Runic Revelation Preview
Ampir stands in a huge underground chamber beneath the city of Stridon, his wife Vera propped up against the large circular dais in the center of the room, their son Junior at her side. Four huge stone pillars at the corners of the room rise upward to the majestic domed ceiling some forty feet above. Swirls of dust glimmer like fireflies in the soft light cast by the lanterns hanging on the walls around him, a shower of dust and small stones raining down from the ceiling onto the floor.
The entire chamber trembles, more cracks appearing on the ceiling.
“What's that, Daddy?” Junior asks.
Ampir turns to his son. Barely four years old, the boy has already seen too much. Ampir can only hope that Junior is too young to remember his grandpa's throat being sliced open, blood pouring down the old man's neck and chest. And Vera being brutally stabbed in the back.
“I don't know,” Ampir lies.
More dust falls from the ceiling, and Ampir gazes upward again, knowing all-too-well that it is the Behemoth standing above them, an enormous machine over ten stories tall standing in the middle of the city above ground. Created by a man Ampir once knew, a man he'd trusted.
“Ampir,” Vera calls out.
He turns to her, his breath catching in his throat. She is as lovely as the day they'd met, tall and slender, with auburn hair cascading in gentle waves to her lower back. Her white nightgown clings to her, soaked with her sweat...and blood. The crimson stain on her lower back has barely grown, but the internal bleeding...
“Hold me,” Vera murmurs.
Ampir reaches for her, scooping her up in his arms and staring down at her.
“Hold on baby,” he urges, leaning over to kiss her on the forehead. “Just a little while longer.”
He focuses on the gray stone dais in the center of the chamber. A brilliant red crystal is embedded in its center, refracting and reflecting the light from the lanterns above. Three feet in diameter, the crystal has innumerable tiny runes etched on its surface...and countless more deeper within. It is Renval's greatest invention, a teleportation device. But it is much more advanced than his earlier prototypes.
Ampir studies its runes, tracing the faint blue glow identifying each of them. Then he frowns; there's something very odd about the destination coordinates. They're unlike anything he's ever seen...and he helped build the original prototype. He focuses on the crystal's activation runes, sending a stream of magic to it, and the teleporter pulses, its runes glowing the faintest blue.
But nothing else happens.
Ampir stares at the crystal, his brow furrowing. The runes are supposed to be bright blue, but they're barely glowing...its magic supply must have been damaged.
“Shit,” he swears under his breath.
“What baby?” Vera asks.
“There isn't enough magic,” he answers. “Shit!”
“Your armor,” Vera suggests. “Use it.”
Ampir nods, realizing that she's right. The black metallic armor he wears is filled with an enormous amount of magic, powering the countless runes inscribed upon its surface. Runes that, combined, make him nearly invincible...a god among men. But in draining them of their magic, he would make himself vulnerable.
He focuses on his armor, pulling magic out of its runes and redirecting it to the crystal on the dais. The teleporter's runes glow a little brighter, then fade.
“It needs a lot,” he states. “Way more than it should.” Even teleporting a hundred miles away shouldn't have required this much magic. But Vera doesn't respond; her eyes are closed, her breathing coming in shorter gasps now. Sweat beads up on her pale forehead.
“Stay with me baby,” he urges.
He drains more of his armor, emptying parts of it completely, pouring the magic into the red crystal. Its runes grow a little brighter, but nothing happens.
Maybe it's broken, Ampir thinks, terror seizing him. He glances at his son, standing there helplessly, dust from the crumbling ceiling above coating him. He grits his teeth, fighting through the fear. The runes in the crystal glow brighter as he empties his armor; the air in the chamber begins to stir, a faint blue light appearing in the air above the dais.
Another deafening boom echoes through the chamber, parts of the ceiling breaking away. Huge slabs of stone fall toward them, shattering on the floor less than a dozen feet from where they stand. Ampir weaves magic rapidly, creating a large domed gravity shield above their heads; falling dust and rubble bounce off of it, landing harmlessly around them.
Far above, beyond the widening holes in the ceiling, Ampir sees a massive black metallic foot...and beyond that, a huge, green, diamond-shaped eye staring down at them.
He resists the urge to grab Junior and flee, knowing that Vera's only chance at surviving lay in teleporting to safety. With the Tower destroyed, the nearest trauma center is hours away...and her time is quickly running out. He draws the last of the magic from his armor, shoving it toward the crystal. Its runes flash a bright blue, and suddenly the air ten feet above the dais tears open, forming a black circular portal.
Ampir stares at the portal, realizing that it's only a foot in diameter...far too small for Vera or himself to fit through. He struggles to stream more magic to the teleporter, but he barely has any left.
“What's wrong?” Vera asks. Ampir shakes his head.
“It's too small,” he replies, staring at the portal in disbelief. He'd put an enormous amount of magic into the teleporter...the portal shouldn't be that small!
“We'll go one at a time,” she offers weakly.
“It's too damn small,” he retorts angrily. “We can't fit through it.” He grits his teeth. “Shit!”
Vera stares up at the rift, then looks at Junior.
“He can,” she counters.
Ampir looks down at Junior. She's right, of course. As small as he is, the rift is just large enough for him to fit through.
The Behemoth's massive foot rises, then slams down on the fractured ceiling. The dome sinks inward, huge fragments of stone breaking away and falling toward them. The pieces strike the shield above their heads, barely deflected by the magical barrier. Ampir struggles to maintain the shield, the magic reserves in his mind all but exhausted. He feels Vera's hand on his cheek.
“Send him,” Vera urges. “Save him.”
“I need to save you,” he protests. But Vera shakes her head.
“Do it,” she orders, her tone harsh. He swallows in a dry throat, looking up at the rift. It's starting to shrink, he realizes. The magic powering the teleporter is running out. He turns to Junior.
“Get up on that,” he commands, gesturing at the dais. Junior hesitates, staring at his father, then his mother. “Do it!” Ampir shouts. Junior flinches, but obeys, climbing up onto the dais beside the huge red crystal. Ampir hesitates, then leans forward, kissing his son on the forehead.
I'll come for you, he vows silently.
He reaches for the ring hanging on the necklace around his own neck...the engagement ring Vera had proposed to him with. He tears it from the necklace, staring at it intently. The band is silver, the large yellow gemstone on top glittering in the faint light. Tiny words had been etched into the band.
To my husband, for eternity.
He closes his eyes, pulling cords of power into his mind's eye, twisting them around each other to form a throbbing knot in the center. He throws it outward, rapidly etching tiny runes into the ring's gemstone, almost too small for the eye to see. Dozens of interconnected runes, working together for a single purpose.
This way, I'll never lose you.
He gives the ring to Junior, holding Vera in his other arm. He strains to carry her now, his armor no longer giving him near-unlimited strength. He puts a hand on Junior's cheek, giving him a weak smile.
“I love you, son.”
He weaves magic in his mind's eye one last time, throwing it outward at Junior. The boy levitates upward in the air, flying toward the steadily shrinking portal above. Ampir thrusts as much magic as he can at his son, lifting him up through the rift. Junior's head passes through, followed by his shoulders. Then his waist passes through.
The portal closes more rapidly now, threatening to slice Junior in half.
