is he sick?”

Mathan shook his head. “Not exactly.” Nima sensed that this was as far as he was willing to explain. He pushed some of the curls out of the sleeping boy’s eyes and kissed his forehead.

Mathan led her through the charred hallway and into a strange room. It looked as though it didn’t belong in the house. It was an alchemy lab, and its cluttered tables were packed with half-full vials and beakers connected with plastic tubes. The walls were so covered with pages torn from books that they may as well have been wallpaper.

Dr. Halric placed one hand on her back and scooted her onto a chair. “Pardon the condition of my workroom,” he said as he took a seat.

Nima stared intently at one particular pages of the wall. It had caught her eye the moment she entered. “Why are you so interested in the Arclight?”

His wrinkled cheeks contorted into a grin. “You’ve got sharp eyes. Victor told me the unfortunate circumstances regarding that fiend Rashkal. I must say, the levels to which your brother is willing to go to protect you is admirable.”

“I didn’t need his help. I would’ve found a way to escape.”

“And how would you have done that?”

Nima pointed a finger at the leg of the chair Halric was sitting on. The center smoked and warped, and finally snapped. Halric stood onto his walking stick before the chair collapsed.

“I’m not helpless,” Nima said indignantly.

Halric examined the break. “Your templary is impressive for one so young. But Rashkal’s a kitten compared to what’s out there. Permit me a demonstration?”

“A demonstration of w—”

Before she could finish, Halric raised a single crooked finger and it felt as though an entire ocean of water had been dropped on her body. Her chair shattered like its wood was rotten, and her tiny body struck the charred floor. She couldn’t speak. Couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t bring her face to turn, or beg Halric to stop.

Dr. Halric hobbled towards her flattening body. “I’m no stranger to magic. Back in my day, I was considered quite formidable. That was many years ago, and I’m afraid my templary isn’t what it used to be.”

The crushing magic dissipated and Nima was once again able to move. She pushed her hands against the ground half-way into a push up while she caught her breath.

“I apologize if that was unpleasant,” Halric said.

Nima met his eyes. “Are you going to kill me?”

“Perish the thought. If you wish, you can walk out that door right now. Victor will take you back to Ashwick, back to that tiny home on Walder’s Lane. Back to your dying parents, squabbling brothers. Back to a father that belittles you. Back to the room where he hit you so hard you had to your friends… to your brother.”

“How do you—”

“What if I told you that I could give you power beyond anything the Magisterium could offer. You’d never be weak or helpless again.”

“Why me?”

“The ability to unlock a templar is a well-guarded secret amongst the magisters,” Halric said. “It’s an ability that eludes me. Now that your templar is open, you’re very… valuable to me.”

“What’s the catch?” Nima said.

“’Catch.’ What a nefarious word. There isn’t one. When the trial is over it will be time to rescue Vexis from the Magisterium dungeon. I have no doubt Taro could do it on his own.” Halric pointed to himself, then to Nima. “But you and I could help him succeed.”

“How?”

“Have you ever heard of summoning magic?”

Nima shook her head.

“I’m not surprised. Not something they’d teach at the Magisterium. I’d be happy to tell you all about it, but first I must know if you’re with us.”

Nima started for the door. When her fingers grazed the knob, Halric placed his bony fingers onto her shoulder. “I can understand if your answer is ‘no.’ Great power and great deeds are not for everyone. If you hurry, you may even be able to pick up a job sweeping floors.”

Nima glanced sideways at him and pulled her hand back.

Halric’s toothy grin spread wildly across his face. “That’s my girl. Don’t be afraid, I’m here to help.”

Chapter Twenty

Frame of Mind

To say that Taro was happy with Nima out of the way would be incorrect. He adored his sister, and having her at his side was a comfort in many ways. Still, her absence was like a huge weight being lifted off his chest.

With Nima gone, he was free to delve wholeheartedly into his studies and prepare for the trial ahead.

His debt to Moira continued to be a source of anxiety. Access to the Librarium was an absolute requirement, but he was nowhere close to having the money to buy back her book from Leek. So, instead, he memorized Moira’s work schedule and did his best to work around it. This was easier said than done, as she spent at least fifty hours a week cataloguing books.

Between eight hours of lessons and seven more at Crissom Foundry, Taro quickly learned to function with minimal sleep.

The Librarium was packed full of information on every subject, and in addition to his magistry research, he hoped to learn more about the creature he’d seen in Mathan’s cellar or the reach between worlds. Unfortunately, information was sporadic at best.

In Helia Historia, the Reach was a physical location inhabited by one’s long-dead ancestors. This belief was backed up with supposed first-hand accounts of people who briefly died, but were resuscitated. The Tale of Iset and Coset was written as a fairytale and described the Reach as a torrent of pure light. Of note was that not one account agreed with Leorin’s story.

One particular evening, well-past midnight, Taro fell asleep with his nose on a particularly boring chapter of Aethas Lothrien’s The Wars of Gods and Men.

“If Moira saw you drooling on one of her books, no magic on earth would save you,” a voice called from the entrance to the reading alcove. It was Magister Ross. She must’ve been on her way to her workshop.

Taro scrambled to his feet. “Imperator.”

Ross straightened her glasses. “As you were.”

Taro relaxed. “I must’ve dozed off.”

“I can see that. Be more mindful of Librarium property.”

“Yes, imperator.”

Ross turn the book to face her and glanced briefly at its cover. “Do you have an interest in history, Mr. Taro?”

He wasn’t quite sure how much he should say, but he’d gotten nowhere with his search, and with Aris long gone this was the first time he’d had a magister’s ear outside of his lessons in a long while.

“Kind of,” he said. He flipped to a pen-sketched illustration of the Magisterium. Rays of light from its tip were striking monstrous figures on the ground. The creatures were frightfully similar to Aris’ sketch. “Do you know what these are?”

Ross leaned in and gave the sketch a significant look. “Their depiction is to show the corrupting effect of void magic.”

“Void magic?”

Ross looked as though she’d said too much. “This is a subject you won’t delve into until your third year as an artificer.”

“…would it be inappropriate for me to ask what it is?”

She sat on the chair opposite of him. “Curiosity is never inappropriate.”

The enormity of the situation took a moment to strike Taro. Here he was with the most powerful magister in the world, in many ways the de facto ruler of Endra, and she was sitting across from him like with an almost casual look to her.

Ross placed her hand on the side of his neck, and it looked as though she was staring at him. In fact, as he soon realized, she was staring into him.

“You have a remarkably open templar for someone who’s been through so much pain,” she said.

“How do you—”

“You can tell a lot about a person from their templar. Their frame of mind, their self-control, their feelings for a certain tribune.” Taro blushed at this. “Some powerful templarists can obfuscate their motives.”

“Did Vexis?” Taro asked.

Ross seemed momentarily surprised, but settled into a somber nod. “One can hardly expect those events to stay secret for long. May I ask you what actions of hers are common knowledge?”

“Just that she somehow killed Magister Briggs trying to reach the Arclight. That she was executed shortly after.”

Ross seemed happy with the idea of people believing Vexis was dead. Taro, of course, knew the truth.

_____

“She actually sat and talked with you?” Suri said, more than a little surprised. Suri was helping him practice his runic calligraphy in the mess hall. This ‘help’ involved her scarfing down mouthfuls of bean soup while periodically correcting his sloppy handwriting.

This particular enchantment was a dispel meant to cancel out other lesser forms of magistry.

“Not for very long,” Taro said, finishing off the loop on his ‘cin’ rune. “She checked my templar too.”

Suri looked up. “That’s either really good, or really bad.” She pointed to the rune Taro had just scratched onto the slate in front of him. “That, however, is definitely bad. Try again.”

Taro groaned as he erased it. “It’ll do the job.”

“Finishing off a dispel with cin is sloppy. Magister Briego would be all over you if he saw it,” Suri said.

“But it would work,” Taro mumbled quietly.

Suri glared at him. “Do you want banality or do you want excellence?”

“I want… soup.” Taro pushed the slate away, stood, and went to get himself a bowl.

“Sure, go ahead. Nothing important happening here. Just trying to keep you alive for the trial is all,” Suri said as he went to the food line.

“You’re starting to sound like a friend of mine,” Taro said, glancing back.

The trial was a month away and the recruits were in cramming mode. Taro was lucky to have friends like Suri and Ven, who’d trialed before and understood the sorts of magic required.

Taro learned a remarkable amount in a relatively short period of time. Enchantments that could seal a box without a key, magistry that could make a motor turn, even the ability to cool himself with nothing but his templar. (This made his Crissom Foundry much more bearable, and confounded the overseer to no end.)

As the trial date neared, Taro couldn’t help but be confident. He had an advantage: he’d seen the trial plans mapped out in stunning detail. He thought he knew what to expect. He couldn’t have been more wrong.

 

Chapter Twenty-one

The Trial Begins

Trial Day began like any other. Taro got breakfast in the mess hall and played a relatively short game of Hilto with Pipes. Despite his often simplistic demeanor and penchant for getting into trouble, Pipes had an incredibly keen mind.

This manifested in ways outside of Hilto, most notably in Pipes’ skill at making various small constructs. The tiny birds didn’t have a long life to them, some only survived a few hours, but the fact that he could will his templar into an inanimate object was a skill that even most magisters couldn’t do with his ease or grace.

The recruits were told to report to the airship hanger on the thirtieth floor. There was a single ship hovering inside; it was much like a wooden sailing ship, but its sturdy wooden frame was braced with metal supports. Its engines and much of ventral fuselage were tempered Crissom Steel, and steam bellowed from the engines like dropping a hot iron rod into a pool of ice water.

They were shuffled aboard by Magister Briego and told to wait in the cargo bay. Taro struggled not to throw-up from the constant swaying of the ship, or get crushed by the shifting crates.

He peered through a tiny porthole in the curved wall. The prep crews were hard at work unlatching the mooring lines.

Ven sat with his back to a wall and cleaned his inscriber with a metal brush. “Guesses on where we’re going?”

Pipes fiddled with one of his tiny hummingbird constructs, and twisted its wing into place. “No way to know until we get there.”

The wheel on the cargo bay door spun and it creaked open. Magister Ross entered carrying a smooth stone sphere about the size of her fist. The recruits’ first instincts were to hurry to attention, but she ushered them to remain sitting.

“There are many types of magic in the world.” She stood in the center of the cargo bay, and the recruits scooted into a circle around her. “Magisters devote our lives to understanding it, but the truth is that we’ve barely scratched the surface. Take this, for example.” She held the stone orb out in front of her. “Can anyone guess what it is?”

The sphere had no writing on it. There were a few evenly-spaced notches running in an oblong curve around the center, as if it was actually two pieces stuck together.

The room remained silent.

“Make an effort to answer,” Ross said.

Pipes spoke first. “Some kind of sundial? The notches could be for telling time.”

“A fair answer, but no.”

Yoresh raised is hand. “Lor poru dashuri raheel?”

Ross shook her head. “No, no, not even close. In fact, this is a map.”

The sphere rose into the air and the sides separated, exposing clicking gears and crystalline inner workings. The sphere projected a moving image of the Magisterium tower in stunning detail. The image turned and panned along one of the roots.

“This is the magic of the Old Gods. One small part of the wonders that lie hidden away within the Magisterium.”

Taro tried to touch the glowing lines floating over him, but his fingers passed through them.

The image circled around one of the Magisterium roots and zoomed in onto a set of crumbling ruins surrounding it.

“These ruins are a part of the original structure,” Ross said. “They’re built around Waystations wherein heat from the earth is converted into energy for the tower. Years ago a blizzard damaged the root that runs through this particular Waystation and a team was dispatched to repair it. Only one man made it out alive. Their ship — the Titan — remains there to this day.”

Pipes turned paper-white and dropped his construct.

The projection centered on a ruined archway. “This is the landing site of the Titan. Inside the nearby Waystation is a chamber with a rather powerful defensive artifact that prevents our repair crews from entering. Your mission is to retrieve the artifact.” The sphere closed and the projection disappeared. “Those of you who wish to quit now may disembark. The rest of you, join me above deck.”

Ross left with the door open and Pipes scurried to the back wall.

“We’re not letting you back out of this,” Ven said.

Pipes was hyperventilating. “You don’t understand. My dad told me what happened down there. The things he saw…”

They had to drag Pipes above deck. The ship took off, and wind wisped across the deck like tiny razors. Ross stood on the stern near the captain’s cabin holding a tied-off velvet sack.

She did a quick count. “Fourteen of your peers have given up.” She took fourteen stones out of the bag; seven were painted white, seven black. She shook the bag and ushered each of the recruits to retrieve one of the remaining stones.

Taro got a black stone. As did Ven, Suri, and Pipes. Sikes and Yoresh got white stones. The teams were even at twenty each.

“White Team will be dropped in the north,” Ross said. “Black Team will be dropped in the south. The team that returns to Endra Edûn with the artifact is the winner.”

“I don’t know if I can do this,” Pipes said.

“The chance to back out has passed, Mr. Crissom,” Ross said. “And be wary of your teammates, boys and girls, because either your entire team passes or none of you do.”

“What the hell?” Ven shouted. “That’s bullsh—”

“Instead of wasting your time complaining, you should be strategizing with your team,” Ross snapped. “We’ll be at the drop point in five minutes.”

Taro wasn’t sure he’d heard her right. “Drop point?”

The Eventide followed the root of the Magisterium for miles, and left a long trail of white steam in its wake. Near the ruins was a circular patch where the snow had melted, and the fuselages of seven airships lay in the clearing besides mounds of metal scraps and pools of bubbling oil.

“What’s that?” Taro asked.

“A junkyard for old airships go to die,” Suri said.

The recruits were given packs with meager rations, rope, and a few tools. In addition, they received a tiny metal box with exposed gears that ticked like a clock; on the side was a finger-sized groove.

Taro recognized the runes from somewhere, but couldn’t quite place it.

Suri immediately knew what they were. “Gravidic magistry,” she said.

“Correct,” Ross said. “These will allow you to fall at a slower pace. Count to three and press into the groove.” Ross tilted her glasses and checked at her pocket watch. “We’ll be at the jump site in forty-five seconds.”

The teams lined up on the port and starboard sides of the ship. Taro looked over the edge at the rolling landscape, jagged rocks, and ice fields below. In the distance, the Magisterium towered above the landscape. Its roots spanned in every direction, going through canyons, mountains, and rivers.

Taro felt like he was going to pass out.

Ven took the choice away Taro. He grabbed him by the wrist and pulled Taro over the side. The wind ripped them apart and they tumbled out of control. Taro’s prosthetic kicked Ven so hard that the gravity reducer flew from his hands.

Taro looked up at the Eventide speeding away, and down at the ground fast-approaching. Beside him, Ven was panicking.

“Grab hold!” Taro shouted. Ven reached out and took his hand.

“One,” Taro said. The boys spun and the air currents threatened to pull their arms out of their sockets.

“Two.” Taro clenched the gravity reducer tight.

“Three.” Taro closed his eyes and pressed down. There was a tremendous rush of air and their decent slowed, but they were still falling much faster than the others.

“It can’t take two people,” Ven said.

“Then this is going to be rough, hold on!”

They smacked into snow and tumbled wildly into the side of an icy ravine. Taro’s brain rattle in his skull. The world spun, his bones ached, but he was alive.

The other recruits gently touched the ground and ran to help.

“Are you alright?” Suri asked, patting him down and checking his limbs.

Taro tightened the straps on his prosthetic. “Spectacular.”

Ven rubbed his shoulder. “Oh, I’m fine too Suri, thank you for asking.”

“I knew you’d be okay, I saw you land on your head.” Suri helped Taro up and brushed the snow off his back. “We need to get inside or we’re going to freeze to death.”

The end of the Magisterium root was enormous. They marched towards the ruins through two feet of snow. Taro struggled to keep up with the others and Ven kept a slower pace so the group wouldn’t overtake him.

One particular section of the ruined walls had huge holes, and the recruits climbed inside. As they trekked through the structure, it got gradually darker. The tiles on the floor were weathered and cracked. Most of the pillars were in pieces, and the only thing holding up the vaulted ceiling were aged pillars.

They walked for over an hour, deeper and deeper into the ruins. Crumbled statues littered the ground, and faces and eye stared up at them from the soles of their feet. This didn’t seem to be natural wear, it was like someone had taken a sledgehammer to every one of them.

Taro picked a marble shard up and brushed the ice crystals away. “We’re not the first ones here.”

“Ross said as much,” Suri said.

Taro shook his head. “That’s not what I mean.”

“I found something,” Ven called from around a bend in the hallway.

It was an enormous stone door, and seemed to be the only part of the structure completely intact. There were no hinges or knob, and it was wedged so tight into the wall that you couldn’t stick a pin between them. The door was decorated with flourished script and long glowing lines running from a circle at the top. The faded paint on it suggested it had once been vibrant shades of green and gold, but was now faded gray.

Taro traced his fingers along the ridges. “Maybe there’s a switch or a latch.”

The recruits searched every inch of the door and walls, under every rock and behind every cracked pillar. They tapped, knocked, and kicked, but the door didn’t budge.

Taro put his ear to the stone. “I can hear something behind it.”

Suri did the same. “I hear it too. Like… clicking.” She ran her hand over the writing. “Can anyone read it?”

Nobody could. Suri took a piece of paper and an oily chunk of wax from a small pouch and pressed the paper against some of the words. When she did, she got a crude impression of the words and black wax smeared onto the door.

“Doesn’t matter. We can’t open it,” one of the boys, Rayen, said. “We should keep going.”

The others agreed and they continued further in. Suri stared at the imprint as they walked.

Taro walked closer to her to get a better look. “It looks almost like Deific.”

“It’s definitely Deific, just an old dialect. Half of these symbols aren’t used anymore.” She pointed to a word. “I think this means ‘light.’”

There wasn’t another door for two hours. Pain surged through Taro’s leg; the fall had affected him more than he’d first thought, but he didn’t want to be the weak link in the group.

When the team made it to another room he practically collapsed onto the ground. There was another door here as large as the first.

On the door was the black paper-outline. It was the same one Suri had made earlier.

“We’re going in circles!” Ven pounded his fist on the stone door.

Taro was just happy to get a moment to rest. He set down his pack and fished around the meager supplies. A canteen of water, some dried fruit and meat. A length of rope, a knife, matches, and a hand-held spade.

The others did the same and counted off what they had. They were all similarly situated, though a few of the packs had unique items. Taro’s was the only one that had a spade; some others had a compass, a chisel, or metal bowls.

“Four days’ worth of food,” Ven said. “Maybe seven if we ration well.”

Taro scooted his back against the wall, and when he did, he stuck his hand into a something wet. It looked like reddish mud and smelled strongly of ammonia.

“You doing all right?” Ven asked.

Tarp wiped the warm muck onto the dirt. “Fine. Just happy to rest.”

“If we’re going too fast, just tell us, we’ll—”

“I said I’m fine,” Taro snapped.

“I didn’t doubt it.”

Ven and some of the other recruits went around the room ripping dead, frozen vines from the walls. They gathered them into a pile.

“You’ll never be able to light those,” Ven said. “The wood’s too wet.”

Suri drew a triangle around the wood with her inscriber. “I learned this little trick after getting stuck in that bog during last year’s trial.” She pressed her fingers to the ley points and the triangle glowed. Steam rose from the wood with a great hiss.

Taro picked up one of the vines: it was dry as a bone. “Nice.”

They warmed bits of food over their fresh fire, rested their legs, and inspected the stone door more closely. Ven and Pipes lead small teams through the halls looking for any bend or room they might have missed, but all paths lead back to the stone door. Five hours later they were no closer to getting past it.

“The other team’s probably already found the artifact,” Edrin said. He laid on his back, tossing a rock into the air and catching it.

Pipes was nearby, bending a wings on one of his tin birds with the earnestness of a boy trying desperately not to think too hard about where he was.

“If a door is the only thing in store for us, this’ll be the easiest trial in history,” Suri said.

Suri nodded. “This is a vacation compared to the Hell we had last year. They don’t make water hot enough to clean off the muck we had to crawl through.”

Pipes let his aluminum bird go and it fluttered around the room for a moment, but in the middle of a stride it sputtered and dived head-first into one of the puddles of red muck. He went to fish it out, but it fluttered back into the air. It fell again, this time inches from the fire. When it touched an ember, there was a tremendous crackle and bang and burning metal fragments exploded in every direction.

“Is everyone okay?” Ven said, lifting his head.

The recruits were fine, if a bit startled.

“What’s in those things?” Taro asked.

Pipes looked horrified that his little construct was gone, but quickly gathered himself. “Nothing explosive.”

Taro inspected the red muck. He picked up a thimble-sized amount of the clay-like goo and told everyone to cover their ears. He flicked the clay into the fire and there was another explosion.

“Something leaking from the Titan?” Ven said.

“How would it get on this side of the door?” Suri countered.

Taro’s eyes brightened. “Ven, give me your pack. I have an idea.”

Ven did so, and Taro emptied everything from his own pack into his. He then used his spade to shovel the mud into his bag.

The others quickly figured out what he was planning. They consolidated their packs together and were able to get another two bags filled.

Suri gave Taro a concerned look. “This could bring the whole roof in on itself.”

“It’s better than sitting here freezing to death,” Taro said.

They laid the packs in front of the door and made a thin trail from the bags to the corner.

The others packed a good distance into the halls. Taro went to light the bags, but Ven stopped him. “No offense Tar, but I think it’s better if I do this.”

Taro join the others without argument and watched Ven from a distance. Ven pressed his index finger to the line and a spark flashed from his fingertip. Taro expected it to work like a trail of gunpowder (a fizzling line, then a bang) but in fact, the entire line exploded almost at once. Flames shards of stone shot in all directions, and Ven was hurled backwards.

The explosion shook the ruins and cracked the foundation of the walls. Huge chunks of the ceiling collapsed, followed by mountains of snow.

When the rumbling stopped, Taro was on his back, buried under two other recruits. He shoved free pushed the rubble and snow off Ven.

“He’s not breathing!” Taro slapped Ven’s cheek and shook him hard.

Suri stumbled over and folded her hands against chest, pushed down several times, then breathed into Ven’s mouth. She did so two more times and Ven coughed and groaned.

Ven’s right hand was scorched and bleeding and when he tried to pull himself up, he found his ribs were cracked.

“Thought you were a goner,” Taro said.

Ven’s goofy smile was underscored by his obvious pain. His chest heaved, and he could barely speak. “All… part of the plan.”

“Plan?” Taro said.

“I got Suri to kiss me,” he said. “So worth it.”

Suri scrunched her eyes. “I swear, if that bomb hadn’t kicked your ass, I would.”

Ven’s hand was in awful shape, but he insisted they help the other recruits.

The others were lucky: scrapes, sprains, and bruises. Ven got the worst of it.

The stone door had been completely destroyed. Puffs of dust and smoke filled the room making it difficult to see what lay beyond. When it cleared, there was another rumbling, but this one was different than the first. It was wasn’t an explosion, it was like the rasping snarl of a wolf intermixed with the scraping of metal against stone.

The recruits froze and listened intently.

“It’s probably just something collapsing,” Ven said, though he didn’t sound too sure of himself.

Taro wasn’t so sure either.

Chapter Twenty-two

The Roots of the Magisterium

The other side of the door was pitch black. The recruits paused and exchanged unsure looks.

“I thought we were supposed to find a crashed airship,” Edrin said. “I don’t think we’re meant to go this way.”

“Maybe it leads back to the surface?” Taro said.

“I’m not going down there,” Edrin said.

“We need to keep moving,” Ven said.

“Who made you the leader?” Edrin said.

“I’ve trialed before.”

“Trialed and failed.”

Ven shoved him. “We all pass this trial or none of us do, idiot. Turn back now and we’re as good as done.”

“We’ll never make it through in the dark,” Suri said.

Suri plucked out three glass spheres from her pack. She gave one to Taro, one to Ven, and kept the third. The spheres were already inscribed and Taro’s glowed with a small bit of templary applied.

“We’ll pass them around,” Suri said.

The dim red light the orbs produced was hardly enough to see more than a few feet ahead. None of them dared make them too bright, as there was no telling how long they’d have to keep the enchantment going. After thirty minutes of concentration, Taro felt sluggish and had to pass his to Edrin.

This part of the structure was mostly in-tact compared to the rest. The walls were white stone with colored murals: images of Old Gods fighting demons, the sun and moon, and gold-leafed Deific script that all looked orange in the dim red light.

Suri examined the paper imprint of the door as they walked. “I think I figured it out.”

Taro moved closer to see. “Figured what out?”

“I thought this word was ‘light’ or ‘energy,’ but it’s used again on this mural to mean ‘fire.’”

“So which is it?” Taro asked.

“It’s all three. It’s talking about drawing the heat from rivers of fire.”

“Brilliant,” Edrin said unenthusiastically. “And that helps us how?”

Before Suri could respond, her foot caught something on the ground and she fell forward. Her orb rolled down the cavern and dimmed. She’d fallen into a puddle of more red muck and frantically wiped it off her arms and uniform.

“What the hell is this stuff,” she said wearily.

“Dry off or you’re going to freeze to death,” Ven said.

“Actually, it’s really warm,” Suri said.

“I noticed that,” Taro said, sifting it through his fingers. “But how can that be?”

No sooner did the words leave his mouth than did a sound come from the tunnel. The orb Suri dropped was ten yards ahead of them, and just before its light faded completely something passed in front of it. It was an enormous stone-and-steel construct obscured by shadow. It moved with a distinct scraping and clicking sound, and two yellow eyes appeared in the darkness. It climbed up the walls and disappeared.

Huge chunks were torn from the wall by what appeared to be claw marks. They were covered in more red muck. Taro rubbed it between his fingers, and found it, too, was hot to the touch.

“I think it’s hurt,” Taro said.

“Maybe that’s why it didn’t attack,” Suri said, picking her orb off the ground.

“This has to be some kind of fuel, right?” Taro said. “If it’s leaking so much, so fast, it’s either going to die soon, or it has a way to get more.”

“You’re missing the most important question,” Ven said.

“What’s that?” Taro asked.

“What the hell could’ve hurt something like that?”

The hall opened into a square chamber with a tall ceiling and so many walls that it seemed a vast maze. Dark as it was, it was impossible to tell just how far it went. One thing that stood out was that the further they got into the ruins, the hotter it got. This room was downright boiling.

Taro squinted into the darkness. “Pipes, did your dad mention any of this?” There was no answer. “Pipes?”

Everyone searched for a frantic moment, but Pipes was not among them.

“Wasn’t he was just here?” Taro asked.

“I don’t remember seeing him since we got down here,” Suri said.

