Battle for Arcanum
The intensity of the buzzing hum inside his thick, horned skull nearly forced Verlis from the sky above Tora’nah. He faltered and began to drop, but quickly regained his senses, flapping his leathery wings all the harder, and soaring upward again. His heart hammered in his broad chest, and alarms of danger raced through him. The last time he had experienced this hum, he had been wearing a helmet forged of Malleum—the metal tied intrinsically to his kind, the descendants of dragons known as the Wurm.
But now it appeared that he didn’t need the helmet to feel this connection.
Verlis sped through the air toward the magical barrier between dimensions that separated Terra from Draconae, the world to which the Wurm had been banished many decades past. It was called Alhazred’s Divide. On the other
side was a Wurm civilization of savagery and tyranny, lorded over by a general called Raptus, who wanted nothing more than for his sorcerers to tear down the Veil so that he and his army could invade Terra and destroy the world of mages.
Filled with a terrible dread, Verlis spread his wings and hovered before the barrier. The light of Alhazred’s Divide shone from ground to sky, from horizon to horizon, as it had for centuries, but now its ethereal light had dimmed. The hum in Verlis’s skull increased and he hissed in pain, flinching away from the magical barrier.
As it winked out, all the magic in Tora’nah cut off for just a moment.
A moment was long enough. The barrier fell with a sound like breaking glass, the spell at last destroyed, and with a murderous roar of triumph, the barbaric Wurm that had been trying to break it down from the other side began to come through. The sky beyond—the sky of Draconae—was filled with dark, winged figures, the Wurm gathering like storm clouds as they realized what had happened.
The first wave emerged on foot, cautiously, from the large rip that had been torn in the fabric of reality. The edges of the dimensional tear hissed and sputtered. Verlis watched them come, for a moment unable to believe that the barrier had been broken, and then he remembered the mages at the mining operation nearby, digging for the precious metal Malleum, and realized their safety was now in jeopardy.
Spurred to action, Verlis swooped down out of the sky
toward the invaders. He opened his massive jaws and a stream of liquid fire erupted from his gullet, bathing them in flames as he flew past and away. They were his kinsmen, these Wurm, but not like him at all. They had waged a civil war upon his clan, who wanted only peace. To him they were the enemy.
Two of the Wurm soldiers roared in pain as Verlis’s fire engulfed them, and the others were distracted by his attack, some even hesitating on the threshold of this world. But Verlis knew that this was at best a temporary distraction. He only hoped that it would provide him enough time to warn the workers at the mining operation that what they had feared most had happened.
Wings pounding the air, Verlis soared over the ancient home of the Dragons of Old, desperate to reach his human comrades in time. He flew low above the mages’ encampment, finding it deserted as expected. Most of the workers would still be toiling at the mines, and he redoubled his speed, hurrying toward them. The mages were excavating dangerously close to the burial grounds of his ancestors, but he had kept them away from the actual graves of the ancient dragons.
The air was filled with the droning, grinding noise of the digging machine Timothy Cade had designed, and as Verlis swooped down toward the mining operation, he saw the metal thing burrowing into the hillside, boring a hole from which the mages would excavate tons of Malleum for weapons and armor to fight against the Wurm.
Or, at least, that had been the plan.
Time had suddenly run out.
Verlis caught sight of Walter Telford, the project coordinator, who stood talking animatedly with a pair of miners. They all wore troubled expressions, and Verlis understood. They wouldn’t know yet that an attack was under way, but they were suffused with magic—they would have felt the magical matrix flicker.
“Walter!” the Wurm roared, smoke furling from his nostrils, the wind whipping past him.
Telford glanced up and lifted a hand. “Greetings, Verlis,” he cried over the sounds of the digging machine. “I see you felt it as well. Do you have any idea—”
“The Divide has fallen!” the Wurm bellowed over the noise of the excavation, streams of fire leaking from his jaws.
Telford stepped back, the look upon his face showing that he wasn’t sure he had heard correctly. The coordinator’s eyes bulged as he turned to another worker, saying something into his ear. The worker ran to stand beneath the Burrower, waving his arms to shut the noisy machine down.
