Goodreads Book Giveaway

The Dragon's Back by E.S. Matthew

The Dragon's Back

by E.S. Matthew

Giveaway ends July 30, 2022.

See the giveaway details at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway
 
  • ES Matthew

Chapters 1 & 2

Updated: Feb 11


The angle of the sky was worrisome to Cali. With blood pounding in her head, she adjusted to the idea that it wasn’t the sky askew, but herself.

She tried to remember what got her here and took stock of her surroundings.

She was tied at the ankle by what felt like a large, thick rope. Her scabbard must have been empty of her sword because it was far too light. And her mouth was so dry her tongue was glued to her teeth, making it difficult to talk. So she moaned.

This at least alerted her to the fact that she was not alone.

“Who’s there?” she heard a man’s voice say. The man didn’t sound in distress. His voice seemed eager. Her eyes rolled and her body contorted, looking for the source.

“I said, who’s there?” he said again. She moaned louder, trying to say back: “Me. I’m here.”

“Are you hanging from your feet, too?” he asked.

Too? she thought. Her heart sank a little to realize they were in the same predicament.

“Hey, what’s wrong with you? You some kind of fool? Speak up, please,” the man pleaded. There was urgency, but no sense of threat.

Cali decided to try to speak more clearly, “Mouth. Dry.”

All she heard in reply was laughing.

When the laughing subsided, the man said, “Yours is dry? I’ve been hanging here for two days. Belbungus just put you up there this morning. So complain to me after you’ve spent a night like this, passing out, waking, fighting through the headaches, dealing with that damned troll poking at you and singing his damned insufferable lullabies…”

The voice continued, but Cali quit listening at the realization of what was happening to her. A troll. Of all the bizarre creatures to have been created by the ancient mages’ experiments with alchemical genesis, few were as disgusting as trolls.

And after three millennia of evolution, unlike most other fae creatures—the name given to all non-humans—the trolls were just as gross and dumb as the day they awoke to the disappointment of their creators in the citadel’s basement laboratories. Unfortunately, time also proved them to be among the most resilient. They were strangely incapable of natural death, so most lived for centuries. Much to everyone else’s frustration. But they were at least also incapable of reproducing, which thankfully made their numbers few and their appearances fewer.

But when they did appear, they were dangerous because they were essentially two simple things made organic: large and stupid.

Some had learned to be trained into warriors by brutal masters. But most were considered rogues and lived off of a meat source of lone, unsuspecting, and under-prepared travelers. Too stupid to learn hunting, they treated the scavenging of travelers on the road like the woodsman would the wild berries on the shrub or the tadpoles in a ditch—just something found by grace and luck. And given the times, they were quite lucky indeed, which was good for them. Because of their size, they needed to eat a lot of meaty travelers. A lot.

Once a traveler was captured, they weren’t blessed with a quick death. The troll’s rough-hewn idiocy also meant that they hadn’t quite developed cooking skills either. So trolls generally ate their meals traveler-meat raw. Their only preparation being to hang their meal upside down to move as much blood to the head as possible. Once they plucked the head off the traveler, they could let the bodies drain and in that way, avoided consuming most of the blood. As the great troll, Hoomy Hummugus, who according to legend had once ruled a small troll kingdom, said, “The blood i's tastus goodsus, but i's gots badsus thingsus in i's for the thumpies' tum-tummies.”

Obviously, this wasn’t entirely accurate, but the scientific method was far too many steps removed from a troll’s cognitive ability to resolve the mystery of the intestinal distress every troll felt when he or she started puking up chunks of travelers.

When Cali started paying attention again, the voice had moved on to complaining about his foot. “...and I was hoping that if he didn’t get to eat me today, I might be able to shake off my dead foot by tonight. I know it’s gross, but I’m not a romantic, you see. I know when something has served its purpose, and my foot has outlived its usefulness. I mean, look, you can barely see it out of the corner of your eye probably, but it’s sure black as hell now, ain’t it?” But he wasn’t done. “Of course, it is –”

“Where’s the damned troll now?” she interrupted.

