Runic Revolt Preview
The streets of Osa were packed with carriages leaving the city, commuters returning to the surrounding towns after a long day’s work. Children walked in long lines down the sun-baked white stone sidewalks, dressed in colorful shirts and shorts, most of them wearing sandals or no shoes at all. Tessa walked among them, glancing behind herself on occasion, peering through the crowd.
Where is he?
Darren must’ve gotten out of school a little later than her, she supposed. Probably talking to his friends, or maybe that dumb girl he was obsessed with. Ever since he’d turned twelve, her brother had become preoccupied with girls. Overly-preoccupied, if you asked Tessa. It was weird; he’d never even noticed them before. She wished that he was more interested in spending time with her, like he used to be. Dad had warned her this would happen at some point, but she hadn’t believed him.
Of course Dad had been right, as usual.
She sighed, turning to face forward again, her arms aching a bit from carrying all her books. While most of her friends hated books, she loved them. She read all the time, especially since her brother had started ignoring her. Either that, or she played at her friends’ houses. It wasn’t like she could play with her friends at her house, after all.
She stared at her feet as she walked, wishing her brother were by her side. He knew she didn’t like to go home by herself.
She glanced up, spotting her house ahead. Someone bumped her from behind, and she startled, realizing she’d slowed down. Tessa moved to the side, onto the short grass of her neighbor’s lawn, which prickled her bare feet. She stared at her house; it was the biggest one on Zucker street, which had the biggest houses in Osa. Dad was an important person, and as far as Tessa could tell, important people had bigger houses. Which meant that Dad was the most important person in Osa, besides the governor of course.
The other children walked past her as she stood on the lawn, and she watched them go, hoping to spot her brother among them. But he wasn’t there. She glanced at her house again, picking at her lower lip.
Come on, Darren!
She waited until all of the other kids had passed, the sidewalks now deserted. A few carriages still came down the road, pulled by big, burly horses, their hooves clopping on the cobblestones. She watched them pass, her guts squirming. She glanced at her house again, knowing full well that she couldn’t wait much longer. She didn’t have a choice; she’d have to go in alone.
She took a deep breath in, then stepped back onto the sidewalk, trudging toward her house. Up the front steps to the porch she went, opening the front door.
A large foyer greeted her, high ceilings painted white, and a grand staircase leading up to the second floor. Walls with colorful murals painted on them, and a beautiful, dark wooden floor polished to a mirror-shine.
Tessa stepped into the foyer, then felt a sharp pain in her heel. She jerked it back, seeing blood welling up there, a small piece of glass sticking out of her heel. There was broken glass all over the floor, she realized, along with the unmistakable – and familiar – smell of alcohol.
Her books fell to the floor with a thud.
“Tessa?” she heard a voice call out. A woman stumbled into view, staring at Tessa. A woman with light brown skin, her eyes red and bleary, her wavy hair a mess atop her head. She glared at Tessa. “What’re you standing there for?” she slurred. “Close the damn door!”
Tessa obeyed instantly, shutting the door behind her, then pressing her back against it. She stood there, a small puddle of blood forming around her right heel, glass still embedded in it.
“What’s this?” her mother demanded, gesturing at the broken glass. “What did you do?”
“I didn’t…” Tessa began, but her mother held up one hand, standing before the mess, swaying slightly.
“Don’t even,” she warned. “Wait until your father…”
The door opened suddenly, shoving Tessa forward. She stumbled, stepping onto another piece of glass. She cried out, hopping to the side on one foot, then falling onto her butt on the floor. Blood poured from her feet, and she stared at them in horror.
She burst into tears.
“Mom?” she heard a voice say. She jerked her gaze up, seeing Darren standing there. He was nearly as tall as Mom was, with short black hair and deep brown eyes. He stared at the bloodied glass on the floor, then at Mom.
“Close the damn door!” Mom shouted.
Darren ignored her, turning and spotting Tessa sitting there. She stared back at him mutely, her vision blurry with tears.
“Look at what your sister did!” Mom exclaimed, gesturing at the floor. Darren turned on Mom, his expression furious.
“You mean look at what you did,” he shot back.
“Don’t you talk to me like…”
“Shut up, Mom,” Darren retorted. He stepped carefully between pieces of glass, reaching for Tessa. Tessa grabbed his hand, but shook her head when he tried to pull her onto her feet.
“My feet,” she whimpered. Darren looked down, seeing the blood all over the floor. All over her feet. He turned to Mom, balling his hands into fists.
“Look at what you did!” he shouted, pointing at Tessa’s feet.
“What I did?” Mom retorted, her voice rising. “You dare…”
“Go to hell, Mom,” Darren interrupted. He turned to Tessa, reaching down and sliding one hand under her knees, the other under her back. He lifted her off the floor, using one hand to open the door.
“Don’t you walk out on me!” Mom shouted.
Darren ignored her, stepping out onto the porch, then down the stairs. He walked across the short path to the sidewalk, carrying Tessa in his arms. She looked up at him, wiping her tears away with one hand.
“Sorry sis,” he mumbled.
Tessa nodded mutely, glancing over his shoulder. The front door was still open, and she could hear her mother screaming through it. A bottle hurtled through one of the windows, shattering it, then landing on the grass beyond, rolling a few yards before coming to a stop.
“It’s okay,” Darren murmured, smiling down at her. It was forced, she knew, but she appreciated him trying. “Dad’ll be home soon.”
He took her rightward down the sidewalk, then turned right again, down a narrow path. It led to the backyard…to the white sand beach. And the ocean. She smelled the tang of saltwater in the air as they approached it, a slight breeze cooling her sun-baked skin. She gazed across the sand, blindingly bright with reflected sunlight, watching as wave after wave crashed upon the shore.
Darren walked all the way to the shore, then stepped into the water, waves lapping at his sandals. He lowered her gently, so that she sat on the dry sand, her feet dipping into the water. A wave rushed toward her, bathing her feet, then taking her blood back with it into the endless blue.
“Let’s take a look,” her brother said, crouching down and peering at her feet. There was a piece of glass stuck in the bottom of each foot. He glanced up at her. “I’m gonna pull them out, okay?”
She nodded, taking a breath in, then holding it.
Darren grabbed one of the pieces of glass, then pulled, and she bit back a yell, watching as blood gushed from her foot into the water.
“That’s one,” he said. “One more, okay?”
He pulled out the piece of glass from her other foot, and this time it hurt…a lot. She cried out, yanking her foot back. But the deed was done, and Darren tossed the piece of glass into the ocean before she could get a look at it. He rinsed the blood from his fingers, then smiled at her.
“Thanks,” she mumbled.
He crouched there, looking at her, his smile fading.
“I’m really sorry.”
“It’s okay,” Tessa insisted, forcing herself to smile. “Really.”
“No it’s not,” he retorted. “I shouldn’t’ve been late.”
“I could’ve waited for you,” she countered.
She heard shouting in the distance, and looked over her shoulder to their house in the distance. The shouting grew louder, followed by a scream.