Ampir grimaces, ripping magic from his mind's eye and shoving it at the boy. Junior bursts upward, his legs passing through...just as the portal snaps shut. Something small falls from where the rift had been, bouncing off of the dais and falling onto the floor. Ampir stares at it, taking a moment to realize what it is.
He looks back up to the space where his son had just been, feeling a terrible emptiness come over him. Whatever destination Renval had set the teleporter to, it was far away...so far that he had the sinking feeling that he would never see Junior again. At least he knew that wherever Renval had set the teleporter to transport his son to, it would be safe. Renval would never leave the coordinates in a dangerous location. He feels eyes upon him, and looks down at Vera. She smiles, gazing back at him with her painfully beautiful eyes.
“See something you like?” she inquired.
He smiles back at her, swallowing past a sudden lump in his throat.
“I do now,” he replies.
She closes her eyes then, resting her head against his armored shoulder. Her breaths come more slowly now, her skin terribly pale.
“Kiss me,” she murmurs.
He leans down, pressing his lips against hers. He can smell her perfume, the same intoxicating scent she'd worn the day they'd met. Tears spill down his cheeks, and he chokes back a sob, pulling his head away. He looks down at her, taking a deep, shuddering breath in, then letting it out.
It takes him a moment to realize she isn't breathing.
“Baby,” he calls out, shaking her a little. She doesn't move.
Oh god no. Please, no!
An ear-splitting boom echoes through the chamber. Ampir looks up seeing the ceiling above them disintegrating, the Behemoth's huge, metallic foot – nearly half the size of the massive chamber itself – falling toward them, bringing the shattered ceiling down with it in a deadly free-fall.
He looks down at his wife, her pale skin seeming to glow the faintest of blues. He runs his hand through her hair.
“I love you baby,” he whispers.
Then he looks upward, just before the massive metallic foot slams into them from above.
Kyle yelled out, bolting upright, his heart pounding in his chest. He jerked his head upward, half-expecting to see a massive foot falling toward him, but found a dull white ceiling there instead. He relaxed, realizing he was in a modestly-sized bedroom. Sunlight shone through the large window beside his bed, casting brilliant rays of light across his bedsheets. Everything in the room – the bed, the sheets, the bureau, the gilded mirror atop the bureau – was tastefully ornate, unlike his bedroom back on Earth. It was the kind of room one would expect a very rich man to own – and indeed, the owner was possessed of enormous wealth and power. For he was Grand Weaver Kalibar, co-leader of the most powerful empire in the known world. And he just so happened to be Kyle's legal guardian, mentor, and – despite their vast difference in age – his best friend.
Kyle took a deep breath in, exhaling slowly. He felt his pulse slowing, the nightmare losing its power over him. He hadn't had a nightmare like that for over a week now. He used to get them every night – extraordinarily vivid dreams, memories transmitted to him from a mysterious man who died – or rather, should have died – over two thousand years ago.
He happened to glance downward, and groaned. His sheets were completely soaked – and not just with sweat. A quick sniff test confirmed his worst fears...once again, he'd wet the bed. It'd been over a week since he'd done that, too...he'd rather hoped he'd finally outgrown the problem.
Suddenly he heard muffled voices coming from just beyond his bedroom door. He felt terror grip him, and he leaped off of the bed, making a mad dash for the door. Had he locked it? If anyone caught him like this...! But as he reached for the doorknob, he realized there wasn't one. It took him a moment to remember that most doors here opened and closed magically, not mechanically. They were also locked magically, and to his relief, a small blue light in the center of the door indicated that the locking mechanism had been engaged.
He fought down the wave of panic, rushing back to his bed and peeling off the wet bedsheets, trying to avoid touching the soaked parts. He threw these to the floor, then glanced at the bare mattress. Luckily it was waterproof. With only the sheets soaked, he still had a chance to get rid of the evidence before Jenkins, Kalibar's head butler, came in to tidy up his room. No one here knew about his little problem, and he had no intention of them ever finding out.
Kyle bent down to gather up the damp bedding into one enormous ball, picking it up and lugging it into the bathroom. Luckily, every guest room in Kalibar's suite had its own full bath; Kyle brought the sheets to the luxurious tub therein, dropped the bedding into it, then stepping back to consider his options. If he rinsed off the urine, then dried the sheets, Jenkins would never be the wiser. But the faucet for the tub was far too low to do the job...there wasn't a shower head. Luckily, he had magic on his side!
He closed his eyes, feeling a pulsing thread of power in the middle of his skull, and grabbed it with his will, weaving it into a tight knot. He thrust it outward toward the air right above the tub. Almost instantly, a strong, cold wind whipped through his hair, and at the same time, a veritable waterfall appeared above the tub. Water splashed over the soiled bedding until it was completely soaked, the urine seeping from the fabric and spilling down the drain. In less than a minute, no pee-smell remained, and he stopped the magical stream. He shivered then; the air in the bathroom was suddenly much colder than it had been seconds ago. Water creation magic required a great deal of heat, and it stole that heat from everything around it, cooling the surroundings significantly.
Kyle put his hands on his hips, surveying his work. Now what? He couldn't just leave the bedding in the tub...someone was bound to find it and start asking questions. He needed to get the sheets dry, so no one would be the wiser. What if he used the fire pattern? With a thought, he could create a flame that would hover in the air wherever he wanted. If he used the tiniest bit of magic, he might be able to warm up the sheets a bit, evaporating the water. Yes, it had to work! He stood back, weaving the tiniest bit of magic into the fire pattern, then throwing it out at the bedding.
The fabric hissed and sputtered, then burst promptly into flames.
He recoiled in horror, instantly severing the stream of magic. But the bedding continued to burn, the flames growing taller by the second. Black smoke rose from the tub, making Kyle cough, his eyes stinging sharply. He stifled the urge to bolt from the room screaming for help, and instead wove magic rapidly, creating another waterfall atop the burning bedding. The cool water doused the flames with an angry hiss, steam billowing up to the ceiling.
Kyle stood there, gawking at the blackened mountain of fabric, suddenly wishing that Xanos had killed him when he'd had the chance. What the heck was he going to do now? Kalibar was going to have him hanged!
Just then, he heard a knock on his bedroom door.
Kyle nearly leaped out of his skin, sprinting out of the bathroom. Then he skid to a halt, turning around and slamming the bathroom door shut to hide the evidence. He turned about again, peering through the smoky haze that had filled his bedroom, holding back another coughing fit. He needed to get rid of this smoke...and fast!
“One minute!” he yelled.
He rushed to the window by his bed, pulling it open. A slight breeze wafted in...not good enough. What he needed was a fan to blow the smoke out...but fans didn't exist here. He stared out of the window, then he had a sudden burst of inspiration. He wove some more magic, throwing it a few feet beyond his window, and a stream of water appeared there. Air was sucked toward the stream – a consequence of a gas being fused together to make a liquid – pulling the smoky air in the bedroom outside. Within moments, the entire room had been cleared. Kyle crossed his arms in front of him, rather pleased at his handiwork.
Then he heard some shouting from down below, and stuck his head out of the window, looking down. Forty stories below, a group of men in black robes were looking upward at him, gesticulating furiously, their hair and fine clothing completely soaked. Kyle recoiled in horror, slamming the window shut and backpedaling quickly. Had the men seen his face? No, they couldn't have...his room was over eight hundred feet up...