“He seems to spend hours rubbing his back against the rocks near the road waiting on victims,” the voice responded.

Cali started to remember then. The rocks? She saw those. There was a large path of beaten down, rounded rocks protruding out of the earth, and she found the formation unusual. Realizing now that it was about the size of the troll made everything clearer.

“When will he come back to camp?” she asked.

“Oh, I don’t know. I’m hardly awake when he is here. He likes to poke something fierce.”

Cali started to consider what weapons were within reach. There was a large, troll-sized axe stuck in a tree stump not far away, but since it was three times her size, she could never swing that. She knew she could rely on her mechamagic to protect her, but that wouldn’t work offensively against a troll. Besides, hanging like this for too long meant she wouldn’t need a troll’s bite to kill her.

She did have one other option, though. Her Avus Rings. They appeared purely decorative, but they weren’t just jewelry. Designed by a Senior Mech-Mage from the mining colony of Madruston, the rings could be interlocked, and when turned inward, they became sharp, scissor-like weapons. The Senior Mech-Mage crafted such rings to be used for a specific type of spell cast for shaving and carving various metals and stone. Cali had found them on a corpse of a mining mage several months before.

She twisted her hands until they hurt and the edge of the rings could catch a thread or two of the rope that bound her hands. Just as she felt close to cutting herself free, the troll returned.

"If you canna find luvie in a barrel o' trout, then luvie the fish that stunk a lil less in yar pan-try," Belbungus, her captor, seemed to be attempting to sing. "And if you canna swallow a moonberm in a wooden cupsus, then hollow out the barrel o-f fish fuh drinkin'."

Belbungus was large, she saw. Even by troll standards. Treetops barely exceeded his height. He was also difficult to see amid the trees. Trolls were without the capacity for hygiene so their dirty skin was all the forest camouflage they needed. It was almost like a complete lack of any self-respect was their magic.

Still, when he opened his mouth, he was discernible but not because of a flash of healthy, white teeth. In fact, his teeth were rotted and brown and rare. Most of his mouth was full of gaping holes where teeth once were. No, the giveaway, unfortunately for Cali, was the smell.

As she gagged on the smell, she hurriedly cut the ropes with the sharp edges of her Avus Rings, nearly cutting herself.

Belbungus noticed the twitch. “Wakey awake! Yous wake! How was the nappy there, travel gurl?”

Cali didn’t speak. Belbungus seemed annoyed and began to approach.

“My lord! The great Belbungus,” the man spoke out, “our new friend here seems to be shy. I pray you will forgive her. She has not been properly orientated.”

Belbungus’ large trill lips widened at this polite speech. He even attempted an absurd curtsy. However, the word “orientated” caused his large troll-eyes to whirl, making him slightly dizzy. He stumbled back before regaining composure and uttering with joy, “Then yous oreen-tater the she, skin-meat!”

“I would be honored, Great Belbungus,” the man said, as Belbungus turned proudly and began arranging a fire.

“He enjoys flattery,” the man explained.

Cali gave no recognition but whispered, “I’m nearly free at my hands.”

The voice responded with surprise, “What? Are you sure? What are you going to do when your hands are free? Wave at him?”

“I’ll think of something,” Cali responded.

“Something?” he scoffed. “Seems a pretty broad characterization. Belbungus’ own repertoire isn’t as broad, you know. I’ve seen it. He prefers to just pluck the head off his meal like it’s a cork from a bottle, dump out the blood, and then stuff the entire remains in his mouth so he can chew you like snuff for hours.” He waited to hear if his description had registered. When he didn’t hear anything, he cleared it up, “That’s it! That’s the one thing this monster does.”

Cali was free at this point. Her hands quickly came together and reached for a hunting knife in her boot. It was gone. She looked down. Of course, it had fallen below her. Nearly fifteen feet down.

Using her hands to rotate her body, she finally saw her companion. He was older than her, well dressed and clearly sick, despite the charisma in his voice. She also saw that he was right about the foot. It was quite distressingly black at this point.