“Dad’s home,” Darren guessed.
Tessa said nothing, turning back to gaze at the ocean. The waves lapped at her feet gently, the water warm and gentle. Her feet stung where it touched her wounds, but she didn’t mind. The water was cleansing. She closed her eyes, feeling the breeze on her skin, hearing the endless crashing of the waves and the hiss of foam on the sand.
“Do you really think he’ll leave her?” she asked, keeping her eyes closed. Even asking the question made her guts squirm.
“After this?” Darren asked. There was a long pause. “Maybe.”
Tessa opened her eyes, staring at him.
“What’s going to happen to us?”
Darren smiled, sitting beside her. He wrapped an arm around her, pulling her to lean her head against his shoulder.
“Dad’ll get us,” he answered. “Everyone knows about Mom now.”
“What if he doesn’t?” Tessa pressed, picking at her lip.
“He will,” Darren promised, giving her a squeeze. “I promise.”
“Yeah, but what if he doesn’t?” she insisted. “What if they split us up?”
“No way,” he replied. “Not gonna happen.”
“Look at me,” Darren interjected. She lifted her head from his shoulder, staring at him.
“I won’t let it happen,” Darren interjected firmly, his expression dead serious. “Dad won’t let it happen.”
Tessa lowered her gaze, tears welling up in her eyes.
“You don’t know that,” she mumbled.
“Tessa,” Darren insisted, grabbing the sides of her head gently, lifting her gaze to his. He leaned in, kissing her forehead, then pulling away. “I promise you, I will never let them separate us.”
“I promise,” he repeated. “I’ll always be here for you, sis. Always.”
She dared to smile, ignoring the shouting in the distance. The waves drowned out the sound anyway, cleansing the air as they’d cleansed her foot. The ocean always made things better.
They sat there for a long while, neither of them speaking. Tessa watched wave after wave advance, kissing her toes before retreating back into the sea. The sun felt marvelous on her bronze skin, her long wavy hair blowing in the ocean breeze.
“Love you Darren,” she murmured. She felt him stir, then give her a squeeze.
“Love you too sis.”
Tessa heard someone calling her name, and fear gripped her. She twisted around, spotting a man trudging through the sand toward them. She immediately relaxed, standing up and limping toward him.
“Daddy!” she cried. She limped up to him, leaving bloody footprints on the white sand.
“Tessa!” Dad exclaimed, rushing up to her and bending over to look at her. He was a big man, tall and broad-shouldered, and impressively muscular. “What happened?” he asked. “Are you okay?”
“I cut my feet,” she answered. He took one foot at a time, peering at her wounds. His expression darkened.
“On the glass,” he stated. It wasn’t a question, but she nodded. His jawline rippled, and he scooped her up in his arms, bringing her back to the waves lapping at the sandy beach. He lowered her gently into the water, rinsing the sand from her wounds, then turned back toward the house. “Come on,” he urged Darren.
“No,” Tessa blurted out, clutching him tightly. “I don’t wanna go back inside.”
Dad hesitated, then turned toward the street instead of the house. He walked back to the sidewalk, stopping there. To Tessa’s surprise, the streets were packed with people – kids and adults – all of them looking upward.
Tessa followed their gaze, and saw a dozen large black objects floating high in the sky, just below the clouds. They descended slowly, spreading over the city.
“Dad, look!” Darren cried.
“I see them,” Dad replied tersely. He grimaced, glancing down at Darren. “Come on,” he added.
“But I don’t want to.”
“You don’t have a choice,” Dad retorted. “You have to come.”
“Don’t argue with me,” Dad interjected. Darren stared up at his father, his face paling. But he stood his ground.
“We could go back inside,” he insisted. “We can hide from…”
“No one can hide from them,” Dad snapped. Darren’s mouth snapped shut, his eyes turning moist. Dad’s expression softened. “It’ll be fine,” he added. “Nothing bad is going to happen.”
“But last year…” Darren protested.
“I know what happened to Elan,” Dad interjected. “But it’s not going to happen to us.”
Darren hesitated, then nodded, and they joined the others on the street, watching as the black objects continued to descend toward the city. One of them, Tessa realized, was falling toward them. As it got closer, it was clear that it was a black, oval-shaped ship. Four men in black robes levitated around it, holding long staves with white crystals on top.
The crowd parted as the ship lowered itself toward the street a few dozen yards ahead. The ship slowed its descent as it reached street-level, stopping to levitate a few feet above it. The black-robed men surrounding it eyed the crowd, their expressions flat.
“Come on,” Dad urged, walking forward through the crowd, squeezing past the people ahead of them. Tessa saw other parents doing the same, squeezing past the adults with their children, making their way closer to the ships and the robed men. A ring of parents and their children began to form a few yards away from the ship. More than a few of the children were crying…and some of the adults, too. Tessa pulled on her father’s shirt.
“Daddy?” she asked. He looked down, smiling at her. But only with his lips.
“It’ll be okay,” he tried to reassure her. But she knew he was telling himself that as much as he was telling her.
The black-robed men formed a line in front of the big black ship. One of them came forward; he did not walk, however. His black boots hovered over the ground as he levitated forward a few feet ahead of the others, then stopped. He stared at the crowd for a moment longer, then slammed the butt of his staff onto the street.
A gust of air shot out from him, striking the crowd, whipping through Tessa’s hair and clothes. She clung to her father tightly, her guts squirming.
“I am Finder Warren,” the black-robed man declared. He had a book in his other hand, and held this out before him, letting go of it. The book levitated in mid-air, the pages turning of their own accord, then stopping suddenly.
“As your name is called,” Warren declared, “…come forward. If I call a name and no one comes forward,” he added, “…we will find you, and the punishment will be severe. If you come forward for someone else, we will know, and the punishment will be severe.”
Tessa glanced at Darren, then at Dad. They were both staring at Finder Warren. Tessa clung to Dad, wondering what was going to happen next. She’d never been to one of these before, although all the kids talked about it. Dad had always insisted that she and Darren stay in the house every year it happened.
But this year was different, of course.
“Balister of forty-six Abaxter Street,” Finder Warren called out, his voice booming over the crowd. Moments later, a boy came forward, and Warren gestured at the robed man to his right. Balister walked up to this man, staring up at him silently. Balister’s eyes were as wide as saucers, his face pale. The robed man pulled a clear crystal orb from his robes, holding it before the boy.
“Touch the orb,” the man commanded.
Balister hesitated, then placed his hand on top of the orb.
The black-robed man paused, then inclined his head.
“You may go,” he stated. Balister practically ran back to his family, vanishing into the crowd.
“Valerie of forty-nine Abaxter street, Grennan of fifty-four Abaxter street,” Finder Warren called out. An older girl and boy walked up, and Warren gestured for each to stop before one of the other robed men. They touched the orbs hovering before the men; a moments later, the robed men gestured for them to go back into the crowd.