He heard more knocking at the door.
Kyle spun around, running to answer the door. He felt something wet on his belly as he ran, and stopped right before the door, glancing down at himself. The entire front of his pajamas was soaked with urine! He turned to his bureau, on top of which a neatly folded stack of black clothing lay. Jenkins must have left the new set for him, bless the butler's heart! Kyle scrambled out of his clothes, throwing them in the tub with the burnt bedding. Then he changed rapidly, having just managed to pull on his pants when the blue light in the center of the door went dark, signaling that it had been unlocked from the outside. The door opened, a man's head peering in from behind it.
“You okay in there?” the man asked. It was one of Kalibar's elite guards, powerful armored Battle-Weavers that acted as the personal bodyguards of the Empire's rulers – and by extension, Kyle. Kyle nodded sheepishly, hoping he didn't look as guilty as he felt. The guard frowned. “I smelled smoke coming from your room,” he added suspiciously.
“Smoke, sir?” Kyle asked, trying his best to look innocent. The guard sniffed the air.
“Guess not,” he muttered. Then he opened the door all the way. He was clad in black metal armor, but wore no helmet. Helmets had lost their appeal in Stridon of late. “Come with me,” he ordered. “Master Owens is expecting you.”
Kyle nodded, walking out of his room and following the guard into the main living room of Kalibar's magnificent suite. The guard stopped suddenly, turning about and facing Kyle.
“The Aegis,” he reminded. Kyle nearly slapped his own forehead; he'd forgotten to wear his protective chest-piece. He ran back into his room, grabbing it from his dresser and putting it on. The magical armor had been given to him by Kalibar as a gift during his coronation ceremony a few days ago; it was over two thousand years old, and extraordinarily powerful, able to protect Kyle from just about any attack. Kalibar had insisted that Kyle wear the armor every day, only taking it off before he went to bed. Kalibar's enemies would stop at nothing to defeat him, even if that meant attacking his new family. Kyle always felt safer with it on.
That done, Kyle and his chaperone walked back into the main room of the suite. The Grand Weaver had two suites in the Great Tower; this one, which he had acquired after his first term as Grand Weaver six years ago, and an even larger suite one floor above. Kyle trailed behind the guard, exiting Kalibar's suite and taking the magical elevator – a riser, they called it – all the way down to the first floor. The two made their way down the long hallway from the riser to the main lobby, which was already bustling with students rushing to get to their classes. The crowd gave Kyle and his elite guard wide berth, parting before them. Kyle ignored the stares of the students; as the newly adopted son of the most powerful Weaver in the land, Kyle had become a bit of a celebrity. He'd enjoyed the attention for the first day or two, but now he wished people would just get over it already.
He followed his guard through the lobby past the gawking students, stepping through massive double doors to go outside. The Great Tower was surrounded on all sides by a large campus, with dormitories and other buildings scattered across miles of verdant fields. The campus in turn was encircled by a huge circular fence three stories tall, a fence that created a massive domed gravity shield protecting the entire campus. It was called the Gate Shield, and it had protected the Tower for over two hundred years. Together, the Tower and the campus were known as the Secula Magna, the school of magic. The Great Tower was also the political center of the Empire, home to its highest-ranking government officials.
Kyle and his guard stepped out into the morning sunlight, pushing past the steady stream of students pouring into the Tower. The Gate Shield shimmered hundreds of feet above their heads, barely visible against the cloudless blue sky beyond.
Master Owens was the Weaver Kalibar had chosen to teach Kyle magic. Kyle had only learned three magic patterns during his harrowing imprisonment at the hands of the Dead Man – how to make light, fire, and water – and there were dozens more he needed to commit to memory before he could ever call himself a true Weaver. Master Owens had apparently been quite the Battle-Weaver in his day. The old man had been teaching Kyle in one of the courtyards just outside of the Tower for almost a week now. He was kind and patient, but not quite the teacher the Dead Man had proven to be. As manipulative and sadistic as the Dead Man had been, he'd also had the benefit of over a century and a half of experience, something Master Owens had no hope of ever obtaining.
The guard escorted Kyle about a half-mile from the Tower, veering from one of the countless cobblestone pathways and striding across the lawn toward a short man clad in long black robes. Kyle immediately recognized him as Master Owens. Master Owens smiled as Kyle approached.
“Good morning Kyle,” he greeted amiably, his brown eyes darting to the elite guardsman at Kyle's side. The guard bowed, then turned and left the way he'd come. Master Owens cleared his throat, returning his gaze to Kyle. “Had a bit of trouble getting up this morning?” he inquired. Kyle blushed.
“Yes sir,” he replied. “Sorry sir,” he added sheepishly. Master Owens smiled. He must have been sixty or so, but he had a cherub face that hid his years, with short gray hair springing messily from his head. He was clean-shaven, and almost always smiling. It was, consequently, impossible to dislike the man.
“Quite all right,” Master Owens replied good-naturedly. “Of course, I expect you to be as early tomorrow as you were late today,” he added. Kyle sighed, nodding obediently. That was Master Owens' way...if you made him wait, he'd make you wait. Despite his affable nature, the man was a strict disciplinarian.
“Now,” Mr. Owens stated, “...do you remember yesterday's lesson?” Kyle nodded again. Master Owens had taught him two new patterns in the last few days: one that allowed him to manipulate gravity, the other creating a gooey, sticky substance out of thin air. Kyle wasn't quite sure what the substance was for, but he'd found the gravity pattern to be enormously useful. With it, he could easily create a sphere of gravitational energy in mid-air, one that would suck objects into itself until they floated in its center. Of course, he'd fallen into his own sphere the first time he'd woven it. Apparently everyone did; the gravity field sucked in quite a bit of air when first created, making a vacuum that was all too easy for the uninitiated to get pulled into. The other type of gravity field – the opposite of the pulling-in kind – was the reverse-gravity field. It pushed everything outward. Gravity fields could be created in all sorts of shapes and sizes, and had an enormous number of applications.
Perhaps the most important use of gravity fields was also the predominant method of magical protection in the Empire: gravity shields. Constructed of two thin gravity spheres, the outer shell pushing outward, the inner one pushing inward to prevent air from being sucked out of the sphere, a gravity shield could deflect a sword, a crossbow bolt...just about anything thrown at it. Gravity shields were actually enormously complicated, and had taken Kyle quite a while to master. Creating an impermeable sphere around yourself meant preventing any air from getting in or out...meaning you'd suffocate if you didn't find a way to let air in. This was accomplished by creating a semi-circular gravity shield, closed at the head but open at the feet. The lower part of the gravity shield couldn't touch the ground, otherwise it would push against it and make you levitate. That's why it had to be open at the bottom...which left the feet potentially vulnerable.
“Create a gravity field in front of you,” Master Owens ordered, stepping backward. Kyle complied, grabbing a thread of magic within his mind and weaving it into the gravity pattern. The pattern was more complicated than the water or fire pattern had been, but Kyle had a knack for remembering patterns, and within a few seconds a gravity-sphere was floating in front of him.
“Now, keep the gravity field there, and make some punk in the center of the field,” his teacher continued. Punk was the name of the tar-black, sticky substance Master Owens had taught him how to create out of thin air yesterday. Kyle complied, and soon a ball of the goop was floating in front of him, suspended in the center of his gravity sphere.