A grim realization appeared on Ven’s face. “We’ve got to find him.”

“Pipes!” Taro shouted into the halls. There was no response. “We’ll split up in groups. Try to stay within earshot. If you see anything, just yell.”

“This sounds like a good way to get killed,” Edrin retorted. “That creature is still out there.”

“We’re not leaving Pipes behind,” Ven said.

The point ended up being moot, as a yelp echoed through the halls. It was unmistakably Pipes. Taro and Ven broke from the group and followed Pipes’ voice to an adjacent hallway piled high with rubble.

Pipes’ tiny frame was tucked away in a corner with his arms around his knees. When he saw them, he tried frantically to crawl away.

“Ven?” Taro spoke like he was talking to a frightened dog. “It’s us.”

“My dad was right,” Pipes rasped. “They’re still here.”

Ven helped Pipes to his feet and brushed the stone dust off his shirt. “Who’s here?”

“They told me to follow them.”

“He’s losing it,” Ven said. “We need to get him out of here.”

They each took one of Pipes’ arms and carried him back to the others.

“Tell us exactly what you saw,” Suri said. She passed Pipes a canteen of water, which he gulped down.

“The crew of the Titan.”

“There’s no way they could survive down here for so long,” Taro said.

“They didn’t survive. They died.”

“Edrin scoffed. “He’s cracked in the head.”

“Shut up,” Taro said.

“Come on, you know it’s true!”

“This can’t be a coincidence,” Taro said. “First I see a witch from a story, now Pipes is seeing things too. What does it mean?”

“That you’re both loons?” Edrin said.

Taro ignored him, and instead turned his attention back to Pipes. “Can you walk?”

Pipes nodded and they continued through the maze-like chamber. On the far end was more red muck and a cracked ascending stairway. They followed it through a winding tunnel until they met a welcomed sight: sunlight. Curiously, the closer they got to the sunlight, the colder it got, and the tunnel exited to a courtyard surrounded on all sides by ruins.

Here the pools of red liquid were ankle-deep and littered throughout slushy, muddy soil. The pools boiled and steamed.

Near the center of the courtyard was an airship slightly smaller than the one that dropped them off. The letters on the side confirmed that it was the Titan.

Other than being rusted and having the top covered in ice, it might even have been sky-worthy. The skeletons of several crewmen lay at the base of ramp leading inside, but there were fresh marks in the slush and mud.

“Looks like we got here first,” Ven said as they hopped over the pools towards the Titan. “Some of us will have to stay and secure the ship, the rest need to find the artifact.”

Rattling came from inside the ship, and Yoresh appeared waving a steel rod. He raved and screamed as he swung. Taro and Ven were able to subdue him, but it took a few moments of struggling before he calmed down.

Yoresh’s eyes were glazed over. “Adrun kaya anvoldus.”

Taro slapped his cheek a few times. “C’mon, speak a language we can understand. What happened?”

“They’ve gone lanora.” Yoresh fumbled trying to find the correct Amínnic word. “Crazy. All of them.”

“Where’d they go?” Taro asked.

Yoresh pointed towards a hole in the wall across one of the bubbling pools.

“We located the artifact, but were stopped by a macha,” he said in his thick Sahaalan accent.

“Macha?” Suri said curiously.

Yoresh searched for the word. “Machine. A construct. We damaged it, but began to see… creatures.”

“Why didn’t it affect you?” Suri asked.

“I and four others were told to guard the ship. One by one they left to check on the others, now only I remain.”

“I say we fly this ship away right here and now,” Edrin said.

“Without the artifact we fail the trial,” Ven said.

Edrin pointed to the skeletons. “It’s better than dying.”

“There’s no reason to believe any of them are dead,” Taro said.

“Didn’t you just hear him? Everyone who went into that door never came back. I’m staying right here.”

“You do what you want,” Taro said. “I’m going. Is anyone with me?”

Ven and Suri were the only volunteers.

“Seriously? No one else?” Ven shook his head. “Fine then. The rest of you get this ship ready to fly.”

“The ship is ready now,” Yoresh said. “But it cannot be piloted alone.”

“Good. We’re going to find the others and bring them back,” Taro said.

When Taro, Suri, and Ven were at the base of the ramp, Ven nudged Taro with his elbow. “That’s a tall order.”

“Maybe a little confidence will keep them from flying off without us.”

The heat coming from the gap in the wall was overwhelming, like stepping into the furnace room at Crissom Foundry. The Waystation was unlike the rest of the ruins, it sloped down into a natural cave with rough black walls interlaced with smooth stone and metal architecture identical to that of the Magisterium. Taro could feel the heat on the soles of his shoes.

Ven touched some of the hot ash from the cave floor and winced. He brushed it away and uncovered a fist-sized gear. There were more pieces (nuts and bolts) scattered nearby.

“I think these are from the construct,” Ven said. “At least we can be reasonably sure that’s not just in our heads.”

They soon came across one of the recruits from the other team. It was a boy Taro recognized as Mylo, a first-year about Nima’s age. He was tucked away in a break in the cave wall, covered in ash, with a positively terrified look in his eyes. When they approached him, Mylo scratched at the wall and screamed.

Taro grabbed him by the shoulder and shushed him. “It’s just us.”

Mylo’s chest heaved and his bloodshot eyes zeroed in on them. His voice barely cracked above a whisper. “He told me you’d all been killed.”

Suri whipped some of the ash from his eyes. “Who told you that?”

“He’s been chasing me for days,” Mylo said. “You guys can hide here with me if you want.”

Taro shook him. “There’s no one chasing you. This place is messing with your head.”

Mylo was delirious and Taro realized reasoning with him wouldn’t help. He glanced at Suri. “Can you get him back to the ship while we move forward?”

Suri held Mylo up by her shoulder. “I can try. With him and Yoresh, that leaves eighteen unaccounted for.”

“Hold on for a moment,” Taro said. He shined his light ahead of them as far as he could. There were several others sprawled through the caves in similar condition to Mylo. The recruits writhed in the ash, tried to climb up the walls, and banged their heads against rocks.

Suri propped Mylo up with her shoulder. “This is going to take a few trips.”

Chapter Twenty-three

Mind Games

While Suri worked hauling recruits back to the ship, Taro and Ven pressed deeper into the Waystation.

Ven held his light up to the cave wall. A half-dozen metal tubes were built directly into the black rock, each of them had a glass case on the front and pulsed with dim blue light.

“These look like power nodes,” Ven said.

The cave rumbled and rocks sifted from the ceiling as they neared two recruits.

“Do you know them?” Taro said.

“Corin and Hunter, second-years.”

The larger boy, Corin, had somehow lost most of his shirt. The cloth hung off, and there was a bleeding gash across the inner side of his arm. It was full of ash and must’ve hurt like hell.

Corin pointed behind them and screamed. “Get down!”

Taro tried to calm him. “It’s all in your head. There’s nothi—”

Before he could finish, something struck him. Whatever it was had enough force to knock him clear across the cave and smash him face-first into solid rock. Blood gushed from his nose and cheeks, and he struggled through his daze to regain balance. He felt bits of rubble falling onto his head and heard Ven shouting.

The massive silhouette of the construct charged at him, but Taro rolled clear and it struck the wall. The cave shook and sparks flew from the energy nodes. They lit up the cave like a bright summer’s day, and the construct came into full view.

It didn’t seem to be modeled after a real animal, but was the close approximation of a cross between a scorpion and tarantula. The outer shell was carved from smooth gray stone, and there was a huge gash on its left pincer; underneath, gears and wheels clicked and spun.

It smashed and snapped wildly, seizing Taro by prosthetic and lifting him into the air. It hovered his body over teeth-like spinning blades and its yellow eyes scanned him.

Maybe it was just Taro’s head injury, maybe it was the deleterious effect of the cave, maybe both, but he swore he heard it speak. It was a metallic, stuttering voice.

“In…tru…der.”

Taro unstrapped his prosthetic and fell to the ground just as the construct’s pincher snapped closed. It would only buy him a few seconds as there was no way he could get away on one foot.

Taro’s list of useful magistry was thin. The only enchantment that might have some effect would be a dispel to disable the machine’s casing enchantments, but even that was a long shot. It was one thing to perform magistry or templary while relaxed, it was quite another to perform it on a moving target that was actively trying to kill you. More to the point, the construct was created by the Old Gods, making a dispel powerful enough to counter its enchantments might’ve been impossible.

Ven threw rocks and shouted to get the construct’s attention, but it seemed dead-set on finishing Taro first. Taro retrieved his inscriber from his pocket, and when the construct came at him again, he grabbed hold and climbed onto it. It spun and slashed at him, cutting his back and arm. Taro held on for dear life and etched his dispelling ward into its back plate. He placed his hands on both sides of the inscription and the lines glowed, but nothing happened. The construct thrashed and threw Taro across the cave. His back struck a power node and his inscriber tumbled from of his hand.

The construct lurched forward and its eyes focused in on the inscriber. Its huge pincer lifted it from the ash. “Arrrriiissss.”

The construct was now only a few feet from him. He had few precious seconds to think, and the sparking power node beside him caught his eye. It had been cracked open and bare cords hung out.

Using his sleeve as a glove, he grabbed the base of one of the live wires and jammed it into the construct’s damaged frame. The force of the shock blew the gears from the opening, and lashed Taro’s hands and arms with arcs of raw electricity. Simultaneously the construct’s glass eyes exploded and Taro’s thin body was struck down like he’d been struck by the hand of God.

The construct slumped to the ground, dead.

Taro couldn’t breathe for a full minute. Every nerve in his body felt like it’d been fried, and there were long black burns across his arms, hands, and face.

Ven appeared over him, checking his pulse and telling him to breathe (as if he wasn’t already trying). Finally, hot air filled his lungs and his coughed up a half-quart of blood.

“I can’t believe you survived that,” Ven said.

“I survived?”

“Apparently. Despite this face, I’m not an angel.” He held his hand out. “Can you sit up?”

Taro rolled onto his side. “I think I’ll just lay here for a few minutes, or a month or two.”

“I’ll carry you back to the Titan. Whatever’s affecting the others is going to start affecting us too if we stay.”

“I need my leg,” Taro said.

Ven retrieved it and Taro latched it back on. The runes were severely damaged from where the construct had grabbed it, and it felt like little more than a hunk of wood.

“We need to find Sikes,” Taro said. “He’s the only one left.”

“The Helian kid? I’ll find him after we get you back with the others.”

“I’m fine.”

“That might just be the stupidest thing I have ever heard. You are most certainly not fine.”

“Get Hunter and Corin back. Sikes’ my friend. I owe him.”

Ven sighed and collected Corin and Hunter. “As soon as I drop these two off, I’ll head back.” He slapped a large rock from Corin’s hand that the boy was gnawing on. “That’s not food.”

Taro cracked his back and pressed on, limping the whole way. He came to a seven-way fork in the cave he recognized from Ross’ workshop, and knew the artifact would be on fourth one from the right.

From this point the cave transitioned into a room very similar to many in the Magisterium. On the right side were racks with replacement parts for the construct, and on the left were maps of the Waystation and complex blueprints overlaid with Deific writing. These were projected into the air with beams of light.

On a raised dais in the center of the room was the artifact, a smooth metal cylinder with a crystal case. Every few seconds it would pulse, and whatever energy was radiating from it made Taro’s head ache. The closer he got to it, the worse it got.

“What are you doing, Taro?” a familiar voice called from behind him. There, in a tattered sundress, was his mother. She looked more sickly than ever. “Why are you still here?”

Taro ignored her. When he turned back towards the artifact, his father was standing in front of him. His face was covered rotting flesh. Taro took a deep breath and walked directly through the image. The voices continued in his head as he examined the artifact. They taunted him, told him to stop, to run, but he tuned them out.

He checked over the artifact, looking for anything that might deactivate it. It was clearly the source of all this, but there was no obvious ‘off’ switch.

He managed to unlatch the top half off and expose its inner workings. Multi-colored crystals lined the sides, connected with thin clear wires and copper fixtures. The runes inside were unlike anything Taro had ever seen.

The voices continued as he worked, but one voice stood out as different from the others. This one was real, and belonged to Sikes who was standing at the entrance. He was bleeding from his wrists.

Sikes raised his arm and touched the bleeding gash. “It’s too much to handle, Taro” He flashed a serrated piece of metal with his other hand.

“Put the knife down,” Taro said gently.

“Why?” Sikes said.

“Whatever the problem is, it’s all in your head.”

Sikes rubbed the side of the metal with his bloody finger. “All in my head?”

“That’s right.”

“Was being locked up for two months all in my head?”

“Sikes, please.”

“You abandoning me — was that all in my head?” He voice got progressively louder as he spoke. “The beatings, the cracked skull, the broken ribs. Was that all in my head you son of a bitch?”

“Please,” Taro said. “Just put the knife down.”

“This is what you wanted, isn’t it?” Sikes flipped the knife in his hands like he was going to stab himself.

There was no way Taro could get to him in time.

At that moment, nothing else mattered. He didn’t care about bringing the artifact back. He didn’t care about passing the trial. He smashed the artifact on the dais has hard as he could, and it shattered. The crystals flew across the room and the pieces crackled and smoked.

The artifact pulsed one last time like a shockwave, and knocked Taro onto the floor.

The last thing Taro saw before his eyes went dark was Sikes’ silhouette standing over his beaten, bloodied body.

Chapter Twenty-four

For the Uniform

Taro wasn’t sure he was alive. His eyelids cracked just enough to see shadows moving around him and his arms and legs felt like they weighed a ton. He groaned and a figure rushed to his side.

“He’s awake.” It was an older woman, a nurse from the looks of it. “Bring him some water.”

Taro was in a long room with tall, slanted windows. Rows of hospital beds sat in alcoves along the wall, separated by curtains.

“Where am I?” he asked.

The nurse wet a rag in a bucket of ice water and placed it on his forehead. “The infirmary. You’re lucky to be alive.”

“Sikes—”

“Is in better shape than you.”

Taro realized he was missing his prosthetic. “My leg. What—”

“I’m not sure what happened to it, I’m afraid.” The nurse changed his bandages and gave him a god-awful concoction of herbs and mineral water. She then lathered a gray paste over his burns.

The double doors at the end of the infirmary creaked open and Ven peaked inside.

“Excuse me, ma’am,” he said. “Are visitors allowed?”

“I suppose. Just don’t excite him too much.”

Much to her astonishment, the doors opened and recruits flooded to Taro’s bedside. Each of them were dressed in full artificer uniforms, blue with silver trim, a short over-cloak, and a single silver shoulder pad.

“That was incredible,” Corin said.

“Did you really take down that construct by yourself?” Edrin said.

Ven extended his arms and pushed them back. “Give the man some breathing room. How’re you feeling, Tar?”

“The medicine’s helping.” Taro rolled his shoulder and stretched.

“Ross is furious,” Ven said with a wide, wicked grin.

“Did we do something wrong?”

“I’d say so. The entire year passed the trial, and made the magisters look like a bunch of idiots.”

“What do you mean?”

“The goal of the trial was for one of the teams to bring back the artifact. They didn’t plan on both teams returning. You may have broken the artifact, but it working was never a requirement.” Ven pointed to a single line tattooed above his wrist. “We’re all artificers now.”

“How long have I been out?”

“Almost a week,” Suri said.

Taro couldn’t believe it. “A whole week?”

Magister Ross appeared in the doorway and cleared her throat. She held a package under her right arm. “Melinda, I wasn’t aware that this many visitors were allowed in the infirmary at one time.”

The nurse dropped what she was doing. “I didn’t see any harm.”

“Disperse,” Ross said. The boys and girls left in a hurry and Ross strolled to Taro’s bedside and set the package on the foot of his bed. “I thought I’d bring you your uniform in person.”

“Thank you.”

“Quite a show out there. We were monitoring your progress the entire time, of course. Interesting that you knew exactly the path to take to find the artifact. You didn’t even hesitate.”

Ross stared down at Taro like he was something she’d scraped off his boot.

“I just had a feeling.”

Ross took a seat and crossed her legs. “What’s particularly interesting is that I had reason to believe someone had been snooping around my workshop.”

Taro stared right back at her. “I imagine your office has enchantments to keep that from happening. Beyond anything a recruit could break.”

“Recruits can be full of surprises.”

“Something tells me that if you had any proof, we wouldn’t be having this pleasant chat.”

“I’m not here for accusations, Mr. Taro. In fact, I commend your tenacity. However, I couldn’t help notice your handicap.”

Taro peered down at his missing foot. “Your point?”

“So defensive. I merely mean that we can’t have an artificer on crutches. Kyra has been hard at work constructing you a suitable replacement. When you’re well enough, pay her a visit.” Ross stood. “I hope you enjoy your celebrity status. You can be sure that I’ll be watching you very closely, Mr. Taro.”

With that, Ross left and the nurse breathed a sigh of relief.

“A gem, that one,” she said.

“Do I have to stay here for long?” Taro asked.

The nurse checked his bandages again and examined what was left of his burns. “The rub’s working well. If you can promise to come back once a day for the next three days, and to keep your bandages tight, you can go now.”

The nurse brought him a crutch and helped him up.

Ven was waiting alone outside the infirmary doors.

“Eavesdropping?” Taro said.

“Me? Never. Although it does sound like Ross has you pegged.”

They walked together towards the Artificium. A dozen yards in his crutch got caught on one of the gears in the floor. Taro yanked it out. “God, I hate these things.”

“Do you need help?” Ven said cautiously, as if he wasn’t sure it would offend.

“I’ll be fine.”

“I promised Suri I’d meet her at the Librarium in a few. Are you sure you’re all right on your own?”

Taro waved him away and continued to the Artificium alone. Tucked in one of the work alcoves was the iron-braced chasse of an airship turbine. Around the edges were cabinets and drawers in various stages of clutter. Kyra was hanging from a crane with a pair of goggles on, welding one of the turbine fans with her bare fingers. The raw templar required for such an act made Taro’s head spin. When she noticed him, she lifted her goggles onto her forehead and lowered to the floor.

“Would you look at that, I get a visit from the Magisterium’s newest celebrity.”

“Imperator said that you had something for me.”

“And so I do.” Kyra wiped the soot off her cheek and hurried to one of her worktables. On it was a metal prosthetic with a deep groove in the top where Taro’s leg would fit in. The base foot and heel were joined by a spherical hinge that allowed full freedom of movement, and could also do something Taro’s old prosthetic had never been able to do: tilt and turn.

“Take a seat,” Kyra said. She cleared a chair off of wrenches and bolts, rolled it up to the worktable, and loosened a bolt at the top of the prosthetic.

“It looks heavy,” Taro said.

“It is a bit heavier than your last one, but you’ll get used to it.” Kyra pointed to some small flexible needles in the groove on top. “These pins will tie it directly into your body.” She talked idly while she set the prosthetic up. “Some show out there. We were all watching.”

“How?”

“We had have our ways. This trial was more one of circumstance. That construct has guarded that Waystation for a long time. It used to be a peaceful protector. Recently, it was damaged — nobody is sure how. The damage somehow allowed the artifact to affect it.”

“It went crazy.”

“In a manner of speaking.” Kyra finished tightening the bolts on the side, and propped Taro’s leg up onto an ottoman.

“You made this for me?” Taro asked.

“Briggs had a similar version, though I’ve made some significant upgrades. Slip your leg inside.”

Taro did so and Kyra placed her hand on a lever on the heel.

“You’re going to feel a pinch as the nerves connect. Ready?”

“Ready.”

When she pulled the lever down Taro felt the pins pushed through his skin. The pain was sharp, but lasted only a moment. When it was gone, Kyra motioned for him to stand.

Taro could hardly believe how light it felt. He tested it out, tilted it forward, and finally walked.

“How fast can I go with it?”

“As fast as your body can take it,” Kyra said.

Taro walked, ran, and jumped around the workshop before finally stopping just in front of Kyra and hugging her so tight he lifted her off the floor.

He quickly set her down. “Sorry.”

Kyra laughed. “It’s okay. A lot of people have that reaction.”

“It’s just… I’ve never been able to really jump before.”

“Remember to oil it once a month, and tighten the side pins regularly as they’ll loosen from normal wear and tear. If you have any problems with it, come back for maintenance. Got it?”

When Taro got to the mess hall he was bombarded with praise the moment he stepped through the door. He grabbed a tray of steamed vegetables and honey ham and sat beside Yoresh.

“What do we have here?” Yoresh said, and inspected his new prosthetic.

“Kyra made it for me,” Taro said.

Sikes wasn’t far off, and was doing his best to shuffle a deck of cards, but his hands were bandaged up to his forearms.

Taro moved closer to him, and they sat in silence for an uncomfortably long moment.

Sikes spoke first. “I guess you expect me to thank you.”

“No.”

“The magisters were furious that you broke the artifact. You could’ve been expelled for it. What would Dr. Halric have done to your family then?”

“You are my family.”

“Don’t give me that bullshit,” Sikes said.

Taro got up to leave, but Sikes stopped him at the last moment. “…thank you.”

Sleep came easy that night. Easier than it had in months. Nima was safe and sound, his trial was over, his new prosthetic was a dream, and mending things with Sikes no longer seemed impossible.

It wasn’t to last.

Chapter Twenty-five

The Darkened Tower

Magister Briego had Taro and Ven assembling the locking mechanism for an artillery cannon. Kyra was overlooking the project while the magister snoozed at his desk.

Taro held down the metal plate and reached to grab a hand drill.

“You know better,” Kyra said. She was passing through the workstations, checking on each team. Different students had been given different parts of the cannon, with the promise that they could fire it when it was complete.

Taro huffed. “It’s right there.”

“No hands allowed.”

Taro starred at the hand-crank drill and pointed two fingers at it. It shook and slid at a snail’s pace into his palm.

“You’re getting a lot better,” Kyra said.

Ven lifted one hand and a torque wrench flew from the opposite side of the room, zig-zagged through the workstations and landed in his hand. “So much better,” he said cheekily.

“Yeah, yeah, while you’re showing off, I’ll do the hard part.” Taro used the vice to hold down the metal plate and drilled four holes in the sides.

Just as he was about to drill in the last hole, the lights in the Artificium went dark. In the darkness, every gear in the tower seemed to grind and turn all at once. Through the flicker of light from welding torches, Taro saw walls flipping and the ceiling lower.

Kyra quieted everyone down and conjured a tiny ball of light on her fingertips. “Let’s not lose our heads. It’s just a power outage. Stay here with Magister Briego.” Briego, meanwhile, still hadn’t woke up.

The main door was completely sealed, but there was now a gap in the wall, which Kyra slipped through.

“The rooms changing,” Suri squeaked from the darkness.

Taro thought back to what Mathan said months ago. Was this the distraction he’d mentioned? He didn’t have time to mull it over. He crept away and slipped into the hall. In the distance he could see Kyra’s light glowing.

Every corridor seemed to have shifted. The main hallways were closed off, an all of the mechanisms in the tower were dormant. Taro navigated three levels down, passing throngs of artificers being ushered into their workrooms.

“We’ll have this outage figured out as soon as we can,” Magister Aiden said. “For your safety, stay inside.”

The magisters, Veldheim and Aiden, sounded much more worried when they thought the artificers couldn’t hear them.

“The whole tower’s locking itself down,” Aiden said. “Haven’t seen anything like it since…”

Veldheim hushed him. “Not here.”

In the distance, barely audible, a low rumbling sound echoed through the halls. Taro dismissed it as just another corridor changing and continued his decent. Navigating the Magisterium was like understanding a large puzzle. Each corridor had at least three different ways they could be set. This seemed to depend on the time of day, and a bit of random chance. Right now, all bets were off. Taro couldn’t make heads or tails of which way he was supposed to go.

He knew he was going down at least, because every so often he’d pass a window. Outside, crowds gathered around the Midway.

Taro shimmied through a maintenance hatch, and climbed down a grate until he arrived at the ground level near the Blocks. The entrance was guarded by six warders setting up magistry lanterns.

Ross and Sullen appeared from the hall.

The warder saluted. “The Blocks don’t seem to be affected.”

“The Blocks aren’t a part of the original structure,” Ross said. “Nevertheless, stay here. I want magisters in every sensitive area of the tower. I refuse to believe this is random.”

Ross started back towards the Curia, just passing Taro who was squeezed into an alcove in the wall.

“What about the Arclight?” Sullen called. “Can Antherion handle it alone?”

“Probably, but I’m heading there myself in case I’m wrong,” Ross said.

Taro couldn’t figure out a way to pass the warders, and even if he did, there were steel bars and no doubt a lethal enchantment on the door. The warders, however, seemed able to open and close it at will.

While Taro pondered this, he felt something against his skin. Hot, moist air struck the back of his neck, followed by a terrible smell like the stench of rotting flesh. He turned his head, and it took a moment for his brain to take in what he was seeing, even though it was familiar: a hulking mass of flesh, tendrils, and eyes. It sniffed him and reared its jagged teeth, but trotted past toward Magister Sullen.

The warders clamored to pull it off him, but not before it took a whole chunk out of one of their arms. Sullen grabbed his sword with his mechanical arm and shoved it clean through the creature’s body. It didn’t seem affected, and bashed him into a wall hard enough to knock him out.

Taro leapt from his hiding place and grabbed onto the creature’s neck. The beast thrashed and kicked, but despite having easy access to Taro’s limbs, didn’t try to bite him.

It bashed its back into a wall, each time moving closer to the Blocks’ door. Just a few feet away from it, Taro let go. The apparition struck the door and a tremendous amount of visible energy erupted from the handle. The creature’s eyes popped and oozed, its flesh sizzled, and the smoking mass fell to the ground.

Taro checked Sullen and the warders’ pulses. They were all alive. He grabbed the cell keys, then lifted the lead warder by the shoulder to use his hand to bypass the enchantment. It opened to a winding stone stairwell lined with torches. At the bottom was a long, rectangular shaped chamber with iron doors on each side and a cell at the end.

Each cell was occupied by a single individual. Eyes peaked out from their dark confinement, but aside from the mice scurrying on the floor, it was dead quiet. When Taro got to the end, he found Vexis. She had four iron clamps that pressed her body against the wall.

“Back again for some more fun, Imperator?” she said.

Taro unlocked her iron mask and she gave Taro a significant look. “It must be my lucky day. They sent a cute one. I hope you’re not here to question me, I might have to spill.”

“Mathan sent me.” Taro continued to unlock her harness and wrist restraints until Vexis was able to free herself.

“Brilliant.” Vexis stretched and cracked her knuckles. “All right, what’s the escape plan?”

“I don’t really have one.”

There was shouting in the distance, and footsteps raced down the stairwell. Two warders entered with swords drawn. “Get away from her!” one of them shouted.