Finder Warren called out more names, and each time two children would come up, touch the orbs, and be asked to leave. Most stayed in the crowd however, watching each pair of children as they were called, all eyes on the two black-robed men…and their orbs. Tessa realized that Finder Warren was calling them by street, from A to Z. Which meant that their street was going to go last. That meant they’d have to be out here for a good while longer. She didn’t mind, of course…not with Mom still home.
As the minutes passed, the crowd began to dwindle, people gradually losing interest in the endless parade of children being sent away by the cloaked men. Tessa’s mind wandered, already planning what she’d be doing after this. Mom was probably already asleep, so she could get a snack, and spend the rest of the day…
“Darren of 34 Zucker Street.”
Tessa snapped out of her daydream, glancing down at Darren, who’d stiffened. He turned to look up at Dad questioningly, and Tessa did as well. Dad nodded at Darren, smiling reassuringly.
“Go on,” he prompted. “We’ll have ice cream when we get home.”
Darren smiled back, then glanced at Tessa, who was suddenly nervous.
“Don’t go,” she urged.
“Don’t worry sis,” he reassured her. “This’ll only take a sec.”
He walked up to Finder Warren then, who gestured for him to go to the cloaked man on his left. He obeyed, stopping in front of the man. The clear orb levitated between them, and Darren hesitated, glancing back at Tessa and Dad. Then he put his hand on top of the orb, holding it there.
Darren gave a relieved smile, and was about to take his hand off when the orb changed, turning a slight yellow. He stared at it, then looked up at the cloaked man, the blood draining from his face.
Finder Warren grabbed the book floating before him, shutting it was a loud snap. Darren flinched, taking a step backward. His hand slipped off the orb, and it shifted back to clear once again.
“Come,” Finder Warren ordered, putting the book back into the recesses of his cloak, then gesturing at the ship. A door swung down from it, forming a ramp that led inside.
Darren shook his head mutely, taking another step back. Finder Warren gestured at the ship again.
“I won’t ask you again,” he warned.
“Darren!” Tessa cried, watching as her brother sprinted toward her. She felt her Dad’s arms tighten around her, and he burst forward, pushing through the crowd toward Darren. He ran up to him, then stopped suddenly, as if hitting a wall. Darren did as well, ricocheting off an invisible barrier between them. Darren recovered, leaping at Dad. But the invisible wall stopped him.
“Dad!” he shouted, his eyes wide with fear. “Daddy!”
Finder Warren lifted a hand, and Darren lurched upward suddenly, levitating a foot off the ground. He began floating backward toward the ship.
“No!” Dad yelled. “Don’t take him!”
Finder Warren stared at Dad for a moment, then turned his back to him, levitating back toward the ship. The other two cloaked men placed their orbs back within their cloaks. Darren continued to be pulled toward the open door of the ship. The air rippled slightly around him, under the strange power of the cloaked men.
“Dad!” Darren pleaded. “Make them stop! I don’t wanna go!”
“Darren!” Dad cried. “You can’t take my son. You can’t take my son!”
But Finder Warren ignored them, and Darren disappeared within the ship, the ramp swinging shut. The cloaked men resumed their positions around it, and the ship began to rise into the air.
“Darren!” Tessa screamed, struggling out of her Dad’s grip and jumping to the ground. She ignored the pain in her feet, bursting forward. The invisible wall was gone, and she ran toward the rising ship, her soles leaving bloody footprints on the street. “Darren!”
The black ship flew upward, rising faster and faster, higher than the tallest building in Osa now. Tessa stopped, watching as it shrank against the pure blue sky. Watching until it was so small she couldn’t see it anymore.
And then her legs wobbled, and she fell to her hands and knees. She lowered her forehead to the sun-baked street, and wept.
“Try again," Ariana urged.
Kyle sighed, pushing himself up from the ground, then standing up. He brushed dirt and grass from the front of his white shirt and pants, grimacing at the stains they’d just acquired. There was a reason Runic students wore white; it was because they stayed indoors, doing research and inventing things like civilized people, instead of going outside trying to blast each other to pieces.
"All right, all right," Kyle muttered. He faced Ariana, taking a few steps back, then nodding. Ariana smiled at him, running a hand through her long black hair. Her skin was terribly pale in the light of the noon sun, but that was hardly surprising. She wasn't technically alive, after all...she was undead, kept animated only by the strange power of the hidden magical green crystal buried in her brain. Only a handful of people knew Ariana's true nature; everyone else assumed she was just a normal young woman. Which she was, mostly. Sure, her skin was as pale and cold as a corpse's. And she was immortal, and possessed of enormous strength and incredibly keen senses, and never ate or slept. But other than that, she was perfectly normal...and the best, most loyal girlfriend he could ask for.
"Remember your shield," Ariana reminded him. Kyle nodded, focusing inward. He felt power there, vibrating in the bones of his skull, and pulled it inward to the center of his mind's eye. It formed a thin thread of magic, and he wove it into a tight knot, then sent it outward. A faint blue sphere appeared around him. It was a gravity shield, capable of repelling just about anything that was thrown at it.
“Ready,” Kyle called out.
"Neutralize my shield first," Ariana instructed. A single gravity shield appeared around her, its outline a faint blue to Kyle's eyes. To anyone else the shield would be nearly invisible, marked only by a faint distortion of light, but Kyle was capable of seeing magic...a trait he'd inherited from his god-like grandfather.
"Okay," Kyle replied. He studied Ariana's shield; it was actually two gravity spheres, the outer one shoving outward, the inner one pushing inward. In order to neutralize her shields, he had to create a shield of exactly the same strength around her, but in opposite directions. So the outer layer had to suck inward, the inner layer push outward. That would completely nullify the shield, making her vulnerable to his attack.
Kyle wove the appropriate patterns in his mind, pulling the magic from the edges of his mind's eye and shaping them. Then he sent them out at Ariana's shields, streaming magic to the pattern. He saw the blue sphere around her darken slightly.
"I think I got it," Kyle stated, not at all sure that he had.
"Now let's spar," Ariana replied.
"Are you sure this is safe?" he asked nervously. The green crystal in Ariana's skull – shoved through her forehead, hidden beneath her flawless skin – had magical defenses automatically programmed into it. Her Weaving teacher, Master Owens, had nearly died trying to spar her.
"I can suppress my shard's reactions now," Ariana answered. "I've been practicing it for the last week." Which meant, of course, that she'd been practicing every night, while everyone else slept. Not being able to sleep had its perks.
"All right," Kyle decided. He nodded at her, creating a gravity shield around himself. "Ready?" Ariana smirked.
"You're about to find out."
Kyle smiled despite himself, then took a deep breath in, letting it out slowly, and nodded at her. He felt his heart start to pound in his chest, butterflies flitting about in his stomach.
A fireball shot out from Ariana, flying through the air right at him!
Kyle dodged left, magic automatically weaving in his mind's eye, creating a gravity sphere to the left of the fireball. The fireball clipped the gravity sphere, sucking leftward...and directing it right into his shields. The fireball bounced off, landing on the grass below.