“Now,” Master Owens instructed, walking to stand at Kyle's side. “Use the fire pattern to set the punk on fire within the gravity field.”
Kyle nodded, concentrating harder. Making a gravity field – or any other magical construct – required him to both generate a knot of magical energy – the pattern – and to attach a continuous stream of magic to the pattern to keep it running. Without the magic stream, the pattern would work for a moment, then unravel. He'd already made one magic stream; making two at once still required a bit of concentration. But he did so, weaving the fire pattern, then throwing it out to the punk, attaching a magic stream to keep the flames burning.
The punk burst into flames, forming a fiery ball in the center of the gravity field. Because the gravity of the field pulled inward quite strongly, the flames weren't very tall.
“You don't need the magic stream for the fire pattern,” Master Owens noted. “Punk is quite flammable itself. It makes for a dangerous projectile weapon,” he added. “If thrown, it will stick to just about any surface, and it will burn until consumed.”
Kyle nodded, stopping the magic stream to the fire pattern. Sure enough, the punk continued to burn slowly, hovering within the confines of the gravity field. He felt beads of sweat forming on his forehead; if he accidentally dropped the punk, it'd light the grass below on fire. How was he going to extinguish those flames?
“Now, use the water pattern to snuff out the punk,” Master Owens instructed. Kyle nearly slapped himself in the forehead; of course! He threw out the water pattern, and a stream of water fell into the center of the sphere, covering the punk and dousing the flames. A small hunk of blackened punk, surrounded by a rippling sphere of water, hovered in mid-air in front of him. It reminded him suddenly of Earth...of home.
“Very good,” Master Owens stated. “You may release the gravity pattern,” he added. Kyle did so, watching as the sphere of water fell to the grass with a plop. Then he hopped backward, realizing too late that he'd just soaked his feet. Master Owens laughed good-naturedly. “I provide the patterns,” he said with a wink. “Life teaches the rest.” Kyle blushed, shaking a few droplets off of his sodden shoes. He was always doing stuff like that; getting all the details right, then missing the practical stuff. Still, he couldn't help but be proud that he'd managed to complete the lesson the first time through.
“Good morning, Master Owens,” a light, feminine voice said from behind Kyle. Kyle spun around, seeing a taller, slender girl standing behind him. She had long brown hair tied into a ponytail, with large, almond-shaped brown eyes, and was dressed in a simple black shirt and pants. Her skin was still a little pale from over a year spent underground. She looked quite fetching, as always.
“Oh, good morning, Ariana,” Master Owens replied, turning to regard the girl. “You're quite late this morning.”
“I was at a Council meeting,” Ariana explained. That, Kyle knew, was true; the Council was a group of twelve men who were second only to the Grand Weaver and Grand Runic in governing Stridon, and by extension, the Empire. The meeting had been about the Death Weaver base at Crescent Lake. Kalibar had already sent his Battle-Weavers there to destroy the base, but the Council wanted as much information about the Death Weavers – and the Dead Man – as they could get. Ariana had lived among the enemy for over a year, and was therefore the foremost expert on the issue.
“Ah, of course,” Master Owens replied. “I had forgotten,” he added. “You're not one to be late.” He glanced at Kyle then, and Kyle blushed at the unspoken truth; he had a bad habit of showing up late, for a variety of reasons that always seemed out of his control. Ariana was, as always, much better at following directions.
“What lesson are we learning today, Master Owens?” Ariana inquired.
“Ah, yes,” the old Weaver replied. “Both of you, stand a bit apart...I don't want anyone getting hurt.” The two did so, standing a few feet from each other, facing Mr. Owens. “Now,” he continued, “...create a gravity field in front of you...”
Master Owens lead them both through the series of patterns he'd showed Kyle earlier, and soon a levitating hunk of burning punk was floating in front of Kyle. Ariana, on the other hand, was still struggling to create the punk inside of her own gravity sphere. She was much better than him at thinking on her feet, especially during a crisis, but he when it came to memorizing patterns, he was the quicker study. They'd been taught the punk pattern yesterday, and Kyle had rapidly memorized it...much to Ariana's dismay. He paused for a moment, watching as Ariana continued to struggle, then dropped his gravity sphere, pretending to screw up his magic stream.
“Oops,” he said, then did a double-take; the punk was still burning, and now it was setting the grass in front of him on fire! “Oh!” he exclaimed, stomping on the burning grass. The gooey punk stuck to the bottom of his shoe, and started burning that, too. He yelped, sliding his foot across the grass, trying to scrape the burning goo off. Mr. Owens just stood there, watching silently as Kyle finally extinguished the flames. When Kyle looked up, Ariana was staring at him, her expression unreadable. Kyle glanced down; there were a few scorch marks on the otherwise immaculate lawn. The blood drained from his face.
“Kyle, why don't you take a break for today,” Master Owens said, patting Ariana on the shoulder. “I'll meet you back in the Tower lobby in a bit.” Kyle nodded, bowing at Master Owens, and giving Ariana a weak smile. She just stared back at him silently...which meant that she was mad.
Kyle felt the blood rush back to his cheeks with a vengeance, and turned about, walking back to the main entrance of the Tower. Despite the warmth of the morning sun beating on his back, and the brilliant blue of the cloudless sky, his disposition was far from sunny. All he'd wanted to do was make sure Ariana wouldn't look bad in front of Master Owens. Why couldn't she understand that? She was hardly being appreciative...and after everything he'd done for her! After all, if it weren't for him, she'd still be stuck in the Dead Man's underground lair.
Kyle sighed, kicking a pebble across the path. His dad had always maintained that he didn't understand women, despite having tricked one into marrying him. Kyle had apparently inherited that deficiency.
It wasn't long before Kyle reached the massive double-doors of the Great Tower, which were perpetually open. Streams of people walked in and out of those doors on a near-constant basis. Many wore either all-white or all-black uniforms; Runic students wore white, Weavers black. There was a rather lively rivalry between the Runic and Weaver students. As in politics, each thought their art to be vastly and obviously superior to the other, and despite centuries of argument, neither side had become convinced of the others' worth. The younger Runics and Weavers poked fun of each other constantly. Kyle had found himself immune to these debates; having an emperor for a guardian – the most powerful Battle-Weaver in the Empire – might have had something to do with it.
Kyle strolled through the double-doors, nodding politely at people who greeted him as he passed. He walked to one of the many plush couches in the Tower lobby, his black boots clip-clopping on the polished granite floor, then plopped himself down on an empty seat, staring up idly at the ceiling. Crowds of people milled about upside-down a few stories up, held in place by powerful gravitational fields generated by runes embedded into the ceiling. Upside-down fountains spewed water downward, the water arcing back upward to land in upside-down pools. No matter how much time Kyle had spent staring up at that ceiling, he still marveled at the sight. Nothing on Earth rivaled it.
Earth, he thought, picturing his mother's house perched on its hill, his mom waving to him as he ran up the driveway from the bus stop. It'd been weeks since he'd seen his mom and dad, and he missed them terribly. The homesickness had become almost unbearable of late. He'd spent the last few nights imagining his parents searching frantically for him, losing hope as the days and weeks passed. He'd pictured them standing over his casket at his funeral, weeping over their lost son. What he wouldn't give to be with them again...to hug his mom and dad, to tell them how much he loved them.