But he still managed to look smug. “Now what, freshie? I’ve been here three days and watched this troll eat five other living things—elves and finfolk and other humans too. You got hands? What do you think you can do with—?

He cut himself off as Cali’s dark-green gloved hands started to move in a series of circles. The cuffs of the gloves too started to turn with a slight mechanical whirring, and her voice emitted a chant of some kind. He noticed immediately the colors that appeared in her fingers—green, yellow, and blue—and watched as they radiated up her hand until they seemed to merge into the white of her palm. There, a small ball of some white substance started to form as the clicking at her wrists increased.

He managed to speak, “A mage…”

The white energy ball Cali had conjured was just becoming more solid than mere light when she heard Belbungus say, “Lighty too bright, meatsies. Whachya make thar?” But he seemed to understand it as quickly as he asked.

With a speed and agility that surprised her, the troll sprang from his position near the fire pit, covered the field in three paces, and was on top of her.

Cali tossed the ball at the branch that held her. The explosion of flaming cinders and wood splinters seemed to happen at the same time as Belbungus’ attempt to grab her. He reached to seize her head, presumably to end this with a quick and easy decapitation. But instead, he grasped her leg as she fell.

With red cinders and jagged splinters in his eyes, he jerked back and yelled, “Helly hoo harsh mutts!” And then yanking down on what he thought was her head, but was in fact her leg, he roughly threw her to the ground.

Cali hit the ground with a thud, elated at the painfully earned freedom. As Belbungus slapped his eyes to remove the splinters and cinders, she grinned because her hand, as she started to rise, found itself laid precisely on the hilt of her hunting knife.

“Wahtwer, wahtwer!” Belbungus exclaimed, running away from them and along the tree line to a creek.

“Quick!” the voice spoke. “Use those hands I never doubted! Cut me down!”

Cali wasted no time. From the kneeling position, she threw the hunting knife overhand like a hatchet. It turned through the air, timed to pierce the rope that held the man, before embedding itself in a branch high above. While the throw was perfect, the knife was now very much out of reach.

The man fell to the ground with a far greater thud than hers. She ran to him. “Come on, we’re going to have to move fast.”

“Not too likely for me,” he said. They both looked at his very dead right foot. He smirked. They heard Belbungus splashing not far off. They both knew he had nearly finished washing his eyes out because, while the splashing persisted, the screaming had stopped.

“Can you magic us out of here?” the man asked.

“It doesn’t work that way,” Cali said.

“It doesn’t?” he asked with genuine concern. "Well, why the hell not?!"

Cali had shifted her gaze to the troll’s axe embedded in the stump several dozens of yards away. She had no other option.

Belbungus forced her decision anyway. He suddenly reappeared soaked head to toe and wiping his eyes.

The small open clearing of grass amid this forest now had Belbungus at one end, the man and Cali near the tree in the middle, and, at the far end, the stump that bore the axe.

Everyone stood still at first, staring at each other. Then Cali turned and ran from Belbungus.

As she ran, she heard the man scream, “Cowardess!" And "Really!?” Meanwhile, the troll started to bound towards them both.

Cali was moving fast, but not as fast as the troll. Belbungus would be at the man before she was at the axe, which had become her clear target. Because of its size, Cali had no idea of what she would do when she reached it, but she didn’t have time to worry about that now.

The man, meanwhile, was relieved to see that Belbungus ran right past him, chasing Cali instead of stopping to chew on him.

Cali was within two paces of being grabbed by the troll when she reached for the axe. And just as her fingers came in contact with the oaken handle, the axe contracted quickly into a reasonable—though still large—axe. One she could wield.

Quickly with barely more than a stride between them, Cali heaved her entire weight backward, freeing the axe from the stump and flinging it back over her head towards her pursuer.

This didn’t deter Belbungus a bit. The shrunken axe, while still considerable, wasn’t much of a threat to a creature his size, especially in the rage-filled bloodlust and idiotic fervor that Belbungus was in at this point.