"Oops," Kyle blurted out.
"Silly," Ariana teased, grinning widely. A stream of water appeared over the burning grass, extinguishing the flames. "Try again."
"Okay," Kyle replied. He sighed, then nodded. Another fireball shot out toward him with unnerving speed, and this time he dodged left, creating a gravity sphere to the right of the projectile. The fireball swerved rightward toward the sphere...and away from him.
"Ha!" Kyle exclaimed triumphantly.
Then he saw his shields vanish, and a force sucked him rightward, pulling him right into the path of the fireball. The projectile stopped in mid-flight right before hitting him, and he stumbled to the ground.
"Damn," Kyle muttered. He picked himself up off of the ground, shaking his head at Ariana. She laughed, walking up to him and giving him a quick peck on the cheek. He tried to glare at her, but found it impossible to do so. Just looking at her made him melt.
"Don't rely too much on your shields," she counseled. "Remember that they can be taken away from you."
"Yeah yeah," Kyle mumbled. While he knew how she'd nullified his shields – by creating gravity fields of equal strength but opposite polarity to his own – he hadn't even come close to perfecting the technique.
"Don't worry," Ariana soothed. "Practice enough and it'll become second nature."
Easy for you to say, Kyle thought, wisely keeping it to himself. After all, Ariana had an extra eight hours a day while everyone else slept. Not to mention the time saved by not having to eat or drink, or rest. Ariana never got tired...unless she ran out of magic.
"Had enough?" Ariana asked.
"Yeah," Kyle admitted. "It's been a long day." And that it had; he'd been up since sunrise receiving lessons from Master Lee, his Runic instructor. He'd only finished later this afternoon...and then met up with Ariana to learn Weaving. As a Runic, Kyle was destined to learn how to create magical items called runics, while Weavers learned how to use magic to fly, throw fireballs, and do other flashy, heroic things. Kyle had accepted his role as a Runic, for the most part. He still felt jealous of Ariana's abilities from time to time. That's why she'd agreed to teach him Weaving, in secret.
"What did you learn from Master Lee today?" Ariana inquired.
"A lot," Kyle admitted. "Nothing exciting," he added ruefully. "Mostly just about different minerals and stuff."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, different minerals interact with magic in different ways," Kyle answered. "I'm supposed to memorize a whole bunch of them by tomorrow." He walked toward a small book he'd set on the grass, picking it up. It was, he knew, a book for young children, with more pictures than words. He was still practically illiterate here on Doma, the language being completely different than English back home. If it weren't for the magical earring in his right ear, he wouldn't be able to understand a word of what Ariana was telling him.
"Good luck," Ariana offered.
"Thanks," Kyle muttered. He glanced up at the sky then. "It's getting dark," he noted. The sun had already kissed the horizon, the few clouds above cast in a deep purple hue.
"Oh, right," Ariana replied, her face lighting up. "We're having dinner with Kalibar tonight!" She grabbed Kyle's hand, steering him back toward the Great Tower in the distance. Forty-two stories tall, with a huge crystalline pyramid at its peak, the Great Tower was the tallest building in the city of Stridon – and the home of the highest government officials in the land. That included Grand Weaver Kalibar, the co-emperor of the Empire...and Kyle and Ariana's adoptive father. Even though Kyle's real father and stepfather were back on Earth, Kalibar was Kyle's father in this world.
"I'm glad he's back," Kyle stated, smiling back at Ariana. Kalibar had taken a much-needed vacation after Sabin's defeat, bringing Petra to his mansion in Bellingham and showing her around. They'd returned yesterday for the celebratory parade, but Kalibar had been so busy with that, he hadn't been able to spend any time with Kyle and Ariana. Tonight was the first time they'd get to spend time together in nearly a week.
"Me too," Ariana agreed. She went faster, nearly sprinting from the grass onto the cobblestone path that led back to the Tower. Kyle struggled to keep up; not only did Ariana never get sleepy, her muscles never tired either. She could walk – or run – at a brisk pace indefinitely. A feat that she sometimes forgot others couldn’t replicate.
"Hey, slow down," Kyle protested. Ariana did so, and they walked hand-in-hand, the Tower growing nearer with every step. Kyle glanced at Ariana, remarking on how happy she seemed. Seeing her smile had been rare before Ampir had killed Sabin; now she smiled all the time. It made her all the more lovely when she did so.
They walked the rest of the way in silence, reaching the huge open double-doors of the Tower and stepping inside the lobby beyond. Three stories tall, the lobby was magnificent beyond description, with polished granite floors and stone columns that rose to the ceiling far above. Powerful gravity fields allowed people to walk upside-down on the ceiling – as they could on almost every floor of the Tower. In the center of the lobby was a tall statue of a Battle-Weaver, standing atop a solid gold pedestal. They walked past this, continuing on to the long hallway beyond, their gravity boots clopping on the granite floor. Eventually, they reached the riser at the end, and stepped onto it. A magical elevator of sorts, the riser brought them upward with remarkable speed, coming to a stop rather abruptly at the 41st floor. They stepped off, continuing down another hallway until they reached the door of Kalibar's retirement suite. Ariana knocked on the door, and within moments the door became translucent. Kyle saw a stern man clad in black plate armor staring down at him from the other side. The man was an elite guard, one of Kalibar's personal bodyguards. Only the most skilled of the Battle-Weavers earned the right to wear that black armor. The guard's expression softened as soon as he recognized Kyle and Ariana.
The door became opaque again, and then it swung inward. The guard ushered Kyle and Ariana through into the massive suite beyond. There, sitting around a long table, were Kalibar, Erasmus, and Petra. Kyle broke into a huge grin.
“Kalibar!” he exclaimed, rushing up to the table. Kalibar turned to Kyle, then smiled broadly, rising from his chair and walking forward to embrace Kyle, then Ariana.
“Kyle, Ariana!” Kalibar greeted. He stood back from his adopted children then, his brown eyes twinkling. Despite his sixty-odd years, Kalibar appeared much younger, his tall frame toned and muscular. His white hair – completely shaved off a week ago – was starting to grow back in, as was his white goatee. He was quite handsome, the very picture of a regal emperor.
“How was your vacation?” Ariana asked. Kalibar gestured for the two to sit opposite himself and Petra, and they did so.
“Very relaxing,” Kalibar answered. “I spent a day in Bellingham, and then took Petra on a flying tour of the Empire.”
Kyle glanced at Petra, feeling his cheeks flush as he did so. A member of the Barren tribes, she was somewhat shorter than Kalibar, but equally toned, her skin nearly black. Tattoos covered almost every inch of her body, coming up the sides of her neck and ending at her temples. Thin, raised scars extended from the sides of her neck to her temples like the bones in a bat's wing. Her hair was black, and as usual was tied back into a ponytail. She wore a white shirt that would have been loose on just about anyone else, but given her impressively feminine proportions, found itself barely adequate to its task. Kyle found himself staring, and jerked his gaze away, feeling his cheeks grow even hotter.