“I guess we’ll improvise.” She swiped her hand at the warders and the shadows around her lifted from the floor into spikes. They impaled both warders, killing them instantly.

Vexis placed a hand on them and shadows consumed their bodies like a black puddle. From each a mass of eyes and dripping fangs spawned. The void apparitions snarled and gnashed their teeth as Vexis petted them like they were kittens.

“All right, lovelies.” She stroked an oozing tendril. “Cause some death and mayhem for me.”

The creatures barreled up the stairs and smashed down the door. Taro hesitated to follow Vexis up.

“Aren’t you coming?” she said.

“They can’t know I helped you.”

Vexis wrapped her arms around Taro’s neck and kissed him on the cheek. “Then let’s make this convincing.”

Taro feigned a struggle, and Vexis put her back to the blown-out door. Magister Ross and Kyra had blocked them off.

“Let the kid go,” Ross shouted.

“Move and I’ll paint the walls with the insides of his skull.” Vexis then whispered something so quiet Taro was hardly sure she’d said it. “Hit me.”

Taro grabbed Vexis’ wrists and slammed her against a mound of gears jetting from the wall. He then punched her in the face and blood trickled from her cheek. She grinned deviously, and punched him back. This sent him flying across the floor like he’d been struck by a cannonball. Vexis made a run for it, and Ross followed.

Kyra helped Taro up. “Are you all right?”

Taro spit blood. “I’ve been worse.”

“You should’ve stayed put.”

As she checked to make sure Taro’s prosthetic hadn’t been damaged, one of the apparitions lunged out of the darkness and sliced Kyra’s shoulder. When it pounced again, Taro stood in its way. At the last moment, it veered away and grunted.

It circled around, looking for a clear area to strike, but Taro matched its movements until he was within reach of a Sullen’s sword on the ground. When the creature attacked again, Taro summoned every ounce of his templar and slashed at it, chopped off a dozen tendrils. It whined and slinked back into the darkness.

Kyra clutched her bleeding shoulder. “That was incredible.”

Taro tore the sleeve off his shirt and wrapped it around Kyra’s shoulder. “We need to get you to the infirmary.” Taro helped her up by the other shoulder.

“We should go to the Curia instead,” Kyra said.

It took only minutes to get around the circular hallway into the Curia. The chamber was set up to be a makeshift command center.

Taro helped Kyra onto one of the benches, and a medic sliced the cloth off her arm, looked it over, and slathered a mixture onto her cut. Kyra squeezed Taro’s wrist so hard that his hand went numb.

“Will she be okay?” he asked.

“It’s just a flesh wound.” The medic rummaged through his instruments and moved to a patient in more severe condition.

Magister Ross entered the Curia, sweating like she’d just run a marathon. She grabbed the back of a bench, and her grip sent cracks through the backrest. “I shouldn’t have left her alive.”

“That was a void apparition, wasn’t it?” Taro asked. “Like the ones in the book I showed you.”

Ross nodded. “Vexis must’ve summoned it somehow.”

I’ve never seen something like that from a first-year artificer,” Kyra said. “He drove it off.”

Ross tilted her glasses down and stared Taro down. “And what, exactly, were you doing so very far from his classroom. Eleven hundred hours, Artificing.”

“You know my schedule?”

“I know everyone’s schedule.”

“I was curious and followed Kyra. The corridors kept shifting. By the time they stopped, I was completely lost.”

The Curia doors swung open, and the Sun King and a small entourage entered. The king looked much more frail than the last time Taro had seen him. He went right to Kyra’s side.

“She did this to you?” the Sun King said.

Kyra sat up. “I’m okay.”

“Be still.” The Sun King glanced sideways at Ross without taking his hand off Kyra. “How close are you to restoring power?”

“It’s difficult, sire. We’re not sure exactly what the caused it. It’s our first priority, of course.”

The Sun King’s legs wobbled and he nearly fell, but Taro quickly helped him. “Are you sick, sir?”

“Just dizzy.” He looked to Ross again. “See it done.”

Ross bowed and left, but not before shooting Taro a particularly nasty look.

Taro helped the Sun King to a bench and when he sat down the Sun King patted him on the shoulder. “Would you give us few minutes?”

Taro went to the edges of the room while the two talked. When the Sun King left, Taro came back and sat next to her.

“How are you feeling?” he said.

“Better.” She pointed to the paste on her shoulder.

There was a long, awkward pause.

“So… he’s your father, isn’t he?”

Kyra looked like he’d just punched her in the stomach. “Who told you?”

“You did, just now.”

Kyra didn’t look at all amused. “You can’t tell anybody.”

“Fine, I won’t tell.”

Kyra grabbed him by the collar and jerked him towards her. “Promise me!”

“Cross my heart.”

Chapter Twenty-six

Noble Secrets

The runner boy that knocked on Taro’s door late that night looked wholly out of place. His clothes were rich and regal, and he looked like he wanted nothing more than to stick the letter under the door and get back to a more civilized part of town. Still, he did his duty and handed a wax-sealed letter to Taro.

The seal on the front was unmistakable, as it was the same seal that was on every coin issued in the realm. It was the seal of the Sun King.

___

Dear Mr. Taro,

 

Your presence is requested as a guest of his most venerable majesty. Please allow Axel to escort you.

 

Yours,

Alastair Morgaine,

Chief Secretary and Royal Chequer

___

Taro glanced up at the runner boy. “You’re Axel?”

The boy had a posh high-Endran accent so thick that he could’ve said practically anything and sounded like a pompous ass.

“I am,” he spoke his words like he had a mouthful of sand and was afraid it would spill out.

“I guess we can leave now,” Taro said.

Axel gave him a significant look. “You’re going to appear before the Sun King dressed like that?”

Despite getting it only a month prior, Taro’s artificer uniform was frayed and blotched from his work in the Artificium, not to mention a rather nasty run-in with Veldheim’s caged firegeists.

“I guess I am,” Taro said.

Axel shook his head like he’d just heard the most painfully ridiculous thing in his life. “Let’s get this over with.”

Taro had seen the palace every day he’d been in Endra Edûn, but it had long ago become little more than a backdrop to the Magisterium. It was a tall curved building and it’s perfectly smooth marble walls wrapped halfway around the tower. Its position to the Magisterium was no coincidence, the implication was that the Magisterium was the Sun King’s property and all therein was his to command. However, for practical matters, the Imperator had more power.

Axel brandished a look of profound disinterest when the warders stopped them at the palace courtyard. “He’s with me.” The warder ushered them along after a short glance.

At the palace gate, Taro and Axel brushed the snow off their boots before stepping onto the tiled marble. The floor was like a sea of shimmering glass, all connected with beautiful rivets and flourishes of gold. Handwoven tapestries hung from the many high arched windows lining every room and hallway, and statues of the past Sun Kings adorned the grand gallery.

One thing that stood out was just how warm it was. The palaces had the luxury of heating pillars in every room and magistry lanterns hanging high on the buttresses. The entire complex smelled of potpourri and old leather furniture. As he and Axel walked through the decorated hallways, Taro couldn’t help but feel small.

“About the way you speak…” Axel said as if he’d been preparing some long speech.

“What’s wrong with the way I speak?”

“Many things,” Axel said. “Someone of your standing should avoid speaking at all unless asked a direct question by His Majesty.”

At this, Taro’s irritation hit a boiling point. “I’m Endran, through and through, and every bit as highborn as you.”

“I doubt that. My family’s bloodline can be traced—”

“Just because my great grandmother didn’t screw the king’s cousin doesn’t make me any less Endran.”

Axel couldn’t have looked more surprised if Taro had slapped him in the face. And it only got worse when Kyra spotted Taro from the end of the hallway, and stopped just shy of running into his harms.

“Taro! I was wondering when you’d get here. New prosthetic working out just fine?” She paused and picked at the tassel of his shirt. “What the hell are you wearing?”

Taro glanced at Axel. “Something my good friend here picked out.” He gestured towards Kyra. “Axel, I’d like you to meet my good friend, Kyra Termane. Crowned princess and such.”

Axel slinked away with a look of sheer shock in his eyes, and Kyra guided Taro the rest of the way to the Sun King’s chambers.

“My father will like the clothes,” she said. “He appreciates propriety.”

“I feel like this collar is cutting off the circulation,” Taro said, yanking at it.

“A dress uniform would’ve done, too.”

“How is your dad?” Taro asked. “He wasn’t looking well last time I saw him.”

“The medicine’s been helping, but the doctors want him to stay in the Magisterium infirmary for a few days. He refuses to be confined to a bed.”

“Why does he want to talk to me?”

“I told him what you did for me.”

Kyra navigated the palace with ease, skirting past warders and pushing the Sun King’s study open without preamble.

The study was remarkably subdued compared to the rest of the palace. Certainly regal, but it seemed to be built more for function than for form. There was a long desk beside a fireplace, and high clear windows overlooking a greenhouse surrounded by snow.

Taro tried not to stare as the Sun King hobbled onto a walking stick and pulled himself to his feet. Kyra tried to help him, but he waved her off.

Taro bowed nice and low, and waited for the Sun King to acknowledge him before looking up.

“And who is this?” the Sun King said jokingly. “Certainly not the young artificer I met a few days ago.” His smile was drowned out by a furious cough, and he hacked up blood onto his white sleeve.

“I can come back later if you—” Taro began.

“No, no,” the Sun King said hastily, then called for Axel who quickly came to him.

The Sun King slumped onto a couch. “My medicine, Axel, did you get it?”

Axel moved quickly to a tea kettle sitting on a magistry burner in the corner. He picked the porcelain lid off and tipped a small vial of red liquid into it.

When he’d finished, he brought a cup to the Sun King who took a gentle sip. “This tastes different,” he said.

“I told Magister Ross you were having trouble keeping it down, so she improved the formula to help it go down easier,” Axel said.

“Did I ask you to talk to her on my behalf?” The Sun King said with a twinge of annoyance, but quickly backtracked. “I’m sorry. You were only trying to help.” The Sun King ushered Taro to sit beside him, which Taro did. “Kyra’s elaborated a great deal on your bravery in the face of Vexis. Remarkable.”

“Just doing my job.”

“I’d hoped to give you some sort of a reward, but I find myself at a loss as to what would suit you.”

“I don’t need a reward.”

“There must be something I can do. You saved my daughter’s life.”

Taro thought for a long, hard minute. “There is one thing.”

“Name it.”

“It’s not for me, but for someone else that I was dishonest to.”

“Oh? Would you care to elaborate?”

Taro rung his hands. What followed was mostly truth, intermixed with some white lies. “I was entrusted with a valuable book by a woman named Moira, she works in the Librarium—”

“I know of her.”

“I was desperate and pawned her book away along with my aurom so I could pay my tuition.”

“I see,” the Sun King said, and rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “And how much was this book worth?”

“A sov and a half,” Taro said. “But I pawned it and my aurom for thirty-six crowns.”

“And you wish for me to purchase them back for you?”

“Just the book. I can live without the aurom, but I want to do right by her.”

The Sun King clasped his hands together, and wobbled a bit on his walking stick. “I’ll send Axel at once. What was the name of the establishment?”

“Leek’s,” Taro said. “It’s in the lower city.”

The Sun King called Axel in and told him that he wanted him to return to Lower, to a pawn shop no less, and buy back Moira’s copy of The Witch of the Well.

Axel couldn’t have looked more miserable, but begrudgingly nodded. “Yes, Your Majesty.”

_____

While they waited for Axel to return, Kyra showed Taro around the palace. He got the impression that, with her parentage a secret amongst her peers, this was something she didn’t get to do often.

Kyra thought it was funny that of all the wondrous rooms he’d been shown, the area Taro was most fascinated with was the kitchen. It had fourteen ovens. Fourteen! And serviced entire court banquets on a regular basis.

“You grew up here?” Taro asked in amazement, just as they were exiting one of several small libraries. This one was dedicated to lineage records (presumably so nobles could have some hard gloating evidence of their exceptional breeding).

“My whole life,” Kyra said.

“Any brothers or sisters?” Taro asked.

Kyra shook her head. “Nope, just me. My mother died just after I was born, never had time to have another.”

“I’m sorry,” Taro said in entirely the wrong tone. “I mean—”

“It’s okay. It happened way before I can remember. Dad says she was a remarkable woman. A magister, too.”

“Is she the reason you enlisted?”

Kyra smiled. “Not a bad guess. I’d like to say no, but I’d be lying if said it didn’t have any effect. But even if she wasn’t a magister, I’d still have enlisted. I love working my hands. I love magic. I love knowing.”

“Why keep it a secret?” Taro asked.

“Because I want to advance on my own,” Kyra said sharply. “And I don’t want people to think I got somewhere because of my father. Do you think anyone would duel me if they knew I was the Sun King’s daughter?”

“I can understand that.” He glanced up at the high ceiling. “Still, I think I’d take this place over the Magisterium any day.”

Kyra’s smile seemed to light up the room. It was only at that moment that Taro realized how closely they were walking, just close enough for their fingers to graze. Taro pulled away and felt his face turn red. “I… eh… any word on when the Magisterium will be back to normal?”

“Magister Ross was here this morning delivering my father’s medicine,” Kyra said. “She said they tracked down the problem, but needed more time to ‘investigate the available facts.’”

“What does that mean?”

Kyra shrugged. “Your guess is as good as mine.”

As they entered the next room, her voice became suddenly somber as if she’d been waiting to ask him a question since he’d arrived. It was barely bigger than a closet and completely empty. From the coats and packs hanging from evenly-spaced hooks on the wall, Taro supposed it was for the wait staff.

Kyra shut the door and pulled Taro into a corner. “Can you keep a secret?”

“I already promised you I wouldn’t tell.”

“Not about that,” Kyra said. She took one step forward, so that their bodies were touching. Taro felt like his lungs had seized up as she ran her hand along his side and onto his back. Then, she kissed him. When she finally pulled away, she gave a sly smile.

“Sorry,” she said. “I just figured you deserved a better reward than some musty old book.”

Taro returned to his inn in Lower after an entire evening with Kyra. Tucked tightly into a bound satchel was Moira’s book. Taro would’ve given anything to see the look on Leek’s face with the Sun King’s courier came to buy it back from him. He’d even retrieved Taro’s gold aurom.

Taro was on top of the world. Were this not the case, he might’ve noticed the hushed voices filling the lower city. Perhaps he would’ve seen the subtle movement of people that accompanied the turnings of a devious plan. Perhaps he would’ve felt the awkward changes in the personalities of those he’d passed by a hundred times before. Perhaps he would’ve heard the coughs and cries of the sick becoming more pronounced.

But his mind and heart was full of only cheerful things, and so he noticed none of it.

Chapter Twenty-seven

Stirring Up the Masses

Over the coming weeks, stories spread through Endra like wildfire. The south borough was the place to go for gossip and news; Leorin was always there, perched on his stool surrounded by curious listeners.

“Ay, I saw it. Power’s back on,” a thin man said to Leorin. “I heard that Helian girl sabotaged it.”

Leorin coughed hard into his hand and sipped some water. “Apologies, I’m not feeling well.” He rattled his coin tray. “Donations go a long way towards curing ailments.”

“I heard she took on three magisters without breakin’ a sweat. It’s about time someone dealt with those bastards on their level.”

“They say she’s a murderer,” Taro said.

“They say a lot of things,” the man replied. “Or maybe she’s just their Helian scapegoat.”

There were certain background noises in the lower city that Taro had become deaf to. The water dripping from the grates, the steam hissing through pipes, the continuous chatter of the crowds. It wasn’t until the people around Leorin went silent that he noticed any of it.

It didn’t take long for him to see the reason for their silence. Vexis had crept her way through the crowd and sat on the back of Leorin’s wagon. Her feet just reached to the ground, and she kicked the black slush with her tiptoes. She’d cleaned up since Taro had last seen her: the bruises on her face were gone, her straight blonde hair was tied back, and she even wore her artificer uniform.

Taro realized that the uniform was the reason for the silence, as none of these people could possibly have known who she was.

She patted Leorin on the shoulder. “I’m here for a story.”

Leorin gave an uncomfortable wince. “Vexis.”

Whispers erupted from the crowd, and Vexis hopped off the wagon ledge. “Have we met?” Vexis pulled her collar down a bit, exposing her magistry tattoos more clearly. “It’s these, isn’t it? If we’re patient, maybe we’ll have some company and I can show you what they do.”

“What do you want?” Leorin said.

“I already told you. A story.”

Leorin crossed his fingers. “And which would you like to hear?”

“I don’t want to hear one. I want to tell one.” She crossed her legs and sat onto a dry patch on the ground. “Once upon a time, there was a pretty artificer named Vexis. One day she uncovered a wicked plot by the Magisterium. When she threatened to expose them, they locked her away.

“But she was so cunning, she planned her escape months in advance. When she was out, she found an old storyteller and began telling his audience about uncovering a wicked plot.” She stretched her arms over her head. “You get the idea. The Magisterium can’t be trusted.”

“You’re not going to find many in these parts that trusts them,” Leorin said.

“Yet they’re still in power. You’re like sheep being herded by wolves.” She gestured with her arms out wide. “Welcome to your slaughterhouse.”

“Nobody’s forced to stay down here,” Taro said.

When Vexis saw him, she grinned ear to ear. “That’s the beauty of their treachery. It’s the illusion of choice. They destroy the Arclight to force you down, and when you least expect it—” she closed her hands together, “—they’ll seal you in to rot.”

“Damaging the Arclight hurts them just as much as it hurts us,” Leorin said.

“Clearly you’ve never been inside the Magisterium. Trust me, the cold is a brisk winter’s evening to them.” Vexis sauntered from person to person, looking them directly in the eye. “When the time is right, they’ll cull you like animals.”

“The Sun King is a good man. I refuse to believe he would let what you say come to pass,” Leorin said.

Vexis pulled a silver pocket watch from her vest and checked the time. “I don’t expect you to believe me just yet. All I ask is that you keep your eyes and ears open. Soon the magisters will learn.”

“Learn what?” Taro asked.

“That there’s no rest for the wicked.”

There was shouting in the distance and four warders barreled through the crowds. Vexis crossed her arms, not seeming particularly worried. Behind them was a magister Taro had never met.

Vexis twiddled her fingers at him. “Magister Cidrin! Long time, no see.”

“You’re coming with me,” Cidrin said.

Vexis checked her pocket watch again and sighed. “Listen boys, I really don’t have time for this.”

Several people moved to stand between them and Vexis. Two of them were children.

“You’ve got no place here,” one of the adults said to Cidrin.

Cidrin’s stone face didn’t waiver. Taro wanted to beg them to move. This may have been their first time actually seeing a magister in the flesh. Perhaps they’d heard stories about them, but none could understand how outmatched they were. A magister of Cidrin’s caliber was a human weapon and could kill every man, woman, and child there.

“I don’t wish to hurt any of you,” he said, “but if you don’t stand aside then you give me no choice.”

Vexis stayed put, as did most of the people between her and Cidrin’s entourage.

Cidrin tilted his hands and everyone in front of him was struck with an unseen force. Taro felt like he’d just had a boulder drop onto his back and collapsed onto the stone pavement. Children cried and the adults cursed and tried to get to their feet, only for Cidrin to force them back down.

Cidrin’s templar was like a vice grip, but Vexis was unaffected. She casually strolled towards him. “Listen Cid. Can I call you Cid?” She motioned towards the people. “I think they get the point.”

“They can join you in the Blocks,” Cidrin said.

Vexis pointed to a little girl. “You’re going to stick her in a cell?”

“If you come willingly I’ll rethink it.”

Taro tilted his head and focused on keeping his lungs going.

Vexis cracked her knuckles and solid shadows coalesced at her feet like pools of oil. When she pointed her hand, the shadow wrapped around Cidrin like a snake. She pulled him into the air and smashed him into his warder entourage.

Cidrin’s control over the crowd disappeared when he struck the pavement. Vexis smashed Cidrin into the side of Leorin’s wagon, and it momentarily lifted onto its hind wheels. Finally, she slammed him into the slush and her shadows spread to his neck.

“Thank you,” she said wickedly.

The shadows crept closer to Cidrin’s mouth. “For what?”

Vexis pressed her foot to his chest. “For showing them your true colors.”

“If you’re going to kill me, then do it.”

“No. Today, you live.” Vexis addressed the few people left watching. “For those of you that don’t know, magistry is the power in the written word, and templary is channeled through the hands. Do you know what that means?”

A look of horror swept across Cidrin’s eyes and a series of loud cracks rang through the air intermixed with screaming. When the shadows slithered off him, his hands were limp. Vexis broke every bone from the wrist down.

She pecked him on the cheek as he sobbed. “It’s okay, Cid. Let it all out.”

By the time more magisters arrived, Vexis was long gone. Taro wasn’t sure he understood her. At times she seemed to have a defined goal, and other times she seemed to just delight in causing chaos.

Something didn’t sit right with him. There was more to this than a jailbreak. More to this than fixing the Arclight. Vexis was up to something, and Taro was going to find out what it was.

Chapter Twenty-eight

Into the Tombs

The weeks passed without any sightings of Vexis. Rumors abound of how she’d valiantly defended a group of kids from a vicious magister, each time he heard the story her heroism was more pronounced.

While the rumors were a curiosity, Vexis being at large had little impact on Taro’s day-to-day life. In some ways he was freer than ever. As a full artificer, he could go practically anywhere in the Magisterium and browse any book in the Librarium. Work at the foundry had even become bearable. The overseer had long moved him from the furnace to hauling freight. It was exhausting work, but at least kept him in the cool open air.

Returning Moira’s book was a peace offering he was happy to give. Now that he had artificer-level access to books, including past records, he intended to use it to find out more about Vexis.

The Librarium was always busy. Pages rustled and pens scribbled over hushed whispers. Moira sat on her perch, enclosed by a circular desk. It was piled high with books, ledgers, and labels.

He approached Moira’s desk and stood with his head low and his hands at his side, waiting for her to acknowledge him. She continued to scratch in her ledger, and when she presumably got to the end of a sentence, placed her pen in an inkwell.

“Yes?” She tilted her glasses and stared down at him. “Ah, Taro. Long time no see.”

“Sorry to bother you.” He placed The Witch of the Well onto the desktop.

Moira turned it to face her, and leafed through the pages.

“It’s just as you gave it to me,” Taro said.

“Yes, I’m sure Mr. Leek takes excellent care of his merchandise.” That stung, but Taro knew he deserved far worse than a biting comment. “Better late than never, I suppose.”

Moira went back to writing. It seemed to take her a few moments before she realized Taro was still there. “Is there something else?”

“I need some help tracking down some information.”

“Fiction or non-fiction?”

“Historical ledgers on past artificers.”

She raised a thin, curling eyebrow. Taro expected her to ask ‘why’ and was doing his best to concoct some excuse about a historical assignment, but Moira didn’t seem to care.

“I’m afraid those are held in the Tombs.”

“The Tombs?”

“Underground storage,” she clarified. “First-year artificers are not permitted there alone.”

“Could you come with me, then?”

Moira seemed surprised by the request, as if no one had ever asked her such an audacious thing.

She stood and opened the door to her circular desk. “Follow me.” She led him to a deep staircase locked off with a wrought iron gate, and unlocked it with a long skeleton key.

The staircase lead into complete darkness. On the wall beside the stairs were iron hooks with hanging brass lanterns. The lamps had no oil or wicks, only a scribbled enchant running along the oblong side and up the tea-cup handle.

The Tombs went on for miles. They passed through endless corridors with more books than Taro had ever seen in his life. More books than he could read in a thousand years, from every century and on every subject. Finally, they reached their destination.

“Registrar records.” Moira held her lantern up to a cast iron door. Inside were folders stuffed with parchment. “Which records are you specifically interested in?”

“Two years ago. A girl named Vexis.”

Moira almost dropped her lamp. Her frown dipped lower, but she did not speak. The records were arranged the year they were added. Moira leafed through the section until she found one marked Trial 3118 N.E. 14 pass, 121 fail.

Each of the sixty-three recruits of that year had their own file. It listed their name, known family, marks from their instructors, and how they’d done in their trial. They were in alphabetical order, and he passed Ven, Suri, and many others before he got to Vexis Andurin.

Her file was fairly ordinary, noted her as a ‘bright’ Helian recruit with high marks in templary and alchemy. She too had gotten a gold aurom, and passed her first trial that same year.

Now, staring at the paper, he wasn’t sure exactly what he’d hoped to find.

“Can I check this out?” Taro said.

“Only a commissioned magister may check a book out from the Tombs.”

Taro placed the ledger back into place. As they tracked back through the pitch black Tombs, Moira seemed rather unsettled.

“Listen,” Taro said, “I know I shouldn’t have done what I did, but—”

“It’s isn’t that.” She stopped. “I make it a point to never question an information requests. But is the second time I’ve been asked to look up records on another student. And the last person to ask me to do so was the girl you just tried to look up.”

“Vexis asked you to look up information on another student?”

Moira nodded. “Two years ago, almost to the day.”

“You met her back then. Did she seem off?”

Moira’s frown sank lower. “No. She was bubbly, energetic little one. Annoyingly so. She wanted information on her sister.”

“Sister?” Taro’s voice echoed through the Tombs.

“An artificer named Kadia. She trialed four years ago. What happened to her was a shame.”

“Did she die?”

“No. She’s very much alive… or at least, what’s left of her. As I understand it, she simply stopped showing up for classes. We received a note from her doctor saying she’d wouldn’t be renewing her term.”

“A doctor?”

“Yes, one of the attending physicians at the hospital on Varin Road.” She rubbed her chin. “Dr. Halric was his name.”

The name sent a shiver down Taro’s body. He didn’t say a word.

A spec of light shined from the end of the corridor. The stairs were in sight, and Taro hurried towards them, anxious to get out of the stuffy crypt.

Taro lowered his voice and tried to look as humble as possible. “Thank you for your help.”

The records had brought up more questions than answers, but one thing was clear: Taro had to find Kadia Andurin.

Chapter Twenty-nine

Patient 41

When Moira said Kadia was in a hospital, Taro expected a clean, bustling building full of doctors and nurses tending the sick. But this was no ordinary hospital.

The paint on the sigh outside was faded, and rust obscured what once had read clear as day: ‘Aldor’s Asylum for the Criminally Insane.’

The asylum sat on a hill outside of more populated areas. Its three buildings formed a perfect triangle, and fourteen chimneys bellowed smoke into the frigid air. Its façade cracked, its shutters hung off their hinges, and its bricks crumbled into a lawn piled high with snow.

A young nurse answered; she was a foot shorter than Taro, but at least ten years older.