“Are you sure, Verlis?” Telford called. As the site fell silent, all mining operations ceasing, the men and women gathered around. “Absolutely certain?”
“I saw the barrier fall with my own eyes,” the Wurm growled. “Whatever interrupted the flow of magic gave Raptus and his sorcerers the opening they needed. Alhazred’s Divide has been torn down. The Wurm of Draconae are invading!”
The coordinator’s body seemed to diminish in size, his head slowly hanging low. “We’re not ready. There are no weapons, no armor, except what’s at the Forge right now.”
From the distance came a sound that could have been the rumbling of a distant storm, but Verlis knew otherwise.
Telford heard it as well, craning his head to listen. The others began to mutter worriedly, some already starting to move away from the machine and the mine, searching for some kind of cover. In the distance Verlis saw the workers from the Forge, wearing their heavy gloves and thick aprons, begin to emerge from the building where the Malleum was being processed.
“That’s not a storm, is it?” Telford asked, looking up and out of the valley at the slate gray sky.
“No, it is not,” Verlis replied, his inner fire roiling within his chest, causing steam to rise from the sides of his mouth. The sound was moving closer.
“Come on, all of you!” Telford shouted, and he started at a run toward the Forge.
Many of the miners followed, but others took that as their signal to flee in earnest. Instead of hurrying away, they were sprinting, perhaps thinking to take shelter in some cave or other. None of them ran toward the village. It would be in flames soon enough.
Verlis took flight, keeping pace with Telford and the miners courageous enough not to run for their lives. The Wurm glanced back repeatedly, and he saw dark figures against the sky, Raptus’s soldiers at last taking flight. Black
smoke rose on the horizon, the first of the huts now burning in the small village encampment the mages had built.
Telford led them to the Forge. The workers there were all moving outside, curiosity and fear etched in their faces. Verlis saw Charna Tayvis, the Forge supervisor, but her focus was on Telford.
“What’s going on, Walter?” Charna demanded. She was a large, powerful-looking woman, her face covered in the dirt and grime of her labors. The blacksmiths grumbled behind her, eager for an answer as well.
“We’re under attack. Raptus has broken through.”
The blacksmiths looked horrified, as well they should have. Raptus was a brutal savage and a cunning general, utterly without mercy. Verlis knew this from experience. But Telford did not allow fear to fester.
“Gather up whatever you’ve already forged, Malleum weapons, helmets, whatever there is,” he instructed the smiths. “Not a piece is to be wasted.”
Charna stepped forward, removing the heavy gloves from her hands. “A good many pieces were shipped out to Arcanum two days past,” she said. “Enough to fortify a battalion. All that’s left here is what we’ve worked on since then.”
One of the miners, the man who had been operating Timothy’s digging machine, came forward. Fear shone in his eyes, and Verlis could smell the stink of panic seeping from his pores.
“And what then?” he asked, gazing up toward the rim of
the small valley in which they toiled. The rumbling was louder now—closer. “Once we gather the weapons—what then?”
One of the blacksmiths had left the Forge carrying a weapon he had obviously been working on. It was a Malleum spear, its head tapering to a nasty point. Forged from this metal, it would pierce even the toughest of Wurm hides, and their armor as well.
Telford took the weapon from him and hefted it in his hands. “We use them for what they were intended,” he said in a forceful voice, eyes searching out every face in the crowd. “We use them to fight for our lives.”
Miners and smiths alike dispersed quickly, rushing into the Forge to arm themselves.
“How long before they are upon us?” Telford asked, coming to stand at Verlis’s side, spear still in hand.
“Not long,” Verlis growled, watching the sky begin to darken with black smoke as the entire village was set aflame. Ominous winged figures cruised amid the smoke, the flapping of hundreds of pairs of wings sounding like the roll of thunder. “Not long at all.”