"What did you think of it?" Ariana asked Petra, rather pointedly ignoring Kyle's consternation.
"It was...big," Petra replied.
"I assume you're referring to the mansion and the Empire," Erasmus said with a grin, nudging Kalibar with his elbow.
"You didn't invite your wife to dinner," Petra observed, ignoring Erasmus's comment. Erasmus cleared his throat.
"Yes, well," he replied. "She doesn't like to come when I'm with Kalibar, on account of how much I drink."
"You could drink less," Petra quipped.
"You haven't met my wife," Erasmus shot back.
Just then, the door opened, and a tall man clad neck to toe in shimmering golden armor strode into the room, stopping before the table.
"Darius," Kalibar greeted. "Come, join us for dinner."
Darius nodded, glancing at Kyle as he sat down next to Erasmus. The portly Grand Runic shot the bodyguard a sour look. He'd never taken a liking to Darius, almost certainly because the bodyguard was a bit of a jerk. Erasmus took great pleasure in trying to insult the man, although that pleasure was always short-lived. Darius never lost their battle of words...or any other battle, for that matter.
"Ah, damn," Erasmus muttered. "I just lost my appetite."
"Probably for the best," Darius retorted, eyeing Erasmus's protuberant belly.
"I'll fetch Jenkins," Kalibar stated, ignoring the exchange. He put a hand on a crystal sphere sitting on an end-table next to where he sat, and within moments, a man wearing a blue shirt and black pants entered the room. It was Jenkins, Kalibar's loyal butler. Jenkins took everyone's orders with his customary quiet efficiency, then left the suite as quickly as he'd come.
"So," Erasmus stated, leaning forward and rubbing his hands together eagerly, his eyes on Kalibar. "Now that you're back, what's next?"
"I've been thinking about that all week," Kalibar admitted. "With Sabin gone, the Empire is relatively safe...but we still have all of the Death Weaver camps to deal with." Kyle nodded; even though Ampir had killed every last one of Sabin's Chosen, there were still countless underground lairs filled with thousands upon thousands of Death Weavers to consider.
"I'm not too worried about them threatening the Empire," Erasmus replied. "But they might stir up trouble in the surrounding towns."
"We also have to finish rebuilding Stridon," Kalibar reminded them. Nearly a quarter of the city had been destroyed by the Void Behemoth a couple of weeks ago. Erasmus's Runics had worked day and night to rebuild, their remarkable efforts having inspired many talented students in the Secula Magna to consider becoming Runics instead of Weavers.
"Well under way," Erasmus declared proudly. "The Southwest Quarter is going to be the most technologically advanced in the whole city when my Runics are done with it!"
"I don't doubt it," Kalibar agreed. While Kalibar's strength lay in strategy and warfare, Erasmus was remarkably gifted when it came to developing systems and infrastructure. As co-emperors of the most powerful country in the world, they made a formidable team.
Jenkins returned, followed by one of his assistants, and soon the table was filled to overflowing with silver platters and bottles of wine. Jenkins removed the lids from each platter, revealing Kyle's favorite dish – roasted duck. From then on, there was only the sound of smacking lips as everyone devoured their meal. The food, as always, was fit for a king...or in this case, two. When everyone had finished – which didn't take very long – Jenkins returned to whisk away the remains. Kyle noted that Petra's plate was still half-filled; she ate modestly, no doubt her secret to maintaining her remarkable figure. Ariana, being dead, ate nothing at all.
"How is the political climate in the Council?" Kalibar asked Erasmus, leaning back in his chair and sipping on his wine.
"They haven't turned on us yet," Erasmus answered. "We're about as popular as we're going to get." He leaned forward eagerly. "I say we take advantage of it and push as much legislation as we can."
"Within reason," Kalibar agreed. "We don't want to alienate anyone by appearing to take advantage of them."
"Like they wouldn't do the same," Erasmus scoffed. "Bastards'll turn on us first chance they get!" But he sighed, leaning back and sipping his own wine. True to form, he was already on his third glass. Kyle caught Petra eyeing the portly Grand Runic disapprovingly. She'd barely touched her own wine; apparently she wasn't much of a drinker.
"We'll enjoy their support as long as we can," Kalibar stated. Then he shook his head. "Ah, look at me, carrying on about work." He turned to Ariana. "How have you been, Ariana?"
"Good," Ariana replied. "I've been training every day with Master Owens. I'm learning a lot."
"I don't doubt it," Kalibar replied. He knew – as did just about everyone else – that Ariana had already far outmatched every Weaver student in her age range. Her daily sparring matches with Master Owens, the second-best Battle-Weaver in the Empire, had honed her skills considerably. "And how have you been, Kyle?" he asked, turning to Kyle.
"Not bad," Kyle admitted. He'd been training nearly as intensely with Master Lee, Erasmus's mother. Lee was an extremely effective teacher, albeit far less pleasant than Owens. "I'm learning a lot too."
"I bet you are," Erasmus agreed, grinning from ear-to-ear. "Can you imagine what I had to go through growing up?" He raised his wine glass. "Now you know why I drink!"
"I thought it was because of your wife," Petra retorted with an arch of her eyebrow. Erasmus smirked at her.
"They say a man marries someone just like his mother," he shot back. Then he took a robust gulp of his wine.
"Yes, well," Kalibar interjected. "I'm glad you're both doing well," he stated, smiling at Kyle and Ariana. Then he turned to Erasmus. "And how are you doing, old friend?"
"Busy," the Grand Runic replied with a rueful grin. "Between running the damn Empire, working on your idea about magical vacuity, and discovering new patterns with the K-Array, I've barely had time to sleep!"
"How many new patterns have you found?" Kalibar inquired. Based on an idea Kyle had a few weeks ago, the K-Array allowed Runics and Weavers – for the first time in millennia – to discover new magical patterns from plants and such. It had revolutionized the study of magic throughout the Empire...and made Kyle quite popular among the academic elite of the Secula Magna. Kyle knew he hardly deserved all of the credit; after all, it had been Kalibar who'd fleshed out his idea and made it actually work.
"Four," Erasmus replied. "I still think the invisibility pattern is the best of them. I'll have one of my Runics send you a debriefing."
"Much appreciated," Kalibar replied. "Anything else new?"
"Well, yes," Erasmus answered, glancing at Petra. Kalibar raised an eyebrow.
"What is it?"
"Remember all those bodies we found the day you came back from Orja?" Erasmus asked. Kyle saw Kalibar nod. When they'd returned from killing Sabin, reports of nearly forty people dropping dead – at the same time – had come to the Council's attention. Then came the reports of hundreds more having dropped dead throughout the other cities and towns of the Empire...also at the same time.
"Well," Erasmus continued, "...the coroner's office finished the autopsy of the first body they'd found...a butler in the Tower. They found a hole in the front of his skull...and that the front of his brain had been vaporized."
"What?" Kalibar exclaimed.
"That's what I said," Erasmus replied. "Then the coroner started the other autopsies at the head, and found the same thing in every other body they found."