Kyle sighed. To be honest, he'd expected to be sent back to Earth after defeating Xanos a week ago, but it hadn't happened. In fact, Ampir – the man who had almost certainly brought him to this world in the first place – hadn't paid Kyle a visit since Xanos's defeat.
Ampir, the mystery man. A black-armored Runic who'd lived in Ancient times, who'd been so powerful that entire armies had surrendered at the sight of him showing up on the battlefield. A man who had somehow sent his memories to Kyle through Kyle's dreams, and had brought him to this strange land. And for what?
Kyle glanced down at the ring on his left thumb, realizing that he'd forgotten to leave it in his room that morning. He was supposed to leave it in his room's magical safe so that Erasmus's research team could study it during the day. Light glimmered off of the yellow crystal embedded on top. It had been Ampir's long ago, of that there was little doubt. So how had it ended up in Kyle's hands? He'd gotten the ring for his birthday...a lousy gift from his dad, or so he'd thought at the time. Sometimes he wished he'd never gotten it, never been taken from his family and friends back home. Then he remembered Kalibar, Ariana, and even Darius, and knew that he had to be thankful for having met them. They were the most extraordinary people Kyle had ever met, brave and loyal beyond measure.
“Kyle,” a kindly voice said from behind. Kyle turned about, and saw Master Owens standing behind the couch. The Weaver gestured to the empty seat on the couch beside Kyle. “May I sit?”
“Sure,” Kyle mumbled. Master Owens sat down, smoothing the wrinkles out of his black robes. He hesitated for a moment.
“Kyle, I've been thinking,” he stated, his tone suddenly solemn. Kyle felt a creeping dread twist his guts. When an adult mentioned that they'd been thinking, it was almost always about something bad.
“What?” Kyle asked.
“Well...to be blunt, I've been thinking that perhaps Weaving isn't the best fit for you.”
Kyle's mouth fell open. He sat there in stunned silence, waiting for Master Owens to laugh, to say he was just kidding. But Owens just sighed.
“I've been talking it over with Grand Weaver Kalibar,” he continued. “We both agree on this,” he added. Kyle shook his head, righteous indignation rising up in his breast.
“What do you mean?” he protested. “I'm good at weaving,” he added hotly. “I learned the patterns a lot faster than Ariana,” he added. “If anything, she should be the one...”
“Stop,” Master Owens ordered, his tone ice-cold. Kyle's jaw snapped shut, and he felt his cheeks turning hot with anger and shame. “I will not have you disparaging your friend,” Master Owens added, his tone uncharacteristically harsh. “You're better than that, Kyle,” he admonished. Kyle felt sudden, hot tears well up in his eyes, and he turned away in shame.
“I just don't understand,” he protested, shaking his head, then wiping the tears away with one sleeve. “I thought I was doing so well,” he added. He felt Master Owen's hand on his shoulder.
“You are doing well,” his teacher replied gently. “Incredibly so.”
“Then why...?” he asked. Master Owens patted Kyle on the knee
“Your ability to memorize patterns is remarkable,” he explained. “I've never met someone that had such a knack for learning them. But you...” he paused then, an apologetic look on his face.
“I what?” Kyle pressed, his dread returning. Master Owens sighed.
“Well, you're just not as strong at applying those patterns on the fly,” he replied. Kyle's eyebrows knit together, and he opened his mouth to defend himself, but Master Owens stopped him with one hand. “You are better than Ariana at learning patterns,” he conceded. “But you can't deny that, once she's learned them, she's better at thinking on her feet...using her patterns strategically, in real time,” he added. Kyle said nothing, lowering his gaze to his knees. Now it was his turn to smooth the wrinkles out of his pants, running his fingers over the coarse black fabric. He couldn't deny what Master Owens was saying; after all, he'd had the very same thought earlier that day. How often had Ariana burst into action during their last adventure, acting decisively while Kyle had frozen? Heck, everyone had been braver and more decisive than him. He'd just tagged along, a nobody surrounded by heroes. He'd hoped that becoming a Weaver would change that.
“So you're saying I can't learn magic?” Kyle asked. Master Owens chuckled.
“No, nothing as bad as that,” he countered. “In fact, I think you've got an amazing career ahead of you,” he added. “One that might be more suited to your strengths.” Kyle felt his hopes rise.
“As what?” he asked. Master Owens smiled.
“As a Runic.”
“A Runic?” Kyle almost spat. Master Owens chuckled again.
“Now, now,” he said, patting Kyle on the shoulder. “You make it sound like it's a bad thing.”
“It is,” Kyle countered, pulling his shoulder away. “Runics are boring,” he added vehemently. It was true; all of the Weaver students said it. Runics were all loners, hunchbacked nerds wasting their lives making little trinkets for other people to use. Weavers, on the other hand, led exciting lives, filled with action and adventure. While Runics stayed safely behind enemy lines making swords sharper and armor stronger, Weavers led the way, flying through the air and blasting enemies left and right. “All they do is draw runes all day,” Kyle complained, “...while Weavers go out to battle and get all the glory.”
“You should ask Grand Weaver Kalibar who saved him from dying in battle a dozen times over,” Master Owens retorted gently. “Or did you think he did everything himself?”
“He did,” Kyle shot back, crossing his arms in front of his chest. Kalibar was, after all, the greatest Battle-Weaver the Empire had ever produced.
“He most certainly did not,” Master Owens countered. “Now, I'll admit that he certainly held his own later in life...and that now there are few who could stand against him – with or without runics. But in his earlier days, Kalibar was every bit as dependent on his Runic as any other Battle-Weaver...or soldier, or citizen of the Empire.”
“What do you mean?”
“Ask Grand Runic Erasmus,” Master Owens replied. “He's the one who made Kalibar's weaving glasses, his warding staff, the wards for his carriages, the rings he always wears on his fingers, that crisp black uniform with those rows of runic medals...need I go on?”
“Oh,” Kyle replied, grudgingly realizing that Master Owens was right. Kalibar had accumulated a vast collection of runic items, all of which he'd used to make himself a more effective Weaver. And of course, as a Weaver, Kalibar couldn't have made any of it himself.
“The dawn breaks,” Master Owens said with a grin. “By the way, those 'boring' old Runics built everything you see around you,” he added, gesturing up at the upside-down lobby above their heads. “This Tower was entirely built by Runics,” he explained. “The levitating carriages on the streets? All made by Runics. Every sword, every scrap of armor each of our soldiers and guards wear?”
“Made by Runics,” Kyle answered. “I get it,” he added glumly.
“The point is that, well, you're really good with patterns.” Master Owens stated. “Memorizing them, understanding them, understanding how one pattern can affect another...these are your strengths. Not to mention your unheard-of ability to produce magic. These are the talents of someone who is better suited to learn the art of rune-linking.”
“Rune-linking?” Kyle asked. He'd never heard of the term.
“Linking sensor and effector runes together in novel ways,” Master Owens explained. “It's a process that requires a great deal of creativity, Kyle...and frankly, it can be a lot of fun.”
“Talk to Grand Runic Erasmus later today,” Master Owens urged, patting Kyle on the knee. “I think he'll be able to ease your mind about all of this.”