* * *
Timothy knelt by the body of Leander Maddox, his friend and mentor, who had looked out for him since the death of his father. The mage had been a huge man both in stature and in heart, but he seemed so small now, there on the ground, no life left within him, no spirit, no magic. Cassandra had gone quickly back up to the room from which they had descended
into this secret chamber and brought back the lantern of hungry fire that Timothy used. This, to him, was pure fire. Not magical. Not ghostfire, made from the souls of dead mages. This world had always perceived it as the rechanneling of magical energy to useful purpose, but Timothy had discovered that the ghosts of mages were trapped in the fire, unable to go on to their final reward, and he thought it criminally tragic.
Now Cassandra knelt by his side, hungry fire lantern in her hand, and shared in his sorrow over the death of the man who had been their teacher and protector. Not far away stood Ivar, last surviving warrior of the Asura tribe. He had suffered injuries in the battle with Alhazred, but he stood with his hands together as though saying a prayer over Leander’s remains, and he muttered a kind of incantation under his breath, a chant to some higher power.
Cassandra placed the lantern on the floor beside him. “I’m so sorry,” she said, bowing her head. “I knew him only a short time, but long enough to know he was a great man. Arcanum has lost a treasure today.”
“He will be missed,” Ivar said, his voice raspy and weak. “More than ever, the Parliament of Mages needs leaders like Leander Maddox.”
Timothy heard their words of solace, but could not find his own voice. His mind was filled with memories of the man, of the kindness in his eyes, of the quiet strength that he had and that he inspired in others. Timothy recalled the first time he had seen Leander as he came through the magical doorway from Terra and into the world where the boy had
been hidden away at birth due to his affliction. Even then, at that first look, he had known that the burly, bearded mage with the wild mane of red hair was a friend. Leander had been manipulated by evil, but in his heart, he had always remained loyal to the memory of Timothy’s father, Argus Cade, who had been Leander’s own teacher.
With a long, mournful breath, Timothy finally summoned the words in his heart. He held Leander’s cold, stiff fingers in his own. “He always felt responsible, somehow, for the way the mages treated me. He blamed himself for their fear, their ignorance. I was born on Terra, but I think he wished that he had left me where he’d found me—to spare me from all that I’ve been exposed to since stepping through that doorway into this world.”
Timothy studied Leander’s pale face. If not for the spatters of blood that dappled the man’s cheek, it would have appeared that the great mage was merely sleeping.
Cassandra put a comforting hand on his shoulder.
“He couldn’t have been more wrong,” Timothy said. “Sure, there are times when I wish I could run back to Patience and hide, but then I think about all I’d be giving up. My island home seems so . . . insignificant after seeing what exists beyond it.”
He felt a wave of emotion threaten to reduce him to tears, but held it temporarily at bay. “You opened my eyes to wonders that existed beyond the doorway, Leander, and for that I will always love and miss you terribly.”
Leaning forward, he placed a kiss on the man’s brow and
climbed to his feet, still fighting to not be overpowered by grief. He felt Cassandra and Ivar’s concerned eyes on him, but only nodded to confirm that he would be all right.
Across the vast chamber, a tapestry adorned with the crest of the Order of Alhazred hung on the wall. Timothy went over and tore it down from the place where it had likely hung for centuries. As he crossed the room with the tapestry, he made a promise to himself that he would not suppress his grief forever, that he would give himself time to truly mourn the passing of his friend, but for the moment there were things to be dealt with that had to take priority over his anguish.
“Tim?” Cassandra asked. “Are you all right?”
“Not even close,” he said, draping the tapestry over Leander’s still form. “But now that the horror of Alhazred’s schemes is done with, I will be. Everything will be better now. It has to be. Leander died to make it so.”
He said a silent good-bye to Leander, then went to Ivar, whose face masked the pain he must have been in after the conflict with Alhazred. The dark wizard had drained some of Ivar’s spirit, and it would take time for him to recover. As a child on the Island of Patience, Ivar had been his friend, and as great a teacher to him then as Leander would later become. All his life his friends had looked out for him. Now it was time for Timothy to return the favor.
“Let’s get you to a healer,” Timothy said. “And then we need to let the others know what happened here today.”