"Interesting," Kalibar murmured.
"Damn right it's interesting," Erasmus agreed. "Autopsies on the other bodies found throughout the Empire showed the exact same findings. Nobody can make any sense out of it."
"I believe I can," Kalibar countered, leaning back in his chair and sighing. He glanced at Petra. "Remember the Chosen...the Immortals that nearly killed us when we were searching for Ariana in the Barrens?"
"I do," Petra replied.
"They dropped dead suddenly," Kalibar continued, "...with holes in their skulls where their shards had been."
"On the day Sabin was killed?" Erasmus asked.
"Well I'll be damned," Erasmus breathed, slumping back in his chair. Then his eyes widened, and he jerked forward. "Wait, that means..."
"Every one of the forty people found dead here in Stridon...and every one of the hundreds found elsewhere...were Sabin's hidden Chosen," Kalibar concluded.
"My god!" Erasmus blurted out. "You mean all this time we've had a few dozen Chosen living here, right under our noses?"
"Not anymore," Darius piped in with a smirk, taking a gulp of wine.
"Sabin's infiltration of the Empire was greater than anyone expected," Kalibar murmured. He shook his head. "We're lucky Ampir struck when he did."
"I agree," Erasmus replied. "And I for one plan on celebrating. A toast," he declared, raising his wine glass. "To peace throughout the Empire at last!"
With that, everyone raised their glasses – except for Ariana, of course – and took a generous gulp of their drinks. The conversation turned back to happier topics. Within another half-hour, everyone was ready for bed. Kyle retired to his room, washing up and flopping onto his bed. He rolled onto his side and closed his eyes, a smile on his lips. Kalibar and Petra were back, and the Empire was at peace. There was nothing more to fear, no Sabin threatening to kill them, no Chosen hiding among them waiting to strike.
Kyle gave a contented sigh. At long last, after months of terror, everything was finally going their way.
Master Lee stared at Kyle from across the small wooden table they were both sitting at on the first floor of the Runic Archives, her thin, wrinkled arms folded in front of her. So old that she was almost painful to look at, his teacher's expression was sour, deepening the wrinkles on her face to the point that he could have hid pennies in them. Kyle stared back at her, wracking his brain for the answer to her question.
Which class of minerals is least resistant to magical flow?
He'd forgotten to study after the dinner last night...and now he was paying for it.
"I'd like an answer before I die," Master Lee stated dryly, drumming her wrinkled fingertips on the table. Kyle nodded, feeling sweat dripping down his armpits. No matter how many days he'd spent training with her, Lee still terrified him. He looked away from her, absently gazing at the shelves of books and various artifacts around him. His gaze stopped on a painting of a boat on the far wall, making him think of the Defiance...the ship he and Ariana had traveled to Orja on. It'd had metal beams in its hull to conduct magic away from the cargo hold and into the ocean.
"Metals," Kyle answered, turning back to Lee. She stopped drumming her fingers and nodded grudgingly.
"Took you long enough," she grumbled. "Which minerals are best at storing magic?"
"Um...quartz, diamond, mica..." Kyle answered.
Kyle stared at her blankly, and she sighed.
"You failed to study," she observed. Kyle lowered his gaze, feeling his cheeks flush.
"Kalibar came back," he protested. "We..."
"Stop," Lee interjected. Kyle's mouth snapped shut. "Don't make excuses. Own your failure."
"I'm sorry," Kyle mumbled.
"Of course you are," Lee replied. "Failure feels terrible." She leaned in, a smirk on her lips. "That's why it's such a good teacher."
“Is that why you make me feel terrible all the time?” he asked. Lee chuckled.
“Now you’re catching on.”
"I don't get it," Kyle muttered, shaking his head. "Why do I have to learn about all these minerals?"
"Well, diamonds store magic the best, and metals conduct magic, so isn't that all I need to know to make runics?" Kyle asked.
"Take a cube," Lee ordered, gesturing at the dozen or so brown crystal cubes sitting on the table before him. Kyle did so. "Inscribe the fire pattern like this," she continued, drawing on a sheet of paper. Kyle studied the pattern she'd drawn; it was the fire pattern, but inscribed deep within the cube, with an unusually long crystalline "wire" extending to the top of the cube. The longer that wire, the higher up above the cube the flame would appear. He'd learned that lesson the hard way, scorching his cubes with the first few fire patterns he'd inscribed because he'd made the wire too short.
Kyle obeyed, picking up the cube and placing it near his forehead, then closing his eyes and weaving the inscribing pattern. He completed the task quickly, setting the cube down on the table.
"Activate it," Lee instructed.
Kyle streamed magic to the cube, and a small flame appeared an inch or so above the cube.
"Do it again," Lee ordered. "This time make the flame appear a foot above the cube."
Kyle stared at her blankly.
"I can't," he protested.
"I can't put the pattern any deeper into the cube," Kyle answered.
"Exactly," Lee agreed. She reached up with one hand, grabbing at thin air, and a crystal cube appeared between her fingers. She set it down on the table before him; it was, Kyle realized, half-brown and half-clear.
“What's that?” he asked.
“The brown half is dravite, like your other cubes,” she answered. “The top is quartz. Dravite conducts magic better than quartz.”
“Inscribe the fire pattern in the dravite, and extend the wire through the quartz to the top,” Lee commanded. Kyle nodded, inscribing the pattern as instructed. Then he set the cube so that the quartz half was facing up.
“Go on,” Lee prompted impatiently.
Kyle streamed magic to the cube...and a small flame appeared over a foot above it.
“Whoa,” Kyle breathed.
“Exactly,” Lee agreed. “Now, quartz conducts magic more poorly than dravite…and more slowly. What would happen if you made a wire out of a mineral that barely conducted magic?”
“It would take a while to conduct it,” Kyle reasoned.
“Precisely,” Lee confirmed. She reached into her pocket, retrieving a diamond. “Inscribe the fire pattern into this,” she ordered. He took the diamond from her, doing as she’d asked. “Now stream magic to it,” she commanded. Again, he complied.
A moment later, a flame appeared above the diamond.
“Inscribe another fire rune deeper within the diamond,” Lee continued, “…with a long wire going up to the top of the crystal.” Kyle did so. “Now stream magic to the crystal.”
He complied, and one flame appeared above the diamond. A second later, a second flame appeared several feet above the first.
“Ahhh,” Kyle murmured. “Got it. The longer the wire, the longer it takes to conduct the pattern outside of the crystal.”
“Correct,” Lee agreed. “And the worse the conductor, the longer it takes.”
“So I can time patterns,” Kyle realized. Lee nodded, a smile deepening the wrinkles in her cheeks.
Master Lee reached into her pants pocket then, retrieving what looked to be a silver amulet. It had a glittering diamond in the center, with gemstones of various colors at the edges like numbers on a clock. Between these were a ring of strange symbols etched into the metal. She handed it to him.
“Look at this,” she ordered.