With that, Master Owens stood up, turning to give Kyle one last smile, then walking away. Kyle sat there on the couch, staring at the floor in front of him. Not cut out to be a Weaver! He suddenly wanted to cry. On Earth, he'd never been particularly good at anything. An average student, and the second-shortest kid in his grade, he'd hardly stood out. Then he'd come here, and learned that he had enormous magical potential – even greater than that of the mighty Kalibar, at least when he'd been a kid – and now, after weeks of dreaming of becoming an all-powerful Weaver blasting his way through his enemies with unfettered ease...
Kyle sighed. He should've known that it was too good to be true. He'd failed...and now he was being shipped off to tinkering school. He would never have a chance to be a hero like Kalibar.
“Hey,” a voice called out. Kyle snapped out of his morbid thoughts, watching as Ariana sat down next to him, her slender frame sinking into the plush white fabric of the couch. She was scowling, her arms crossed over her chest.
“Hey,” Kyle mumbled back. Then he sighed. “I'm sorry for...”
“Forget about it,” Ariana interjected, shaking her head. “It's not your fault. I'm just frustrated, that's all.”
Kyle couldn't help but smile. Ariana talked – and acted – like a grown-up, even though she was only a year or so older than Kyle. She was quick to forgive and forget, much like himself. As such, they didn't argue much...and when they did, they didn't fight for long.
“What's wrong?” Kyle asked. Ariana's scowl softened, then disappeared.
“Master Owens told me,” she confessed.
“Oh,” Kyle mumbled, his cheeks flushing. He felt Ariana's warm hand on his shoulder.
“I told him he was wrong, you know,” she added. “You're really good at magic, Kyle...really good. You're just...” She trailed off then, grimacing slightly. Kyle frowned.
“Well, you're unsure of yourself,” Ariana answered. Kyle immediately felt the heat return to his cheeks, and he turned away abruptly. Ariana was right, and he knew it.
“Master Owens says I can't think on my feet,” Kyle blurted out. “I'm slow,” he added bitterly.
“Only with some things,” Ariana replied with a twinkle in her eyes, shoving Kyle's shoulder playfully. Kyle blinked, wondering what the heck that meant. “Besides,” she added, “...the Dead Man thought you'd make a great Weaver...and he was a teacher for a lot longer than Master Owens.”
Kyle had to smile at that. It was true, after all; the Dead Man, for all of his extraordinary faults, had been the most skilled teacher he'd ever learned from. And at the same time, the most unpleasant. But Ariana's point held; the Dead Man had seen something in him that maybe, just maybe, Master Owens had missed.
But the Dead Man, of course, was dead.
“It doesn't matter,” he replied dejectedly. “Master Owens says I'm better off being a Runic, so that's what I'm going to be.” Ariana grinned wickedly.
“A lowly tinkerer,” she mocked, parroting the typical insults Weaver students lobbed at their Runic counterparts. “Staying at home with the women while the men go off to war!” Kyle scowled.
“You mean while you go off to war,” he grumbled. Ariana laughed.
“You know, staying home with the women doesn't have to be so bad,” she teased. “You might even like it!”
“Whatever,” Kyle shot back. But his cheeks flushed yet again, making Ariana laugh even harder. Oh, how he hated his body!
“I'm just kidding Kyle,” Ariana said, putting a hand on his shoulder. “You know I'd take you with me,” she added, a smile playing at her lips.
“Oh yeah?” he replied warily. Ariana nodded, trying desperately to keep a straight face – and failing.
“I'll need someone to fix my stuff if it gets broken,” she blurted out, then burst out into laughter again.
“Oh, go drown yourself,” Kyle grumbled back. Ariana kept laughing, her face turning pink, tears rolling down her eyes. At length she stopped, rubbing her moist cheeks with the back of her hand.
“Oh come on,” she said. “You know, I think being a Runic could be really cool,” she added. Kyle scowled. “No, I'm serious,” she insisted. “You'll get to create anything your mind can come up with...anything at all. Think about how amazing that could be! Maybe you'll make those flying machines you were telling me about.” Kyle had told Ariana about airplanes yesterday, when she'd asked, as she did every night, about Earth. She never tired of the stories he told about his home world, of guns and computers, of television and cars. It was all as magical to her as...well, as magic was to him.
“Thanks,” Kyle mumbled, “...but I never really saw myself sitting in some room, spending all day carving runes and charging gems.”
“Just give it a chance,” Ariana urged. “For me,” she added sweetly. Kyle glanced up at Ariana, at her big brown eyes, strands of brown hair having fallen fetchingly over her face. He felt his anger and shame melt away...as it always did when he was around her. Ariana made everything better, just by existing; she had a special magic all her own.
“Okay,” he agreed. He gave a grudging smile. “Thanks,” he added. Ariana smiled back, standing up from the couch suddenly.
“Anytime,” she replied. “I have to go again,” she added, “...but I'll be back later.”
“Where are you going?”
“Master Owens wanted to finish teaching me those patterns you already memorized,” she answered with a wink. “Don't worry,” she added, “I'll catch up to you eventually!” With that, she bolted, running across the lobby toward the double-doors in the distance. Kyle smiled again, shaking his head. Then he felt a pang of guilt. While he had been bad-mouthing Ariana's skills to Master Owens, she had done nothing but support him. What a terrible friend he was! He grit his teeth, vowing to do better by her in the future.
Suddenly a horrendously loud screeching sound echoed throughout the lobby. Kyle heard shouting, and spotted a group of black-armored guards running into the Tower through the lobby's double-doors. The men rushed past Kyle, vanishing down one of the hallways beyond the lobby. Kyle stood up, noticing that everyone else in the lobby was doing the same, staring nervously down the hallway the guards had sprinted down. Kyle heard footsteps behind him, and felt a heavy hand on his shoulder. He turned about, seeing a man in black armor – a member of the elite guard – standing behind him. The guard pulled him close, the runes on the man's armor flashing blue. Two more elite guards flanked Kyle, their armor activating similarly.
“What's going on?” Kyle asked, his voice rising with alarm.
“There's been an assassination attempt,” one of the guards answered tersely. Kyle frowned.
“On who?” he pressed, fighting back a sudden wave of panic.
“Grand Weaver Kalibar,” the guard replied.
The screeching alarm continued to sound throughout the Tower, so loud that Kyle had to cover his ears with his hands. It was an all-too-familiar sound...he'd heard it when Rivin and Bartholos were murdered over a week ago.
Kyle had tried unsuccessfully to bolt from the guards surrounding him, wanting nothing more than to run all the way up to Kalibar's suite. He'd asked his guards whether or not Kalibar had been killed, but no one knew the answer. The Grand Weaver had powerful wards to protect him, but with a being as powerful as Xanos...
Kyle stood there helplessly, his heart thumping in his chest. He squirmed under the elite guard's grasp, fearing the worst.
Kyle turned to find Ariana running up behind him, a duo of elite guards sprinting after her. She stopped beside him.
“What's going on?” she asked.
“Someone tried to kill Kalibar,” he answered, his voice trembling. Ariana's eyes widened, and her hand went to her mouth.
“Is he okay?” she pressed. Kyle said nothing, afraid his voice might crack. Ariana shook Kyle's shoulders. “Come on!” she urged, pulling him toward one of the hallways beyond the lobby. One of the elite guards put a hand out, blocking their path.