“Yes?” she said, cracking the door just an inch. When she got a good look at him, she opened the door the rest of the way. “Magister?”

She apparently couldn’t tell the difference between a magister’s and an artificer’s uniform. He decided to use this to his advantage.

He puffed up his chest and tried to sound like he had some authority. “Is Dr. Halric in?”

“Dr. Bourne is attending right now. Shall I fetch him?”

“That won’t be necessary. I spoke with Halric a few days ago, and I’m here to see a Ms. Kadia Andurin about a new treatment we’ve been developing at the Magisterium.”

The nurse let Taro inside. The place was a dump; the ugly wallpaper peeled, and the floral carpet was dirty and frayed. The poor nurse looked horribly overworked, and her desk was overflowing with files and schedules.

She searched through them, speaking a mile a minute. “We haven’t had anyone from the Magisterium visit in years.”

As she gathered the records together, Taro approached the double doors opposite the reception desk. Muted screams and inane laughs filled the rooms on the other side.

“How many patients do you have here?”

“Forty-nine,” she said.

“How big’s your staff?”

“Six, not including the cleaners.”

“That doesn’t seem like much.”

“Tell me about it.” She finished her search and handed a bound stack of papers to Taro. “Here’s all we have on Kadia. She’s our youngest resident.”

The nurse opened the double-doors and lead Taro further into the asylum. Down the carpeted hall another attendant pushed a wooden cart with empty food trays on it.

“Stand directly in the middle,” she said to Taro. “Getting too close to the doors can get some of them excited. You don’t want them throwing anything at you.”

“Like food?”

“Like what used to be food.”

Taro followed behind her in a perfect line. “Does Kadia get many visitors?”

“There used to be a girl that stopped by. Blonde hair, green eyes, very pretty. She was training to be a magister, so maybe she just got too busy with her workload.”

“Does Dr. Halric see her?”

“Oh yes, all the time. She’s his favorite patient. She’s quiet as a church mouse for a week after he visits.”

There was an eerie silence about the entire building punctuated by patients hollering incoherently. They shouted through the tiny windows on their door: one man pleaded for them to let him out because his food was trying to eat him. One said that his skin was turning into bark, and that he was taking root to the floor.

They seemed well cared for. They had plenty of food and their rooms were regularly cleaned. Kadia was in room 14C. Hanging on the door was various information about her. Her age, 23, her name, and details on her psychosis. Her mother was listed as unknown, but her father was named Valros Andurin.

“Here we are, Patient 41. Will you need my assistance?”

“That won’t be necessary.”

“I’ll be across the hall if you need anything.”

She placed the key to Kadia’s room into his hand before she left. The walls inside were bare stone, the furniture and fixtures had been removed, and there was only a thin mat for sleeping tucked away in the corner. Kadia faced the wall with her arms wrapped around her knees. She rocked back and forth, muttering to herself.

“Rattle the cage, snakes in the skin, down to the wire, the cage doesn’t end,” she rambled. “Doctor, doctor, doctor. Why doesn’t it understand? No life. No light. Nothing.”

Taro inched towards her. “Kadia,” he said softly.

She turned sharply and glared up at him. From this angle, he saw long black tattoos covering the tops of her arms and around her collarbone. They were identical to Vexis’ and seemed to be some sort of profane magistry, altogether unsettling.

Taro picked a lock of the hair from the floor. “What are you doing to yourself?”

“Once he’s inside you, you have to lose something.”

Taro spoke loudly, hoping some hidden bit of sanity might peak from her broken mind. “I need to ask you a question about Vexis.”

At the mention of her sister, Kadia went rabid. She screamed at the top of her lungs, and her face turned red. She covered her ears and beat her head against the wall. “She never got rid of him. He talks all the time. I hear him.”

Taro crouched beside her. “What does he say?”

Kadia’s eyes darkened. “He wants her to kill them all. Kill… kill… KILLKILL THEM ALL.”

Taro took one step back, and glanced sideways at the door.

“You don’t believe me.” Kadia collapsed onto her stomach. “He said no one would.” She banged on the side of her head with her fist. “It won’t stop. The voice from the Reach.”

“What did you say?”

She continued to bang her head, and Taro stepped towards the door. Just as he grabbed the knob from behind his back, she leapt to her feet and seized him by the throat. Her templary was fairly strong for being years out of practice. She easily could’ve rip the throat from his neck. Instead, she rubbed his cheek and put her head onto his heart.

“You need to see.”

“I’m just stepping out for a second. I’ll be right back.” He tried to stay calm and polite.

Kadia placed her hand over his mouth. Tears swelled in her eyes. “I have to give myself to him so you can see.”

A thick, back shadow slithered from her fingertips. It was identical to Vexis’ shadow magic. It crept up her arms and into her mouth and eyes. She gurgled and screamed as it entered her pours. When it consumed her, she fell back and cradled her face.

Taro pulled at the door, but it didn’t budge. The room was suddenly freezing cold; the walls iced over and Taro could see his own breath. There was an aura about the room, a crushing darkness that surrounded him like an ocean.

Kadia scurried up the wall and perched in the corner. Her face was wreathed in shadow and her eyes shined out of the darkness like two yellow fog lights. Her lips moved and a voice came, but it wasn’t hers. A blood-chilling voice spoke through her.

“Valon uru danik-es.” It was some form of ancient Deific.

Realizing the door wasn’t going to open, Taro summoned the strength to speak. “What are you?”

Kadia crept along the walls, leaving a trail of shadows behind her. She was now so close it could’ve reached out and touched him. Her teeth were like razors, and her face was like a bottomless pit.

“Don’t hurt me,” Taro said. He was a hair away from begging. “I work for Vexis. I’m on your side.”

It stopped and tilted its head. “Ith-harus.” It got into a stance like it was about to pounce, but before it could the door opened and light poured into the room. Someone pulled Taro out by the arms, while another slammed the door.

Taro felt like he’d come up from a deep-sea dive. His chest heaved, and his skin regained its color. The nurse checked his pulse, and helped him up.

Dr. Halric smacked Taro’s his cheek with his wrinkled hand. “Snap out of it, boy.” When he settled, Halric glanced at the nurse. “Leave us. You didn’t see anything.”

She didn’t hesitate to comply, as if she was used such requests.

“Do you have a death wish?” Halric asked.

Taro’s eyes were still in a haze.

“She’s a paranoid schizophrenic and a tribune-level artificer,” he continued. “I don’t know how you found out about her, but had I not been here you she would’ve ripped you apart.”

“I didn’t know Vexis had a sister.”

“I’ve been working with her to try to bring her back from her madness. If Vexis knew you were here, I doubt she’d very forgiving.”

“Are you going to tell her?”

Halric crossed his boney arms. “Not this time. I will give you one warning and one warning only: forget about her. Forget about this place. Never return. Is that clear?”

Halric didn’t need to ask. Why would anyone want to come back to a place like this?

“I trust you know the way out,” he said.

Taro staggered down the hallway past wailing patients.

“Wait,” Halric called. Taro turned to face him. “Did she say anything?”

The words blazed through Taro’s mind. Though he didn’t, he’d never forget anything that awful voice said.

“No. Nothing.”

Chapter Thirty

Proper Endrans

Taro woke to his bedroom walls shaking under the weight of someone pounding at the door. He slid out of bed in a weary daze and searched for a clean shirt. It had to be 4 o’clock in the morning.

The knock came again, louder this time. Three warders waited for him on the other side. Taro fumbled to get his shirt on and look slightly presentable.

“Can I help you?” he asked.

“You’re Taro?”

He nodded. “Is there something wrong?”

“We’re to escort you to the Magisterium for court martial.”

Taro felt like he’d just downed a gallon of coffee. He was now completely awake and his mind raced. Had his connection to Vexis been discovered? His cheating in the trial?

He forced himself to appear calm. “What are the charges?”

“Everything will be made clear once we get to the Magisterium.” The head warder moved from the doorway. “Please follow me.”

The warders were strangely polite and made no attempts to restrain him. Taro even got to ride in the unlocked window seat of their carriage. The court martial chamber was arranged like a circular theater; there were four rows of wooden seating on an incline overlooking a single chair in the center. The chair had restraints on the arms and legs, and a strap that went around the chest.

The outer rows were packed with tired magisters finishing off tall mugs of coffee. Ross sat at a raised podium, leafing through mountains of papers.

The Sun King sat tucked between two warders. His face was gray and his eyes bloodshot. Kyra was two rows in front of him, craning her neck to check on him.

Ross stared down at Taro. “Take a seat.”

Taro’s body shook as he approached the chair in the middle of the room.

“Not there,” Ross corrected. “You may sit with the magisters.”

Kyra made some room for him to sit beside her.

Ross cleared her throat. “Bring in the accused.”

A warder escorted Sikes into the antechamber. His hands and feet were in shackles, and he looked like he’d taken quite a beating. The warder unlocked him from his restraints, only to force him to sit and latch him into new ones.

“Mr. Sikes is accused of high treason,” Ross said.

“It’s the Vexis fiasco all over again?” Magister Briego said.

“I’ve long suspected a cancer in the Magisterium. I believe Mr. Sikes has been working for Vexis all along.”

“You have evidence of this?” the Sun King asked.

“Vexis and Mr. Sikes are both Helian. Sikes is, in fact, the only Helian currently in the Magisterium.”

Kyra looked incredulous and spoke out of turn. “That’s not a crime.”

Ross ignored her. “Taro, you and Mr. Sikes are both from Ashwick, are you not?”

“Yes, Imperator,” Taro said.

“Did you know him before his admission into the Magisterium?

“I’d seen him around town.”

“Did he have a job?”

“Not to my knowledge.”

“In fact, according to the authorities in Ashwick, not only has Sikes never held work, but his parents have been dead for many years. Despite this, he was somehow able to afford a fifty crown tuition. I don’t know about the rest of you, but that strikes me as odd.”

“I’ve had financial troubles too.” Taro realized that maybe drawing suspicion to himself wasn’t the wisest idea.

“I know about your troubles,” Ross said. “And you’ve certainly not been legitimate in some of your dealings — pawning a book that didn’t belong to you, for example.”

Taro’s face went red. He was suddenly very glad Moira wasn’t there.

“Or your aurom. Yet, you acquired work at Crissom Foundry. You pushed to pay off your debts. These things are not uncommon amongst recruits of lesser means.”

Ross fished the promissory note Mr. Mathan gave Sikes. “Tuition paid for in full by a man named Victor Mathan.” She held up another piece of vellum. “This was Vexis’ promissory note during her time here. They’re identical.”

Taro finally understood something Mathan had said long ago: “You both look like fine, upstart children. Those Helian slum-kids attract too much attention, but you’re clean, you’re well-spoken. Proper Endrans.”

Mathan’s entire reason for choosing them was that they wouldn’t attract attention. If that were the case, why would he allow a Helian to come along? Why pay for his tuition but not theirs? The reason was frightfully simple: Sikes was the fall guy.

“Maybe you should bring Mathan in for questioning then,” the Briego said.

The Sun King leaned forward in his chair. “This seems like flimsy logic to accuse a promising young artificer of treason.”

“We haven’t gotten to the meat of the evidence yet.” Ross stepped from her podium clutching the same orb she’d shown the recruits at the beginning of their trial. She unlatched a tiny opening on the side, slid out a smooth green crystal, and replaced it with a new one.

Rays of light shot from it and reproduced the trial area in remarkable detail: Taro stood opposite of Sikes. Sikes held the blade to his neck and just before he could stab himself, Taro smashed the artifact. This was the point that Taro had lost consciousness.

The image paused and Ross spoke again. “As you can see, at this point Mr. Sikes has been released from the effects of the artifact. Can you confirm that, Taro?”

“I can’t tell you what his state of mind was,” Taro said.

“What about your own?”

“The hallucinations I saw disappeared when the artifact was destroyed,” Taro conceded.

The recording continued. Sikes walked up to Taro’s unconscious body, checked his pulse, and went straight to the back of the room. He yanked a panel off the wall, exposing power nodes and crystalline circuits. He slipped an object out of his pocket and attached it to the nodes. The recording ended.

Ross pulled the mouth strap off of Sikes. “We recovered the device you planted. It caused the blackout that facilitated Vexis’ escape. Do you have anything to say for yourself?”

Sikes kept his mouth shut.

“No defense? Then I have a question.” Ross held up the device Sikes had used to sabotage the power node. It had a smooth white case, and two copper bars jetting out the sides. It looked very much like the device Aris had given him to break into Ross’ office. “Where did you get this?”

For a fraction of a second, Sikes’ eyes met Taro’s. Sikes was many things, but he was no idiot. By now he’d already figured out everything Taro had. This was the way Mathan designed it all to unfold, and there was nothing either of them could do to change it.

Sikes swallowed hard. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Chapter Thirty-one

The Duplicity of Mr. Crissom

A plate of Crissom steel weighed four thousand pounds, and took twelve men to hitch and secure for transport to the Magisterium. It was grueling and thankless work. Taro’s knuckles ached and his ears rang with the constant shouting of the foreman. On precious few occasions the plates from cooling pools came late, and he’d get a short moment to catch his breath.

Taro pressed his back against the dock and slid to the floor. Today his team was short-handed; four had called off all the same day.

“Where the hell is Lon?” Tomin said. He was the muscle of the group, and had worked at the foundry for fifteen years. He was a burly man, covered in tattoos from his time as a warder. He was the type of person Taro’s father would’ve gotten along with.

“It’s not like Lon to miss a shift,” Taro said, wiping sweat from his forehead.

“He was hacking up blood yesterday,” Rin said. Rin was the youngest besides Taro, only twenty three, but after five years in the foundry his skin was leathery and he looked much older.

“He could have the decency to get someone to cover his shift,” Tomin said.

Rin took a messy gulp from a water skin and tossed it to Taro. “There were call-offs in the furnace too. Overseer’s furious.”

While Taro drank, two people passed the corner of his vision. When he realized it was Mathan and Dr. Halric, he almost hacked up the entire water skin.

“Slow down, the water ain’t going nowhere,” Tomin said.

“I’ll be right back.” Taro tossed the skin to Tomin and fast-walked across the packing floor. He peaked over mountains of racks and crates, and almost had his head taken off by a swinging crane. Mathan and Halric slipped up a metal stairway into the offices on the second level. Mr. Crissom greeted them at the top.

Taro hurried up silently. The offices were laid out in a square overlooking the packing floor. Crissom’s office was the farthest from the stairs, and just as Taro got to the top, the door shut.

He peered into an uncovered window. The walls inside were covered with airship memorabilia. Above Mr. Crissom’s desk were blocks of steel from fourteen famous ships (all neatly catalogued and engraved with their registry numbers), an award for being wounded in the line of duty, and even a letter signed by the Sun King himself.

Just as Mathan was going to light up a cigar, Halric pointed to a ‘No Smoking’ sign on the wall.

Mathan gave Halric a death glare and put it back in his cigar box. “That’s going to be the first thing I changed when I buy the place.”

“That’s no longer an option. With Sikes discovered, anything you do will be scrutinized.” Halric unpacked a brief-case like package. Inside were three long vials of viscous red liquid.

Crissom paced his office. “Selling to him was one thing. What you’re asking me to do is treason.”

Halric set one vial upright. “There’s no other way. You wouldn’t want to disappoint Vexis, would you?”

“I need to talk to her,” Crissom stammered.

Taro’s attention was broken by a faint brush of air on the back of his neck. Vexis crouched behind him, and set her chin right on his shoulder.

Taro scrambled to his feet. “What are you doing here?”

“I was invited. What are you doing here?” She poked him on the nose. She looked different somehow. Older. Her eyes were bloodshot, and there were hard lines on her face. The veins on her wrists were bright and her skin clammy and gray.

“I’m sorry, I—”

“Why don’t you join us?” She took Taro by the arm. “Look what I found outside,” she said as they entered.

Mathan greeted Taro like an old friend.

“Taro, my boy. Congratulations on a job well done.” Mathan shook his hand. “Not only freeing Vexis, but not getting caught is no small feat.”

“Sikes wasn’t so lucky,” Taro said bitterly.

“A necessary casualty,” Halric said.

“Once we’ve gotten control of the Magisterium, he’ll be freed. You have my word,” Mathan said.

“Did you give Sikes your word when you baited him to help you?”

“It’s just business,” Mathan said.

Mr. Crissom was meandering in the corner, twisting the hem of his shirt. He and Taro’s eyes met. So much was exchanged in that one look. ‘You too?’ his eyes said. ‘I have my reasons. You couldn’t possibly understand.’

Dr. Halric inspected Vexis. He pulled her eyelids up, checked her pulse, and inspected her neck and arms. “You’re taking your elixir regularly?”

Vexis’ chest heaved. “I need more.”

“Stress will only accelerate the symptoms.” Halric placed his hands on her cheeks and got her to smile. “Just a little while longer.”

Vexis took the elixir from the desk and upended it into her mouth. The lines on her face faded and her eyes returned to their vibrant green.

Taro inspected the residue in the vial, and rubbed it between his fingers. “Is that…blood?” He smeared onto a chair.

“The blood of a god. Well, the closet thing we’ve got to one.” Vexis exhaled hard and the color in her skin returned. “What if I told you there was a man who never aged, who couldn’t be injured, and could never die.”

“I’d say you were crazy.” He’d probably say this either way.

She raised one finger. “He’s an ancient — and I do mean ancient — magister. He calls himself Aris.”

Dr. Halric repackaged the other vials and retrieved a new one from his coat and handed it to Vexis.

“He’s got a curious streak in him,” Vexis said. “We had his memory burned some time ago to keep him out of our hair, but we’ve spotted him snooping around.”

“His mind is remarkable. It’s actually repairing itself,” Halric said.

Vexis shook the green liquid. “So this is your next task, find Aris and get him to drink this.”

Taro took the vial. “Is it poison?”

“Gods, no. It’ll give him some peace of mind.”

“Why can’t you do it?”

“He’d recognize us.”

After all that’d happened, a chance to speak with Aris again was appealing. “Where is he?”

“We spotted his wagon in the Downings,” Mathan said. “The words ‘Magister Extraordinaire’ are engraved on it. I wouldn’t expect him to stay there for long.”

Taro tucked the vial into his pocket. “I have a shift to finish here. When I’m done—”

Vexis glanced at Mr. Crissom, then back to Taro. “I think it’s safe to say you have the day off.”

Taro didn’t bother changing or cleaning himself up. On the contrary, looking as he did would help him fit right in. The Downings was even more depressing than Taro remembered. Last time he’d visited, he was so single-minded that he didn’t realize just how much of a shithole it was.

This was rock bottom. Along the curvature of the underground wall were wooden packing crates with ‘CRISSOM FDY’ stamped on the side. They were packed with the homeless; not just men and women, but children. Their clothes were filthy, their hair was nappy and unkempt, and they stank.

These were the lucky ones. As there weren’t enough crates for all of them, many slept directly on the cold ground.

Before the Arclight was damaged, the entire countryside was an eternally warm summer’s day. Because of this, winter clothing was largely unheard of. The best these people had were burlap sacks, rags stitched together, or repurposed blankets.

Aris’ wagon shouldn’t have been hard to spot, but as Taro wandered the crates and burning trash bins, he found it hard to focus. If you’d asked him months, he would’ve said he was poor, but as he stared into the wide eyes of four-year-olds picking through dry bones and mothers wrapping their newborns in crumpled paper, he realized he’d never known what true poverty was.

There was a line of six wagons and long wooden tables not far from one of the lower city’s exits. This was apparently a soup line provided by the Magisterium, and it stretched for what seemed like miles. Aris could’ve easily been hiding amongst the hundreds of people crowding the square.

The crowd moved along like an assembly line. A fat, crooked nose man wiped his face with his sleeve and filled Taro’s bowl with a cup of the grayish muck. The smell was repulsive.

Taro winced. “Is this supposed to be meat?”

“Don’t like it, don’t eat it,” the fat man said gruffly.

“Something tells me you eat better than this.” When he said this, the children in front of him snickered and their parents shushed them.

Taro was given a glass of water and a cold dinner roll, and herded to a dirty table with the same family.

He stared down at the gray beef chunks and almost threw up. The boney children (a boy and a girl, younger than Nima) scarfed their stew down like they hadn’t eaten in days. Their parents scraped a bit of their own food into their children’s plates.

Taro slid his bowl towards them. “Here.”

“Thank you,” the mother said. She had shaking hands that she didn’t seem to be able to control. “But you really should eat.”

“I’m feeling sick.”

“There’s a bug going around,” she said, she gestured to her husband. “Ashur’s got it, too.”

The family divvied up his meal amongst themselves. When the mother scraped the stew into the separate bowls, Taro got a look at her wrists. The veins on her arms were inflamed and deep purple.

“I don’t recall seeing you here before,” the father said. He was a slender man with a red stubby beard. Compared to most in the Downings, his clothes were clean and relatively well-kempt, but his complexion seemed unnaturally pale compared to that of his children.

Taro cooked up a quick lie. “I’m from out of town. I got robbed, and I’ve been looking for a friend of mine that traveled with me.”

“Rotten luck,” the little boy said.

The father sized Taro up in one significant glance. A moment passed, and he seemed to accept the lie. “Lot of thieves have cropped up since the frost. People you’d never expect to steal. Farmers, ranchers, merchants. Those bastard magisters, I tell yah.”

“Watch your language,” the mother said, picking at her crust of rye.

The father hardly noticed her comment. “They stole everything from us, and they think they’re doing a service by giving us their scraps.”

“My husband tends to ramble,” the mother said. “What Ashur means is ‘thank you for your generosity.’”

“Dad says we’ll be getting real food soon,” the son said through chewing.

“Did you find work?” Taro asked.

Ashur picked at what little was in his bowl. “You could say that.”

“Vexis is gonna help us,” the boy added cheerfully. “She’s gonna help everybody.”

His father hushed him and hastily changed the subject. “You mentioned you were looking for someone?”

“His name is Aris. Tall guy, ratty hair. Kind of crazy. He wears a—”

“The magister.” Ashur looked like he’d scraped something disgusting off his boot.

“He is a magister, yes.”

“Everyone in the Downings knows about him. The kook’s on the south grate. Nobody wants him here, but he refuses to leave.”

“Maybe I can convince him to.”

Chapter Thirty-two

Thieves and Liars

Aris’ wagon was right where Ashur said it would be, amongst surrounded by crate-homes. It was covered in trash and filth, and the words ‘THEIVES’ and ‘LIARS’ covered the front in what Taro hoped was brown paint.

Taro retrieved his inscriber from his pocket and wrote out a dispel that would keep the door from knocking him out.

Inside, the piles of junk were shoveled into the back corner. On a cot in the center of the floor was a young woman in the late stages of an illness.

Aris knelt beside her and took a long syringe from the counter. He stuck it into his arm, drew a full vial of blood, and injected it into her. Her symptoms eased immediately and she sat up, wobbling like the whole world rushed into focus. “Who are you?” she asked. “What did you do?”

“Go home,” Aris said flatly. When he went to open the door, he saw Taro. “Would it kill you to knock? Manners, boy.” He shuffled the dazed woman out.

“Does she have what I think she has?” Taro asked.

“Depends on what you think she has.”

“Don’t treat me like I’m an idiot. It’s the same sickness my mom and dad have, isn’t it?”

Aris washed his hands in a porcelain water basin. “I believe so.”

“How did she get it this far from Ashwick?”

“Let me ask you a better question. What kind of infectious disease only affects adults and completely ignores children.”

“There are plenty of diseases that only adults get—”

“No, no, no. You misunderstand. This is an illness that someone seventeen years, eleven months, and thirty days old cannot contract, but add one day to that number and it strikes them immediately.”

“That’s impossible.”

Aris batted him upside the head. “Are you an artificer or not? Use your brain, boy.”

Taro thought it over. “It’s not a natural sickness.”

“Very good.”

Taro pressed his back against the wagon wall. “But my parents…”

“You don’t think it’s odd that both your parents contracted the same illness at the same time, while you and your siblings remained untouched? No, they were lab rats for Halric and Vexis. It’s in the water.”

“That doesn’t add up. Vexis isn’t an adult, and she’s sick.”

“Unless she’s older than she appears.” Aris tapped his temple knowingly. “Magic-based diseases are horrendous amalgamations of alchemy and magistery. It shouldn’t be possible for an ordinary human.”

“Maybe she isn’t an ordinary human.”

Aris’ eyes perked. “Excuse me?”

“I went to visit Vexis’ sister. She’s locked in an asylum, completely mad. She had the same void magic as Vexis, but wasn’t in control. Something was inside of her.” He thought back to his time at the asylum. “Valon uru danik-es… and ith-something.’ That’s what it said to me.”

Aris rummaged through some shelves before he found one of the journals he’d stolen from Mathan’s back-alley mansion. He laid it on its cover and ruffled through the pages. When he found the one he needed, he spun the book around and pointed to a word. Ith-harus.

“That’s it,” Taro said.

“You’re certain that’s what she said?”

Taro nodded. “Without a doubt.”

Aris shook his head. “Afraid she’s just out of her mind.”

“Why?”

“Ith-harus is another name for Nuruthil. It was claiming to be Nuruthil.” Aris put the journal away.

“Maybe it was.”

“Claiming to be Nuruthil is like a homeless man claiming to be emperor of the world. It was probably a lesser lieutenant — a step above the void apparitions. Nuruthil wouldn’t waste his time speaking through a nothing girl to talk to a nothing like you.”

“Thanks.”

“It’s just a fact. It would be like going out of your way to stomp on an ant a thousand miles away. What would be the point?”

“Maybe Vexis is a bit more important than an ant.” Taro removed the green vial Vexis gave him. Is this why she wanted Aris’ memories gone? To avoid Taro finding out what she’d done to his mother and father?

“She has vials of your blood. Any idea how she got those?”

“She must’ve taken them when they were holding me. Maybe to resist her own disease.”

Taro handed the green vial to Aris. “I’m supposed to get you to drink this. It’s supposed keep your memories suppressed.”

While Aris examined the elixir, there was a thump at the door.

“Inspection. Open up!” a voice called from the other side.

Aris sat the vial on the counter. “Inspection my ass.”

The warders barged in without further warning. They fished through Aris’ things, checked his packs, and patted him down. They pulled out mostly worthless junk: some bottle caps, a crock pot, and a ceramic beagle.

“Excuse me, those are family heirlooms,” Aris said, snatching back a circus poster. “You have no right to be in here.”

“Sit down,” the warder barked. “This lot is Magisterium property, and by order of the Imperator and all items are subject to search.”

The larger of the two warders checked Taro’s pockets, and found his aurom. “Who’d you manage to steal this from?”

“I didn’t steal it.”