Kyle obeyed, grabbing the amulet and taking a closer look. The outer gemstones had tiny glowing runes embedded within them, and multicolored mineral “threads” that connected them to the central diamond. The diamond itself had more runes inscribed within, glowing faintly to Kyle's eye.
“What does it do?” Kyle asked, glancing up at Lee.
“No one knows,” Lee answered. “Not yet, anyway. It was dug up a week ago.”
“From an archaeological dig site in Meros,” she explained. When Kyle stared at her blankly, she smirked. “An island seven hundred and fifty miles west of here. You've been close to there, I believe.”
“It's near the Shimmering Isle,” Lee said. Kyle's eyes widened. He and Ariana had taken the Defiance – a shipping vessel – to the Shimmering Isle on their way to the Barrens over a week ago. That was where the Captain and his crew lived now.
Just then, Kyle heard footsteps from behind, and he turned to see Erasmus and Petra walking toward them. Petra was wearing her traditional Reaper uniform, made of rough black fabric that covered her from her neck to her toes, and even her hands. The uniform was skintight, and it was quite clear that Erasmus was having as hard of a time not staring as Kyle was.
“Good morning mother,” Erasmus greeted, walking up to Master Lee and bending over to kiss her on one wrinkly cheek. “Good morning Kyle,” he added. He gestured to Petra. “Mother, this is Petra, from...”
“The Barrens,” Lee interjected. She stood from her chair, walking up to Petra and extending a hand. Petra shook it. “A pleasure to meet you.”
“Likewise,” Petra replied.
“I was just, ah, showing Petra around the Archives,” Erasmus stated. “She wants to see our collection before she returns to the Barrens,” he added.
“Wait, you're leaving?” Kyle blurted out. Petra glanced at him, and he immediately felt his cheeks flush. Damn his traitorous body!
“Soon,” she confirmed.
“But isn't Kalibar supposed to...uh,” Kyle stammered, stopping himself abruptly. Petra arched an eyebrow.
“Teach me magic?” she asked. Kyle blushed again, knowing how self-conscious Petra had been in the past about Kalibar besting her in combat. She was proud and competitive, and hadn't taken the loss well...at first. “He has been,” she answered. “Every day for the last week.”
“Don't let us stop you,” Master Lee stated, sitting back down in her chair. Kyle glanced down, realizing he was still holding the amulet, and handed it back to Lee.
“What's that?” Erasmus asked, pointing at the amulet. Lee handed it to him.
“Latest find from Meros,” she answered. “Came in yesterday.”
“What a marvelous piece,” Erasmus declared, turning it over in his hands. “Fully intact?”
“It appears so.”
“Any idea what it does yet?”
“Not a clue,” Lee admitted. “It's similar to the other runic artifacts we've found recently,” she added.
“Mmm,” Erasmus mumbled, running a hand through his white beard. “Was it found in the deepest levels of the ruins?”
“So strange,” he stated. “Everything we've found there is completely different than any of the other pieces we found over the last few years.” He frowned then, peering at the amulet. “Same style of symbols inscribed in the metal,” he observed. “Still no luck in deciphering them?”
“They're not like any language our linguists have ever seen,” Lee answered.
“Fascinating,” Erasmus murmured.
“May I see?” Petra asked, holding out one hand. Erasmus snapped out of his reverie, glancing at Petra, then handing the amulet to her. Petra stared at it for a moment, then turned it over.
“How goes the training?” Erasmus asked Kyle, slapping him on the shoulder good-naturedly. Kyle smiled.
“I'm learning,” he replied. Master Lee smirked.
“Your dinner made him forget to study,” she countered. “He's as distractible as you were at his age.”
“And look how I turned out,” Erasmus replied, spreading his arms wide and grinning at Kyle. Lee crossed her arms over her chest.
Petra stirred then, glancing up at Erasmus, the amulet still in her hands.
“Where did you find this?” she inquired.
“From an island off the coast of Orja,” Erasmus replied. “Why do you ask?”
“These words,” she answered, tracing a finger over the symbols etched into the metal, “...are an ancient tribal dialect.”
Erasmus stared at her blankly.
“These symbols,” Petra clarified. “They're from the Old tongue, the language of our ancestors before the Immortals.”
“Wait,” Erasmus interjected. “You recognize those symbols?”
“Yes, of course,” Petra confirmed.
“But that doesn't make any sense,” Erasmus protested, turning to Lee. “Why would Ancient artifacts have symbols from the Barren tribes on them?”
“Indeed,” Lee murmured, turning her eyes on Petra. “Do you recognize the runes in the crystals?”
“Yes,” Petra replied. “Some of them. This is more advanced than the relics we have in the Barrens.”
“So let me get this straight,” Erasmus stated, running a hand over his bald pate. “We found a two-thousand-year-old runic device from the Barren forest...every bit as advanced as Ancient technology – in the ruins of a temple on some random island seven hundred miles away?”
“It appears so,” Lee agreed, steepling her fingertips together.
“Describe this temple,” Petra told Erasmus.
“Well we think it’s a temple,” Erasmus corrected. “It's in an ancient, secluded city near the center of the island. Our archaeologists have been digging out the lower levels for years ago. We've found more runic artifacts there than anywhere else in the world.”
“But these are different?” Petra asked, pointing to the amulet. Erasmus nodded.
“We found the entrance to the lowest levels of one of the buildings,” he replied. “We've only begun to explore it...all of the artifacts there have these symbols on them. So do the walls, the floors...everything. We sent our best linguists there, but no one could decipher them.” Then he smiled at Petra. “Until now, I suppose.”
Petra nodded absently, then stared off into the distance silently. Lee frowned, leaning back in her chair and crossing her arms over her chest.
“What are you thinking, Petra?” she asked. Petra snapped out of it, focusing on Lee.
“The symbols are in the Old tongue,” she answered. “My ancestors must have built that temple. And this,” she added, gesturing at the amulet. Erasmus shook his head.
“That doesn't make sense,” he protested. “The upper floors of the ruins had Ancient artifacts in them, and the manuscripts we found there were written in Imperial standard.”
“Unless,” Lee countered, “...the Ancient ruins were built on top of the tribal floors.”
“Granted,” Erasmus conceded.
“But our ancestors would not leave the Barren forest,” Petra countered.
“Regardless,” Master Lee interjected, “...there are tribal symbols on that amulet, and on the ruins on Meros,” she stated. “It warrants investigation.”
“Damn right it does,” Erasmus agreed. He turned to Petra. “And right now you're the only one who can read these symbols.”
“What are you suggesting?” Petra inquired.
“Well,” Erasmus ventured, “...you have to get back to the Barren forest, right?”
“And Meros is on the way,” he continued, putting a hand on his generous pot-belly. “If you could make a stop there and help our researchers translate the ruins...”
“I have to get back to my people,” Petra countered. “They depend on me for their protection. I've been gone long enough as it is.”