Cassandra nodded in agreement, picking up the lantern
from the floor to light their way up the stairs that led to a storage room where the secret passage to Alhazred’s hidden lair was first discovered.
It seemed as though it took three times as long to climb the stairs as it had to descend them, and Timothy spent this time pondering the future of the Parliament of Mages and the world of Terra. Yes, Alhazred had been destroyed, but that did little to squelch the fear that he harbored over the potential threat of invasion from Draconae. Timothy shivered as he recalled his time in the Wurm world as Raptus’s prisoner.
“We’re almost there, Ivar,” Timothy said, helping support his friend as they made their ascent of the winding stone staircase.
As they rounded a corner, a large shape was silhouetted in the doorway above them, and a bird fluttered over it. In the midst of his pain, Timothy found a spark of comfort at the sight, for the silhouette was that of Sheridan, the mechanical man he had built, with Edgar, the black-feathered rook who had been his father’s familiar. Timothy was no mage, but Edgar was his familiar now.
“Caw! Caw!” Edgar cried. “It’s them! By the tail feathers of my ancestors, it’s them!”
“Timothy! You’re alive!” Sheridan said, extending his segmented metal arms down the staircase to assist them in their climb. He clanked as he moved, and steam hissed from the release valve on the side of his head.
Another day, Timothy might have made a joke of Sheridan’s
pointing out the obvious, but there was nothing amusing in the mechanical man’s concern for him. Not all those who had descended into the belly of SkyHaven to combat Alhazred were coming back alive.
Cassandra went first, with the lantern, and then Timothy helped Ivar through the door into the storage chamber, barraged by questions from their anxious friends. There were half a dozen mages in the room, acolytes of the Order of Alhazred, but though Cassandra was their grandmaster, as a sign of respect they would stay away from Timothy unless they were forced to confront him.
“Thank Zephyrus you’re safe,” said Caiaphas, the navigation mage who had served Leander long and well. Those who had studied that specialty all wore a distinctive veil that covered most of their faces, leaving only their eyes visible, but Timothy could see the relief in him. He could almost not bear to meet that gaze.
Caiaphas frowned and peered back down into the darkness of the stairwell. “But where is Master Leander?”
“Yeah,” Edgar croaked, tucking his wings back and tilting his head, looking down from his perch on Sheridan’s shoulder. “Where is he? Guarding Alhazred or—”
They all then saw the look on Timothy’s face, and their expressions tore at his heart. Just let me be strong now, he thought. Just let me be strong for my friends.
“Alhazred is truly dead now,” he said. “But Leander . . . if not for him arriving when he did, none of us would have made it out of there alive. But the cost . . . ,” Timothy said,
prying the terrible words from his mouth. “Leander was killed.”
They were all thunderstruck, each of them falling silent. Caiaphas closed his eyes and turned away, hanging his head. Edgar fluttered his wings, beak opening as though trying to find something to say. Sheridan’s glowing red eyes dimmed and his arms hung at his sides as though he had shut himself down. The other Alhazred mages muttered among themselves, some of them gazing at Timothy with open suspicion.
“What went on down there, kid?” Edgar asked at last, flapping his wings as he flew up to a new perch atop Sheridan’s head. “It must’ve been awful. The whole place started falling. We thought it was the end for all of us.”
“It was terrifying,” the mechanical man agreed. “How can such a thing happen, that spells so powerful and intricate could falter?”
The acolytes watched Timothy with fear in their eyes, as if they knew that he was somehow responsible. The un-magician was to blame.
And they were right.
“It was Alhazred,” Timothy began. “By absorbing the soul energies in the ghostfire, he managed to connect himself to the magical matrix. He was draining it, making himself stronger and stronger. He was going to try to take control of the whole thing, to command all the magic in the world. Leander tried to stop him, but Alhazred was too strong. If I hadn’t done what I did . . .”
“What did you do, Timothy?” the black bird asked in a troubled whisper.
“I . . . I touched the matrix,” he explained. “I touched the matrix and for a moment, I think I might have shut it down.”