“You expect us to believe you’re a magister?” Both warders laughed.

“Believe what you want.”

“I think we’d better bring them both back for questioning.”

Their captain appeared in the doorway. It was at this moment that Taro noticed what was going on outside. It wasn’t just Aris’ wagon being searched, warders rummaged through every crate and cot outside.

“Have you found anything?” the captain said.

“Not yet. But this one’s stolen a—”

“You’re not looking for thieves. Stop wasting time.”

The captain left and his men followed. The larger one tucked the aurom in his pocket.

“Give that back,” Taro shouted.

“I’ll be keeping it for evidence.”

Taro snatched the aurom back and made a run for it. The crowds passed like a blur as he bolted. When he reached the soup line, he found Ashur and his family kneeling with their hands over the backs of their heads. The children sobbed as their father was put in chains. The mother tried to plead with the warders, but was casually shoved aside.

Taro helped her up. “What’s going on here?”

She was in tears. “They’re arresting him.”

“What did he do?” Taro asked the warder.

The warder unfolded a piece of parchment that he’d gotten from the man’s pocket. It was propaganda written by Vexis supporters urging Lower citizens to rise up.

The warder chasing Taro caught up and pointed a sweaty finger toward him. “Take that one too.”

The warders herded Taro and a dozen others into armored carriages, and hauled them to a jail complex downtown. The administrator entered minutes later carrying a parchment with a wax seal. “By the authority of Imperator Amelia Ross, and the will of the Sun King, you have all been detained for conspiracy. If you wish to see your families again, all we want are names.”

One by one they took the men into an interrogation room. Ashur sat on a stone bench gripping the bars, waiting for his turn.

“What have I done?” He pressed his forehead against the bars. “I just need to tell them whatever they want to hear.”

Taro paused. “Give them me. Tell them I’m the one that recruited you and I’ll play the part when they interrogate me.”

“They’d lock you up for the rest of your life, or worse.”

“Let me worry about that. You worry about your wife and kids.”

One of the warders pointed at Ashur. “You next.”

The cell opened and they ushered him into the interrogation room. He was in there a half-hour longer than the last man. When he was done, the interrogator pointed at Taro. “You.”

The room was small and bare with nothing but a table and two chairs. The interrogator was a magister, though not one that Taro knew. He had a stiff, thin nose and greased hair combed over a bald spot. He was rummaging through his notes as he spoke.

“Good evening, I’m Magister Kubrin. I’ve heard an interesting tale… Taro, is it?”

This wasn’t the first time Taro had been interrogated. The warders in Ashwick questioned him on occasion, with no success. It used to be a point of pride, but this time he had to work for different results.

“So, you’re a pretty piss-poor interrogator,” Taro said, leaning back in his chair.

Kubrin set his pen down. “Excuse me?”

Taro pivoted the seat. “I just saw you talk to Ashur. So now I know he squealed.”

“You admit your ties to Vexis?”

“I’ll only talk to Imperator Ross herself.”

Kubrin scoffed. “Out of the question.”

“All right, but you don’t know the opportunity you’re passing up. I know where Vexis is.”

Kubrin’s eyes perked. “You’d be willing to tell us?”

Taro tapped the table. “I’ll only talk to Ross.”

Kubrin thought about it for a long moment, then laced his fingers. “If you’re wasting my time, I’ll make sure you wind up in the deepest, darkest dungeon in Endra.”

Taro was put into shackles placed back in the cell.

It was nine hours before Taro got any kind of update. While he waited, he played cards with the other prisoners. Generally speaking, the nicer the man, the poorer the card player. Unfortunately for these gentleman, they were all very nice.

Taro slapped down his hand face-up. “Full house. Aces over Jacks.”

“Damn it,” one said.

“Wild cards are a bad idea,” Taro said. “They muck up the game. That’s four pence from you, three from you, and seven from you. The second we’re out of here, I’m coming to get paid.”

A middle-aged man with a long curly mustache, shuffled the cards and passed two to each person in the group. “The way things are going, I don’t think we’ll be getting out of here any time soon.”

The sounds of rattling keys rang from the cellblock door. Magister Ross entered with Kubrin. When she saw Taro, it seemed to take her time to notice who he was. The clothes, the hair, the smudges on his face obscured him but she finally figured it out.

“Taro?” she said, then changed her tone to be more accusatory. “Come with me.”

Ross brought Taro back into the interrogation room and told Kubrin to stay outside.

“What the devil are you doing here?” Ross said as soon as the door shut. “And what the hell are you wearing?”

“They arrest me for stealing an aurom,” Taro said.

Ross laughed aloud. “Dressed like that, I’m not surprised. Your work clothes, I presume. I’ll talk to Kubrin and have you released. You couldn’t have had them summon a lower-ranking magister for this?”

“I thought you might be interested what’ve learned about Vexis.”

Ross rapped her fingers on the table. “I’m listening.”

“Her supporters are corrupting the waterways in lower city with some kind of disease.”

“Disease?” Ross said. “There hasn’t been a disease in Endra Edûn in centuries. The Arclight would purge it in seconds.”

“But the Arclight is broken. Maybe this was the reason. Without it, the sickness is free to spread. Look at the Sun King, he’s dying. I think Vexis infected him.”

Ross looked unsettled by this. “To what end?”

“The murder of the Sun King, unrest in the lower city, what more of an end does she need?”

“If that’s the case, there may not be much time. The Sun King’s on his last leg. He’s dying, Taro.”

“How much time does he have? Months?”

“I’d be surprised if he lasts the week.”

Chapter Thirty-three

The Will of the Sun King

Taro wished he’d changed into something more suitable before trying to enter the palace. The warder at the gate wouldn’t even entertain letting him pass.

“You let me in just a few weeks ago,” Taro said. “I’m a friend of Kyra.”

“Sure you are, kid.”

It was only through a stroke of luck that Axel was leaving at that very moment. Taro reached through the wrought bars of the courtyard wall and waved to get his attention. Axel’s first reaction, as you might expect, was to hurry off as fast as possible, however he soon recognized Taro under all the grim and dirt.

“Gods above,” he said, approaching.

The warder grabbed Taro by the shirt and was prepared to yank him from the bars. “Can you please tell these gentlemen that I’m a friend of Kyra?” Taro pleaded.

Axel gave an exasperated sigh. “I’m afraid he is. I don’t understand it either, but you’d better let him in.”

The warder released and Taro smoothed out his shirt. “Thank you.”

“Kyra was studying in the palace library last I saw,” Axel said. “I’d better escort you, or your liable to get thrown out again.”

Taro may have thought of Axel as a snob, but that wasn’t exactly fair. Axel could’ve chosen to ignore him, or even have him arrested (again) if he wished. Axel’s manners may have been lacking, the fact that he did neither of these things spoke to his character.

As they neared the library, Taro spoke up. “Thank you for helping me.”

“It’s little bother,” Axel said. “I was only fetching His Majesty’s medicine, not exactly a long journey.”

“Is he doing any better?”

Axel shook his head. “I don’t understand why he’s deteriorating as he is, he’s not that old.”

“You people really don’t have much experience with illnesses, do you?”

“This is the first time I’ve ever seen one in person. Are they especially common in the rest of the world?”

“Fairly common.”

“How dreadful.”

Axel paused with his hand on the library door. He glanced through a crack, then whispered to Taro. “I see her. Be exceptionally tactful, she’s not in the best of spirits.”

Kyra was the only person inside. She sat at an old desk with her nose buried in a huge genealogy book.

She’d been crying recently, but when she saw him she seemed genuinely happy. She pushed her book aside and picked at his clothes. “You’re trying to give Axel a heart attack, aren’t you?”

“Sorry, just got out of jail.”

Kyra gave him a crooked look she wasn’t quite sure if he was joking. “I’m not even going to ask.”

“Studying?” Taro asked.

“Not quite. Just reading up on some family history.”

“Sounds… interesting?”

“It’s boring as all hell, actually. I’m just trying to keep my mind off… well, you know. I really want to be with him right now, but he doesn’t like me seeing him as he is.”

Taro was happy that he didn’t have to bring up the subject of her father first. “My parent’s are very ill too.”

“Both of them?”

Taro nodded. “For almost a year now. Believe me, I know how it feels.”

Kyra scooted her chair closer to him and slide her arm around his back. She then slumped her cheek onto his shoulder. “Does it get any easier?”

“A bit. But it’s a lot like this—” He motioned towards his mechanical leg. “—you get used to the pain after a while.”

“You stop feeling it?”

“No, you just stop fearing it.”

“When Magister Ross leaves I think I’ll go read to him,” Kyra said, closing the book on the table. “He’ll hate it, but I can be quite persuasive.”

“Ross talking to your father right now?”

“She might be gone by now. They seemed pretty upset with each other when I passed by earlier.”

“Why don’t we take a walk and see?”

Kyra laughed. “You can’t help but eavesdrop, can you? Didn’t I yell at you for this very thing during admissions?”

“I prefer to think of it as being exceptionally curious. Besides, that was completely different.”

“How so?”

“Number one, we’re not in the Magisterium. And number two, you’ll be with me.”

It didn’t take too much coaxing to get Kyra to come with him. As they neared the Sun King’s chambers, Taro could already hear raised voices echoing through the wide halls. The door was cracked just enough for Taro to see Magister Ross standing at the Sun King’s bedside with her arms clasped behind her back. The Sun King was propped up on his bed, sweating and shaking.

“Out of the question,” he said, cutting the air with his hand. “I won’t allow you.”

Ross spoke firmly. “This is a threat unlike any we’ve ever face. We must respond accordingly.”

“Sealing off the lower city would spark chaos.”

“Chaos is coming whether we want it or not. The lower city is infested with Vexis’ supporters, not to mention a hideous disease. You yourself can see just how devastating it is.”

The Sun King pressed his hand to his chest like he was having trouble breathing. His veins were inflamed. “Find another way.”

“Your Majesty, I’m afraid I must insist.”

The Sun King glared at her with furious eyes. “You would defy me?”

“I’d rather us appear united, but I won’t allow this infestation to continue. I don’t need your permission to command my magisters and artificers.”

“The Magisterium will follow my orders,” the Sun King said.

Ross clenched her fist behind her back. “Is that a path you want to go down? Their king telling them one thing, and their Imperator telling them another? You spoke of chaos a moment ago, what sort of chaos will that bring?”

“I’ll do what I must,” the Sun King said. “And if you continue down this route, I will be forced to convene a Curial meeting to remove you from power.”

“You’d rip the Magisterium apart for your own stubborn pride?”

“How dare you speak to me in such a way. You swore an oath to serve me. I am your king.”

“You…” Ross held on the world for a long moment. “Are a sick, old man. Sick for a long time now. Your mind and judgement aren’t what they used to be. Now that your condition has advanced to this manic stage, I’ll have them move you to the Magisterium infirmary for closer attention.”

Ross turned to leave, and the Sun King reached towards her. “Amelia, wait.” There was desperation in his voice.

Ross paused at the door. “Convene your meeting. By the time you do, the situation will be handled.”

_____

The orders to secure the exits to the lower city came within hours. The artificers were broken into groups of twenty, and a magister placed in charge of each group. Magister Sullen was in charge of Taro’s, and ordered it around with his usual military efficiency. Ven was in his team as well, miserable the entire walk to Lower.

“Can’t they have warders do this?” Ven asked as they drudged through the snow.

“It’s not your place to question it,” Sullen said. “You are a soldier, and will follow your orders.”

“They’re just a bunch of civilians, we don’t need every magister and artificer to keep them in line. And since when is that even our job?” Ven countered.

Sullen’s voice wasn’t as confident as it usually was. “It is our duty to defend Endra.”

“From our own citizens? Something’s not right here.”

It began to snow as they approached Lower. Already hundreds of artificers and magisters were gathered, herding civilians. The sight seemed to unsettle Magister Sullen considerably.

“We must trust in the Imperator,” he said.

Chapter Thirty-four

Passing the Midway

Vexis felt a charge run over her skin as the carriage she sat in passed the Midway. Carriages from Crissom Foundry were the only objects that could pass through the Midway without auroms. Vexis sported a wry smile the whole way through the Magisterium courtyard.

Mr. Crissom sat across from her, looking nervous. “I don’t think I can do this.”

“You’ll do fine,” Vexis said. “Take a deep breath and relax.”

There were fourteen docks on the Magisterium, and they ran day and night. Some were for receiving metals and materials, others for exporting advanced bits of artificery.

The carriage shook as it pressed against the side of the tower. Crissom stood, smoothed the sides of his shirt, and marched confidently into the docking bay where a warder met him. Vexis peeked through the tarp and listened.

“Mr. Crissom?” the warder said with some surprise “We weren’t expecting you.”

“I have a meeting scheduled with Magister Ross.” He tapped his pocket watch.

“I’m afraid the Imperator is away on other business.”

Crissom feigned annoyance. “We planned this meeting over two weeks ago. Of all the insulting, childish…”

“I’m sure it was just an oversight.”

“I demand speak to someone in authority. Who’s the ranking magister?”

“I’m afraid all the magisters are away. I could send a courier to—”

Vexis stepped out of the carriage. “That’s exactly what I wanted to hear.”

The warder’s face went gray, and fumbled to draw his sword.

Vexis crossed her arms and let him get his weapon. “You don’t think that’s going to help, do you?”

Sweat trickled from the warder’s forehead. “You’re under arrest.” He stepped closer and touched his sword to her neck.

“You look familiar,” Vexis said, pushing a bit closer.

“I was there when you broke out of the Blocks.” He sounded pathetic.

She snapped her fingers. “That’s it! Sorry, I meet so many people. What’s your name?”

The warder sniffled. “Willin.”

“That’s a nice ring you’ve got there,” Vexis said, pointing out the silver band on his wobbling sword hand. “You’re married?”

“Yes.”

“Children?”

Willin nodded. “Three.”

Vexis sighed and stretched. “I’ve got a lot of people to kill today, Wil. People who actually deserve it. So, I’m not going to sugar-coat this. You have absolutely no chance of harming me. Think long and hard about your wife and beautiful kids, and whether you want to see them again.”

Willin lowered his sword. “The magisters will hang me if they find out.”

Vexis ran her hand along his face. “Don’t worry, after today there won’t be any magisters.”

She put two fingers in her mouth and whistled. Scores of men and women poured from the docks, including Mathan, Halric, and Rashkal’s boys.

“We need to secure the entrances first,” Mathan said.

“I’ll join you in a bit,” Vexis said.

Halric raised a wrinkled eyebrow. “You’re not coming?”

“I’ll catch up.” Vexis grabbed Willin by his sleeve and led him towards the door. “Will, I need your helping locating a friend of mine. He’s dreadfully ill and I wanted to pay him a visit.”

_____

The two warders at the entrance to the infirmary were much less willing to chat than Willin was. Vexis snapped their necks with her void magic and placed her hands on their broken bodies. Darkness enveloped them and two void apparitions emerged; their skin dripped with ichor and their thousand bulging eyes scanned their new surroundings.

Vexis petted their oozing flesh. “Off you go.”

She stripped the lock off the infirmary door and entered.

“You can’t come in here,” the nurse said. She was standing at the sink on the end of the room, washing out a mortar and pestle. “Visiting hours aren’t ‘till morning. The warders shouldn’t have let you pass.”

“Oh, I just sweet-talked them,” Vexis said. She sauntered over to the Sun King’s bedside. He was asleep and draped in a single thin sheet.

The nurse sighed. “Don’t expect him to know you’re here.”

When the nurse was out of earshot, Vexis hopped onto the hospital bed and sat cross-legged on the Sun King’s chest. The old man wheezed and groaned in pain as pressed her knee to his throat.

“I bet you never thought it’d end like this,” she whispered.

The Sun King mumbled something incoherent.

Vexis huffed. “This is just no fun.” She grabbed his vial of his medicine from the side table, touched her finger to it, and gave it a taste. “That’s interesting.”

She retrieved one of her own blood elixirs and fed it to him. His veins lightened, his breathing slowed, and his eyes popped open. He struggled against her and called out. The bed shook, and the nurse came running.

“Get off him this instant!” she shouted.

Vexis swiped her hand and the nurse went flying into a window so hard that the bars bent out and her broken body fell from the tower.

“It’s just you and me,” Vexis said.

“Guards!” The Sun King could barely speak, much less shout.

Vexis hollered at the doorway. “Guards! Guards! Anyone? They must be on break. That’s okay. I don’t want anyone interrupting this moment.” She touched her finger to his chin.

The Sun King noticed the empty blood vial. “You’re trying to poison me.”

“Poison you? Oh, you’ve got me all wrong.” Vexis slumped onto her elbows. “Okay, I suppose that’s kind of true.” She wiped his cheek with her hand. “I apologize for spitting at you in the Curia. Not very ladylike.”

“You’re insane.”

“You have so little breath left, you shouldn’t waste it on insults. See, I’ve gone from slum to slum, alley to alley. By now, the Corruption has spread like wildfire. Getting your people to rise up required more than just promises. I needed something more tangible.” Vexis held her hand up and a scalpel from across the room flew to it. She pressed the blade to Sun King’s throat.

The Sun King was defiant. “What are you waiting for? If you’re going to kill me get it over with.”

“Feisty.” She checked his pulse and then pressed a hand on his chest. “Your heartbeat’s through the roof. Your breathing is elevated. Either you’re just enamored with my good looks, or you’re so scared you’re about to piss yourself. Care to guess which one I think it is?”

She pressed the blade even harder to his throat and blood trickled down his neck. “You should be scared. I’m not just going to kill you.” As she spoke she ran her nails down his arm. “I’m going to show you how far pain can go. Not just pain of your body. Of your heart. Your soul.”

She shook the vial of his medicine in front of his face. “This, Your Majesty, is red wine.”

“I don’t understand.”

“One of your own people is trying to keep you sick.” She shuttered with delight.

“There’s no one who would—” Understanding swept over the Sun King’s eyes. “Amelia.”

“It’s amazing what desperation can do to a person. It can seep into the heart. Turn us into the very monsters we fight.” Vexis smiled at the Sun King’s panicked looks. “I’m not an agent of chaos, Your Majesty. Quite the opposite. I’m order. Balance. The evil that spawns from indifference. And I am here to collect my toll.”

Chapter Thirty-five

Secrets of the Magisterium

It was unsettling seeing the lower city from the outside in. The blocked-off crowds stared back at Taro with utter contempt.

It was a relief when Ross summoned him to the command tend. She stood with Sullen and Briego, hunched over a map of the lower city.

Briego ran his hand through his beard. “We cannot keep it blocked off forever. We must be as transparent as possible. Make it clear that Vexis is our enemy, no others.”

“The Sun King disagrees,” Ross said. “The Corruption is centered in the lower city. Containing it there needs to be a priority.”

“You spoke with him recently, did you?” Taro asked accusingly.

“In fact I did,” Ross said.

Taro stared down at the map of the lower city. “Vexis is baiting you, Imperator. She wants you to cause a riot.”

“The Corruption will spread if we don’t keep it contained,” Ross said, “And we risk allowing her supporters free movement through the city.”

“Cut off the head of the snake. Kill Vexis and this will end,” Briego said.

Taro pointed to the Downings. “Most of her supporters are here. Instead of sending an army down, send one or two disguised as civilians.”

“We’d risk them getting infected,” Sullen said.

“If you’re worried, you could send me and Kyra,” Taro said.

“Why you two?”

“Me because I know the layout down there pretty well, and Kyra is the most powerful non-adult artificer. We’ll both be immune to the Corruption. It only affects adults.”

Briego gave Ross a stone-cold look. “Kyra is too valuable to risk her like in this way.”

Ross quieted him. “You have four hours. If we don’t hear from you by then, we’ll have to take a more aggressive route.”

_____

“I’m not doing a damn thing for her,” Kyra said, practically snarling. It was about the reaction Taro expected.

Taro tried to calm her down. “This isn’t for her. If we don’t handle it, there’s going to be a riot or worse. Ross isn’t going to stop, and she’s pushing forward to avoiding giving your father enough time to stop her.”

“What can we even do?”

“We need to find Vexis. I have a friend down there that might be able to help, but we need to find him first.” He took Kyra’s hand. “Please?”

Kyra finally agreed, and they changed out of their uniforms into more appropriate clothes.

Sullen met them outside the tent. “We have to make this convincing.” He seized them by the back of their shirts and marched them towards the entrance.

“In you go,” he said, and thrust them into the crowd with considerable force. They fell hands-first onto the cold pavement and summoned theatrical tears.

A woman in the crowd helped him and Kyra up and looked over their scratched hands. “They’re just children!”

“That’s why I tossed ‘em back rather than hauling them off to jail. Next time I won’t be so forgiving,” Sullen said.

They pushed through the throngs and down the ramp. Taro had come this way a hundred times, but it looked alien somehow. Most of the market carts were closed and the shops were boarded up. The Corruption had flared dramatically in a short time, like someone had stoked the coals of a fire.

The elderly got the worst of it. Many lay sprawled out on the sides of the roads gasping for air, their faces were clammy and pale and their veins inflamed. While the symptoms were identical to what his parents had, it’d taken them a year to get to this stage. This was decidedly more rapid.

“I had no idea it was this bad down here,” Kyra said in bewilderment.

Taro grabbed her by the arm and hurried her along. “This way.”

When he saw Aris’ wagon, he breathed a sigh of relief. The back axel looked as though it had been damaged, but it was definitely Aris’.

This time he remembered to knock. “Aris,” he said rapping on the door.

Kyra was circling the wagon and looking over the markings. “A circus cart?”

“There’s even a clown inside,” Taro said.

The wagon door opened with a familiar sight inside. Lying face-down on the floor was Ashur.

“I’m busy.” Aris was holding a syringe and a cloth that smelled strongly of alcohol.

Taro pushed in uninvited. “You’re trying to cure him?”

“There’s no cure,” Aris said. “None that I can find, at any rate.”

Kyra had one foot on last step. “Who are you?” she asked Aris.

Aris cleaned off his hands with the alcohol rag. “You’re standing in my door asking me who I am?”

“Sorry.” Kyra held out her hand to shake. “Kyra, artificer.”

“Aris, monkey juggler. Charmed, I’m sure.” Aris left her hand hanging and pressed his finger to Ashur’s neck, then to his inflamed wrist.

“Can you help him?” Taro pleaded.

“I’ve already tried. This’ll be his third dose in the last week.” Aris knelt in silent contemplation.

“If you bring what you know to the Magisterium maybe it could help them find a cure,” Kyra said.

“The Magisterium isn’t trying to find a cure,” Aris said.

“What makes you say that?” Taro said.

“Until the Arclight was damaged, disease didn’t exist in Endra Edûn. They wouldn’t even know where to start. All they can do is quarantine the afflicted.”

“You know an awful lot for a circus performer,” Kyra said. “Not to mention your wagon says ‘Magister Extraordinaire.’”

Aris ignored the comment. “Wait a minute, how did you two get down here? Didn’t those morons block it off?”

“Magister Ross sent us to find Vexis. We’ve got a little over three hours before she sends in an army.”

Ashur spoke up for the first time. His voice barely rose over a whisper. “She’s not here.”

“What?” Taro said, moving closer.

Blood trickled down Ashur’s cheek. “Vexis. She’s gone.”

“Where’d she go?”

Ashur groaned and turned onto his side. “She told us the magisters did this to us. You’re saying it was her?”

Taro shook him. “Where?” he repeated.

Blood trickled from Ashur’s mouth. “You’re too late. The tower’s already hers.”

Taro and Kyra looked at each other like their hearts skipped a beat. They bolted for the door and dashed towards the surface. The clamoring masses trying to escape had swelled to thousands. Among them were agitators shouting into the crowd.

One man stood on a cinderblock shaking his fist. “Vexis warned us this day would come. They think they can herd us like sheep. This is our city!”

Taro and Kyra pushed passed the hordes and pressed up the ramp. The warders tried for a moment to stop them from passing the line, but Ross interceded.

Back in the command tent, Taro and Kyra dropped to their knees, panting and trying to catch their breath.

“Vexis is trying to take the tower,” Kyra said hastily.

“It’s a trap,” Taro added. “She knew you’d try find her in the lower city, and the tower only has a handful of magisters defending it.”

Horror swept over Ross’ face. For a brief moment she was still as a statue. Finally, she pushed her bifocals and licked her dry lips. “There aren’t any magisters.”

Kyra’s eyes widened. “What did you say?”

“All of the magisters are aiding us here. There are still over two hundred warders guarding the tower, but—”

“Warders have no chance against Vexis.” Kyra’s voice turned to icy stone, and when she spoke she wasn’t speaking to her imperator, she was speaking to her subject. “We have to go. Now.”

“The tower is still protected by the Midway,” Ross said.

“The Midway is not infallible,” Sullen said. “She may have acquired auroms, or found some method around it.”

“Caravans from Crissom Foundry can get through the Midway,” Taro said.

“He’s right,” Sullen said.”

Ross cut the air with her hand. “Regardless. Leaving will send thousands of diseased people into the city.”

“We can’t let her have the Magisterium,” Taro said.

Ross pushed a strand of blonde hair out of her eye. “There’s only one option. We have to seal-off the lower city.” She called to Magister Sullen, and whispered something to him.

“But I—” Sullen said.

“Do it,” Ross said coldly.

Sullen stood ridged. “Imperator, I can’t follow that order.”

Ross’ glare could’ve melted steel. “You will do as I command, or you will lose your commission.”

“It’s an immoral order and I will not obey it.”

Ross shoved him. “Move aside.”

She scratched an enchantment into the stone archway of the entrance, and raised her voice over the crowd. “For your own protection these ramps are being sealed. You have thirty sec—”

Someone in the crowd hurled a chunk of stone and struck her in the face. She stumbled back and her inscriber struck the ground.

“Get it!” someone shouted.

The crowd rushed passed the warders like water against rock. Ross tried in vain to reach her inscriber while being pummeled and crushed. The mob didn’t stop with her; they charged at the others like rabid dogs.

The younger artificers made a run for it. Suri, Ven, and Pipes tried to get away, but were pulled to the ground and beaten mercilessly. The masses were so thick, Taro couldn’t get close enough to help them.

Ross spat and cursed. “You will stand your ground,” she shouted. “You are soldiers of the Sun King.”

“What a joke.” The voice cut through the violence like a sharpened knife. Vexis strolled into the riot, stepping over the bloody bodies. Dr. Halric followed closely behind her, looking exceptionally pleased.

Those holding Ross let her go and she staggered to her feet, desperately searching for her inscriber. Vexis sauntered over and wiped some of the blood off Ross’ lip. “How does it feel knowing that you lost?”

“I haven’t lost.”