“Think it over,” Erasmus pleaded, reaching over and putting a hand on her shoulder. She stared at the hand, then at Erasmus, and he removed it rather quickly. “In any case,” he continued, “…let me show you the rest of the Archives!”
“I'll show her,” Lee interjected, standing up from her seat and pushing in her chair. Erasmus shot his mother a murderous look, which Lee ignored. Lee turned to Kyle then. “Many Ancient runics had dozens of different minerals in one device,” she stated. “...like this amulet. If you ever want to be as good as them, I suggest you take your studies more seriously.”
“Yes Master Lee,” Kyle mumbled.
* * *
Kyle sighed, slinging his backpack filled with books over his shoulder and walking out of the Runic Archives. Two elite guards followed from behind, his constant companions. As the son of the most powerful man in the Empire, he was constantly under guard. He'd grown so used to their presence that he often forgot they were there.
He continued down the long hallway toward the riser at the end, reaching it and taking it up to the 41st floor. He made it to Kalibar's old retirement suite, opening the door and crossing the suite to reach his room. Closing the door, he activated its magical lock, then sat on his bed with a sigh.
You should've studied, he scolded himself. Not only had he disappointed Master Lee, he'd also been reprimanded in front of Erasmus...and more embarrassingly, Petra.
He sighed again, taking off his backpack and pulling out a few books. He opened one of them, glancing at pictures of various gemstones. They were organized from best magic storage – and therefore worst conduction – to best conduction and worst storage.
Kyle flipped through more pages, dismayed at how many minerals he had to memorize. There were a few dozen of them...and Master Lee expected him to learn them all over the weekend.
Well, better get to it.
He went back to the beginning of the book, seeing a picture of a diamond. Diamonds were incredibly good at storing magic...the best, as far as anyone knew. He flipped a page. Quartz was pretty good, but the various varieties of quartz, like amethyst, were less capable. But why? Kalibar had mentioned long ago that diamonds with the fewest impurities stored magic the best. From what he remembered from school back on Earth, amethyst was like quartz, but with impurities that changed the color. So he supposed it made sense that amethyst wouldn't store magic quite as well.
But why did diamonds store magic better than quartz? And why didn't metals store magic at all? There had to be a reason. Magic was just another science, after all.
Kyle sighed, resigning himself to memorizing the list of minerals. He flipped through the pages over and over, trying to guess at the next page's mineral each time. Then he heard a knock on his door.
"It's me," he heard Ariana call out.
"Coming," Kyle said, knowing full well she could hear him getting up from the bed and walking up to the door. He disabled the magic lock, and Ariana walked in. She was dressed, as usual, in the Reaper uniform Petra had given her. The skintight black fabric covered her from her toes to her neck, the hood pulled back behind her. The suit protected Ariana from her only real weakness...it prevented her from losing magic. Without magic, Ariana entered a state of suspended animation, a state she said felt exactly like death. And she would know.
"What are you up to?" Ariana asked, pecking him on the cheek and sitting down the bed next to him.
"Memorizing these minerals," he answered, gesturing at his book. "I was supposed to memorize them last night," he confessed.
"Which ones?" she asked, leaning in to look at his book. Kyle told her what had happened with Master Lee, feeling embarrassed about his failure. "I can quiz you," she offered immediately.
Kyle smiled; Ariana was always eager to help him. And she had a near photographic memory – another perk of the Dead Man's shard in her brain. One quick look through the book and she would be able to recall it verbatim.
"That'd be great," he replied. He paused for a moment, then shook his head. "I just wish I understood why one mineral stored magic better than another. Then I wouldn't have to memorize them."
"Yeah," Ariana agreed. "Well, at least I can test you to make sure you've got them."
Kyle sighed, knowing she was right. Still, the thought of studying more – especially after a few hours with Master Lee this morning – was suddenly overwhelming.
"What's this?" Ariana asked. Kyle glanced at her; she'd pulled his notebook from his backpack and was flipping through it.
"Just a few ideas I had," he answered, reaching over to grab the notebook from her. She pulled away, glancing at one of the pages. He'd drawn a picture of a grenade there, with various notations...in English, of course. Consequently, she couldn't read it.
"What is it?" she pressed.
"It's a gravity grenade," he answered.
"How does it work?"
"You just hold down this button," he replied, "...and it pushes a connecting metal rod between the magic storage crystal and the crystal with the runes in it, so that magic flows through the rod and activates the device."
"Right," Ariana breathed. "It's like your book said...magic flows best through metal." Then she frowned. “What does it do?”
“Well, when you press the button, it sets a timer. After a few seconds, it creates a gravity field that sucks everything around it into it, then create an opposite gravity field to shove everything away really fast, like an explosion.”
“Oh,” she replied. “Got it.”
“But it won’t work,” he confessed. “If I stream magic to it, it’ll activate instantly, and make both pushing and pulling gravity fields all at the same time. I don’t know how to time everything.”
"It's a good idea," Ariana said. "I’m sure you’ll figure it out."
"Wait,” Kyle blurted out. “Master Lee taught me how to use different minerals to time patterns!”
"So you could make this thing?" she asked.
"Yeah, I think I could," he agreed. "In fact, I could use each of these minerals," he continued, pointing at the book he'd been studying, "...and test them to figure out which ones give me the best timing for the grenade!”
"And that would help you remember each of the minerals," Ariana concluded. Kyle nodded, feeling a sudden burst of excitement. She was right, of course; it made perfect sense.
"But I'll never get it done by the end of the weekend," Kyle realized, his excitement waning. "Master Lee is going to test me."
"Well, I'll help you study now," Ariana consoled. "But I still think you should make this later on."
"Okay," Kyle agreed. Ariana put the notebook back in his backpack, then gave him a conspiratorial look.
“Want to learn a new pattern?” she asked.
“Of course,” Kyle agreed. He wasn’t technically supposed to learn Weaving, but they’d long ago agreed to teach each other what they were learning, in secret. He doubted Kalibar would mind; the Grand Weaver had dabbled in making runics himself. “What is it?”
“A magnetosphere,” Ariana answered. “A magnetic field. It sucks metal into itself.”
She searched around for something with metal in it, and found a small coin, placing it on the bed. Then she wove magic, and a small, faint blue sphere appeared above the coin. It shot upward instantly, hovering within the sphere.
“Cool,” Kyle murmured. “How do you weave it?”
She showed him, weaving it slowly within her mind. He could follow the light at her forehead, the magic threads visible to him. Within moments, he’d learned the pattern, and recreated it, making a much brighter sphere above the coin. It shot up into his magnetosphere…as did his pen, hovering over the bed.
“It’s like a regular gravity sphere, but it only works on certain metals,” Ariana explained. Kyle nodded; he remembered from school that only iron, nickel, and cobalt were affected by magnetic fields. Why he would use a magnetic field over a gravity field, however, was beyond him.
“Thanks,” he said, leaning in to give Ariana a smooch.
“No problem,” she replied. Then she grabbed his book of minerals, handing it to him. "All right,” she declared. “Time to memorize these. When you're done, I'll quiz you."