However, just at the moment that the axe and the troll connected, the axe returned to its troll size. This meant a blade as large as Belbungus’ own head, an easy comparison to make too since the blade sank completely into the troll’s skull, severing the hemispheres of it into two. The axe stopped only at the thickest part of the wooden handle. Surprisingly, it was more deeply embedded in Belbungus than it was in the stump a moment before.

With an axe in his head, the troll’s legs moved mindlessly in circles before collapsing on the raging campfire.

The axe was restored to human-size as well as cleaned and stored on Cali’s back while she gathered twigs to construct a sledge.

The stranger was barely conscious. Cali had given him some kind of herb to munch on and then, without even a discussion of options, she used the strangely magical size-shifting axe to sever his dead foot with a single stroke. He didn’t even feel it. But he was offended and horrified nonetheless, which he expressed between dry heaves. Now, he leaned against the stump, delirious from pain, but that was preferable in Cali’s opinion. He had been a nonstop chatterbox before.

Nearby, the troll’s carcass was burning, and the stench of it was making him swoon worse than Belbungus’ breath.

Cali returned and began to fashion the sledge for transporting him.

“Are you really intending to pull me through this forest on that?” he asked, sounding incredulous. Cali gave no response. “I’m grateful, of course. But I can’t see how a woman of your size could do that for too long.”

She looked at him and whistled. Out of the woods appeared a large, white horse. It came to her with a near regal amount of pride.

“This is Yancy. He dislikes strangers, is the smartest horse I’ve ever met, and can pull a sledge with a skinny man of your size for days.” She pet the majestic horse. “I’m giving him to you, in fact. I can’t take him where I’m going.”

“What? Where are you going?”

“There,” she said, pointing to the mountains and the razor-sharp valley of rocks at its base.

The man thought about objecting but suddenly couldn't remember how words were formed. Without any warning, he passed out and woke several hours later to find Cali placing him in a completed sledge and whispering to the horse.

“Good. You’re up,” she said. “Yancy will take you to the nearest town. It is not far. Please keep him to yourself. I may find you again in the future and reclaim him.”

“But who are you even?” he asked.

“My name is Cali. You won’t forget me.” It wasn’t a question.

“Of course not.” He answered, then realized, “My name is…”

“I know who you are, Warlord Manfarzus.”

“But how —”

“My coming upon you and the troll was not an accident. I was hired to find you. Your family is quite generous." She said this evenly. "I'd worry about that if I was you."

“So getting captured by the troll was intentional?”

“Well, no.” She shrugged. “But it all worked out. Quite well even, there’s a hefty bounty on slaying Belbungus too, I believe.”

“Why won’t you return with me? My clan is still quite wealthy. You’d be honored with more than riches for saving me.”

“I'm sure," she said and rolled her eyes. "Of course, I did mutilate you?” and gestured towards his leg.

“I wouldn't be the first Manfarzus to rule without a limb or two. We’re generally a warrior people after all, despite my own preference for food, drink, good company, and jokes.”

“Well, I was paid in advance," she answered. “And I am not this far north for just your rescue.” There was an ominous silence to accompany the look on her face. “Plus, I seemed to have earned a greater payment in this absurdly handy, size-shifting axe.”

“Thank you, Cali. The Clan of Manfar is in your debt.”

“You’re welcome. And I told you: I’ve been paid.”

“It was not enough.”

Cali looked at him and considered what kind of man he was. She thought him a fool before. His behavior while hanging didn’t seem especially encouraging but it didn’t seem particularly inept either. Now, she wondered if there wasn’t a chance for wisdom in this lame warlord. It would make him rare. It had been many years since any of the clans had had leadership worth respecting.

But she said nothing, other than “Hey-ya!” to Yancy and slapped his rear.

She waited until Manfarzus and Yancy disappeared into the forest horizon before she tightened her leathers around her shoulders and buttoned her woolen cloak. Then she turned to the cold, uninviting mountains and began.


Cali was three days out from the troll’s camp when she started to regret her decision.