“You have to stay here,” the man declared. “We're still sweeping the Tower for enemies.”
“Kyle's ring is the only thing that can save Kalibar,” she retorted, pointing to the ring on Kyle's thumb. Kyle frowned; everyone thought that his ring was an enormously powerful runic, a magical device that protected him from any source of harm...and killed anyone who tried to hurt him. In reality, it had been Ampir himself who had protected Kyle; the ring was just a glorified transmitter. No one else knew that Ampir was still alive...and that's apparently how the man wanted it to stay.
“I don't know,” he mumbled. But Ariana would not be denied.
“Remember Darius?” she retorted. Kyle saw the guards waver at that. Darius had been mortally wounded by Xanos, a sword driven through his chest...until he'd been saved by Kyle's ring. Or rather, by Ampir. The guards knew about that, too...and they were likely thinking that if Kalibar had been mortally wounded, then perhaps Kyle's ring could bring him back.
“All right,” the guard grumbled. The guards led the way, striding quickly down one of the hallways off of the main lobby. Kyle and Ariana followed, making their way down the wide corridor, which ended with a large, circular platform – the riser. Within seconds of standing on it, the riser began to ascend, catapulting them straight upward with gut-twisting speed. There were no elevator doors to block the view as they sped forty-two floors upward; luckily, gravity fields prevented anyone from stepping off of the platform while it was moving.
The riser came to a halt, the guards leading Kyle and Ariana down a narrow hallway toward Kalibar's chambers. Kalibar spent most of his time there, for two reasons. One, it was the most secure room in the Tower – and perhaps in the Empire. Two, he still had a hard time getting around with his blindness. Without his sight, he was not the warrior he'd once been. If the assassin had somehow managed to get past Kalibar's wards...
They halted at Kalibar's door, and one of the guards pounded on it. Within seconds, the door began transparent, another elite guard peering at them from the other side.
“We have Kyle,” the first guard stated, stepping aside so that Kyle was visible. “And his ring,” he added. The other guard glanced at Kyle, then turned about, the door becoming opaque once again. A few moments later, the door swung inward, revealing the guard standing beyond.
“Come in,” he said, ushering Kyle through. Ariana pushed past as well. Their guards, however, were blocked from coming in, the magical door swinging shut as soon as Ariana had passed.
“Where's Kalibar?” Ariana asked, rushing into the massive suite. Massive glass walls towered over their heads, tapering to a pyramid-shaped peak far above their heads. A dozen black-armored elite guards stood in several clusters around the room. A short, balding man with an impressive white beard draped over his equally impressive belly stood in the center of the room, conversing with one of the guards. The man turned his blue eyes toward Kyle and Ariana as they entered, his bushy eyebrows rising slightly.
“Erasmus!” Kyle exclaimed. The old man nodded grimly, stepping away from the guard he'd been talking to and walking up to Kyle and Ariana. “Is Kalibar...?”
“He's fine, thank goodness,” Erasmus replied, his voice clearly shaken. “He's in the bedroom with Darius, examining the body,” he added. Kyle frowned.
“Wait, what body?” he asked.
“The assassin's body,” Erasmus answered. “Somehow the fool managed to get past my wards, although how, I have no idea. We found his body a few feet from Kalibar's bed.”
“Is Kalibar hurt?” Kyle pressed. Erasmus shook his head, putting an arm around Kyle's shoulders.
“Not a scratch on him,” Erasmus answered. “Can't say the same for the bastard on the floor, though. Seems he lost his head.”
Suddenly the door to Kalibar's bedroom opened, a tall, fit-looking man in a plain black shirt and pants striding through. With his characteristic white military-short hair and neatly trimmed goatee, it was no mistaking who stood before them – even with the golden double-eyepatches covering his empty eye sockets.
“Kalibar!” Kyle cried, rushing forward. Kalibar hesitated, then smiled broadly, extending his arms to the sides. Kyle leaped into the old man's arms, burying his head into Kalibar's shoulder. A normal man – especially a blind one – would have been knocked clean off his feet, but Kalibar didn't even budge. The man was a master-level Weaver, perhaps the most skilled practitioner of magic in the Empire. Kalibar held Kyle for a moment, then gently pushed him away.
“Where is Ariana?” he asked. Ariana stepped forward, and before she could say anything, Kalibar inclined his head toward her, no doubt sensing the magic inside of her. Ever since Kalibar had lost his vision, his sense of magic had become more powerful; he had admitted to Kyle that he could feel the unique magical “signature” that each person radiated, allowing him to know exactly who was nearby...if they were close enough.
“I'm here,” Ariana replied, stepping in to give Kalibar a hug. “What happened?” she asked. Kalibar sighed.
“We're still trying to figure that out,” he admitted. “We know that an assassin – dressed in a guard's uniform – managed to get into my room. I nearly killed myself falling over his body when I got up this morning,” he added with a wry grin. Erasmus snorted.
“That would've been a trip,” the portly Grand Runic quipped, his blue eyes twinkling. “Killed by a decapitated assassin...imagine the obituary!”
“That's another mystery,” Kalibar stated. “First he managed to get inside my room without triggering any of my wards, and then he was killed before he ever reached me...but again, not by any of my wards. It doesn't make any sense.”
“Damn right it doesn't,” Erasmus grumbled. “Nothing could've gotten past those wards without tripping them. Hell, a gnat couldn't have made it into your room,” he added, clearly frustrated. And for good reason; most of the wards protecting Kalibar had been designed by Erasmus himself, a Runic of formidable talent. The Grand Runic was obviously unsettled by the idea that his handiwork had proven inadequate to the task.
“It's not your fault, old friend,” Kalibar stated, putting a hand out toward Erasmus. Kalibar's enhanced magical senses weren't perfect – Erasmus was too far away to touch – but Erasmus stepped forward so that Kalibar's hand landed on his shoulder.
“Bullshit,” Erasmus retorted. “It's all my fault, and you know it!” Kalibar smirked at that.
“Fine, it's all your fault, you old hack,” the Grand Weaver replied. “I was just trying to make you feel better. You're fired, by the way,” he added. Erasmus snorted.
“Oh, go walk out a window,” he shot back, swatting Kalibar's hand from his shoulder. “This from a guy who nearly broke a hip tripping over a dead man!” But he couldn't help chuckling, and soon the two were laughing merrily – to the supreme discomfort of the guards around them. After all, the two were the most powerful and respected men in the Empire; hearing them gleefully insult each other had to be quite jarring for those that weren't used to it. Kyle grinned; he'd grown to love the two men dearly, though he'd known both for less than a month.
“Hey, where's Darius?” Kyle asked. He'd assumed that Kalibar's personal bodyguard would've been here by now. Erasmus nodded toward Kalibar's bedroom door.
“He's inside, inspecting the body,” the Grand Runic replied jovially. “Cheery bastard, isn't he?” he added with a wink. Kyle smirked; Darius was many things, but cheery wasn't one of them. Rude, callous, abrupt, and insulting, sure, but never cheery. Erasmus had grown quite fond of needling the bodyguard every chance he got...and Darius, never being one to respect rank or privilege, gave as good as he got, much to the horror of the other guards.