“Oh, that’s right, you couldn’t possibly know this, but the Magisterium—” she gestured towards the tower in the distance and then to herself, “—is mine. The lower city, as you can see, are mine. Crissom Foundry is mine. Even many of your warders are now mine. And just wait until you see this bit.” Vexis motioned Dr. Halric closer and he removed two identical vials from his coat.

“The Sun King is dead,” Vexis said loudly. The crowd erupted into murmurs.

“You admit you killed him,” Ross said accusingly. When her glance fell onto the vial a twinge of fear passed over her face.

Vexis grabbed both sides of Ross’ collar and pulled her closer. “Now, you know what this is, don’t you? Go ahead, it’s okay. Tell everyone. It’ll make you feel so much better.”

Ross pulled away. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Vexis stretched her arms and pressed her hands to the back of her head and addressed the crowd. “The Sun King suffered from the same Corruption that that afflicts us. This was his medicine.” She grabbed one vial from Halric with her left hand and the other with her right hand. “But this is what he’s been taking for the last month. It’s a placebo, about as useful as herbal tea on a plague.”

Magister Sullen had two of his teeth knocked out, and was cradling his jaw. It was difficult for him to speak, but he managed it. “Nobody in the Magisterium would do such a thing.”

“Oh, but you’re wrong. See, here’s the fun part: we found his actual medicine tucked away deep inside of the Imperator’s office.”

Every magister and artificer’s eyes were now on Ross, who looked as though she was trying to formulate her next words.

Vexis’ smile widened. “I can almost hear the wheels in your head turning. Go ahead, deny it. Every moment you stand in silence makes another magister realize exactly what you are.”

Ross’ eyes darkened. “I wasn’t trying to kill him. I just needed him sick enough to stay out of my way.”

Her fellow magisters looked at her in horror.

“Amelia… no,” Briego said.

“He was weak,” Ross said. “If I’d left it up to him, he would’ve destroyed us.”

Vexis had never looked so triumphant. “I rest my case. There remains only one thing to do. We have to fix the damage you’ve done to this once great city.” She pointed two fingers at Ross, and her arms constricted to her sides. “Break her hands.”

The people seized Ross by the arms and legs and pulled her to the ground. Two men held her arms down and bashed her fingers with a cinderblock until they were a bloody mess. Ross’ anguished cries were the only noise in the square, juxtaposed with Vexis’ incipit smiling.

“You will never hold an inscriber again,” Vexis said, then addressed the crowd. “Bring them.”

Vexis marched them to the city gates in the freezing cold. It was only now that Taro realized the control Vexis now exerted over the city. None of the warders tried to stop her, whether through fear of her or the thousands following.

They reached the long, icy causeway leading into the tundra. “The magisters will be dealt with as Ross has been. As for the artificers among you, I’ll give you a choice. Stay here and we’ll relieve you of your ability to ever inscribe again.”

“Or?” Kyra said, staring into the flurry of snow.

“Or, you can go. Leave this city and never return.”

Ross’ was in tears. Her bloody hands were limp at her sides, and she spat and cursed everyone around her.

Taro approached Vexis and pleaded with her. “They’ll never survive out there.”

“I don’t expect you to,” she said pointedly.

“Me? But I…”

“You’re what? Speak up.” Vexis guided him aside and spoke so only he could hear. “Taro, you’re so predictably treacherous.”

“I’m on your side.”

“I hate it when people lie.”

“Me and Mathan had a deal.”

“And he’s honored it. Your family is safe, the money will be delivered. You’ve completed your work.” She nodded into the blizzard. “Head home. It’s quite a long walk.”

“My family… my sister needs me. I can’t die here.”

At the mention of his sister, Vexis softened a bit. “I’ll tell you what. Prove to me that you’re on my side. Go and tell your friends that you’ve been working for me this whole time, and we’ll get you transportation back to Ashwick.”

Taro looked back at the others. Kyra, Ven, Suri, Sig, Yoresh, all of them looked back puzzled. “Please… don’t make me do it.”

“It’s about time you started telling the truth,” Vexis said.

“I… I can’t.”

Chapter Thirty-six

Veins of Ice

There was nothing but frozen wasteland as far as the eye could see. It was then that he realized just how cold it was. Sure, it was cold inside the city, but out here he was exposed: there were no walls or towers to block the cutting wind.

Taro focused his templar and tried to warm himself as best he could. Without this, he’d be dead in a matter of minutes. With the immediate concern of hypothermia aside, he sought out Kyra and the others amongst the flurry.

Kyra conjured a warm ball of light. The artificers huddled around and warmed their hands.

“We need to find shelter,” Kyra said.

Taro cupped his eyes with his hands and scanned the snow-capped hills. “I think I see a barn over that way,” he said, and pointed off to some blurry shapes with pointed tips.

He was right, it was a barn, or at least what was left of one. Drudging a half-mile through two feet of snow was bad enough, but once they arrived they found the roofs caved in, and what little interior left was littered with ice and the frozen carcasses of long-dead animals. They scraped wood from the collapsed ceiling and piled it into three fire pits.

Kyra sat on an icy hay bale beside Taro. “Suri, Ven, get a headcount.”

“We must avoid panic,” Yoresh said. He was leaning beside a fire and touching up the cuts on his knuckles.

Taro prodded the fire with a stick. “I’d say it’s a pretty good time to panic. What are we going to do for food?”

“The cold will kill us before starvation,” Yoresh said.

Suri and Ven soon returned.

“Forty-two on my side,” Suri said.

“Ninety-six on mine,” Ven said.

“With us that’s one hundred forty-three,” Kyra said. “Less than two thirds what we started with.”

“There others are still in the snow,” Pipes said with grim realization. “We can’t leave them out there.”

“We have to trust that they’ll see the light from the fires and make it here,” Kyra said. “If there’s a break in the snow we’ll organize some search parties, but for now, we’re staying right here.”

Pipes started towards an opening in the wall.

“That was an order,” Kyra said.

Pipes pulled up his hood. “Who’s with me?”

Fourteen artificers followed him into the blizzard. Taro grabbed him by the wrist. “You won’t survive out there.”

Pipes pulled away. “I’m not leaving my friends.”

_____

Every hour of that night was filled with misery. Cold cut through to the bone and the stump of Taro’s leg burned from the icy steel of his prosthetic.

He sat propped it close to the fire and Kyra examined it. “The fluids inside are turning to slush,” she said. “If they freeze solid, you might as well have a hunk of lead attached to you.”

Kyra was the one thing that made it almost bearable. Taro felt like fate really had it out for him: the closest he’d ever get to her would be only a prelude to his death.

Taro was surprised to wake up the next morning. The artificers were sprawled throughout the barn, and Kyra’s head rested on his shoulder. The snow had stopped, and rays of sunlight broke through the holes in the ceiling.

Two artificers, a girl and a boy, did not wake up. Their skin was pale blue, and when Taro nudged them with his foot, they felt like ice blocks.

Suri yelped when she saw them and buried her face into her sleeve. “Vali and Cassidy. Second-year artificers,” she said bitterly.

A rack of pitch forks, shovels, and other farming equipment was near the wall. Taro yanked off a shovel and tried to dig a hole. “We should at least bury them.” The shovel struck the hard ground with a clang. Frozen solid.

As Taro stared at the poor souls, he felt his stomach drop. “Pipes?” he called. “Did anyone see him come back?”

Nobody said a thing.

“The storm’s passed,” Taro continued. “We’ll start near the main gate and—”

Kyra spoke gently. “There’s not much of a chance of—”She stopped herself. “Just be prepared.”

It didn’t take long to find Pipes frozen body buried beneath an inch of snow. There was movement inside Pipes’ uniform pocket, one of his mechanical birds was trying to flutter, but its wings were frosted-over.

Taro clenched it in his palm. “He loved these things.”

Ven patted Taro on the shoulder. “I never could figure out why.”

Taro backed away slowly, then ran, kicking up snow. The two followed. A few yards in an overwhelming pain stabbed through his leg, like shards of glass were being pushed through his veins.

He collapsed into the snow. Kyra unlatched side of his prosthetic and tried to sever the nerve connections, but the lever wouldn’t turn.

“The gears are frozen,” she said.

Taro could barely form words. “Why does it hurt so much?”

“The liquid inside is expanding and pushing ice crystals into your nervous system.”

“Get it off me!” Taro wailed.

“It can’t be torn off.”

“Oh, God. GET IT OFF ME!” He dug his nails into his leg and thrashed.

“Hold him still. Kyra tore a piece of cloth from her sleeve and tossed it to Ven. “Make him bite down.”

Ven grabbed Taro around the shoulders and forced him to sit still, then wrapped the cloth between his teeth.

Kyra removed the prosthetic’s chasse, exposing its clicking inner mechanisms. Tubes lead from the base to the heel pivot, and back to the top where a drum with pins pressed into Taro’s leg.

Kyra sat on his thigh and grabbed hold of the pin-cylinder. “I’m so sorry,” she said, and ripped it out.

Taro screamed so hard he almost swallowed his tongue. Every muscle in his body clenched and his heart beat out of control. He didn’t lose consciousness, in fact he had an almost heightened sense of things. Being moved back to the barn. Being placed by the fire. Someone bandaging his leg.

Ven propped him up and waved his hands in front of his eyes. “Yoo-hoo.”

“His nervous system is in shock,” Kyra said. “I shouldn’t have done that.”

“You didn’t have a choice,” Ven said.

“He’ll never be able to use a mechanical prosthetic again. The nerves are ruined.”

Three hours passed and Taro sat still, watching the others scour for food. They pick frozen pieces from cattle and cooked them. The animals had been dead for over a year, but there wasn’t much of a choice.

Taro felt movement in his palm. He loosened his grasp and Pipes’ mechanical bird squeezed out. Even in death, Pipes’ templary didn’t fade. The construct trotted along his hand, up his arm, and nibbled at his cheek before fluttering off.

“If only we could just fly away,” Ven said, tossing some wood into the fire.

Lights went on in Taro’s mind. The answer flooded into his mind all at once, and he leaned up with some difficulty.

“I was wondering when you’d join us,” Ven said.

“We can,” Taro said.

“Can what?”

“Fly away.” Taro pointed to a rack of farming tools hanging on the wall. “I need something to walk with.”

Ven grabbed one of the pitchforks and wedged between two boards until the handle broke off.

Taro used it to hobble toward Kyra. “Kyra, we can fly out of here.”

“You should be lying down,” she said in a slightly patronizing tone.

“Just listen. The Waystation is not far from here, is it?”

Yoresh thought about it. “Fifteen miles away.”

“It might as well be a thousand miles. We can’t go fifteen miles in this hell,” Edrin said.

“We can,” Taro said. “If we can make just one and a half miles an hour, we’ll get there by nightfall. When we flew there during the trial we saw a bunch of airships in—”

Kyra shook her head. “I see where you’re going with this. But it’s just not possible. Those ships are abandoned for a reason.”

“We’ve got the best and brightest minds in the entire world. We can cannibalize the airship for parts, repair one of them, and fly it out of here.”

Yoresh rubbed his chin. “That’s an interesting idea.”

“It’s an impossible idea,” Edrin said. “Let’s say we somehow made it there, then somehow found every part we need. Even if we did all of that, the reactor’s going to be stone-dead.”

“We could recharge them,” Ven said. He’d been sitting idle, listening intently.

“With what, exactly?”

Taro patted the ground. “It’s all right here. The roots of the Magisterium run right past the ships. We can charge a power cells down there, and use to fly the hell out of this godforsaken place.”

The artificers were silent for a moment while they considered it.

“There’s no way this’ll work,” Edrin said.

“Do you have a better idea?” Ven said.

“I could design a converter that would help charge the cells. Someone would have to get dangerously close to one of the conduits,” Kyra said.

“I’ll go,” Taro said, trying to stay balanced on his walking stick.

“You’re not in the best shape to go hopping over lava pools,” Kyra said.

“Lava?”

“That’s where the conduits are.”

“I’ll go,” Ven said.

“I’m not sure either of you will get the chance. We’ll all be dead long before we get there,” Edrin said flatly. “Though I suppose if the choices are die sitting on my ass, or die fighting to survive, there’s not much of a choice.”

Ven clapped his hands together. “So we’re walking fifteen miles through sub-zero weather to fix one of the most sophisticated war-machines in the world without so much as a screwdriver. Then, assuming the engines don’t explode in our faces, we’re going to fly the rickety hunk out of here. That about right?”

Taro shrugged. “Sums it up pretty well.”

Ven crossed his arms. “Awesome. What are we waiting for?”

Chapter Thirty-seven

Power Trip

Taro fought to keep up with the rear of the group. Kyra and Ven stayed close; they said it was to make sure that none of the younger artificers fell behind, but he knew that they were really just concerned about him.

He’d long lost the feeling in his fingers and toes. They trotted through the long snaking wastelands with nothing but rolling white hills as far as the eye could see. Fierce wind whipped snow from the ground into flurries. Peppered through the frozen countryside were barns and stables that offered a moment of reprieve from the wind, but they dared not stay too long.

Suri was the first to break. With every step she took, her tiny, frail body trembled. Her hair was so full of ice crystals it was practically white.

She stared up at the sky in a daze. “I can’t do it.”

Ven lifted her up and put his shoulder under her arm. “Oh, yes you can. C’mon, one step at a time.”

After eleven grueling hours, they climbed over one last hill. Enormous gears, steel girders, and wheels were strewn through pools of boiling oil and airship hulls. Steam rose from natural thermal vents in the ground and the artificers rushed to warm themselves. The snow around the vents was melted, and they scooted in as close as they could without burning themselves.

Four had severe frostbite and cradled their frozen, black toes and fingers.

Once they’d rested, Taro, Kyra, and the others were already scoping out crumbling airships around the yard for one that might be fixable.

Suri pointed to a large airship on its side. “Most of the fuselage is in-tact.”

“We’ll never be able to get it right-side up,” Ven said. “The one next to it is a better bet.”

“Maybe, but that left engine is going to take weeks to repair,” Kyra said.

“Do we have weeks?” Ven said. “Food, for instance…”

“We should scour these wreckages farthest from the heat vents, they should have food stores,” Yoresh said. “In these temperatures, plenty should be preserved.”

“We’ll break into teams.” Kyra pointed to four artificers. “You four follow Yoresh and find food. I’ll get a better look at that airship.”

Taro accompanied her. They looked through four until they found one that was acceptable. The first one was too small, the second had its entire ventral hull torn to shreds, the third was looked like it had been scavenged and was missing its reactor. The last one was by far the most intact. Long icicles hung down from the name ‘EVENTIDE’ on the side of its hull.

The engine room was the only real concern. Pieces were missing: the shaft connecting the rudder to the steering controls, the door to the reactor chamber, not to mention the coolant injection system.

All three power cells were intact, but completely dead. Kyra pulled them out and held them under her arm, then stripped two chords with copper prongs on the ends and wrapped them around her elbow and shoulder.

“Well?” Ven asked when they returned.

“The Eventide is our best bet,” Taro said.

Kyra nodded. “It’s going to take some serious work, but it might be doable. All three power cells are dead.”

Taro looked up at Magisterium root running past the junkyard and into the Waystation. “Is there a way into that thing without going through the Waystation?”

“You should be able to cut through the side,” Kyra said.

“That might trigger a defensive construct,” Suri said.

“Taro handled it on his last visit. There shouldn’t be a problem,” Kyra said.

“I do.”

“With respect to Taro,” Yoresh said with his thick Sahaalan accent. Taro wasn’t sure if he was trying to be tactful, or if he just didn’t know the proper words to use. “Perhaps we should have someone more able bodied.

“I’m perfectly able,” Taro said. “Besides, Ven will be with me.” He shoved one of the power cells into Ven’s hands.

“We’re all gonna die,” Ven said.

Kyra handed the power converters to Ven as well, then lifted an aluminum rod from a pile and used it to draw a map in the oily soil. She pointed down one of the drawn corridors. “This is where you need to get.”

Taro burned the image into his mind. He’d seen it before in Ross’ office, but he never expected to have to use it again.

Kyra pointed to two copper clips on the end of the power cells. “Connect it to the relay until this arrow touches this notch.” Kyra raised her voice to the others. “If you’re able to work, we’ll assign you to a group. Main priorities are patching the hull, repairing the rudders, scouring other ships for parts.”

Ven tied the power cells and cables into a pack and flung it over his back and started towards the root. Taro started to follow, but Kyra stopped him. She glanced around nervously, then placed her hand on his arm. “You really are in no condition to do this.”

“I’ll be fine. Like you said, there are no constructs down there. It’s just a walk in the park, right?”

“Just be safe.”

“I’m always safe,” Taro said with a boyish grin.

Ven called from the other side of the clearing. “C’mon Taro, priorities.”

Taro caught up with him. There was a waft of steam coming from the warm metal of the root. Taro tapped it with his knuckle; it sounded hallow. “I guess this is as good a place as any.”

Ven took out his inscriber and etched a long rectangular doorway into the metal and a pressed his hand to it. The edges crackled like a firework and the metal fell inward.

They stood in complete silence for a full minute, waiting to see if something would come charging at them from inside. When they were sure it was clear, they entered. The inner parts of the root were lined with black rock like a cave. The frame of the tremendous construct was lying in the ash, and looked as though it had been picked clean of parts.

They made their way to a broken metal walkway that extended over a pool of hot molten rock. On the ceiling and ledges were rumbling cylinders that seemed to be soaking up the incredible heat coming from below. Taro was used to it from his time at Crissom Foundry, but Ven was having trouble breathing.

They cautiously approached the gap in the walkway.

“There’s no way I can jump that,” Taro said, leaning against his walking stick.

“I can… maybe,” Ven said, though his eyes looked positively terrified.

“Are you sure?”

Ven tightened his pack and took a deep breath. “Is there another way around?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Then I’m sure.” Ven exhaled hard. “Okay, okay. It’s nothing. It’s just like any other jump… just, over a pool of instant death.”

“I wouldn’t say instant. It’d probably take at least a few seconds for the heat to melt through to your organs.”

“Not helping.” Ven stretched his legs, crouched, and leaped over the gap. The tips of his feet touched the rail and he leaned forward, struggling to stay on, but couldn’t quite make it. Just as he slipped, he grabbed the edge of the walkway with his fingertips.

Ven’s fingers sizzle as he pulled himself up, and it left cross-hatch burns all over his hands. He made a tight fist and winced, but continued toward the power conduit. It was a large, rounded stone pillar with steel ridges along the sides. On the cave walls were silver prongs, and every few seconds electricity arced from the prong to nodes in the walls.

Ven approached the conduit with his head down.

“Do you see the relay?” Taro shouted.

“I don’t know, there’s a lot of writing here. Cordaveron vale is the one, right?”

“Your Deific’s better than mine.”

Ven unpacked the equipment, dug each of the power cells into the dirt and connected one end to the capacitor. The wires sparked and crackled.

“Is it working?” Taro shouted.

“I think so. I just need a few more seconds.”

When one cell was full, Ven moved the cables to the next. But when he was on the last one, an arc of electricity shot out and blasted him through the chest.

His body shook and flew underneath the arcing power nodes. When the current faded, his body went from violent convulsions to completely still.

Taro didn’t even think it over: he got a head start and pushed his walking stick onto the edge of the grate, and vaulted to other side. He wobbled for a second and fell face-first onto the burning-hot walkway.

He recovered quickly and pulled Ven from the conduit. There was a gash across Ven’s torso, and his heart wasn’t beating. Taro knelt over him and pressed his hands into his chest. After a dozen compressions, Ven coughed and stirred.

Ven groaned and turned onto his side. He was clearly in a great deal of pain; his fingers were burned, his chest was bleeding, but a goofy smile appeared on his face. “That was shocking.”

“I save your life and the first thing you have to say is a stupid pun?”

Ven wobbled to his feet. “What about ‘electrifying?’”

“I’m starting to regret saving you.”

“But it was quite a power trip, am I right?”

“One more word and I’m shoving you in.”

Taro gathered the power cells together into the pack, and they used his walking stick to vault back over the gap. When they were outside, they slumped to the ground and took a moment to cool down.

Taro beat out his shirt. It stuck to his skin and drenched in sweat. “We did it.”

“Just wait ‘till I tell your girlfriend. Leaping to my rescue like the hero in some crappy Celosan play.” Ven feigned a swoon. “My hero!”

Taro pushed him away. “She’s not my girlfriend.”

“Uh huh. Yeah. Sure.”

“Can we not talk about this?” Taro said, exasperated.

“Taro, as your friend it’s my solemn duty to make fun of you at all opportunities. Don’t worry, your incredibly obvious secret is safe with me.”

Taro pulled himself up. For a moment, he lost himself staring into the snow. “You know, she really is something else.”

Ven patted Taro on the back and they walked back to the others. “I know, I know.”

Chapter Thirty-eight

Abandoned

Kyra breathed like a weight had been lifted off her. “I think we just did the impossible.”

There was a great deal of cheering throughout the engine room.

“There’s one matter to tend to,” Ven said. “Assuming we don’t fall apart mid-air, what’s our destination?”

“Going back to the city is suicide,” Edrin said.

“Kyra is the ranking artificer. It is her decision,” Yoresh said.

Kyra tapped her fingers on the rumbling reactor frame. “We’ll start with Tyrithia, there’s a strong magister core stationed there.”

Taro had been listening intently. “No,” he said. “We should start with Ashwick.”

“Ashwick?” Kyra said skeptically. “Why?”

“Taro, I know you want to get home as much as I do, but Ashwick is tiny,” Ven said. “There are dozens of magisters in Tyrithia, including my parents.”

Taro wasn’t sure how to proceed. On one hand, he knew they had to go to Ashwick first. Exposing Vexis was the only way to beat her, and Mathan’s back-alley mansion was bound to have information.

Taro decided that it was time. Kyra would understand, she had to.

“Can I talk to you in private?” he asked.

They climbed above deck and into the captain’s cabin. Ice caked the walls and cracked windows; maps and books littered the floor, and the door hung by one hinge.

Kyra stood a stool up-right and sat.

Taro took her hands. “We have to go to Ashwick.”

“Okay, spill. What do you know?”

“It’s where Vexis’ whole operation started. It’s where they created the Corruption. If we can find out exactly what Vexis is up to—”

“Slow down. How do you know their plans are in Ashwick?”

This was it. “Before I knew who Vexis even was, Victor Mathan recruited me for some long-term work. All I had to do was… well… join the Magisterium.”

Kyra’s eyes shifted from left to right like she was trying to parse everything at once. “So you joined the Magisterium to help her?”

“I didn’t know who she was at the time. I’ve wanted to tell you for so long, but I just wasn’t sure how to do.”

There was an extended silence as they sat. For a moment, a tiny smile appeared on Kyra’s mouth, but seconds later everything came crashing down.

“You unbelievable son of a bitch.”

“Kyra, you have to believe me, I didn’t know.”

Kyra hushed him. “No lies, no obfuscation, no excuses. That night the Magisterium lost power, did you or did you not help Vexis escape?”

Taro opened his mouth, but no words came out.

Kyra struck him across the face twice, once with her palm and again with a closed fist. Taro made no motion to defend himself. Kyra looked like she had to physically restrain herself from breaking him in half.

“Kyra, please.”

“Please? Is ‘please’ going to bring back my dad.” She punched him again. “How dare you. How dare you touch me.”

Taro scooted away through heaps of debris. “Vexis was—”

“She’d be rotting in prison if it wasn’t for you.” Kyra spoke in a rambling stream of consciousness. “I should’ve known. Vexis let you live. Those creatures wouldn’t attack you. You were the key to all of this.”

“It’s not that simple.”

“It is! It’s that simple! You had a choice. You could’ve told us at the beginning.”

“I’m sorry,” was all Taro could manage to say. “Can you ever forgive me?”

From the corner of his eye, Taro caught Ven and Suri peering through one of the cracked portholes. They’d heard everything. While Kyra’s eyes were white-hot anger, theirs were bewilderment.

Kyra seized him by the collar and pulled him onto the deck. She pressed him over the embarking ramp. “Get off my ship.”

“He’ll die out there,” Suri said.

“I sure as hell hope so,” Kyra said.

Tears streamed down Taro’s face. “It’s okay, Suri. I’m going.” He hobbled down the ramp into the snow. “Kyra… I… I love you.”

Each of Kyra’s words was slow and deliberate, and felt like a knife through Taro’s heart. “I do not love you.”

Those were the last word’s Taro heard as he touched the snow. By now, the commotion had dozens of artificers above deck.

A moment passed and the ramp retracted. The Eventide’s beams creaked and the engines kicked up plumes of snow as the ship rose.

Taro watched the ship speed off without him. He wished he could just curl up and die, and as he sat there, he realized he’d soon get his wish.

Chapter Thirty-nine

Run Away

Taro had become a part of the airship junkyard. Like the mountains of scraps, or the cracked fuselage his head rested against. The worst part was that he knew he deserved this.

The air stabbed at his cheeks and as his eyelids closed for what he expected was the last time. But as they touched, he heard something he didn’t expect: a voice. A very familiar voice followed by the clang of metal. It was coming from just beyond a nearby airship’s hull.

It was Aris picking through scraps and hurling pieces into two piles. Every so often he’d glance back at his wagon and shout.

“You clinking piece of crap.” He stripped the insulation off a pipe. “How am I supposed to find another distributor valve? I’m going to freeze my ass off out here. Some smuck’ll find me in a thousand years, frozen solid.”

Taro hurried towards him as fast as his leg would take him. “The escape pods on the Morning Star have distributor valves.” He pointed towards the smallest airship. “That one there.”

“Taro? What the hell are you doing out here?”

“Vexis threw us out.”

“Well, yes, but I figured you were dead.” He motioned for Taro to get inside. It wasn’t much warmer than the outside, but at least there was no wind. “Are there anymore of you?”

“Plenty. They fixed up one of the airships here and flew off.”

“Brilliant.”

“Thanks, it was my idea.”

“But you’re still here?”

Taro dodged the subject. “I don’t suppose I could get a lift to Ashwick?”

Aris feigned a groan. “I’m just so busy aimlessly wandering around, afraid I’m going to have to kick you out and let you die of hypothermia — of course I’m going to give you a lift back, you idiot.”

“Thanks.”

“It’s a miracle I found you at all. If the Old Girl hadn’t decided to fracture her distributor valve I’d be ten miles away by now.”

Aris retrieved the part from the Morning Star and went to work unscrewing the old valve with his bare fingers and installing the new(ish) one.

Aris peaked up from the hatch in the floor. “Don’t look so glum. You’re going to get to go back home to your family.”

“For how long? Vexis won’t stop with Endra Edûn.”