The snow and cold were far more intense than she remembered. And where she had memories of alpine meadows, she now found lifeless glaciers. She had heard rumors that in the extreme lands the climates had worsened. Deserts, jungles, and mountains were becoming just as lifeless as some of the cities that Queen Morflava had destroyed.

Her thoughts dwelt a lot on Morflava. The ascendency of Salma Morflava was a surprise to all creatures. But her insertion into the Warlord Council was the fault of Cali's own twin brother, Carson, whose rise to warlord was cemented by his exceptionally brutal warrior skill.

While her father had rejected his own seat as Warlord of the Mancar, his death while Carson and Cali were young meant they were restored to the clan. And as tradition dictated for a warlord’s children, they were to be fostered by the Mages of the Citadel. That’s where their paths parted though as she developed an interest in magic and Carson eagerly reached towards the sword.

Still, their father’s abdication meant that Carson was not easily accepted as a warrior for the Mancar. His hazing and abuse at the hands of other warriors were, from what she heard, quite extreme. This abuse made him much stronger than others, so when their age came up for the right of Bloodfest, he got his revenge.

And all before an audience at that.

She thought most often of her brother as a child still. But when she registered that he was a full-grown man, she had two images come to her mind.

The first was Carson covered in blood, wearing only their father’s tartan. His hair was braided and matted with sweat and blood. His eyes were caked in dark war paint and dried, black blood—the remnants of four days of endless slaughter he had endured in winning the Bloodfest. And he was holding two large claymore swords, one in each hand. The kind of thing that only Carson could do. He was superhuman. He won his birthright back through violence, and it was horrifying and inspiring at once to Cali, if she was honest.

His clan robes were placed on his warrior shoulders that day. The robes their father rejected. How many generations of blood had contaminated them?, Cali had thought.

The other image was that of Carson the night before he elected Morflava onto the Tribal War Council. Cali had lacked any authority in the clan to challenge his motion. At that time, she was a “ruined” apprenticed mage without any ordered skillsets or completed training. In the masculine walls of the war council chambers, she wasn’t just unfit as a woman. She was unfit because she quite literally belonged nowhere.

Still, Carson listened to Cali's protest. The way a twin would to another. But his mind was made up.

“Salma is the most impressive woman I’ve ever met. She is a woman who is most worthy of respect. She really is a credit to your sex, Cali. I don’t know what you expect me to do. The council will be quite blessed with her leadership at my side.” He said all this earnestly, so she thought his obliviousness sounded even more foolish than his usual nonsense.

She made a note to never forget that look on his face as she left. It wasn’t much different than it had been caked in blood at sixteen. Only this time, his ceremonial robes and the family tartan were clean and laid across his chest with full regalia. These attempts to make him look regal and civilized though just made him seem ridiculous to her.

“If you don’t approve, at least stay out of it,” he said as she left.

In response, Cali didn’t even give him a childish “duh.” Instead, she chose to protest by not attending the ceremony at all. This turned out to be good fortune since Carson and Morflava immediately used the ceremonial gathering to assassinate the other council warlords who threatened her ascendancy.

Cali gripped the oaken handle of the troll’s axe with her fur-gloved hands. Over the last few days, her most valued possession had quickly become the troll’s magical axe. She learned that it could do more than just shift size. It was also a remarkable fire-starter. Simply turn it around and strike its blunt side against any log, no matter the size, and it would ignite.

Tonight though she found herself struggling with warmth despite a fire. She heard wolf-walkers in the distance too, calling to each other. As long as she had a fire and her axe, she wasn’t worried about such things, but the cold was becoming a problem.

With such a useless fire, she decided to just keep moving. Better to die on the trail, she figured.

As she came over the ridge, she was suddenly aware of some kind of presence. It felt familiar. Against the cliff-face, barely recognizable, Cali was able to make it out. There it was: her childhood home.

Small. Misshapen by wind and time. The house was, and at the same time was not, exactly the same as in her memories. She recognized immediately the window she slept under, though it had no glass anymore and the wood around it seemed dark and unstable.

She and Carson had slept there. They had had to share a single thick fur blanket on a small rickety bed made for one. They scrunched their tiny, childish feet against each other’s to warm them.