The mages huddled together, whispering among themselves. The suspicion in them had turned to utter terror at the very thought of such a thing.
“Oh, dear,” Sheridan muttered.
“You sure did something, kid,” Edgar said. “For a minute there I thought the whole place was going into the drink.”
Timothy looked around at the shambles the room had become, shelves fallen over and debris scattered across the floor. “Is everybody all right?” he asked. “Is SkyHaven all right?”
“Other than the mess, everything appears to be fine now,” Caiaphas replied. “But, Timothy, it was not just SkyHaven that was affected. For a moment we all felt our magic leave us.”
His head swam with the enormity of what he had done. He had no idea that he could be capable of such a feat, and for a brief moment, he was actually afraid of himself.
“Timothy did what was necessary,” Cassandra said, her voice filled with authority and gravity. As it should have been, for with Leander’s demise, she was the one, true Grandmaster of the order now. “If not for him, Alhazred would have been unstoppable.” She looked about the chamber, making certain that all were listening. “Without Timothy, we would all be enslaved to Alhazred now, all of our magic in his control.”
Cassandra turned to one of the acolytes. “Take Ivar to the physician at once,” she ordered.
The mage bowed at the waist, then carefully approached the Asura warrior. Ivar hesitated, looking to Timothy.
“Don’t worry, old friend,” Timothy said. “I’ll be fine until you get back.”
Ivar nodded once, and allowed himself to be led from the chamber. No sooner had they departed than Carlyle, personal assistant to the Grandmaster, charged into the room, several more acolytes in tow.
“Thank the gods,” he said, placing a hand to his chest. Carlyle was normally fussy and derisive, but in the midst of this crisis he had proven himself a valuable ally . . . and revealed himself to have once been a combat mage. “When SkyHaven began to fall, I thought the worst.”
He paused for a moment, carefully studying their number, and frowned. “What of Grandmaster Maddox?”
Timothy couldn’t bear to explain it all again, and was grateful when Caiaphas took charge.
“My master fell during the battle with Alhazred,” he explained. “I go now to recover his body.” The navigation mage turned, moving toward the stairs.
Carlyle’s face tightened with pain. He gritted his teeth and seemed to deflate. “Caiaphas,” he said, following after the navigation mage, “please allow the order to assist you.” He gestured toward the acolytes, and several quickly followed Caiaphas into the secret passage.
“What a dark day,” Carlyle added, almost as though he were speaking to himself.
Timothy had always found Carlyle annoying, but during
the crisis of the past few days, he had begun to see a different side to the man. There was much more to the Grandmaster’s assistant than he had originally believed.
Now Carlyle composed himself, pushing aside his sorrow the way one would remove a cloak, and proceeded to report to Cassandra. He told her of the shipment of Malleum weapons the parliamentary headquarters had received earlier that morning from Tora’nah, and explained that SkyHaven’s sudden lurch in the sky had made a mess, but not caused any serious structural damage. At least none that the inspectors could find.
Only half listening to Carlyle’s report, Timothy took notice of a spider as it crawled across the chamber floor, and he was immediately reminded of an evil among them.
“What about Grimshaw?”
“Don’t worry about that lunatic,” Edgar croaked. “Security made sure he stayed put when the magic blinked out, and last I checked, he was still locked away tight.”
“Where, I might add, he belongs,” Sheridan said, punctuating his words with a toot of steam.
But Timothy kept his focus on Carlyle, wanting official word.
The serious little man nodded toward Edgar. “Indeed, former constable Grimshaw remains confined to a holding cell, awaiting prosecution for his crimes.”
Timothy breathed a sigh of relief, hoping now for a moment of respite to collect his thoughts and mourn the loss of his friend. All too soon he would discover that it was simply the calm before a storm.
* * *
Carlyle stopped to compose himself before entering the chamber where Lord Romulus of the Legion Nocturne awaited a word with him.