“She’s already won. The city is hers, the Sun King is dead. There’s not much either of us can do. I’m going back to my old job.”

“Job?”

“Magister Extraordinaire! Plenty of travelling, meeting new people, getting as far away from that god-forsaken city as possible.”

As Aris blabbered on about his plans to go from city to city performing magic shows, Taro finally understood. It was like his eyes had been opened.

He sat up and looked Aris directly in the eyes. “How long have your memories been back?”

Aris looked like he’d just been punched in the gut. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“You’re running. But you’re not running from Vexis, are you?” He spoke his last words slowly. “What do you remember?”

Aris closed the hatch and went to the wagon controls. When he yanked the drive lever down, the wagon lurched forward.

“What does it matter? Vexis won, and nothing’s going to change it, so I might as well move on.”

“You coward.”

Aris stopped the wagon. “Get out.”

“You don’t mean that. You’re not going to send me out to die.”

“You’d be surprised what I’m capable of.”

“You’re leaving because you’re ashamed. What did you do?”

“I don’t want you here anymore. Please go.”

Taro started for the door. “There’s no way I’m going to survive out there. You want that on your conscience?”

Taro stepped one foot outside before Aris stopped him.

“Just be quiet until we get into town,” Aris said. “After that, we’ll never see each other again.”

Aris shut the door and the wagon resumed its trek. He stared out into the tundra like a statue.

“I’m old, Taro. Older than you can imagine.”

“You’re not a magister, are you?” Taro asked somberly. “You’re the magister.”

Aris wrung his hands. “I was a prisoner. Forced to toil to keep the Arclight active, cursed with immortality to continue my task until the end of the world. Vexis helped me escape. Without me, the Arclight couldn’t function… so many people were suffering. But I couldn’t go back to that hell. Dr. Halric devised an elixir that would remove the memories that plagued me. I should’ve known that my body would resist it.”

Aris fished through a drawer and took out the memory elixir. He shook the contents. Aris sifted through some papers and books tucked underneath a counter. They were the books he’d recovered from Dr. Halric’s laboratory.

“The Arclight is the templar of the living world. Mishandled, it could kill every living thing in Endra Edûn.”

Taro felt his heart thump in his chest. “Why would she…”

“In the instant someone dies the reach between worlds thins enough to pull something through. With the deaths of a million people you could pull anything through. Or everything through.”

“How do we stop her?”

Aris knocked Taro on the head. “Weren’t you listening? It’s over. She’s won.”

“We have to try.”

“No, we certainly don’t.”

Taro glared at him. “How can you live with yourself?”

Aris waved the elixir. “That’s the point. I can’t live with myself, but dying isn’t an option. This little vial is all I have. This is my only reprieve. So sit there, shut the hell up, and let me do what I do best: run away.”

There was a long, uncomfortable moment of deep silence.

“I finally understand you,” Taro said. “You act like people annoy you, yet you seek out crowds and cities. When you’re alone, you talk to your wagon or to yourself. A thousand years trapped… you’re afraid to be alone again.”

Aris stepped away from the controls and knelt down in front of Taro. “Let me tell you one last little secret, kid. Let me shatter your naivety. The disease spreading through Endra, the one that’s killing your mother and father. I helped Dr. Halric create it.”

For a moment, Taro couldn’t bring himself to breathe. In seconds it boiled over. He piled every ounce of templar into his fist, and drove it at Aris’ face.

“That’s it,” Aris said. “Get it all out.”

Taro punctuated each of his hits with a word. “I hate you.”

Aris grabbed both of his wrists. “I think you need a time-out.”

He pressed his hand against Taro’s forehead, and Taro felt a jolt ripple through his body. His limbs went limp, and tumbled to the floor. He remained conscious, and could see, hear, and feel everything around him.

Aris set him on the sleeping cot in the corner. “I’m sorry,” he said. “This is a fight I’m not strong enough to face.”

Chapter Forty

The Back-Alley Meeting

Aris leaned over Taro and prodded him with the heel of his foot. “We’re nearly there. If you behave, I’ll remove the binding. Sound good? Drool once for yes, twice for no.”

Taro gained some feeling back in his face, enough to glare up at the despicable man. Aris tapped him on the forehead and Taro’s body released. The moment he was free, Taro tried to strike him again.

Aris seized him by the wrists. “Settle down. A few more minutes and you’ll never have to see me again. Hit me again and you won’t wake up for a month.”

Taro resisted the urge to try again and looked out of the cracked wagon window. The snow was gone and colorful autumn trees rolled by. The wagon rumbled over the bumpy earth and trembled as it neared Ashwick.

Smoke rose in the distance, bristled with the smell death and burning ash. It choked the air and overwhelming the senses as entered town. The wagon crept along on the cobblestone towards the source in the market row.

What Taro saw sent a sliver of ice through his heart. Beside the old fountain were great piles of bodies, wrapped in linen and twine, and arranged in heaps beside a pyre. Warders with cloth wrapped tight around their faces tossed the bodies one by one into the flames.

There was a momentary kink in Aris’ armor, and for the span of a full minute, he had no quip or comment, just a grim disgust that seemed to settle in his throat.

“It’s just like Endra Edûn,” he said.

“Are my mom and dad are in there?” Taro asked.

Aris didn’t answer.

The streets were filled with Helians, all thin and sickly. They pattered at the sides of the wagon pushed toward Walder’s Lane.

Warders barricaded the street, preventing the hordes from entering uncorrupted residential areas. They stopped the wagon and asked their business.

Taro showed the constable his stamped aurom. “I’m from the Magisterium, home on holiday to see my family.”

The warder grazed the aurom with his knuckle. “I suggest you take your family with you and get as far from here as possible.”

Walder’s Lane was as Taro left it, except that the houses had their windows boarded up. He retrieved the spare key (always kept in the loose brick under the stoop) and entered.

It was dark inside and dead silent, but for the creaking of the floorboards as he ascended the stairs. The place looked as though it had been cleaned recently; the floors were bare, and there wasn’t so much as a toy in sight.

He searched through the living room and found an oil lamp resting beside his father’s armchair. Before he could light it, Taro felt something hard smack the back of his head.

“Out! Get out!” Decker’s voice screamed from the darkness. He swung a broom handle again at Taro’s head.

Taro grabbed Decker by the arm. “It’s me!”

Decker’s cheeks were slick with tears. He dropped the beam and squinted, and his face practically lit up the room when he saw it was his older brother.

Taro squeezed him tight. “Where’s your brother?”

Decker wiped the tears from his cheek. “In his room.”

“Mom and Dad?” Taro didn’t wait for a response. He pushed the door to his parent’s room open. His mother and father lay, worn, weary, but still breathing.

Taro dropped to their bedside. When he ran his hand along his mother’s forehead, her eyes cracked open at his touch.

“Taro.” Her voice was so weak he wasn’t even sure he’d heard it. Dry tears caked the skin around her eyes, and she looked like she’d lost another ten pounds.

“It’s okay, you’re going to be okay,” Taro said as he stroked her hair.

Somehow she managed to put her hand onto his. “I knew you’d come back.”

Aris appeared in the doorway. Taro looked at his mother’s frail, pale hand set against his own. There was almost nothing left. The tears came despite his best attempt to stifle them, and he wept like the entire cruel world had finally caught up with him.

“Help them,” Taro said, completely choked with tears.

Aris was shaking. “I can’t.”

“Liar!” Taro beat on Aris’ his chest with his fist. “You made it, you can cure it.”

“There is no cure.”

“You have to do something. You can’t just let them die.”

Aris reached into his pocket and pulled out the memory elixir.

“You can’t bury this forever, Aris.” Taro pushed him towards the bedside. “You can do something here. Now. Look at them.”

Aris backed away.

“Look at them,” Taro repeated more forcefully.

The commotion brought Enam to the doorway.

“Fine. Go ahead you coward,” Taro said.

Aris lowered the vial. He clenched his shaking fist and took in a deep lung-full of air. “What do you want me to do?”

“I just want you to try.”

Enam called from the doorway. “Is the man gonna help Mommy and Daddy?”

Aris composed himself and stepped towards the boys. He knelt down, and rubbed his hand through Enam’s hair. “Yes, little one. I am.”

The table beside the bed had an assortment of medicines and unused syringes scattered across it. Aris took one of the caps off the needles and drew blood from his arm. There was a sizzle and flash as the tiny hole in his skin disappeared.

Aris injected his blood directly into both parent’s veins. Almost immediately they shifted in their beds, groaned, and stretched out their arms and legs. Their skin softened and color returned to their cheeks, but they remained asleep.

“This will stabilize them for a week or two,” Aris said. “The Corruption was forged with magic, only the Arclight can eradicate it.”

Taro wiped the tears onto his sleeve. “So there is a chance?”

“Our odds would increase substantially if we had some help.”

“The artificers might be searching Mathan’s mansion.”

“Then we’ll start there,” Aris said resolutely.

“I don’t think they’ll help you if I’m around. We didn’t part on the best of terms.”

“They have no choice. We’ll offer them the one thing that no army can buy: proof that Vexis orchestrated this whole thing.”

“Taro,” Decker said from the doorway. “Is Nima coming back soon, too?”

Nima’s absence hadn’t gone unnoticed to Taro. He’d expected she was asleep considering the hour.

“Coming back?” Taro’s voice crackled.

“She left with you, right?” Decker said.

Despite the icy shudder ripping through him, Taro managed to maintain his composure. “She’ll be back soon,” he said cheerfully. “Go ahead into the living room for me, I need to speak with my friend alone.”

“I thought you said you sent your sister back here,” Aris said when the boys were out.

“Mathan told me he would.” He glanced sideways at Aris. “If she’s still in the city, we have to get her out.”

“Mathan may have dealt with her already. Don’t trust hope, it will only disappoint you.”

Enam was waiting in the living room for Taro and tugged at the seam of his pants.

“Tar! We missed you,” Enam said.

Taro planted a kiss Enam’s forehead. “You’ve been so brave. Can you be brave just a little bit longer?”

Enam nodded and hugged Taro around his neck.

Taro retrieved one of the spare wooden prosthetics from his bedroom. It didn’t have the mobility of the mechanical leg, and the soft flesh of his limb felt like it was being pressed against broken glass, but it was a relief to be able to walk again.

He and Aris returned to the wagon. It tottered down the muddy road towards Mathan’s back-alley mansion. The streets were bare, and most other houses in the area had boarded their windows and reinforced their doors to protect themselves against the corrupted.

The lampposts flickered against the slick streets and Taro slowed as he came to the mouth of the alleyway. He and Aris tipped over trashcans and skidded through puddles until they came to the painted door. It was torn from the brick wall and tossed aside. The frame hung off the building, covered in scorch marks.

Inside, the mansion was a dump. Every cabinet was emptied, every rug was pulled up, and every door was opened. Banging and shouting came from the corridor leading to the basement, and they followed it down the creaking stairwell.

The cellar laboratory was trashed and Mort was on his knees surrounded by Kyra and four other artificers.

The void apparition on the table had been rotting so long it was barely even recognizable. Flies and maggots swarmed the corpse, and black blood dripped onto the concrete. The stench was like nothing Taro had ever experienced.

“You expect us to believe that?” Kyra shouted at Mort. His suit was tattered and torn, and his cheek was bruised. “You worked for Mathan for, what, years?”

Mort glanced at the corpse on the table. “I wasn’t permitted down here. It’s not my job to ask questions.”

“And what about the smell?”

Kyra grabbed him by the collar and pressed his face into it the putrid slime. “You’ve been playing house here for months and you never smelled this? Do you think we’re idiots? I want to know what they were doing down here and I want to know NOW.”

Ven, Suri, and the others looked at Kyra like she’d lost her mind, but were too afraid to stop her.

“I don’t think he knows anything,” Taro said.

When Kyra looked up at him, her face went white. She dropped Mort and he slid to the floor.

“Taro?” she said, sounding more surprised than angry, but when she moved within arm’s reach she slapped him with the back of her hand.

Taro rubbed his jaw. “You don’t think leaving me to die is punishment enough.”

“Not when it doesn’t work. How in the ever-living hell did you get here?”

“I’ll explain later. We need to put this aside for a moment. There’s not much time,” Taro said.

“Put you betraying us aside? Are you that dense?”

Ven spoke up. “Let’s hear what he has to say.”

“Can we maybe move this to another room first?” Aris said, grimacing at the corpse.

That, at least, they could agree on. They met back outside in the alleyway. Aris laid out the books and parchment he’d gotten from the cellar onto an overturned trash bin. Every margin was filled to the edge with his scribbled handwriting.

“I pulled these from this mansion months ago,” Aris said. “It’s taken some time, but I believe I finally understand what Vexis is trying to do.” He pointed to an image of an upside down tower. “I believe she wants to thin the reach between worlds. Doing that, she’ll be able to pull something through.”

“I’ve seen her do it before,” Taro said.

“But only on a small scale, one death, one apparition,” Aris said. “Imagine if she killed a million. Using the Arclight, she could just that: kill every man, woman, and child in Endra Edûn.”

“Where does it say that?” Kyra said, glancing at the notes.

“It doesn’t specifically.”

“Then how do you know?”

“I have an intimate understanding of the Arclight. That’s hard to explain,” Aris said.

“Well, then you’d better get started, because we’re not budging until you do.”

Aris looked like he had a headache. He bowed his head on his closed fist before he spoke. “So… every living thing has a templar, right?”

“Right,” Kyra said.

“The Arclight is a templar in a manner of speaking. It’s the fire that lights all others. But a templar cannot exist without a soul. That’s why the Arclight doesn’t work.”

Ven, Suri, and Kyra all tried to object at the same time. Ven won out. “The Arclight worked for a long time without a soul.”

Aris looked like he was trying to explain trigonometry to cattle farmers. “It did, in fact. It had mine.”

“You are the Arclight,” Taro muttered to himself.

“In a manner of speaking, yes.”

Suri scoffed. “The Arclight is thousands of years old. You’d have to be—“

“One-thousand two-hundred and forty-seven. My birthday’s next week. If you’re planning a cake, anything but vanilla.”

“Bollocks,” Ven said.

“I’d prefer chocolate.”

“You’re twenty five at the worst,” Kyra said.

Aris muttered to himself. “Nobody can just take my word, no, everyone needs proof.” He swiped the sword from Kyra’s sheath.

“If this doesn’t convince you, I swear.” Aris plunged the blade into his neck. To the other’s horror, blood spilled out by the pint.

“Holy shit,” Ven said.

Aris collapsed face-first onto the wet cobblestone in a pool of blood.

Kyra was shaking. “Why would he kill himself?”

“Just wait,” Taro said.

A soft glimmer consumed Aris’ wounds, and his body sewed itself back together. He stood, cracked his neck, and shook off death.

“You should be dead,” Kyra said, completely bewildered.

“I can see they’re letting only the best and brightest into the Magisterium these days.” He handed her back her bloodied sword. “Tell me that was enough to get through to you.”

Kyra looked over the blade. “I’m all ears.”

“Good, because I’ve got something resembling a plan.”

They returned to Taro’s house to discuss their next move. The living room was a bit cramped with at least fourteen people squeezed inside of it.

Aris continued. “If the Arclight was active, we’d know. I suspect Vexis is stuck.”

“But I thought you were the Arclight,” Ven said, much to Aris’ annoyance.

“I was dumbing it down for your convenience.”

Taro spoke up. “It’s like Pipes’ birds, I think. Even after he died, his templary didn’t disappear. The constructs stayed alive.”

Aris nodded. “There are safeguards designed to keep people out of the Arclight chamber, but they won’t hold Vexis off forever. We need to get to there first. A small group could get into the Magisterium undetected.”

“But how will we get into the city?” Kyra said.

“We won’t be,” Aris said. “Your place, princess, is Tyrithia. It’s the largest city in the country outside of Endra Edûn.”

“My place is taking back the capital,” Kyra said.

“The Imperator is finished and the Sun King is dead. You’re the only person with the authority to command anyone. If by some miracle we kill Vexis, restoring order is going to take a significant force. You need to gather that force.”

“I agree with Aris,” Taro said. “If you were killed it would be a disaster.”

Kyra looked as though she was going to disagree, but her expression dissolved into a begrudging acceptance. “All right.”

“Me and Taro should go alone,” Aris said. “The fewer, the better.”

“You’re not going without me,” Suri said.

Aris shook his head. “This isn’t a vote.”

“And this isn’t a request,” Suri said. “My dad is still in the city, and I’m not going to leave him to die.”

Aris rubbed his temples. “I’m not slowing down for you. Fall behind, you’re left behind.”

“And how exactly do you plan to get into the city?” Ven said.

“We fly, of course,” Taro said.

“There are artillery cannons along the walls. Any one of them is strong enough to blow the Eventide out of the sky,” Kyra said.

“If we can’t fly,” Aris said, “then we’ll fall.”

Chapter Forty-one

Something Resembling a Plan

Taro wasn’t sure what he was expecting to happen between him and Kyra. Some sort reconciliation? Some small inkling that the rift between them wasn’t irreparable? It didn’t materialize. The only words she spoke to him were in passing, just as she left for the Eventide.

“The ship leaves at 0100,” she said as the door slammed shut.

Suri and Ven followed, and Aris soon after.

“I’ll be in the wagon,” Aris said.

The hand-carved clock on the wall said it was just past midnight.

“Do you have to go?” Enam said, latching onto Taro’s leg.

Taro patted his brother’s messy hair. “For a while.”

“But you’ve been gone for so long already.”

“And look how well you and Decker have been doing. The house is clean, Mom and Dad are getting their medicine. I’m impressed.”

“That old guy in the suit comes once a week and cleans,” Decker said.

“Old guy?” Taro muttered. “Mort?”

Decker nodded. “He brings medicine and food, too. Never asks for money.”

At least Mathan had kept his word on that point.

Taro went into his parent’s bedroom and when he shut the door, his father sat up on the bed. His frail arms grasped a metal cup, and he sipped at it to clear his throat.

He looked over Taro for a good minute before he spoke. “What’s that you’re wearin’?”

“A Magisterium uniform.”

“You a soldier now?”

“An artificer. Yes,” Taro said.

“I see. Doin’ honest work then?”

Taro let out an exasperated laugh. “For once I don’t have to lie. I’m doing honest work.”

“You’d save yourself a lot of hardship if you did that from the start.”

“You’ll be happy to know it’s all caught up with me. I might not be coming back.”

“You think I’m happy when seeing you suffer?”

“Yes,” Taro said stone-faced.

“You got it backwards. I worry about you more than I worry about anyone else.”

“So that’s why you trashed me every day?”

“I was hard on you, but—”

“Every morning, every night, beating me down. Just once I wanted you say you were proud of me, just once I wanted you say ‘good job.’”

His father raised his voice. “A good job doing what? Stealing? Lying? You want me to pat you on the back for that?”

Taro’s eyes darkened. “Being honest doesn’t put food on the table.”

“There are honest jobs out there.”

“Sweeping floors for two pence a night? Washing dishes? How was that supposed to pay for family of six?”

His father was silent.

“That’s what I thought,” Taro continued. “If my choices are between watching my brothers starve or taking the purse off some rich bastard, I’m going to do just that.”

“And how has that view worked out for your sister?”

The comment cut into Taro much deeper than he’d expected. He left and slammed the door behind him without another word.

With his back to the door, he heard his mother’s faint voice speaking to his father.

“You’re too hard on him,” she said.

“He needs a steady hand.”

“What he needs is a father.”

Upon hearing his mother’s voice, Taro wanted nothing more than to go in and speak with her, but he couldn’t bear to be in the same room as his father. He hugged his brothers one last time and left.

The Eventide was in a woodland clearing outside Ashwick. It hovered several feet from the ground, kicking up leaves and rustling the grass like a hurricane. The artificers were loading up the final supply crates when Taro and Aris boarded.

_____

The Eventide ran remarkably well considering it was held together with sloppy spot-welds, rusted deck plates, and the prayers of first-year artificers.

Even at a languid pace for an airship of its caliber, the Eventide could make the three hundred mile trip to Endra Edûn in under five hours. It felt like weeks.

Taro and Suri changed into less conspicuous clothes, and waited with Ven and Aris below deck. Aris tucked himself away in a corner and was poking at the insides of a smooth metal device with a groove on the side. Taro recognized it was one of Magister Ross’ gravity reducers.

“What are you doing?” Taro asked, not bothering with exactly how Aris managed to acquire it.

“These are only meant for single use,” Aris said, his eyes focused on the insides. “The runes are spent. I’m trying to get one more use of it.”

“We’re going to jump?” Suri asked.

“From much higher than these devices were designed to work. If we get too close, we’ll be shot out of the sky.”

“Couldn’t they shoot us as we fell?” Taro asked.

“We’ll be much smaller targets. And if they did, it would only kill you two. I’d still have a chance.”

“Comforting,” Taro said.

“Don’t sweat it, getting shot out of the sky is the thing least likely to kill you today.” He stopped working for a moment and counted on his fingers as he spoke. “The jump, the landing, Vexis’ followers, void apparitions, a wrathful Old God, not to mention Vexis has a templar that could break you like a soggy toothpick.”

Aris shut the latch on the gravity reducer and handed it to Suri.

“Where’s mine?” Taro asked.

“You’re going to have to share.”

“That didn’t work so well last time,” Ven said.

“You survived, didn’t you?” Aris said. “The reducer should be able to hold the weight of two.”

“What about you?” Suri asked.

“Regrettably, I’m going to be cold-jumping.”

“As in…” Taro rolled his hand.

Aris clapped his hands together. “Splat.”

Cool air rushed past them as Taro, Suri, and Aris climbed above deck. The snowy landscape stretched on like a vast white cloud, and in the far distance Endra Edûn sat waiting. Kyra was above deck, but her eyes glossed over Taro and went straight to Aris.

“We won’t be able to pull you out,” she said.

“It won’t be necessary,” Aris said. “Head straight for Tyrithia. If we succeed, bring back as large a force as you can muster.”

“How will we know if you succeed?” Kyra said.

“If Vexis brings an Old God through the reach, you will know it,” Aris said. His eyes darted from the city back to Kyra. “We need more altitude.”

The order was given and the ship rose high above the clouds, so high the air was thin. The Eventide sputtered as if it was going to stall, but finally leveled out. Taro, Suri, and Aris climbed onto the edge of the deck.

“Jump when I give the word,” Aris said. “If you hesitate, you’ll miss it.”

Suri grabbed Taro’s hand. “Are you ready?”

Taro peaked over the side and a shiver shook through him. “As I’ll ever be.”

“On three,” Aris said. “One… two… three!”

Taro held onto Suri’s outstretched hand so hard he felt like he was going to break it. They fell like a stone, hurling towards the sprawling cityscape below. Ice crystals prickled Taro skin and stung his eyes as he watched the ground rush toward him.

“Now?” Taro shouted.

“We’re not close enough.”

The wind whipped them around and threatened to tear them apart. In all the thrashing, Taro lost sight of Aris. Moments before they struck the ground, Suri clicked the gravity reducer. To Taro’s utter relief it worked immediately. Having experienced the fall before, he braced himself for the rough landing. There was one significant difference this time: instead of landing on snow, they landed on hard stone.

Taro tumbled like ragdoll against the icy road, scraping his elbows and cheeks, and smashing his mouth against the pavement. Somewhere in his long roll, he lost a tooth.

“Are you okay?” Taro asked. Suri had been less prepared, and taken the brunt of the fall. He turned her over. “Did you break anything?”

Suri groaned. “Everything.” She tried to stand, but stumbled dizzily. “Where’s Aris?”

Taro glanced around. “I didn’t see him land.”

“He must’ve seen us, though. Should we wait for him?”

“If he saw us, someone else will have too. We need to move.”

Suri steadied herself and they moved a safe distance from their landing site. Fortunately it was just after four o’clock in the morning, and they didn’t have to work too hard to avoid the one or two warders.

Taro went as far as the east entrance to the lower city.

“I can find my father alone,” Suri said.

“Are you sure?”

“I’ll be fine. You’ve got more important things to worry about.”

Taro didn’t argue. Everything in the shadow of the Magisterium was a death zone, and every second brought them one step closer to oblivion.

Taro didn’t bother searching for Aris. In a city that stretched on for miles, he could be anywhere. Instead, he went straight for the Magisterium, as it was the place they were most likely to meet up.

Endra Edûn was quiet and still as a graveyard. At first Taro thought this was due to the hour of the day, but even so it was unusually still. As Taro neared the Magisterium, the true reason became apparent. Uncertainty bred fear. Vexis had many followers, no doubt, but not a majority. Nevertheless, it was unreasonable to expect civilians to fight back against the ruling power. And perhaps some hoped she could do what she’d promised and repair the Arclight. So they locked themselves away in their homes and prayed.

However, this only explained one part of the emptiness. The other part became clear as Taro neared the Magisterium. Huddled around the Midway were thousands and thousands of people. Men, women and children crowded around fire-bins and tents and had apparently been there for some time.

Despite the razor-sharp wind and freezing cold, there were nothing but bright eyes and smiles. They were the blissful faces of sheep eagerly waiting to die.

Chapter Forty-two

Friends and Enemies

The crowd was thick as oil and twice as hard to push through. There were people from all walks of life, but the majority were residents of the lower city. The Midway was the only thing stopping them from pressing against the tower itself.

With the thousands of bodies and hundreds of small fires, it was actually quite warm. Taro stepped over sleeping children and shimmied past chattering old-timers.

“Do yeh reckon it’ll be soon?” an old Helian man said to another.

“Suppose so. Dawn’s not far off,” the man responded.

Near the Midway was a sight that chilled Taro’s blood. Magister Ross sat with her hands utterly destroyed, and her feet shackled to a heavy iron block.

Nearby were Veldheim and Sullen, each chained up but mostly unharmed. Sullen had his mechanical arm removed and a group of children were playing with, poking at the Midway and sending ripples in the energy field. Each of the magisters had cuffs on their wrists identical to those that Vexis had in her cell.

Ross’ clothes were shredded, her skin was bruised and bloody, and the glass of her spectacles was lodged in the skin around her eye. Bloody rocks lay around her, and once in a while an onlooker would lob another in her direction.

It was exactly the horror of what had happened to her that struck Taro so hard, but rather the elation on the faces of the people involved. He wondered why they didn’t just kill her and be done with it, but as Ross was positioned to face the tower, Taro suspected that Vexis wanted her to see the Arclight when it activated.

Ross was alive, but seemed to have grown numb to the pain and didn’t even twitch when a stone struck her back. As Taro neared, he circled around and their eyes met. Cut into the flesh of her forehead was the world ‘IMPERATOR.’ He wasn’t sure if she couldn’t see him through her bloody eyes, or if she chose not to acknowledge him, in either case she didn’t say a word. In either case, freeing her and the other magisters was impossible.