“Before you could talk, you dreamed together.” That’s what her father used to tell them.

Her father was a large man. A capable man. He built the house himself. Carson took after their father. Their mother wasn’t there, their mother had never been there. Their father spoke of her with reverence.

When it came to raising them, their father was quite good in many ways. Cali had to give him credit for not scaring her or shaming her as she grew into her woman’s body. He wasn’t able to explain much, but he was warm and calm about the reality of it.

It scared Carson though. Everything seemed to scare him when he was younger. And he refused to share a bed with her after the age of ten. Father said he was being foolish. They didn’t have enough material to construct another bed. So in a display of some ingenuity that Cali can barely believe Carson capable of now, he had managed to collect enough grass, dry it out, and make his own mattress.

When they became teenagers, Carson’s relationship to her changed even more. But it all started right there under this window, Cali thought, as she approached the house. They shared memories that were just shadows of a cold, rotting artifact now.

She thought about what she’d lost since those years of childhood in this home. She thought of what the world had lost since the rise of Morflava, but also of the rigid and fear-mongering of the War Council before her or of the destruction of the Citadel or of the scattering of the fae. There was a lot that had been lost.

But he had said to return for it when the impossible had been lost—when there was no magic left.

Cali opened the door and nearly fell. The floor had rotted out completely, so she had to step down to the dirt underneath to move around.

Stepping over objects that had long lost their distinguishing features, she was careful to not make noise, but she also felt the urge to hurry. Something about the endeavor seemed to take on a greater sense of urgency now that she was in the house.

She could feel the air on her skin and her movements seemed delayed. She knew this feeling.

Like he was right next to her, she heard Carson’s voice in her ear: “You promised to stay out of it.” She didn’t turn, she knew what this was. Carson’s queen was helping him keep tabs on her, and their twin bond made it easy. Even a heretical novice of a mage like Queen Morflava could manage to connect a spirit-whisper between them.

Cali was uninterested in responding. She did not bother to use her own mecha-magic to rid herself of the sensation either. She was an experienced, if unschooled, renegade mech-mage at this point, and she knew better than to waste any energy on such pointless things. Plus, the more aware she was of them watching her the more confident she was they weren’t anywhere near her.

At the broken, abandoned hearth, Cali bent and looked up the chimney. Her father had hidden it there. But she couldn’t feel its presence. And for such a magical object that was strange. She reached into the darkness nonetheless, only mildly worried about what nasty creatures might be nested for warmth there.

But she didn’t feel cold fur or scales or feathers. She felt warm stone.

She removed a small cylindrical black stone object from the chimney and immediately saw why it had been warm. “Obsidian,” she said and ran her hand over the smooth pitch-black surface. He’d hidden it in obsidian! This amount of obsidian would have been priceless even back then, so she had no idea how he’d come by it. Since dragons had vanished, no alchemical magic had been able to turn quartz into obsidian. Nothing had been able to replace what dragon-fire itself had only been able to do before. And since the Reshki had plundered all known obsidian deposits in the Mage Purge, no one had had the opportunity to even see the little that remained. Where did her father acquire so much of the stuff?

Cali enjoyed the touch of it. Smooth, warm, and hard. But it seemed to also react to her own pressure and temperature, responding to her, as if it knew she was there.

He had told her of the object on his deathbed. He said it had been left by their mother and he knew nothing about it. He didn’t know what it was or what it did. But he had once been told it was important, and it must be kept safe for—and this sounded very unlike him—“when there was no magic left in the world.” She had not taken much of what he said seriously. She had been fascinated by it, but that was mostly because of its connection to her mother.

Of course, she was still young then, so none of it seemed particularly serious. And then he died. His death made everything in life more serious, very quickly.

Soon after his death, she and Carson were starving, and they barely made the journey to Mancar Keep by themselves alive. Then foster care by mages and distant relatives overwhelmed their lives, and she had, for a long time, forgotten all about it.

That is until the very last day she ever spent at the Citadel, the day before the Reshki came.