“Can we see?” Ariana pressed. Even though they were still technically children, Kyle and Ariana had already seen their fair share of corpses, and unlike on Earth, exposure to the unfortunate realities of life at a young age was heartily encouraged here.
“Of course,” Kalibar replied. He led the way, turning about and walking unerringly back to his bedroom door. Erasmus had spent the better part of a day setting various runes about Kalibar's room, marking the location of obstacles and important destinations. Kalibar could quite literally feel the entire suite, navigating through his domain as quickly and safely as any other man. At Kalibar's touch, his bedroom door opened, and they all stepped inside.
Kalibar's bedroom was large by any standard, with a comparatively modest-sized four-post bed set back against the wall. The floor was made of polished granite, two-story tall windows allowing the sun's rays to glitter off of the opulent surface. A few feet from the bed, a man in glimmering, golden armor knelt, staring down at a black-armored form lying motionless on the floor. The armored man glanced up as Kyle entered, staring with his startlingly blue eyes. It was Darius, of course...and as usual, he looked remarkably bored.
“What have you found?” Kalibar asked the bodyguard, stopping a healthy distance from the body.
“He's dead,” Darius replied, rising to his feet. The man was tall – taller even than Kalibar – and despite the armor covering him from his chest downward, it was clear that he wasn't lacking in the muscle department. Erasmus snorted.
“Hot damn, somebody give that man a raise,” the Grand Runic quipped, walking up to Darius and clapping him on the shoulder with a metallic clang. “Not only that, I think we'll add 'Royal Coroner' to his title,” he added with sly grin. Darius's expression, as usual, didn't change.
“Nice wards,” the bodyguard growled back. Erasmus froze, looking shell-shocked. Then he gave Darius a murderous glare.
“Insolent swine,” he grumbled. “Why can't you hire a proper bodyguard, Kalibar?”
Kalibar ignored the two, his expression one of practiced patience. Darius, in turn, ignored Erasmus, turning back to Kalibar.
“Decapitated, probably an hour ago,” he stated at last. “Wound was cauterized, no bleeding. Uniform stolen from one of ours...we found another body downstairs.”
“So it wasn't a rogue elite guard,” Kalibar deduced.
“Not likely,” Darius agreed. Kalibar's shoulders visibly relaxed at that. Much of his and Erasmus's time had been spent pouring through the ranks of their guards, ensuring that none were secretly agents of Xanos. Not a single impostor had been found, much to their frustration. Except of course for the man who'd killed Rivin and Bartholos; he'd been an elite guard for over a decade, biding his time until the order had come to strike. Xanos apparently planned for the long-term.
“Any clue as to how he got past my wards?” Kalibar asked.
“Nope,” Darius answered. Erasmus frowned, no doubt having expected the bodyguard to insult him again, and having come up with a particularly clever retort that he couldn't use. Darius ignored the Grand Runic, but Kyle noticed the corner of the bodyguard's mouth twitch. The two really were insufferable; much to Erasmus's ire, Darius had consistently proven the more skillful opponent. The man was a master at combat, whether with words or weapons.
“Ass,” Erasmus grumbled.
“Without knowing how he got in, it'll be impossible to prevent it again,” Kalibar observed, ignoring the two men. “And we still don't know who – or what – killed the assassin before he managed to kill me.”
“Agreed,” Erasmus stated, his expression sour. “None of this makes any sense. We're missing something, Kalibar.”
At that moment, a man in a white cloak strode into the bedroom, flanked by a few of Kalibar's guards. He was quite old, at least seventy by Kyle's estimation, with gaunt, smooth-shaven cheeks contrasting with his quick and calculating brown eyes. He was Jax, the eldest Council member, appointed leader of the twelve-member group that wielded power second only to Erasmus and Kalibar. He ignored the body on the ground, nodding curtly at Kalibar and Erasmus.
“Good morning, Excellencies,” he greeted, putting a wrinkled hand on Kalibar's shoulder.
“Good morning, Jax,” Kalibar replied.
“We've locked down the Tower,” Jax stated crisply. “The top ten floors have been evacuated. As of now, no risers will go past the thirtieth floor,” he added. “Not until we figure out how this happened.”
“Yes, well,” Erasmus replied, rubbing his bald head sheepishly. Jax was one of the few Runics alive more skilled than Erasmus. If anyone would know how the assassin had gotten past Erasmus's wards, it would be Jax. “Any ideas?” Erasmus asked.
“Your wards were excellent,” Jax replied authoritatively. “I myself would not have been able to breach them.”
“Which can only mean one thing,” Kalibar said with a sigh.
“Xanos,” Jax agreed. Kyle felt a chill run down his spine. It could have been no other. The self-proclaimed god had power far beyond their understanding.
“I can't defend Kalibar against a god!” Erasmus protested, clearly frustrated. “If Xanos can get an assassin within a foot of his bed, what's to stop him from killing us all in our sleep?”
“Nothing,” Jax replied darkly. Kalibar frowned.
“Except I'm not dead,” he countered. Jax and Erasmus turned to look at him. “Erasmus, your wards failed, but the fact remains...the assassin is dead, and I'm not. Which means something was protecting me.”
“Good point,” Erasmus admitted. They all turned to stare at Kyle. Or more precisely, the ring on Kyle's left thumb. Kyle felt his face flush, and he lowered his gaze to the floor.
“We need to redouble our efforts to decode that ring,” Jax stated. “And duplicate it. It may be the only real defense we'll have against our enemy.”
“Agreed,” Erasmus said. “Everything else – the guards, the wards...hell, even our armies – is pointless against Xanos. He could walk one of his Chosen straight through ten legions of infantry and destroy them all!”
“Don't remind me,” Kalibar grumbled. He'd been spending most of his days planning the mobilization of the Empire's vast military, preparing for any assault against Stridon and the Empire's other key cities. Doing so had put him at odds with the Council; each Councilman owned four legions – each containing 10,000 men – of the Empire's military. Any use of military force required authorization by the Council by a majority vote. Getting them to agree to Kalibar's strategies had taken a monumental effort...and as Erasmus had so bluntly stated, that effort had likely been for naught.
“That reminds me,” Jax stated. “The Council is requesting a debriefing regarding this assassination attempt...and they're eager to hear how the attack on the Death Weaver base on Crescent Isle went.”
“Of course,” Kalibar replied. “I assume they'd rather not meet here,” he added wryly. Jax smirked.
“Corpses don't bother me,” the elder Councilman replied, “...but I doubt such a symbol of our failure would work to our advantage with the rest of the Council.” Kyle noticed Erasmus's eyes falling to stare at the floor. The Grand Runic was taking the matter of his wards harder than Kyle had thought. “We could use the War room,” Jax offered. Kalibar nodded in agreement.
“Convene them in the War room then,” Kalibar replied. “Lead the way,” he added. Jax placed one hand on Kalibar's back, walking side-by-side with the Grand Weaver out of the bedroom. Erasmus followed close behind. Kalibar paused at the doorway, turning back toward Kyle.
“You'd better come too, Kyle,” he said. “You too, Darius.” Then he resumed walking.
“Can I come?” Ariana asked. Kalibar nodded.
With that, they left the room, leaving the headless corpse of the assassin laying on the ground. Kyle glanced back, and noticed the man's severed head laying on its side a few feet from the body. He stifled a shudder.
The dead man's eyes were staring right back at him.
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