A crackle rumbled through the air like a bolt of lightning. At first, Taro thought it was something striking the Midway, but people began pointing towards the top of the Magisterium. The ice on the tip cracked and slid down the sides. The entire tower seemed to tremble and the triangular crystal plates at the top glowed from the inside.

Yellow fire erupted from the Arclight. The force was so great it shook the buildings beneath and forced Taro onto his back.

The Arclight shined with the white-hot brilliance of the sun. It felt different than ordinary light; there was a static charge to it that permeated deep into his skin.

Many years ago, Taro had grown accustomed to the discomfort caused by his prosthetic. When the light touched him, the pain dissolved like water washing away sand.

After getting over the initial shell-shock, the crowd burst into cheering and applause. Taro glanced at Ross, whose bruises and cuts disappeared in seconds.

Arclight’s fire receded and the city was dark once again. Perhaps it was just a test?

Taro’s aurom warmed against his chest as he passed through the Midway.

Other than the warders at the main gate, the courtyard seemed empty. Any confrontation would alert Vexis to his presence, so he kept his head low and snuck past the fountains and frozen garden arches towards the side of the tower.

“I should be surprised to see you alive,” a voice called to Taro. He froze like a statue and tilted his eyes towards an icy park bench. On it sat Mr. Mathan. He looked different. His clothes were ruffled and cheeks were slick, but what stood out more than anything else was the absence of a cigar.

Mathan didn’t make any provocative actions. Actually, he seemed positively indifferent. He was clenching something small between his fingers. It was a picture of someone, but his finger covered most of the image.

“It was foolish of you to come here,” Mathan said. “But I understand why you would.”

“You’re not…?”

“Going to stop you?” Mathan grinned slightly and shook his head. “No.”

Once again the Arclight exploded overhead for a brief moment before flickering out like snuffed candle.

“It won’t be long now.” Mathan glanced sideways at the crowds outside the Midway. “Poor devils. They have no idea what’s coming.”

“So we were right, then? She’s going to use the Arclight to kill them?” Taro said.

Mathan seemed surprised by this. “You’re more observant than Dennith and I.” He chuckled to himself. “Can you believe I actually believed her? There was a time when nothing got past me. When it’s ready, everything outside will be struck down.”

“Then why are you out here?”

Mathan briefly glanced at the photo in his hands. It was of a boy. “The only person that matters is safe.”

“My sister isn’t,” Taro countered.

“On the contrary, she’s safe and sound inside the tower.”

“Why didn’t you send her back to Ashwick like we agreed?”

“Halric wanted her. He said it was for ‘insurance,’ but didn’t care to elaborate. I truly apologize for my hand in all this.” He looked up at the sky. “I hope my imminent death can be a pittance for it.”

“I have a better pittance: help me get inside.”

Mathan searched his pocket and pulled out a cigar box. It was empty. “Damn. The last pitiful hour of my life and I can’t even get a decent smoke.”

“I need your help,” Taro said, growing annoyed by his obtuseness.

“You don’t really expect to be able to stop her, do you?”

“I sure as hell am gonna try. Will you help me?” He stared into Mathan’s eyes. “Do you want a million deaths on your conscience?”

Mathan stood with some difficulty and brushed the snow off his pants leg. He tucked the photo into his vest pocket. “I’ll help you get inside and point you to the right direction. What you do after that is your business.”

Mathan ushered him to follow, and they made their way to the main gate. The warders nodded to Mathan and opened the doors.

“I’m afraid I’m not familiar with the inner layout of the tower,” Mathan said. “Vexis mentioned that the entrance to the Arclight chamber was in the Conservatorium. Does that make any sense to you?”

“I’ve been to the Cons a hundred times and never seen any door.”

“It’s obscured by magic.” Mathan checked his pocket watch. “The Arclight will be repaired by sunrise. That leaves you a little less than two hours.”

They passed a few sets of warders, none of which attempted to stop them.

“How many warders are working for her?” Taro whispered.

“A hundred or so, most were killed early on. Their loyalty to her is tenuous at best, but it would be wise to stay clear of them.”

When they were past the next set of warders, and in the curved hallway behind the Curia, Taro pointed to a grate on the wall. Ven showed it to him many months earlier. “There’s a maintenance shaft in there that will get us to the Cons quicker.”

“There’s no us,” Mathan said.

“I can’t do this alone,” Taro pleaded.

For the first since Taro could remember, Mathan didn’t look intimidating. He didn’t look imposing. He looked old. “I can’t go crawling around through air ducts. I’ve got no magic, all I’ve got is money, and I don’t think Vexis will take a bribe. I’ll do my best to divert the guards for you, at least.”

Taro sighed, yanked the grate off the wall, and climbed inside. The narrow crawlspace led over a pack of sputtering wheel-cranks and to a ladder that seemed to go up forever. It would be forty floors of climbing, and that was assuming it was a straight shot and that none of the pathways decided to change along the way.

When he placed one foot against the first rung of the ladder, he heard a clank against the wall. It was the grate being re-attached. At first Taro didn’t pay it any mind, but soon after he heard talking.

Sikes’ voice was slow and deliberate. “All alone? That’s very unfortunate for you.”

“Mr. Sikes. I was wondering when Vexis would let you out of your cage,” Mathan said. Taro’s first instinct was to intervene, but Mathan tapped on the grate with his fingers. “Go on.”

Sikes thought Mathan was talking to him. “I’m not going anywhere,” he answered.

Mathan scoffed. “What do you want me to do? Apologize?”

“You used me,” Sikes said, practically snarling.

“Of course I used you. Did you think I was acting out of the kindness of my heart, you stupid boy?”

Taro peaked through the grate and saw that Sikes had Mathan by the fabric of his vest.

“Go ahead,” Mathan said defiantly. “I’m not going to die groveling on my knees. You should be thanking me. A piece of Helian garbage rising to the rank of artificer is impressive. Like a circus chimp dressed up in a uniform.”

“Shut up!”

The entire maintenance shaft trembled as something struck the wall outside. Mathan groaned for a brief moment, but it was quickly replaced by choking laughter.

“I said shut up!” Sikes repeated.

“You know the best part? In a few minutes all of the Helians outside will fry like bacon. And it’s all thanks to you.”

Sikes hesitated, and his tone grew more concerned than accusatory. “What do you mean?”

“Oh, she hasn’t told you? That’s marvelous. When the Arclight is repaired, everyone outside of this building will burn. And the Helians outside get front-row seats.”

“You’re lying. You just want me to let you live.”

“I would never lower myself in such a way. You are beneath me. If you were on fire, I wouldn’t stop to piss on you.” Mathan backed against the wall and felt at something in his back right pocket. He fished it out, and found that it was a lone bent cigar. “Dear sweet gods, yes.” He broke the end with his bare fingers and lit it. The first puff he took was manic, like a man who’d wandered through the desert finally taking his first drink.

Mathan stepped towards Sikes and blew a puff of smoke in his face. “Go ahead and kill me. See if it does you any good. In the end you’ll be just as poor, just as feeble, and just as helpless as ever.”

Sikes’ templar flared like a furnace, and Taro scampered towards the ladder. He didn’t need to watch to know what was coming next. The walls shook with every blow, and went on much past the point where Mathan would’ve been a bloody mess against the wall.

The shaking eventually stopped, but the climb to the fortieth floor was not a silent one. The sound was faint, almost inaudible at first, but soon drowned out everything else. It was the whimpering cry of a Helian boy.

Chapter Forty-three

Breaking the Illusion

The door to the Conservatorium creaked off its hinges, and cool mountain air wafted into the hall. Taro cautiously stepped inside onto the grass and the door disappeared behind him.

It was quiet. Not the usual quite of the Cons, which was often punctuated with the tweeting of birds and the rustle of leaves. This was an eerie quiet. The trees before him were thrust apart as if a tornado had blown past, creating a perfectly straight path through the forest.

The enchantment on the walls and ceiling flickered, and dry leaves crunched underfoot as he stepped towards the clearing. The normally neat, tilled earth was thrown up and torn petals and stems were strewn across the ground. Beside the shredded flowers was Antherion’s body. Thick bluish-green blood trickled from huge cuts across his massive chest and the arch of his wings. The wounds were so deep Taro thought the dragon was dead until he saw his chest heave.

“Taro.” Antherion’s voice was one part surprise, one part relief.

Taro looked over Antherion’s side in more detail. His fist-sized scales were torn and gnarled, and the flesh underneath was lacerated. The slices were clean, almost surgical.

“Vexis did this to you,” Taro said.

Antherion wheezed and clenched his teeth. “Her powers have grown more hideous since we last met.”

“She came here before?” Taro asked, then quickly answered his own question. “The day she killed Magister Briggs.”

Antherion tilted his head towards the sky. The enchantment overhead crackled and warped. “I feared the worst.”

“Most of the artificers are alive.”

“Are they here?”

“Just me. I had a magister with me, but we got separated.”

Antherion stretched his body and winced like a rush of pain washed over him.

“Don’t try to move.” Taro brushed his hand over the dragon’s snout.

“It’s too late for me. You must go.”

“I can’t leave, I need to get to the Arclight. Which way is it?”

Antherion pointed his tail west of the mountains. “Twenty yards in that direction.”

There was nothing but a field of grass for at least fifty yards.

“I don’t understand,” Taro said.

“This room is much smaller than it appears. We use it as a greenhouse, but it is in fact here to obscure the location of the Arclight.”

Antherion closed his eyes and his breathing slowed. His words grew progressively quieter until Taro strained to hear him over the wind.

“Walk straight. Follow the setting sun, don’t stop, and don’t turn away. Remember that the end is an illusion.” His final breath left him and his body went still. All at once, shadows slithered across his scales.

Taro backed away. Slowly at first, but as the realization of what was about to spawn entered his mind, it became a flat run punctuated by frantic glances over his shoulder. If the death of a human could pull an apparition from the Reach, Taro didn’t want to see what spawned from a creature as ancient and powerful as a dragon.

Taro fumbled over a mossy rock-face, panting and trying to put as much distance between him and Antherion as possible. The rocks ended in a sharp transition; one step he was standing in the forest, the next he was knee-deep in swamp muck. The bog before him teamed with varieties of small life: bullfrogs croaked, snakes slithered across the surface, and the foggy air was thick with mosquitos. Giant roots of craggy trees twisted through the bog like a maze, and mushrooms sprouted from every inch of the slimy water.

Taro tried desperately to find a dry patch to walk on. His shoe and sock filled with muck, and he could feel every creep and slither across his legs.

Two miles in, he was lost. Whether from the gases rising from the bog, or the fact that he could no longer make out the sun, he wasn’t sure he was going in the right direction.

What finally set him straight was a roar in the distance. It felt like someone reached into his heart and squeezed.

The enchantment crackled and the true shape of the room came into view. For a split second, Taro saw the creature pursuing him. It had seven legs, three of which stuck out of its back. Beside these were tendrils with tiny teeth on the ends that lashed like whips, and its mouth was a dripping cluster of razor-sharp black teeth.

The bog ended at a sheer cliff. Water flowed down the edges, and the lands below seemed to go on for hundreds of miles. Antherion told him not to turn, but Taro couldn’t find a way to continue. His legs were soaking wet, the cliff was slippery, and climbing down wasn’t an option.

The trees creaked and cracked as the creature lurched closer to the cliff.

“This isn’t real,” Taro said to himself. “There is no cliff. There is no drop.” Taro hovered his foot over the ledge, but pulled back when it didn’t touch anything. “It’s not real,” he repeated.

The creature lunged at him, and this time Taro didn’t hesitate. He jumped. The feeling of falling hundreds of feet shook through his body. The ground rushed towards him, but when he struck it, the grass and trees melted away into a solid stone floor.

Taro managed to roll over. From this angle he could see the true make of the Conservatorium. The room took up the entire floor, and ridges covered in detailed magistry lined the ceiling and projected the images below. In the center was a clear barrier where the enchantment ended. It was like clear sky-colored glass, and on the other side the creature ran across the cliff side, staring down at where Taro had fallen.

On the far end of the chamber were four prongs coming from a triangular recess in the floor. When Taro stood on it, a stone pedestal rose waist-level to him.

“Welcome,” a voice called from the pedestal. “Please state your destination verbally, or enter it on the console before you.”

“The Arclight?” Taro said as if it were a question.

The platform clicked, separated, and lifted into the air.

Chapter Forty-four

The Arclight

The platform stopped in a long hall with a clear glass floor. Beneath the glass was a starry black sky; periodically a thin beam of light would connect the stars into brilliant constellations. Rishan the Hunter, Iset and Coset, the twin angels, the Bow of Sarona all glittered and sparkled in a sea of blackness.

The hall lead to tall double doors. Aside from the stars and a thin strip of blue light along the base of the walls, it was dark. The arched door at the end was carved with deep, beveled grooves and gold-tipped red flourishes. This was the original Arclight emblem now used as part of the Endran crest, probably seen by Sun King Aldor over a thousand years ago.

On the floor were the broken frames of six sphere-shaped constructs with glass lenses on their fronts. Their stone and steel casings were cracked and the gears inside sputtered and twitched. One of the constructs hovered off the floor when it saw Taro, but quickly crashed back down.

The circular room on the other side had little floor space. The only clear area was the narrow path from the door, and the area around a dais in the center. Hundreds of arm-wide pipes ran along the ceiling, walls, and floor leading towards the dais. The room shifted like a clock, and when it moved each pipe connected to another in a different way.

The surrounding walls were red-tinted glass and the entire Endran countryside was visible.

The intensity of the Arclight was more than anything Taro had imagined. He could feel the light in his skin, penetrating into his very soul, however the heat from the fire was unnaturally cool, considering how close he was.

Vexis had her hand pressed against the fiery dais. When she lifted her hand from the dais the flames disappeared. She was all smiles. “Ah, Taro. Fancy seeing you alive. Your sister was right about you.”

“You don’t have to do this,” Taro said. “You already have revenge on the Magisterium. What’s the point in killing everyone?”

“It’s not up to me.” She glanced at Halric. “Revenge comes at a price, and it’s time to pay it.”

She pressed her palm to the dais and fire erupted into the air. Shadows coalesced around her arm and slithered into the flames, turning them deep purple as the darkness expanded.

“You’d pay with Kadia’s life?” Taro said it as an afterthought. He didn’t expect it to actually have an effect considering Vexis was willing to murder an entire city of people. However, the moment the words left his mouth, Vexis’ body tensed up.

“How do you know Kadia?” she said in an accusatory tone.

“He’s trying to distract you.” Halric shook her free arm.

“I met her at a hospital in-town,” Taro said quickly. He tried to remember some small detail that would confirm his story. Something only Kadia would know. “…Valros. He’s your dad, right?”

Vexis lifted her hand from the dais and the flames dissipated. Her stare was furious, and Taro was glad it wasn’t directed towards him.

“You said she’d be far away from here,” Vexis said.

Dr. Halric took a cautious step backwards. “Taro is a practiced liar.”

Vexis thought deeply for a moment. “I want to see her.”

Halric turned nasty at her defiance. “We’re not taking a timeout to sate your curiosity. Your sister is safe and sound, as was our agreement.”

Vexis doubled-down on her demanding tone. “I want to see her.”

Halric didn’t waiver. “If you want her to live you’ll fulfill our bargain.”

Vexis’ fingers clenched a stone handrail around the dais, and she squeezed it so hard that it cracked. “If you ever threaten my sister again I will tear every bone from.”

Halric sneered. “It’s not a threat, it’s a promise.”

For Vexis, it was like some great, seething rage bubbled to the surface. She raised her hand and the shadows pooled around her. One of them lashed towards Halric, but stopped inches from his face.

Halric touched it with one sagging finger and it evaporated. “You’re just like your sister. Weak. Small-minded. Unable to understand the gift I’ve given you.”

Taro summoned every ounce of templar he had and seized Halric by the arm, but he was swatted away easily. “You don’t honestly think you can contend with me, do you?”

Dr. Halric waved his hand and the force of his templar was like an ocean being dropped on Taro’s head. For a moment it felt as though his bones were going to crack from the pressure.

Halric knelt nearby and forced Taro’s head to turn to the side.

“You mortals get under my skin,” Halric said. “Running about your pitiful, pointless lives. You steal your templar and call yourselves magisters. Let me show you true magic.”

Halric placed one hand on Taro’s neck and the other on his forehead. Taro had felt this before when Kyra opened his templar. Halric’s templar was as deep and terrible as Taro had imagined it to be. It washed through Taro’s body and charged every one of his veins with such force that he felt as though his soul would burst from his chest.

“So easy to corrupt, just like your sister,” Halric whispered. “It’s a shame you won’t get to see what I’ve got planned for her.”

It was like a bomb had gone off in Taro’s mind. His eyes shot opened and Halric recoiled like he’d pressed his hand against a hot oven. Taro grabbed the old man by his neck.

Taro was sweating and panting. “Do you know what happens when you take a blowtorch to a candle?”

“You can’t do this,” Halric said, “you’re just a—”

Taro slammed his fist into Halric’s cheek and the doctor tumbled back. Vexis was near the Arclight controls, and at Taro’s motioning, she pressed her hand to the dais and flames exploded into the air. Taro charged at the disoriented Halric and shoved him into the beam of fire.

Flames consumed him like a leaf in a furnace, and the machinery sputtered and shards of glass exploded from the Arclight controls. An arc of raw energy struck Vexis square in the chest and she tumbled backwards onto the floor.

Taro was completely unable to move for a long while. He’d used every ounce of templar in his body to fight back against Halric. When he heard footsteps approaching him, he couldn’t even bring himself to turn his head.

“You’ve made quite a mess of things.” It was Aris. When he touched Taro on the shoulder, he regained enough energy to move.

Taro looked around and found Vexis’ body.

“Dead,” Aris said, anticipating Taro’s question. “The doctor?”

“Gone.”

“Aris, my friend,” Vexis called. Her voice was weak and barely raised about a whisper, but she seemed frightfully smug. “Never thought we’d meet here again, did you?”

“You said she was dead,” Taro said.

“Just wishful thinking on my part. I’ll finish the job.”

Blood trickled down Vexis’ chin. “Do what you want. I’m going to live forever. I brought the great Magisterium to its knees.” She chuckled and wiped blood onto her sleeve. “Taro, do you know why Halric’s templar wasn’t able to corrupt you? Because you fight for something other than yourself. You believe in something other than yourself. He was just like Aris.”

Taro glared at her. “Aris is a far better person than you’ll ever be.”

Vexis coughed out a laugh. “Aris fights for nobody. He believes in nothing but himself. He was willing to plunge this city into darkness for his own selfish ends. Believe what you want, but there’s only one villain in this room, and he’s standing right there.”

There was a long span of silence before Aris spoke. “She’s right, Taro.” He approached the Arclight and placed his hand over his mouth. “I thought my freedom was worth more than a few pitiful mortal lives… that was just arrogance.”

“What are you going to do?”

“I think I can return what was given to me. But I think… I think it might kill me.” Aris’ hands crackled and energy seeped from his pores.

“There has to be another way,” Taro said.

Aris smiled a warm, genuine smile. “I have no doubt you’ll make a splendid magister someday. Try not to sell yourself short.”

Aris touched the Arclight dais and fire erupted from the platform larger and brighter than ever. It didn’t just go up, it went out in every direction. It expanded like a bubble around Aris, who stood enveloped in white light.

Warm light shined into every corner of the city and countryside. Night became day, and the Arclight burned steadily.

Aris stood like a cracked statue. The flesh on his palm was bloody and burned. Taro watched and waited for the burns to heal themselves, but it never happened. Aris’ skin crackled and glowing white energy seeped out like fog on a lakefront. Within seconds there was nothing left of him but thin smoke.

“I didn’t think he had it in him,” Vexis said.

Taro approached her and pressed his foot against her throat. “You deserve to die.”

“I can’t stop you.”

“Tell me what Halric did with Nima,” Taro said.

“Nima?”

“My sister!” Taro shouted and grinded his heel into her. “Where is she?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

There was no lie in her eyes. Whatever Halric had done to Nima he’d done so on his own, and with both him and Mathan dead, finding her may have been impossible.

Chapter Forty-five

The City of the Sun

It was two days before Kyra and the others returned from Tyrithia. With them they brought not only a dozen magisters (including Ven’s mother and father), but five hundred warders armed to the teeth.

They landed the Eventide outside the Midway. All of the ice and snow had melted, leaving behind only moist soil and budding foliage. It was a warm summer’s day and everything seemed six shades brighter.

“I was wondering when you’d get here,” Taro said as Kyra marched down the Eventide’s ramp.

Kyra’s voice was cold. “Vexis?”

“Dead,” Taro said. “Magister Ross is locked up.”

“You’ll be joining her soon.” Kyra looked to the warders. “Seize him.”

Taro put palms towards them. “Wait, wait, wait. Please.”

“Whatever good you think you’ve done, you were a conspirator in the murder of my father. You should’ve left when you had the chance.”

“Tell me,” a voice called from a distance. “How can you charge someone for the murder of a man who is still alive?” The Sun King strolled on the stone walkway towards them.

Kyra melted when she saw him. For a moment she couldn’t even form words, and settled on running towards him and almost tackling him to the ground. He swept her up and hugged her tight.

“Vexis said you were dead.”

She let him go and tried to regain her composure, but the tears in her eyes gave away just how overwhelmed she was.

“Vexis said many things. She kept me alive to watch the downfall of my kingdom.” The Sun King waved Taro to him, and placed a hand on his shoulder. “But she didn’t count on the extraordinary bravery of Mr. Taro.”

The Sun King peaked over Kyra’s shoulder at the small army she’d brought with her. He laughed out loud when he saw it. “Kyra, you’re truly my daughter through and through.” He kissed her on the forehead.

Ven’s father approached the Sun King. “Your Majesty, permission to secure the tower?”

“Please do,” the Sun King said.

_____

The searches for Nima seemed unending, and the Sun King was quick to offer resources toward finding her, but after months of searching Taro began to accept that even if she was alive, Halric could’ve sent her anywhere in the world.

As the months passed the city only grew more beautiful. The Arclight scoured the city of the Corruption and cold. Farmers returned to their land, fishers to the lakes surrounding the city, and life slowly returned to normal in the eternally-daytime countryside.

Word of Vexis’ duplicity spread (Leorin was especially helpful in this regard) but many viewed her as a hero regardless. Still, the hostility to the Magisterium was a dim memory. People had jobs to perform, crops to till, and lives to lead.

It didn’t take long for life in the Magisterium to return to normal. The artificers had been promised extra work credits and two nobles an hour if they assisted in tower repairs.

Magister Briego became imperator without much fanfare, and Kyra took his place as head of Artificing. Briego didn’t see it as a promotion, but rather an annoyance that kept him away from his tinkering. Kyra, meanwhile, became the youngest magister in history.

She and Taro hadn’t spoken since that day in the courtyard. Taro ran through what he wanted to say a thousand times in his mind. He imagined every possible outcome. Did she hate him? Did she forgive him? Was that even possible? When he finally got up the nerve to visit her in the Artificium, she barely looked up from her desk. She had a screwdriver out and was tightening a bolt on what looked like one of the constructs from the Arclight hallway.

“What are you working on?” Taro said.

Kyra looked away pointedly.

“Kyra, I…” His voice trailed off.

“You what?” Kyra said.

“I know I can never take back what happened.”

Kyra placed the part down. “Taro, remember what I said when I kicked you off the Eventide?”

“You said you didn’t love me.” The memory stung.

“I was lying. I love you more than I ever thought I could.”

Taro’s heart soared for a moment before crashing down.

“And I hate myself for it,” Kyra added. “I hate looking at you. I hate seeing you. My father might consider the matter closed, might even consider you a hero, but I know the truth.” Kyra went back to fiddling with the construct.

Taro left without another word. In retrospect, it was foolish to think that she would forgive him. Despite all reason, he did little things to see her. He volunteered for tower repairs in the same sections she was in, but every time he saw her it only made things worse.

Of all the terrible things that had happened, Taro took comfort in the fact that he hadn’t lost Ven and Suri as friends. He told them everything, from beginning to end, expecting them to treat him as Kyra did. After some hard words, all of which Taro rightfully deserved, they forgave him.

Chapter Forty-six

The Edges of the World

When Taro heard footsteps in the nearby grass, he didn’t think much of it. These days the Magisterium courtyard was full of artificers studying and the ash tree he leaned against was a popular spot. When he heard the Sun King’s voice, he almost dropped his textbook.

“May I sit?” the Sun King said.

“Your Majesty. Of course.”

The Sun King looked rather out of place sitting cross-legged. Somehow he’d managed to slip away from his bodyguards, though Taro got the impression that this was quite a common occurrence.

“I’m surprised to see you here,” the Sun King said. “Your family should be arriving within the hour.”

Taro folded the page of his textbook and set it aside. “I figured this is one place they won’t be able to find me.”

“You don’t want to see them?”

“I do. More than anything. But explaining to them what happened to Nima is… well, it’s not going to be easy.”

The Sun King pressed his back against the tree and fished something from his pocket. “That’s what brings me here. I wanted to deliver this news personally.”

The Sun King brought out a piece of paper that Taro instantly recognized as one of Mr. Mathan’s two-way parchment. “We recovered this from what was left of Victor Mathan.”

“Why didn’t you show it to me sooner?”

“It was blank when they found it. Yesterday, however, a single line of writing appeared on it.”

Taro unfolded the parchment. Scrawled across it, in Nima’s unmistakable handwriting, were two words: Help me.

In that instant, Taro knew only two things: that she was out there somewhere, and that he was going to find her.


The Reach Between Worlds

Sixteen-year-old Taro lost his right leg years ago, but with a family to support, he doesn’t let it slow him down. For years he’s worked for a notorious crime lord named Victor Mathan. Mathan deals in stolen magical artifacts and trusts Taro to finish his work with as few questions as possible. When an absurdly well-paying job comes up, Taro is quick to volunteer. Mathan wants him to break a powerful sorceress out of jail, but her prison is under the control of an ancient military order called the Magisterium. To get to her, Taro must pose as a Magisterium recruit. The courses are grueling, the trials drive students mad, and the magic they teach can be as deadly to the caster as it is to the target. When the time comes to free the sorceress and collect his pay, Taro is horrified to find that her freedom will lead to the deaths of his friends and thousands of others. However, Mathan makes it clear that not living up to their agreement is a death sentence for Taro’s family.

  • Author: C.M. Hayden
  • Published: 2016-06-30 11:07:07
  • Words: 79679
The Reach Between Worlds The Reach Between Worlds