She had been chosen to speak with the Mage-Oracle. The Mage-Oracle was among the oldest magical beings still living. She was so old that she still held memories of dragons and the original alchemists. So to speak to her as a mage-novice was a rare honor.

Cali approached the Mage-Oracle’s chambers unsure of what she'd find. She knocked.

“Come in,” she heard spoken from within. The voice was reedy but strong.

Cali entered.

In the darkness of the room, there were only blue-lit reflections on pools of dank water that lined the base of the floor. She’d heard that the Mage-Oracle had taken up some Reshki habits and used darkness to enhance her meditations.

“You’ve come to speak to your father?” she asked Cali.

Cali began to protest. This wasn’t true. She hadn’t asked to speak to her or do any such thing. But before she could object, she realized that–if she could

So she nodded.

“With that, I cannot help. Besides, the dead have much less interest in the living than the living would like them to. No doubt your father is so far beyond this world and into the infinite that you, no matter how precious he made you feel in life, are not any concern of his now. Leave me alone. I have not lived this long to sate the emotional fragility of little girls.” She said all of this without even looking at Cali. It was callous. All the way around. And it was hard to hear. But Cali wasn’t going to show that.

She moved to leave. The pain in her heart was awful. To reach out for something requires a lot of risk and courage. And then to hear that nothing about her matters...well, it hurt. It was possibly the worst she’d ever felt, and it wasn’t even a physical pain.

Cali was just realizing that the real pain of it wasn’t just that it was cruel but that it was cruel because it was true. The dead have no interest in the living.

Then the Mage-Oracle spoke again, “Curious.”

Cali stopped.

The Mage-Oracle shifted. The blue-lit reflections swelled yellow, brightening the room. The light allowed her to see the Mage-Oracle’s face. It was deep and creviced. Dark and tight. Her eyes, though, were clear. Cali looked into them, waiting for something.

The Mage-Oracle asked, “You are pursuing a mecha-mage order?”

Cali nodded.

“What inspired that?”

Cali waited a moment, debating whether to lie or to be honest. Then she blurted, “I don’t think this world has room for much pure magic left.”

The Mage-Oracle made no expression, but replied, “You should have told me the lie.” Then she lowered her head, and the blue-lit reflections dimmed. “But you’re right. There soon won’t be any magic left in the world at all.”

The echo of her father’s words rang clear in the room to only herself. The Mage-Oracle seemed unaware of the stone she’d turned over in the river of Cali’s thoughts. With a sort of mindless sense of certainty, Cali went directly to her barracks, packed a single change of clothes, and left the Citadel without telling anyone.

The very next day the Reshki attacked, and their drone army killed everyone, including the Mage-Oracle. They also sent Reshki drones to each war-clan, delivering one clear message: the continent was purged of all non-Reshki magic now, and anyone bearing a mage-mark—a dark tattoo of the Citadel's crest that was imprinted magically on the base of the skull of any mage-initiate—would be killed on the spot.

Alone, young, and now a fugitive, Cali found her pathway home littered with obstacles, taking years. In the course of navigating them, she learned how to fight with more than the Citadel’s elementary lessons on mecha-magic. She had also found ways to hide her mage-mark behind a layer of dirty skin and a tangle of scruffy hair—something the citadel would never have allowed. Rejecting her brother and birthright, she had to avoid Mancar lands and ties, which meant living the life of a fugitive, collecting work, allies, skills, and risks along the way. In this time, she performed good deeds and bad. She served generous war-lords and brutal crime-lords.

She had, though, never lost her desire to return home, to follow through on her father’s legacy to her. Even though it had taken years to get here, she had returned.

Now, with the cylinder in her hand and her father’s words in her mind, she found herself eager to open the obsidian cylinder and see the artifact again. The sound of the latch itself was warm and pleasing. But she should have been paying more attention to her surroundings. Because in the ashes of the fireplace, not more than but a few inches from her, lay a Reshki Serpent, and as soon as it heard the latch, it sprang from the hiding place and sank its teeth into her wrist.









53 views