Conjuring a looking glass, he studied his reflection, dismayed at the circles beneath his eyes and the lack of color on his lips. There could be no rest for the personal assistant to the Grandmaster of the Order of Alhazred. It was his duty to be sure that everything ran smoothly, and to do that meant a certain amount of sacrifice. Sacrifice and discipline, both things he had learned a great deal about as a combat mage, many years ago.
His mind raced with thoughts of all that had happened these past months—since the arrival of the Cade boy. It was both amazing and terrifying so much could change upon the appearance of one individual. If someone had told him that all of Arcanum—no, all the world—would be thrown into turmoil with the introduction of a single child, he would have laughed out loud and called them mad.
But it has happened, he mused, staring at his reflection in the shimmering surface. Timothy’s return to Terra seemed to have been the catalyst for change, forcing the world around them down a frightening new path to the unknown.
Carlyle had yet to decide if this was a good thing.
He waved his hand in the air, dispersing the magical mirror as if it were made of smoke. Now was not the time for such rumination. Now was the time to do his appointed job—to make certain everything functioned as it was supposed to at
SkyHaven, or at least to create the appearance of such.
“Lord Romulus,” Carlyle said with a bow as the double doors opened into the chamber. “So sorry to keep you waiting, things today have been a tad . . . chaotic.”
The Grandmaster of the Legion Nocturne had been standing out on the balcony, and now turned at the sound of Carlyle’s voice. The armored giant was a fearsome sight.
“What is going on here, sir?” Romulus bellowed, clenching and unclenching his large hands, covered in studded gloves of dark leather. “Who’s in charge here? What’s become of the boy, and of Maddox? And what of the . . . flickering . . . of the matrix?”
The leader of the Legion Nocturne looked down on him, and Carlyle gazed up into the eyes that glowered from inside the darkness of the great horned helmet Romulus wore.
“I felt it, as I am certain we all did,” Romulus continued. “My sky carriage began to fall toward the sea, and as it did, I saw SkyHaven dropping. . . .”
Romulus moved even closer and Carlyle could smell the almost animal aroma that exuded from the body of the fearsome man.
“I have felt this . . . loss . . . before, Carlyle. When Timothy Cade touched me. I demand an explanation.”
Carlyle felt a claw of dread grip his heart. I touched the magical matrix, the boy had said. Timothy’s . . . affliction had always made Carlyle apprehensive, but this was something altogether different—and profoundly disturbing.
“Ah yes, that,” he said, struggling to keep his voice calm. “I believe the Cade boy was responsible, extending his unique talents to prevent Alhazred from enslaving us all.”
Romulus reared back as if Carlyle had tried to strike him. “Extended his talents?” he snarled, his voice echoing from within the helmet. “Do you understand what you’re saying?”
Carlyle wasn’t positive, but he could have sworn he heard a trace of fear in the Nocturne Grandmaster’s question.
“Quite,” he replied, carefully. “But Cassandra—that is, Grandmaster Nicodemus, has said that if the boy hadn’t done so, Alhazred would have—”
“He touched the matrix,” Romulus interrupted, grabbing hold of Carlyle’s robes and drawing him closer. “The Cade boy’s insidious powers traveled beyond the walls of SkyHaven—who knows how far?”
Carlyle caused a charge of magical energy to course through his body and Romulus grunted as a blue spark of energy forced him to remove his hands from the assistant’s clothing.
“I understand your concern, Grandmaster Romulus,” Carlyle stated, brushing the wrinkles from his front. “But Timothy Cade acted in defense of us all, and so far there have been no reports of any serious repercussions.”
As if to make a liar of him, the air began to shimmer between them, and the face of Alethea Borgia, the Voice of Parliament, appeared in their midst. Her expression in that magical communiqué was severe.
“Lord Romulus!” the Voice snapped.
The gigantic Legion Grandmaster inclined his head respectfully. “At your service.”
“Alhazred’s Divide has fallen,” the Voice stated, stumbling over the last word as though she could hardly believe what she was reporting. “The Wurm have come through and are now attacking our operations at Tora’nah.”
Romulus glared at Carlyle. “You were saying?”